Eighty Degrees North
We decided to return to the Norwegian Fjords - where we enjoyed our first cruise so much it led us to become addicted to cruising - and has taken us to The Mediterranean, Caribbean and the Canaries, the West coast of Africa, up the Amazon, through the Panama Canal, to the Baltic, to see the Northern Lights and Norway in Winter, Venice and the Adriatic, the Pyramids and the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska. But this time, when we studied the Fred.Olsen brochure, we were intrigued by “In search of Polar Bears & Reindeer” and couldn’t resist! We enjoy the lifestyle on board and it is good to be able to see so many places without the hassle of having to unpack and repack suitcases. Over the years we have developed a love affair with Fred.Olsen and particularly with Braemar. It is a long journey to Dover so we booked on the newly commissioned Evesway Coach Service to Dover. The coach had been delayed en route to Knutsford and we were 45 minutes late in leaving but there were no further delays although there was only time for one break during the journey to Dover. We were able to get on board Braemar without any problems but grateful that we hadn’t arrived at our departure port just a short time earlier when low clouds and heavy rain had descended. The Evesway coaches are brand new, well equipped and comfortable and the drivers professional, courteous and caring. Returning to Braemar really is like going home and we were welcomed by so many smiles and hugs. Over the years we have maintained a list of those with whom we have made particular friends and just prior to our holidays we make a point of going through the list. Not only do we remember them, but more surprisingly they remember us and also our likes and dislikes. One of the Security Men whose home is in Nepal and mindful of my high regard for the Ghurkhas, always greets me with a crisp Military salute and a wide smile. He was the first of many familiar faces to greet us on our return to Braemar. We took a wander around the ship and enjoyed a cup of tea and a bite to eat in the Palms Restaurant before going to our cabin where our cases were ready for unpacking before we made our way to our “Assembly Point” for the Lifeboat Drill. This aspect is taken much more seriously post Costa Concordia but there are still a few “know all’s” who weren’t paying particularly serious attention but, no doubt, they would be the ones pushing their way into the lifeboats in any case of a real emergency. As usual we had opted for First Sitting in the Thistle Restaurant at a large circular table for our evening meal. We had an interesting assortment of dining companions and had a move around policy which worked well. Of course there is some element of risk involved in eating with those who previously were complete strangers, but again we were fortunate and met some nice people not only at the Dinner Table but also at Breakfast and Luncheon when the form is “open seating”. We met some lovely people and were able to make mental notes of a very few who needed to be avoided! 21st & 22nd July were two cruising days. In total we sailed for 4649 miles on this 14 day cruise and with such a long distance, days at sea cannot be avoided. However there was a good programme of entertainment ranging from “Port Talks” and lectures on various cruise related subjects to classical music concerts and of course, the usual deck games. There are always quiet corners to enjoy reading, watching the world go by or for some serious snoozing. I had taken my relatively new “Tablet” and had hoped to keep myself updated with the News through my Daily Telegraph subscription. I paid £5 for 30 minutes on board Wi-Fi access but soon doubted the value for money. I didn’t find it easy to make the connection and downloading The Daily Telegraph was dreadfully slow so I decided to wait for Free Wi-Fi when we were ashore. Why is it Wi-Fi on board so expensive? In some places Wi-Fi is abundant e.g. Funchal where the main street is a free Wi-Fi area. I have recently been advised by my internet provider (BT) that I have free access to thousands of BT hotspots in the UK. We learned from Braemar crew members that free Wi-Fi is readily available if you know where to look e.g. Tourist Information Centres and MacDonalds. How long will it be before free Wi-Fi is standard on Cruise ships as it is becoming in some Hotels at home and abroad? 