We sat out on the balcony, staring in disbelief at the view laid out in front of us.
A mythical emerald tinge shattered the silken whisper of the still, dark night and the sky bore endless kisses from the stars. ✨
The Northern Lights.
How incredible to bask in the superiority of its humble force, its magnificent power.
I hardly dared to blink, in the fear that I would miss even a split second of the greatest show on earth; the most magical of all of nature's remarkable displays.
For half an hour, my mind was vacant of its every thought. I was simply transfixed by the horizon, lost somewhere between the dramatic dance of the sea and the steady embrace of the sky.
I often blog about those unparalleled moments that take us out of ourselves. That moment right there, sitting beneath the Northern Lights on the balcony of our cruise ship, drifting somewhere between the Norwegian Fjords, was one such moment that I will forever be blessed with the memory of.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the honour of seeing the Northern Lights. 💚
The phrase 'jaw dropping' is often tossed around quite liberally. It's a nice term, but very rarely are we referencing anything that has truly physically stopped us in our tracks and left our mouths vacant of words.
When I say that Norway was 'jaw dropping' in its beauty, I honestly mean that some of the scenery I saw during my recent trip left my mouth literally agape.
I know, I know... I'm a fickle woman! I have been so, so lucky to visit some sensational places, and my heart will forever belong to many of them. Pieces of my soul are scattered across Stockholm, Reykjavik, Helsinki, Malaga, St Petersburg, Vienna, Bern, Valletta, Capri, Hanover... The list of my fierce, never-ending love affairs goes on.
But Norway... Norway was exceptionally special. The views and experiences from my time spent there will be with me for the rest of my life.
Josh and I have always fancied exploring Norway and thought the best way to see as much of the country as possible in just seven days was to do a cruise.
We've cruised quite a few times and really love it. Waking up every day in a new place - what could be better?!
People often wrongly assume that cruising is strictly for the over-60's, but this is definitely not the case.
Cruise holidays are full-on! From hiking and running, to midnight silent discos and late night 80's raves, we actually didn't stop for an entire week. I went back to work for a bloody rest!
We went ahead and booked a cruise with a Norwegian itinerary to celebrate my 30th birthday (which is sadly fast approaching...!).
This was actually the first holiday Josh and I have been on together since our pre-COVID honeymoon back in December 2019. While I will always solo travel as much as I can, I did quite like being back overseas with my partner in crime. For all of his faults, he is a pretty funny guy. 😉
Saturday: Board the ship in Southampton
Sunday: Day at sea
Monday: Stavanger, Norway
Tuesday: Olden, Norway
Wednesday: Alesund, Norway
Thursday: Haugesund, Norway
Friday: Day at sea
Saturday: Back to Southampton, and home (via a series of VERY questionable service stations... I fear that I may still have essence of soggy hash brown wedged into the underside of my trainers, but that's another story...!)
Stop One: STAVANGER
"I'm assuming you've used chains before?" The guide rather casually asked as we got off the excursion coach at the foot of Manafossen Waterfall.
Looks of panic and alarm were rapidly exchanged between 25 Regatta-wearing Brits.
The guide elaborated. "If you're hikers, I'm guessing you will be used to using chains while walking?"
He nodded towards to start of the trail which led up to the waterfall. Indeed, the steep, rocky path was decorated with chains strung together by flimsy-looking metal poles.
Don't get me wrong, Josh and I are avid hikers. I'm not going to bang on about it or anything, 😜 but three weeks ago, I walked the entire 35 mile Gritstone Trail in one day...
This, however, was NOT what we had been expecting. In fact, it wasn't what anyone had been expecting - that much was obvious by the nervous muttering that broke out within our group.
... Ooookay 😬
Well, the only way is up, as they say! Off we went, armed with some sort of Norwegian Kit Kat, clambering over boulders and literally scaling rocks, with only the infamous chains to hang on to.
IMO, it was less of a hike, and more of an adrenaline fuelled rock climb. It was tough bloody work, but we felt such a sense of achievement when we reached the top and were rewarded by the unbelievable sight of the Manafossen Waterfall.
We stood listening to its mighty roar while scoffing our continental Kit Kats and contemplating just how the hell we were going to make it back down alive.
Once back on solid ground, we bathed in the stream below the waterfall. The icy, refreshing water cascaded down my face, embellishing my hair with jewelled droplets. It's little moments like that which really mean the most - the moments that quite inexplicably take your breath away, make you feel alive, and anchor you to the present.
Adventures with bae 🥰
After our hike, we had a walk around Stavanger Old Town, which was bursting with quaint, unspoiled character.
