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SPECIAL CRUISE ISSUE | CRUISE: NORTH ATLANTIC

Rolling With the Punches

Storms, rain, cold, missed ports--nothing fazes the good-humored on a fall voyage across the Vikings' route

February 04, 2001|LUCY BARAJIKIAN | Lucy Barajikian is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

Cruise vacations are popular because they are predictable: no plane changes, no lost luggage, no weird food. This cherished selling point flies in the face of Traveler's Axiom No. 1: The world is full of surprises. Trust me.

The idea of a 14-day voyage from England to New England by way of Norway and Iceland seemed like a great idea to my three cousins and me when we saw the listing. The itinerary, which began in Harwich, Britain, and ended in Boston, included some unusual ports: Stavanger, Norway; Lerwick, Shetland Islands; Torshavn, Faeroe Islands; Akureyri and Reykjavik, Iceland; St. John's, Newfoundland; and St. John, New Brunswick.

We would cross the Arctic Circle. We would see Shetland ponies, turf houses and colorful puffins, the shimmering arcs and streaks of the aurora borealis and the land of fire and ice where Jules Verne set the stage for "The Journey to the Center of the Earth." We would follow "The Route of the Vikings," as the cruise was called. We also would be sailing in waters near where the Titanic went down. But more about that later.

This trip would be different from the nine other cruises my cousins and I had taken. We would be on the Royal Caribbean's new (at the time, two autumns ago), sleek luxury ship, the Vision of the Seas. It had spent its inaugural summer in the Mediterranean and was making its first transatlantic crossing to begin the fall foliage route on the East Coast before moving to the Caribbean for winter.

This is called a repositioning cruise, which, because it was taking place after the height of the season, was offered at attractive fares in hopes of filling the ship.

And what a deal this was. The $3,200 per-person price covered an inside stateroom, air fare, nine shore excursions, insurance, port taxes and departure tax.

We were excited about the prospect but had a few reservations, mostly about how crowded it would be at full capacity: 2,000 passengers. It wasn't until we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that we realized we should have paid closer attention to one other detail: the weather, especially the "when to go" section in the guidebook, which recommended that visits to the Vikings' stamping grounds be made by mid-August. We were a month late.

Between Harwich and our first port, Stavanger, the ocean was calm, the skies sunny. Although Stavanger is the oil capital of Norway, its old city is a charming sight from the harbor, lined with restored 200-year-old timber houses, freshly painted a gleaming white with red and brown tiled roofs.

Our shore excursion had many high points, among them a boat ride up the Lyse Fjord and a visit to an Iron Age farm excavated in the late 1960s, where guides took us back to the way life was lived here before the first millennium. This also was where we had our first of many brushes with the Vikings who united Norway and influenced much of northern Europe.

After Norway, we were bound for Lerwick, one of the more than 100 islands in the Shetland chain north of Scotland. We were eager to see the Shetland ponies and the ruins of Scalloway Castle and maybe shop for Shetland sweaters.

The Shetlands were the first of the islands that the intrepid Vikings encountered during their explorations west. Unfortunately, at the first little challenge, we intrepid 20th century travelers were unable to follow in their footsteps. Because Lerwick lacked harbor facilities for large ships, tenders were to take us ashore. While we watched from the decks, the seas turned rough, the ship's anchor wouldn't catch and the 78,491-ton, 915-foot-long, 105-foot-wide Vision of the Seas ended up stuck on a sand bar while two tugboats came chugging to the rescue. By then, the rising wind made it too dangerous to transport passengers via tenders. So all we saw of Lerwick as we sailed on was a richly green landscape, small boat harbor, warehouses and piers for the fishing fleet. No ponies. No Vikings.

It was disappointing, but we're seasoned travelers; we understand that cruise routes are subject to change. Besides, the weather report was better for our next stop, Torshavn, capital of Denmark's Faeroe Islands.

The mountain slopes around the little town (population 16,000) are home to the brilliant spectacle of millions of seabirds, including the celebrated black and white puffin with its orange and yellow feet and beak, a prized delicacy in these parts, served baked or roasted and sometimes stuffed.

Our little group didn't sample much local cuisine. The shipboard meals and endless snacks were more than enough, but I wondered how hungry we'd have to be for puffin casserole.

The Faeroes, a volcanic archipelago of 18 islands, are shaped by North Atlantic storms and winds. We were utterly bewitched by the scenery as ship sailed past--the jagged coastline and hundreds of waterfalls coursing down mountains that remain perpetually emerald green from the precipitation that falls 280 days a year.

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