Archive for Voyage to the Midnight Sun 2013

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.

Lowlights:
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.

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Sizzling Copenhagen, Cooking on the Canal, Relaxing at the Inner Harbor

After relaxing at the Marriott for a while this morning and having more coffee, we bought tickets on the City Sightseeing Hop-On, Hop-Off bus and for the canal boat tour from the concierge. We got on the bus around 10:45 and took it all the way around to see the sights. The seats upstairs weren’t that great for photos, but we did enjoy it as the temperature increased. The tour included quite a few stops at various tourist attractions around the city, including a short photo stop at the Little Mermaid Statue, which was not in Copenhagen three years ago. We had to switch buses near Tivoli Gardens to continue through the stops again. We got off near the Storget, the shopping district, to be near the canal boat entrance. We found a very nice sidewalk cafe close by with an empty table in the shade (not an easy task today) and had a sandwich and beverages, along with access to a restroom before the boat trip. This cafe was called the Europa Cafe 1989 and we shared a terrific club sandwich and they even sold a cookbook in their main restaurant area. The temperature was getting warmer and warmer and people were out in droves. We saw many folks from the ship wandering about, enjoying Copenhagen before flying home soon. The city is one giant construction zone everywhere, as they waste taxpayer money – ahem, cough, cough, excuse me – spend infrastructure funds on a metro underground system project that will take years to finish.

We wandered over to the canal boat entrance around 1:00 pm. By this point, it was downright hot. The line was fairly long and we finally got seats by an open window in the center area, which is partially covered. We thought we would head out with a decent sized crowd on the boat (not full), but unfortunately some huge Japanese tour group showed up at the last minute and filled every available remaining seat. Now it was almost unbearable on the boat and we finally set off, blessedly getting a little bit of a breeze as we moved.

This was an identical tour to the one we took in 2010 with Disney Magic. The weather conditions, however, were completely different. In June 2010, we had very cool temperatures, wind, and threatening clouds. Today, it was in the low eighties, with no breeze and bright sunshine. We were crammed like sardines into a stifling boat and I kept expecting one of the more delicate types on board to upchuck right near me due to a little bit of boat wake, the smell of diesel fumes and the hot, glaring sun. Thankfully, that did not occur. We went past many of the same sights we saw before, and we eagerly awaited the end of this ordeal. We did get one last glimpse of Nautica, which sailed out tonight on a 10-day Baltic cruise (34 passengers from our cruise stayed on for this cruise).

After we got off the boat ride that was not nearly as fun as Pirates of the Caribbean, we stumbled to the nearest sidewalk cafe to have ice cold cokes and cool off. We walked a short distance after recovering, then found a pedicab to take us to the Nyhavn area (literally, new harbor), which has many sidewalk cafes and colorful buildings. The pedicab guy cycled like a bat out of hell, zig-zagging through the streets, taking curbs at high speeds, and finally screeching to a halt at the entrance to Nyhavn, which also featured more canal boat queues that were ridiculously long. We wandered down the pavement, looking for any open table in the shade among the dozens of sidewalk cafes. Finally, we spotted a shaded table at a place and sat down. We realized we were in front of a “gentlemen’s club”, but shrugged it off and had two tall and cool Tuborg special beers. I had to visit the lady’s room, which was actually in the men’s room and I was very glad we didn’t order any food from the “Hong Kong” cafe in the lower level of the strip club. The restroom wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. The crowd at Nyhavn was huge, wandering back and forth and an empty table, especially one in the shade, had a turnaround time of roughly ten seconds.

We walked to the entrance of Nyhavn and found the taxi queue and took one back to the hotel. We got our room, keys, our bags were delivered and we are sitting out at the waterfront bar, watching the nonsense in the inner harbor area. We have seen fast boats, slow boats, jet skies, tour boats, kayaks, rowing sculls, people swimming and diving near both sides of the harbor, bikes, skateboards, joggers, walkers, baby prams, and racing motorcycles (on the other side). The temperature is cooling off a bit and we will probably go to the room soon to plug in devices and get a good night’s sleep. We get breakfast tomorrow and will leave about 10:30 to go to the airport.

