To the Polar Icecap

John and Sandra Nowlan
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Barren beauty and shipboard luxury

Even veteran crew members stood on the decks watching in awe as we sailed up one of western Norway’s magnificent fjords.

They joined hundreds of equally impressed passengers on the luxury cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, as our Norwegian captain navigated his way by sheer cliffs that spewed dozens of cascading, narrow waterfalls slipping and tumbling towards the calm water below.

Rugged snowcapped mountains ringed the fjord, some rising to 1,600 metres and beyond.

Along this Geirangerfjord, a 16-kilometre narrow body of water that’s considered to be the most magnificent in Norway, there are five major waterfalls and hundreds of smaller ones. The most dramatic are across from each other in the narrow waterway — the Seven Sisters, a septet of closely spaced and shimmering cascades and The Bachelor (sometimes called The Suitor), the widest (and wildest) flow of water in the fjord that emerges from a giant crevice in the cliff and bounces, splashes and free flows down a steep, ragged cliff.

This was a great start to an adventure-filled, far-north cruise but the best was yet to come. The cruise was officially called the “North Cape Panorama”, sailing well above the Arctic Circle to the town of Honningsvag, about an hour’s drive from North Cape, Europe’s northernmost promontory.

The treeless landscape around Honningsvag was mostly barren rocks and scrub brush with occasional green areas where dozens of reindeer grazed under the care of the small Sami population, the indigenous people of the north. The North Cape itself, located just above 71 degrees latitude, has become a significant tourist attraction with a large restaurant, gift shop and movie theatre perched atop the 280-metre cliff overlooking the Barents Sea.

At this point most cruise ships head south again, but the Crystal Serenity continued much farther north, deep into the Arctic Ocean.

The captain was determined to reach the Polar Ice Cap and he did, just above 80 degrees north latitude. It was extraordinary. A sunny summer day with small packs of loose ice surrounding the ship and getting thicker as it stretched to the horizon and the North Pole, just 800 kilometres away.

A lifeboat was sent to collect some ice for display in the dining room.

After cruising along the ice cap for an hour (no polar bear sightings) we headed southeast to the nearest land where we docked on the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen (part of the Svalbard archipelago) and the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, the most northerly permanent community in the world.

Here in a settlement built on stilts (to avoid permafrost problems) 2,400 rugged souls mine coal, find employment at the research stations or teach Marine Science and Arctic Geology  at the local university. Residents are warned to take a rifle along if they venture beyond town because of the danger of polar bears.

The picturesque harbour is surrounded by treeless hills, mountains and glaciers. The settlement thrives in spite of its desolate location and a rugged climate that includes 24 hours of total darkness from October to February followed by summer and the 24 hours of sunshine that we enjoyed.

In all, Norway boasts about 1600 glaciers, slow moving remnants of the last ice age that creep down to the ocean along the heavily-indented coast.

On the way back to our final stop in Stockholm, everyone marveled as we sailed by hundreds of jagged, snow-covered peaks, many with frozen highways of thick ice reaching between the mountains and flowing gracefully, centimetre by centimetre, to the sea.

Cruising is the ideal way to visit Scandinavia and the special pleasures of a luxury cruise ship make the whole experience even better.

Crystal consistently seems to do it with more polish than other lines and Serenity’s recent $25 million refit has improved an already outstanding product. The ship features spacious cabins, most with teak balconies (rooms have twin sinks with granite counters, large, plasma TVs with Blu-ray, plenty of storage space, marble-topped desks, padded headboards and sophisticated lighting) and cuisine that’s consistently imaginative and very tasty.

The two specialty restaurants on Crystal Serenity — Silk Road (Asian) and Prego (Italian) — would both be welcome additions to any big city fine food scene.

Service in the restaurants, as throughout the ship, is poised and professional. Waiters and others take the time to learn your name and daily preferences.

This cruise had a Food and Wine theme and, as expected, the lectures and special events, all complementary, were extraordinary. Guest chef Charles Tjessem (one of Norway’s most celebrated) gave cooking classes and prepared one of the meals in the main dining room.

Master of Wine Philip Goodband (one of only 289 in the world) presented three fascinating tasting sessions and mixologist David Nepove, President of the United States Bartenders Guild, showed how to prepare tasty cocktails with ease.

Equally impressive was the array of guest speakers aboard (Crystal always does this well) who gave a series of illustrated lectures. Our favourites were Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, the NASA astronaut who’s made five Space Shuttle flights (including one that repaired the Hubble Space telescope), Dr. Glenn Robinson, a Middle East security and political expert and Dr. Fred Chernow, author of “A Sharper Mind,” who gave humourous lectures on improving memory. Other speakers included Commander Donald Campbell, who talked about Norway and the ports on our route, UN veteran Roman Pryjomko, a world affairs expert, Wall Street Journal caricaturist Ken Fallin and former CNN journalist Aaron Brown, who made his mark broadcasting live during the 9/11 tragedy. In addition, complementary classes were offered in computer skills, music and art and a Nova Scotia golf pro gave individual and group lessons. Days were never boring.

Evenings on Crystal Serenity were also stimulating with an array of entertainment that earned several standing ovations from our well-travelled fellow guests.

The five Vegas-style production shows, with singers, dancers and an orchestra, featured Stratford Festival veteran Stephanie Roth and off-Broadway star Michael Scott Harris in lead vocal roles. Cruise ships often present marginally entertaining comedians, jugglers and magicians, but to Crystal’s credit, those cabaret acts were of an especially high quality on this cruise.

Because of its quality, Crystal attracts many veteran Canadian cruisers. John Young of Tofino, B.C., has travelled on Crystal several times, but never this far north so the ice cap was a priority.

“We wanted to visit the Arctic and we knew we’d be treated well on this line,” he said.

“And after two years away from Serenity, we were still greeted by name. That’s special!”

Monica and Larry Rowe of Toronto agreed.

“We took our first Crystal cruise 10 years ago,” they said. “Our parents had raved about it, they took us aboard … and they created a monster!”

Both John Young and the Rowes are looking forward to next step in Crystal’s evolution. In 2012, the line and its two ships (Serenity and Symphony) will follow some of the luxury competition (Regent, Silversea and others) and become all-inclusive.

All bar and dinner drinks, some shore excursions and all gratuities will be included in the fare.

“It’s inevitable,” John Young said.

“They should have done it years ago. But it will make an outstanding product even better.”

 

John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax.

For details on Crystal Cruise Line and its itineraries see: www.crystalcruises.com

Organizations: The Suitor, The North, Silk Road NASA UN Wall Street Journal CNN

Geographic location: Norway, Arctic, North Cape Honningsvag Europe North Pole Svalbard Longyearbyen Stockholm Scandinavia Blu United States Middle East Nova Scotia Vegas Broadway Tofino Toronto

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