John and I (Carolyn) are retired university professors in our very late fifties, who have been cruising since October, 1991. We are Elite Captain's Circle members on Princess but have also cruised on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Costa, and Commodore. Most of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, and the Amazon River.
For shore excursions, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves, or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles, and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this trip, I thought I would not need to acquire any flags because I had previously visited all the countries on the itinerary. However, I learned during the cruise that the Sami Nation has its own flag, so I was on the lookout for one of those.
About the Review
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our review is not like that; it is primarily a travelogue of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. As is our custom, we mostly took self-guided tours/hikes or private tours arranged with other members of our Cruise Critic roll call. However, we did take some Princess tours when timing or availability was a major issue. We had previously visited two of the ports (Dover and Bergen) on our 36-day B2B cruise, "The Land of Fire and Ice" (NYC-Dover) and "The Top of the World" (Dover-NYC), last summer.
Day 0 (Monday, June 7) Dover, England (Embarkation Day)
We started the day in Paris, where we had spent the previous 4 days after an 11-day tour of the Burgundy, Alsace, Mosel, and Champagne wine regions with another couple. We taxied to Gare du Nord, took the Eurostar to Ashford International, transferred to the local train to Dover Priory, and taxied to the ship. The Ocean Princess was berthed at the Western Docks (www.whitecliffscountry.org.uk/pdf/dover-map.pdf). If you do not want to leave your baggage with the porters at the cruise terminal, ask the taxi driver to take you to the entrance at the rear of the terminal building.
Last year Dover was our turnaround day; this year, our time was more limited. After checking in and quickly unpacking, we hiked to Dover's Western Heights. This was formerly a complex of fortifications to defend England against Napoleon. Now it is a nature reserve with lots of paths and great views. An interactive map of the area can be found at www.sustrans.org.uk/map?type=attractions&key=EH3477#route/NN1X. I had contacted the Western Heights Preservation Society (www.doverwesternheights.org/index.htm) for trail information. The secretary sent me detailed directions for reaching the Western Heights from the cruise terminal and suggestions for hikes.
Walking away from the Western Docks, we came to a roundabout at the A20/Limekiln Street. To the right and across from the BP gas station, there is a bus stop and a pedestrian crossing with a light. After crossing, we turned left and headed up the hill. Limekiln Street becomes Archcliffe Road. Passing the remains of Archcliffe Fort on the ocean side of the road, we came to another roundabout. There is a building at this intersection owned by the Megger Company; this is the site of the original 1805 South Entrance to the Western Heights. We turned right at this building, followed the sidewalk a round to the right, and climbed up the hill on South Military Road.
Along South Military Road, the original ditchwork slopes down to the right. As the road starts to level out, there is an abandoned fenced parking lot in the tight corner to the left; this was once the site of the South Front Barracks. Continuing on, we arrived at St. Martin's car park. The brickwork here is the remains of the Archcliffe Gate, which was the second South Entrance to the Western Heights. After turning right into the car park, we turned left towards the remains of St. Martin's battery. You can walk around the ruins and there are interpretive signs. Next we arrived at a pillbox with a set of steps heading down. These steps took us to the site of the Grand Shaft Barracks. The Grand Shaft, an unusual triple staircase (www.doverwesternheights.org/grandshaft.pdf), is only occasionally open to the public.
To reach the Drop Redoubt Fort, we followed the road up, passing through a stile next to a cattle grid, and then doubling back up a small slope. After a short distance, there was a small tunnel on the left; we walked through that into the ditch of the Drop Redoubt. You can walk around any part of the ditches; the Redoubt itself is only occasionally open to the public. We walked around the Drop Redoubt ditch until we found a small ditch that leads down steps and past the Cowgate Cemetery into town. On the way back to the ship, we walked along Snargate Street, where the bottom of the Grand Shaft is located. This walk took about 2 hours.
Day 1 (Tuesday, June 8) At Sea
This morning there was a Cruise Critic get-together in the Club Bar. Although we were not a very large group, many of the officers (including the Captain, who invited us all to visit the bridge) stopped by to welcome us aboard. Tonight was the first of three formal nights on this cruise and also the Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail party. The nice thing about a small ship like the Ocean Princess (only 655 passengers onboard this cruise) is that the parties are not a mob scene. We went to the party for first seating (although we are in second seating) because we decided to go to the Sterling Steakhouse and have an early dinner. The food was very good, especially the lobster cake appetizer.
Day 2 (Wednesday, June 9) Stavanger, Norway, 07:00AM to 04:00PM
Stavanger is Norway's third largest city but the tourist area is very small (www.stavanger-guide.no/maps/maps_english/city.pdf). The ship docked on the west side of the Vågen, along Strandkaien, within easy walking distance of most sights. The first order of business was to find an ATM and obtain the kroner we would need for our private tours. Although most tour operators would take credit cards, we were going to need exact change for the one in Honningsvåg. There are several banks conveniently located along the street (Nedre Strandgate) that runs beside the dock.
