The Christmas lights of Bergen fade into the distance as the Kong Harald nudges its way northward, embarking on "The World's Most Beautiful Voyage" along the coast of Norway.

It is a moment that is repeated every night of the year as the coastal steamer, a fascinating mix of high-class passenger liner and unassuming working ship, casts off for its 12-day journey past the Arctic Circle - but at this time of year, the journey is even more special.

Christmas aboard the Coastal Express is the perfect way to leave the hectic bustle of the holiday behind and enjoy the unhurried pleasures of a traditional Norwegian Christmas.

Remember - this is not strictly a cruise ship (although the six new ships in the fleet are elegant and comfortable with upscale passenger cabins). This is a working ship, a part of the coast it serves, a lifeline for many remote towns and fishing villages, many of them north of the Arctic Circle.

There are no floor shows or captains' cocktail parties, no bridge lessons, no frenetic non-stop activities like classes on "101 ways to fold a napkin", no slot-machines or bingo. There are no liveried stewards tending to your every whim. The camaraderie passengers feel for one another as they share the scenery and sights, the socializing, the mingling and getting to know one another is the entertainment.

And nothing could be more true than at Christmas when fellow passengers and crew celebrate the season together, attending church services in port on Christmas Eve and then returning to the ship for songs around the tree, presents and a traditional Scandinavian feast with special holiday dishes. On the following afternoon a Scandinavian smorgasbord is a festive Christmas buffet.

But the food is good at any time of the year, with offerings of sumptuous buffet tables laden with authentic Scandinavian cuisine and continental fare, as well as local specialities like reindeer meat and cloud berries.

Ports are visited twice, once northbound and once southbound, but guests never see the same town twice on the round-trip voyage. Ports visited during the night, while passengers are asleep, are visited the second time in daytime. Some of the ports the ships call on are Ålesund, noted for its Art Nouveau architecture; the thousand-and-one-year-old city of Trondheim where we visit Norway's largest church, Nidaros Cathedral, dating from the Middle Ages; Hammerfest, Europe's northernmost town; the Lofoten Islands dotted with bright-red or golden-yellow fishing huts; and Tromsø, whose Arctic Cathedral is famous for the huge stained glass window that takes up the entire wall behind the altar.

While half of the ports are above the Arctic Circle, the weather is not what you may think. Influenced by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, winter temperatures as far north as the Lofoten Islands (which are above the Arctic Circle) never even dip below zero. In the summer the charming fishing villages are lit by the Midnight Sun; in winter the Northern Lights dance across the sky.

The scenery is a string of jagged mountains reaching out into the sea, pastoral farmlands and a variety of wildlife. The ship's small size allows us to get close to the lasting images as we sit glued to the wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows of the magnificent Panorama Lounge. When a passenger, idly turning the pages of a book, asks her husband why he doesn't relax, he replies: "Who can read with all this great scenery passing by every second!"

Passengers have the chance of experiencing Norway like few tourists do - with Norwegians, mingling with the locals as they use the ship to go from one village to another and at this time of year, celebrating the Christmas season with them in an uniquely Norwegian way. You get a true sampling of Norwegian life.

Photos: Photo: Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Photo: HM Valerhaug

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