A view of Copenhagen, Flying Home, The All-Important Trip Highlights (and a minuscule number of lowlights)
We retreated to our hotel room in Copenhagen early Monday night; the room was on the ninth floor and faced the inner harbor. We sat at the window and realized we could see quite a way to the east and could even see the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. We saw a Cunard ship sail out (tell-tale red and black stack) and could see planes landing at the airport, which is right near the bridge. The party continued in the inner harbor as dusk approached (a novel concept on this trip, to see dusk and a longer nighttime). We had a good night’s sleep and had a nice buffet breakfast Tuesday morning that was included.
After a fairly short (and too fast) taxi ride, we arrived at the airport, checked in for the 2:00 pm flight to Keflavik, then on to Denver. Our bags were checked all the way through. The efficiency of this airport was striking to behold, when compared to other European behemoths like Heathrow and Frankfurt. We did a self check-in at a generic kiosk, scanning our passports and getting the boarding passes. Then we went into a bag check line for multiple airlines. Initially, one of our four checked bags failed the weight test, but I reminded the young lady that we were in Saga Class on Icelandair and had more baggage weight allowances. She noted this and said that it would have also come up as she processed the tags. Whew!! We didn’t think the new sweaters weighed more than 20 pounds. She fussed a bit about the number of carry-ons, but let it go.
We then went through security. They had a huge number of screening lines and we got through very quickly, even with my knees. The young lady who patted me down was very pleasant and did not make a fuss. When you emerge from security, you have to walk through a gigantic duty-free shopping mall before finding other things like seating areas, bars, etc. We killed time in a restaurant near the gates until we had a gate assignment, then went to the gate. It was a bit of a scrum getting on-board, but our flight to Keflavik was on time.
We landed in Keflavik after a smooth flight, complete with views of the home land (Faroe Islands) of our intrepid Captain Meinhardt Hansen from the Nautica. We deplaned and had a very short walk to passport control for our continuing flight. We did not have to go through security again!! Our flight to Denver was on “Hekla” again and we actually saw the plane at one of the gates at Keflavik named after the 2010 airspace volcanic troublemaker E+15 (Eyjafjallajökull). We relaxed on the flight and watched the same two movies (“Bucket List”, which we had not seen and found it to be surprising good, considering it was directed by Meathead Reiner, and “North by Northwest”, which we never tire of viewing). We arrived on time and made our way through Customs. Note to self: Remind me to lambast the moron who designed the circuitous and physically challenging route to passport control and immigration at DIA, if I ever get a chance meet this person, who likely flunked out of architect school. I can envision some poor 80-year-old from sea level encountering the “hill” between Concourse A and the terminal at over 5,400 feet elevation, and keeling over on the spot after sitting on a plane for ten hours.
Our driver picked us up outside after we cleared (fairly quickly). He talked too much on the way to our house, argued with us about the route and other things and has a strange driving habit that is not very smooth, like a cruise control on the fritz (speed up, slow down, like he’s driving the car with his knees). Not sure what to think in the future about using him again. We arrived home, kissed poor Miss Ruby, who survived yet another long trip by her humans (at nearly 19 years of age) and we hit the sack around 8:30 pm, with our dear kitty cat sleeping between us.
Now, on to the trip highlights (and a few lowlights): This was probably the most interesting and unique cruise we have ever taken and it whets our appetite for the Antarctica cruise-by we have booked next February on Celebrity Infinity, except the Drake Passage will likely not be nearly as well-behaved as the placid Arctic Ocean. Icelandair was a good way to travel and allowed us to gain a new country for our map. Our ship, Nautica, was very nice, the food was good to excellent (with some minor exceptions), the service was quite good, the fellow passengers were savvy and well-traveled, and we even made quite a few friends that we will definitely stay in touch with (unusual for us, as we usually keep to ourselves on many trips). There were a few perpetual grumps and whiners, but not nearly as many as on our Marina cruise last September. Ironically, many folks last fall hated the larger Marina vessel, while a lot of people on this cruise wanted to go back to the larger ships in the future. Go figure…
Top Highlights – these are roughly in order by their impact on our vacation experience, although it is always difficult to rate things in order on a trip packed with highlights:
1) Dog cart ride in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen: I’m glad I held my ground with the fellow passengers who wanted us to give up our rightfully reserved spots on the tour. This was more fun than I could ever have imagined, even though we only got to do half the ride! I will never forget it and probably my favorite photo of the trip is the one Steve took of the two harness teammate dogs that were fighting, watched by two more dogs on that same team looking decidedly bemused (and perhaps resigned) by the whole thing. It probably happens in the dog yard all the time, too, since the team is located in a row.
2) Magdalena Fjord: The majestic and forbidding Arctic scenery in the far northwest corner of Spitsbergen is something I will never forget – Wow! A polar bear or walrus sighting would have iced the cake, but it wasn’t necessary to the total experience.
