Updated post: 16/12/18 | December 2018
“A pound for a pee? They must be bloody joking!”
The restaurant at the summit of Alesund’s Aksla Hill echoed with the woman’s estuary tones. She removed her sunglasses and took another look at the offending sign, as if to check if that would make a difference to the price. It didn’t.
Norway can be an achingly expensive country to visit. The cost of living is over 50% higher than in the UK. You will be lucky to get change out of a tenner (£10; 13 USD) for a pint of beer. A one-way ticket on local transport costs around £3.
But, equally, Norway is an astonishingly beautiful country that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Taking a cruise insulates you from these prices and is a more affordable way of seeing the country. And importantly, it gives you the opportunity to visit diverse towns and cities in a short space of time, and to cruise along some of Norway’s most scenic fjords.
P&O Cruises, which is part of the Carnival cruise giant, is the biggest operator catering to the British market. Ships sail from their Southampton base for half the year. Sailing with P&O is neither a splurge nor a budget cruise, but is a touch of affordable luxury. Launched in 2015, Britannia is P&O’s flagship and Britain’s largest cruise ship.
So how should you plan a cruise along the Norwegian fjords? And what can you expect from a cruise to Norway on HMV Britannia? Let me share firstly some general tips and then my experience of my cruise in May 2018.
Essential tips for taking a cruise on the Norwegian fjords
What is the best time to cruise the fjords of Norway?
The main Norway cruising season runs from May to September. In the winter months, Hurtigruten offer cruises along Norway’s fjords. But the days are short in Northern Europe at this time of the year and the coastal waters can be rough.
Peak time tends to coincide with school holidays in July and August when it will be more expensive, and ships will be busier with vacationing families.
Therefore, if you are not confined to the school holidays, I suggest that the best month to cruise the Norwegian fjords is either May or September. I went at the end of May which was just about perfect.
What weather can you expect on a Norwegian fjords cruise?
It is impossible to predict the weather in Norway. Therefore, the weather should not determine which summer month you travel.
Norway can be very wet and I have friends who have done a fjords cruise and it poured with rain every day. Conversely, when I visited Norway, the country was three weeks into a heatwave with the mercury nudging 30 degrees. The weather is so unpredictable!
What should you pack for a cruise on Norway’s fjords?
Clothing to pack
Bearing in mind the unpredictability of the weather, pack for all seasons by bringing layers. Pack for the worst weather but hope for the best.
For exploring the ports of call, t-shirts, jeans, jumpers, and a waterproof jacket. And ditch the stilletos for sensible walking shoes or trainers. But based on my experience, in the spirit of optimism, also pack a few summer dresses and a pair of shorts.
And don’t forget your glad rags for the formal evenings on board!
Other items to bring
Camera – First and foremost, do pack the best camera that you have. The fjords and the ports of call scream out for the finest camera lens that money will buy.
Binoculars – A small pair of binoculars will also come in handy. The views as you sail along the Norwegian fjords are sensational, and a set of bins will allow you to pick out details on land from afar.
What type of cabin should you book?
This is my top tip for cruising the Norwegian fjords – book a balcony cabin. It is worth every last penny.
Unlike some cruises, a large part of the appeal of a cruise along the fjords of Norway is the scenery as you sail by. And where better to take in the view but on your own private balcony, perhaps with a G&T in hand?
However, if you like a 100% dark room to sleep in you may wish to reconsider. One of the advantages of cruising in Norway in summer is the long days. But the flipside is that the sun may be streaming through your window in the wee small hours.
Having said that, early morning light does wake me up but this was not a problem in my balcony cabin on this cruise. I guess that the cabins on P&O’s Britannia have excellent blackout blinds.
Should you book a shore excursion?
Exploring the ports of call on this Norwegian fjords cruise was a piece of cake. For each stop on the itinerary, the ship docked in the centre of town and the main sights were easily walkable.
However, if you want to explore further afield and there is a risk that you may not able to do this under your own steam, take a look at the shore excursions on offer. If you have your heart set on a particular day trip, book this early to avoid disappointment. Another option is to book a shore excursion with an independent operator.
But before you do this, check the weather forecast for your desired destination. Norway can be very wet. However much you want to visit a place, if, for example, that fabulous view is cloaked in mist and rain, will it be really with the effort and expense?
Cut costs by eating on board the ship
Make no mistake. Norway is a ludicrously expensive country. For this reason alone, visiting it on a cruise makes perfect sense as this insulates you from these high costs.
Therefore fill your face with the food on board, which you have already paid for. Set yourself up for the day with a big breakfast and bring a few snacks to keep you going.
A review of the itinerary on P&O Britannia’s Norwegian Fjords cruise.
