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The Antarctic Peninsula — Exactly 22 hours after leaving Ushuaia, Argentina, which calls itself ”the end of the world”, the expedition ship Fram reached the Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica — the real end of the world.
The captain’s P.A. announcement interrupted the lecture on that frozen continent’s ecology, but the passengers cheered the news.
We were little more than halfway to our first trip ashore. That meant we might be facing another night and day like the first one — grabbing for corridor handrails or the backs of chairs to brace against the exaggerated rolling of the ship in what can be the planet’s most hostile 600 miles of sea.
But our progress also meant we were that much closer to a continent so massive that if you put the United States on top of Antarctica, there would be more than a million and a half square miles uncovered. Meanwhile, the U.S. would be sitting on ice more than a mile and a half thick.
We’d be landing in early summer — when the temperature would climb to freezing only one of our four days there.
We could barely wait.
Our patience was tested the next morning while still approaching: The ship motored into a mini-blizzard whose tiny snowflakes turned to sleet so thick the Fram seemed fogbound. The deck became slippery with snow.
But once the ship passed the storm and reached the islands off the Peninsula, the 122 passengers understood what Dorothy felt as she opened the farmhouse door:
We found ourselves under a brilliant blue sky in a majestic land, its horizons defined by mountains and perennial winter.
All around us were huge granite peaks whose jagged outlines were softened by thick coats of snowdrift. Icebergs glistened pearly white or an eerie neon turquoise, or both. Irregular clangs and chungs sounded throughout the 373-foot-long ship as its hull plowed through drift ice, remnants of building-sized icebergs still within view.
We could see penguins leaping above the surface of the clear sea for fractions of a second before darting ahead, underwater.
The eight-day voyage had become an expedition. And on expeditions there are often surprises.
“All stated times and activities are changeable due to weather conditions, or other circumstances out of our control,” the daily agenda reminded passengers.
That’s why the captain slowed the Fram in order to trail three fin whales, on Day Three. And that’s why the much-awaited scenic cruise in the eight-passenger landing boats was cancelled both on the night of Day Five and the following morning. As we swarmed the three observation decks to stare at a monster slab of ice a mile or so in front of the bow, the captain explained over the P.A.:
”Well, this is what happens when a 500-meter-wide iceberg enters a 550-meter-wide channel. We cannot send in the little boats because they must always be near the big ship.
”We will turn and go the long way to the other end of the Lemaire Channel. And tomorrow, we will see if the iceberg has taken a holiday somewhere else.”
But the next morning the iceberg had not moved on, thus canceling one of two scheduled landings on Day Six, a day that dawned as bleak as our collective mood became.
On expeditions, however, surprises happen.
So, the layers of gray clouds suddenly blew away to reveal another sunny day. Said the assistant expedition leader, Ina Schau Johansen:
“If we get a third day like this, then don’t ever come back here, because we will never get it this good again.’’
She wasn’t joking. On the voyage preceding ours, those passengers had had only two hours of sunlight during their four days of landings.
But on this, our sunny third day, in place of the cancelled small-boat cruise of the 7-mile-long Lemaire Channel, everyone could get a sightseeing trip in the craft among icebergs large and small.
A favorite image: a single Gentoo penguin on a sizable but flat-topped ‘berg floating near the Fram. Although we had already viewed, photographed and video’ed thousands of the little critters in our previous landings, just one Gentoo at sea was special.
When two boats had stopped for photos, then left, this penguin had wandered in their direction and dove into the water. Was it trying to follow the boats? Not likely: Penguins are seabirds, meaning they come to land only to breed, so this one most likely had just been resting while looking for a meal.
C’mon in, the water’s freezing
Layering clothes for the eight landings was a challenge:
Weather conditions changed rapidly, from landing to landing. Too many layers, combined with an uphill climb, could make your eyeglasses fog over and the layers closest to the skin get soaked with sweat from excess body heat. Too few layers and the strong wind could easily cut through the Teflon-coated nylon parka each passenger was given.
But Antarctica challenged us with more than icy conditions. On most of the landings, every step on the snow could mean sinking to your knee. This despite the fact that the expedition team of naturalists, geologists, ornithologists and biologists were dispatched to a landing site before the passengers, to mark safe places to walk.
Because Antarctica wildlife is protected against harm, passengers were repeatedly told to keep at least five meters (almost 16 feet) away from the penguins and their ”highways” — the narrow paths they created as they waddled between nest and sea, to eat.
Penguins won’t nest directly on snow, lest that cold prevent their eggs from hatching. Instead, the mature birds will even climb steep hills to find bare rock on which to create their nests.
