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11 July 2015

Monday 22nd June, 2015 – Off to a very good start.  As a welcome on board le Boréal, we were all handed a glass of Veuve Clicquot  and given a welcome address by the captain, who then proceeded to tell us we had a mandatory life boat drill that evening!   We settled in and proceeded on our way to a fascinating world.

Travelling up a very long fiord towards Geiranger, we passed high cliffs with waterfalls, snow on the top and an occasional farm tucked into an impossibly steep cliff.  How do they access a place like that?

There are many ferries passing to and fro.

Tuesday’s outing is to Briskdal Glacier and some wonderful sailing in Olden’s fiord.  We disembarked by tender at Olden – all very smooth – then loaded into a bus for a short drive to the path near the glacier.  The steep gravelly walk up to the glacier was challenging, but stunning when we reached it.  A small lake at the base of the glacier was quite blue – apparently formed by crystals in the snow and ice.  Fiords are created by glaciers, with the deepest part near the top of the fiord formed by the force of the glacier.  Walking down was hard on the calf muscles, but very glad we did it! 

In the evening the captain’s cocktail party was followed by a Gala dinner. Magnificent food and silver service.

Wednesday: heading to Hellesylt and Geiranger: The ship is gliding through steep black cliff faces gleaming in the sunshine, with silvery waterfalls cascading into the fiord below. The most famous are the “Seven Sisters” and the “Bridal Veil”.  The reflections in the water below are magnificent.  People are out on deck a lot, chatting and passing the time taking photos.

We are gradually discovering and meeting our fellow passengers.  Mostly French, very friendly on the whole and all very different. 

The ship anchored at Hellesylt.  We have been offered a full day tour today – mostly panoramic. We had a short walk around Stryn. However when we started to climb towards Grotil, the scenery was stunning and it became more interesting.  Had a very nice lunch in a lodge at Grotil, celery and asparagus soup, salmon, and nougat ice cream.   The lodge was full of beautiful woven cushions, rugs and hangings. 

We followed a narrow twisting and sometimes very difficult road and climbed to 1500ft, to Mount Dalslnibba, but were able to see nothing because of the clouds, and it was snowing.  We were very glad to return to the ship after a long day.

Leaving Geiranger fiord, we continued up the coast towards Ålesund sailing overnight.  Now we are coming into Ålesund and it looks like a sizeable settlement spread over several islands with colourful houses along the coast and a back drop of the spectacular Sunnmøre mountains.  The islands are linked by tunnels and bridges.  No snow on the tops here, at least not near the coast. Farming and fishing are the main occupations and have been over the centuries.  Apparently Ålesund has been inhabited for more than 8000 years. The story goes that their great Viking warrior Rolv conquered Normandy in 911 and was an ancestor of William the Conqueror.

Thursday 25th : A tour to the Giske and Godoy islands was interesting, we visited a small 13th century church made of marble with a beautifully carved and painted altar and pulpit. It was originally built as a family chapel for one of the most powerful families.

We then climbed to the top of a lighthouse, but it was spoilt by too many people and tour buses, which can be a problem in these small places.

Friday 26th : Today we will dock at Bronnoysund for the afternoon  and we will go out in zodiacs to explore the bay.  Norwegian civil wars were fought here and the original inhabitants massacred around 1240.  It was re-populated by immigrants from Southern Norway, Trondelag and Sweden, as a result there is a unique dialect, with Swedish intonation. 

Tonight at midnight we will cross into the Arctic Circle, and we are invited to the top deck at midnight to have more champagne and to celebrate! 

We are gradually going further and further north, and it is getting colder and colder. So glad to have our thermal coats provided by the ship and thermal gear leant by kind friends.  

We are living in complete luxury and we are enjoying it, loving it. At the same time we are having a great adventure.  Each day we have been on an excursion, mostly sailing overnight.  The fiords are beautiful and remarkable, so wild and unspoilt.  A wonderful experience.  There are many stories told us by the guides about trolls, and how this country is full of Trolls!!!!  ha ha

The only thing that jars is the fact that there are some monster cruisers hanging around, buses lining up on the harbours in these small places, a nightmare.   The locals must hate it.  Thank goodness we are on a small boat.  We saw a monster yesterday, very colourful, “Disney Magic” an 8 day cruise with a Disney theme.  They just look so crude in these beautiful wild places. 

So far so good, all very relaxed sitting in observation lounge, me with my knitting (a great conversation piece) and computer, John reading.  Earlier in the afternoon we went to the theatre where the captain presented a very interesting documentary on the first solar boat that sailed around the world, he was part of the Swiss crew, fascinating stuff. Some very interesting questions resulted from a discussion afterwards.  He then did the same presentation in English the next morning.  