We spent the rest of the morning walking around the old town (Gamle Stavanger), with its whitewashed wooden houses and tiny gardens filled with flowers. There were lots of rhododendron and lilacs blooming. The Norwegian Canning Museum (one of 5 units of the Stavanger Museum) is also in this area. Then we walked over to view the outside of several old mansions, Breidablikk and Ledaal (used when the Norwegian royal family comes to Stavanger), that are also part of the Stavanger Museum. From there, we walked past the large lake to the Domkirke (Cathedral). The cathedral has undergone fires and restorations that have left it an interesting mix of the Romanesque and Gothic styles; its most renowned feature is its carved pulpit. Finally, we climbed the Valbergtarnet, a watchtower that had a panoramic view. The watchtower also has a small museum describing the duties of the watchmen; it's important to keep an eye out for fire in a wooden town.
Later, we walked along the waterfront Blue Promenade to the Fiskepirterminalen for a cruise through the stunning Lysefjord to see Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen). This is a large rock shaped like a pulpit (naturally) that towers almost 2,000 feet over the fjord. This tour is available through the ship, but we made our own advance reservation for the noon tour (www.tidereiser.com/reiser/UK/Fjordcruise-1-65/Tour-3.-Pulpit-Rock-Cruise-Summer-season-3-1006.html?Company=nb). You may pay the day of the tour at the tour company's office on Fiskepirterminalen or on the boat; if you happen to be 67 or older, there is a discounted price. We saw spectacular scenery on the cruise up the fjord and it was a beautiful sunny day. The tour boat stops at several points of interest, including one to feed a small group of goats and another to collect water (which you can taste) from a waterfall. As an unexpected bonus, the tour boat dropped passengers off at the Skagenkainen, a quay directly on the other side of the Vågen from the Ocean Princess, making for a quick walk back to the ship.
It would have been fun to hike to the top of Pulpit Rock for the great view. However, that would have required a ferry ride, a bus ride from the ferry dock to the trailhead, at least 4 hours for the roundtrip hike, and the bus and ferry rides back; the minimum time necessary is about 8 hours. We did not think the length of the port time and the ferry/bus schedule would make this feasible, but we later met two (much younger) passengers who were able to accomplish this hike by renting a car instead of taking the bus. We were later to encounter these young gentlemen again on our hikes in Tromsø and Geiranger.
Tonight was the French dinner so escargots were on the menu. We had some great snails in France but we never pass up the chance to have more.
Day 3 (Thursday, June 10) Flåm, Norway, 07:00AM to 04:00PM
Another gorgeous day! Flåm is a tiny ferry port on the Aurlandfjord, a branch of the world's longest fjord, the Sognefjord. The Ocean Princess docks right in town (www.visitflam.com/upload/map_Flam.pdf), convenient to everything.
Our first activity was a ride on the Flåm Railway (www.flaamsbana.no/eng/Index.html). I had put together a group of 10 people from our Cruise Critic roll call so that we could make an advance reservation (there is also a 10% discount for groups of 10 or more) for the first train of the day at 8:35AM. Again, we did not have to pay until the day of the tour. When I paid for the tickets, I was directed to a specific car --- there was actually a sign on the windows with my name to indicate our seats --- very VIP!
The distance up the Flåm Vally to Myrdal (www.visitflam.com/pdf/Flamsbana-Versjon-1-2007.pdf) is only 12 miles but the train climbs over 2,800 feet. There is impressive scenery along the way --- the Flåm Church, farms, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains. The train stops at the Kjosfossen and everyone can get off for 10 minutes to admire and photograph the waterfall. On the return trip, a woman portraying a Huldra (a forest nymph in Scandinavian folklore) danced alongside of the waterfall; we did not think that enhanced the beauty of the waterfall. At one point in the journey, it is possible to glimpse four different levels of the train track, cut into a narrow ledge winding up the steep mountainside. Once the train arrives in Myrdal, there is about 10 minutes for taking photos of the mountain scenery before the return trip to Flåm starts.
After the train ride, we hot-footed it over to the Fjordsafari jetty (less than 200 feet from the railway station) for the 10:55AM Heritage Safari (www.fjordsafari.no/index.cfm?id=212754). Again, I had put together a group of people from our Cruise Critic roll call so that we could make an advance reservation, with payment made on the day of the tour. There is no discount for groups, but a group of 8 or more is assigned to its own RIB (rigid inflatable boat). We were provided with survival gear (suits, hats, gloves, and goggles) that would allow us to stay warm on the tour and afloat in the unlikely event that any of us fell overboard.
The RIB motors through the Aurlandsfjord to the end of a smaller fjord, the Nærøyfjord, at Gudvangen and back. The Nærøyfjord and the Geirangerfjord (visited later on Day 15 of the cruise) make up the West Norwegian Fjords UNESCO World Heritage Area. The boat stops at several points of interest and our guide, Brittmarie, provided interesting commentary on the local history and legends. This tour yielded more spectacular close-up fjord views plus sightings of dolphins and seals! This tour company does not seem to be mentioned anywhere on cruisecritic.com, which is a shame because this was an outstanding tour.