Almost home!!

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Photo Blast: Harstad, Bergen, Kristiansand, Copenhagen

Here are a selection of photos from the end of the cruise. First there’s the Northern fjord town of Harstad, followed by the beautiful cities of Bergen and Kristiansand, and ending in Copenhagen, Denmark the day before we fly back home.

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Trivia Dominance, Cruise Ends, At the Marriott in Copenhagen

We had our final team trivia game yesterday at 3:00 pm. Our team, which changed its name almost every game just to have fun with our cruise director, Nolan, came in first on a pretty tough series of questions in the last game. We ended up with 113 Big-O points, which garnered a blue t-shirt and black moisture wicking shirt for Steve and a baseball hat for me. Alas, the shirts were not in walrus sizes, so I had to settle for the hat.

We finished out the evening chatting with Ron and Marge and other folks and ate outside at the Terrace Cafe. It was a beautiful evening and we saw lots of boat traffic in the busy zone that transitions into the North Sea from the Baltic. The seas in this area were also filled with jellyfish. There was an unexpected guest sitting on the Terrace railing – a banded pigeon! Everyone eating dinner outside felt sorry for the poor thing, who was now inadvertently heading to a strange land in Denmark. The crew left the bird alone, with a glass of water nearby. We didn’t see it this morning, so we hope it survived and will be found by a pigeon keeper,

Nautica had a delayed arrival in Copenhagen due to thick fog that came in. We still disembarked on time, found our bags, got in the taxi queue (which moved very quickly) and are now sitting in the coffee bar at the beautiful Marriott hotel on the inner harbor. We plan to take the hop on, hop off bus around the city, then go on one of the canal boat trips. The sun is now out in full force as the fog dissipates.

More from Copenhagen this evening…

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Good night’s sleep, Flower Town – Kristiansand, Time to Pack

We has dinner in the Grand Dining Room last night and, blessedly, had a table for two by the window. After snarfing down and appetizer and Vichyssoise soup, I got about halfway through my steak and realized that I was so full that I did not want to eat anything else, Steve had the same “I’m done with food” moment. We skipped dessert, went back to the stateroom and hit the sack before 10:00 pm.

After a good night’s sleep on placid seas, we woke up to clear blue skies and warm temperatures in Kristiansand, our last port in Norway, located on the southeast coast. This town, that dates back to before the middle ages, is named after King Christian IV; the “sand” part of the name actually means sand, as the town is built on sand and there are a number of beaches. We had breakfast, then ventured out to do a little sightseeing. My back was hurting a bit this morning, as was my left wrist, for some reason, so we planned to take it slow and easy. After exiting the ship, we laughed to see a stuffed moose on the dock right next to the gangplank (someone from the town with a good sense of humor). We walked up the dock and found one of those silly tourist street trains. We paid the 100 NOK each and decided to ride it around to see the sights. Right next to the dock area is a brand-new performing center that opened in 2012. The large Kilden performing arts center has an undulating wood roof and dramatic glass front. Just past the arts center, we entered the Fish Market area (Bryggen), with lots of restaurants, a small marina and working fish markets (those markets were closed today, on a Sunday). As we journeyed further into the town, we quickly realized that this town was filled with resplendent flower boxes and hanging flower displays. The train took us past the marina, with sand sculptures and a large fountain, and more flowers. We wound our way into the town center, going into the old town, with white-washed buildings built close together and right to the streets. The train stopped near the town center, a block away from the large Lutheran church. We took some pictures in this area, but everything was closed. Steve did walk down to the Lutheran church, where services were underway in Norwegian.

We took the train back over to the Fish Market area near the ship. We found a restaurant that seemed to be popular and spent some “Nookies” on lunch. Steve had a smoked salmon sandwich and I had another shrimp sandwich. The food was very good (of course, it was very pricey) and the Fish Market area and marina were obviously quite popular. We relaxed for a while, then walked back to the ship. Everywhere you looked, there were splendid flower arrangements. What a nice town!