Stop Two: OLDEN
My new favourite place in the whole entire world.
I don't even know where to begin in describing this absolute gem.
I literally cannot explain the feeling of waking up to see the fjords beyond the balcony as the ship sailed slowly into Olden port. I lay in bed counting the waterfalls as we trickled by.
What a way to start the day!
I was just itching to get out get better acquainted with this stunning place.
My first view of Olden from our balcony! 😍
Our first stop was the Loen Skylift, which climbs 3,317 foot up the side of Mount Hoven. Just for reference, that's the height equivalent of 495 Peter Crouches standing on top of one another.
Now, this was a pretty B-I-G deal for me! I suffer from such bad vertigo that I won't even use escalators, so I had to grow some serious balls before I agreed to the Skylift.
Going up was just about manageable, but the return journey was a frankly haunting!! That first drop was vile; the wind screeched through the open windows, and the cart swung towards the side of the mountain. Everyone shrieked, and the teenage lads next to me thought it was a hilarious idea to start jumping up and down.
But, I did it, and I'm still here to tell the tale (just about!).
(If you're a height'phobe like me, it may to help to know that there's a cafe at the top of the skylift serving THE nicest cookies. Bitta' sugar to restore the Dutch courage for your downwards journey! 😄)
The view from the Skylift as we ascended Mount Hoven! 😱
We did some hiking up and around Mount Hoven. The temperature plummeted and flecks of snow swirled around us between the thick fog.
Occasionally, the fog subsided and the most spectacular views of the fjords and port below crashed into our eyeline.
The clouds were close enough to reach up and grab. It felt like we were on top of the world, hiking the route to heaven.
No words needed... 😍
In the afternoon, I went for a little solo hike into the hills above the port.
There’s just something about Olden that just totally engulfs you. It's like sitting on the edge of life and dipping your toes into a storybook, kicking the pages between your feet and drinking every sense through a straw until it consumes you in the most beautiful way.
I wanted to splash myself with the shades of the landscape. I yearned to dance through the ever-changing weather, raise my head to the flurry of snow on the mountaintop, pull the rainbow around my shoulders like a shawl, and allow myself to be whisked into a tango with the ferocious wind.
I wished for every single detail of Olden to flood my mind and paint my memory.
I hiked those hills all afternoon, but it just wasn't enough. I longed to sit up there and write every inch of the fjords and turn them into poetry.
As I ambled deeper and deeper into the countryside, I pondered how exactly I was going to describe Olden within my blogs. Every time I thought I was close to summarising its magnificence, the words floated away out of my reach, carried by the breeze. Olden is far too special a place to contain between pen and paper.
To really appreciate Olden, you must simply visit it. You need to stand amongst it, hold your hands out to it. You need to hear the gentle babble of the hidden waterfalls, bask in the backdrop of the boundless hillsides, and open your heart to the whisper and intensity of the seasons that will greet you.
I would do absolutely anything in the world to be back here... ❤️
I extended my walk by strolling through Olden village and up to the church.
The church sits pretty between the fjords, keeping watch over the tumbling village and port below.
I’m not a religious person, but churches instantly makes me feel strangely comforted. I don’t actually think you need to be religious to enjoy the universal calm and tranquillity that churches bring.
There was no one else around, so I pushed open the door and stepped inside. I took a seat, relishing a few moments of pure silence and composure.
I thought of all of the things that church must have seen over the years; the cold, cold winters, snow-capped fjords, waterfalls frozen to the mountainside. I started to think of it as an all-seeing, wise eye to life, and how the days and the seasons just... Tick by, regardless of what goes on a round them.
Then I thought about all of the things that church must have heard: prayers, hopes, fears, declarations of love...
I concluded that churches - no matter where they are - embody a lot of human spirit. When we're in church, we inadvertently open ourselves up. We allow our deepest emotions to spill out, because we know that they're safe.
With an hour to go until our departure, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to Olden, so I headed back out for a quick 6k run.
Suddenly, at about 3k in, a vibrant rainbow punctured the sky, cascading across the fjords in front of me. 🌈
Again, there’s an example of that magic I always talk about. How can you not believe in magic when it’s all around us, every day? It's our duty to remember to seek out and appreciate magic, even in its simplest forms. When magic fails to appear, we must look within and question ourselves, not the universe.
And then, it really was time to say goodbye.
We sat on the balcony with a room service pizza watching the boat ebb away from the port, as the locals gathered to wave us off, waving flags and playing music. It was quite emotional, actually!
