But, for all its domestic popularity, skiing in Norway has historically drawn few outside visitors. Part of the reason for this is simple geography. Norway is all mountains and water, a pinched spine of peaks fissured with deep fjords. And while this should be a skier’s dream, it can make getting from one ski resort to another a logistical migraine. Or at least it used to. Today, a company called Alpine Legends has taken advantage of Norway’s extensive ferry system, piecing together boat-to-slope trips that explore the country’s huge range of ski areas. Ironically, skiing’s next terra incognita isn’t Alaska or Asia, but the cradle of skiing itself.
We gather in Bergen, Norway’s second city, to meet the first of the ferries we’ll use to hopscotch up the coast toward Harstad, some 700 miles north. Along the quay brightly colored houses lean against each other like old women worrying some gristle of rumor. Though only mid-April, it’s café weather in Bergen. This doesn’t happen, I’m told. The city, on the western coast, is one of the world’s great natural harbors, with deep inlets at its feet and hills at its back. That same geography also makes it a catcher’s mitt for bad weather: Norway’s City of Rain. As we wait to board, somebody offers up the Bergen chestnut. "When does the rain stop in Bergen?" a visitor asks a little boy. "I don’t know," the boy answers. "I’m only eight. . . ."
In bright sunshine Torkel drives our van into the belly of the ship. When I heard we’d be taking a "ferry," I expected a school bus with a keel. The 16,500-ton M.S. Trollfjord is anything but. Instead, it’s a tricked-out, multideck Scandinavian Love Boat—only more tasteful. At 8:01 p.m. it eases from its berth with Nordic punctuality, scarcely trembling the wine in our glasses. That evening, as we motor 175 miles north to our first stop at Ålesund, we wander the Trollfjord’s hallways looking for a sauna rumored to be on board. The blond wood, glass, and muted metal decor is the very antithesis of the cruise ship purgatories I’ve been sentenced to in the past. It seems a bit like the Norwegian people themselves—modern yet understated, cosmopolitan but not snooty.
We finally locate the sauna on Deck 9. In good Nordic fashion, we strip down and step inside. It’s one of the nicest saunas I’ve ever seen: pine paneled, room for eight, floor-to-ceiling windows. As we sit and sweat, I look out as the Trollfjord plows the fathoms white and humped mountains scroll by in the distance. Norway has some 150,000 islands and a coastline that, when its miles are tallied, rivals Africa’s. Though nearly half of the country lies above the Arctic Circle, the Gulf Stream keeps its waters ice free year-round. Water has always been the sensible way to get places, whether for trade, marriage, or war. And while Norwegians are often said to be born with skis on their feet, it’s just as true that salt water runs through their veins.