We had originally considered reversing the order of these two tours. However, we are glad we did not because the boat tour ran about 1/2 hour longer than scheduled (no problem at all!). With only about 1-1/2 hours left in port, we decided to try to hike to Brekkefossen, a waterfall above Flåm that we had seen from the train. Free hiking maps (www.visitflam.com/pdf/walking_in_flam_nor-eng.pdf) are available at the tourist office. However, we just did not have enough time and had to turn back before reaching the top. All of the wildflowers were blooming and John even spotted some tiny orchids in the grass!
Day 4 (Friday, June 11) At Sea
Today was the "Most Travelled Passengers" luncheon in Sabatini's Trattoria; as usual that was great. We were a little surprised we made the cutoff this time, but we ended up sitting with the Chief Engineer and his wife. In the afternoon, we passed north of the Arctic Circle. The night had been only about 3-4 hours long and now the sun would not be setting at all. John was already having a hard time sleeping; he tried a mask but it kept sliding off when he tossed and turned. Of course, nothing bothers me --- I sleep like a rock.
Day 5 (Saturday June 12) Tromsø, Norway, 10:00AM to 06:00PM
The next port was Tromsø (www.destinasjontromso.no/english/useful_info_map.html), the gateway to the Arctic. Disappointingly, we did not dock at the Prostneset pier (under renovation) next to the town center but at the Breivika pier about 2-1/2 miles from there. Fortunately, I had printed out instructions from cruisecritic.com about how to use the local bus system to get to the cable car (fjellheisen.no/?side=hovedsiden), which climbs 1,378 ft. to the top of Mt. Storsteinen for a fantastic view of the fjord. First, follow the "Sentrum" signs out of the dock area to the road. As you exit the dock area, there is a bus stop; look around for the walkway under the road and go to the bus stop on the other side of the road. There is a bus schedule posted; take bus 42 to get to the city center. An all-day bus pass was NOK 50 and the "Fjellheisbillett" (bus pass plus a roundtrip ticket for the cable car) was NOK 135. The bus driver was incredibly helpful about explaining the passes and giving directions to the dozen or so passengers from the ship (even though this destroyed his schedule) and told us where to change busses. After about a 10-minute ride, you get off at Stortorget (it is the first stop after you drive through 2 sets of traffic lights). Walk across the road to the bus stop in front of Peppe's Pizza and take bus 26 towards Hungeren. The driver will tell you when to get off, but it's obvious by everyone leaving the bus. To get to the cable car station walk back the bus route one short block, turn left, and you will see the cable car station.
There are several overlooks at the upper station. One had a sign showing the locations of points of interest, such as the site where the German battleship Tirpitz was sunk in 1944 (this historical tidbit is connected to later ports --- Honningsvåg, Murmansk, and the Lofoten Islands). We hiked about 2 hours to the top of Mt. Floya. This was the only hike where we wished we had brought the hiking boats because we had to cross several snow fields. If we had had the boots, we might have continued on to the next peak, Mt. Bønntuva. However, we decided instead to take the cable car back down and make a short walk to visit the Arctic Cathedral (www.ishavskatedralen.no). However, the Cathedral it was closed in preparation for a wedding. People were paragliding from near the cable car station down to some spot near the water. This was incredibly interesting but not something we would do!
From the Arctic Cathedral, you can take bus 26 or bus 20 back to the town center. We walked back via the Tromsøbrua bridge. The pedestrian lane is separated by a barrier from the traffic lanes, but watch out for the bicyclists. We walked around the city center, where a Thai cultural festival was going on. We would have been interested in touring Macks Ølbryggeri (Mack's Brewery); however, tours are only offered on Monday and Thursday.
There were a number of museums and other sights in the city center, but we were more interested in the Tromsø Botaniske Hage (www.uit.no/botanisk), which are right across the road from the Breivika cruise pier. To visit the botanical gardens (or to return to the ship), walk from Peppe's Pizza away from the bridge to the stop for bus 42. There was a sign posted on a wall that said "Bus to Cruise Pier." Tell the driver you want to get off at Breivika. Take the walkway under the road again. Follow the road behind the bus stop to the left, through a parking area, and to signs for the Botaniske Hage. The plants are arranged on a rocky hillside by geographic or botanical themes; there is a large collection of primula. To see a map of the gardens, go to their website and click "Plantesamlingene" on the right. These claim to be the most northern botanical gardens and they are definitely further north than the one in Akureyri, Iceland, which also claims to be the most northern.