3) Spotting Spitsbergen for the first time, Whales and Dolphins, Arctic Birds, Wild Longyearbyen, Bear Island: These are grouped together, as all of them made us realize that we were indeed in the far Arctic north. Our first sighting of Spitsbergen was wonderful, seeing the tall, snow covered mountains and glaciers that went on for many miles on our starboard side (until we sailed into a fog bank). We were lucky to see quite a few whale spouts and some whale groups (mostly whales that were obviously not humpbacks) and enjoyed the playful antics of the black nosed dolphins. The birds in this part of the world are also amazing, zooming around our ship like little fighter planes (in the case of fulmars, black-winged gulls and kittiwakes) or sitting placidly on the water (puffins, little auks). Although we didn’t get much time in Longyearbyen, it was sufficient time for us to realize that it was a charming and wild town and it was a treat to see people casually walking around with rifles slung over their shoulders. Bear Island, the southernmost island in the Svalbard archipelago, was also fascinating, full of bird life and obviously popular with large fishing vessels and we are glad Captain Hansen did the detour so we could see this remote place.
4) Approaching the Polar Ice Barrier: Horizons Lounge was packed to the rafters as we slowly made our way north through more and more ice floes. We apparently approached within six miles of the true ice barrier and crossed the magic 80 degrees north latitude. People that were disappointed we didn’t plow into a wall of icevshould be grateful that Captain Hansen took the safety of the ship seriously (Nautica does not have an ice-hardened hull) and a century ago, only intrepid explorers and daring whaling ships made it this far north. It was truly amazing! I don’t think we can beat this record ever for northern latitude in our travels and will certainly never get this far south, unless we work at the South Pole (not in this life).
5) Iceland: We thought Iceland was gorgeous. Reykjavik is a charming, compact city, the Golden Circle attractions are worth the cost of a rental car (especially Gulfoss waterfall) and it was decidedly interesting to see the dramatic volcanoes in the south, as well as the tidy farms, adorable Icelandic horses, and sheep and lambs everywhere. The Blue Lagoon was stunning, placed in the middle of a lunar-like volcanic landscape (next time, we will definitely go into the water).
6) Overland tour from Hellesylt to Geiranger: Although this ship tour cost us nearly $400 each, we felt this experience was worth it. The weather was good, the scenery was spectacular, our guide was excellent, the crazy narrow and winding roads were conquered with aplomb by our intrepid young Swedish bus driver, and it was even fun to spend $18 for a lousy glass of house red wine (ok, maybe not that last one). Our sail-out from Geiranger through the fjord to the sea was also a memorable experience.
7) Bird Safari, North Cape at Midnight, Howling Winds of Honningsvåg: Magerøya island, island home to the North Cape, was desolate and starkly beautiful. The bird safari was one of Steve’s favorite moments, as he hung on for dear life on the slippery deck of the boat wearing his thermal suit, watching hundreds of thousands of birds on the sea or in the air; at the same time, I sat next to our boat captain as he described what we were seeing. The miracle of the Midnight Sun appearance at the North Cape could not have been better scripted by Hollywood! It was a hoot watching hundreds of people trying to run outside through the same small set of doors to get photos. The next day, the gale-force winds blowing across the dock (that necessitated tug help for Nautica to leave when she sailed) brought home the powerful forces of nature in this part of the world.
8) Sailing out of Harstad: Captain Hansen took us on a very exhilarating and scenic tour out of Harstad, Norway. First, we passed under the Tjeldsen bridge to the mainland, which we cleared by inches with the top mast down and at a high cruising speed. Then we had hours and hours of incredible scenery as we cruised past the Lofoten Islands. We skipped evening trivia for this experience :-), stunned by the incredible scenery.
9) Busy Bergen on a beautiful day: We enjoyed our hop-on/hop-off city sightseeing bus tour of Bergen, then had a nice time checking out the Fish Market, having lunch at the Hanseatic Wharf and roasting in the sun, and even buying nice sweaters at a fairly reasonable price. We also were fascinated with the strange working ships and their revolutionary designs that we saw in the port.
10) Scenery near Harstad, Hemmestad Wharf, Adolf Gun: Our rental-car day was great, as we made our way through the beautiful scenery on Hinøya island to the wee and charming Hemmestad Wharf Museum. The tour of the German Adolf Gun installation was also quite fascinating and it alone was worth the cost of the car rental to get there.
11) Sailing out of Murmansk: Although the city itself was a gigantic Soviet hellhole, the sailing out was quite memorable, as we made our way past the Lenin Icebreaker in dry dock, the huge coal-loading facilities, the Arctic Express ships, the current fleet of nuclear ice-breakers, plus more historical ships (including the first ice-breaker to make it to the North Pole). We also saw old and new Russian naval ships, and even had a beautiful rainbow. This was accompanied by a Russian buffet dinner in the Terrace that was excellent, although several of our fellow passengers complained about it (shame on them).
