Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bergen, Norway

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Who Needs A Guide Anyway?

Bergen, Norway

Our month long journey is coming to an end here in gorgeous Bergen, Norway. We have arrived on a bright, sunny morning. It is cool, but it promises to warm quickly, and so Lisa and I cannot wait to get going. We have been to Bergen once before, so for today, we elected to hire a private car and guide for just a half day.

We were to meet our guide at 8:30 am, but hoping to beat the tour buses to the funicular, we got off the ship a little early in order to get the jump on the masses, which we call “locusts.” Usually our car and guide would be right there, but alas it was not so this time. We watched as one by one all of the tour buses departed and we found ourselves alone on the dock with just a few guides who were awaiting their groups to disembark. At the appointed hour when no one had arrived, I pulled out my trusty confirmation and dialed the emergency contact number, only to get a recording in Norwegian. Getting nowhere fast, I walked over to one of the guides and explained the situation and asked if she would mind dialing the number and tell me what was being said. Using her phone to avoid international rates, she dialed the number, listened, and started laughing. She looked over at the gathering group and told me that the phone number had been disconnected. The group all started talking at once and trying to be helpful. One of them grabbed my confirmation and noted that she had been hired by that same company, but not for us, however, she did have a different contact number. Sadly, no one answered her call, and she explained that since it was Sunday, nothing would be open. Just to be sure she phoned the home office in Copenhagen, and just as she predicted, no one answered. By now their groups were arriving, and so they suggested that Lisa and I walk outside the security perimeter. Several of them had some trouble gaining entry, and so perhaps our guide and car were waiting for us there.

Sadly that was a long walk, but once outside the gate two things were obvious. First, no one was waiting for us, and since it was Sunday there were no taxis, in fact I could not see any traffic or anyone on the streets. It looked all the world like a ghost town. We found a rock to sit on, and waited. Shortly a lone station wagon arrived and the casually dressed driver jumped out and ran into the security shed. Well, it was not the black limo we were expecting and he did not look like a professional driver, but perhaps he was here for us. When he came out we hailed him and sure enough he was here to pick us up – a little late, but here. However, he was only a driver. We should have been met by a guide. We drove back to the ship in a futile effort to locate our wayward guide, but to no avail. Our driver was clearly perplexed at this point about what to do. It took some persuasion to convince him to simply drive us around Bergen. He did speak good English, and after my earlier experiences on this trip, I had come prepared with a list of places that the ship was using as tourist stops, so I was all prepared to be our own guide. Finally he agreed, and I told him that our first goal was to reach the funicular before the buses. A look of understanding appeared, and we all jumped in the car and made a beeline for the funicular. As luck would have it, even with our late start, we arrived just in time to catch the first car to the top of the viewpoint located on Mt. Floien. DSC_2713 On our return back down, the station was not only full, but the line of people waiting to go to the top stretched for three blocks. Anyway, since it was a beautiful cloudless morning, we had wonderful views of the city below and in the distance the surrounding islands seemed to go on forever. Our driver said we were very lucky. Most days the hillside is covered in early morning fog and for the last three days the city had been having a cold windy rain.

Bergen is an absolutely beautiful city of around 250,000 people. It is considered the Capital of Fjordland and is Norway’s second-largest city, having been founded in 1070 AD. Norway amazes me when it comes to Sundays. Nothing is open, nothing! The streets in the morning were deserted. That allowed us to drive all over the city in quick time. We drove into the outskirts of the city to visit the Palace of the King. DSC_2736 He uses the Palace when he visits Bergen, but only if he is staying for more than two nights, otherwise he just stays at a Hotel.

Rather than try to bore you with names about which I am not sure, since we had no guide, I will just say that we hit everything on our list and then some. My best memories of Bergen are in the beautiful pictures that I added to our album.

At this time our ship is cruising at full speed for a two day journey to Stockholm, which is where it all started for us 4 weeks ago. We will fly home on the 28th, first with an SAS flight direct to Chicago and then a United flight to Kansas City. In fact, we will finally get to try our new “trusted traveler” status at US Customs and Immigration.

I hope that everyone has enjoyed the updates. All of our blogs are up and posted at and from there is a link to our complete picture album, which I just completed a little while ago. I am looking forward to seeing everyone soon.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Flam, Norway

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The Flamsbana: One of Europe’s

Greatest Train Rides

Note: I am writing this on July 24, 2010, even though the ship has no internet. We have been advised that limited internet will return on the 24th, so until then I will continue to write and save these for later transmission. Enjoy!

Arriving into the tiny village of Flam was a breathtaking experience! Very early this morning the ship transited some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, the Aurlandsfjord. DSC_2415 Unfortunately, even though I had gotten up early for the experience, the sun had not yet risen above the surrounding mountains, and so the hillsides were in shadows. Just as the ship was approaching Flam, the sun crested the mountain tops and for awhile we had a brilliant vista before us.