Day 6 (Sunday, June 13) At Sea
Today we had a tour of the navigational bridge for the most travelled passengers. The most travelled on this cruise have almost 2,000 days with Princess. Later, we were invited to a vow renewal ceremony for a couple that we met last year on the Amazon River cruise. The library was transformed into a beautiful chapel and the ceremony by the captain was very touching. We got to go back to the navigational bridge for pictures and also went to the Captain's office for the signing of the vow renewal certificate. Then the Captain told us all to go to the early seating Captain's Circle party, even though John and I are in late seating. Tonight was the second of the three formal nights; dinner selections included lobster tails and crab cakes!
Day 7 (Monday, June 14) Spitsbergen, Norway
Spitsbergen is the main island of the Svalbard archipelago. In the morning, we did scenic cruising in Magdalena Fjord, the most northerly point in our cruise (79°34.3'N). The tops of the mountains along the fjord are all jagged and black-and-white, somewhat like Antarctica. However, there is some short, shrubby groundcover on the lower slopes. The fjord was short but there were two beautiful glaciers (Waggonwaybreen and Miethebreen) at the end. The captain rotated the ship 360° so that everyone could get a good view of the glaciers. We did not see any calving, but there were a few small icebergs grounded here and there. John spotted at least 4 seals on an ice shelf; they looked like huge slugs. One kept rolling around like he had an itch he couldn't scratch.
After that, we sailed along the Spitsbergen coast seeing glacier after glacier. In the afternoon, we arrived at Ny-Ålesund (www.arcticstation.nl/towninfo.php?language=UK), where a number of countries (including India and China!) are conducting Arctic research. Ny-Ålesund was the base for many of the early Arctic explorers --- there is a mooring mast for dirigibles used to fly over the North Pole in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ny-Ålesund was formerly a mining town and there are some remnants of its mining past here and there. It is very small and the residents stayed hidden away when we invaded the settlement. We had been warned not to wander outside of town where the polar bears might get us, so we walked completely around the settlement twice and visited the small museum. We also saw a reindeer and some husky puppies and got buzzed by Arctic terns. When we were back onboard, John serendipitously spotted a whale on the far side of the fjord. Once we got the binoculars out, we could see it several more times --- actually, there may have been more than one, it was hard to tell. It did not breech or spout, but we could see the back and dorsal fin --- maybe it was a Minke.
Day 8 (Tuesday, June 15) At Sea
This morning we had yet another tour of the navigational bridge (the Cruise Critic group this time). The Princess Grapevine wine tasting was held in the afternoon. It is complimentary for us, so we went. But it is always the same 5 wines and thus not very good for learning about new wines.
Day 9 (Wednesday, June 16) Honningsvåg, Norway, 08:00AM to 05:00PM
Honningsvåg (img2.custompublish.com/getfile.php/876501.982.fefccvavwf/Nordkapp+Info,+incl+map.pdf) is on island of Magerøy. I had arranged a private guided tour for us and 3 other Cruise Critic couples to the North Cape and several fishing villages with Arctic Guide Service (www.lofotguide.com). This company is not really set up to offer tours for cruise ship passengers (hence the need to pay the exact amount in cash), but I contacted the Honningsvåg branch manager directly and eventually managed to arrange a tour. Our guide was Marita, a college student who seemed to know everyone on the island.
Our first stop was the Gallery East of the Sun (www.evart.no) in Kamøyvær (www.skarsvag.no/information/villages/kamoyvaer). I thought the gallery would be a waste of time, but Eva was very interesting as she showed how she makes her collages of local scenes. Several people in our group bought artwork and I bought one of her books for my new granddaughter. We would later see Eva's art displayed at other gift shops. Next, we visited one of the fishing cabins where the local fishermen live during fishing season and prepare their catch. The fishermen were very friendly and obviously proud to show off the day's catch. They offered us samples of salmon right out of the smoker. Marita told us a lot about the fishing culture and showed us the memorial to a fishing tragedy where 6 members in a family were lost. Nowadays there is a legal limit to how many members of the same family may crew on the same boat.
Next we drove to the North Cape, stopping at a Sami camp along the way. Nils Somby graciously posed in traditional Sami costume with a reindeer and sleigh. Nearby is the family's traditional tent, which contains a display of Sami clothing. There is also a small shop selling original Sami arts and crafts as well as some manufactured knick-knacks. Once forced to give up their lands, traditions, and religions, the Sami are now recognized as an indigenous people in Norway and their language, culture, and society are legally and politically protected. The Sami have their own parliament and special rights to reindeer husbandry. Everywhere we drove on the Magerøy Island, we saw small reindeer herds. Marita said that 800 reindeer are needed to support a typical Sami family.
