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Cruising a craggy coast

We saw trolls and Viking ships in candyfloss clouds floating above mile-deep fjords.

And when we tired of the Norse theme, we settled back in our deck chairs and started looking for familiar shapes in the wrinkled granite mountains hulking above us.

"Looks like a big pile of dried-up bread dough to me."

"Nah, I'm seeing the backside of a herd of elephants."

Cruising the Hurtigruten line, a fleet of 11 ships that ferry people and cargo along more than 1,250 miles of Norway's fractured coastline, is a far cry from riding the luxury liners that tango around the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Mediterranean.

These Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships are working vessels as much as pleasure boats. Here, there are no comedians, chorus girls, bingo games or midnight buffets _ just astonishing scenery and vivid imaginations.

And the only sandy beaches are so far north of the Arctic Circle that a late-summer temperature of 60 had locals talking about a heat wave.

Hurtigruten means "fast route" in Norwegian. English-speaking passengers aboard our ship, the Nordlys, could not twist our vocal chords into the right lilt to pronounce it as the locals do, so we just called it the "hurty-gurty."

For more than 100 years, the Hurtigruten ships have provided a serious lifeline for Norwegians. One of the vessels leaves Bergen, on the rain-drenched southwest coast, every evening. The ships take 12 days to reach Kirkenes, on the Arctic border with Russia, and to return.

The vessels stop at 35 cities, towns or settlements, often just long enough to pick up locals making a short hop to the next port or to exchange cargo _ spools of fishing line or cases of tomatoes, potatoes and beer; dry-cell batteries, appliances, vehicles or building supplies.

To Americans, Norway may seem like a bucolic backwater, but it has a complicated and fascinating history. That, and the awe-inspiring scenery that unfolded before us like a Discovery Channel special, provided plenty of entertainment.

From our deck chairs, we wondered what this rugged land must have been like for the cavemen who lived here amidst receding glaciers and howling seas, and for the Vikings who rambled from these shores as far south as Turkey and as far west as America, conquering everyone in sight.

We wanted to meet the Samis, the indigenous people who still herd reindeer in the treeless regions above the Arctic Circle.

We wanted to learn more about the lives of the anglers who've been Norway's economic mainstay since the Middle Ages, when they furnished the dried cod that filled Catholic Europe's bellies on holy days.

And we wanted to explore Norway's role in World War II, where battles between the Nazis and Soviets left nearly every farm, settlement and town in the north a smoldering ruin.

Heading north, with a splash

We sailed from Bergen on a Saturday evening in early September, under lowering clouds the color of dirty socks. The Nordlys lurched through foam-topped waves 4 to 6 feet high.

Friends who had previously made this voyage at the same time of year had warned us: Take your woollies and antidotes against motion sickness.

But within a couple of days, the Nordlys was gliding over smooth seas in sunshine warm enough to coax most of the 350 passengers to the aft decks to ogle the scenery unraveling behind us.

Much of Norway's coastal landscape doesn't seem as vast as Alaska's Inside Passage, but its rugged, rocky terrain has its own charm.

The fjords that carve the coastline were formed by glaciers. Most of the ice melted about 10,000 years ago, and the rising sea flowed in to fill the lowlands. It left behind an island-studded coastline lorded over by mountains that now float on immense pockets of oil and gas that have brought prosperity to Norway.

The landscape runs the gamut from the heavily forested south, with fluttery birches and firs, to the treeless, windswept Arctic regions. Rounded blobs of bare-rock mountains might be the view one day, while jagged peaks iced with white glaciers grace the next.

We were never out of sight of land. Indeed, sometimes we squeezed so close to the rocky shore that folks pulled their elbows from the railings as we passed.

Every people who lived here has marked the land indelibly.

Fishing villages and tiny farming settlements still nestle in folds of the mountains that would have provided shelter and a few acres of arable land for the earliest people. Today, only 3 percent of the land can be farmed, while the rest is wild and uninhabited.

Most of these narrow parcels of farmland abutting the inland waterways were settled eons ago, and every now and then we would see a pile of soccer-ball-sized rocks near the shore _ marking Viking graves, we were told.

The villages are picturesque, with tidy square homes in varying colors, mostly vivid barn red that stands out like a beacon against the barren land. Many Norwegian rural homes, including those along the coast, are painted red; the color is a direct heirloom from the ancient past when people used a mixture of reindeer blood and cod-liver oil to make an effective and inexpensive paint.