The construction materials are pebbles and small rocks the male carries, one at a time, in his beak. The guy with the coolest rock nest gets the girl. After she lays an egg, they take turns sitting on it, while the other penguin goes to the sea to feed.
The nesting penguin must guard the egg from the attacks of a chicken-sized bird named the skua. If they get the chance, skuas will peck at and break the egg, slurping up the contents. The penguins have no defense other than to continually stay atop the egg.
Once the chicks hatch, usually starting in January, the skuas will try to kill and chew on them – a scene the Fram passengers did not witness but which was clear in the BBC’s Frozen Planet series, which was looping on our cabin TVs.
Something they don’t mention in those wildlife documentaries is that cute as penguins are, their rookeries, or nesting colonies, stink. Nope, no other word for the smell.
The penguins’ chief food is tiny creature named krill. But penguins only partially digest the krill and then poop where ever they happen to be.
During breeding and chick-rearing times, the penguins spend most of their time in the rookeries. That ammonia/rotten-fish smell is another instance when Antarctica will take your breath away.
But deep snow to trudge, hills to climb, the stench — I even got dive-bombed by a skua being chased by another — are just annoyances compared to the excitement of being near the rookeries.
Just watching the penguins waddle along from side to side, or slide on their bellies down hills, or hop over some impediment bring smiles from everyone.
Embarrassed, but honored
Originally, I didn’t think our time ashore would be so rewarding. On the first landing, the 32-mph wind dropped the wind-chill to minus 28, or 60 degrees below freezing. Dense clouds hid the sun.
On the days when the weather and landscape was most challenging, or when we plowed through 30-foot waves, I would feel embarrassed to step into either of the Fram’s elevators.
In each was a five-foot-tall headshot of one or the other of Norway’s most famed polar explorers, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen (names are cq). Each had sailed on wooden ships named the Fram – Norwegian for “forward.’’
In the photographs, each man looked out with weather-worn faces and hard eyes. I felt they were challenging me for daring to come to Antarctica in so much comfort.
Those men, and other European and American explorers of more than a century earlier, came in too-fragile sailing ships, wearing animal skins over woolen clothes, without my ship’s redundant engines, and satellite links, without at least three hot entrees at every meal, without hot showers.
Those explorers were more than just courageous and hearty souls – they were risking their lives. And many of them lost that gamble.
So, finally, I felt privileged to have barely sampled what they had chosen to endure for months on Antarctica. Its magnificence does that to you.
Freelance writer Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the Tampa Bay (formerly St. Petersburg) Times. His new e-book is End Bag, available at Amazon, Smashwords, Sony and other sites.
Juneau, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past couple of years has been pretty straightforward: Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there this summer will […]
It’s getting so a cruise passenger can’t even stroll the 1,115-foot-long ship in private without launching interactivity. Which is exactly what the creative gang at the Walt Disney conglomerate, the Imagineers, has been planning for years. The venue is the company’s first new ship since […]
New Orleans is defined by the cliché: So many choices, so little time.
That holds true for those visiting this great American city before or after a cruise. No matter how much time you can spare, there is something here to entertain you. And while many cruise ship passengers prefer to eat all their meals onboard, even when in port, few cities offer so many tempting restaurants.
Museum treats like no other
Your kids may think television and the Web have shown them the world, but wait until they come face-to-snout with a white alligator. A short walk from the cruise terminal at Julia and Erato streets is the wonderfully imaginative Aquarium of the Americas on Canal Street, where a vanilla-colored gator named Spots can be seen. You also can enjoy a pair of delightful sea otters –- fed daily at 2 p.m. -– penguins, a rainbow of tropical fish and a display of sea horses. (if you’re a member of AAA or AARP, show your membership card for a discount on admissions.)
The city’s stereotypes don’t call to mind fun for kiddies, but the Louisiana Children’s Museum, 420 Julia St., offers a range of interactive exhibits. One of the special treats here for everyone who’s read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi: the computer that lets you steer a ship down the Big Muddy.
Even if you’re not in town in the late winter for the legendary Mardi Gras celebrations, you can experience the glitter and colorful history of that pageant year-round at two places unique to New Orleans:
/ On the edge of the famed French Quarter is the Presbytere (751 Chartres), a National Historic Landmark and part of the Louisiana State Museum system. It has a permanent exhibit on Mardi Gras, including spectacular costumes, tiaras and necklaces.
/ On the riverfront near the convention center is the new home of Blaine Kern Studios, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place. Since 1947, these artists and craftsmen have created the majority of the colorful floats used in these parades and many others elsewhere in the country. The vast complex — 400,000 square feet — is home to Mardi Gras World, which offers tours, plus special event venues and corporate offices.
