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The Svalbard Diaries

An Introduction to Svalbard

There are some key facts to know about the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard before visiting. The habitable part of Svalbard is called Spitsbergen, so called because of the jagged mountain tops. There are about 2,500 people living there, 4,000 snowmobiles, 3,000 polar bears, 4,000 walruses, 10,000 reindeer, and a healthy and sustainable population of arctic foxes. About 2,000 huskies live here too. It is at 78 degrees latitude – well inside the Arctic Circle.

Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, was a famous whaling community and later a mining town. Svalbard is now part of Norway but according to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, 48 countries have the right to do business here and to work here. There are only 800 beds in hotel rooms throughout the archipelago and 43 kilometers of road. Residents are entitled to 24 beers a month! Now, that’s something that might rule out many, many people.

You can die here but not be buried and illness is not recommended for permanent residency. If you are ill, you are shipped back to the mainland. There is no unemployment. You either work or you are shipped off the island! There is no crime on Svalbard either. If you commit a crime, you are sent off the island!

There is a university here and it is one of the most important geological places on earth. Svalbard in winter is one of the most amazing places to see the northern lights. In the summer months the sun never sets from June through the end of September.

Early explorers trying to figure out a way through the north east passage to the riches of the Asian continent were some of the first to discover Svalbard. In the 19th century, adventurers used it as a jumping off ground for expeditions to the North Pole. Today it is one of the northern-most places to visit on Earth and is a haven for some incredible wildlife. Tourism is controlled naturally by the hotel beds and the limited air connections from Oslo. The only danger to the island are the cruise ships!

First Day Adventure

The flight into Svalbard was dramatic as we flew over layers of ice sheets amidst soaring mountains. There was cloud cover and then it broke into a northern sunlight. We then touched down in this strange arctic land that sits at 78 degrees latitude.

Upon arrival, our tour was conducted by Vigo, a wild looking local who knew the tricks of guiding around this place. There is not much to see in the capital of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s northern-most towns. It’s a pioneer settlement, once a great coal mining town, and now largely an outpost and staging point for adventure tourism and cruises.

What strikes me first is that we are so far north. It feels surprisingly temperate, but it gets cold as the afternoon moves in although the sun never gets too close to the horizon. At around halfway to the horizon, it just stays horizontal and regenerates for another day. Sunglasses are the midnight choice of eyewear here. We drove to see the great satellite dishes that monitor the stars and keep track of the hundreds of satellites that pass across on any arctic day and night. We drove by old coal mines that have long been deserted although one mine still is active with limited production. Coal became the main industry after whaling stocks were depleted. Imagine that job offer?! Miners needed. Miners in Svalbard? No sun for six months then no darkness for six months. Plus, it’s cold and there are polar bears occasionally. Not to mention that the job itself is incredibly dangerous. I think I’ll take a beer – oh, sorry I’ve gone past my allotment!

We then met with Anika who explained the island and the possibilities for tourism. We strolled the town and visited the Svalbard Museum which is essential to get the full picture. The museum is full of the history of whaling and hunting and polar bears and coal. It’s low key and worth the visit. There’s a poor stuffed polar bear who couldn’t obviously resist getting too close to someone with a rifle. Alas there are no winners in that game, but he is here in the museum. Immortal and very much the highlight of the museum!

In the afternoon, we organized a dog sledding excursion with nine huskies and a guide. During the summer, instead of using a traditional sled, they use a wheelie sled. What a blast it was. I got to steer it and we had to stop to make sure the huskies stayed hydrated. In the winter they don’t worry about it though.

These huskies are amazing. They are strong and not at all intimidating. Just friendly animals. We sledded out to the tip of the island and bumped into some reindeer and some horses. The dogs were cool about it – thank goodness!! The biggest thrill was learning how to rig the sled and how to look after the dogs. At the end of the day, we drove back to “huskyville” to bring the dogs back home. The company keeps about 200 huskies. According to our fab guide, Taya, a Canadian from Alberta, winter is more fun for everyone. The huskies can sleep outdoors even on the coldest arctic night. Sometimes the sleds have 20 huskies pulling riders across the ice and snow. This is their neighborhood. What a thrilling adventure!

Cruising the Arctic

Today we boarded our small cruise ship of about 100 passengers in total that would take us on a three-day journey around Svalbard. Cabins are basic, fairly tiny and have bunk beds. I had a port hole so some minor luxury! I also had a shower and a toilet. You needed to keep a clean ship inside the cabin. And when the boat turned, it was a rocky ride indeed. No room for the seasick traveler. For the frequent Costa cruise ship type, this would be a stretch. For me it was a minor challenge! The most important decision of the cruise was to choose your table seat and position. You have to do this right away. We grabbed the window berths. That was a big deal. We had the safety briefing then a buffet lunch which was pretty decent before heading out to Barentsburg about four hours from Longyearbyen.

