Sunday 13 April 2014

Up to the Arctic Circle

The holiday started with a Sunday morning flight from Manchester to Tromso in the Arctic Circle. Arriving mid-afternoon in a cold, grey and snowy Tromso, we settled ourselves into our hotel room then dressed for the cold and went for a stroll. By now it was late afternoon and the temperature was staring to plummet, consequently it was not long before we found a pub for warmth and liquid refreshment.

Tromso is the largest city in Northern Norway with a population of 71,000, 11,000 of which are students. Here there are reputedly more bars per person than anywhere else in Norway and the city has the nickname of 'Paris of the North'. It is also known as the 'Gateway to the Arctic' as many of the Arctic expeditions originated here. Today fishing is of prime importance and it's most interesting landmark is the famous architectural masterpiece - the Arctic Cathedral, which was built in 1965, and has northern Europe's largest stained glass window.

Monday morning dawned bright, sunny and cold and we took ourselves out to do some more exploring before joining a guided walking tour, which took us round some points of historical interest before concluding in Tromso's oldest pub where we sampled beer from the world's northern most brewery, Mack. Finally we had a quick walk in a snowstorm to join the cruise ship which was to be our home for the next three nights.

When the ship left Tromso heading north, in the early evening, all was calm, but as evening turned tonight the weather became wilder as we sailed through a violent storm with winds of gale force 12. We along with many other passengers did not have much sleep that night. By Tuesday morning the storm had blown itself out  and we docked in the small port of Honningsvag as scheduled. However, despite the clear blue skies and sun, our planned excursion to the North Cape was cancelled as the night's storm had left the roads impassable. Instead we went ashore at Honningsvag to have a look around. Here the air was very cold, clear and invigorating which we only very rarely experience in the UK. About a foot of snow had fallen overnight and husband enjoyed himself immensely watching the snowploughs clear the snow into the harbour. There were a few shops open mainly selling Christmas paraphernalia - late for 2013 or early for 2014?

Thankfully Tuesday night was calmer and after a good night's sleep we were up early for our morning's excursion  to the Russian border. The ship docked at Kirkenes (pronounced chickness) the only town in Norway where East meets West. Our coach journey to the border station of Storskog took us through some grim

but stark

and stunning scenery.

 At the border

we were allowed to take photographs

 and buy souvenirs, which were mainly Russian priced in Norwegian krone, but we were not allowed over the  border into Russia and nobody made a run for it.

On the return journey to Kirkenes we stopped on Prestfjellet Mountain for this photo opportunity of the port and the waiting cruise ship.

Alternatively some of our fellow travelers had opted to visit the Snow Hotel, but we decided that the Russian border would be more interesting. Others left the ship at Kirkenes to spend a night in the Snow Hotel before returning home. The temperature there is sub-zero and I like my comforts. Even a rocking bed is preferable to a cold one.

By lunchtime we were back on board the ship. At this point it turned around and we began the return journey south to Tromso. Around 4 pm that afternoon the ship docked briefly at Vardo the most easterly town/port in Norway. Here some very brave or foolish soles went ice dipping in the Barents Sea. We went ashore to stretch our legs and even dressed for the weather this was quite the coldest place that we visited.

That evening we had just begun our starter at dinner when an announcement was made over the tanoy system that the Northern Lights had been sighted in the sky. On hearing this 90% of diners put down their soup spoon and rushed to view this phenomenon. We finished out soup before joining our fellow passengers. There were some faint green smudges in the sky- nothing like the photographs that you see promoting the Northern Lights.
Our third and final night on board the cruise ship was again rough although not quite as bad as the first  night. Just winds of gale force 9 this time. Well one night's sleep out of three isn't bad is it? After the first night I had resigned myself to not having much sleep this holiday. What amazed me was that some passengers slept right through these stormy nights oblivious to the mayhem outside.

Our final port of call on Thursday morning was Hammerfest- the world's most northern town.

Here it was noticeably warmer, but sleet was falling from the leaden skies. We had a short stroll to this unusual church

then visited the Polar Bear Society museum.

Back on board the cruise ship we spent our final afternoon sailing on calm grey water through the dramatic black and white scenery of the fjords.

Shortly before midnight the ship docked back in Tromso and our cruise was over. The final night of our holiday was spent back on terra firma in the same hotel that we had spent our first night.

The whole trip was a new experience for us. We did not see the Northern Lights in all their glory which was the initial objective of the holiday and we are not sure that cruising is for us. The cabin was small or perhaps cozy, with foldaway beds that I had expected and an ensuite the size of a broom cupboard.  We did not expect this particular cruise to be luxurious, but had higher expectations of it. If we are to cruise again we would definitely expect something of a higher standard and it would need to be a much larger cruise ship.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Journey into the unknown

Well the last few days have been very different and interesting and for us the experience of a lifetime, as we shall not be doing it again. I am surprised as anybody that I am back in one piece. The holiday was booked last April then forgotten about. We usually book holidays at the last minute, but as our attempt to book this trip at the last minute in 2013 met with failure, we realised that this was one holiday that we had to book in advance.

The tickets for the holiday arrived around the time that the Malaysian airlines plane MH370 disappeared. Our flight was with a chartered airline that we had never heard of. There was no trace of the flight on Manchester airport's website. And to make it even more sinister we could not check in in advance via the website, as we normally do. Maybe it is just my suspicious mind, but I felt that we could disappear and no one would know. On our outbound flight we had the shakiest take off and nerve racking landing that I can ever remember in nearly forty years of flying.

Then we spent a night in an hotel not far from this building site,

where this character occupied a corner of the hotel's reception area.

The following three nights were spent on a small cruise ship. Our first night at sea was very stormy and uncomfortable. The second night was calm, but the third night was only marginally less uncomfortable than the first night. The final night of our holiday was spent back in the hotel where we had spent the first night. Thankfully the return flight was uneventful. We along with most of our fellow travelers thought that we were going on a holiday, but it turned out to be more of an endurance test. In my next post I shall fill in the details.