Travels with Lois and Jason

Norwegian Fjords, Artic Circle and Ireland

July 1 -- 25, 2006



WOW, forty-years together and counting.  To celebrate we did a fun month of travel that included dream castles, spectacular sights, stimulating conversations, and high-tea!    Our vacation was like three journeys in one (a cruise, the Norwegian fjords / Arctic Circle, and a tour of Ireland), each with its own special distinct experiences, and we're not sure which was the most satisfying.

Go to Ireland part of trip.

We picked the Arctic since we had gone to Antarctica for our 35th anniversary. We had traveled by car through Norway with our son Kevin in 1989 at the end of his year as a high school exchange student in Norway, and wanted to see the fjords from sea level.  Lois had visited Ireland in 1965 (the year before we met) and has always spoken of its natural beauty.  We figured, that as long as we were going to England to catch a ship north, we might as well only go through jet-lag once and do Ireland as well.  Turned out to be a really great decision.


In making our travel plans we focused on scenery oriented tours.  We knew there were side trips, excursions in different ports and towns, but these were secondary in our thinking.  Our goal was to see the splendor of nature.  WOW, were we in for a shock:  we visited prehistoric art work, iron age houses, and burial grounds which predated Stonehenge.  We went to museums preserving the history of mass human migration, of technological advancement, of splendid living in a forsaken environment, and of entire towns designated cultural sites to preserve their uniqueness. 


Overall, we flew to London Heathrow; shuttle bused to Dover (famous for its white cliffs) and joined the Swan Hellenic ship for two full weeks of cruising to within 700 miles of the North Pole.  Upon returning to Dover and Heathrow, we flew to Dublin to begin a ten-day bus tour of Ireland, focusing on the countryside and national parks.  After returning to Dublin, we flew home.


The Cruise


We thought the Norwegian fjords and Arctic Circle would be best seen via ship.  In planning our trip, we had selected where we wanted to go and when, and then looked for ways to get there.  The choices were quite limited, and we selected Swan Hellenic as it best matched our where/when criteria.  We assumed that the cruise portion would be tolerable, commercially oriented pushing side trips, someone taking your picture at every turn, casinos and gift shops.  We never dreamt it would be exceptional, and so unique and special, that it has to be thought of as a trip unto itself.  Imagine spending two weeks in a magnificent 19th century English manor house, complete with wood paneled library, Victorian furniture, spectacular sights (in lieu of the gardens), a complete "up-stairs/down-stairs" serving staff and afternoon-tea served every day at 1600 (4:00 PM).  To complete the picture, imagine being the only Americans among 600 Brits (and a support staff of 300 to assure every whim was addressed).  That was our ship:  all expenses were paid upfront (side trips, gratuities, etc., even the laundry room) so there was no commercial agenda.






Reception area; also used for afternoon tea

Dining Room (one of four)


The Swan Hellenic logo is "discovery cruising," which precisely describes what we experienced.  The entire trip was organized around enhancing our enjoyment through education.  Deck-talks describing what we were going by and formal lectures were an integral part of each day's routine. Imagine being back at the university taking only the classes you want, and with no grades or exams, with outstanding professors sharing their knowledge, discussing the geology, culture, art and bird life of the area. Imagine that school as a living laboratory, where you walk out of class and look around at your surroundings and say "Oh, that's what the professor was talking about!" 


For the 600 passengers, the average age was about 70.  About a third of us were newbie's, first time Swan Hellenic customers. Many had been traveling with the company for years.  Tragically the company has been purchased by Princess line and the ship will be converted to a standard cruise ship in April 2007.  Lots of people had scheduled another trip with the company for this final season, and we met one couple planning three more trips before the ship is destroyed.  We're disappointed that we can't make another trip on this ship. 