I can describe this in one word Excellent! Let’s take a look at it day by day.
DAY ONE: LEAVING SOUTHAMPTON
At 8 pm on a balmy Sunday night, Britannia let go of her mooring lines and we were underway. Passing Fawley oil refinery, silhouetted against the setting sun, the ship continued along the Solent following the eastern coastline of the Isle of Wight. It then took a sharp turn at Portsmouth to enter the Dover Strait. Gin & tonic on the balcony, moonlight on the water.
DAY TWO: AT SEA
The rig-dodging day. Britannia continued along the North Sea, edging towards Norway. Hardy Brits on board settled themselves by the pool, slathering suncream to the accompaniment of blasts of the ship’s foghorn. The maximum temperature on deck was a damp 13 degrees.
DAY THREE: STAVANGER
The fortunes of the pretty harbour town of Stavanger, on Norway’s southwest coast, have centred on fish canning and, more recently, the discovery of oil off its shores. With its exquisite wooden buildings, cobbled lanes and rich maritime heritage there is plenty to occupy even the most restless soul.
Where does the ship berth?
Right in the centre of town alongside Gamle (Old) Stavanger.
What can I do in Stavanger?
- Visit the Norwegian Canning Museum for some fishy tales
- For all things nautical, visit the Stavanger Maritime Museum
- Wander around Gamle (Old) Stavanger
- Hunt for Antony Gormley statues
- Visit the cathedral (Domkirke)
- Visit Skagen’s cafes housed in psychedelic buildings
- Check out Stavanger’s street art
- For a thoughtful exploration of Norway’s offshore oil industry visit the Norwegian Petroleum Museum (Norsk Oljemuseum)
How can I get around Stavanger?
The main sights are close to each other. Stavanger is very walkable
Read more: Fishy tales: Things to do in Stavanger
DAY FOUR: FLAM
The approach to Flam was sensational, sailing along the Sognefjorden, one of Norway’s most stunning fjords. You will have to be up and about shortly after 5 am to capture this view though!
Tucked between two mountains at the head of Aurlandsfjorden, Flam (Flåm to be correct) is a community of around 400 souls, less than 10% the total occupancy of the ship. Although the hamlet is a good base for hiking and has a visit-worthy 17th-century church, its main tourist draw is the Flam Railway.
Where does the ship berth?
Slap bang in the middle of Flam. It makes the hamlet look like a model village.
What can I do in Flam?
- Get on board the Flam railway for the ride of your life
- Take a hike on one of the many walking trails around Flam
- Increase your adrenaline levels by riding a RIB
- Rent a talking car (yes … really)
How can I get around Flam?
Flam is tiny. The railway station is around 5 minutes walk from the ship.
Read more: All Aboard! Riding the Flam Railway
DAY FIVE: ALESUND
Alesund, a fishing town and port on Norway’s west coast, is architectural heaven. A devastating town fire in 1904 resulted in a hectic reconstruction project, replacing the charred wooden buildings with those built in an Art Nouveau style with a local folkloric twist. The result is a collection of stone and brick buildings with a myriad of turrets, spires and medieval ornamentation, including intertwined animal and human faces, dragons and elaborate flowers.
Where does the ship berth?
Again … right in the thick of things.
What can I do in Alesund?
- Take a walking tour to admire Alesund’s Art Nouveau masterpieces
- Climb the 418 steps to the top of Aksla Hill for a panoramic view
- Wonder at the wooden buildings of Molovegen
How can I get around Alesund?
The main sights are close to each other. Although Alesund is very walkable, there are lots of steep cobbled streets. Leave the stilettos in your suitcase.
DAY SIX: BERGEN
The final stop on this Norwegian fjords cruise was Bergen. Formerly the capital of Norway, Bergen is beautifully situated on a promontory, surrounded by seven hills. The self-proclaimed Gateway to the Western Fjords, it is also an attractive and enjoyable city in its own right.
Where does the ship berth?
Yet again, the ship parks up close to the city’s main sights at the entrance to the harbour.
What can I do in Bergen?
- For panoramic views and nature trails, ride the Floibanen funicular to the summit of Mount Floyen
- Explore picture-perfect historic Bryggen
- Grab a seafood snack at the fish market
- Check out the street art along Kong Oscars Gate
- Learn more about Norway’s fight against leprosy at the Leprosy Museum
- Discover the story behind the resistance in Bergen during World War II at the Bergenhus Festning Museum
- For a spot of medieval splendour, visit Bergen City Museum at the Rosenkrantz Tower
How can I get around Bergen?
The main sights are close to each other. Bergen is also very walkable.
