So, where have we been? The short answer: a cruise to the Norwegian fjords. The full story is of course slightly longer and you knew I would duly oblige...
We'd agreed that once the house move was out of the way we would book ourselves a good relaxing holiday somewhere, and a few weeks ago we were browsing the holiday section of the Times and spotted a nice-looking cruise to Norway at a fair price. We checked availability on the web, and gave them a call, whereupon they revealed that the information on the web was nonsense and if we wanted to book a cabin we would have to pay substantially over the odds. So that put the dampers on that particular idea, but we decided to check out any alternatives, and before the day was out we'd booked ourselves on to the Thomson Celebration.
So cut to last Monday, when we drove out to Harwich, entrusted our main luggage to the car-park attendants, and boarded without a hitch. It's always a relief when that happens, being the kind of person who's never happy until sure that everything's in order. Having already been through copious security checks, we were a little taken aback to have our hand luggage snatched off us as soon as we were aboard, but it immediately became clear that this was all part of the service as we were escorted like VIPs to our cabin, and set the standard for the rest of the holiday. Our cabin was a basic but perfectly comfortable twin room deep in the bowels of the ship with a porthole just about above sea-level, and the only problem with it was remembering which side of the boat it was on!
We sailed Monday evening - given a good send-off by a pipe-band - and enjoyed I think the only clear night of the week, so an ideal opportunity to go out on deck with Katy and appreciate much darker skies than we are accustomed. I used to be able to see the Milky Way quite clearly from my parents' house - their village having no street-lighting - so it was a treat to see that properly once again, though the Andromeda Galaxy wasn't quite visible without binoculars. It was too early in the year and we weren't really going to high enough latitudes to make aurora-spotting a particularly fruitful pursuit; another time, maybe...
Tuesday we spent at sea, with not much to be seen, but plenty to do on board by way of exploring and more formal activities. But it was Tuesday morning, as we had just booked ourselves into an excursion for Thursday, that we had our biggest surprise of the week, bumping into some old friends from Milton Keynes. Ivor, Karin and Micaela had made a pretty much last-minute decision to go on the cruise as a late birthday present for Ivor, and I really had to rack my brains to make sure I hadn't tipped them off we were going, given that we had been in correspondence recently thanks to my imminently joining his company... Anyway, that worked out really well in the end because we had different plans for the daytimes but agreed we would dine together in the evenings, starting with the captain's gala night that very evening, followed by a Disney showcase. The gala night was the only formal evening of the cruise, with jackets and ties compulsory for gentlemen. The rest of the time the dress code when dining in the posher restaurants was "smart casual", and otherwise pretty much completely relaxed. The Disney stage show was fun and impressive, with lots of favourite songs set to spectacular dance routines, though we suspect that although to be a male performer may not have required you to be gay, it certainly helped! We also watched The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on the in-cabin TV service, which passed the time nicely, and of course included good Norway references!
Tuesday night was a little rough, and we discovered that having a porthole right down by the waterline meant that under stormier circumstances, that often meant below the waterline. Sadly the crew grew wise to this, and shut off our natural night on a couple of occasions during the cruise when it was deemed to be too risky should the portholes be damaged, but they were quick enough to open them up again once conditions had improved. So Wednesday morning we pulled into the small port of Ulvik on the Hardangerfjord, with the rain lashing down. We weren't too bothered about going ashore, but decided in the end we would do so, to work up some appetite for breakfast, and it was the only stop we would be making where we would need to use the tender so thought that would be fun too. In the end we spent all of about twenty minutes ashore, but were rather glad we did, since our second port of call, Eidfjord - where we had intended perhaps to spend a little longer ashore - was declared too treacherous to weigh anchor at. In a way it was kind of merciful that the main excursion of the day - which Ivor and family had booked on to - had been cancelled. It was to have been an overland connection between Ulvik and Eidfjord, but was called off after the road was blocked by a landslide. If the excursion had gone ahead as planned, they wouldn't have been able to board again! Thankfully pretty much everyone on board was understanding about the change of itinerary, and the captain made best efforts to make our revised route scenically interesting and out of the worst of the weather. Even in the pouring rain, Norway is beautiful!
So we sailed to Flåm on the Sognefjord, Thursday's port of call, via an inshore route near Bergen rather than going out to sea as planned. The overnight storms had completely gone by morning, and the weather was glorious, so we were glad we'd booked ourselves into the main excursion of the day. We'd been told that the Flåm Railway was a must-see attraction, but were rather taken aback by the excursion price compared with that of turn-up-and-go tickets from the station. But we decided in the end that the extras included with the excursion might be worth the extra, and they were - including excellent local commentary, various scenic stops, coffee at a very posh hotel in the mountains, an excellent (if slightly poorly organised) buffet at a hotel in the ski resort of Voss, and a leg on the spectacular Bergen-Oslo railway. The Flåm Railway itself was of course spectacular, though we would say the Bergen-Oslo line gave it a good run for its money and was more consistently scenic. If there was one recurring theme of the day it was waterfalls - gushing and cascading everywhere we went. Perhaps the lousy weather of the previous day had its benefits after all!
Friday was our last day in port, and that brought us properly back to Bergen, which we had passed by on Wednesday evening. It rains in Bergen something like 320 days of the year, and ours was one of them. However, that was for about twenty minutes at the most, very unusually, and the rest of the day was as fine as Thursday had been. We decided against any of the organised excursions, and essentially followed our noses for the day - easily finding our way to the fish market at the very least... The main things we did were to visit the aquariums, with their impressive population of penguins, seals and crocodiles (not all in the same enclosure) to augment the usual fish and whatnot, and to go up the funicular railway to the top of Mount Fløien. The view from there was simply amazing, looking out over the city to the islands and open sea beyond. Ivor and family went up the cable car ascending the next mountain along, and got even better views by the looks of the photos they sent us, so that will be on our to-do list for when we undoubtedly return to Bergen at some time in the future!
Saturday was "at sea", as they say, and the main highlight was probably going kite-flying with Ivor and Micaela from the top deck of the ship - at least until the crew spotted our UFO on their radar and politely requested we desist. Bit silly really issuing kites at the on-board children's club without any advice... We decided we'd all dress up for dinner once again, it being our last night on the ship, which made for a really special end to the week. We docked in Harwich first thing Sunday morning, and awaited our call to disembark. Before we knew it, we were on the A12 and on the way home, even if it was still to be a couple more days before the world stopped swaying from side to side...
So, would we do it again? Of the people we spoke to, for probably about three quarters of them it was their first time, and the impression was universally a good one. We're not sure it's something we would want to get into too much of a routine with - like some people do - but we would certainly consider doing one again, and have already had a leaf through a couple of brochures. The easygoing level of formality with Thomson is excellent and right up our street, and clearly attracts "our kind of people". It's posh enough that there are high standards and expectations all round, but not so posh that you're continually having to worry about whether you're doing the right thing, brought the right DJ or whatever... All meals on board were included, as were tea and coffee in most venues, and the variety of eateries was spot on, ranging from a perfectly decent buffet to a proper restaurant. You could pay a surcharge and eat in an exclusive restaurant, but frankly the included options were perfectly adequate and the food was generally exquisite. So, all in all, a definite big thumbs up!