If you had said that we were heading to the USSR today I would not have believed you. But here we were. This was (and still is) a Russian coal mining town. And this really was Russia with a Lenin statue in the middle of the square. It was another world. Pure USSR but no visa hassle!!

Today we couldn’t go down the mine but we got to stroll the town. We had a show provided by the Arctic Singers. It was a little wild but lots of fun and we got to meet the cast members and take pictures afterwards. There was a fabulous pub with local craft beer called 78 Degrees. A Russian wooden church, a souvenir shop and not much else. But, this was Russia! Visiting Barentsburg can be done from Longyearbyen by hydrofoil as a day trip. It takes about an hour to get there. It’s a must do!

An Arctic Beach Day

The menu of activities on our second day was extensive. We set off on a morning exploration of a beach and a rocky cove with glaciers at the far end of the cove. We were surrounded by stunning vistas and still, arctic blue waters. The arctic blue is like no color I have seen. This was also the first time on the trip we saw floating glaciers of blue ice. It was also the first time we were taken by one of four motorboats stored on the main boat to the land. This involved lifejacket routines and careful instructions about following the guide and not drifting off to be eaten by a polar bear. Everyone definitely listened!

At least four people went for a swim in the below freezing water – one was even naked. We all wished them well and I wished I had my Speedo but alas! Apparently, you get a certificate at the end if you take the plunge. I didn’t feel tempted in the least! We were attacked by arctic terns! These birds commute between the arctic and Antarctic every summer and winter chasing the warmer weather and the midnight sun. About 40,000 kilometers roundtrip each year! A lot of flapping and not much time at home with the kids so no wonder they get bent out of shape if you get near their nests. They attack ferociously in swarms like the scene in the Hitchcock movie, The Birds. The biggest challenge of the day was getting the lifejacket on and then defending your head from the beaks of the birds. A Polar bear encounter would seem insignificant to these two obstacles!

The Morning Arctic Silence

People spoke of this – the quiet and absolute still in an arctic landscape. We had arrived in a beautiful bay. Nothing unusual here except for a colorful orange hut full of things from explorers that had been here before. A chess set, two bunks, and random kitchen stuff. It was called Lloyd’s 5-star Hotel! The glacier field in the distance was the one we had just seen from the boat. It was a vast body of water with layer upon layer of packed ice dropping into the sea. The guides had asked for us just to walk the beach; to be alone and be still. The beach and rocks were wide and crescent shaped. We each staked a place or point and just stood or sat and gazed into the arctic air. Nothing more. It was amazing and something I’ll remember.

Hiking the Beach

Today we were prepared to hike but a polar bear had been spotted and reported roaming the beach area and the guides had to ensure the area was clear and safe before we were able to go out. The climb to the far mountain would be around two hours round trip. It was exciting stuff. We were given very strict instructions to stay close and work as a team. Everyone was on the lookout. The guides were super alert with flares and rifles in hand.

The walk across spongy flora and jagged rocks was exhausting but the view was amazing from the top. We saw reindeer and no bears (which was good). I had constantly weighed the specifications of rifle range and guide to me. It never was off my mind. The climb down was trickier as is always the case. At last we headed back to the boat and to dinner.

We would set sail for Ny-Ålesund for our last excursion of the trip. Here we would find the staging post for the explorers who came to conquer the north pole. The last piece of land before the ice fields gobbled up the wooden boats and took their human toll. The rain had picked up – chilly arctic rain.

A Sight to Remember

It’s what we all dreamed about. I honestly thought it would never happen. A polar bear sighting!

We were in the most beautiful arctic bay I had ever seen with huge glaciers and magical drifts of blue icebergs. We saw a glacier drop into the water right in front of us. The sound was haunting. That was when someone back on the main boat spotted a polar bear swimming across the fjord.

The captain of our boat slowly, and with great care, followed its route. It was heading between the glaciers to the far beach. What a sight. They are huge and are truly great swimmers. Once on land, it paraded up and down for quite a while. Everyone reached for their weapon of choice! The binocular purist crew were going crazy. The camera people with lenses about two feet long were in ecstasy. This was their moment. All that lugging around was worth it. The bigger, the better. Cameras, real cameras, won the day. These giant single reflex cameras with huge telescopic zooms just live for moments like this. My Lumix with a Leica Lens was decent enough but really didn’t cut the mustard. At least I had an option beyond my iPhone.

Now we had our stories. We could embellish and move them around, but we had seen a polar bear in the wild. Exaggeration would be important and vital in the retelling! On to the walrus island and the farthest north we would get to – 80 degrees latitude which was practically at the North Pole. We would celebrate the crossing of the latitude line with a glass of champagne. It was something to behold.

Ny-Ålesund

Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost settlement in the world (80 degrees latitude) with a permanent civilian population. Other settlements are farther north but are populated only by rotating groups of settlers. That’s where we found ourselves on the last night. The weather deteriorated, and the rain was heavy as we moored in this town. The view across the bay was spectacular. We had a museum to get to and a bar that stayed open only on Thursdays and only until 9:30 pm. The sign read “No Photos Please”! The boat comes in once a week. The museum was fascinating.

