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Steaming up the Norwegian coast: breathtaking vistas, native charm

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We had docked at the isolated Norwegian coastal village of Berlevag, several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle and just around the corner from the Soviet border. There, a familiar ritual was being played out. Some 25 teen-agers were standing on the pier in a state of great excitement. The ship's crane dipped down into the cargo hold and brought forth a bright fire-engine-red Honda motorcycle one of the group had bought. Before we set sail again, its new owner was doing figure eights in the parking lot to the delight of his friends -- and of the tourists gazing down from the deck. This was not an ordinary sea cruise. It was an 11-day, 1,500-mile round-trip journey from Bergen to Kirkenes on a 2,000-ton ship, one of 11 that leaves Bergen daily to take mail and cargo to thousands of isolated coastal residents.

Each coastal steamer is in fact a kind of hybrid, a cross between a tourist cruise ship and a cargo-carrying freighter. Tourist passengers can observe coverall-clad crew members loading crates of frozen fish and lumber one minute and be eating with sterling silver on china in the elegant dining room the next.

And although most of the tourists on board are English, German, and American, passengers are not isolated from the natives. Several dozen day-passengers are usually on board, most of them Norwegians using the ship to ``bus'' from one coastal county or town to the next.

This provides for many delightful encounters. On the fourth day of our journey, a Norwegian ornithologist came on board. He was studying the declining gannet and puffin populations above the Arctic Circle and spent most of his time with his binoculars and note pad. But he was always willing to talk about coastal customs and traditions.

One of the most persistent of these traditions involves a method of preserving cod, tons of which are caught in Norwegian coastal waters each year, especially between January and April. Beginning near the Lofoten Islands, some of the richest fishing grounds in the North Sea, a familiar sight greeted us on the jetties of the ports we called on: huge wooden A-frame structures, like tents that had lost their fabric. When we used our binoculars, we could see that hundreds of filleted fish were literally hanging out to dry on these racks.

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