The tiny village of Flam is home to only 400 people. The ship was originally scheduled to offer tender service to the shore, but a few days ago that was changed to say that we would dock. As I looked at the town as we approached, I assumed there must have been some mistake. The valley narrowed so much by the time we would reach the town, I was not sure the ship would fit, must less have room to dock – anyway, I certainly could not see a dock. As we got closer and the surrounding mountains got closer I just could not see how in the world this would work. Then I saw a brand new small dock, and again my first thought was that if we docked there the bow of the ship would be overhanging the town. Well, that is what we did and the bow did overhang the town. DSC_2423 How they will back us out tonight is anyone’s guess, but it must be possible. They for certain cannot turn the ship around.

We came to Flam not only for the scenery, but also to ride the Flamsbana train. It has been described as one of the most dramatically beautiful train journeys in all of Europe. It took over 20 years to construct and in the hour long journey you travel 20 miles and climb over 3,000 ft. By the time we left the ship at 9am to walk to the nearby train station, our beautiful sunny morning had disappeared and clouds were building. That certainly did not bode well for good pictures. However as luck would have it, Lisa and I got seats on the wrong side of the train for the journey upward and the only thing we could see out our side of the window was a solid wall of rock. We could look across the aisle and see some great scenery, but there were no pictures to be had.

The train made a photograph stop at the Kjos Waterfall, DSC_2472 and then continued to our destination, the Mountain Hotel.

DSC_2488 Here we had an hour and a half to enjoy waffles and coffee before the next train back to the ship would arrive. We walked around the hotel to see about some pictures, but there was nothing to write home about and the clouds had thickened.

For the journey down, we managed to get seats this time on the correct side of the train, only now the sun was completely gone and we had a dull grey countryside. So I do not think the photographs will be spectuclar, but still it was a fun day in the tiny village of Flam, Norway.


Alesund, Norway

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Touring Lke a Mole

Alesund, Norway

Note: I am writing this on July 24, 2010, even though the ship has no internet. We have been advised that limited internet will return on the 24th, so until then I will continue to write and save these for later transmission. Enjoy!

Yesterday afternoon the ship made a brief stop at Alesund, Norway. We were only in port for four hours and our visit was a blur of activity.

I would note that we were fortunate to have arrived on the warmest day of the year to date with temperatures around 58 degrees. All of the tourists were wearing jackets, while the shore line and beaches were loaded with the locals in swimming suits and beach attire. Not only was it warm, but it was a bright sunny day, and according to our guide, the first such day they had had. For the previous week it had been cold and rainy. So, lucky us!

As I said the day was a blur. We departed the ship in our bus and in just a few blocks entered a round-about from which we exited into a tunnel. This was not like any tunnel I have ever encountered in my life. The road immediately begins a steep descent, so much so that the driver had to downshift to avoid picking up too much speed. We seemed to be going down, down and down forever. We went down over 500 ft. before the road suddenly had us doing a steep climb back to the surface. After turning here and there we suddenly “pop” out of the darkness as our guide announces that we are now on such and such island. Exiting the tunnel, the bus immediately enters another round-about, and just as quickly dives into yet another tunnel. We had the same roller coaster ride as before, but this time even much longer. This experience went on until it became comical. I really felt as if I was a mole running through my tunnels, and just briefly sticking my head up before heading back down again. I am sure this is an exaggeration, but of our three hour excursion, I would not be surprised if almost an hour of it was spent in tunnels.

So, what did we see! Well obviously in the tunnels, nothing. We did however make three stops on our journey. On the island of Giske, we stopped to visit the old stone church of Giske which dates from 1150 AD.DSC_2267 Our next stop was on the island of Godoy where we stopped to visit the colorful lighthouse. DSC_2315 Our final stop was back near the town of Alesund, and was a wonderful viewpoint on Mt. Aksla from which we had a marvelous vista of the city below.


Overnight the ship will sail to the small village of Flam, Norway arriving around 7 in the morning. It is said that for the hour prior to our arrival we will be cruising the majestic Naeroyfjord, which is proclaimed to be the most beautiful in all Norway and which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has also been rated by National Geographic Society as one of the world’s most beautiful sites.


Thursday, July 22, 2010


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Why Do People Live In Longyearbyen?

Note: I am writing this on July 22, 2010, even though the ship has no internet. We have been advised that limited internet will return on the 24th, so until then I will continue to write and save these for later transmission. Enjoy!

There are not many towns where your friendly tour guide must carry a rifle along on your tour, but Longyearbyen is one of them. As the warning signs posted at the edge of town warn, DSC_2131 the city is surrounded by a large population of Polar Bears, and while they are a protected species, citizens are encouraged to “shoot to kill” if they feel their lives may be in danger.

Longyearbyen is a city of over 2,000 people located in the Svalbard archipelago of islands, of which Spitzbergen is the largest. The city is located at 79 degrees of North Latitude, making it one of the northernmost places in the world that are populated. To give you some idea, Barrow, Alaska is only at around 71 degrees of north latitude. For most of the year Longyearbyen is locked in ice and for six months of every year its citizens live in total darkness. The town has more snow mobiles than residents, and travelling by dog sled is also quite common.

