Sunday, June 24, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 10 - Option B

Unusually, the Captain made an announcement quite late last night, to reassure concerned passengers guests that the half-hour or so of pronounced shuddering we had been experiencing  was nothing to worry about: it was just some sort of mismatch between propeller speed and open-sea waves (he gave a more technical explanation). It happened again early this morning, though, and this time he admitted that since we're now back in the shelter of the fjords, it's more likely to be a propeller malfunction and that divers will be inspecting it when we arrive in Tromsø this evening. 

And that's the other thing: our call at Hammerfest has been cancelled because the "awful weather" made using the tenders too dangerous. Not that it feels that bad: it's grey and cold, and dampish, and sadly the tops of the peaks are hidden - but there's nothing much in the way of motion. Believe me: my stomach would tell me if there were. The Silver Spirit is big and stable enough to cope with much worse than this, I'm sure. A swell does certainly make getting into the tenders quite exciting, though, especially as so many people on board seem to have mobility problems. I've never felt so spry, in comparison; and seeing so many bent backs all around me is doing wonders for my posture.

So today was all about extra activities: an interesting lecture about the Arctic convoys during WWII, familiar territory to me from the Alistair Maclean phase back in my youth; a movie in the theatre ('Darkest Hour' - bit of a theme going here?); spa stuff, games and so on. Regular readers 😃 know that I did not take part in all of these . None of the passengers guests seemed especially bothered about missing a port, though probably like me, they were all hoping we'll be literally back on course tomorrow.

The afternoon passed pleasantly with wandering around the ship for random snacks and drinks, popping out at the bow to be shocked at the strength of the wind, and its coldness, and turning up at the Panorama Lounge for a binge session of games: Name that Tune, Bingo and finally Trivial Pursuit (second with 19/25 today - damn not knowing the name of South Africa's new president) which was hugely popular, with folding chairs being brought in for all the extra people.

We dawdled along the fjord, past high black rocky peaks, a border of green along the shore with random scatters of holiday houses, an unexpected oil rig, plunging waterfalls, plenty of Indian snow right down to the waterline, and endless forest. Finally we arrived at Tromsø, a town spread out along the shores of the fjord, an elegant bridge linking its two halves, one of them topped with two honestly frighteningly steep ski jumps on top of a hill. There was a message from the Captain that the divers will be inspecting the propellers in the morning and that, if they find a fishing net tangled around one of them, we'll get to eat the contents.

Highlight of the day was dinner with June and John in Atlantide, swapping travel stories that included jazz, shoulder injuries, horses, rhino and gorillas.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 9 - No man, nor Magerøy either, apparently

With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster

This morning we slid into the harbour of Honningsvåg on the island of Magerøya - or is it? An island, I mean. According to Norwegian law, a channel of less than 2km means an island is part of the mainland and since Magerøya is just 1.8km from the coast, its northernmost point claims the prize of being closer to the Pole than the rest of mainland Europe, at 71degrees 10'21". Already halfway a cheat, that description conveniently ignores the fact that a nearby, much less dramatic-looking, headland is actually more than a kilometre further north - but forget all that, North Cape has been an established tourist attraction since 1664 when an Italian priest was the first foreign visitor to get the equivalent of a Been There certificate.

All of that seemed academic when I opened the curtains to yet another dull rainy day with low cloud. Still, I went ashore and poked around the nearby museum, learning that the town of 2000-odd people - in fact, the entire province of Finnmark - was occupied by the Germans during the war and, when the army was forced to retreat in 1944, they evicted everyone and burned the whole place to the ground, leaving only the church standing: their 'scorched earth' policy. Other fishing villages were never rebuilt, but the people brought Honningsvåg back to life. If that wasn't inspiring enough, when I emerged from the museum all the rain and cloud was gone, and the town was glowing in Technicolor glory. 

So I walked along the promenade and admired the dinky fishing boats perfectly reflected in the still water, and the painted houses, and the bare rocky hillsides all around. I circled around the town, happily clicking away, very much tempted by the pretty things in the art galleries, and sorry I wouldn't be able to see the live show about the town that some friendly locals were promoting outside the theatre.

Of course then, just as we gathered for our bus trip to North Cape, the clouds returned, the temperature dropped, and there was talk of fog ahead. But we set off anyway, past the harbour and cod-drying racks, into the treeless interior that looked very like Scotland: just grass and blunted rock, with lots of lakes, and also small clusters of red-painted summer houses. And reindeer! Grazing uncontained, smaller than expected, and making the most of the summer grass. Traditionally they are herded by the Sámi people, and we had a photo stop with colourfully-dressed Nils, who looked wary, and his furry-antlered reindeer which was happily hoeing into a rack of lichen. We were warned not to ask him how many reindeer he has, as that's like asking for his bank balance.