This was first a mining town. A coal mining town and later a research center for Geologists and meteorologists. The shop in the museum was busy and business was sort of booming – not booming crazy but this was the end of the world! And it was so absolutely bizarre. It was our last night in uncomfortable weather and the boat rocking like crazy. In my single bunk, I dreamed of the Titanic but woke in the morning to breakfast. Life was good.

The Brilliant Guides of Svalbard

Here’s the deal, it takes a lot of training to become an arctic guide. Your background has to have some modicum of outdoorsy enthusiasm preferably with a knowledge of the sea and geology. You have to speak several languages and English must be one of them. You have to know how to read the night skies, follow the pattern of the midnight sun, and spot and distinguish between whales. You must know a walrus from a seal from a far-off distance and you need to have your eyes trained constantly for polar bears. You also have to know how to shoot a gun under pressure, how to fire a flare, and how to deal with emergencies. Flare first, fire second. You have to know how to sail, how to judge changing conditions, how to pitch a tent in a blizzard, and how to run a trip line so that there are no surprises at night from the bears or reindeers. These are standard Arctic emergency training drills that need to be imagined real.

You’re off the map here; off the charts. There is zero cell phone coverage. You are responsible for 100+ people at any given time who haven’t the faintest idea of arctic conditions. You need to think about the safety of the people and keep a respect for the animals. Everyone wants to see the polar bears, but you have to be the one that watches for them constantly.

In addition, you have to have a super personality, exude leadership, and be a decision maker. It may be that your decision can make a huge difference to a day. Lastly, you have to really love it. Love the outdoors, even in blizzards, freezing temperatures, and fast changing conditions that can alter any day. You have to keep to the code and stay smart, always working as a team and having a team mentality. Oh yeah. The last thing you have to know is how to swim in arctic water. There is a standard three-minute test you have to endure. Pass that and maybe you get a job! Ah ha!

Looking Back

So, hours of endless days. A cruise to 80 degrees latitude and the end of the world in the northern hemisphere. A World Cup final in a pub in Longyearbyen with about 50 French people and 20 Croatians. Allez les bleus! An encounter with a polar bear, a husky sled ride, a Russian enclave inside a Norwegian archipelago, and a group of people that were fun and different and just like me, experimenting with something that seemed slightly off center. It was amazing. Like no other place on Earth. Can we take groups there? You bet.

Glyndebourne

Arriving off a transatlantic flight, then grabbing two hours of sleep at the hotel before racing across a very overheated Tube to get to Victoria Station was not my usual arrival pattern. London was hot – Morocco hot – and nothing was really equipped to deal with this heat. Add a slightly deranged jet lagged traveler on a mission to visit a place he had never been to, and you sort of get the picture. In addition, it was the day of the England vs. Sweden quarter final World Cup game. I could not discuss with anyone that my first intention of being in England was a Debussy opera set amidst the rolling downs of Sussex.

There is a train that connects London all the way to Lewes Station in East Sussex. From there, they provide the opera aficionados a series of buses that transport us along a short 15-minute beautiful drive to the glorious country estate of Glyndebourne. The train is packed with everyone dressed to the nines. Fortnum and Mason picnic baskets and champagne coolers are the norm here, so I am beginning to feel a little out of place. I had a Pret A Manger sandwich and no formal white shirt or bow tie! Oh well.

Upon arrival in Glyndebourne, I was met with some good news. Firstly, formal dress was optional. Second, the England game would be televised in the very posh bar. Thank goodness the Opera was due to start at 5:00 pm and the England game due to finish around 4:45 pm. I was hoping for no extra time, or worse, penalties!

Glyndebourne is an amazing place. Tickets are pricey, but the auditorium is spectacular and even air conditioned. There are great bars, beautiful gardens, and a lovely lake set amidst the Sussex Downs there. The Debussy opera was truly wonderful. During intermission, we grabbed a glass of wine, strolled the lawns and gardens, and I got to eat my Pret A Manger sandwich! England won that game by the way. Glyndebourne. Done it!

A Trip Through the Old Soviet Union: A Nine-Day Illustrated Story

A Quick Trip to Quebec City

I am pretty well traveled. I have been to many places and love the city I live in, Boston. I’ve been to the countries that abut our US borders and have loved both Mexico and Canada but I had never been to Quebec City until recently.

Getting to Quebec City is a bit complicated. There are no non-stop flights from Boston and the drive is long through New Hampshire and Maine. Still, no excuses. I needed to get there as quick as possible as I was only spending a little over 24 hours there. So off Michael, our Canada expert, and I went. We traveled on Porter Airlines over Toronto. I really loved Porter Airlines – plenty of leg room and the facilities in their waiting rooms are brilliant. Landing at Toronto’s Billy Bishop City Airport is one of the greatest landing strips in the world. It feels like you are literally in the parking lot of the Toronto skyline. It was a breathtaking landing! We then went on to Quebec City and colder climates.  Quebec here we come!