The next stop was at the North Cape Hall (www.nordkapp.no/north-cape-hall.52389.en.html). Marita guided us through the exhibits. There was a special exhibit about the Allied convoys that braved German submarines and surface ships (including the Tirpitz) to bring supplies to Murmansk during WWII. Marita explained that her father used to be the State priest (Lutheran) in Honningsvåg and he often performed marriages for couples from around the world at the St. Johannes Kapell. A small Thai museum commemorates the visit of King Chulalongkorn in 1907. There is an excellent panoramic film that shows the North Cape throughout the year, including the migration of the reindeer herds from the inland areas of Norway to Magerøy Island by ferry. Marita knew someone at the North Cape Hall and talked her into to starting the film for us 1/2 hour before the scheduled time. After the film, we went outside to see the view from the North Cape cliffs (over 1,000 ft. high). The wind was outrageous --- about 40 mph --- and it was also raining (maybe even sleeting). This was why we had packed the wind pants as well as the wind jackets! It was very overcast but we could see the ocean at the base of the cliffs. Not surprisingly, very few people were touring the area outside the hall. There is a globe monument that is the symbol for the North Cape, as well as a latitude (71°10'21N) marker pointing to the North Pole and a number of statues/monuments (Children of the World, Mother and Child, etc.).
Next we visited Skarsvåg (www.skarsvag.no/information), the northernmost fishing village in the world. While not so picturesque as Kamøyvær, Marita took us to see king crab in holding tanks and a gallery of photographs portraying the fishing life. In Skarsvåg we also stopped at the Christmas and Winter House (www.julehuset.no/eng/index.htm), which has locally-produced arts and crafts. Unfortunately for our visit, it was packed with people having tea and cake. That made it difficult to look at the handicrafts. Marita got a pitcher of gloegg (mulled wine) for us to drink on the van and one couple in our group got some of the lefse (2 thin cake layers with sugar, butter, and cinnamon in between) for all of us to taste. That couple was of Norwegian ancestry and neither of them thought the lefse was anything like the lefse their families made back home. Of course, they did not agree with each other about what lefse should be like either!
Returning to Honningsvåg, we passed several viewpoints that would have given us beautiful views of the coastline and back to the North Cape cliffs if the weather had been better. As it was, we did not even bother to stop. Our final stop was the Honningsvåg Church, where Marita's father had served. The church was the only building that was not burned when the Germans retreated at the end of WWII. The population of Honningsvåg lived in the church while the rest of the town was rebuilt and there are photos from that period on display.
After the tour we had hoped to do some hiking, but it was still raining. The ship was docked next to the Nordkappmuseet (www.nordkappmuseet.no), so we visited that. There was a special exhibition featuring old maps of Scandinavia. The permanent collection includes exhibits on the cultural history of the North Cape, fishery artifacts, and the effects of World War II on the North Cape. While mildly interesting, we did not feel that it was worth the NOK 50 pp admission.
As we were leaving port the Discovery was sailing in. She was formerly the Island Princess, who co-starred with her sister, the Pacific Princess, on "The Love Boat" TV show. Later in the evening, as we sailed off to Murmansk, the North Cape cliffs could be seen in the distance.
Day 10 (Thursday, June 17) At Sea
Today was spent at sea proceeding VERY slowly (7 knots) through the Barents Sea to Murmansk. We had to fill out immigration forms and turn in our passports. The Russian authorities wanted to know how many bottles of wine and cameras we had in our cabin --- we've never been asked that before! Later we went to a culinary demonstration and a variety show.
Day 11 (Friday, June 18) Murmansk, Russia, 06:00AM to 05:00PM
The day started out rainy. We took a ship's tour of the city highlights because touring on-your-own requires a Russian visa. We visited the Allied Cemetery for sailors and airmen killed protecting the convoys to Murmansk during WWII. There are not many graves --- perhaps most of the bodies were repatriated or never recovered. The civilian graves were interesting, with their wrought iron fences and benches/tables for the family to use on special-occasion visits to the departed. Then we went to the Aloysha Monument (shaped like a gigantic soldier) for those soldiers and sailors killed in action. There is a ramp leading down to a lower viewpoint; where you can get good photos of the monument --- don't try to climb down the steep hillside. From the monument, you can see the entire area, including the many dismal-looking Soviet-era concrete apartment complexes and our next stop, the small Orthodox Cathedral. The Cathedral was near another memorial (shaped like a lighthouse) for those who had died at sea during peacetime, including in the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster. A small section of the Kursk is located outside this memorial. We ended up at the Museum of Regional Studies, where we learned in excruciating detail about all the industrial, agricultural, military, etc. wonders of the Kola Peninsula. We also drove past the Palace of Culture, Central Square, railroad station, and other typical city sights. We were late leaving port because a woman had fallen at the Aloysha Monument and needed to go to the hospital for treatment before returning to the ship. As we sailed out of Murmansk, we saw the fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers and a drydock holding the largest ship in the Russian Navy (an aircraft carrier).
Day 12 (Saturday, June 19) At Sea
This was the last sea day before a string of 4 port days. Because the only remaining sea day is the last full day of the cruise, this was a formal night and the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party was held. Dinner options included lobster with prawns. As a laugh for us, they had "New Orleans Style Muffeletta Sandwiches" at lunch in the dining room today --- they only wish! We are still motoring around above the Arctic Circle. There has not been a sunset since last Thursday. It is really weird for it to be light all the time --- no way to tell what time of day (or night) it is (except with a clock of course).
