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Midnight Sunset Worthy of a Viking

September 13, 1987|ROBERT W. GIBSON | Gibson is an international economics correspondent for The Times.

OFF NORTH CAPE, Norway — Up in the Windjammer Room, which overlooked the bow, the harpist--Lois Colin of New York--played "Sunrise, Sunset." Passengers and ship's officers offered Norway's traditional toast, skoal, with glasses of mulled wine.

We squinted into and celebrated the midnight sun.

While a few of us had gone ashore to explore the old Nazi submarine pens at Trondheim, and everyone had marveled at Norway's majestic fiords, nothing to that point on the Royal Viking Sea had prepared us for this black-tie ritual in broad daylight.

Although it was July, Santa Claus walked the deck, a reminder in addition to the real reindeer we saw in the morning at Nordkapp--or North Cape, our northernmost stop--that we were only 1,300 miles from the North Pole (and 800 miles from the Arctic icecap).

Despite the soft natural light of day, midnight had arrived. For three midnights in a row, it was our luck to see clearly the phenomenon that early Norsemen north of the Arctic Circle called haalog or "high flame."

The name fits only at the windup. At first the sun circles to starboard just above the horizon, bathing the shimmering sea with a warm orange and dimming, sinking light. Nothing flames high.

Off to a Blazing Start

But just as Old Sol seems about to touch the horizon and drop from view, the opposite happens: The sun arcs upward, brightens to almost white intensity and, continuing to rise, validates the old Viking name as another day starts in a blaze by about 1 a.m.

We were halfway through our 13-day sail out of Copenhagen, with 715 passengers and almost as many crew, more than 3,867 miles along Norway's coast, up and back from North Cape above the Arctic Circle.

Seeing the midnight sun came as a relief.

Until we boarded ship, nobody had mentioned how iffy the midnight sun's visibility is--not the cruise line's literature, not even our travel agent.

We soon learned chances were excellent that the Arctic's erratic clouds would obscure the midnight sun totally. After we were underway, the ship's weather reports mentioned the possibility daily. At the North Cape, reported visibility ranged from sporadic to zilch.

For five days the suspense built.

The midnight sun has a short season. The Royal Viking Sea makes two runs, one in late June, the other a month later. This year, the ship's first try followed a week of clear 80-degree weather at the North Cape--only to have clouds blanket the midnight sun all three days the ship was there, even dropping snow.

On our excursion, the goddess of luck smiled--all three midnights were clear. It was nippy, but snow-free.

Aside from the midnight sun, however, spectacles on this cruise are down to earth.

Submarine Pens at Trondheim

The German-built submarine pens at Trondheim, Norway's third-largest city, still stand. Nobody puts them on travel posters, and Norway would like them to vanish (along with all other memorabilia of the Nazi occupation).

But in their own way, these indestructible structures are a remarkable monument.

To Allied convoys in the North Atlantic during World War II, the Nazi U-boat base was infamous. The Trondheim submarines turned the sea lanes to England and Murmansk into graveyards.

The pens were impregnable to American and British bombs. And even after the war they couldn't be demolished. The Norwegians tried with their heaviest explosives and finally gave up.

At their thinnest point, the walls of reinforced concrete are 3 1/2 meters thick. Most of the walls have 4-meter thickness "and the roofs are even thicker," a guide said.

While the pens are not off-limits, the Norwegians don't advertise them.

Shore Excursion Arranged

Neither does Royal Viking list the U-boat pens among available shore excursions. But when I asked if it was possible to see them, the ship's courtesy desk was happy to try. Within 24 hours, the ship's staff had arranged for a van and guide to escort us and a few friends from the ship.

The pens lay within two structures--both drab, faceless buildings with gray slabs for walls that reminded me of prisons. They lay close to the pier at which the Royal Viking Sea had docked.

Underneath one building were five submarine slips, a pair of them wide enough to accommodate two U-boats at a time. The other building covered two slips, both singles. Overhead, spanning high ceilings, massive steel crossbeams that once bore torpedo hoists and other lifting equipment are still in place.

Within the sea-level entryways where U-boats slipped into the docks for crew change and resupply after 10- to 12-week missions, seawater still slaps against concrete walls and rises and falls with the tide. It's the only sound and motion in these chambers.

Spectacular Views

But Norway's jewels are the fiords.

Fingers of sea that cut into mountainous hinterland for up to 100 miles and more, the fiords open up to the seaborne visitor some spectacular views of sheer rock cliffs and waterfalls that cascade from glaciers hundreds of feet down mountain walls.

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