Awestruck at Arrival

Quebec is a total French experience.

We grabbed a rental car and headed in to the city. The first stop was the small town on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, Levis. We boarded the car ferry for the 10-minute crossing into Old Quebec. The river was a moving spectacle of floating ice. It looked like a sea of icebergs steadily moving along the rapid tide. The boat crushed through the chunks of ice as if they were not there. In the distance, there was the beautiful Chateau Frontenac; our hotel and main focal point for Old Quebec. We checked in and began our tour of Quebec. My rusty French was about to get a work out.

A Chilly Quebec

Quebec is simply a delightful small town. Its modern history stretches back to the story of the American revolution and the collapse of French colonialism and English domination. It is utterly French. Its language is authentic, old French and the cafes and restaurants boast this proud heritage.

We were visiting in the cold of winter. They estimate they get 16 feet of snow on average each winter here and it stays cold for many months. The snow stays too. But Quebecoise get used to it. There are toboggan runs and ski circuits, skating rinks and dog sleds, ice hotels and maple sugar shacks, and popsicles made from hot maple rolled along a snow tray. Which are delicious! There are even canoe races across the icy Saint Lawrence. Nearby ski resorts do not have the mountain height of the Rockies but they sure get the snow depth. And the snow is light and airy because of the cold. If the town is hunkered down with winter attractions, it is, according to Michael, also one of the great places to visit in its short summer. Music festivals and cafes spilling out onto the narrow cobble streets create a whole new Quebec. Today we would freeze but enjoy the funicular and some welcomed hot chocolate. The feast would come later at one of the great restaurants that occupy the citadel.

The Top of the Matterhorn

In Zermatt there are three choices to climb the Matterhorn mountain: The beautiful Gornergrat Railway, the funicular, and the Matterhorn Express Gondola.

The Gornergrat Railway is walkable from our delightful hotel, Hotel Alex Zermatt. It’s a sightseeing journey all to itself; 20 minutes climbing through spectacular scenery en route to the top. Skiers, hikers, and sightseers all share the train.  It is literally, a trip, and worth taking.

Today however, we grabbed an electric taxi to the Matterhorn Express station as the temperatures were super crazy cold.  The top of the mountain is minus 15 Fahrenheit. They’re telling parents not to take the kids up. Cloud cover looked grim but we went for it.  And then the sun broke through at 9,000 feet. Skiing had near to perfect conditions but so cold at high altitudes.

Zermatt is a paradise of choice where everything is connected. It’s huge and connects to Cervinia in Italy. The Matterhorn follows us everywhere we go.  The sun stayed out all day. We skied all day. Old friends. Fun times!

Driving to Zermatt!

The drive from Venice along the highway to Milan is fairly dull. After Milan is where the sights get interesting.

We took the highway above Lake Maggiore which was super fast and delightful. Mountains beyond the lake and the Borromean islands in the background provided for a great backdrop to our car ride. Pushing through, we started our ascent to Simplon. What a lovely day it was with blue sky and more snow than I have seen for years.

The Simplon Pass is very unique. An ancient hospice still maintained by a religious order offers basic accommodation to the devoted and dedicated skiers and kite boarders who ply their tricks on this unique snow playground. There is a great place for lunch at the top as well. Views of the boarders and surroundings provide entertainment. The descent is hair raising though!

Journeys end along the valley following the Glacier Express. We end up in a giant car park where we dump the car and hop on the train. Täsch in Switzerland is our last stop with our car. The cog train takes us the rest of the way into a dead end in the mighty valley. It’s snowing hard.

Venice!

The London to Venice flight on BA is always a treat. Once you clear the cloud cover of England, you have the beautiful Alps to greet you. No matter how many times I cross the snow capped peaks, it never ceases to amaze. This year has seen tons of snow. Still, the beauty was way up high. Below it was cloud and rain and down into another gray day. But it was Venice!

I love the slow descent into the airport here. The shape of the island, the clock tower, the canals clearly visible…It’s such a strange place. Such a trip. It’s the only place where everyone on the plane looks out of the window. It’s a wow. You want it to last forever.

Venice Upon Arrival

And then the bubble burst. Immigration was a mess. There were two people for hundreds of arrivals so it took a while. It was pure Italian theater. Nobody had a clue. The immigration officers looked in no rush at all. People were getting frustrated. It was one hour before we got to our bags!

Then there was the slightly complicated journey to the motor boats. The Venice Marco Polo Airport has recently had renovations so getting to the motor boats that bring you to the center of Venice is a new experience.  It’s quite complex and not obvious to the newly arrived passengers. You have to go up the escalator to departures. Ugh. What?! And then you lose the sign. It just disappears. So, use your instincts, look for a sign, do anything. But then it pops back into view! There is a long walk along a moving escalator and down into the speedboat taxi area.

