First-time cruisers might fear that being at sea means sacrificing spontaneity and fun while following the crowd, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Lindholm Hoje viking burial ground, in Denmark
Credit: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

It was like a scene from the comic strip Hägar the Horrible. Clutching a beaker of ale in howling sea winds, I lurched toward the prow of the Viking vessel. Baltic spray lashed my face as I raised an offering to the Norse goddess of the oceans, Rán; her consort, Ægir; and their nine daughters, who rule the waves. This stirring reverie was only broken when a waiter struggled through the gale to stand beside me: "Another glass, sir?"

This wasn't a sleek longship setting forth to pillage a monastery. It was the Viking Sky, a 930-passenger vessel on a tour of the shores of Scandinavia. But it's no wonder I felt transported to the Dark Ages. Many years ago, I studied the Vikings in college, where I became engrossed in their sagas and the Norse legends of gods and monsters. I had never made it to Europe's far north, however. When I heard that Viking Ocean Cruises, which launched three years ago as an extension of the popular river-cruise line, offered a sailing called Viking Homelands, I was still skeptical. I've traveled all over the world — hiked the Himalayas, driven 4WDs in the Australian outback — but I'd never been on a cruise. It seemed like the aquatic equivalent of a bus tour, where every moment is scheduled. I like to be independent.

This attitude, a cruise-aficionado friend in New York assured me, entirely misses the point. Although the Viking land excursions are known for being informative and fun, you also have the option of going off script, he said. A cruise ship could take me to a dozen destinations in as many days, and when I was in port, nobody would force me to join a group. And so I cautiously signed on. For two weeks, beginning in Stockholm and making my way to Finland, Estonia, Russia, Poland, Germany, and Denmark before finally ending in the charming coastal towns of Norway, I would explore the stunning landscapes where Viking culture was born or had a presence.

Hours after arriving in Stockholm, I stormed up the gangplank to the spanking-new ship, whose comforts would have mystified any medieval marauder. Every floor had sleek designer furniture and the gym had large windows for uplifting sea views. In fact, the Viking Sky was a triumph of Scandinavian good taste. Very pleasant for a holiday, but where were the echoes of the warriors who had terrorized Europe?

The ship did have a charming little museum devoted to the Viking Age, which lasted from A.D. 789 to 1066. Fun fact: the Vikings never wore horned helmets; the myth is a legacy of a 19th-century costume designer for a Wagnerian opera. All very edifying. But if I wanted to channel the independent Viking spirit, I was going to have to find ways to escape the orbit of the cruise. As we set off into the Baltic Sea, I came up with a simple plan: I would leave the pack at least once a day, since we were often in port for 10-plus hours.

A coconspirator I'll call "BB" joined me in this mild rebellion. We started off easy. The night before we docked in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, we did a little research that led us to the best bike routes in town. We ended up on a remote beach eating fresh seafood and drinking Estonian wine in the sun. From Rostock, Germany, we took a three-hour train ride to Berlin to visit the city's most entertaining bar, Klunkerkranich, and became so engrossed by its contemporary art and German hipsters that we were forced to hire a taxi and speed the 150 miles to catch the ship before it left. In St. Petersburg, Russian laws made us break our own rules. Nobody without a costly visa was permitted to set foot off the ship independently, so BB and I signed up for one of the ship's sanctioned tours and saw Swan Lake at the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Our independent spirit prepared me for the true Viking homelands of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. It turned out that despite their law-abiding image, Scandinavians revel in their anarchic origins. In Aalborg, Denmark, a quick Google search revealed that a verdant Viking burial ground, Lindholm Høje, was located in the modern suburbs; its museum displayed unearthed skeletons. And in downtown Oslo, the Viking Ship Museum contained intact longships, wooden vessels that were sleek and ruthlessly efficient in their design.

All the strands of the journey came together when I made the pilgrimage to a "living" Viking village. We were near the end of the voyage, and planning my itinerary was getting exhausting. Gorgeous as Norway was, I was tempted by the onboard spa. Then I saw there was an excursion to Njardarheimr, a year-old village where history-loving "settlers" wearing full Viking garb spend anywhere from a weekend to several months. I was sold. Three hours on a bus was a small price to pay.

Soon I found myself in a mist-shrouded fjord that looked like the perfect home for a family of trolls. As I wandered the muddy village trails, a pigtailed Valkyrie described how the settlers had built replicas of ninth-century huts without the use of nails and given them a traditional Viking varnish of either ox blood, pine tar, or linseed oil. Carved statues of Odin and Thor stood in a grove, where bearded men practiced ax-throwing.

The residents also explained that the Norsemen were never as uncivilized as legend holds. Most were farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and bards — not raiders. Over a feast of honey-glazed vegetables and pork, the portly chieftain, Olafr Reydarsson, said that the Vikings were renowned in medieval Europe for their grooming. ("They bathed once a week!" he boasted.) They founded the first towns in Scandinavia, modeled on what they had seen in Paris, London, and Rome. And they had a refined fashion sense, with a fondness for blue dye distilled from urine.

On my last night, in Bergen, Norway, I tracked down a place called the Magic Ice Bar, a cocktail lounge set in a refrigerated locker. Surrounded by surreal ice sculptures, I watched a group of locals celebrating a wedding. Every three minutes, they bellowed "Skål!" and slammed a shot of aquavit. Before the brawling could begin, I headed back to the cruise ship. After all, I had a reservation for dinner. 15-day Viking Homelands sailings begin at $5,699.