We pressed on to North Cape, which was busy with tourists and hikers and dogs, and also, happily, relatively free of fog so we could see the Barents Sea 300m below the sheer cliff. In the basement of the tourist centre we watched a movie which was beautifully filmed and showed this Finnmark province in all weathers and seasons. Spectacular. Three hundred years plus of catering to tourists means they're pretty well set up here with gift shop, museum, café and so on - but outside it's still forbiddingly natural. Apart from the big globe above the cliff, of course, which it is entirely obligatory to photograph.

After dinner we headed out of Honningsvåg to sail past North Cape and begin our slow return back to Copenhagen in a week's time, with dire warnings from the captain that weather conditions of "Norway's crazy summer" might make our next port of call, Hammerfest, a no-go. On a calm, almost sunny evening with the snow-patched sea cliffs of Magerøya potlit here and there, and North Cape looming dramatically above them all, it seemed hard to believe.

Highpoint of today was trouncing at dinner the Aussie old white man, who boringly insisted on doing the Kiwi put-down thing, with a well-timed underarm bowling jibe. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 8 - I cod you not

With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster
So of course we woke to brighter weather today, having left the Lofoten Islands far behind during the night. I say ‘night’ – but we’re well into the midnight sun zone now, so it's a good thing the Silver Spirit’s curtains are a decent thickness.

Harstad is a pleasant little town notable for its ‘Adolf gun’ on a hilltop (just your regular Nazi-installed WWII cannon), a fortified church and a historic village, none of which I visited. Instead I meandered around the hilly streets surrounding the harbour, enjoying the colours of the neat houses – red, yellow, green, blue, with pleasingly contrasting window frames and doors – and simply being out in the fresh air and sunshine. I met my second friendly Norwegian cat so far – this time a soft-furred grey one called Lily, who was very purry and dribbly but, according to her owner, only with strangers, treating those who actually feed and house her with disdain. Cats, eh.

The locals were focused on a flower market in the town square, no doubt enjoying their brief fling with pansies, petunias and marigolds – the giveaway snow-scraper scratch marks on the pavements telling a different sort of story. I ate a tasty crèpe cooked at a pavement stall, the classic banana and Nutella version. The customer queuing behind me was interested in our cruise, and told me with quiet pride that yesterday’s port, Svolvaer, has an annual fishing contest which he once won with a catch of a 22kg Arctic cod.

And then at lunchtime we were on our way again, heading back our through the fjords and yet further north, past improbably isolated-looking island settlements of wooden houses and barns in pockets of green fields, surrounded by unbroken woodland. Trivial Pursuit restored our team's confidence with 22/25 and second place, with a bit of a controversy over the pronunciation of 'pamplemousse', and personal satisfaction at holding out, against spirited support for Lake Victoria, for Lake Baikal as the biggest by volume in the world.

High point of today was choosing the Atlantic cod at the main restaurant, Atlantide, and selecting the lemon butter sauce to accompany it. Delectable!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 7 - Nobody died: in fact, the opposite


With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster
Antelope Canyon, Santorini, Torres del Paine and the Lofoten Islands: what do they have in common? That's right: a huge Instagram presence. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that cluster of colourful wooden houses tucked under a bare rocky peak, beside a turquoise sea. I had never heard of them before IG and now they’ve become pretty much a part of my daily life. So it was a bit of a thrill to wake up this morning as we came in to dock at Svolvaer, the islands’ busy port town.

Only a bit, that is, because it was raining, and the tops of the peaks were hidden in low cloud, the sea was grey and a big swell made getting off the ship into the tenders a dodgy undertaking. I dithered over what I should do with the day, not having booked anything – which, given the weather, was just as well. But then two Aussie angels arrived at my elbow, said they’d hired a car and would I like to share it with them for a drive around the islands? Perfect!

It was slightly less perfect when we went to pick up the nice new Mazda SUV and they found, to their consternation and embarrassment, that they’d both left their driving licences back in their suite safe. So I ended up having to drive. Regular readers 😄 will know that my last experience of driving on the right (wrong) side of the road was in Louisiana, with no sat-nav, and that it involved sweating, many U-turns and a constant chorus of ‘Keep right!’ It wasn’t fun.