There is the usual confusion here (something’s never change!) but it is worth the wait because now it’s the greatest ride in the world. Across the lagoon and through a narrow canal and then it hits you. The grand canal. The Santa Maria della Salute, the Doges Palace, and the Piazza San Marco.

Venice in Winter

There is plenty of rain in the winter and the boards are stacked high for the Acqua Alta. In the distance the Alps beckon with snow painted across the horizon. San Marco is busy with tourists and umbrellas which always reminds me of a Prendergast painting.

I wandered back to the hotel across a couple of delightful bridges. Watched the gondola guys organizing their business and took a moment to study their technique. I tried being a gondolier once. It’s impossible! The oar, the movement, the control. It amazes and mesmerizes. Dinner later would add the final touch. Black ink squid with spaghetti.

London!

The dreaded overnight flight dropped me into the gray skies of London too early. It was freezing. I grabbed the Heathrow Express and rushed across town from Paddington to Soho for a lunch with a business associate. We arranged to meet at the Duck and Rice on Berwick Street. Great Chinese in Soho. The dim sum are out of this world. I followed that with a quick pub visit to see a dear friend around the corner at the Lamb and Flag pub on Perry Street. I had to keep moving despite the jet lag kicking in.  Then I had a fab evening with a whole bunch of university friends over in Fitzrovia.

Got to say, London is the greatest. Stick to the areas of Fitzrovia, Soho, or Covent Garden and you can’t go wrong. They are stocked with restaurants and pubs and people.  It is just such an easy place to sort out a venue for getting together.

I left Soho House, the brand new one on Greek Street, super cool and beautifully redesigned, far too late for an early morning flight to Venice. Sleep could wait.

A Crossing Like No Other

What on earth possessed me to take a transatlantic crossing?!

Secretly, I think it was on my bucket list and curiosity got the better of me because I had never in my life even taken a cruise. But I wanted to try it out. Early January probably was not the best time of the year to do the crossing but this was the last crossing for quite a few months. Unfortunately, it happened to coincide with the blizzard of blizzards that possessed New York and ended up holding the boat up for 12 hours.

The Queen Mary 2 is an impressive sight. Approaching it as we did through the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it suggests a time that has passed. Transatlantic travel aboard one of the great ocean liners of the world. The boarding was a piece of cake. Warning – hold on to your bags. Imagine you are wheeling your bag onto an airplane. This is no different. If you give your bag up to the porterage system, you won’t get it for a while and it will cost you a hefty tip at the end of its journey. We wheeled our bags through immigration control, the check-in counter, and we boarded the boat. We were sitting in our “stateroom” in no time at all. This modest but ample room with a balcony (not great in a blizzard) was to be our home for the next eight days.

It took me pretty much three days to figure out where everything was on the ship but for full time cruisers, this ship is not even that big. It holds 2,700 passengers, 1,200 crew members, has 14 decks, has 12 lounges, restaurants, and bars, and the kitchen makes 5,500 meals per day. For me it was an incredible site to behold. Walking through the labyrinth of decks and walking out onto the promenade was something I could have not imagined. The evening in New York was balmy and beautiful.

Then the blizzard hit.

Two days of stormy seas and blizzard conditions meant that we were on lockdown inside of the boat before we even left the harbor. Not to worry, there were things to do. Even though I suffered some sea sickness, I pushed ahead. I joined the health spa, I had acupuncture and a massage, I went to several wonderful cabaret shows, I ate decent food, and eventually we steered our way across the Atlantic storm and into calmer waters. Once we left behind the raging sea, the decks were open, the promenade was full of runners, and it was surprisingly temperate in the middle of the ocean.

Of course, there was nothing to see – no whale, no boat, no perilous iceberg lurking on the horizon, and not even stars at night because of the cloud cover. But the boat had its own rhythm. We visited the art gallery, took in more shows, hung out in the Commodore’s Bar which was a very cool bar, and each day I gradually slipped into a transatlantic crossing rhythm that became almost intoxicating. It is amazing what you do with your time when there is nothing to see and nowhere to go. It was a surprisingly fit holiday – I walked around the promenade three miles per day, went to the gym two hours per day, and enjoyed the steam and sauna rooms at the Canyon Ranch Spa in between intermittent naps along with everybody else whose books had fallen to their side during their tea breaks. It is an older crew on the crossing for sure.

Frankly, it is a nice way to travel if your schedule permits and you simply cannot take those cramped economy seats on a transatlantic flight. The ease of boarding and deboarding were a pleasure compared to the tension and stress of airline security and check in. Time does not really fly…it is the sea after all…but if you travel from west to east, after day three, the captain announces an hour a day will be added to your time clock. It is a fun way to deal with jetlag. The price is not particularly crazy – around $2,000 per person for all meals, inclusions, and a hotel room for seven nights is not that bad.

