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Midnight Sun

If Viking ghosts haunt Norway's coastline, not to worry--they're friendly. From our March 1997 issue.

January 24, 2012

Audacious

Forgive me, but I prefer cruising the west coast of Norway in summer to the Caribbean in winter. In spite of the occasional harshness of weather during the summer (Bergen is about 60 degrees north) and the rocky coastline, Norway made me feel safe, rooted to the Earth. The Caribbean, by comparison, feels fragile, temporary–it doesn’t give me any kind of anchor to keep me from floating off the planet. Silly, but true for me. Norway is rocky, dotted with patches of intensely green foliage, lush farms, hundreds of lakes and the odd glacier or two. The air is squeaky clean, salty and a little biting; the water is light pea-green and cold. Viking ghosts haunt the coastline with a spirit of great courage, strength, high adventure and supreme seamanship.

Coastal Norway is a time machine–in Bergen, I ate lunch in The Unicorn restaurant on the second floor of a wooden building that was built in the early 1200s. Imagine what these buildings have endured, what dramas were played out within their walls. Makes my spine tingle just to think about it. Not far from this row of 13th century commercial buildings at Bergen’s Fisktorget (outdoor fish market), you can buy the world’s sweetest strawberries (grown right there in Norway), the freshest fish and the niftiest hand-knit woolens. Squinting to shut out the details of dress sent me back 100 years and more. Then the Fisketorget was more necessary than tourist attraction.

I re-entered the 20th century on the north side of the harbor, along Bryggen. Snuggled against the quay, where bald truck tires lashed to the bulkhead protect the topsides of visiting yachts, was my charter, Audacious. She’s a Swan 51 of mid-1980s vintage. An early Swan is a good charter boat because the interior is carved up into a lot of individual spaces. You can have a crowd and your privacy. Four of us would be aboard for much of the week, the skipper, a photographer/adventurer, the owner, and yours truly. I took the after stateroom, which has its own head, enough stowage for all the gear a person needs this far north, and a comfortable double berth. Her weekly rate is $6,500, plus all expenses. Across Bryggen, I found the tourist information office packed with people, brochures and books. East and west of there, a handful of shops (catering to tourists with native woolens, replicas of ancient Viking jewelry, and statues of trolls) salt-and-pepper a string of real-life businesses. The tourist shops lend the street a liveliness that’s pleasingly devoid of the slideshow atmosphere.

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In fact, every port I visited in Norway smacked of the country’s routine daily life, but that’s why I loved being there. I was a tourist, but at the same time, I wasn’t. The Norwegian people are partly responsible for making me feel this way. They go about their routines with cheerful resignation. “OK,” they seem to say to themselves. “I have this and that to do, so I’d better get on with it.” They hurry when they must, but hardly ever seem rushed.

They are a rugged bunch, too–as rugged and beautiful as the local topography–and fiercely independent, though they balance these traits with openness, warmth, humor and an eagerness to share their country and culture with strangers. Don’t, however, mess with them in a queue. “After you,” is a phrase that doesn’t come easily to the lips of Norwegians waiting to board a plane. This behavior, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with rudeness: they’re simply trying to get through, as quickly as possible, a routine that cramps their spirit of independence.

A large part of daily life in Norway is pinned to the sea. Trade with Europe, for example, put Bergen on the map in the 13th century. Germans set up trading companies along the north side of the harbor and were responsible for building the row of 13th century buildings opposite our mooring. The architecture and the beer in Bergen are distinctly of German ancestry.

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Espevaer, a small and closely knit community at the tip of a small island west of the island of Bomlo at the mouth of the Bomlafjord, has been the fishing center of Bomlo since the 17th century. A permanent population of less than 500 swelled to nearly 30,000 in spring when the herring fisheries were at their peak around the middle 1800s. Like every other village along the coast, Espevaer is as tidy as a pin. After a superb dinner of seafood stew, prepared by Arne, the captain, we strolled to a harborside kafe and joined the locals to watch the Norwegian’s women’s basketball team play in the Summer Olympics. Although the time was nearly 9 p.m. when we left the game, we had enough light to explore the village and take photos. This far north in the summer, total darkness never comes, only dusk. Not far from the kafe, we discovered a natural amphitheater, fenced and arranged with man-made seats to supplement the natural rock seating. The marquee advertised a production of “Hair” to begin early in August. This island may be remote, but it’s not deprived.

Bomlo is one of dozens of islands, scatted like drunken sentries nearly the entire length of Norway, that guard her coast against fierce storms from the sea to the west. Some of the tiniest islands in this archipelago are home to one or two families, whose only connection to the rest of Norway is by boat. Many of them are clinker-built wood and are powered by tiny inboard engines. Most have hard-top or soft-top pilothouses because the season for open boats is short.

I could have cruised for months among the islands of the archipelago and the fjords that reach inland and not exhausted its variety of ports or beauty. Although the wind is flukey, the water is smooth. We spent most of the week inside, but on the leg south from Haugesund to Skudeneshavn, we ran outside of Karmoy to save time. What a hoot. The wind blew 20-25 knots, and the seas occasionally reached the height of the Swan’s first set of spreaders. We sped toward our destination, a single reef in the main and a small triangle of genoa unrolled, on a beam reach. This was our best sailing day.

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Haugesund is a large commercial city that rises steeply from the harbor, a narrow strip of water between the northern tip of Karmoy and the mainland. Here, we hiked to the Edda cinema center to see a big-screen film of a flight over Skudeneshavn. The Edda is the site of the Norwegian film festival, and the film was similar in presentation to those shown at IMAX theaters in the U.S. We spent the night in Skudenehavn. Arne roasted reindeer, and we toasted the cruise with Aquavit.

We set sail early the next morning, headed south for Stavanger, where I would catch a flight to Oslo, then to the U.S. Our goal was the head of Lysefjorden. As we tacked east into the fjord, the morning sun peaked around thick gray clouds, bathing the north shore in yellow-white light as the clouds kept the south shore in deep shadow. The contrast between the brilliant green of the shore, the blue patch of sky, and the gray of the shadows nearly stopped my heart. The farther we penetrated the fjord, the steeper and more barren the shores became. At one point, we paused beneath a flat-top, 1,900′ cliff known as Pulpit. It’s among the most popular tourist attractions in southwest Norway.

I jumped ship in Stavanger. The taxi we’d called from the boat was waiting to rush me to the airport–rush because we’d dawdled. Leaving Norway is not easy.

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