But driving through these rocky Norwegian islands, linked by soaring bridges, was a much less fraught affair. The roads are narrow and winding, but well maintained with lots of passing bays, and people drive more slowly here. The Aussies sat in the back directing me and being encouraging, and forgiving about the odd hiccup – which occasioned nothing more aggressive than headlight flashes from the locals – and it was possible to almost relax after a while.

There were glacier-scraped rocks, pointy peaks with Indian snow coming clear of dramatically-swirling dark cloud, fresh foliage and wildflowers, orange kelp draped over the rocks (and over a clothes hanger outside one house). The houses were mostly brown, yellow and white, with a couple of blue ones to disprove our theory of why we hadn’t seen any, and a few with traditional grass roofs. The fields were neat, there were a few sheep, and lots and lots of fishing boats moored in little harbours. Not the super-picturesque ones of IG fame, but still pretty. We saw a reconstructed Viking longhouse from 700 AD, and long wooden drying frames hung with thousands of gutted cod (fortunately downwind).

It was a very pleasant day out and off the ship and, if disappointing weather-wise, it could have been much worse and was at least typical of what the doughty people here have to live with.

The Trivial Pursuit score today was a heartening 21/25, making us first equal again – plus, there was a NZ question (about the Rainbow Warrior. No French in the room).

Highlight of the day would have been the relief at getting the hire car back to the agency unscathed – but that was trounced by our unmarried 37 year-old Prime Minister back home giving birth today to a baby girl for whom her partner will be the primary care-giver. Sharing our current space with so many citizens of the US, it’s particularly gratifying to be able to be proud of our head of government.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 6 - Downtime is not a downer

With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster

We had another At Sea day today. People who haven't (yet) cruised can be forgiven for thinking that this is the weak spot of any itinerary; but those of us who have know that these can be the best days. Or at least they are for anal types like me who feel obliged to do and see as much as possible when they're travelling. For me a day at sea is a holiday from the holiday, a chance to relax when I can lie in with a clear conscience, linger over breakfast and lunch, poke around the ship's nooks and crannies, download photos, even do menial stuff like laundry. And, of course, take advantage of the programme of onboard activities laid on by Silversea.

Today that included another talk by Mr Paranoid, security expert Peter LaSorsa, who this time had some actually useful tips about emails and passwords; beginner's German (hijacked by an OWM far from being a beginner); a lecture about Alfred Nobel; a talk about opals with, surprise! a chance to buy some afterwards; and the usual choice of bridge, exercise and spa treatments. A special today was a presentation about what the Cruise Director took great care not to call a takeover of Silversea by Royal Caribbean, who have just acquired 66% of the company. The theatre was full of anxious and protective long-time Silversea patrons afraid that things are going to change. They were told that Silversea would remain separate and true to itself, and that the investment would just allow even better things, like an increase in ships to twelve, which was always the family's dream. Time will tell. There is, it's fair to say, scepticism. And it didn't help that in the videoed conversation between the CEOs, the RCL chairman kept referring to 'Silverseas'. Tch.

Then there was Bingo with cleverly designed boards, a very poor unplaced Trivial Pursuit effort, and as compensation later, dinner at Indochine, where we were recognised and welcomed by a waiter, Angelo, from Silver Explorer, whose recommendation of the crème brulée was spot on. A special Name That Tune competition followed, which redeemed our TP shame, allowing us to retire with our egos intact.

High point today was, despite Capt. Macarone telling us that we would be "gently suffering" from 35 knot winds and big swells, not being affected one bit by the motion of the ship.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 5 - Not having my kayak


With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster
The promised/threatened rough seas didn’t eventuate last night and we woke to a smooth slide in through the long fjord towards Trondheim. Further thoughts on the fiord/fjord thing: apart from the truly spectacular fjord we sailed into to visit Flåm, the others we’ve seen so far have not been at all what I expected. Flat, basically: not the soaring, steep mountains plunging straight down into the water that we get in New Zealand’s Fiordland, but instead low, lumpy, worn-looking trails of rocky islets and stumpy hills. Clearly much older than ours – but, also clearly, nowhere near as striking. So far!

Trondheim is Norway’s third-largest city, also once the capital, full of students and best-known for its colourful wooden warehouses lining the looping river, and a massive cathedral. My plan here was to do an independent kayak trip along the river – but sadly it was raining again, and that just didn’t sound like fun any more. So instead I went on a Silversea excursion by bus, boat and bus again to see it all through rain-streaked windows, and hear about the history that I would otherwise have missed out on. Vikings and fires, basically, plus the Germans building a submarine pen here in WWII out of concrete that in parts is five metres thick. So it is, naturally, still in place, and used now to store things, and for occasional parties.