We had never been around so many of people for such a long time for whom World War II was a childhood experience.  One lady told us that her greatest fear was to be caught in the bath when the sirens when off (she was 13 back then). Another said his birthday was June 6th, and he recalled being called into the schoolmaster's office early for his 11th birthday thinking it was a party for him, to find everyone so quiet listening to the radio.  He said it was his best birthday ever, huddled all day listening to the news about D-day.  Another told of the troops that came and went through her town, while another was a mechanic repairing the piston engines on the RAF fighter planes.   One lady told us that she remembers how they all celebrated the sinking of the Tirptz since they thought that meant the war would soon be over.  Our ship went past the spot where the RAF first attacked the German battleship Tirptz, and we learned so much about every detail of the battle, and subsequent towing of the ship, and then sinking.  How many bombs were dropped, how many people died, how long the ship took to sink, were all recounted in details that were chilling.


Traveling with so many Brits had its challenges.  We quickly became accustomed to people saying "I'm not English, I'm Welsh" or "I'm Scottish," but we were surprised by the intensity of their feelings.  At lunch one of the ladies said she couldn't place Lois' accent and wanted to know what part of England we were from.  Another corrected us when we said we really enjoyed "high tea" because it wasn't "high tea" but "afternoon tea" as it came before supper instead of in lieu of supper (which made perfect sense, right?). British humor abounded.  One man pulled Lois aside and asked "Are you Jason's minder?" since Jason was using his white cane all the time and Lois was "minding" him.  The real question is whether Jason was minding?  Everyone was hoping to see whales or dolphins, and most of us were disappointed with their not appearing.  So, toward the end of the trip someone put a picture of a whale on the window and shouted "Look, whales!"  and we all went running!  And funniest were the people rushing to the window looking right past the picture for  the whales.




Whale ahoy!!!

Afternoon tea on our patio


The entertainment on the ship was outstanding.  There was a group called Absolutely Opera that did four performances:  One night eclectic mix of songs, one night Gilbert and Sullivan, one night opera, and one night Totally Mozart.  Two nights the ships crew performed traditional songs and dances of their countries:  One night was Filipino and the other Indonesian. 


One cannot go on a cruise and not mention the food.  Food wise, except for breakfast, the menu was ever changing.  We had the really outstanding mousaka and duck in orange sauce,  but every day at lunch and dinner, they served two different soups.  Over the two weeks, 50 different soups were served, and some were so good we had another bowl for dessert.  We also became addicted to scones with clotted cream and jam!


The Norwegian fjords and Arctic Circle


We expected to see snow crested mountains, glaciers, flowing and packed sea ice, and the midnight sun.  Any encounters with polar bears, whales, and dolphins would be a bonus.  Since we're not birders, seeing the winged creatures wasn't high on our list, but we sure did see lots of them.  (A big surprise was seeing dolphins in Ireland!)


A fjord is a glacially carved valley that ends at an ocean so that the valley floor is flooded by seawater.   Some fjords are large enough that large ships can successfully sail many miles into them.  Our cruise explored five fjords (which we describe in our itinerary below).  The fjords were all carved about 18,000 years ago, during the last great ice age.  (The Great Lakes, Yosemite Valley, and Long Island Sound were also carved during this period.) 


The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line parallel to the equator, but at 66 degrees north latitude.  It is the point at which, during the summer the sun never sets, and during the winter, it never rises.


The fjords we saw varied in shape, size, vegetation, elevation and beauty.  Also, each individual fjord varied as we sailed through it.  We saw steep, vertical sides; we saw gentle rolling hills; some were barren, some were bushy;  some were pointed, some were flat;  a couple had glaciers but most had no snow. We saw old granite and young sandstone.  Most hillsides were covered by grasses;  there were very few trees. Isolated homes were everywhere, with villages in almost every little valley with some flat land.  Snow patches were much less than expected, as were the glaciers given the length and breath of the mountains.


The weather was very frustrating in terms of clouds and rain.  As we sailed north along the Norwegian coast, clouds obscured our view and we didn't even know a spectacular mountain range paralleled our course.  We had better weather as we sailed south and enjoyed the constantly changing panorama.  At Aurlandsfjord, where vertical mountains walls and a narrow channel made the ships passage most dramatic, we saw practically nothing (in spite of a mid-night sun!).  Even though we spent seven days above the Arctic Circle, cloud cover hid the mid-night sun from our view every night but one (July 8th).  That night was perfectly cloudless, and we went on deck at 2300 (11:00 PM) and took pictures under the clock.  (If we were 20 years younger, we would have stayed up until 0000 -- can't call it midnight since it was never night!)


