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Friday, 18th May 2007
Perhaps it was Slartibartfast in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (the one who designed the coastline of Norway.) Or perhaps even longer ago it was watching Oliver Postgate's "Noggin the Nog" on a black and white television. Melded with curiosity over what it was like to travel on ships like the "Titanic". Anyhow my hankering to see Norwegian fjords by sea was satisfied by a cruise Virginia and I took on P&O's "Artemis" in May 2007.

We chose the "Artemis" because it was child-free rather than my weakness for David Rudkin's "Artemis 81". There seemed to be some suitable cultural events on board. The promotion DVD looked good. The website offered webcams of where the ship was. And if we booked in the next five minutes we got a good discount! The upfront cost of doing a cruise is high but it can work out to be value for money. Food onboard is included, as are the entertainments.
In the run-up to the cruise we discovered how many people we knew had been on cruises. Very hard nowadays to do something no-one has done before. Some people swore by Fred Olsen (my parents coincidentally did a similar cruise to us in the same week, but on Fred Olsen.) One cruise isn't enough to judge between Fred Olsen, P&O, and other cruise lines. They all try to get you hooked on cruising (there was a busy office on the ship for booking future cruises.) Some people we met cruised several times each year.

We had a smooth drive down to Southampton on May 18th, arriving well before booking in time at 2pm. From then on it was almost just put your feet up, we found cruising a very easy and effortless experience. Boarding the ship was like boarding an airplane, there were security checks, but much nicer and politer. They had started boarding well before 2pm so we didn't have needed to dilly dally at the Winchester service station (where an influx of school groups shattered the calm.) It was only at Southampton that we had to show our passports, not when we got off at various Norwegian ports of call.
We carried our hand luggage up to our cabin (the lifts were very slow, a problemette which became a problem later on.) The cabin was smaller than I expected from the website, but serviceable. It was at this stage that I realised I had left the battery charger for my camera behind. Did get alkaline batteries later from a shop onboard, but didn't manage to snap the gentlemen's jazz group who serenaded us off from the quayside. Managed to ring my sister from the boat to ask her to unplug the charger at home.

We had seen quite a few of our fellow passengers by this stage, and more as we explored the boat as we left Southampton. Many of them were wandering around with life-jackets which seemed like a lack of trust particularly as there's fewer icebergs around nowadays. However they were the wise ones ahead of the game. The first event was the muster, and if you were smart you and your life-jacket got a comfy chair in good time. I looked around at my fellow shipmates, thought how old the average age was - then realised I was in their age bracket. Sigh.
The "Artemis" had a number of diversions to help one pass the time, especially on the two days sailing to get to and from Norway. There was (to me) an unexpected series of art auctions on the boat. I saw a Chagall among the artists' names, so only for the few with money to burn. Also for those with surplus funds there was a casino, again not that popular but a few apparently lost real money (or to me real money.)

More our level was the board game section, where we did play "Scrabble" once or twice. Sadly close to the open atrium bar lounge area which was unpleasantly smoky. A bar pianist named "Geza" plied his trade here. The "Artemis" had a cybercafe - rather pricey and probably a week off computers was a good idea for me. There were gyms and saunas and pools. From time to time a "Sunshine Band" played music to dance to - elderly couples moved pretty gracefully around.
There were some pretty good evening entertainments. We passed on the comic (heard he was rather blue,) but enjoyed a spirited young company working their way through music hall songs to Elton John. On the music hall night we got Union Jacks each to wave. Pleasing to me were some piano recitals by a Mary Bruce - she was quite informative about what she was playing. She played something by a Finnish composer I hadn't heard of which sang.

I managed in a suit for the formal evenings on board, some dressed up to the nines. At one of these formal evenings we met, or were photographed with, the captain. The pictures cost £15 but it was our first cruise . . . the photographers were one way of putting money on your tab onboard. The ship also had sales of souvenirs, and jewellery, and perfume ... the photographers were at times rather intrusive. Meal times could be invaded by photographers wanting you to pose for them.
Eating was a major part of being on the boat. You could have breakfast, elevenses, lunch, fourses, dinner each with multiple courses. To enter the palaces of food you first had to have a pungent hand cleaner squirted onto your palms. (This ritual was also practised on boarding the boat.) At evening meals we sat at the same table, other times it was pot luck where you would sit and who you would eat with. The food was artistically laid out, and mostly tasty. Perhaps the portions were small, teaspoons were handed out for the icecreams, but you could have five courses if you felt like it. The quesadilla wasn't quite right, the Crepes Suzette flambe was too brandyified, but the rest was great. I preferred the Coral Restaurant to the Conservatory on the top, though it was nice to eat in the Conservatory and have a window seat to view the fjords gliding past. The ship did the travelling overnight between the ports of call.

It was in the restaurants I really appreciated how many staff were onboard, and how hard they worked. Many staff came from Goa if I understood properly. There were five hundred staff on board, for about a thousand odd passengers. Kindly there were instructions on tipping in the room - hard to know otherwise. It must be hectic particularly when the Artemis disgorges one set of passengers to collect another load the same day. At least some of the staff take advantage of being docked to go out and see places.
We had booked excursions before we sailed. One could save money here by buying train tickets etc oneself when one's there. We didn't spend all the Norwegian money we took as Norway proved to be a very expensive place. So expensive Norwegians catch ferries to Newcastle to go shopping. Stavanger, our first port of call, was rather closed up on the Sunday. An Italian guide led us round an Iron Age Farm, picturesque wooden buildings in Gamle (Old) Stavanger, and where three massive swords stand to mark Harald Fairhair unifying Norway centuries ago. The Iron Age Farm was informative from how they prepared woad to dye their wool blue to Norse myths justifying the blond-haired enslaving the darker haired.

Stavanger was rather flat, not real Norway (or the Norway of my imagining.) Our next stop was better - Flam said Flum. There tender waterfalls fell down steep mountains from snowy heights into deep mysterious waters. Picture postcard stuff. I took the train from Flam up to Vatnahalsen and back. The train winds around inside the mountain like a lost troll. You're allowed off at Kjosfossen to see the waterfall and that is a must do.
We next docked at Olden and attempted the walk to the Brikdal Glacier. It was here that we, or rather Virginia, had a mishap. She sprained an ankle walking on the rough ground by the melt-water lake at the foot of the glacier. Not so good but better than one unfortunate cruise passenger who broke a leg on the first day in Stavanger. Virginia managed to hobble down bravely as the rains came - we had had good weather up to then. So we explored a new part of the "Artemis" to whit the ISO 9001 certified medical centre. The bill was added to our tab.
We managed the excursion to Grieg's house in Bergen, the last port of call, despite worrying about whether we would walk back in time to the coach. I need something to worry about. There was a great piano recital here by a local Bergen pianist dressed in traditional Norwegian gear. She really attacked the keyboard, and to me interpreted Grieg's music better than Mary Bruce.

Grieg's house was a wooden somewhat ramshackle effort to me. Wood is used a lot in Norway - the Stave churches (which look more like Viking temples) are famous. Norwegians have a lot of natural resources, they say when their oil runs out they'll keep going on their freshwater reserves. There's a lot of water bottled up in the mighty Joksdal Glacier field.

And then we returned home to a rainy overcast UK. How to summarise? I would cruise again. It's an easy holiday where you don't have to worry about finding your way around. Time appeared in the day for me to do Araucaria crosswords, and read "Mister Monday" by Garth Nix. But best of all was having time to meet other people in a relaxed atmosphere. We did apply for a table for two but I was glad we didn't get it - spending real time with other people is one of the pleasures of life.