Of all of the days I have spent travelling in my life, THIS was one of my most treasured, from start to finish.
Olden, you left me spellbound. ❤️
Stop Three: ALESUND
"Why wasn't Jesus from Norway?" Our 8 foot 10 tour guide bellowed seconds after we'd met.
Everyone on the tour looked as puzzled as I felt.
"Come on - why wasn't Jesus from Norway?" He roared again, roughly sweeping his long, Viking-esque locks from his face. "Because they couldn't find a virgin!!!!"
... With polite introductions out of the way, we set off for our excursion: hiking Sugarlump Mountain.
At the summit of Sugar Lump Mountain! ☀️
Sugar Lump mountain was another walk boasting some quite revolting terrain.
I’ve come to realise that the Norwegian perception of hiking is slightly different to the version we’re used to here in the UK… 😅
I like to think I’m a somewhat seasoned hiker, but bloody hell! It’s pretty damn hard to heave yourself over boulders when you’re only five foot!
Bellyflopping over rocks really didn’t make for my finest hour, and going back down caused even more of a kerfuffle. In the end, I just gave up and gracelessly tumbled down the mountain on my backside instead. 🤦🏻♀️
As well as tackling Sugar Lump Mountain, we also took on the Aksla Viewpoint, which is precisely 418 steps above the town.
It was a calf-burn-inducing climb, but the views were spectacular, made all the more striking in the sudden dash of sun.
An unrivalled view of Alesund from the Aksla Viewpoint 💚
Alesund was an incredibly quiet town, and quite possibly one of the cleanest places I have ever been!
Stop Four: HAUGESUND
Ahh, Haugesund was my second favourite stop of the trip. We had such a good day here, still on a high from seeing the Northern Lights the night before.
Haugesund was such a unique, sweet little town with bags of modest character that just appealed to me straight away.
Out of all of the places we visited, Haugesund's locals were the friendliest, which instantly made me love it even more. We were made to feel so welcome by the Haugesund locals, from the lovely lady outside the school who kindly gave us directions to the lake, to the Jacqueline Wilson lookalike in the woods who greeted us with a cheery, "Hallo!!"
Whenever I visit somewhere new, I tend to judge how much I like it by asking myself if I'd live there, and I would DEFINITELY live in Haugesund.
I don't know what it is, but some destinations just instantly feel familiar, and I was delighted that Haugesund was one of those places.
After three days of organised tours and excursions, we decided to head out on our own and take things at a slower pace.
We had a leisurely wander through the town, admiring the cute shops (the Amundsen delicatessen shop - a 10 minute walk from the port - is really gorgeous, btw!), before falling upon THE best sweet shop IN THE WORLD!!
It's a good job I have no understanding of foreign currency exchange rates, as I wouldn't even like to hazard a guess as to how much we spent on pick & mix at Haugseund Godteland...
When your husband takes cute pics of you... 🙄
IN. MY. ELEMENT!!
We spent the rest of the morning getting lost on the labyrinth of trails surrounding the Djupadalen nature reserve.
Again, I wasn't quite ready for my Norwegian fling to end, so at 3pm, I headed back out on a whim for a 10k run as the afternoon rain came down.
I raced around the lake we'd explored earlier on in the day, before taking one of the deserted paths out towards a stretch of fairy tale woodland. Towering fir trees arched themselves overhead, shielding me from the rain as I pirouetted my way across the pine-needle carpet. The only sound to be heard was the distant tip-toe of the drizzle beyond the woods.
Heavenly Haugesund ❣️
The ship reappeared on the horizon, signalling the impending end of my run, and my visit.
I was reluctant to kiss my beloved Haugesund goodbye.
I slowed my pace as I came back through the town, savouring every element of its perfection.
I collected the sensation of each raindrop on my skin, breathing in the untamed power of the gathering winds.
Careering down the hill into the port, I was abruptly overwhelmed with passion: passion for Haugesund, for Norway, for travelling, and of course, for running. How lucky I was to be there, in that very moment, combining two of my biggest loves: travelling and running.
Thank you to the moments and the places that remind me why I'm alive.
Thank you to those days I wish never had to end...
A bit about our ship: P&O, Iona
Okay SO, unpopular opinion, buttttt... We weren't all that impressed with Iona. 😬
I'm sorry! I know Iona has a LOT of loyal fans, but it just didn't do it for us.
Iona was our first P&O experience, having previously enjoyed numerous brilliant cruising holidays with both Royal Caribbean (Jewel & Brilliance), and Marella (Discovery 2).