So, why do people live here? It is a good question and it took me awhile to ferret out the answer. Originally the town was founded after coal deposits were discovered in 1899. By 1906, a coal mine was established, and thus the town grew up around the mine. In 1920, the archipelago formally became part of Norway. I would guess from what I learned that the economic basis for the town was pure and simple: coal. At the end of the Second World War, the Germans burned every building in the town and set fire to the one and only coal mine at the time. That mine burned for over 20 years. After the war, Norway took to rebuilding the town and eventually six more mines were built.

Today however, all but one of the mines is closed. That one remaining mine uses half of its production to provide coal for the town’s power plant and the other half it its production is sold to Germany. Apparently that small amount of coal is still the primary source of income for the community. But that cannot explain what we saw. The city boasts a very modern hospital, a new and fairly large museum that was very modern,DSC_2035 an airport with a 9,000 ft runway and year round service two times a day, and a modern art gallery. Their schools were likewise modern and the island now had fiber optics and high speed internet, not to mention great cell phone coverage.

Norway is a very rich country, earning so much money from its oil production that it has created a national trust where funds are being invested for future generations. It provides a myriad of services to its people and overall its tax rates are low. So when you talk with the people you learn that the government heavily subsidizes Longyearbyen. Citizens who live here pay almost no tax, and some even receive subsidies to move here. Most people are now working in the tourism industry. For example, the town has two hotels, one of them a Radisson. There are five separate companies offering dog sledding experiences to tourist. Our tour guide was from Poland originally and came to Longyearbyen like most young people, under a contract to work for one year at a very high wage, after which she could go home. However, she has now taken Norwegian citizenship and has extended her contract for seven years. She said that the winters are getting harder and harder to take, but the money is good and she is not quite ready to leave and so the town is undergoing a population boom of sorts, having added 600 people in the last two years alone.

We took a four hour tour of the city and the surrounding countryside. Our first stop was the museum. Next we visited Spitzenbergen Basecamp, DSC_2099 home to several dog sledding teams. We were met with wagging tails and snuggles from the friendly dogs, and also given an opportunity to have some coffee and snacks. Since these dogs are considered “working dogs” they spend their lives outside. To take a working dog inside would be to ruin it for use on a dog sled. I wondered why their kennels were so high off the ground; my guess around 3 to 4 feet. I asked the owner, and he explained that was because of the snow. In amazement I said dumbly- so the snow gets that high in winter. He laughed and said not only that high but they have to raise the kennels at least three times during the winter just to keep ahead of the snow!

Next we visited the Art Museum and saw a short movie on life in Longyearbyen – you could not pay me to live there in winter – end of statementDSC_2127 . Then we drove all over the city and stopped long enough to grab a photograph of the entrance to the “Seed Vault” which has been built into the mountain inside an old mine.

And thus, our short half day visit to one of the world’s most northern communities came to an end. We are now heading south again and will sail for all of today and half of tomorrow before reaching the city of Alesund, Norway.


Polar Ice Cap

Near The Top of The World

Note: I am writing this on July 20, 2010, even though the ship has no internet. We have been advised that limited internet will return on the 24th, so until then I will continue to write and save these for later transmission. Enjoy!

Last night during dinner, I realized the strange disconnect in my surroundings. Lisa and I were enjoying a wonderful specially prepared dinner while sharing a very nice bottle of wine amidst elegant surroundings suffused with low music in the background, while just outside the window which we were sitting next to, we were almost at the top of the world. We were traveling across waters which in winter are solid ice. Even then the waters were dark and foreboding, with white caps raged in all directions. People have given their lives to travel this far North, and there we sat in the lap of luxury as if we did not have a care in the world. All I can say is, “What a Wonderful World We Live In!”

Today, the weather has worsened considerably. We now have rough seas with strong winds buffeting the ship. The outside air temperature is at 32 degrees and much of the ship is now covered with ice. The water temperature is down to 35 degrees and a short while back we passed through a heavy snow shower.

However, the Captain just came on with his morning briefing and announced that we have just crossed 80 degrees North Latitude and we have made better time than he had estimated yesterday. For that reason we have actually gotten quite close to the edge of the Polar Ice Field. We had been travelling north at about 20 mph, however because of our proximity to the ice, he has turned the ship to the northeast and slowed down slightly. He has told us that we have several hours to linger in this region before having to turn back south. During that time, he is hopeful that the weather will improve and we will be able to see the Polar Ice field and to approach it safely. What an excitement that will be……. So, I will suspend this blog until later today and let you know just how far north we finally got and if our journey to the ice was successful………………………………