So, what’s the downside?

First of all, the internet was a joke and extremely expensive. It cost me $500 to maintain bad internet coverage for the entire duration of the cruise. More often than not, the internet dropped out, and the only way I could really work was through WhatsApp. When I talked to crew members about this, they told me the same story. It seems like an easy thing to fix but it was shocking how bad it was.

Second, the movies on board were dreadful. We were a captive audience. How come two bad movies per day are all we get when we have all day and all night? Why in God’s name can we not have the same kind of movie selection that you now get on planes? On a plane you are stuck for seven hours, here we were stuck for 192 hours. The TV scene piped into our rooms was awful too. It had a distinct English bent which would not have been bad had we seen a variety of great Brit shows. But this was terrible. In the end, I watched the QM2 channel because it was more exciting than the regular TV! Here is a solution – if we know the TV is bad and the movies are going to be duds, at least warn us ahead of time. This way we can download video content from Amazon or Netflix so that we have something on our iPads. Given the lack of streaming potential, this would be a smart piece of advice. I am not sure who is responsible for movie and TV selection, but honestly it was simply laughable.

Then there was the shopping. Why can I not buy anything useful when I am stuck on board for 192 hours? We don’t land anywhere and I’ve probably forgotten some important thing that I would love to buy and probably wouldn’t mind paying twice as much for. I’m older and we forget things! The shops were pure tacky Duty-Free shops tragically lined up around the beautiful ornate double staircase. Gaudy colored clothes, bottles of alcohol, perfume, all of the things that are the absolutely useless. Forgot your swimming costume? Too bad. Need a pair of tights? Not going to happen. How about a pair of running shoes for the onboard gym? No way. Absolutely shocking that they did not cater for the needs of someone like me or most people who might need to buy something functional or something they had forgotten at home.

The gym was like a bad gym at the Holiday Inn. Why have a gym where four machines do not work? The gym should be state-of-the-art. For $100 you could use the Canyon Ranch Spa though which offered steam, sauna, and had a huge jacuzzi pool. It was definitely worth it. It was free if you took a massage but then you could only use it for that day. The space for the gym could have been absolutely put to more efficient use. There was also a tiny, paddling pool and an unappealing jacuzzi on the 12th floor. I stuck to the Canyon Ranch alternative. And here is a gripe. Why do they not make a swimming pool for swimmers on board when they have the room? A 17-meter pool would be fine!

But still there were a lot of good things on board. The wine selection was top notch and not expensive. The bars were fun, the food was pretty good, and the service throughout the boat was fabulous.

When we arrived in Southampton, I was distinctly not jetlagged and it was a breeze to take the train from the Southampton station to London. Would it have been fun to hit an iceberg? Maybe. It would have broken up the trip a little, as it were. But I can now say that I have joined the club of transatlantic crossers. While I will never be a cruise addict, with some adjustments on QM2’s part, I might be tempted to go back again. But certainly not in the winter.

Day 3 on the Queen Mary 2

It was formal night last night and everyone had to dress up. You sit at the same table as usual but you have to wear a tux. There was a captain soirée earlier for certain sections but I took a massage and enjoyed the spa instead.

The boat is still rocking around fiercely.  It’s a little unpleasant and the decks are still closed. There was an early morning wake up by the captain to announce that all water in the cabins is not working. No toilet or shower. Great wake up news. After breakfast the cold water is back at least but the hot was still out.  Just in time!

We went to watch a dance class which reminded me of my holiday camp days.  The internet connectivity is dreadful and they charge you even though it barely works. So far I have spent 200 dollars and the speed is worse than dial up! The boat is rocking and rolling around. I’m going to try the gym but it could be tricky as it is probably impossible to stand straight. It’s either that or playing bridge. It’s a huge boat. I still get lost. That makes every walk an adventure.

Norwegian Airlines Steals the Show

On my travels back from London, I was stranded without a flight and so I went looking for the best deal in business class from London to Boston non-stop. That’s when I discovered Norwegian Airlines. At $650 one-way, their business class competes very well against the main carriers in terms of price (approximately 75% cheaper). However, would it really be 25% of the experience then? It was worth taking the risk and anyhow I had heard so many interesting things about Norwegian that I knew I had to try it.

Norwegian is the third largest transporter of passengers in the low-cost sector of the European airline business. It sits behind Ryanair and EasyJet. They run around 30 million passengers per year and they started their long-haul operation in 2013. Unlike WOW Airlines, who also have incredibly inexpensive fares, Norwegian provides a business class experience for travelers that would like to pay slightly more.