New Orleans is one of America’s few cities still using streetcars. Here, one runs parallel to the river, from the French Quarter to the Warehouse District, which has been revived with art galleries and artists’ studios. The Canal Street line heads from the river out to City Park, with its Storyland amusement park. The St. Charles Avenue line is a fine ride past fashionable homes in the Garden District.
For something slower-paced, horse-drawn carriages are available for narrated tours of the French Quarter.
A buffet for grown-ups
Mardi Gras is restricted to a few weeks of parades, but the French Quarter exists to feed, tempt and entertain 365 days a year.
Beyond the bars, risqué nightclub shows and ubiquitous carts selling Lucky Dogs to the hungry are retail shops. Royal Street is famed for its quality antique stores. The French Market (1008 N. Peters St.), one of the nation’s oldest public markets, offers original artwork and regional specialties.
The Quarter also boasts art galleries, shops specializing in voodoo items (including custom-made specialties) and a city landmark, Jackson Square.
A short stroll from the cruise terminals is the Riverwalk Marketplace on Poydras Street. Browse more than 100 shops and pop into the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
For night-time adventure, explore Bourbon Street or try your luck at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino on Canal Street.
You’re sure to find good times at Tipitina’s, a concert venue at 501 Napolean, and Mulate’s, the established Cajun food and dance hall, at 201 Julia St.
For something different, put on your dancing shoes and head to the Mid City Bowling Lanes, also called the Rock ‘n’ Bowl, at 3016 S. Carrollton Ave., which offers live music most nights.
Time to eat
There simply are way too many fabulous restaurants to consider without devising a plan. Several standards should be considered first when time is limited.
For breakfast, there’s the legendary Café du Monde on Decatur Street, at the edge of the French Quarter. The bustling Cafe is famous for its bite-sized, powdered-sugar-covered beignets and its chicory coffee.
Of if your appetite can wait until you reach the far end of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, pop into the charming Camellia Grill, 626 S. Carrollton Ave., and try the pecan waffles. Don’t be deterred if there is a line of people waiting to get in — that’s just confirmation of your wise choice, and the patrons do move in and out quickly.
It’s tough to beat a New Orleans’ muffaletta -– a round loaf of crusty Italian bread sliced and typically filled with Provolone cheese, Genoa salami, ham and green olives. This meal-on-a bun, a city landmark, was created in 1906 at the Central Grocery, 923 Decatur St.
For the city’s other sandwich staple, try Johnny’s Po-Boys at 511 Saint Louis St., where sandwiches are stuffed with a variety of meats or seafood.
Regional cuisine favorites include Creole -– emphasizing seafood prepared with a mix of West African, French, African-American and Spanish influences -– and Cajun, which is typically more spicy.
Can’t-miss Cajun dishes are served at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, 416 Chartres St.
For Creole cuisine, consider a trip to Royal Street for either Mr. B’s Bistro or Brennan’s. Another good choice is Galatoire’s, 209 Bourbon St. For Creole in simpler surroundings, it’s the Gumbo Shop near the St. Louis Cathedral on Saint Peter Street.
If it’s Sunday, take a cab to splurge on brunch at the beloved Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave.
Whether in town for a few hours or a couple of days, plan ahead so you can enjoy all New Orleans offers.
JUNEAU, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past 15 months or so has been pretty straightforward: Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there in the […]
It’s getting so a cruise passenger can’t even stroll the 1,100-foot long corridors in private without launching interactivity. Which is exactly what the creative gang at the Walt Disney conglomerate, the Imagineers, has been planning for years. The venue is the company’s first new ship […]
Andalsnes, Norway – Even at the purposely slow pace of 38 miles per hour, there is no clickety-clack, clickety-clack on the Rauma Railway. That sort of noise was eliminated long ago, when the Norwegian State Railways (the NSB) modernized its rolling stock.
It’s just as well there is no noise to distract passengers from enjoying the landscape of what the NSB proclaims is “the most beautiful train journey.’’ So the engineer keeps the speed at less than half its maximum — even stops the cars — to let amateur photographers onboard photograph waterfalls, mountains and lush valleys, bridges and the Rauma River itself.
A crowd-pleaser is the Trollveggen, the Troll Wall, which soars more than 1,000 feet above the valley floor and is Europe’s tallest vertical rock face.
“Most of our train routes are for pleasure, while other nations use trains just for transportation,’’ says Wenche Berger, international sales manager for NSB. “We need to increase our capacity, to serve more passengers.’’ Indeed, the only high-speed run in the entire country is between Oslo and its international airport.