We were successful!!!!! As the morning progressed, the weather conditions improved substantially. The winds abated and the seas calmed. I knew the Captain was serious about finding ice when I noted a 20 degree turn to the north and an increase in speed. By now the temperature had warmed above freezing and the clouds were lightening. Lisa and I went to lunch, and while eating, we saw our first lone piece of ice. Over the next hour the amount and size of the ice pieces increased, and then at 1pm it happened; we reached the very edge of the Polar Ice Field. DSC_1924 By now the outside temperature was 26 degrees and we had a light snow and sleet mix. The water temperature was down to 32 degrees. The Captain maneuvered the ship as close to the ice as he could, but noted that because of the very high winds this morning the ice had been broken up and scattered over a large area. We could see large icebergs in the distance, but it was not possible to get up close to them under the conditions.  I was surprised to learn that the ships radar was not much use in locating the edge of the ice. The staff paid more attention to the water temperature in order to tell how close they were to the Polar Field. The colder the water got, the closer we are, and so we had been chasing temperature lines.

In the meeting room on deck 11 they have mounted an exact working replica monitor which shows the main navigation display from the bridge. DSC_1960 I was dumbfounded to see that there was no data displayed above the 80 degree line of latitude. To put it simply, we had run completely off the charts. By my calculation we are at this point around 600 miles from the North Pole, and at a latitude of 80 degrees, 40” North.

The ship has now turned south and will be headed back to a group of islands of which the largest is Spitzbergen. These islands are icebound in winter and literally hang to the top of the world. Tomorrow we will stop and anchor off a small village called Longyerbye, where tenders will take us ashore for a short visit. The ship sails again around 1pm.


Honningsvag, Norway

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Honningsvag: The End Of The Road North

Note: I am writing this on July 19, 2010, even though the ship has no internet. We have been advised that limited internet will return on the 24th, so until then I will continue to write and save these for later transmission. Enjoy!

We finally did it – we have now traveled to the city which claims to be the northernmost city in the world, Honningsvag, Norway. It is a quaint, peaceful and colorful small town with a population of 2,600. DSC_1784 Fishing is the primary industry, although in recent years tourism has become increasingly important in the summer months. Last year over 100 cruise ships visited the harbor, and the city has built its one and only hotel of 500 rooms, open in the summer only to accommodate all of the Europeans who drive north to the end of the highway at the top of the world. In fact, yesterday our bus stopped to talk with a family of six who were just about to complete their bicycle journey from the bottom of Norway to the very top, a trek  of over 3,000 miles.

In spite of its isolation, the city has two grocery stores, a hardware store, two theaters, one gas station, and all in all it is very up to date with cell service all over the island with 3G internet. They also have an airport from which 4 flights per day operate. However when I saw the runway I could not believe how small it was and so I looked it up. It is only 2,887 ft long – not much and yet they operate 19 seat Dash 8’s from here.

If all the dwellings look similar, it is because they are. At the end of the Second World War, as the Germans retreated in advance of the Russian Army, they conducted a “scorched policy” in which they destroyed and burned everything. The only building to survive that period is the old church which was built in 1884. DSC_1806 Immediately after the war, the government was faced with the daunting task of quickly providing shelter for its citizens, and so they held a national contest to solicit designs for simple, functional dwellings that could be quickly constructed. At the end of the contest, 5 designs were selected, and so as the city was rebuilt, you could only build a home using one of the 5 designs. The only way people could show any individuality was the color they choose to paint their homes, and for this reason, even today, all of the homes are painted different and vibrant colors.

When we arrivedDSC_1811 into port at around 10am yesterday, it was an absolutely beautiful sunny day. It was a Sunday, and the streets were empty and the stores closed. Everywhere you looked there were colorful pictures to be had, so Lisa and I could not wait to get off and walk the town. All of the ships tours started very late in the day, around 4pm, because there was already one cruise ship in the harbor ahead of us, and all of the busses were tied up with that ship until the afternoon. By the time everyone had been cleared to go ashore, there was just time for us to grab a quick hamburger before going on our walk, when the Captain came on the PA system. He said that the weather was looking bad for the remainder of the day with strong winds approaching.

Therefore, he was moving our departure time earlier and shortening some of the tours. As we stuffed down our lunch to get going, I looked around and all I could see were clear sunny skies. Who knows?

By the time we got off the ship, which was not long, I could see out to our West a dark line of clouds, but they were far away, so of no concern, or so I thought. Before we could finish our short walk through town up to the old church and return to the ship it had not only turned cloudy, but also cold and a steady rain started falling. Apparently rapid weather changes are the rule in this part of the world.

As far North as we were, there was still one place still farther North that we could reach by land, the North Cape. The North Cape is the northernmost point of Europe. It is located at 71degrees 10’21” North. Standing on the cape you are only 2100km from the North Pole. The 60 minute drive to the Cape took us across some of the most breathtaking scenery I have seen. DSC_1848 There were no trees, just massive hillsides, lakes and valleys stretching as far as the eye could see. There were also reindeer everywhere. In fact, in this part of the world there are more reindeer than people. Sadly, I was not able to get any usable pictures because it was pouring down rain and the fog was moving in.