When we have time, we go to the gym for a half hour work out – not every day.
The food is unbelievable, and there is an open bar system so we can have anything we like basically. Champagne is served at the drop of a hat.  After dinner last night we went to top deck to watch us sailing out of the fiord, and waiters came round with champagne for all.  Needless to say, very jolly.

Preparing to board zodiac

We went to a mandatory lecture on travelling in zodiacs, and the strict rules we should follow for everyone’s safety.  This was done both in French and English.

We are tootling along slowly this morning between islands and the mainland towards our destination at Bronnoysund.

Saturday: in the Bronnoysund Archipelago.
Had a great outing on Zodiacs yesterday afternoon, moving around the fiord looking at waterfalls and landmarks.  I wasn’t quite sure how I would cope with it, but it was great.  We are so well looked after, a crew member at each elbow to help everyone stepping on to the Zodiacs, we all had lifejackets on of course. 

Now we are in the Arctic Circle – at midnight when we crossed into the Arctic Circle there was a special ceremony on the top deck with champagne and hot chocolate, and a group photo with crew members, great excitement for those who had not crossed the Arctic Circle before.  They turned the boat around in a complete circle – one of the advantages of a smaller cruising ship. 

We have anchored at a place called Å, and we will go to the little harbor on a tender for an all day excursion. Then the boat continues on to Nusfjord where we will join it to board again in the afternoon.   We are offered dinner with the officers tonight, but don’t know if we will bother, let's see what happens. Probably rather relax in jeans in the more informal restaurant with some others.  The food is really wonderful with gourmet choices if we want it. Lots of fish, raw, fresh cooked and preserved, each day with a main dish of venison, another day rack of lamb, maigret de canard, and other kinds of meat depending on the theme of that day, as well as wonderful salads and vegetables. 

Spindles with soapstone weights
Our tour today was around the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, it was 9c – 10c but we were dressed adequately for the cold. They have such short summers here, but because of the Gulf Stream passing by these islands it doesn’t get quite as cold as the rest of the country in winter.   It was a great tour and we both enjoyed it enormously.  Dramatic scenery, and a particularly good knowledgeable,  guide who was able to cover history, geography and politics very well.  We went to a great museum which was basically about Vikings and their heritage, on the site of an ancient Viking farm. It was well done, of course I particularly enjoyed the textile part with old looms, weaving tools, spindles with soapstone bases. They had a reconstructed long house, and lots of audio/visual information with traditional stories, legends etc. Most enjoyable.

Cod fishing is the main industry here, and there are wooden racks for drying fish all over the place.  Hundreds of fishermen come to these islands for the season, apparently that is why there has always been an important settlement here. 
Cod gather around the islands from January to April, and the season is very busy as a lot of fishing boats come from outside the area for these months.  Then the drying starts.

We asked the guide to tell us what it was like to live here in winter.  The animals are kept inside for most of the year as spring comes very late.  From June to September sheep
Sheep grazing on the roof of this house
wander freely, and some of the houses with traditional grass roofs have a few sheep on them to keep the grass trimmed. The farmer carries them up a ladder on his back. We did get one photo, but it was from the bus so don’t know how good it will be.
Snow piles up around the houses and sometimes children toboggan from the roof of a two story house sliding down the snow piled up against the sides of the house. Hard to imagine - some people climb up the snow and enter through second floor windows!
There is very little daylight, but if there is a moon, it reflects on the snow and gives a lot of light.  Pavements are kept clear with hot water pipes running underneath them.   But now there is total daylight at this time of the year.

Tonight we are sailing on to Svolvaer and will do a walking tour of the town in the afternoon.

The walking tour of Svolvaer was good, we looked at heaps of fish racks where the cod is dried.  A very strong smell.  The guide warned us not to bring a piece of dried cod into our cabins, she said “the cod move in and you move out!”  It was very cold, but good to be on foot and moving. Lots of history and information about Lofoten Islands.  Amazing bridges and tunnels connecting the islands, but very little traffic!!!

unusual black tulips

We sailed into a very narrow fiord – The Trollfiord – really dramatic to just get through the narrow cliffs and the boat had to turn 360 degrees at the end to sail out.  We could practically touch the cliffs each side where birds were nesting on ledges, mostly guillemots I think. 

This morning, Monday, we docked at Tromsø, a very interesting town. The population is around 58,000 but is spread out on an island and the mainland, with colourful houses spread out on surrounding lands sloping down to the water each side, with snow topped craggy mountains around.   There is a university here and tuition is completely free.