Nautica sails at 3:00 pm, heading to Copenhagen. We are sitting outside by Waves, enjoying the band music and a beverage. At 3:30, we plan to go to the room and do power packing, then have our last team trivia at 4:30, followed by the general chaos to redeem Big-O points for cheap t-shirts, hats and other useless stuff. Then it’s the one of the saddest things known to humanity, the last night on board a cruise ship, followed by the crack-o-dawn disembarkation. Although we are anxious to get home, we are glad that we have one more day in Copenhagen to relax before the flight through Keflavik on Tuesday afternoon. The weather in Copenhagen is supposed to be absolutely splendid, near 80 degrees and mostly clear. We are staying in the Marriott on the waterfront. The last time we were in Copenhagen, in June 2010 on Disney Magic (see The Saga of the Mouse and Queen) , we had a tour of Tivoli Gardens and a canal boat ride under chilly, cloudy skies that threatened rain.

I hope you have enjoyed this interesting journey to the wilds of Norway, the gloom of Murmansk and the far Arctic north. We’re not done posting yet and likely there will be a large up-link of more pictures with better Internet, so do come back and visit again.

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Good Dinner at Toscana, Small World, Our First Sunset in 10 days, Bergen on a Glorious Day

Last night, we had dinner at Toscana, the Italian specialty restaurant. We had a 6:30 pm reservation and shared a table with three other couples. I had the calamari, Caesar salad, and Lobster tail fra diavolo (on pasta) and Steve had minestrone soup, lasagna and chicken Alfredo. Desserts were also yummy (chocolate semifreddo, canoli). One of the other couples at our table hailed from Denver and another gentleman graduated from Aurora Central High School in the early 1960’s. Strange, small world…

We went up to Horizons afterwards, where people were partying celebrating our first sunset since July 9. Alas, the sun was not visible (cloudy and gloomy), but it did get a little dark for a short time last night after midnight, After the huge dinner and a few drinks and watching Marge and Ron dance in the makeshift disco in Horizons until midnight, I didn’t feel all that great this morning, but perked up after some coffee.

Today, we cruised into Bergen. The gorgeous countryside is reminiscent of the area near Seattle or Vancouver. We docked near noon, right near another AIDA ship (AIDA Sol). The skies were blue with no clouds, although it was a little cool initially as we disembarked. We walked down the dock and decided to do the Hop On-Hop Off sightseeing bus. We stayed in the bus past most of the major tourist attractions in Bergen, including the Hanseatic wharf (Bryggen), the fish market, the aquarium, the museums, the downtown area and the big park. We got off as they looped past the Fish Market again. This place has many little stalls with fresh fish and they cook up plates of monkfish, cod, herring, salmon, minke whale, shrimp, langoustine, and king crab. We continued walking over to the Hanseatic Wharf, with the colorful wood buildings that have been rebuilt numerous times after fires. The Hanseatic league is a centuries-old trade and merchant group that stretched across much of Europe. Scoring a table at one of outdoor cafes, we roasted in the sun and had a shrimp salad and drinks (only part of an arm and a leg in terms of “Nookies”, the nickname that a few of us have coined for NOK). The tourists and locals were out in force, this being a Saturday. Bergen is one of the rainiest places on earth, but our luck today was to have a picture-perfect day with temperatures probably soaring into the low eighties. We regretted bringing the windbreakers with us as we had to drag them around all day.

After this repast, we decided to walk to the funicular station and perhaps go up on Mt. Floyen. Bergen is called the city with seven hills and this peak is near the city. However, when we got close, we saw that the line was ridiculously long, so that idea was tossed out. We ended up going back through the Hanseatic Wharf and stopped in a store that sold sweaters. We found two nice wool sweaters that fit perfectly made by a Norwegian sweater company named Viking. Once again, we found ourselves at a sidewalk cafe for a short time and Steve had a Hansa beer that he liked very much (back to the Hanseatic League again for the name). We walked back to the ship and are sitting on the deck right now enjoying the gorgeous weather. My left leg had some serious weakness today and even some muscle spasms, so my sciatica is acting up, but I still walked quite a bit.

The dock areas at Bergen are filled with bizarre ships that are obviously used for offshore platforms, tug operations and oil and gas exploration. One ship, called the Bourbon Orca, has a new creative design known as an Ulstein X-bow (an inverted bow), which apparently is very stable in heavy seas. It has a big rounded front and 360-degree bridge. We took lots of pictures!