23rd July Braemar arrived at Kristiansund, an old town with buildings dating back to the 17th Century. We had booked a short tour “Introduction to Kristiansund” which gave us a flavour of the place without a lot of walking but a 2 hour coach trip at £30 doesn’t win any “Best Buy” accolades. We were constantly told that “this is Norway and Norway is expensive” and our experiences bore this out. In our opinion the cost of all shore excursions is excessive but because we may not be going here again we smile and begrudgingly pay up. 24th July was another day at sea and Captain Bent Ivar Gangdal reduced speed and manoeuvred to ensure sure we were able to be aware of the photo opportunity as we crossed the Arctic Circle and passed Torghatten, the mountain with the hole, which looks like a top hat and has a clear view though. There is a footpath through the hole and it is quite possible to “walk through the mountain”. During the afternoon the Entertainments Team arranged an initiation ceremony for first time Arctic Circle crossers who were enrolled into the order of the Blue Nose. Good fun was had by all and British reticence was put to one side as many of our fellow passengers stepped forward and had their noses painted with a startling blue dye!! 25th July Tromso known as the “Gateway to the Arctic” was our next stop. Our arrival was greeted by brilliant sunshine which persisted throughout the day. As we had visited Tromso on previous occasions we decided to do our own thing and we decided to get some exercise and walk over the bridge to the Iceberg shaped Church building known as “The Cathedral of the Arctic”. We had been advised by the Tourist Information Office that this would take around 40 minutes to walk there, but we took it at a more leisurely pace and made a number of stops to enjoy the views and take photographs. The opening of the Cathedral was delayed by a funeral service and a 40 Kroner admission charge didn’t encourage us to wait but we were able to glimpse views of the striking stained glass windows. 26th July Honningsvag – the World’s most Northerly Village and the gateway to the North Cape which is considered to be “the top of the world” and the most northern part of Europe but since North Cape is on an island it cannot claim to be the most Northern part of Mainland Europe. Honningsvag is framed by the Arctic Ocean and rugged mountains. We had visited Honningsvag on previous cruises but decided that it would be a good idea to take the “Sightseeing on Mageroy Island” excursion. It wasn’t until we were on the coach and preparing to make our first stop that we realised that we had done this trip before! However we enjoyed the trip around the island for a second time. 27th July – we had another day at sea again. The Braemar Daily Times informed us that “the sun never sets” today. We had experienced the “midnight sun” in Orkney when you could just about read a newspaper outside at around 11.30 and also in northern Norway when we had watched the sun sink towards the horizon but then begin to rise again, but this time not only did the sun not set, it didn’t even look like anything but mid-day at any time of the day or night. It was bright sun all the time, which shone through clear crisp fresh air. We had to draw our cabin curtains when it was bed time and it felt a bit unreal saying “Good night” when the sun was still high in the sky; but as we continued our journey north it became perceptibly colder and it was a case of adding extra layers when we ventured out of doors. 28th July took us to Ny Alesund which is the world’s most northerly community at 79 degrees N. Formally a coal-mining community Ny Alesund is now a modern centre for international arctic environmental monitoring and an International research station. No shore excursions operate in order to protect the environment and we understand that within the next few years, no cruise ships will be allowed so we were fortunate in being allowed to go ashore. We were each given a map showing a 1 km walk along a clearly defined footpath and strict instructions that prohibited us from straying so as not to interfere with the birds and flowers. There were many Arctic Tern nests which are in “scrapings” some with parent birds sitting and incubating eggs and others with young chicks. Some of the nests were very near to the footpath and parent birds created a commotion and even dive-bombed us if they thought that we were getting too near. We had been advised to protect our heads by raised hands or umbrellas/walking sticks. I was fortunate enough to get some good photographs of the nesting birds and some arctic plants with very delicate flowers. Members of the ship’s crew were posted along the circular footpath walk to ensure that we were confined to the path and abiding by the rules. There is small Post Office “Shed” where suitable postcards could be purchased and posted to friends at home and passports stamped. The queue indicated that they were doing brisk business. Ny Alesund was an extra ordinary experience BUT although we did see reindeer we didn’t even catch a glimpse of Polar Bears. We did see a number of stuffed Polar Bears at various locations which are enormous, but they are generally confined to the pack ice which was off limits for us! After returning to the Braemar we enjoyed a warming drink and were able to remove off some of our extra layers. As we departed from Ny Alesund, the Captain told us “I have got a bit of time in my pocket and I am going to take you beyond 80 degrees North and you will then be members of a very exclusive club of those who have been so far north”. The on board photographer took a picture of the ship’s instrument panel as a proof of our extreme location and used it as a background for photographs of individual passengers which were sold at an opportunistic price. The details of the ship’s position showed Lat 80.00.688’ North and Long 009.31.218’ East. There were serious ice flows in the sea and we could just discern pack ice on the northern horizon, but only ice-breakers could go further north. 