New Cruises Confirmed

I’m pleased to be able to announce that I have just had three new cruise assignments confirmed for 2018.

In January 2018, I will be returning to The Amazon and West Indies (this will be my seventh visit) on the MV Magellan… very excited about that, of course; it means I’ll get to visit Iles Du Salut again – possibly my all-time favourite cruise destination…

In May 2018, I will be joining the Marco Polo on a voyage to Iceland’s ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ – such a beautiful part of the world (and more recently, a beautiful part of Westeros in ‘Game of Thrones’…).

Finally; later in the year, I will be embarking on a ‘Mediterranean Odyssey’, once again on the good ship Magellan.

Before all of that, though, I’m looking forward to a return to Norway at the end of this month (on the Magellan), when we’ll be chasing the Northern Lights…

Bring ’em on…

Bergen, Norway

Today, we arrived at our final port destination in this voyage, Bergen.

We looked out of our porthole to see that it was grey and overcast, and raining. When we emerged onto the quayside after breakfast, we also discovered that it was quite nippy; good job we’d brought our winter coats with us, then.

As the morning progressed, however, the weather changed. It wasn’t long after we’d set out for the town that the rain stopped, and by mid-morning, even the sun came out.

Bergen was quiet, but then it is Easter Sunday, so we rather expected it to be. Again, though, as the morning progressed and the weather changed, so the town seemed to come alive; Bergen, it seems, is a popular visitor destination on any day of the week, and at any time of the year.

Our main objective was Bryggen; an area of merchant buildings in the old harbour district that is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It charmed us the last time we were here, and it certainly charmed us again today. Bryggen is, primarily, a row of old wooden buildings along a section of the harbourside. Quirky and colourful, they become even more interesting when you go exploring down their little alleyways. Here, there are a multitude of galleries and cafes, but, more interesingly, there are also steps up to higher levels, with wooden corridors, none of which seem quite straight. Tracey says that it reminds her of something out of an old western; I always think that it feels like they’ve been built by boat-builders, and many of the locations feel like you’re walking through an old wooden boat.

We spent a long time wandering through the warren of corridors and alleyways, photographing the old buildings from every conceivable angle. We even walked around to the opposite side of the harbour so that I could take an iconic shot of the buildings head-on,  with the hillside behind them. It was still quite dull and grey when we took our ealy photographs, but by the time we’d returned to Bryggen, after spending some time in the Visitor Information Centre, the sun had come out, so we had to retake all the photographs again, just so that we could remember the buildings with the sun on them.

A funicular railway takes visitors up to the top of the hillside overlooking the town. We didn’t do that today, but will probably do so when we return in October, as there are some good walks to be had from up there; a fellow passenger (the same one who we met on our walk in Eidfjord) tipped us off to them, and showed us the photographs he’d take up there, so that’s a definite objective for a future visit.

We were back on board the Astoria in plenty of time for lunch; all-aboard time was 2:30pm, for departure at 3pm. I have to say that the Captain has been spot-on with his timekeeping; we left at almost precisely that time, as we have done on each day when leaving port.

Soon after we’d left Bergen, I gave my second painting session; a tonal study of Briksdal Glacier, which seemed to go down well enough with another full class. Tomorrow will be my final class, on what will also be our last day at sea before arriving back home in Tilbury on Tuesday morning. We’ve been one hour in front of the UK all week and the clocks go back again tonight, bringing us back on UK time.

We’re now on the home stretch…

Flam, Norway

Today, we arrived in Flåm. That’s Flam with a little circle sat at the top of the apex on a capital ‘A’, which I’m almost certain tells the reader how it should be pronounced. As far as I know, it’s ‘a’ as in pan, or can.

Once again, we found ourselves anchored at the head of a steeply-sided fjord, looking out over a small town/village of buildings all built in the traditional wooden style. What Flam has that Eidfjord doesn’t, is a railway station. Again, we’d managed to avoid being given any tour escorting duties; the primary excursion being a ride on the famous Flam Railway (maybe another time…). Instead, we had the luxury of a whole day ahead of us, to fill as we wished.