Read more: Bewitched! What to see in Bergen in 1 day
DAY SEVEN: AT SEA
Waving goodbye to Norway, the Britannia retraced her journey through the gas and oil fields of the North Sea into the busy Dover Strait, reaching the Solent waters in the early hours of Sunday morning. During the cruise, Britannia had travelled a total distance of 2323 nautical miles.
What was the experience onboard P&O’s Britannia?
Barely three years old, HMV Britannia still had a fresh-out-of-the-box feel. P&O’s only British registered vessel, it has 1,376 staff for its 3,600 guests.
It is enormous. Spread over 15 passenger decks, it is 232 feet high, 330 meters long and weighs a whopping 144,000 tonnes. To put it into perspective, it is twice the size of the largest hotel in the world.
The central space is the starburst atrium, decked in gleaming Turkish porcelain, covering three floors. But as gorgeous as this space is, I found that it had a peculiar lack of atmosphere.
There were a few design aspects that I found puzzling. There are no publicly accessible stairs at mid-ship, creating pressure on lifts. Also, customer services and shore excursions are buried down on deck 5.
I had a balcony cabin, which was decorated in tasteful moss-green, beige and brown tones. The large, comfortable bed had good quality linen. A large wall-mounted TV had a limited choice of channels but a decent, mostly free movie library. There were a small fridge, a kettle and tea and coffee supplies, which were replenished each day. Three-pin (British) sockets were plentiful.
The small bathroom was well-designed, using the available space wisely. White Company toiletries were provided; shampoo, conditioner and body lotion in portable 100ml bottles, and shower gel in a fixed dispenser. A major plus point is that there was a proper shower cubicle, not just a shower tray with a nasty nylon curtain. However, at busy times, water pressure was poor. A hairdryer was available. Towels are pleasingly white and fluffy.
The balcony was compact, accommodating two reclining chairs placed at jaunty angles, and a small table.
FOOD AND DRINK
There are bars-a-plenty on P&O’s Britannia with 13 to choose from, each with its selling point. The Glass House, matching food to wine; Brodies, modelled on a British boozer; The Blue Bar with its extensive martini list. Or my favourite, The Crow’s Nest, the ship’s signature gin bar offering 21 different varieties. Drink prices were reasonable.
The food in the main restaurants – Peninsular, Meridian, Oriental – was of good quality but could be on the tepid side.
The food from the buffet service for lunch and dinner at the Horizon Restaurant was OK but unexceptional. Breakfasts were very good, with an extensive choice from freshly made omelettes, the great British cooked breakfast, fruit, cereals, pastries, cold meats and cheeses and yoghurt. Afternoon tea at The Horizon was also very good.
Speciality dining was available at other restaurants for a supplement (e.g. Sindhu, Epicurean).
The Grab-and-Go fridge on the Lido deck is a great innovation.
RELAXING ON DECK
There is a busy main pool on the Lido deck (16) but quieter pools are also available. Pool towels were provided in the cabin. There were plenty of sun-beds dotted throughout the ship.
Disappointingly, as HMV Britannia does not have a promenade deck, you cannot walk or run a circuit of the ship. However, there is a well-equipped gym.
There are golf nets on the Sports Deck (17)
There was a full programme to suit all tastes. From live shows and recent films in the well-equipped main theatre to line dancing and magic workshops.
This is where I feel Britannia fails. Although many of the staff were friendly and welcoming – my cabin steward was exceptional – too many others were disinterested, bordering on surly. Don’t expect banter.
Who can I expect my fellow passengers to be?
Gone are the days when cruising was the preserve of older people, squandering their children’s’ inheritance. On P&O’s Britannia, there was a much younger crowd with a significant number of multigenerational families. The vast majority of those I spoke to were British and not what I call ‘serial cruisers’. For many. this was their first cruise.
Norwegian fjords cruise – the final verdict
I paid just over £1300 for sole occupation of a balcony cabin on this cruise along Norway’s fjords with P&O’s Britannia. At around £180 per day, I consider this to be good value for a trip to Norway.
It was a fantastic itinerary. Each stop had something different to offer and sailing along the fjords was sensational. I should add that we were blessed with fantastic weather which showed off Norway at its best. This was also a very easy cruise. As the ship berths in the centre of each of these towns and cities, there is no need for a transfer. Unless you wish to venture further afield, there is also no need to take an expensive shore excursion.
The ship is beautiful and feels fresh, although a few design aspects were occasionally frustrating. The cabin was well-designed and comfortable, albeit with a compact balcony. Food was generally of good quality. Variability in the levels of customer service was disappointing.
Have you sailed on HMV Britannia? Have you done a Norwegian fjords cruise? Why not share your experiences below?