29th July we visited Longyearbyen which is home to around 1,600 inhabitants and once had a thriving mining industry and there are still the remains of the gantries and overhead coal moving equipment. Longyearbyen consisted of one long “High Street” with a variety of well stocked shops the largest and most impressive was the Co-op which would have been a credit to any location in the UK. No doubt the only way for such a remote and small community to enjoy good shopping facilities is by mutual Co-operation and here those principles are implemented par excellence. A weapons cabinet in the entrance to the Co-op was a stark reminder of the danger that Polar Bears present during the winter months. We also learned that parked snowmobiles have to have their keys left in the machines so that anyone can make an immediate, quick getaway should Polar Bears be on the rampage. Longyearbyen is where a young British student had been killed by a Polar Bear just a few days before our holiday began and we were obviously mindful of this tragedy but we were not camping. 30th 31st July and 1st August were more days at sea and we were leaving the land of the Polar Bears. We did see some Reindeer but although we were sorry to have missed out on seeing real live Polar Bears we hadn’t really expected to make sighting but we had been into their habitat and we had been beyond 80 degrees North, Before we visited Bergen the Captain had one further “extra surprise for us”. Trollfjord – a spectacular 2km long side arm of the Raftsund Fjord with a narrow 800 metre entrance between imposing mountains steeply rising from the sea (to 1084 m in the south and 980 m to the north). The fjord is 72 metres at its deepest point and is a major tourist attraction for those cruise ships that are small enough. Ships can only enter one at a time and have to negotiate a tricky “3 point turn” to get back out again. This spectacle got us out on deck admiring not only the spectacular scenery but also the Captains seamanship. There were some paint marks on the rocks indicating that some vessels had not been as expertly handled as Braemar!! 2nd August saw us return to Bergen in pleasant weather. The Fish and Fruit stalls are always an attraction and we could do nothing but admire the sight and the smell of the luscious berries and the size of the King Crabs. Unfortunately the displays of fresh fish and shell fish is not as spectacular as on our first visit but nevertheless the displays are still an attraction. We found the Tourist Information Centre adjacent to the Market and, thanks to free Wi-Fi, we were able to re-connect with the world, download the Daily Telegraph, read our e-mails and speak to our family on Face Time. Then we strolled around Bergen before inevitably, it started to rain as it has done on each of our 3 previous visits but Bergen is lovely. In the evening following the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party and formal Dinner, we were well entertained by members of the Crew in a traditional Braemar Cruise Show. 3rd August Sunday at sea and again there was a service of Holy Communion and a very well attended Interdenominational Church Service. Final evening show embraced all the on board entertainers, but alas, “Health & Safety” prohibits what used to be the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” end to the evening. Monday 4th August Braemar returned to Dover and as Evesway passengers we were among the first group to disembark. We identified our baggage which was collected by a “no tipping policy porter” and taken to our waiting Evesway coach. There was a small problem caused by another passenger’s suitcase having got “lost” between cabin and coach but after a short delay we were soon on our way. I was so comfortable in my seat that I totally slept through the Dartford Tunnel experience – holiday making is so very tiring - and after a couple of service station stops and a taxi from Knutsford we were safely back at home. We had enjoyed another excellent Fred.Olsen cruise. Awaiting our return was a bunch of white roses from a kind neighbour and a carrier bag with bread milk and eggs which provided sustenance to tide us over the washing, ironing, unpacking and tackling the junk mail and e-mail in tray before we began to think about our next holiday.
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