We sailed out at 6:00 pm, through the Bergen fjord and under two bridges. We “round the corner” tonight and have our last port stop tomorrow in Kristiansand, a city on the southeast coast of Norway. The weather is supposed to very, very nice. The midnight sun cruise is winding down. I think this was an amazing and extremely positive experience overall. However, we are both ready to return to reality and poor little Miss Ruby.

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Photos: Longyearbyen and the North

Having some problems with uploading photos from the ship, so lucky you — you get just FOUR images today.

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A better Polo Grill experience, Arrival in Harstad, Car Rental with New Friends, Borkenes and the Hemmestad Wharf, The Adolf Gun, Yelling in a Church Yard, Tjeldsen Bridge and the Spectacular Lofoten Islands

Wednesday night (July 17) we had our second dinner in Polo Grill. We had to share a table again with two other couples. This time , we were paired with a couple from Australia and a couple we met in the line boarding the ship eons ago in London. Steve and I both ordered Colorado lamb chops and the shrimp cocktail; he got a salad with tomato, bacon, and cheese and I got a beefsteak tomato and sweet onion salad. My only complaint: The beefsteak tomato salad was done with raw red onion, not sweet onion. The lamb chops were very good. The dinner conversation was quite awkward as the bloke from Australia was really snobbish, not letting anyone finish their sentences and absolutely going off the deep end when we said we liked Disney cruise lines, with all of that “stupid character stuff and rug rat infestation” (not sure how we got on the topic, but I won’t bring it up again with this crowd on Oceania). He also spent a lot of time complaining about our stop in Murmansk and accused Oceania of using the stop as an excuse to get cheaper fuel for the ship. Granted, we thought that city was very depressing and obviously not a tourist attraction, but we can say we have been there and perhaps the people’s lives can be improved with more tourism. He didn’t buy it, but it is, IMHO, a wasted effort to keep complaining about it after the fact.

Yesterday, we cruised into the northwest coast of Norway to dock at Harstad. This city, located 2 degrees above the Arctic Circle, is on Hinnøya island, the largest Norwegian coastal island, which is also located at the north end of the long and incredibly scenic coastal island chain known as the Lofoten Islands. We saw green farm fields, trees (yay!) and dramatic peaks. Out plan was to pick up a rental car at Avis that we pre-booked and we invited another couple from the Roll Call to join us (Ron and Marge, from Prescott, Arizona). They are on our trivia team and we have had some good conversations. The Avis office was a fairly short walk from the pier. We got an upgrade to a four-door Mercedes-Benz sports sedan (in a striking copper color) and we were off on our explorations.

We had docked at 10:00 am, so we raced over to the Trondenes area northwest of town to see if we could get on the 11:00 am tour for the Adolf Gun. The WWII German gun is located on an active military base, so the tours require you to have your own transportation to go out to the gun site in a convoy. Unfortunately, the 11:00 tour was canceled, so we adjusted our plans to come back at 1:30. We headed out across the island to the west side, to Borkenes and the wharf museum at Hemmestad. The scenery was stunning – there were thick forests, flowers everywhere, tidy farms with red barns, little villages and a back drop of rugged mountains. There were periodic rain showers, but the temperature was a relatively balmy 57 degrees.

The tiny Hemmestad Wharf museum was absolutely charming and they charged a minuscule 25 NOK (about $5) for admission. The museum had small boats and other artifacts from the historical herring and cod fishing industries in this area. We had the place to ourselves, but two buses from our ship were due to arrive soon (these folks paid almost $300 each for the “privilege” of riding a bus and cramming into this small place). We headed out to go back to the Adolf Gun just as the first bus arrived at Hemmestad Wharf.