Today, bright colors are a choice, to help people get through the dark Arctic winter.

Nomads at the tip of Europe

Half of Norway lies high above the Arctic Circle, although the country is kept temperate by the Gulf Stream, which pumps warm water and air from equatorial waters into the North Sea.

The Nordlys cruised into the Arctic early on the morning of our fourth day out of Bergen. The ship's northernmost stop, at Honningsvag, takes passengers to within a short bus ride of Nordkapp (North Cape), a high plateau with steep cliffs that plunge into the North Sea.

This is the northernmost point of Europe, about 1,300 miles from the North Pole. It is marked by a skeletal globe sculpture and an exhibition hall that shows visitors a film of the cape and its plant and wildlife, including snow mice, lemmings, lynx, elk and the occasional brown bear.

A sobering exhibit tells of World War II naval scraps in these frigid waters that both sides considered vital shipping routes.

The sun never drops below the horizon at Nordkapp from mid-May to late July, and it never rises in the winter months. In fall, the sun rises and sets at respectable hours _ about 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

There are no trees this far north, although there are some 200 species of plants and flowers, some of which grow nowhere else.

Along the northern coast, we saw herds of reindeer, anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of critters, grazing on the prairie grasses and the green and pink lichen that plasters itself to the steep mountain rocks.

The reindeer belong to the Sami, Scandinavia's indigenous people. No one knows where the first Sami came from, although some Norwegian scholars think they may have descended from the earliest people to settle here.

Today, about 60,000 Sami live in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, but half of this number lives in Norway. Most Norwegian Sami live urban lives in Oslo, although about 3,000 cling to the seminomadic ways of their ancestors herding the reindeer.

On the way back to the ship from Nordkapp, our bus stopped at a Sami settlement _ a few weathered houses, a tumbled-down reindeer corral and a souvenir stand just off the road. Two women were in costumes _ bright red and marine blue dresses set off with yellow rickrack and embroidery made of tin strands. Their reindeer-hide boots trimmed in red are traditional, they assured us.

Today, there is an effort to help the Sami maintain their culture. The Sami language has the same official status as Norwegian. A Sami Parliament, elected in 1989 by Sami registered in Norway, meets in the Sami capital of Karasjok, an inland city near the border of Finland.

Memories of war

The marks made by more recent settlers on Norway's coast are deep, but often are not as obvious to today's visitors.

Hitler's forces invaded the country in 1940 and left it in ruins five years later.

Convinced that the Allies were going to enter Europe by the North Sea to attack Germany, Hitler stationed thousands of troops in Norway.

Early in the conflict, Norway's King Hakon and the royal family fled to Britain and eventually to Washington, D.C. But they left behind a strong resistance movement that fought throughout the war.

In the end, Russian troops attacked the Germans, their mortar fire leveling scores of Norwegian towns. As the Germans retreated, they set fire to most every hamlet and farm. In some cases the only building left standing was a stone medieval church.

Museums in towns all along the Hurtigruten route tell the story of the occupation and resistance. An underground bunker in Kirkenes is open to show where both Norwegians and German soldiers fled together to escape Russian bombs.

But visitors can see for themselves, too, in many of the towns.

A high overlook above Alesund, a southern coastal city of about 35,000 people, is covered with birches and crumbling German bunkers.

"The whole town was a military installation," said Odd Arne Dahlseth, an Alesund taxi driver we hired to take us to the top of the steep overlook.

Dahlseth, 53, remembered playing in the abandoned emplacements as a child:

"We would find knives and shells up here that the Germans had left."

Two of Dahlseth's uncles were among the estimated 3,300 Norwegians who, during the war, slipped out of harbors such as Alesund aboard fishing boats and made their way to England to join the resistance forces waging war from there.

A park bench at the top is dedicated to Johnny Ceybird, "a very brave and very gentle Englishman" who was killed in action in Alesund in 1945, during the last days of the war.

Ceybird's bench shares the overlook with a 30-foot-tall concrete tower given to Alesund a half century ago by the people of Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. A plaque thanks Alesund for sending so many immigrants to America and Canada.

Prominent reminders of the post-war period are the huge white domes atop so many of the coastal mountains of the north _ communications installations operated by NATO.

