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The prospect of traveling north on holiday is not exactly top of mind among Canadians, who generally consider themselves a northern destination.

But that's only from an American perspective.

In European terms, Maritime Canada is getting close in latitude to the steamy Mediterranean-hardly a northern destination. The Gulf Stream assures that climate has little to do with latitude. Scotland (with barely enough winter snow on its lovely mountains and glens to sustain a single ski hill) is on the same latitude as Labrador. The north coast of very pleasant Iceland is only a kayak paddle from the Arctic Circle-and almost half of Norway is above that that same Arctic Circle.

All three countries are startlingly beautiful, friendly, sophisticated, safe destinations steeped in long histories…

We profile Norway on this occasion.

Despite being one of the world's most northerly nations, Norway's climate is surprisingly temperate due to a branch of the Gulf Stream warming the prevailing southwesterly breezes. In spite of their extreme northern latitude, the fiords are ice-free.

Consider that one third of Norway's 2,000-kilometre long land mass towers above the tree line and that the coastline is one of the longest and most rugged on the planet-and you have the makings of scenery to die for.

About 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, Norway was covered by a layer of ice four kilometres thick. (The mainland is actually still rising out of the sea as a consequence of the weight of the ice being removed.) When that ice plate retreated it sculpted Norway's famous deep, majestic fjords-with walls so steep and water so deep that a cruise ship can safely motor past within spitting distance of the shore. A few glaciers remain to add to the scenic glory.

You can fly from Halifax to Bergen, or to the capital, Oslo, each city sitting at the head of a major fiord, near the country's southern extremity. Modern, bustling, and sophisticated as a national capital should be, Oslo is also steeped in a carefully preserved human history that pre-dates the political establishment of the nation itself.

Proud of their uncommonly safe and civilized society, Norwegian tour guides are quick to point out that the security provisions for the (originally Swedish) royal family's two residences within Oslo are not readily evident-because no such provisions exist. It is not unknown for ordinary commuters to pull up at a red light and see the King sitting in the driver's seat of the vehicle in the next lane. The same tour guides are also graphic in their descriptions of the atrocities committed (despite Norway's expressed neutrality) during the Second World War Nazi occupation. It seemed incomprehensible to us that such a physically beautiful place populated by such beautiful people could have been the scene of such ugliness...

For the 4.7 million Norwegians are a handsome nation-and boy, are they tall! The women seem to start at about 5'10" and men are commonly well over six feet. Almost perfect English is spoken everywhere and the people themselves are happy, friendly and appear to want for little. Not only does the nation enjoy the highest standard of living in the modern world, it seems to register pretty high on the personal happiness meter as well. 

Indeed, Norwegians are awash in North Sea oil cash. We saw no signs of poverty anywhere. Even the outlying fishing ports, some of them without road access, showed all the signs of a robust economy and the typical Scandinavian cradle-to-grave government care and infrastructure. There are small, well-serviced airports everywhere. Immense sums are being expended, for instance, to provide road and trans-mountain tunnel access to the large number of communities spread out along this elongated coastline. Preservation of the integrity of rural Norwegian lifestyle is clearly a government priority and a source of national pride.

From the capital we flew due north to Kirkenes, high above the Arctic Circle and only a few kilometres from the Russian and northern Finnish borders, where (after mid-May) there was still grey ice on the lakes and residual snow in the streets. From this far northern outport, we would steam for five days down the magnificent Norwegian coastline, crossing the Arctic Circle about mid-way, and visiting two dozen fiords and ports of call before reaching the spectacular harbour in Bergen-all of it illuminated more than 20 hours a day by the midnight sun (just an amazing phenomenon).

The voyage represented a fascinating transition from what we know as Lapland and the Sammi people who live a culturally distinct existence in a mountainous environment of tundra, permafrost, and reindeer (a small strain of caribou).

To the suave, and architecturally rich modern cities of the south, where the odd steep valley grudgingly permits token agriculture-mostly alpine meadow livestock grazing. 

Hurtigruten, the 114-year-old steamship line that still provides coastal service to Norwegian communities but has added a dozen comfortable small cruise ships to its fleet, markets its service as "the world's most beautiful voyage". It may not be an exaggeration. From the decks and through the windows, breathtaking scenery (some of it very close) flows past, non-stop, 24 hours a day, like a permanent video. There is a constant reluctance to eat or read or rest for fear of missing something.

Meals were superb, especially if you were a seafood lover, and the service professional and friendly to the point where we got to know several staff members quite well. Because the coastal cruise crosses very little open water, motion sickness is a non-issue. The fiords are flat as freshwater lakes. The schedule allowed for a dozen or more brief visits ashore in mainly small communities; usually just enough time for a little shopping or a leisurely beer.

The single exception was the extremely attractive historic city of Trondheim. This university and research-centred city of 160,000 is Norway's third largest and was, in fact, the capital until the 13th century. Trondheim is of interest to Atlantic Canadians, however, as the place from whence Leif Ericsson was banished in the 11th century and sailed to Greenland. His son, Erik the Red, accompanied his father into exile, settling also in Iceland-and eventually L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. Attractions include the utterly magnificent Nidaros Cathedral and the Kristiansten Fortress.

The southern terminus of the cruise is the city of Bergen. With a harbour setting that rivals Rio de Janeiro for raw beauty, this is surely one of the most attractive and livable places on the planet. The spectacular viewplanes feature a backdrop of seven mountains, steep streetscapes, and an attractive view from almost every vantage point.

Not unlike Halifax or St. John's, the downtown social life is found in the cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs in the Torget, the picturesque restored waterfront market plaza that also houses the famous Bergen fish market. The harbourfront hosts a colourful row of iconic historic wooden houses. Behind, narrow cobbled streets wind their steep way up through quaint old neighbourhoods.

The modern city centre stretches inland from the harbour area, but Bergen has an almost leisurely pace and a cultured ambience to it. I first visited Bergen as a teen in the mid 60s. It really hasn't changed much. We had two days here on this trip, but a week or more would have been just fine with us. It's just an instantly comfortable city whose semi-circular mountainous environs guarantee visitors can never get lost. For instance, you can always get your bearings by looking for the top of the funicular Alpine railway that climbs an impossibly sheer incline to offer a fabulous panorama of the harbour and out into the fiord beyond.

Bergen also offers a variety of boat trips to nearby fjords-but the icing on the scenic cake may be the "Norway in a Nutshell' one-day package tour that offers a conventional rail trip, then a bus tour, then a half-day cruise on Sognefjord, Norway's largest and deepest, followed by one of the world's most magnificent train rides up or down mountainsides on the famous old Flam railway-and back to Bergen. The vistas-start to finish, top to bottom-are simply unspeakably stunning. Late May, at the pinnacle of the snow melt, provided a bonus of spectacular waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides around every bend.

Thank providence for digital cameras. The cost of film would have bankrupted me.

PERTINENT WEBSITES:
www.icelandair.ca/
www.hurtigruten.us/
www.visitoslo.com/
www.bergen-guide.com

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