Our Daily Adventures




Our plane arrived at London Heathrow right on time (12:25 PM), and as we came through customs and into the arrival area about 1:30, we expected to be greeted by someone with a sign saying "Swan Hellenic."  But there was no one with a sign, and even after a quick search, Lois wasn't able to find anyone.  We went to the information counter and the lady was super nice and called the Swan Hellenic office (headquartered in London) for us.  We found out we were to go to the Hilton Hotel at terminal 1 (we were at Terminal 3), and we better hurry as the last bus would be leaving at 2:30 for the 2 hour drive to Dover.  Our ship was leaving at 5:00, with or without us.  A frantic ten-minute walk got us to the train, and after what seemed like hours (about 10 minute wait) we boarded for the ten-minute train ride to Terminal 1.  We then had another ten minute walk in blistering heat through a non-air conditioned above the highway tunnel to the Hilton.  When we arrived, a 50 passenger bus was waiting for us and we got it all to ourselves.  So much for conservation of gas!  The tension rose:  the bus driver told us there was an accident on the M25 (the freeway) and he wasn't sure we'd make the dock before the ship left.  Fortunately he had a heavy foot (and no brakes), and it was like an "E-ticket" ride so we arrived at Dover at 4:45, and boarded just before they pulled up the gangplank.  (Must say, one advantage of this arrangement was we didn't have to wait in any lines at the boarding dock!)




We attended our first lectures today, and they were so good, we were glad they were repeated on the closed circuit TV so that we could re-watch a couple.  The promenade deck posted "13 laps = 1 mile" so we did that two or three times every day. 



Our first port of call was Stavanger.  In the morning we took a small boat about one hour up the Lysefjord to see Pulpit Rock, a squared plateau standing 1900 feet above the sea.  The aerial views of The Rock were awesome on the web site, but looking up from the bottom was less imposing.  Our excursion through Stavanger harbor, which is dominated by an impressive suspension bridge supported by a single central tower, took us by the Norwegian grain silo that stores six months emergency food for the entire population.  


                    written by Adobe Photoshop� 4.0


Pulpit Rock top view from website

Our view of Pulpit Rock from boat



In the afternoon we took the Stavanger city tour that included a visit to an Iron Age Long House dating from the period around 900 BC to 1000 AD.  We then went on a walking tour of the old town.  The houses were all of wood, and painted red or yellow or white to indicate the wealth of the owners.  Red paint was cheapest because it came from animal blood.  White was the most expensive. 


Stavanger trivia:  the paper clip was invented here in 1899.



We crossed the Arctic Circle around mid-night and at breakfast many people asked if we felt the bump!  We had a fun day asking all the Brits "Do you know what day this is?"  Most hand no idea!   But, one couple recommended that we buy drinks for the entire ship to celebrate our victory.  Relaxed in the Jacuzzi.



These islands, while above the Arctic Circle, are ice-free during the winter season thanks to the "warm" waters of the Gulf Stream.  We visited the fishing village of Nusfjord, which had a very fishy smell, due to the large number of fish heads hung to dry everywhere.  The farmers of the island use the fish heads as fertilizer.  The wild flowers were in full bloom:  dark and light purple, yellow and white.









We listened to the lecture on Norwegian history and walked the promenade three times.  The lecturer told us that in Norway they define a sunny day as the sun coming out, even if it's only for a few minutes.  He said a friend had complained that he missed the sunny day because he had to go the bathroom!  Between meals, walking, and lectures, the time just floated by!