We felt that Iona was a bit... Soulless? Don't get me wrong, it's a really lovely, modern ship, but there was just 'something' missing.
Iona is a lot bigger than the other ships we've been on, which may explain why the service was somewhat hectic and a lot less 'personal.'
I don't like to post anything negative, but my God, I will just say this... The buffet restaurant was not okay!
I'm most certainly not a 'food snob' - if I were to die tonight, my last meal of choice would be my classy signature wholegrain pasta smothered in Marmite, or a couple of Smiley Face potatoes stuffed inside a bagel with lashings of Aldi margarine. That being said, the food in Iona's buffet restaurants was totally inedible. Oh, and the 'clean' plates were often covered in dried food and stains, which was also pretty off-putting.
We ended up paying extra to eat at the speciality restaurants every night, which isn't really ideal when you've already forked out for the actual holiday itself, plus excursions, etc.
Even the speciality restaurants were hit and miss (there was one unforgettable occasion whereby I ordered a vegan dish and was served meat!).
I won't waste too much time talking about each individual restaurant and facility onboard Iona, but please do feel free to drop me a message if you have any questions and I'll try and help. 😊
For now, I'll just focus on my favourite restaurants/ elements of the ship.
Food: The Keel & Cow
We ate here for breakfast every morning, and oh my Gosh, I will never not crave what became my 'norm' over the course of the week.
The menu is small but perfectly formed. Even the picky, vegetarian bag of bones (AKA, me) tucked in! 🤣
Anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that I LOVE my breakfasts. Literally, my fave meal of the day. Breakfast at The Keel & Cow was ANOTHER LEVEL.
Every morning, I had the following delectable feast before a day of hiking and running:
* A glass of fresh orange juice
* Greek yoghurt with granola and summer berries
* Eggs Benedict with smashed avocado on a bagel
So, ya know, pretty much a three course breakfast. On out first visit, the lovely gents serving actually asked me if I'd like my granola as a 'starter.'
"No-one has ever had a starter at breakfast before," Josh laughed. "I've never seen you eat so much!"
Worth every single calorie? One thousand percent.
Find me a pair of more perfectly poached eggs, I'll wait! 😍
Josh is a big fan of Indian food, so we ate here on both the first and last nights - neither disappointed! The service and food at Sindhu were FLAWLESS.
The portion sizes were GINORMOUS. I got the vegetarian 'thali' plate which came with no less than 8 different items, including a pot of dhal, a stunning okra yogurt curry, a generous helping of rice, and two different types of potato.
My vegetarian thali plate! We ate like royalty at Sindhu 😍
Food: The Glass House
Right, the food here was out of this world, BUT the service was pretty terrible. The restaurant was only ever half full, yet we had to wait 45 minutes for our starters one evening.
However, as stated... The food was insane in the membrane!! So, despite the long wait, we also ate here twice during our trip.
The Glass House is located within the ship's atrium, with floor to ceiling windows and views out across the ocean. On our second visit, were able to watch the most divine, peach-coloured sunset bleach the sky while we ate.
The luxury of the surroundings and the quality of the food really made us feel as though we were 'out out' and made for a really nice date night.
It's one of the more expensive speciality restaurants on the ship, but in our opinion, it's well worth it, particularly if you're celebrating a special occasion while on board.
My meal of choice:
* Starter - Vegetarian spiced chickpea and edamame bean scotch eggs (A-mazing!!)
* Main - 'Vegan Trio,' which was made up of charred cauliflower steak, teriyaki tempeh and edamame beans, and Mediterranean vegetable gratin. I won't lie, I couldn't tell you what 'tempeh' is exactly, but OMG it was good.
* Dessert - 'British Retro Trio,' consisting of a jam and cornflake tart (heaven on a plate, and it's not up for debate), an arctic roll, and a Bailey's chocolate mousse (I left Josh have this one, as I was worried it would disrupt my teetotal status. He swapped me his fancy strawberry and basil 'poke' cake, which was exquisite).
Our Glass House main meals 🤤
Our Glass House puddings 👌🏼
Side note: The Keel & Cow and Sindhu have to be booked in advance on the My Holiday P&O site, which can be accessed via the WiFi as soon as you board the ship. I'd recommend booking your speciality meals for the entire week on the very first day, as they do get booked up really fast, and I personally wouldn't wish that buffet restaurant on my worst enemy...
The Glass House doesn't require advanced bookings, although on the day you wish to go, you do need to join the virtual queue on the My Holiday site. Sometimes, the queues can have up to 50 people in them, and you have to wait for this to clear before you can go.