Then the weather cleared a bit and I spent the rest of the day happily walking around the inviting narrow cobbled streets, taking photos of the colourful warehouses on their rickety-looking piles, the old bridges, cute little houses, the fortress on the hill, and a truck I watched with admiration squeezing through a challengingly narrow and curved side street.

I was back at the Silver Spirit in time for a much better team performance at Trivial Pursuit, at which we scored first-equal – and would have been first, if I hadn’t got the meaning of PDF wrong, tch. ‘Public display file’ seems to me much more obvious than ‘portable document format’.

Highlight of the day: watching the operation of the world’s only bike lift. It’s like a conveyor belt built beneath the surface at the side of a street climbing up a – to be honest, not very steep – hill, where you position yourself on your bike, put your right foot against a metal wedge, press a button and let the wedge push you up the slope. Or not. It was a bit temperamental – but it did work, mostly.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 4 - Number Two tries harder. Sometimes.


With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise.
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster.
Bergen has, they say, 245 days of rain a year. Today was one of them. So the city, Norway’s second-biggest, once the capital, and clearly under more flattering conditions an attractive one, did not look its best with the cobbles treacherously slippery, low cloud hiding the tops of the surrounding seven peaks, and everyone scuttling through the streets, heads down. There’s a port with some impressive old-type sailing ships moored, as well as more modern marine traffic buzzing around; there are spires of various types, there’s elegant architecture both new and old; and there’s Brygge, the block of 18th century wooden houses where the Hanseatic League – a combination of the EU, and the Mafia, according to some - was based for 400 years. Those numbers don’t add up because Bergen has had many fires in its history, the worst of them in 1702 when 95% of the city was destroyed.

The houses are painted red, yellow, orange, with overhanging gables and steep staircases, and the one that’s been preserved for the museum as it was has cupboard beds (very short – they slept half-sitting because if you lay flat, you died, was the thinking), low ceilings, small windows and little comfort. After all those fires, candles and fireplaces were banned, so imagine what that was like in winter. They had separate assembly rooms that were lit and heated – but, come bedtime, brrrr!

My guide today was a bit uninspiring so, when she led everyone off to catch the funicular railway to the top of a peak that was swathed in cloud, I sloped off and poked around the shops and streets by myself. The shops are lovely, full of stylish goods (the clothes shops excepted – seems the current fashion is for baggy floral trousers that don’t look good even on the mannequins), all of them horrifically expensive. I remember that was my overriding impression of Scandinavia when I first visited in 1980 – I’d never seen so many beautiful things that I couldn’t afford.

I had a flat white only because I saw it advertised outside a café and felt obliged (verdict: too small and too strong. Not the proper thing at all). I saw an odd bronze statue of an old-fashioned homeless person, barefooted and leaning against the steps to a grand building – really, a bit of an insult to the real ones silently begging in the rain, I felt. I tutted over the ruthlessness of the municipal gardeners I saw ripping out still-flowering bedding plants to replace them with the next colour scheme. I inspected the displays on the fish market stalls and left one stall-holder bemused when I asked what the shiny black product was, and then recoiled at his answer, and his offer of a sample. It was smoked whale, people.

The sky brightened a bit so I took the smart modern funicular up to Floyen peak, but another cloud had swept in by the time I got up there and what could have been a spectacular view was substantially greyed out. Of course, by the time I had got back to the bottom, the cloud had blown away, and when I arrived back at the Silver Spirit just ahead of departure time, the sun came out and there was actual blue sky. Spit.

Later there was another lecture from the king of interet paranoia, which overran so far that I arrived only in time for the final Trivial Pursuit question of the day. I couldn’t answer it anyway: What is the biggest country by area in Africa? Algeria. My team scored a miserable 14/25 today, not even placed. Tch. But at least the US woman who didn’t know yesterday what year the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, had the perverse satisfaction of having two of her correct answers overruled. We’ve all been there, friend.

A delicious dinner was followed by the 95% genuine laughter from Jacob of the Philippines when, asked how I had enjoyed my super-tender Hot Rocks filet mignon, I replied, as per custom, “ My compliments to the chef”. 

Highlight of the day was the music: Esther and guitar in the Dolce Vita lounge, over-the-top diva/comedienne Beverley Davison in the theatre doing spectacular things with her 350 year-old Guaneri violin, and finally the DJ up in the Panorama lounge, getting people up dancing in the midnight dusk.

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