Norwegian operates out of London Gatwick Airport. Getting there involves an easy train link from Victoria Station to Gatwick directly. The train service is great, is relatively inexpensive, runs every 15 minutes, and takes about 30 minutes to get there. Norwegian operates out of the South Terminal which in actual fact is the first airline you encounter as you come out of the train station. Thus, there is no need to take another train transit to the North Terminal. You are straight in and straight out. Incidentally, security lines at Gatwick, at least in the South Terminal, are fantastic compared to those at Heathrow. There is virtually no wait time and it’s highly efficient. Norwegian even has a lounge right in the extensive shopping area. Although I only could spend 10 minutes there, it was satisfactory.

So, how was the flying experience?

London to Boston is around a 7.5 hour flight and the Boeing Dreamliner is used exclusively on this route. I love that plane. In economy, all of the seats looked fine with enough leg room. In business, I had a ton of leg room although the seats did not go back into a full bed. However, for a day flight, I would never usually use that feature anyway. The seats were a little light on padding but not a problem. The food was basic and came in a box but it was fine. When is airline food ever more than fine anyway? The service on board was fantastic and everyone had a great attitude. The entertainment center was decent as well. I always carry my own headsets on a plane and it was quite easy to find the plug to connect on this flight. That is something I can’t say about most other airlines I fly with.

How good was it? Well, on a scale of 1-10 based on $650, it was a 10. Would I take it again? For $650 you bet! I loved it!

WTM and the Emirates Cable Car

The World Travel Market (WTM) takes place every November out at the ExCeL London convention center next to the O2 – the huge entertainment complex that was developed around the Millennium. The World Travel Market is a fun event. It’s a chance to run around the world in a huge auditorium, to network, to research new destinations, and to catch a view of the city that stretches out along the Thames River beyond Canary Wharf to the outer edges of what is called the Thames Barrier. This is the new London – encompassing the financial center, the Olympic Park, and the ExCeL London. It is also the home of London’s City Airport and will be the home of around 20 new businesses over the next five years.

One of the highlights of heading out to that part of London is grabbing the Emirates Air Line.  This cable car links across the River Thames and East London. You board the cable car not from North Greenwich Underground and it delivers you to the ExCeL. It’s about a 10-minute journey and during the World Travel Market, as long as you have your badge on, it’s free! This is one of the great rides across the outer banks of East London that you can take. A prelude to your ski adventures in the new year.

Albania Adventures

I don’t know anybody that has been to Albania except for my crazy Italian friend. I mean, nobody.

Enver Hoxha took care of all of our dreams of traveling to Albania in the early days. By the time Albania became open to tourism in the 1990’s, the Hoxha regime, a pseudo-Stalinist dictatorship, had decimated the entire country. For 50 years after World War II, this place had been closed off to all tourism. Nobody could leave, nobody could enter, there was no free press, state TV, lots of “disappearing factions” and it was pretty much the most frightening place inside of Europe that you can imagine. It made Franco’s Spain look like Club Med!

Imagine this, from the Albanian coast to the beautiful island of Corfu took only 30 minutes on a ferry. Except the ferries did not go. What this guy left was no infrastructure for tourism or anything – no roads, no nothing – and a completely beautiful coast line was so underdeveloped that it makes you want to cry. Imagine what the journey from Montenegro along the coast to Albania could have been. You have to take the inland road to get to the border crossing because there simply was no other way, then hang out for an hour and a half to two hours to exit out of Montenegro and enter into Albania. Both Montenegro and Albania are in the queue for application to the EU. Shame on you England for opting out.

In that moment, when you cross into Albania, you are in another world. We drove to a fairly large town called Shkoder. It was a mix of rundown buildings with satellite dishes hanging off of the edge of balconies. Not the sort of place you would want to hang out in and that is precisely why we carried on.

We followed the main highway heading towards Tirana with a view to test out the coastal road to see if there were any resorts worth reporting back on. The highway was nothing but gas station after gas station interspersed with tacky, palatial casinos and nothing else. We stopped at a highway restaurant and everybody was smoking inside and outside in spite of the ‘No Smoking’ signs. It had this feeling of mafia pasted all over it. The gas station scene was ridiculous. It had to be a front for something else. We headed to the “coastal resort” of Durres. No surprises here. There are several shoddy resorts and the sea did not look safe to dive into. This place needed a serious overhaul and probably some of the money that had gone into the gas stations should have gone into the development of the coastal community here. Alas, the thought of buying a villa on the Albanian coastline quickly subsided in my mind. This place needed time which was a great pity because it has the same beautiful climate as Greece and southern Italy.

Tirana, the capital, came at us very fast. It had been built up quickly after the collapse of the old regime. Our hotel was super glitzy, Las Vegas-style, and it overlooked this very Soviet-style square called Skanderbeg Square named after Albania’s national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, who was later renamed by the Ottomans, Skanderbeg. He unified the country, defeated the Ottomans, and died in the 15th century, but still they love him! Around these parts, believe me, you cling onto anything after what these guys have been through. In the square there is a beautiful mosque, an orthodox church, and a huge mural dedicated to the Soviet-style revolution. The square reminded me of Red Square or Tiananmen; vast, open, and stark.