Entertainment: Silent disco
The night of the silent disco was one of my cruise highlights! I had SUCH a blast!!
At first, people seemed pretty reluctant to join in, with only a few people really going for it. But then something just switched, and the dance floor absolutely flooded for three hours straight. Such a fantastic atmosphere!
Silent discos are just so liberating. Correct me if I'm wrong, but one of life's thrills is singing along to your headphones REALLY loudly, and REALLY badly, right? Imagine that, but in the company of hundreds of other people, with some funky dance moves thrown in.
Joining in with the silent disco felt like shrugging off a layer of self-consciousness, and that in itself is a wonderfully freeing mindset.
This is going to sound dead sad, but it was really sweet watching older couples getting into it. There was one guy who must have been in his late 60's, early 70's, and you could tell that his mind was blown by the whole concept, and he literally would not stop beaming from ear to ear as he and his wife danced together in their own little world. It was so cute!
Don't know who I thought I was really, commandeering a whole portion of the dance floor to bust out some moves that would put the Pussycat Dolls to shame. That's my problem: as soon as I hear R&B, I just forget where I am, and indeed who I am. At one point, I was using my phone as a makeshift microphone while dramatically singing to 'Drunk in Love,' practically sinking to the floor to emphasises those high notes.
In the words of Nessa from Gavin & Stacey, "I was doing moves I haven't done since my time in the circus!" 🤣
I had to have a bit of a word with myself in the end, like 'Cara, you are a very pasty, curve-less and tone-deaf woman. You are NOT Beyoncé.'
It's all fun and games until you temporarily remove your headphones and hear the out-of-tune racket going on around you, knowing full well that you have personally been contributing to said racket for the past three hours. You had one half of the room singing and dancing to the Mambo No. 5 (accent and all), and the other half raising their arms to the sky as they passionately belted out the chorus to Livin' On A Prayer.
I wish I could relive this night! 💃🏼
Entertainment: Onboard Band 'Pulse'
Iona's onboard band, Pulse, were brilliant! I'm not sure of the male lead singer's name, but WOW, what a voice!
I actually preferred his version of Fast Love to George Michael's, and that's high praise considering as I love GM so much that I even named one of my hamsters after him.
Pulse were based in the Club House bar, and did a number of themed nights, including Motown, 80's and pop classics.
The Club House gets really busy, but we never struggled to get a drink or had to wait too long in the queues.
Music usually goes on until after midnight, and there's a large dancefloor that is often packed out from around 9pm onwards.
Entertainment: At the theatre
I'm not big into musical theatre, but I really did enjoy every performance we went to see while on Iona.
We watched three shows:
* Greatest Days (a reproduction of the famous Take That musical/ film)
All were impeccably choreographed and executed, though I have to say that Digital was my favourite.
Wow, wow and WOW, is all I can say, really!
This act blew my tiny mind. I'd even go as far as saying that Creativiva are wasted performing on cruise ships; they wouldn't look out of place in Vegas.
If you like Cirque du Soleil, you will LOVE this! Creativiva take NO prisoners when it comes to putting on a show! I hardly dared to watch at some points, as the performers swung from the sky dome roof, balancing a cast member on their ankles.
The most daring, thrilling display of acrobatics and dance that they make look so effortless.
I saw some reviews where people had said that they 'didn't get' the story behind the performances. Personally, I don't think there's much to 'get.' The story is whatever you make of it - you can put your own interpretation on it, with the added bonus of the astonishing visuals and works of art going on in front of you.
✨ My Top 6 Best Moments from our trip to Norway ✨
1) Sitting out on our balcony watching the Northern Lights. 🌃
2) Singing [VERY badly!] at the top of my lungs and dancing without a care in the world at the silent disco. 💃🏼
3) Waking up on the morning we arrived in Olden to see the towering fjords beyond the balcony. We were actually able to lie in bed and watch the ship navigate its way between the fjords. It was so surreal. 🛳️
4) The satisfaction of completing our challenging hike up to Manafossen Waterfall, and seeing the views that greeted us at the end of that brutal climb. 🥾
5) Running through the countryside in Olden and being blessed enough to see a rainbow split the fjords in half. 🌈
6) Running through woodland in Hausegund, in the rain. There wasn't a soul in sight. 🌳
Cara Jasmine Bradley ©
• Norway travel
• Stavanger Norway
• Olden Norway
• Alesund Norway
• Haugesund Norway
• P&O cruise
• P&O cruise Iona
• P&O cruise Norway