Day 13 (Sunday, June 20) Near Gravdal, Lofoten Islands, Norway, 08:00AM to 04:00PM
As we sailed along the coast of the Lofoten Islands (www.lofoten-info.no/KART.HTM, issuu.com/grundtvigproject/docs/lofoten_guide), we saw steep cliffs with picturesque villages scattered along the shoreline at their bases. The Captain was busy on the bridge during the approach because the ship passes near Moskenesstraumen, a strong tide between Moskenesøy and Vaerøy Islands. This tide is described (somewhat fancifully) by Edgar Allan Poe in his story, "A Descent into the Maelström." Anyway, we made it safely to our pier on the outskirts of Gravdal.
There are not a lot of options there for private tours. John had tried to arrange a tour with the same company that we had used in Honningsvåg. However, the Lofoten branch manager never responded to any but the first (of many) e-mails inquiring about tours. There was no response from the local taxi company either, and the car rental companies said that we would need to make our own way to the Leknes Airport to pick up a car. Despite that, some people (who apparently made arrangements by telephone) were met at the dock by car rental company representatives and there was at least one car that appeared to be available for rent on the spot.
We had not wanted to take the chance that we would be unable to arrange something at the dock, so we had pre-booked the ship's "Best of" tour. This tour went to the southern end of the main highway on Moskenesøy Island. Along the way, we took the turnoff to Nusfjord, an extremely scenic fishing village that is now an open-air museum. There was sufficient time to walk around the harbor, see the short movie about the area, and visit the buildings that were part of the museum. Returning to the main highway, we stopped at Flakstad Bay to visit the tiny, 18th century Flakstad Church. The church is considered a gift from God because it was built using wood that drifted ashore in the nearby bay. Continuing on, we saw lots of knock-your-eyes-out scenery ---- rugged mountains and picture-perfect fishing villages. We made a brief photo stop to view some bird cliffs. Finally, we reached the town of ? (pronounced "oh"). ? is the last letter in the Norwegian alphabet, like omega in the Greek alphabet, an appropriate name. This is another quaint fishing village with a number of museums related to cod and fishing. This was the lunch stop --- a buffet with a wide variety of fish dishes and salads. Nothing was outstanding, but it was an opportunity to taste something resembling local food. Our guide later said one of the dishes was cod tongues. However, nothing was labeled and he did not describe them in advance, so I don't know whether we ate any or not. On the return trip to the dock, we made a photo stop at Reine, said by Time Magazine to be among the most scenic spots in the world. The next stop was in Sund, where the local blacksmith specializes in forging statues of cormorants. There is also a Motor Museum here. This is a collection of all sorts of odds and ends or (as Princess puts it) a "meticulously gathered collection of century-old objects." The most interesting objects were a large propeller and a piece of the anchor chain from the Tirpitz. To us, it looked more like the contents of someone's garage and the stop here was far too long. Our final photo stop was at Flakstad Bay for more scenic views. I'm glad we took a ship's tour instead of John having to drive because he got to look at everything without running off a cliff.
Day 14 (Monday, June 21) Trondheim, Norway, Noon - 05:00PM
Trondheim (www.trondheim.com/content.ap?thisId=1117627656) was the first capital of Norway, and is still the city where new kings receive their ceremonial blessing. We docked at Cruisebåterminal by Pirbadet; it is an easy walk from here to the main sights. There is a good walking tour and map at www.frommers.com/destinations/trondheim/3091010008.html for help in planning the day.
We got into port early but clearances and lowering the gangway made us 1/2 hour late getting off the ship --- that only left 4 hours for our port visit here. We disembarked and quickly walked from the dock area to Havnegata, past the Police Station, to Kjøpmannsgata (the street along the Nid River). The riverside boasts a colorful line of warehouses, some dating back to the 18th century. We passed the Old Town Bridge (Gamle Bybro) and a number of the sights on Frommer's tour as we hot-footed it to our primary objective, the Nidaros Domkirke.
Be sure to pick up the free guide to the Cathedral when you buy your tickets at the visitors center (www.nidarosdomen.no/english/). We arrived at the Cathedral just in time for a 20-minute organ concert played on the ornate 17th century organ. After the concert, we had the choice of a guided tour of the Cathedral in English or a climb up the towers to get the bird's-eye view of Trondheim. This was a no-brainer for us, even though it turned out to be the narrowest spiral staircase we've ever climbed. Then we went to the Archbishop's Residence (a museum complex) for the 2 o'clock tour in English. After seeing the parts that required a guide for entry, we ducked out of that tour, saw the Norwegian crown jewels, toured a bit more of the museum complex, then went back to the Cathedral to see what we had skipped before. Frommer's calls the Cathedral "the single most amazing, stunning, and majestic building in Norway." The façade is intricately carved but most of the statues are reproductions (some of the originals are in the museum).