12) Sjavagrillid dinner in Reykjavik: The four-course Taste of Iceland repast on our first night of the trip was fantastic and merits its own highlight category. The food was delicious, the presentation was lovely, and the wine and beer pairings were perfect. It was expensive, but not ridiculous. We talked it up to other folks that might spend time in Iceland in the future.
13) The Fram museum in Oslo: On a picture-perfect day, we took the ferry to Bygdøy island to see the wood-hulled polar expedition ship Fram. The museum was very interesting and the ship display and restoration was fascinating. We also revisited the nice dockside cafe near Nautica that we first encountered in 2010 on Disney Magic. We had an expensive drink and enjoyed the great weather.
14) Charming Hammerfest: We spent a few hours in this Arctic town and could not help but contrast it with Murmansk, which we visited the day before. We are now members of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society; we also saw a wedding take place (at least we saw when the bride was walking in) and explored a cemetery. Hammerfest seemed prosperous and happy.
15) Gamle Stran and Lysefjord, Stavanger: We had a gloomy, chilly day here, with a fairly short time ashore. Many folks from the ship booked the three-hour Lysefjord tour. This tour was interesting, but we were not able to see Pulpit Rock, although the crazy maneuvers into narrow passageways and near waterfalls were quite fun. The town was very quiet because this was a Sunday. We also got some good pictures of the old town (Gamle Stran) from the ship.
16) Flower of Kristiansand: This was another “Sunday town”, but it was a glorious day. Our best memories will be of the flower displays all over town, a nice lunch at a restaurant at the Fish Market, and the stuffed moose right by the gangplank.
17) Hot Copenhagen: After more than three weeks of traveling, our day in Copenhagen was an afterthought. First of all, it was a very warm day and extremely crowded. We did enjoy seeing some highlights during the city sightseeing bus tour and sitting at the sidewalk cafes was a hoot. Steve had a sun headache after this day and we were quite happy to kill the evening at the hotel. It was relaxing, but not a major highlight.
18) Alyosha, the giant soldier statue in Murmansk and the new Orthodox Church: This city was ugly, depressing and gloomy, but the giant statue overlooking the town somberly reminded us of the huge sacrifice the Soviets made during WWII to help defeat the Nazis. The new Russian Orthodox Church reminded us that timeless values and faith, and acknowledging something greater than ourselves, can triumph in the end.
This trip had very few low moments, most not even worth mentioning. Warning: strong opinions attached in places.
1) Murmansk the city: This decrepit place is a fitting reminder of what happens when “community organizers” and socialists and genuine outright flag-waving communists decide that they can dictate how other people live, eat, work and exist. Those who continue to vote for a “progressive”, welfare-centric, big government society in the US should be careful what they wish for, because only a handful of chosen elites get exemptions from the general misery, as history has shown us many times. Tiny, grey concrete apartments in huge eyesore buildings with rusting, unstable balconies and questionable utilities are not very nice at all and the infrastructure goes completely downhill with unfettered bureaucracy. Even with the downfall of the USSR, Murmansk is a dying city and may not be worth rescuing (hmmm – sounds like Detroit).
2) London as an afterthought: When we arrived in London, we were still tired and decided not to venture out at all, after our passport follies and hair-raising ride from LHR, complete with road rage. The Doubletree Hotel ended up being a very pleasant surprise. We have been to London quite a few times and are, I guess, a little burned out on a country that tries so hard to suppress the freedoms it once cherished, while catering to those that would destroy everything it stands for (or used to stand for). Everywhere you look in London, there are surveillance cameras and unfriendly-looking police that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Bobbies of old. At least there is a royal baby now and Andy Murray won the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon…
3) Tracking a CC Roll Call and name tags: This seemed like a fun idea at the time and things did go pretty well, but I’m not sure I would do it again. There were some folks who thought I was arranging tours for everyone and others that missed out on getting a name tag or had errors on their tags. Also, I carefully made sure the tags reflected the name of our cruise: “Voyage TO the Midnight Sun”, as documented on the Oceania website (I checked this multiple times over the months and weeks preceding the cruise). Alas, when the cruise documents finally showed up, as well as hearing the answer to a trivia question on our cruise, they had changed it to “Voyage OF the Midnight Sun”. I guess I will file this in the same drafty, obscure place in my brain, co-existing with the misleading map from the Oceania website that showed our non-ice hardened regular old cruise ship circumnavigating the islands of Svalbard. In someone’s dream…
Other minor gripes and observations are in my other posts. They are so petty and are really first world problems. We are indeed fortunate to have the money and time to do a trip like this and are, indeed, thankful. According to our wonderful Captain Hansen, we traveled 5,551 miles (4,824 nautical miles) on this cruise; little Nautica is the “ship that could”.
Coming up soon: Christmas on a Behemoth, Voyage to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.