I thought that maybe I should come back here in 20 years but for now I just needed a great fish restaurant in the center of town. I found one on TripAdvisor called Il Gusto. It had fabulous food, brilliant service, and frankly it was just about the greatest thing I discovered in Albania. See you in 20 years.

The Great Cruise Ship Dilemma

First confession: I have never taken a cruise. I sort of always have wanted to, but every time I get close, I run out of enthusiasm. Maybe it’s just the thought of all of that food in seven days or the toilets jamming up or being stuck with 5,000 people day after day and night after night. But something always does me in. Recently, on the Montenegro coast, I was in a beautiful town tucked into the fjords called Kotar. It took an eternity to drive into the center and park the car. It wasn’t clear to me why until we got close to the center and I realized that a cruise ship was there, disgorging its travelers on excursions in this tiny town. Then it struck me…that’s why I don’t like cruises!

There must have been 50 sightseeing tours taking place at one time…maybe more. Here’s the church, here’s the piazza, here’s the shops, and on and on and on. This place was not that big and I could feel myself drowning in the guided talk and the crowds following the guides with their paddle boards.

As I sat there eating a rather desperate and dodgy slice of cold pizza, I thought how invasive these cruise ships can be. The bottom line was that the town could not cope with that number of visitors all arriving at the same moment. The cruise ship was almost as big as the town itself. It essentially chokes up the town. In Dubrovnik the night before, they had even installed a traffic signal to control the flow of cruise tourists coming into the beautiful center. A traffic light for people?! The cruise tourists rarely give back to bars and restaurants since all of the meals are free on the ship. Souvenir shops are the only ones that win. It seems a shame that cruise tourism, which is in the ascendant, is like tourism pollution.

For example, in Venice, it’s suffocating the city. While the glass factories may be rubbing their hands, the innocence of regular tourism and mingling with locals, is flying out the window. What is good for the gondolieri is not always good for the city. I spoke to somebody in Kotar who was staying there for a week. They said that they spent most of the daylight hours outside of Kotar and only came back in the evening when the cruise ships had packed up to leave. It’s a strange thing and a strange sight to see a gorgeous coast line with two cruise ships the size of Texas docked. The question really is, should I try a cruise? I’m not feeling terribly inclined at the moment.

Surprises in Split

The last time I was in Croatia was 1987. We had taken a two-week vacation at a hotel north of Dubrovnik which was then bombed out of existence during the Yugoslav Wars. This time I had decided to drive from Sarajevo over a very pretty mountain road, onto a prairie-like plain that stretched for miles, and then down into the city of Split and along the coast.

Split was a fabulous surprise. It was Diocletian’s hometown and as any good Roman emperor would have it, he had a remarkable looking palace built. Situated along what is now a very cool and groovy promenade, it hosts restaurants and bars and at any point in time during a busy evening, musicians gather to perform in the open square.

Split is a lively town with a nightlife that seems to go on forever. The restaurants are very decent and in Croatia, the big dish is the risotto with blank ink squid. In my opinion, it is not quite as good as its Venetian heritage, but given the fact that this entire Dalmatian Coast was once part of the great Venetian empire, it was not that bad either. The white stone streets and the palace are constructed with Dalmatian stone and all hail from the same quarries that gave us St. Mark’s Square.

Croatia was the second country to successfully apply for EU citizenship after Slovenia – and it shows. There are EU dollars in these hills for sure. Split is a port, a beach resort, a party resort, and a historical heritage site.

The delight of the Croatian coast is that it never really faces the open sea but nestles itself in between beautiful islands that are never too far away. We drove to Trogir to take a boat ride to the Blue Lagoon. Trogir has a beautiful main square, lots of shops, and a great clock tower that reminded me of a mini San Marco. The influences of Venice are everywhere here. Another fun excursion from Split is to take a double ferry ride to Korcula. Both ferries are car ferries and it’s a fun way to experience the Adriatic coastline.

Interestingly, Korcula was the apparent starting out point for Marco Polo as he began his journeys to the East. It is a delightful town and on a beautiful day it’s well worth the visit. It’s Marco’s town after all! Every traveler should tred in the footsteps of the greatest traveler of all. The drive down towards Dubrovnik reminded me of some of the great drives in the world: Big Sur, the Corniche in the South of France, and the drive down to the tip of Cape Horn from Cape Town. It is simply breathtaking. There are lots of impressive places to stop off – the village of Ston being one place that comes to mind. Lots of signs for wild boar along the road although there is not much evidence of boar in the restaurants!

What we did in one day we could have spent a week doing. Eventually we lost the sun and ended up on a high cliff looking down into the Dubrovnik harbor as a huge cruise ship was getting ready to head out. It looked magical in the evening light and was as a tall as the mountains behind it. But cruise ships take their toll and that is another story.