OSLO, Norway — The Royal Viking Sky had come home, and all along the pier, family and friends were lined up to greet the Norwegian officers and crew. Babies and small children were held high in the air for daddy to see, young women waved bouquets of spring flowers, everyone shouted back and forth across the rail.
But this summer's homecoming was a little different from the others. Anyone permitted to come on board to see a staff member on duty for the day had to pass through an airport-type metal detector and hand over all bags and parcels, even cameras, to security personnel at the top of the gangway for a thorough hand search.
And those of the crew and those of us who were passengers understood precisely, because that was what we all had to do every time we came back on board the ship, even after we showed our identification, even if we boarded by tender, even when we unloaded as a group directly from a sightseeing bus.
The average passenger during this 12-day North Cape cruise has probably trudged slowly through that gangway line and meticulous search 15 or more times, but not once, so far as we could tell, has anyone even murmured a complaint.
On the contrary, most of them probably feel the same relief we do, and appreciate Royal Viking making its security measures more than a token gesture and keeping them in force throughout the cruise.
In this year of travel fear, only slightly more than half the passengers on board are from North America; all the others are from Europe, primarily England, Spain and Germany.
While the first cruise ship to sail the fiords back in 1869 was English, and we have encountered Russian, German and Greek vessels during this cruise, we can't imagine any of them being as much fun as Norwegian ships because the Norwegians get so happy sailing to the North Cape, especially when the weather is as warm and sunny as ours has been. They grow warm, fulsome, expansive and joyous, and they do not have the guile to imply that it's always this beautiful. On the contrary, they assure us over and over how truly fortunate we are to have this splendid sunshine.
The North Cape cruise is something akin to an Alaskan cruise; land is in sight most of the time, often with glorious scenery just off the rail on both sides. The Sky neatly negotiates the narrow fiord arms past waterfalls cascading down rocky hillsides and painted wooden farmhouses clinging to steep, velvet green slopes, and drops anchor near tiny picture book villages surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
North of 72nd Parallel
We have seen reindeer in patches of snow and smiling Lapp women in a chill drizzle north of the 72nd parallel, selling vivid, jester-like caps and racks of reindeer horns from the door flaps of their tents.
And we have walked through the streets of Copenhagen, where we encountered, as if on cue, Victor Borge strolling along the Stroget; meandered through Bergen's colorfully reconstructed Bryggen district of painted Hanseatic wooden houses; taken a toylike red train up a mountainside where bright wildflowers were an arm's length away; and looked at Viking ships and Arctic exploration vessels in Oslo.
The Royal Viking Line, always prestigious but sometimes perceived as a cruise line for older, more conservative passengers, is looking much livelier and younger these days. Even on this North Cape cruise. The late-night cabaret shows play to full houses, and there's a wonderfully zany radio program performed live by cruise director Tony Martin and assistant cruise director Paul McFarland and piped to the cabins while people are dressing for dinner.
This does not mean, however, that the Royal Viking Sky or her sister ships Sea and Star are taking on the Caribbean-style razzmatazz of Norwegian Caribbean Line. When NCL acquired RVL less than two years ago, some longtime passengers were concerned that it might mean the end of the largess--of fine-quality caviar served whenever requested, or single-sitting meals and pretty Scandinavian cabin stewardesses. Thankfully, that has not happened. Instead, the two companies remain two separate operations with only some quantity purchasing in common.
We note other improvements as well--a changeover in the galley from a Norwegian kitchen to a Swiss/German/Austrian kitchen (forgive us, Mrs. Olsen, but those German-speaking guys are better cooks); regularly scheduled classical music recitals in early evening; video programs in every cabin, from feature films to shore excursion talks to live TV coverage of the scenery ahead from a camera mounted on the bridge.
A few criticisms are still in order--excessively high corkage fees for wines not purchased from the dining room; poor sight lines in the Trondheim show lounge (a structural problem, alas); not enough reminders to the European passengers that there are smoking and nonsmoking areas in the public rooms.