On our way to the Cape, our busses did make one stop at the home of a Laplander, or as they prefer to be called, the Sami people. The stop was a little cheesy, but interesting none-the-less. DSC_1823 On the left side of the road was a small area where Sami tents were sitting, behind which was a fenced in pen for a few reindeer. An old Sami man was standing there all dressed in his finest and holding a reindeer by a harness, waiting for you to take his picture. Next to all this, of course, was the small souvenir shed. Immediately across the street were two modern homes and a van, which is where the Sami live today. Anyway, it was interesting to learn that the Sami people are a nomadic people who spent their lives following the reindeer on their annual migrations, something they still do to this day. They are not of Norwegian stock. Their DNA shows that they come from Eurasia, and their language is unique in the world. Indeed, after a misguided attempt by the government to insist that all Sami children be taught only Norwegian, their education today is bi-lingual. They have 52 different words to describe reindeer and 34 different words for snow.

Finally we reach the North Cape, where a huge reception center awaits us. The center is literally blasted into the hillside, and while you enter at ground level, the center goes down for three levels into the rock. It has cafes, a souvenir shop, a movie on the Cape, a souvenir shop, a museum about the Second World War, a souvenir shop, and a panoramic window facing the Arctic Ocean; and oh, did I mention the souvenir shop? I tried to go outside to the Cape itself, but only got so far as the edge of the cliff. The winds were howling, the rain coming in sheets and it was cold- so I snapped a couple of half hearted shots and scurried back like a rat into the warmth of the center. DSC_1843

We arrived back at the ship around 7pm, and thus ended an interesting but long day. I learned yesterday that Crystal has been making this once a year trip to the North Cape for many years, and until a few years ago that is where the cruise ended its northward journey. As global warming has changed the environment, it has become possible for the ship to travel even further north. So today we have crossed the 73 degree latitude on our way to a remote island, Bear Island. In the winter, the island and all of the waters north of that are part of the Arctic Ice Pack. But wait, after Bear Island, the ship will go even further North to another island, Spitsbergen and actually stop at the small settlement of Longyearbyen. Then, the ship will go even further north. In fact the goal of this cruise is to reach the edge of the Polar Ice Cap.

However, our Captain just came on to announce that because of global warming it appears that the edge of the Polar Ice Cap is farther North this year than the ship has time to reach. He has been in contact with two ships that are apparently out in front of us and they have discovered a massive iceberg, so we will attempt to at least reach that. Pooh – I had hoped to see the edge of the Polar Ice Cap, but it is still exciting to be this far North – not many people can claim to have been this far North.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Trondheim, Norway

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A Warm Day In Trondheim, Norway

Even though the ship has no internet or phone service right now because of our location so far North, I thought I would go ahead and write about our adventures and send them along when we once again come within range of the satellites. Amazingly, my iPad and iPhone both have great signals if I go to the top of the ship. We are 40 miles off the Norwegian coast, and still are receiving good signal strength. I am amazed and certain that this cannot last forever.

Yesterday the ship made port in the Norwegian city of Trondheim. Trondheim lies about a third of the way up the coast and at one time was the ancient capital of Norway. Today it is a modern city with a population of around 180,000. It boasts five universities, and during winter has over 35,000 students in residence. It also has several noted museums, five separate opera houses and enough ambience to charm any casual visitor. It is connected to the rest of the country by an excellent rail, bus and ferry system. The city even has a trolley system that the local residents love.

Without any question, the highlight attraction of the city is the Nidaros Cathedral. DSC_1670 This magnificent structure dates from the 11th Century, with the earliest construction having started around 1070. The Cathedral is described as “the most important, most historic and most impressive ecclesiastical building in Scandinavia.” It is the burial place of the medieval Norwegian kings, and is also the site of the coronation of Haakon VII in 1905, an event that marked the beginning of modern Norway.

Our tour left the ship around 1pm, and first included a drive around the city and up into some of the surrounding hills. The busses stopped and let us off at an old fortress call Kristiansten Fortress. DSC_1582 It was build in the middle ages, but more importantly from the top of this high hill there are wonderful vistas of the city and harbor below. DSC_1589 From here we had to walk for almost two hours, starting with a very steep trek down the hillside, on our way to Nidaros Cathedral. It was a wonderful, sunny day. In fact there was not a single blade of grass that did not have someone sitting on it. The entire city was out to enjoy the unprecedented weather. Parks were full, sidewalk cafes overflowing and a general air of excitement permeated the city. The temperature reached 75 degrees, thus becoming the warmest day of the year. For half of the year the city lives in complete darkness and is buried in snow, so hence the excitement over a nice sunny warm day.

On our walk we got to see local neighborhoods up close. We visited the waterfront, when wooden buildings that are over 800 years old are still standing. DSC_1623 Finally we arrived at the Cathedral, and I must admit that it is quite a sight. We were given around a 30 minute guided tour of the structure, and then had time for a coffee outside before returning to our ship: all in all, a wonderful day in Trondheim.