Any student can come from Europe to study.  Foreign students mostly study their courses in English.   Our guide Pierre was a French student, he is now in his third year of Marine Biology.  He was fantastic and so full of interesting information, particularly as he took us around the museum.  Part of our excursion took us to the top of a mountain in a cable car so we had a good walk at the top.  Tiny wildflowers and turfy moss, very, very cold with a biting wind. Stunning views so lots of photos to come!!!   We then visited a modern cathedral, with a wonderful stained glass window, woodwork and fabulous organ.

On returning to the boat it was siesta time, looking out at sea birds swirling around outside our balcony.

We took 13 scientists on board from Tromsø university, who will be our tour leaders when we split up into groups to go out in zodiacs.  This afternoon they gave us their first presentation.  Two ‘ice’ experts talked about how ice forms, glaciers, etc and the others in the team were introduced. They include geologists, ornithologists, and marine biologists. The tour leader is a specialist in wildlife, a graduate in hydrobiology and has been working and doing research with naturalist associations for years.  Later we had a lecture on polar bears.

We are now sailing across the open ocean to the Svalbard islands and Spitzberg
 archipelago, a very important centre for studies of glaciers, ice formations, marine biology in this area.   All the archipelago belongs to Norway, however it is governed by a treaty signed in Paris in 1920 by thirty countries that give access rights to these countries.  Several countries including China and Russia have set up research centres here. Spitsberg means pointed mountains, a name given to it by Willem Barents when he discovered it in 1596.

It is the first time we have experience a big swell, so we are dancing along the corridors a bit. Now we are glad of those hand rails, there to grab as we lurch from one side to the other. This evening we had a great dinner on the 2nd floor restaurant – just above water level, so on this day when we are in the open ocean, huge waves are surging past the windows….  We had to think twice before getting out of our seats – compliments to the waiters who seem to still be able to shoulder huge trays…

After a very pleasant dinner, in jamis and climbing into bed when there was an announcement over the intercom “two sperm whales starboard side”.  We climbed out of bed to pull on our heavy gear over our pyjamas, hats, socks/sneakers, special thermal coats and out we go on deck in the freezing cold to join all the others who were dying to get a shot of these whales!!  Good fun, but glad to be back into bed with nightcap beside us.  We can still see the ocean out of our balcony windows, but in this case we were on the wrong side.

Today there are two lectures – one mandatory about expeditions in zodiacs, safety etc. and later in the afternoon a lecture on polar bears. The safety lecture about zodiacs and about our expedition tomorrow made it all sound very exciting.  Apparently we will most likely land on the frozen tundra and have a good possibility of seeing polar bears.  The leader in the zodiac always carries a gun. The captain and the expedition leader were so enthusiastic, and told us when they see anything interesting such as whales and polar bears or eagles, they will announce it so we can get on our gear and go outside on deck.  They said this is why you are here, and even if it happens at 4am we will still call you out, you can sleep on the plane on Thursday!!

Tonight gala dinner and cocktails for farewell before the final day tomorrow when we will have some zodiac outings.

We have travelled across the ocean in the direction of Svalberg islands and will dock on the largest – Spitzbergen. This afternoon we will be passing Bear Island which apparently is a bird sanctuary and we will slow down so everyone can get their binoculars out.   I would love to see a white tailed eagle – enormous bird, but not sure if we will.  Puffins are very likely apparently, and all sorts of gulls and other sea birds.

Preparations have started for the completion of the cruise. Questionnaires have been handed out, and disembarkation details.

Tuesday:  splendid farewell party for the captain and the crew, wonderful dinner – crab with avocado, lobster tandoori, beef filet – pink and perfect, along with a Burgundy pinot.

Great lecture on polar bears, another lecture on safety in zodiacs and how we have to behave…

Looking out of our cabin window, saw a family of whales turning, rolling and playing, then some  - perhaps seals – something black and white, and lots and lots of seabirds soaring and diving, they seem to peer in the window at us. 

The sea is calm and reflecting soft colours from the sun low in the sky – it is 11.15pm – peach and mauve, blue and green rippling softly.  So hard to make the decision to pull the curtains, especially with all that wonderful life going on outside. I am completely mesmerised, just another fin, another roll of a glossy long body… however, tomorrow will be a big day with two zodiac outings, so must go to sleep.

Wednesday:  5.30am – announcement, we are in Hornsund fiord, and there is a walrus sunning itself on a small ice plate close to the front of the ship. We invite you to come on deck and see this wonderful sight!!
Pulled our outdoor gear on over jamis and went on deck.  It was well worth it.  We were told this was a young animal - their tusks grow all their lives and the tusks on this animal were not fully formed. It is unusual to see an animal alone as they travel and live in groups. They can weigh up to 1 ton.
We are anchored here in this small fiord surrounded by craggy peaks and small ice floes, it is bright sunlight and the reflections in the water are stunning. It is a small fiord surrounded by white and grey crags.  Birds everywhere.  The expedition team are out on deck with us, so we have an endless supply of information.

