Ferries have always felt like relics of the past – medieval holdovers when roads and bridges were few. Tolls were often charged. As the population grew along with the cargo needed to be carried, ferries increased in size until large enough to transport trucks and equipment. Train cars were routinely loaded in much of the world until bridges and freight flights caught up. Even today, the Alaskan Railroad is connected to the continental United States only by ferries. But in Norway, the ferry system is alive and well and continues to serve locals, tourists, and remote communities. During our visit, we sampled some of the approximate 180 ferries serving Norway including a cutting-edge electric one.
After a train ride from Oslo to Flam on the advertised “Norway in a Nutshell” route, we emerged onto the town’s docks holding an oversized cruise ship awaiting some of the crowd and our much smaller ferry which would carry us on the Sognefjord, the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. I had worried about the short connection between the train’s arrival and the ferry’s departure (15 minutes) but shouldn’t have. All was running like clockwork. The ferry was less than 100 yards from our train car.
On board was a large space for luggage of all sizes, comfortable seating with views, and a snack bar. We joined a Virginian couple in their booth even as they were continually drawn outside to take photos of the shoreline, including seals sunning on rocks. They were spending the day traveling from Bergen on the coast to Flam and back.
Our stop was at Balestrand where the beautiful 145-year-old Kviknes Hotel expected us. It was a most pleasant way to arrive with the hotel only a short walk up the hill. From our balcony room, we watched the Sognefjord in all its splendor and noted the schedules of the larger ferries’ arrivals and the faster express boats that navigate the waters with a choppier ride.
One of the largest Ferry operators in Norway is Norled, the world leader in launching electric powered ferries. Two women lead this effort for the company, Elizabeth Grief and Heidi Wolden. As we often saw in Norway, the commitment to a clean environment was sincere and universal. All our cabs and uber cars were electric, as required by the government. Today one-third of Norway’s ferries are electric or hybrid. When we left Flan a second time to explore the narrowest fjord in Norway, one of Norled’s newest electric ferries carried us. The design was unlike any ferry I have seen. The walkways zigzag along the outside of the boat, mimicking mountain trails providing a standing space for every passenger on board for the perfect view of the stunning landscape.
Large cruise ships are available to travel Norway’s coast and many Americans have enjoyed those trips. Hurtigruten, a Norwegian company, has created a combination ferry and cruise ship to travel those waters. We signed on for two nights leaving Bergen at sundown on the Nordkapp and arriving in Trondheim two days later. This was not as luxurious as some cruises. No outside balconies were available. But some of the amenities of a larger cruise ship included shore excursions and large buffets of local fish such as smoked salmon and trout and even reindeer. An upscale restaurant had a talented chef and fix prix dinners. Plastic ware was forbidden throughout the ship. At one port, I watched residents leaving the boat and mail being delivered and local cargo loaded, illustrating the duo purpose of the ship. A car deck was also available.
Few Americans were on this scaled down cruise boat, but many Germans and English were. The queen of England had died in England during our voyage and all citizens of the Commonwealth were invited forward to sing the national anthem, God Save the King. We also met a few Norwegians, including a woman who had visited her daughter in Bergen and was returning home to Trondheim. A young Swiss woman joined us on our excursion into a much smaller fjord seldom traveled. When we came ashore deep into the fjord, the waters were still, mountains snow covered, and flowers blooming – Norway at its finest.
In addition to outfitting most of its ferries with electric power, Norled is also testing a hydrogen powered ferry with hopes it will be in service within the year. If successful, it could be a game changer for the ferry industry, an industry thousands of years old but one that continues to serve. And now it’s leading the way into a greener world. The waters and marine animals of Norway will be the beneficiaries of this effort as will tourists looking for beautiful views.