But probably the most important event in recent years for Norwegians was the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s. Evidence of that, too, is visible to Hurtigruten passengers who know what to look for: Microwave towers sprout like trees atop mountains along the coast. Utility poles march over the mountains _ above-ground evidence of hydroelectric plants built into the mountains and using the water from melting glaciers.

New highways thread through the landscape, tunneling beneath the sea in dozens of places to connect islands with mainland.

And every town of any size seems to have a new bridge connecting it to the next island or shoreline.

From the deck of the Nordlys, all those beautiful new spans reminded us of stories of the old days in Norway, when superstition and imagination ruled:

Do you suppose there are still trolls under those bridges, harassing billy goats and scaring little children?

Sally Macdonald is a former feature writer for the Seattle Times; John Macdonald was the Times' travel editor.

If you go

The Nordlys is one of the newest of 11 Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships. The cabins were comfortable but not plush. The food was tasty (basic Scandinavian fare), but there were no flaming desserts. Dress was casual.

By day, we reveled in the rugged coastal mountains and glaciers, sea life, birds and reindeer, and quaint, colorful villages and farmlands tucked into the uneven shoreline. By night, we were entertained by the dancing of the Northern Lights.

The coastal shipping system was begun a century ago to serve Norway's far-flung coast communities. It cut the travel time between commercial centers from several weeks (months in winter) to several days. Today, the Hurtigruten ships continuously ply the island-studded coastline between Bergen and Kirkenes, carrying passengers and cargo to 35 towns and communities along the way.

While ferrying passengers and cargo continues to be an important function of the system _ for which the owners receive a government subsidy _ carrying sightseeing vacationers is a steadily growing part of the business.

The line's six newest ships were built since 1993. They are similar in design and each can carry about 500 overnight passengers and 50 vehicles.

As new ships replace the old, more cabins and amenities are being devoted to the pleasure-cruise market. Two old favorites, the Harold Jarl and the Lofoten, both built in the early 1960s, will be replaced in April and May by two new vessels that can carry 1,000 passengers, with berths for 643 and 674 passengers, respectively.

ONBOARD EXPERIENCE: The Nordlys was a pleasant contrast to the popular, 1,500-passenger-plus cruise ships sailing out of the United States. Cabins were about the size of cruise-ship cabins.

Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style, with dinner a set menu. The food included a variety of regional fish and cheeses, breads and preserves _ and all the caviar (black, red or white) we could eat.

A small cafe served sandwiches and other short orders 24 hours a day.

Busy months for the tourist passengers are April through September; the weather is best then. Vacationers can choose between one-way trips, with a returning flight, the 12-day, round-trip voyages, or segments in between.

Most of the vessel's stops are at small communities and take only a few minutes, to unload cargo and a few passengers. Many stops are made in the middle of the night.

Stops at larger communities such as Alesund, Trondheim, Bodo and Tromso are made during the day, with several hours to leave the ship. In such ports, guided tours by bus or small boat are available (for an additional cost), or passengers can wander or shop on their own.

Tour highlights include the fjords at Geiranger, the Svartisen Glacier near Bodo, and the North Cape plateau (the northernmost place in Europe) and the Sami camp and reindeer near Honningsvag.

PRICING: In general, the per-day cost of the Norwegian Coastal Voyages cruises is a bit higher than many popular Caribbean, Mexico or Alaska cruises. New this year are packages that include airfare from the United States, the cruise and escorted tours. Other land-tour options can extend the visit to Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cruise-only fares vary with the season, length of time onboard and kind of accommodation; some suites are available. These fares range from $544 to $6,134. Lowest prices are from trips between Nov. 1 and Dec. 18 and Dec. 25 and Feb. 28. Highest rates are in effect from June 1 to Aug. 15. Discounts are available for those 67 or older and for AARP members.

It's worthwhile to work with a travel agent who knows Norway and Scandinavia and has experience booking the Hurtigruten cruises and side trips.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Norwegian Coastal Voyage, 405 Park Ave., Suite 904, New York, NY 10022. Call toll-free 1-800-323-7436. The Web site is www.coastalvoyage.com

The Norwegian Tourist Board is at 655 Third Ave., Suite 1810, New York, NY 10017. Call (212) 885-9700; www.visitnorway.com

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