We made it back to the meeting place for the 1:30 pm gun tour just in time, gritting our teeth at a slow procession of cars going to the meeting place, causing us to nearly miss the ticket sales. There were quite a few cars and taxis already waiting and a small RV. We paid our 60 NOK and then followed our guide through the gate of the military base to go out to the gun. On our way up to the gun we saw a moose in the woods right by the road! We parked and went to the lower entrance, where our guide described the gun placements in this part of Norway. He did the narrative in both Norwegian and English. This huge 16-inch gun, along with three others on this peninsula, was used by the Germans during the occupation of Norway to target the Arctic convoys and was originally designed as a battleship gun by Krupp. Soviet prisoners from a nearby concentration camp were conscripted to build the thick concrete base and support areas and get the gun installed. Here are a few specifications for the gun from Wikipedia:

1) 20 meter or 66-foot long barrel
2) Maximum elevation of the barrel – 52 degrees
3) Maximum range, using the smaller Adolf shell (1300 kg in weight) – 52 km or 35 miles [of course we had to calculate the average delivery speed, which was over 1,000 mph for the long-range shell, making it supersonic. Ships on the receiving end of this firepower never knew what hit them]
4) Capable of firing two shells a minute
5) Total gun weight: 158 metric tons

The Norwegians took over the gun placements after the war, dismantling most of them, but keeping this gun as a museum piece. It was last fired in 1957. In a delicious bit of irony, the gun was named after St. Barbara. I know I’m a loose cannon, but this is ridiculous :-). The tour was about an hour long and we saw the support areas underneath first, then climbed the steps up to the main gun and went inside to see the actual bore, barrel and loading carts. It was an incredible feat of engineering, but it is sad that so much energy has to expended in creating weapons used for war. I am a realist, however, and one must always be ready for war while hopefully working for peace (paraphrasing the old Latin saying). Unilateral disarmament and appeasement only encourage the wolves to attack.

After following the convoy out of the base again (the RV violated the rules and was immediately stopped by military police), we headed over to the nearby Trondenes Church, which is the northernmost medieval church (dating back to the 14th century). The church was closed, but we knew we only had time to walk around the grounds and cemetery for a short time. The church was quite plain on the outside, with tiny windows and what appeared to be a very high vault ceiling. I decided to sit on a bench outside the entrance while Steve, Marge and Ron wandered around. Suddenly, I realized I couldn’t hear them anymore and we had to get going to return the car in a timely manner to return to the ship. I walked around looking for them, a bit concerned, then spotted them a long ways off, outside the church grounds on a nature walk trail heading off in a direction away from the church. I yelled briefly at them to tell them we needed to get going and to not go off on a nature walk. I turned around and one of group of Germans who was at the Adolf Gun Tour was nearby and he shushes me and tells me to be quiet and show respect (he did this more than once to me, even after our group had regrouped. I get the point, “freund”). This guy was annoying when we toured the gun because he would take pictures, then walk slowly in front of people editing his photos, blocking their way as we moved from one area to another. It probably was unnecessary that I yelled, but I am usually of a frame of mind to not listen to someone from Germany, since we have had so many delightful experiences with them, including most recently the sadist who hit my knees during an enhanced screening inspection in Frankfurt airport last year and also made me kneel on my knees on a bench and bend my knees as far as I could, while yelling at me in German the whole time. Many Germans on an individual basis are lovely people, but overall as a group they have a team batting average below .500 for courteousness and friendliness. So I muttered something that probably wasn’t very nice (prayed for forgiveness later) and we all made our way to the car and headed back to Harstad.

We turned in the car and walked back to the ship just as a pretty good rain shower started. The car cost us about $260, including gas and insurance, much more reasonable than any ship tour or hiring a taxi. We had a late, late lunch at Waves, went to trivia, then six of us found seats up in Horizons, as we had a very special treat in store. Captain Hansen, with a special fjord pilot, headed to the southeast out of Harstad, following a route through a narrow fjord and planning to pass under the Tjeldsen bridge to the mainland. We had very little clearance under the bridge, so they lowered the top mast and he made the approach at the deepest channel at a high cruising speed. It was a thrilling scene, capped with a heart-attack inducing moment when Captain Hansen blew the ship’s horn as we passed underneath. I felt sorry for anyone driving over the bridge at that point. We continued through some spectacular scenery, then the channel widened. Now we were in for another treat, as we spent the next four-plus hours cruising past the exquisite Lofoten Islands, bristling with jagged peaks and located to the west, with comparable mountainous scenery to the east on the mainland. Just when we thought we were past the islands, more dramatic scenery unfolded. We brought up a plate of cheeses and cured meats from the Terrace and sat there for hours, drinking wine, soaking in the scene and the long no-sunset light. I would dearly love to come back and tour these spectacular islands.

