Following Rae & Kurt's wedding, I briefly stopped in Amsterdam for work before flying to Copenhagen and reconnecting with the newlyweds. It just so happened that the week after their wedding was our long-scheduled family cruise through the Norwegian fjords. What better way to celebrate your nuptials than vacationing with your parents, brother and 15 close family friends? :) Perhaps it wasn't the most romantic "honeymoon", but it was a memorable trip nonetheless.
Our 7 day vacation aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line took us along the western coast of Norway. The region is most famous for it's larger-than-life fjords, where glaciers have carved out jawdropping landscapes over thousands of years. Amongst the breathtaking cliffs, tiny inlets and chains of islands are some of the world's most picturesque cities. Our cruise was perfectly bookended with stops in Ålesund and Bergen. Despite having only a few hours on shore and braving some unpredictable, chilly weather, we got to explore some of the top highlights of each city.
Ålesund was the 1st stop and northernmost city on our cruise trip. With a population of just 45,000 residents, this traditional shipping town is spread across a cluster of islands connected by a complex network of roads, bridges and tunnels. The town is perhaps most notable for its interesting art nouveau architecture that resulted from a fire and subsequent rebuilding in 1904.
Our cruise ship arrived very early Friday morning, so the town was still fairly quiet. As with most cruises, we had less than a full day to explore the city before returning to the ship. Rather than opt into a guided tour, we decided to wing it and explore the town on our own. We kept the itinerary fairly light. From previous experiences, I've learned that when traveling in a large group (particularly when that group includes your parents), everything seems to take twice as long.
Best View: For panoramic views of Ålesund and the surrounding islands, hike up to the top of Aksla Mountain. A short walk up 400 steps will get you to Fjellstua Viewpoint where you can grab a quick coffee and soak in the sights. Multiple tourist and public buses also stop at the viewpoint if you're not feeling the steep incline.
Best Coffee: Norway has one of the most innovative and thriving coffee cultures in the world. In fact, the country has the 2nd highest coffee consumption per capita right behind Finland. Not surprisingly, cities like Oslo and Bergen (more on that later), are home to many of the country's best coffee shops. What is surprising is that one of Norway's best roasters, Jacu Coffee Roastery, is in Ålesund. We happened to be in the city the one day of the week when the roaster briefly opens to the public. When in Norway, don't expect intense, dark flavors or milk-laden drinks. Nordic coffee is light, smooth and almost too easy to drink. Perhaps that's why coffee consumption is so high here.
Best Family Fun: Of all the activities and attractions we could have visited, we decided to go to Atlantic Sea Park. It was perhaps the best decision of the trip. Unlike many top aquariums in the world, this one seems surprisingly natural. The park itself is built right along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and its animal inhabitants are native to the surrounding region. Make sure to stay for the penguin and seal feedings.
Bergen was the final stop on our cruise before we returned to port in Copenhagen. Don't worry, there was much more to our cruise than these 2 cities. Look out for more on the actual fjords in my next post. With a population just shy of 300,000, Bergen is the 2nd largest city in Norway. Apparently, it also has the mildest weather (and warmest winters) in the country. Surrounded by thick forests and water, the city closely strikes a very close resemblance to Seattle and other cities of the Pacific Northwest. Yet again, our time in Bergen was very limited. We could have spent another day or so exploring the city, but below are a few highlights.
Classic Bergen: Google image search "Bergen" and you will almost certainly be served dozens of pictures of it's famous harbor district, Bryggen. The row of colorful, symmetric buildings are quintessentially Norwegian. I only wish we had more time to explore the area. Behind the quirky buildings are narrow alleyways housing dozens of funky boutiques, restaurants and cafes.
Best View: Not to be outdone by Ålesund, Bergen offers even more spectacular views from above. At the edge of Bryggen, take the Fløibanen funicular to the top of Mount Fløiyen. From here, you are treated to sweeping views of the city, the coast and the surrounding forested mountains. Before rushing back down, stop for a break at Fløien Folkerestaurant. I highly recommend making this the first item on your daily itinerary. Try to get to the funicular as early as possible. If you wait until late morning, the lines get extremely long. You might find yourself waiting over an hour before you get on the tram.
Best Coffee: I'll keep this one simple. Go to Kaffemisjonen and Kaffecompaniet. The former is often hailed as the country's best coffee shop, and the latter has an irresistibly inviting, cozy interior.