After the cathedral, we crossed the Old Town Bridge and hiked uphill to the Kristiansten Festnung (Fortress) for some even higher views of the area. At the base of the hill is the Sykkelheis, a conveyor belt to help bike riders make it up the hill; we did not see anyone use it. The walk to the Fortress passes through the Bakklandet, a neighborhood of wooden buildings used as houses, shops and cafes. As we approached the Fortress, we discovered that there was a bike race going on. The race ended at large field below the Fortress where there were booths, crowds, and bands. From the ramparts, you can see the fortress-like headquarters of Trondheim's University. After climbing down from the Fortress, we walked around to see a few other sights on the way back to the ship such as the Trondheim Torg (column with a statue of a Viking on top), Vår Frue Kirke (Our Lady's Church), and Stiftsgården (the Royal Residence). Appropriately for a city in which every sixth inhabitant is a student, there is also a statue representing the exuberance of student life. We walked back to the ship along Fjordgata, where there are more old warehouses lining the canal. We were hurrying a bit because the weather looked like it was about to turn stormy. However, we knew we did not have to hurry too much because we had seen the Captain wandering around downtown.
As we left Trondhiem, we passed Munkeholmen (Monk's Island), a short distance offshore. This was once an execution ground and prison but today is a recreational area. The sun was actually supposed to set tonight, now that we were south of the Arctic Circle. The constant daylight had been torture for John and had even disturbed my sleep cycle, especially when we had to change the clocks 2 hours forward for Russia and then 2 hours back for Norway.
Two days ago we mentioned to the headwaiter that we had been hoping to see osso bucco on the dinner menu. He said that it had been on the luncheon menu earlier on the cruise; even though we had been checking both menus, we must have missed it. Anyway, he arranged for it to be cooked especially for us tonight. Yum!
Day 15 (Tuesday, June 22) Geiranger, Norway, 12:00PM to 06:00PM
The weather forecast for our day in the Geirangerfjord (www.geiranger.no/english.html) was for temperatures in the high 60°Fs and no rain. Today turned out to be one of the prettiest of the cruise. The Geirangerfjord lives up to its reputation --- a stunningly beautiful and narrow fjord. We made a detour down the Sunnylvenfjord to tender passengers ashore in Hellesylt for their all-day overland excursion; only those passengers were allowed to disembark. Apparently, disembarking the tours did not take as long as the Captain expected. As a result, he spent about 1/2 hour rotating the Ocean Princess in the fjord with the Seven Sisters waterfall on one side of the fjord and the Suitor waterfall on the other side. The fjord is only 800 yards wide at that point. Then we proceeded on to Geiranger for our noon arrival and started tendering. The ship only had a short visit scheduled here (5-1/2 hours) and this was the only tender port. John and I managed to get on the first tender so we would have plenty of time for hiking.
There is a detailed hiking map online at www.visitalesund-geiranger.com/Alesund/Turkart/Hiking routes Geiranger.pdf. This map is also available from the tourist office on the dock; we had e-mailed them before the cruise and they mailed us a copy so we could plan our hikes in advance. My review will make references to this map; it uses letters to label the trails and numbers to label buildings/attractions.
First we went up to the Flydalsjuvet overlook (1,050 ft.). This is about a 2-1/2 mile hike if you go up the zig-zag highway RV63, heading towards Grotli. With all the bus traffic from the 4 ships in port, that was not an attractive option. Fortunately, there are hiking trails and shortcuts that keep you off most of the highway and markedly reduce the distance.
When you are walking uphill from the harbor, the first shortcut is a fairly steep path up behind the little octagonal church (#27) and through the cemetery, with a gorgeous view over the fjord. The shortcut is easy to spot on the left as you get close to the church; it is not shown on the map. Next you'll come to the Union Hotell (#29), the Geirangerfossen, and the Geiranger Fjordsenter (#30). It should take about 15 minutes to get to this point. The second shortcut, which shows as Trail K (dotted line) on the map, cuts off a long loop of the highway. Enter Vinge Camping (#31), turn right, walk a short distance, and look for stones and a trail maker on the left. Another shortcut is to take the side road to Fossen Camping (#35); from there, follow Trail K to Solbakken Campinghutter (#36). From there, take the road to the left back to the main highway near Hole Bru (Hole Bridge). Vinge Camping to Hole Bru should take about ½ hour. Continue up along the main road to the Hotell Utsikten (#37); the Flydalsjuvet viewpoint is about 100 ft. after the hotel. The viewpoint is divided into upper and lower sections with a sidewalk running in between. There are public toilets in the lower section; the steps out to the overhang are behind the toilets. The Flydalsjuvet is featured on just about every photo of the Geirangerfjord. However, it now has railings to keep people from falling off the rock that juts out over the fjord. Very few people went down to the rock, but of course John and I both did (separately so we could get pictures of each other). I don't think we would have done it without the railing being there. This part of the hike took about an hour.
