Spectacular fjords, wine more precious than gold, learning about Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle!!

First, a note – it appears that our Internet service is becoming more and more sporadic. Updates may come in bits and pieces and pictures will be very challenging.

Today, we are sea, and have just crossed the Arctic Circle! It is about 12:30 pm local time and this a relaxing day after three ports in a row. The Arctic Circle is currently at 66 degrees, 33 minutes, 44 seconds; it moves a few meters a year north depending on axial tilt. It is cloudy, with intermittent rain showers and a temperature hovering near 52 degrees. We spend the next ten days above the Arctic Circle (a fact that was lost on many of our fellow passengers – guess they didn’t study the route very well). We are quite a ways off the coast of Norway (100 nautical miles), but still see the occasional sea bird. Seas are a bit rough depending on the wind direction, with long rolling swells (10-15 feet).

Yesterday, we had the most fantastic experience! We had signed up for the overland ship excursion from Hellesylt to Geiranger, at a very costly amount per person. The Geirangerfjord is about 20 km long and Hellesylt lies at the end of one arm, while Geiranger is a short distance away (by sea) down another arm. The Fjord is spectacular, with steep, high peaks, many still with patches of snow above beautiful green forests and steep meadows, interspersed with dozens of waterfalls. We had great weather, partly cloudy and fairly warm, with the sun peeking out quite often; later, there was a high overcast, but it did not interfere with views. The overland journey took eight hours, but we did have many stops, including a leisurely lunch stop of nearly two hours at the Hotel Videseter overlooking a spectacular glacial valley near the village of Stryn. Our ship stopped long enough at Hellesylt to allow one tender to run passengers to the dock for the tour (or for private tours), then Nautica continued on to Geiranger.

There were about 30 people on the tour so Steve and I spread out in the back of the bus, each snagging a whole row (and window) to ourselves. Our guide was excellent, speaking nearly perfect English (he had lived in the United States for many years) and he had lots of interesting facts about the Geiranger area and Norway in general. Our intrepid and cheerful young driver was from Sweden and he did a fantastic job maneuvering the large bus on the narrow, steep and winding roads.

On the first part of our tour we saw the deepest lake in Europe (Hornindalsvatn), which is over 1700 feet deep in the center. We also stopped in the village of Stryn and snagged a $5 tiny cup of coffee at a cute coffee shop where our guide’s Estonian wife worked (the owner was from Seattle). We then climbed up from the valley to the hotel for our lunch stop.

Our lunch at the hotel was a bit on the “meh” side – a small shrimp salad, broiled salmon (pretty good) and potatoes, and a custard dessert. There were bottles of low-alcohol beer on the table, but I opted to have a glass of wine. This experience set me back 85 NOK for the house red wine. The Norwegian Krone currently exchanges at $.19 (about five to the dollar). I leave the math to the reader, but suffice to say I drank every molecule.

After lunch we climbed up above the tree line and crossed an alpine pass on a historic old road with a tongue-twisting name (Gamlestrynefjellsvengen). The area was reminiscent of the top of Loveland pass or Trail Ridge Road, with quite a few more glacial rocks and lakes. There were hardy sheep grazing in the area and apparently there are wild reindeer that can be seen along the pass.

After a long drive after lunch without a bio-break, we were both ready and pleading for a stop (Steve had consumed two of the free low-alcohol beers). We pulled in at the Djupvasshitta lodge, battling with several other buses from Gieranger to use the facilities. Whew! Mission accomplished!

After the vital potty break, our driver tackled the nearby private road to Mt. Dalsnibba, almost 5,000 feet about sea level. The narrow, vertiginous toll road was packed with tour buses (the toll is approximately $200 for a bus). At the top, we were treated to a spectacular view of Geiranger, with three ships anchored off this tiny town (Nautica, Crystal Serenity, and some old off-brand small ship named Ocean Majesty). Apparently, the usual view from Mt. Dalsnibba is of the inside of clouds, so we were quite lucky.

We made our way down the winding road (closed in winter) to Geiranger and took the tender to the ship. Throughout the tour, our guide regaled us with stories about how education, pensions, and medical services are “free” in Norway, but then he also explained about the onerous taxation system (he was astute enough to know that any government service is not “free”). The top income tax rate is 36%; this is coupled with an average VAT (on just about everything that you buy) of 25%. Apparently, the Norwegian government also keeps track of every asset you own and these are taxed at 2.5% of total value or more, depending on your wealth. In spite of this, Norway has a very high average income and an unemployment rate hovering around 3.5% (a lot of their wealth is because of oil and gas production). Immigrants from the US, Canada, UK and Australia are not generally welcome, but anyone came come from the EU to find work and there are large populations of refugee immigrants from the Middle East, Vietnam and Africa. Norway is a nominal (not full) member of the European Union, but does not subscribe to the currency or the full member requirements. In a nutshell, it is a socialistic democracy, with a titular monarch and has a tightly controlled community approval of private property (most of the country, other than private gardens and working farms, is under the “right of access” rules). Even with the tight property rules, many Norwegians do have two homes. Oh, and for an oil producing country, a gallon of gas was roughly $8.50 and everyone drives very expensive and highly taxed clown cars (three cheers for Iceland, with their monster SUVs). Our guide was also a bit of a climate change skeptic (good for him), noting that glaciers and ice ages and warmer periods have come and gone many times in this part of the world and there is no such thing as a perfect, static climate and that humans are bit players in the whole process. A moderate eruption of E+15 would spew more CO2 into the atmosphere in days than millions of cars for months. Our guide also had a very low opinion of politicians everywhere (can’t disagree with that, either). Norway is a great country, but it is not the model for the US (we already have an excellent blueprint if we would use it). Off the soapbox…

After this great tour of this world heritage fjord area (worth the bucks) , we raced back on board to play trivia (we came in second) before we sailed. Because we were dropped off at Hellesylt, we missed the sailing up the fjord arm to Geiranger. We were on on deck taking many pictures of this partcularly picturesque fjord as we sailed out, with the famous seven sisters waterfall (now a little less prominent as the snowmelt nears completion, as it does every July, only to rebuild again starting in august). It was warm enough, for a while, to eat outside at the Terrace as we watched the spectacular landscape unfold.

We won the brain teasers game after dinner, then had a long night’s sleep. We have met some great folks on this cruise and will talk more about some of them later.

Next stop: Honningsvåg and the North Cape! We arrive at 7:00 pm tomorrow night.

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