Today, July 17th is a day at sea. Early this morning we crossed the Arctic Circle at around 66 degrees of North Latitude. The Arctic Circle is the latitude which marks the point north of which on the summer solstice in June, there will be 24 hours of sun, and while on the winter solstice in December there will be 24 hours in which the sun never rises. There is a corresponding line of latitude in the southern hemisphere and it is called the Antarctic Circle. On our journey to Antarctica several years ago we crossed the Antarctic Circle and went as far south as 65 degrees of South Latitude. The Arctic and Antarctic lines of latitude are determined by the tilt of the Earths axis, and are not the same North from South, and they change over time.

So, today we have travelled farther North on the surface of the earth than we ever have, and have now gone further North then we did South on our trip to Antarctica.

We will remain at sea all day today, and at noon tomorrow we will make port in the small city of Honningsvag, Norway. This city of some 3,500 inhabitants lies at the very northern tip of Norway and serves as the gateway to the North Cape Region of the Arctic.

It should be interesting!


Friday, July 16, 2010

Geiranger/Hellesylt, Norway

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Geiranger, Norway: Nothing Stays the Same

Yesterday, July 15th, our ship cruised deep withinDSC_1415 a Norwegian fjord making a short stop at the small village of Hellesylt. DSC_1419 There Lisa got off the ship with a large group who then traveled across the countryside to rejoin the ship and the nearby village of Geiranger. Once the passengers had been let off, our ship then moved deeper into the fjord until it ended at Geiranger.

This was a magnificent setting. The surrounding hillsides towered way above the ship – I would estimate around 5,000 ft. or more, and the fjord itself was narrow – so much so that our ship could barely turn itself around. DSC_1464 Waterfalls were abundant and snow capped the mountain peaks. Once in Geiranger, the ship offered some tours as well as a shuttle to take you into shore where you could walk around.

What was really amazing to me is how much this small out of the way hamlet had changed since I first saw it about 4 years ago. Then our ship was alone in the fjord like some majestic apparition sitting quietly among the towering snow capped mountains. Outside of the people from our ship, the town was quiet with just a few locals around. We were taken ashore on the ship’s shuttles, and we pulled up at a small pier that jutted out from the parking lot.

Yesterday was an entirely different environment. First, there were the ferry boats going back and forth up the fjord about every 15 minutes. They had a brand new ferry dock and the entire shoreline had been built up with souvenir shops. The harbor was full of small boats that had made the journey up the fjord, and tourists were being given rides on large tour boats and giant pontoons fitted with huge engines roaring across the small harbor. Overhead the helicopters were in constant flight giving rides over the mountains, and just to complete the bedlam, there were four ships anchored in the harbor. I really don’t see how we all squeezed into such a small space, but we did. I was feeling a little better, and so I thought I would take the shuttle to shore to see what there was to see. Oh my! Take a very small town and dump say 5,000 people into it and you have bedlam. The charm of the place was completely lost in the melee.

Lisa tells me that it was the same on her day long trip. Previously we were the only tour bus in sight. Lisa tells me that the busses were travelling in lines and that at every stop there were 8 to 12 busses of people.

Cruising is becoming very, very popular all over the world; the downside of this popularity, however, is that in many cases it is changing the very places that it visits. I guess the old saying is true, “nothing ever stays the same.”


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Copenhagen, Denmark

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Wonderful Copenhagen, Denmark

This was our third visit to Copenhagen, and so Lisa and I decided to focus our efforts on seeing the surrounding countryside rather that re-visit the city again.

On our first day we drove north from the city to visit the lovely Frederiksborg Castle.DSC_1209 First built in 1588, it later burned, but has been rebuilt and is now the Museum of National History. By the time we had finished trekking through the entire castle, Lisa and I had both given out, and opted to return to the ship so that we could live to fight another day.

The following day, somewhat refreshed, we drove east of the city of Copenhagen traversing a magnificent tunnel-bridge complex of around 30 miles, which took us first under and then over the DSC_1335 waterway and into the charming town of Malmo, Sweden.

From there we went to the nearby town of Lund to see the Lund Cathedral, which was started in 1148. DSC_1375

We then traveled north across the Swedish countryside to Bosjokloster Castle, which today is privately owned and is a guest house. After a few quick pictures, we sprinted further north to the town of Helsingborg where we intended to visit the gardens at Sofiero Palace. They have been voted the Best Gardens in Europe for 2010. Sadly when we arrived, so too did the rain. We actually made it to the gate with our pre-paid tickets in hand, but when the thunder started and the rain came in sheets, we gave up on that project.

We had now traveled very far North in Sweden. In order to return to Denmark, we went back to the town of Helsingborg from which runs a ferry shuttle over to Denmark. This ferry operation is really quite something. At all times there is both a ferry unloading and another loading. They run a continuous shuttle across the channel. The crossing was only 20 minutes and soon we were on the motorway cruising along at over 100mph on our way back to the ship in Copenhagen.