After spending some time in the Visitor Information Centre, and grabbing a local map showing available walking options, we decided that a small walk close to the town would take us nicely up to lunchtime, after which, we could take a longer walk to see a waterfall in the afternoon.

What took us rather by surprise was just how quickly we exhausted the first part of our planned walking possibilities. The pathways we followed were all on the side of a small hill overlooking the port, in what was described as a culture park. Essentially, this seemed to refer to all the various sculptures and art pieces placed periodically alongside the path. The route we had hoped to take got curtailed when we encountered fencing preventing us from going any further, so we retraced our steps, back down towards the town, and decided to check out the start of our intended longer walk.

What we soon discovered was that the scale of the map we were using was much larger than we’d originally thought. It still being some while short of lunchtime, we kept going…

Before we knew it, we’d left Flam and arrived at the foot of a mountain, with a track pointing uphill, towards where we knew the waterfall to be. Since going back to the ship at this point was simply not an option, we started climbing.

I have to say that, what with the sale of the map and the slightly uninspiring culture park walks, we had, up until this point, become a little underwhelmed by our walking possibilities. As we climbed the hill, however, this changed considerably.

The walk was easy to follow, with red ‘T’s painted on occasional tree trunks to help guide our way. In summer, it would be very different, with trees in full foliage making for a more closed-in experience. Since all the trees were winter-bare, however, not only could see where we were heading, but we were also treated to constant views behind us, and out over the valley towards the town.

The track became steeper, and the going a little harder; one final push brought us to a clearing from where we could view the waterfall in all its glory (I think it’s called Brekkerfosse… but I may be wrong…). Dropping from quite a height, over smooth rocks, it was a spectacular sight, and more than worth the energy required to get there.

We met a couple going the other way who recommended plodding on a little further, for another 20-30 minutes, for even better views across the valley, so we did. The going became a bit harder as the gradient became steeper, but sure enough, having climbed even higher than the waterfall, we came to a vantage point where the whole of the valley opened out below us. We could see the ship, and Flam, and when the train came along, it was like looking down upon a model railway.

Finally, we headed back down the hill, slightly footsore, but very satisfied with our climb. Naturally, we’d missed the start of lunch, but as it only took us about twenty minutes to get back to the ship once we were back on the road at the foot of the hill, we did make it back before the end of lunchtime, with about 15 minutes to spare.

After lunch, we took a gentle meander around the town, looking in the souvenir shops and buying an ice cream in one of the cafes there. There was free wi-fi on tap, too, so we were able to spend some time catching up on emails and online updates, before finally heading back to the ship.

Our impression of Flam changed over the course of the day. It’s clearly a very popular visitor destination; as with Eidfjord, there was a large motorhome park there, cars emerged from a tunnel in the base of the mountain, and there were many visitors who had arrived by train. I must say that I’d gone from being slightly lukewarm to really liking the place. Further study of the map revealed many more walking possibilities, giving us lots of ideas for the next time we visit (should there be a next time).

We just have one last stop on our mini-cruise; tomorrow, we’ll be in Bergen. Despite the fact that we’ve only been on the ship since Tuesday, and and we only have a three more days before we’ll be back in Tilbury, it actually feels like we’ve been away for weeks.

EidFjord, Norway

Today` we arrived in Eidfjord, in Norway, and what a truly fantastic place it is.

Tracey and I have been here before, but neither of us remember it, at least not as we found it today. On our previous visit, we were on tour escorting duty to see a dam in the high mountains and a waterfall. Today, we were free to do as we wished.

Even before sitting down to breakfast, we couldn’t wait to head out on to the deck to see the scenery. It was a cool morning, but clear and sunny, with a beautiful blue sky and only the occasional cloud clinging to the tops of the mountains… and what mountains…

This is what we’ve come all this way, and braved the North Sea, to see; a fjord surrounded by mountains of the most impressive magnitude. Eidfjord lies at the head of a magnificent glacial valley, with textbook steel sides and rock faces that descend from a great height (or ascend, depending upon your viewpoint). It being springtime, there was still a fair amount of snow clinging to the tops, punctuated by dramatic crags and plunging crevasses; all, quite simply, a joy to behold.