After enjoying the views, we walked back down along the highway, and took the side road to Hole Hyttleuyleige (#34), Westeras Utleigehutter (#33), and the Westeras Restaurant (#32). This road leads to Vesterås Gård (a summer farm that is not used in spring or winter because of the avalanche danger). From here, we followed Trail D, a muddy and zigzag path that climbs about 820 ft. up the mountainside to Storseterfossen, a gorgeous waterfall that you can walk behind (thankfully there was a railing there too). After hiking back to the farm, we decided that we still had enough time to follow Trail B (though herds of sheep and goats and their droppings) to the Vesterasfjellet overlook, a sheer cliff about 738 ft. above the tender dock. Returning yet again to the farm, we followed Trail A downhill to the Geiranger Fjordsenter. From there, we walked back to the city center, where I found a shop selling Sami souvenirs, including a Sami Nation flag. After buying the flag, we limped back to the tender dock. John estimates that our 5 hour hike covered about 10-11 miles.
On the tender ride back to the ship, we spoke with a woman who had booked the ship's hiking tour to the Storseterfossen. That tour was cancelled (only 6 people had signed up) so she did the hike on her own. We agreed that the ship's tour description of the hike as "somewhat steep and strenuous" was a bit mild due to the poor trail conditions. That hike was rated a 2 (moderately easy) on the detailed trail map. Even though John and I are experienced hikers, I would rate the trail as moderately strenuous, less so under drier conditions.
Day 16 (Wednesday, June 23) Bergen, Norway, 08:00AM to 05:00PM
The final port was Bergen (www.bergen-guide.com/download.asp). Despite the fact that Bergen typically gets 300 days of rain per year, we had a lovely sunny day just like last year. The ship again docked at the Skoltegrunnskaien pier, within easy walking distance of downtown; the Queen Mary II was docked at a much less convenient pier. Because of last year's visit, we had already done a lot here, including the funicular and hiking on Mt. Fløyen. This time we walked to the tourist office (across from the fish market) to buy combo tickets for the double-decker bus and cable car ride up Mt. Ulriken (www.ulriken643.no/en/Home/). We used up the rest of our kroner and charged the remainder.
Mt. Ulriken is much higher than Mt. Fløyen and the views are stupendous. It was considerably colder on the mountain than down in town. However, we rapidly warmed up by hiking for about 2-1/2 hours. The trails (www.ulriken643.no/en/Activities/Overview/) were sometimes poorly marked and even with the trail map and topographical map John had brought, we got "lost" and did not take the trail we intended to take. However, it is hard to get really lost as there are very few trees and you can see the television tower back at the upper cable car station almost all the time. John saw an adder sunning itself on the trail but it slithered away quickly before I saw it (perhaps my scream encouraged it). As we approached the upper station, we saw one of our Cruise Critic couples, who had already been up to Mt. Fløyen and decided to brave Mt. Ulriken as well. The bus back to the fish market only runs every hour, so take that into consideration if you decide to go to Mt. Ulriken.
After we came back down, we walked awhile around Bryggen, the old warehouse district, and the Bergenshus Fortress (www.visitnorway.com/en/Articles/Theme/What-to-do/Attractions/National-Fortresses/Bergenshus-Fortress/). We climbed up to a stairway to some of the higher ramparts (Sverresborg) above the city that we had skipped last year.
Day 17 (Thursday, June 24) At Sea
On the last full day of the cruise, we were somewhere off the coast of Denmark. As usual for the sea days on this trip, it was overcast with light fog. It must have been foggier during the night because John said he heard the foghorn blowing. Later today we finished our packing.
Day 18 (Friday, June 25) Dover, England
I had explored the possibility of a private transfer from the dock to LHR. However, it wasn't cost-effective unless another couple was willing to share. Unfortunately, no one else on the roll call was interested --- some were staying onboard to NYC and others were spending additional days in Europe. We decided to use the Princess transfers, so we had to be ready to leave the ship by 8AM. There was some delay with the local authorities, so disembarkation was delayed. Once our color group had disembarked and boarded the bus, there was one couple missing. After quite a bit of waiting, it was finally decided that they must have boarded the wrong bus, so our bus headed off to LHR. There was a good bit of traffic around the outskirts of London, but we still made the drive in about 2 hours. That gave us plenty of time to check in, go through security, and use up our remaining GBP buying chocolate.
We were an hour late boarding at LHR because of a problem with the Jetway. Fortunately, the pilot was able to make up most of the time and Boston was a very easy entry point --- customs and immigration proceeded quickly. We had plenty of time to make our connection to RDU, arriving around 11 PM. We saw our first sunset in weeks on the plane home. It was not easy to go from wearing jackets, sweaters, hats, and gloves to 100°F+ temperatures and high humidity!