Today we are at sea cruising north along the coast of Norway. I have rushed these last blogs because the ship announced this morning that as of tomorrow, we most likely will not have internet for most of our cruise. I had intended all along to get caught up during our days at sea, but now that seems like a bad idea. I am going to try very hard to complete the photographs today and get them onto our web site, so you might check by tomorrow and see if I was successful. Pictures for Berlin and Kiel/Hamburg are now posted.

I hope everyone is doing well – we will catch you on the other side of the internet blackout.


Kiel, Germany

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Our Day As A Tour Guide; Hamburg, Germany

Sometimes the stories I tell are about the places we visited, or the people we saw, and sometimes the story is about the trip itself. This is such a story – our day as tour guides.

On Sunday, July 11th, our ship docked at the German port city of Kiel. Most of the tours offered by the ship involved a long drive into the city of Hamburg, a little over an hour from Kiel. In looking over the smaller tours offered by the ship and after doing some internet searching, I spotted several interesting castles and towns within easy driving distance of Kiel, and so I asked our travel agent to arrange for a car and driver/guide to take us to explore the German countryside. Our confirmation came back with just those directions.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and we got off the ship full of expectations for a wonderful, picture filled adventure. As soon as we got into the car our driver turned and suggested a nice drive into the beautiful city of Hamburg! We went around and around for some time, until I persuaded him that we really did want to go into the countryside. When I looked up, I could see he was using the GPS to search for nearby castles. Whoops, we have a problem! Fortunately, before leaving the ship I had written on a slip of paper several of the stops which the ship tours would be making, so I suggested that we head for the town of Plon. Meantime I got out my iPad and started following us on the map, while looking ahead and doing a Google search for what we might find.

We arrived in the picturesque town of Plon which was dominated by the Plon Castle. DSC_1065

Pulling into the Castle we found one of the tour busses from our ship, so I knew at least we had found one of the places we should be going. Lisa and I were running around taking pictures, when I backed up and bumped into our driver, who was also taking pictures. He smiled and explained that he had brought his camera because he had never been in this area before!!!!! Thinking quickly I ran over to one of the guides with the Crystal tour and explained my problem, and thankfully she tried her best to give me ideas of what to see in the area and the other places they would be going. DSC_1125 Armed with these notes and my trusty iPad, I managed to put together a pretty interesting tour until around 1pm, when I ran out of ideas. Our driver smiled, and asked if we could go to Hamburg now? Relenting, we set out on the hour drive into the city. Hamburg was pretty, but as I suspected, nothing really special after having visited Berlin. Our driver kept having trouble with streets being closed, and I asked him if he did tours to Hamburg all the time; “No, he replied, I am a taxi driver here in the southern part of the city, and I don’t get to this area very much.” Well, that explains a great deal.

We arrived back at the ship in the late afternoon and soon departed for our last destination of our first of two cruises. We will spend two days in Copenhagen, Denmark, before departing for the Norway Coast.


Warnemunde/Berlin, Germany

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Berlin, Germany; A Long, Hot Day

Lisa and I visited the city of Berlin on Saturday July 10th; however I am just now on Tuesday the 13th getting to write about our experience. That is a indication of just how busy this cruise has been. Since we went to Berlin, we have been to Hamburg and spent two days in Copenhagen. So I apologize for getting so far behind, and in an effort to get caught up, I will try to make my updates a little more brief than usual.

Our ship actually docked at the port city of Warnemunde, which is a good two hours or more from the city of Berlin. By the time you start with a five hour roundtrip drive, throw in a lunch and tour for any length of time, you end up with a 12 hour day. Add to that the fact that Berlin was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave with temperatures hovering over 100 degrees and absolutely no winds, and you can see why Lisa and I quickly wilted.

We departed Warnemunde around 8:30 and quickly headed out of town for the autobahn to Berlin. In Germany, with the exception of certain controlled zones, you can drive as fast as you wish, provided you can get the cars in front of you to move over so that you can speed by. Within an hour of leaving the ship, the traffic lanes coming out of Berlin were filling to capacity and before long, traffic coming out of the city was at a standstill. On ramps had become parking lots, and cars could be seen lined up for miles to enter the autobahn. It looked all the world as if an evacuation of the city had been ordered. When I asked our driver what in the world was going on he laughed and explained that it was just “Germans being Germans!” You see “Holiday” starts today, and for Germans that means being packed and on the road by 9am on Saturday morning. Now the fact that everyone else will also be leaving on holidays at exactly the same time never enters a German’s mind – holiday equals on the road at 9am Saturday. If they delayed just a few hours the roads would be back to normal. This line of cars persisted until we arrived into Berlin itself, but just as our driver had predicted, when we made the return trip to our ship later that afternoon, traffic was light and we had no problem.