We are anchored in a small fiord at Hornsund.  Our first expedition by zodiac will take us to land on the snow 9.30am, and another tour in zodiacs this afternoon at 4.30pm.  Wow, what a day, hope the weather holds – apparently it can change very quickly.

Getting dressed in our gear, plus boots for the first time, was a challenge.  Clump, clump down 3 decks to launch pad for the zodiacs.  They can take 10 passengers, 5 sitting each side.  The crew are fantastic making sure they help everyone on board, and we had to keep to the very strict rules that had been outlined to us yesterday.  Some of the scientists/expedition leaders went ahead and four of them set up to make a rough area where we were allowed to climb and walk, all four with rifles for safety.  
Brave saxifrass

The others had alarm pistols hooked on to their belts.  We landed in a glorious spot, mostly mossy and shale.  Stacks of birds on ledges, one dead white arctic fox! Gulls with nests and babies heads peeping out.  Beautiful brave saxifrass flowers, purple and white in clumps and so pretty, and some tiny yellow flowers too.   John climbed around with the others, I found it quite hard with the boots on, but walked a lot, talked to the guides and just had a wonderful time being there.   The ice floes are so pretty and colourful, some of them bright blue.  How lucky we were with the weather this morning, bright sunshine, and about 3°c. 

We spent about 3 hours ashore and returned to the ship to change and have lunch.  

Just as we were finishing lunch the captain made a very exciting announcement, a polar bear and her cub were on the ice in front of the ship.   Everyone rushed to get their coats on, cameras, binoculars and out on to the top deck.  Absolutely wonderful.   The captain edged the boat a little closer and closer, and we could see them clearly. They kept moving, the baby dancing around, and the mother looking back and urging it on.  The captain kept the boat hanging around for about an hour, everyone so excited, the crew too.   We could not get enough of seeing it all

Later in the evening we went out on zodiacs with Raphael – ice expert, fascinating information about scientific discoveries made using carrots into the ice around Mont Blanc revealing the effects of a volcano in Iceland in the 18th century as every volcano has a unique signature.

They wanted to test the effects of the Chernobyl fall out too, and found some traces.   

Lots of birds, eider geese – very handsome – black guillemot, very curious about us watching him, great fun.  The only down side was it got sooo cold, glad to get back on board where we hurried to our bar/lounge for a G&T and our final dinner.    After dinner a piano recital by a young Ukrainian pianist, which was magnificent, reluctantly to bed after doing the packing.  

Early start today, 6am to finish packing – we had to have our baggage outside our door by 7am – then to breakfast.  That all went smoothly and we disembarked around 9.30. A bus took us on a tour of Longyearbeyan.   Longyearbeyan is a tiny place, not much here, but some great birds and a couple of reindeer just wandering around. It is a place with perma frost, no one can be buried here, water pipes are all above ground, which looked most unattractive at this time of the year, with hot water pipes going everywhere to keep things going.   It was a warm summer’s day of 5c!  Everywhere warning notices about polar bears.

The museum was good – we always learn something new, a display on whales revealed that Greenland right whales live to 200 years.

Sadly it has all come to an end.  But what a wonderful few weeks.  The images I recall most of all are the scenery, the animals, the mother polar bear and her cub, the walrus sunning himself on an ice float, hump-backed whales, a huge variety of birds and brave flowers.  Huge craggy mountains, snow, waterfalls, glaciers, ice floes, birds nesting on ledges of houses and steep cliffs, colourful wooden houses, rhododendrons, tiny wildflowers, cold.

We have been completely seduced by it all, so it looks as though we will sign up for another cruise next year with the same company, Ponant, the theme will be Ancient Greece – a tour around Croatia, Greece and Turkey visiting sites and listening to lectures.
Some more images below:

Le Boréal at Bergen
Briskdal Glacier
Mount Dalslnibba - in total cloud
We are the smallest boat right side at back of fiord! compared to the other monsters!
Knitting socks in the panoramic lounge on Pont 6

In the library on Le Boréal - happy to see other passengers reading Claudette in English & French



Dianne said...

What a wonderful blogpost, Jean! Thanks for sharing this incredible experience with us all!

SuzyJGD said...

Excellent Blog, Jean. Happy summer to you and John. Sue Duyker

StephM said...

We are feeling the cold here in Towrang in sympathy with you but it is winter after all unlike Summer in the fjords. Max 7c yesterday. Inspiring photographs.

Denise Gallagher said...

What a fantastic trip! Wonderful photographs. Denise G

una said...

All sounds like an amazing trip - love the photographs.
All the best,