Svalbard is an archipelago between 74 - 81degrees north latitude, midway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Spitsbergen is the largest of the islands.  Longyerbyen (79 degrees N) is the seat of local government and located in the Advent fjord on the west coast of Spitsbergen.  Everywhere we looked Longyerbyen showed evidence that it was a former coal-mining settlement from the cable way trestles to the abandoned mine shaft to the loading docks.  Currently about 1800 people live there year round (with 1500 snowmobiles) and the new three-year-old university has about 80 students studying topic related to the Arctic.  We visited the new Museum, with exhibits on all aspects of Arctic life.  The biggest exhibit focused on protecting yourself from polar bears.  Despite Svalbard being so close to the North Pole, the archipelago has a relatively mild climate compared to areas at the same latitude because of the Gulf Stream. The average temperature ranges from 6 degrees F during winter to 42 degrees F during summer.  It rained the day we visited.


After departing Longyerbyen we sailed along the fjord and saw the most spectacular glaciers of the trip. As we came into the fjord we passed through brack-ice (small pieces of sea ice which had not yet melted).  There wasn't very much.  Also, it appeared that the glaciers we were able to see had retreated from the shorelines so it was melt water that entered the ocean rather than chunks breaking into the ocean and forming icebergs.












Arne, who gave the lectures on Norway, said that in his fifty trips to Svalbard he had only seen Bear Island four times.  Well, this morning was his fifth!  While sailing close we kept wondering if the name was "bare" or "bear" island as it appeared so barren.  In years past, Bear Island, which is about mid-way between Svalbard and the mainland was populated by polar bears that traveled to the island on drifting sea ice.  This year there were less ice packs and no polar bears were seen.  The weather was clear all day and night so that, for the first time, we were able to see the midnight sun.



The town of Alta lies at the head of Altafjord on the northern coast of Finnmark, the northern- and easternmost county of Norway. During WWII, the Nazis occupied this area and when they left they used a "scorched earth policy" and burned everything, houses and trees, to the ground.  So, everything we saw in this town � man made or vegetation � was built or planted since 1945. 


We went to the Alta Museum where they had a fantastic display on the Aurora Borealis (northern lights).  One study found that the magnetic field could alter a pacemaker. At the museum we took the walking tour outside the museum to see prehistoric rock carvings of hunting and fishing scenes dating back 6000 years.  The carvings are at different levels above sea level around the fjord.  Our guide explained that they were all carved when the particular piece of rock was at sea level and over the last millennia the ground has been rising.  Throughout Norway the land is rising due to the melting of the glaciers that removes some of the weight off the land. The geologist told us that Norway has, on average, 14 earthquakes each day (almost all magnitude 3 or less on the Richter Scale), due to this constant rising.








Listened to the lectures on Art Nouveau in preparation for our next port of call. 



A fire in January, 1904 destroyed the entire  the town of Alesund.  It was then rebuilt entirely in the Jugendstil Art Nouveau style in 1906, incorporating Viking designs, curves instead of straight lines, and curved decorations around doors, counters, and vertical patterns (each floor had different window designs).  We took a walking tour to see the distinction of the various buildings.



The Sognefjord is the longest (120 miles) fjord in the world.  We sailed about 80 miles into the fjord through tall, impressive mountains, to Flam.  We took the Flam Railway that snaked its way from sea level to 2700 feet through the mountains, paralleling a river, and providing views of spectacular scenery: an alpine lake, massive cliffs and waterfalls. We went to an alpine hotel for tea and waffles (they served waffles with sour cream and jam everywhere we went in Norway), and a walk to a great viewpoint for views of the falls, valley and river.




Flam train station: elevation sea level

View from train





Covered tracks in middle of picture

Waffles at 2700 feet



The journey out of Sognefjord took us through a very narrow and misty canyon, and we sailed that night to reach Bergen the following morning.  In Bergen, we visited the Stave Church.  Sadly vandals burned the several hundred-year-old Stave Church to the ground in 1992.   A reconstructed church, based on 4000 photos, opened four years ago.  We then toured the city, ending at the funicular.  Unfortunately the rain was strongest when we got to the top, so made for a poor view. We spent the afternoon walking the old town of wooden and overlapping buildings.


Departing Sognefjord we saw the last of the Norwegian coast, and that which we missed going north.






Enjoyed the day and our last afternoon tea of scones, clotted cream and jam.



Our adventure continued in Ireland.

Go to Ireland part of trip.



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August 8, 2006