The scenery never quits
But the rolling stock on the five designated sightseeing lines is user-friendly, and the 71-mile Rauma Railway is typical:
Passengers ride in 73-seat, air-conditioned, toilet-equipped cars with leather seats in the “Comfort Class’’, fabric in second class. There are vending machines but no bistro car, which on other NSB trains means a bartender/cook selling prepared cold sandwiches, snacks beverages and the popular Norwegian hot dogs.
On the sightseeing routes, reservations are recommended for the high season – typically the last weekend of May through the end of August. On the Rauma route, 47 percent of 2009’s 78,000 passengers traveled just during those three months.
What they get in 90 minutes is a 2,000-foot descent through spectacular landscape. The horizon is filled by mountains that climb as high as 4,800 feet, plus Trollveggen’s shorter cousins, inspiring waterfalls – the Vermafossen drops 1,181 feet – and the dramatic Kylling Bridge. Here, the train must double back through two tunnels to drop down and traverse the bridge, crossing 182 feet above the Rauma.
Even the river itself changes colors, from water so clear the sandy bottom looks like a Caribbean seashore, to a hurrying, emerald-colored stream infused with glacial silt.
The Rauma route is conveniently reached by a train from Oslo to the town of Domblas, a 212-mile ride that offers relaxing but less impressive scenery. The Rauma train departs twice daily from Domblas to Andalsnes, a cruise port on a fjord that is a popular base for trekking through area highlands and canoeing on the Rauma.
Step back in time
But many arriving Rauma passengers then catch a bus onward to the charming town of Alesund, a Norwegian Sea port that was largely destroyed by fire in January 1904 and quickly rebuilt in the then-popular Art Nouveau style. Dozens of those buildings, their facades adorned with typical artistic flourishes, dominate the compact downtown area.
A museum tells the story on the fire and of Art Nouveau. The museum, Jurgendstilsenteret, is in the former town pharmacy; over three floors are old photos, a movie with English subtitles, architectural models and period pieces from both the family that lived over the pharmacy, including their rich dining room, and other Nouveau objects. A free walking tour pamphlet directs visitors to more than 20 of the historic buildings.
Alesund also boasts an art district. Visitors and locals can see artists working in glass (you’ll wonder how Ingird Ulla can let her tabby kitten wander about the display shelves in her studio/workshop) and in wood – Peter Opsvik’s gracefully bold service pieces have been shown both in museums and in galleries throughout the U.S.
The town, though a major commercial fishing port, is also a tourist destination for exploring nearby fjords, mountains and fishing opportunities. There’s also a popular daytrip into one of the most beautiful fjords, Geirangerfjord, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To round out a sampling of Norway’s popular transportation styles, visitors often book aboard the nightly departure from Alesund on the famed Hurtigruten.
Once the coastal villages’ cargo and mail lifeline, Hurtigruten is now much more a passenger and car ferry. Cabins, each with a bathroom, range in size across the 13-ship fleet, but each vessel has dining rooms, lounges and accessible deck space for viewing the passing coastline, isolated fishing villages and fjords.
All Hurtigruten vessels take either six or seven days to run between Kirkenes, a port well north of the Arctic Circle near the Russian border, and Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. From Alesund headed south, it is a midnight departure and a 2:30 p.m. arrival the next day.
Into Medieval times
Bergen, a thoroughly modern city sprawling past the mouth of another fjord, boasts fascinating remnants from its centuries as one of the four “offices’’ of the dominant German merchant organization, the Hanseatic League.
Just along the busy, touristy, wharf, visitors can wander through the 450-year-old fortress complex focused on the Rosenkrantz Tower, then walk past 11 structures that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and turn up narrow alleys passing renovated medieval warehouses.
Also on the wharf is the well-done three-storey Hanseatic Museum, in a preserved merchant house that was simultaneously a dormitory for workers, office space and cod-storage area. A film, furnishings and artifacts explain the life of the trading city life from 1360 to 1754.
Bergen also boasts a number of other ancient buildings and modern museums focused on art, maritime heritage and natural history, including the oddly affecting Leprosy Museum, in a centuries-old hospital that cared for victims into the 20th century.
If you go
More than a half-dozen carriers fly between North America and Oslo International Airport. For more information on the transportation and destinations mentioned in the article, go to the following web sites:
Norwegian State Railways: www.nsb.no/home
Both the train from Oslo to Dombas and the Rauma Railway are included in the Eurailpass, a network of discounted rail tickets in 21 Western and Central European nations. The pass can be bought for various numbers of travel days over various periods of time, and it can be bought for any one of the participating nations, for three to five nations, for a region or for all 21 countries.
For visitors who plan to see more than jut a couple of destinations, any of the options is a cost-savings over buying individual tickets. For details, go to www.eurail.com.