We slept in today, our last day at sea, as we cruise towards our final ports (Bergen and Kristiansand). We plan to explore these two ports on our own. We packed one suitcase today with the dirty clothes (yuck) and some inexpensive souvenirs (t-shirts) and our winter jackets. Tonight, we eat at Toscano’s, the Italian specialty restaurant.

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The placid Arctic Ocean

We continue to steam south tonight (is that correct with Diesel engines?) and the skies are partly cloudy and the Arctic Ocean is like glass. You would think we were in the Caribbean, except for the air temperature.

The weather looks downright balmy in Bergen and Copenhagen as we wind down this cruise in a few more days. We have three more ports (Harstad, Bergen and Kristiansand) and another day at sea Friday, before we end in Copenhagen Monday and fly home Tuesday.

We have enjoyed this cruise very, very much and have many highlights to share, but we are reaching our limits on interactions with fellow passengers. I have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test several times (so has Steve) and we always get characterized as “extroverts”, which means we derive our energy from other people. We are more and more skeptical about this result and may take the test again when we get home, because all of the social interactions and constant niceties and small talk can be very tiring. Eighteen days is not a bad length for a cruise, but I think our maximum limit is probably 30-35 days at any given time. Today, Oceania started booking a 180-day around the world voyage in 2015 on a sister ship, Insignia. Apparently, it is selling very well and they may not have to sell segments or if they do offer them, the segments will have limited availability. Amazing that there are still people with that kind of money and time.

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Dancing dolphins, Wild Longyearbyen, Dog Cart Overbooking Fiasco, West End of Dogs Going East, Further north to Magdelene Fjord, Polar Bear false alarm, 80+degrees north latitude with whales and bergs, Killer Bee Norwegian buffet

We are now heading south again, after two amazing days in the far north of the Arctic Ocean. When I last reported in, we were watching for whales and dolphins as we approached Spitsbergen. Shortly after that update, we saw several whale spouts and then a group of black-nosed dolphins that converged on the ship and decided to have fun. We were in Horizons and almost everyone had left to get ready for dinner. We looked straight down on the animals as they were swimming to keep up with Nautica, then they would go diving under the ship. One even surfed in the wake of the ship.

We arrived bright and early Monday morning in the town of Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen. This far north outpost has nearly two thousand people, who devote their time and energies to coal production, science installations and experiments, and tourism. The town has brightly painted homes and apartments, lots of shops, and a free university (no political science or philosophy offered, but mostly sciences and engineering). Many of the residents walk around with rifles over their shoulders. In fact, we had an announcement that polar bears were sighted on Mt. Plateau, the peak next to the dock area and they requested that people not hike on their own. We decided not to go into town on the free shuttle, as we were scheduled to head out on our dog cart ride at noon from the dock. A nice lady we met in Horizons at breakfast agreed to find us two t-shirts in town with the 78 degree north latitude info on the shirt, plus a refrigerator magnet.