It is difficult to put into words everything that we saw in Berlin, but I can share some impressions. We visited all of the tourist sites; the Brandenburg Gate, DSC_0942

Checkpoint Charlie, DSC_1004

remnants of “The Wall,” DSC_1007

the old Reichstag Parliament Building, DSC_1034 the Tiergarten (a huge park in the center of Berlin), a memorial to the victims of the holocaust, etc. It all became a blur of buildings and avenues and construction sites. Two things struck me as interesting. Pictures we were shown of the city of Berlin after the War showed a city that was mostly in ruins. As the city has been rebuilt, the Germans have been careful to preserve as much of the old structures as they can, building around and on to the destroyed edifices. Wherever original structure remains it is quite literally covered with bullet holes and shrapnel marks. So much so that the effect is overwhelming! The second thing that struck me is that Berlin is still a city under reconstruction. Our guide went to great lengths to show us large areas of the city that are simply vacant lots left from the war. At the same time he wanted to show the many new and reconstructed buildings that are being restored from the past. In fact this seemed to be the focus of our guides. I found it strange that over 60 years have passed since the war, and cities such as London which were also heavily damaged, have moved on with their lives, while Berlin stills seems fixated by its history.

The one fact which I found really interesting is that while virtually the entire city of Berlin was destroyed during the war, curiously one building remained untouched. That building was home to the German Air Force, and as such it is still in use today by the Government. All of the buildings on every side were completely destroyed however. Go figure?

I am glad I got to see Berlin. It is an interesting city. Parts of it are quite modern, and it seems to have an excellent mass transit system. The shops were filled with high price items and the streets were lined with small cafes and coffee shops.


PS There is one small footnote to our trip that you mighty find of interest. It is ironic that in years past, people could not wait to tear down the Wall. Today however there are so few sections of the original Wall remaining, that they are protected by high fences to keep people from trying to take a chunk as a souvenir. Interestingly, I have a very good friend who at the time of the collapse of the Wall was in the Air Force and who was in Berlin. Before the Wall came down he had taken some pictures, including one which showed a huge zipper painted on the Wall from the Western side. After the wall came down, he returned and gathered some of the fragments, one of which included a portion of that very zipper. He gave that to Lisa and me as a gift, and it is one of our treasures!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Helsinki, Finland

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Beautiful Finland

We arrived at the city of Helsinki on a beautiful sunny Thursday morning, and immediately set out on an hour drive into the countryside to visit the small medieval city of Porvoo. DSC_0818 Originally founded in the mid 1400’s, it is today inhabited by 45,000 people, but still the old city retains its old charm of narrow cobblestone streets and colorful buildings.

We drove around the new city and then went for a walking tour of old town, ending our journey at the very top of the hillside where the old Porvoo Cathedral is located. DSC_0846 This beautiful church was first built around 1450. Over the centuries, it has been burned, and pillaged several times, but always it is rebuilt. In fact, we saw this church about three years ago and since then the entire roof was burned by arson. Several young men got drunk and thought it would be fun to stuff newspapers under the eaves of the roof and then set it on fire. The fire department let the fire burn itself out and spent their resources protecting the surrounding structures. They reasoned, and correctly so, that if they had put water on the roof structure the resulting weight would collapse the roof supports. As it is, the building was saved, and now it has a new roof at the cost of many millions of Euros. The young men responsible will be paying for that mistake the rest of their lives we were told.

After a delightful stop for espresso and a stroll around town, we drove back to the city of Helsinki. This is a charming, clean and utterly delightful Scandinavian city. Even though it was approaching mid-day on a Thursday, the streets were almost deserted. We learned that most families own a small summer cottage on the surrounding lakes and that they spend their holidays there during July. The city has an efficient mass transit system consisting of trolley cars, subways and electric busses. The shops were very upscale and clearly the standard of living here is quite high. Historically Finland derived its income from the sale of wood products, since most of their land is covered with forests. However, in recent years, this has shifted so that now Finland is involved heavily in electronics assembly. DSC_0877 We visited a beautiful old Orthodox Church on the outskirts of town and then in the center of the city stopped for photographs in front of the Lutheran Cathedral.

They have a beautiful harbor which was filled with pleasure craft of all kinds. But lurking in the background were four very large ships at a separate dock by themselves. Our guide explained that all the waters in Finland during the winter would turn to solid ice, so that all the boats we saw had winter homes on land. The four large ships were the country’s icebreaker fleet, which attempted to keep the main harbor open as much as possible. She also brought to our attention the fact that we did not see any fishing vessels. That is because the Gulf of Finland has no commercial fishing. The water is too salty for fresh water species, yet it is not salty enough for salt water species. So it is a Gulf of mostly brackish brown/green water.

Finland is part of the European Union and uses the Euro for its currency. We learned that they pay income taxes that are similar to ours, plus in addition they have an 18% Value Added Tax. Education and healthcare are provided by the government.

All in all, our short visit to Finland was delightful. So tomorrow we will be at sea on our way to the port of Wandermunde, Germany from which we will drive to Berlin for an all day tour.