After breakfast, we headed ashore, with no particular plans other than to potter about and to see whatever was to be seen. A fast-flowing river cuts its way through the village. The village itself is spaced-out and clean, with colourful wooden buildings of typical norwegian construction. The whole place seemed quite relaxed and sparsely populated, a population that multiplies several-fold when a cruise ship like ours comes to visit. Having said that, it’s clearly a place that caters well for visitors of all kinds, at any time of the year, with several cafes, a large hotel and even a camping ground for motorhomes and campervans (note to self… maybe we should come back this way with our little campervan sometime…).

We crossed the river via a small footbridge and then folllowed it upstream, with the river to our right ride. We stopped often, to take in the scenery and to take photos and video of the landscape, and almost without realising it, the road we’d been following turned into a track, where signs told us that camping is prohibited and little fingerposts yellow stripes of paint confirmed that we were clearly following a properly designated footpath. Others were walking along it too, some carrying maps, so we figured we were unlikely to get ourselves lost.

The track brought us, unexpectedly, to a magnificent lake, reminiscent of the Lake District and Scotland, only with mountains that are much bigger. It was at this point that we bumped into another couple from the ship, who asked which direction we’d come from. It turned out that they’d come from the opposite direction, and had followed a circular route which we knew nothing about. This meant that, once we’d finished admiring, and photographing, the lake, we could continue following the track which would eventually bring us back to our starting poiint, and the ship. All-aboard time was 2:30pm, and it was already gone midday, but we figured we had plenty of time to complete the circuit.

The track wound its way uphill, doubling back on itself a couple of times, through the winter-bare trees, until it opened out onto a plateau that was like another world. The valley dropped out of sight below us, but the cliffs of the surrounding mountains rose up, only much closer now. Here, there were a few houses and farms, and a single track that joined them all together. Eventually, after about half a mile of straight walking, we came to a high viewpoint overlooking the village, and the Astoria far below us.

It’s been a fantastic day, in a stunning location. The good weather has helped to make it such a successful day, of course; had it been raining, I daresay we would have looked back at it quite differently. The walk was a revelation, and because we’ll be coming this way again later in the year, on the Magellan, we’re both excited at the prospect of exploring the area a little more when we return. Once we’d left Eidfjord, the journey back towards the sea was no less spectacular; despite it being quite cool, we stayed up on deck for as long as possible, photographing the scenery as we passed it.

Fjord-bagging is fun!

At Sea

Today, we have been sailing the North Sea. It’s been rough enough to upset a few people, close a few staircases and bring out the sickbag fairy from hibernation, but nothing as serious as we’ve seen on other occasions.

I was worried it might affect the turnout for my class, but I’m pleased to say that the room was full of just over 20 keen folks ready to learn the basics of watercolour.

Art and craft classes take place in one of the side rooms attached to the restaurant down on deck 3. It’s not quite as big as the conference room on the Marco Polo, but it did the job admirably. Running classes in a restaurant can sometimes create a bit of tension between the interests of the two parties; tables need to be covered, naturally, but also when a restaurant is going to be needed soon after an art class, there’s extra pressure to finish on time and clear up ready for the next meal.

Fortunately, the small lounge doesn’t appear to be used by the restaurant on a regular basis, so I was able to stretch the class without worrying about being kicked out. In fact; they were very accomodating.

The rest of the day was almost as low-key as yesterday. The constant pitching of the ship curtailed a few planned activities (ballroom dancing, for instance), and I’m certain many people spent a large proportion of the day in their cabins. Tracey, who hates it when the sea is rough, spent the afternoon sleeping (thanks to the sea-sickness tablets), and I spent it working on an editing job and  catching up on Better Call Saul, The Big Bang Theory and Westworld.

All this ultra-leisure is tiring, though, so I’m looking forward to arriving at our first Norwegian port-of-call tomorrow (and so far we’ve managed to avoid getting roped into any tour escorting duties…)

Follow watercolour artist Peter Woolley's adventures as he runs art workshops on the high seas…