We went to the room and donned our multiple layers, jackets, winter hats and gloves and went down to the dock to meet others from our group. The temperature was in the upper thirties and some rain showers were starting to come in. Two more couples showed up and the chaos began. A small SUV pulled up, looking only for Steve and me (he only had room for four). One other couple piled in and we headed for the Radisson hotel in town to try and figure out how to rendezvous with the others. The other couple at the dock was picked up in a larger Toyota truck SUV with bench seating in the back (more about this vehicle later). We waited and waited as lots of discussions were going on and finally found out that the tour was overbooked. The dog cart rides accommodate ten people and we had twelve. Recriminations flew from the couple that originally found this tour and advertised it on our Roll Call and they blamed Steve and I for the overbooking, although we did exactly what they wanted us to do and we booked the noon tour months ago directly with the tour company, asking for a pickup at the ship and let this couple know we were booked via email. This same pair found the Honningsvåg tour that 14 of us took, but they refused to handle the money for the booking. Steve volunteered for this decidedly complicated task and was never thanked by them for doing it. I guess it takes all kinds, but we are reluctant to play travel agent in the future when people behave this way; this is the risk you take trying to do independent tours. Ironically, this couple’s booking on the dog cart tour was for the 9:00 am departure according to the paperwork, but they still insisted that we were to blame. At this point I wanted to say to hell with it and the tour company did offer to compensate us with lunch and museum admissions. But I got a little stubborn – I really wanted to experience the dog cart ride, so we finally got an agreement that two people would swap out at the halfway point and we would get to experience half the ride. One of the guides assured us there would be plenty of volunteers to get off the carts after sitting there (or standing, if they were driving the cart) in the cold air and intermittent rain showers for thirty minutes.

So off we finally went to the dog farm a few kilometers east of Longyearbyen in the Aventdalen (Advent Valley). On our way, we saw other sled dog farms, a scientific scheme (scam?) to inject atmospheric CO2 into old mines, antenna installations for atmospheric studies, and mine shafts on several mountains. Only a few coal mines are still operating. Longyearbyen uses coal to generate electricity for the town, but the other mines export coal to other locations.

We arrived at the dog farm, where several teams of eight dogs were arranged in a large fenced yard by their “pecking order”. The lead dogs were at the front of the yard and their teams were in rows behind them. Each dog had a wood hut to go into, mostly when the weather is warmer or the sun is out (they prefer very cold weather). These dogs were mostly mixed breeds of Greenland and Alaskan Husky dogs. The racing sled dogs also have greyhound in the mix, but they are less tolerant of cold. Our group was instructed to go into a wood hut and don rain gear and mud boots. I crammed my walrus-sized rear into a pair of the pants and found a jacket, then struggled with the big rubber boots, which did nothing to keep my feet warm, but did make it very difficult to walk.

Waddling out again across a rickety boardwalk to the dog yard, we got the instructions on the dogs and their handling. There were two sleds with two seats and a driver platform, one with one seat and the driver and two seats available with the lead sled and guide (hence the ten). We stood alongside the Toyota truck, since we would follow the group to the midway point, and watched as the guides went in the yard and began the protocol of bringing dogs out to harness them up. The lead dog and his/her companion dog are harnessed first, then the next pair, the third pair and finally the fourth pair. On one of the teams, the second pair of dogs obviously hated each other with a white hot fury, snarling at each other, baring teeth and barking frantically while the other dogs watched in a bemused manner. The guides actually led each pair of dogs by short chains with their front legs off the ground to the harness position, with the dogs yipping fiercely.

While the teams finished their preparations, Steve and I decided to get into the Toyota truck. Well, now I had a real problem. With all of the gear I had on, plus the residual weakness in my left leg from my herniated disk , I could not climb into the front seat. We decided to try the back entrance, with a very high step into the seating area, with no handles to help out. Nope – no go on this route and I was not about to put pressure on my knees (very unpleasant). We asked one of the guides to bring out another step. He found a wood crate and I tried again. I finally got in backwards and scooted onto the floor of the back passenger area and decided to sit there for the ride. Time to get back on the exercise bike when we get home (major red-faced embarrassment). The guide who drove us was very nice and spoke English quite well. He told us about Longyearbyen and the work required to take care of the dogs. This Spitsbergen tour group has 130 total dogs and they rotate thirty at a time to the compound for cart or sled tours. We slowly followed the teams as they set out on the road.

We reached the halfway point and one of the carts nearly turned over because the person driving didn’t turn it properly going through a sharp turn. That problem got fixed and we got out of the vehicle to wait for a transfer. Three women on the ride immediately volunteered to get off and go back to the compound in the truck and Steve and I were able to get on the lead sled with the guide. The guide asked Steve if he wanted to drive and I got into the front seat. I had a scare for a few moments when the stupid rubber boot on my left foot caught in the foot pad and twisted my left knee at a very uncomfortable angle. Fortunately, there has been no long-term damage since I don’t have a meniscus, ACL or PCL in my knee anymore.

Hee-Yah! Off we went! The guide told us about the lead dog on this lead sled. This dog, Topp, is trained to be a leader instead of a follower, because he has nothing to follow and must have the disposition to move forward when commanded. The second dog in front, Maud, is also of a similar disposition. It was fun watching the eight dogs run a few feet in front of me (except when one of the back pair went poop right in front of me while running – bleah). We stopped after a fairly short run and the guides and some of the riders got water for the dogs. Although the temperature was hovering near 35 degrees, this is hot for the dogs and they quickly get very thirsty. I took some short video with my camera and lots of pictures, smiling at the waving tails in front of me. One dog, a large white one looked quite tired near the end. We finally reached the turn-off for the road into compound. Steve skillfully negotiated the turn and we made our way into the compound. Whoa!! We stopped and the guides went through the reverse protocol putting the dogs in the compound while we took off the rain gear and boots. I practically ran to the smaller vehicle so I could make sure I didn’t need to climb into the Toyota truck for the ride back to the pier. All in all, this was a fantastic experience, in spite of the annoyance with our fellow passengers on the booking (we noticed that they didn’t volunteer to get off at the halfway point – I don’t think they will be on our Christmas Card list).

We had a late lunch at Waves, sitting outside. Nautica sailed at 6:00 pm and made its way through the long Isfjord west, then turned northwards to head to Magdalene Fjord, on the far northwest corner of Spitsbergen.

We woke up very early on Tuesday, threw on the warm clothes and went out on the veranda. The view was spectacular, full of imposing mountains and glaciers and dramatic cloud layers and the sun peeking through. We even had snow briefly. Another ship was in the fjord, a Compagnie du Ponant expedition ship called Le Boreal. Passengers from that ship were zipping around in zodiacs and many were walking on a spit of land known as Gravenset, the site of numerous graves of whalers who were in the area in the 18th century. We turned around near a tidewater glacier and slowly made our way back out of the fjord. Captain Hansen maneuvered the ship into an inlet near the Gravenset spit, making me wonder about his sanity briefly (a sailboat in that same area quickly backed out of our way).

Finally, as we were heading out again, we stopped because one of the bridge crew thought he had spotted a polar bear off the port side. The ship nearly listed over with the stampede to that side of Horizons, with everyone elbowing each other with binoculars and camera lenses, looking for that elusive bear. We joked that the bear was probably on the starboard side, waving at the ship or even dancing a chorus line number. Finally, the word came back – false alarm! The movement that was spotted was a reindeer high up on a moraine glacier. Sigh – well, just because we didn’t see a polar bear, we still think it is exciting to be in places that they inhabit.

After leaving Magdalene Fjord, we turned north again, now in pursuit of crossing 80 degrees north latitude and to find ice from the Polar Ice Cap. This quest was successful, as we encountered small and large floes and actually made it to 80 degrees, 28 minutes north latitude, within 600 miles of the North Pole. They lowered a rescue boat and had several crew members go out and chip off some of ice to put on display in the bars. We also saw quite a few whale spouts in the area. The Horizons lounge was packed with people so we were glad we got there early enough to get a front table. Some people were disappointed that we didn’t get to 81 degrees north and a few thought we would cruise up to a wall of ice (I don’t believe it looks that way in the summer). The intent was never to circumnavigate Svalbard, unlike the depiction in the map from the cruise itinerary, so that was a bit misleading. Apparently, there is still fast ice all the way to shore near the Northeast Island (Nordauslandet).

We turned around after getting the ice and began heading south. In celebration of this event, everyone got a certificate in their room with the exact latitude and longitude of our furthest point north. After this busy day, we had dinner in the Terrace Cafe, where they featured Norwegian specialties. Everything was delicious and we ate too much, as usual.

Today, July 17, is a day at sea as we cruise back to mainland Norway, with a stop tomorrow in Harstad, our last port above the Arctic Circle. We are renting a car tomorrow and have another couple going with us to see some sights. I know this is a ridiculously long post, but thought the information would be fun and we also use these posts to remember what we did. Steve will post some photos soon.

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