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Back in my radio days I would always do a bit of a travelogue after a trip. I haven’t done so for many years but the cruise Wendy and I just took was so extraordinary I thought you might like to hear about. It – including a couple of dodgy bits none of which detracted for a moment from the joy the trip gave us.

We were to sail on September 3 out of Dover which meant a flight from Vancouver to Gatwick thence to the ship. We flew Air Transat which we’d done before and the flight was fine – it was the baggage. As we were to be away 3 weeks we had two full cases and two full carry-ons and to make a long story short were dinged nearly $500! Lest you think we took our rock collection with us, when we returned via Air Canada there was no add-on, simply baggage tags saying “heavy”. Evidently when Charter carriers give baggage limits, believe them!

We got to London at 6:45AM and our pre-arranged car was there and waiting. The trip to Dover would cost 120 pounds by train and would have involved a lot of heavy lifting. Our car cost us 98 pounds which gave us a lovely car and a driver who did all the lifting. The company is Airport Pickups London, 011 44 20 8688 7744.

We stayed at a really neat hotel in St Margaret’s Bay called The White Cliffs Hotel which had a superb dining-room. At dinner we had what turned out to be a great bonus – Judy Crater, whom we didn’t know, came to our table having overheard that we were sailing on the Sojourn vessel the Sojourn and introduced herself. Husband Dick arrived and we agreed to share a cab to the ship. They became our dinner companions on the trip, we did some excursions and we became very good friends. The Craters live near Boston, were Democrats, and we soon found that our politics were in the same ballpark (dinner tables can become unpleasant when there is always a political argument in the wings). We also had a common interest in healthcare, Judy and Wendy being nurses, Dick a retired Hospital CEO and I Minister of Health. We’re all baseball fans and our new Boston friends politely refrained from talking hockey. In this spirit I kept my comments about the faltering Red  Sox to a minimum! Happily we’ll get together again in early 2012 in New York City.

Let me tell you about Seabourn – it is all-inclusive so there is no concern about tipping, The Sojourn only took 400 passengers, and it had that indefinable feeling of “laid back” about it. Dinner is when you want it with the choice of three restaurants and excellent food. Neither Dick nor I are small men and we’re both diabetic meaning a battle to lose weight and lower blood sugar numbers when we got home!

Wendy and I have cruised in most parts of the world except the North Atlantic so when our Cruise Specialist, Brandon Biss of Cruise Web sent us the info on the Seabourn trip we signed up.

Here is the itinerary: Start in Dover, then Leith (Edinburgh) Bergen, Norway, Lerwick (Shetland), Faroe Islands, Heimaey Island, Iceland, Greenland, L’Anse Aux Meadows, cruise down the St Lawrence finishing in Quebec City.

I don’t intend a long dissertation on each and every stop but just give you an idea of what this trail of the Vikings in the North Atlantic was like. In that context I can tell you that everywhere we went had a fascination of its own which is not to say I would like to spend two weeks in Greenland but could easily do so in Iceland. (The story is that Eric (The Red) when putting together his colony in Greenland so named it as a lure for immigrants then named Iceland to discourage les autres!)

Edinburgh, a favourite of mine, gave us a nice day for a “hop on/hop off” bus tour. Edinburgh is a grand city for a bus tour or, indeed, walking as it’s a small city geographically. Dominated by Edinburgh Castle (where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future James I of England), the Royal Mile from the Castle to Holyrood Castle encapsulates much of the city’s history. Princes Street, right across the park from the castle is a must for shoppers. For those who prefer to do so, it’s a walking city.

Bergen was once part of the great Hanseatic League and is Norway’s second largest city. It was one of the jumping-off points for Vikings. It’s a pretty city whose main history (other than the Vikings) seems to be that it was always burning down.

I fell in love with Shetland (No! It’s not THE Shetlands) about 25 years ago when I visited for “troot” fishing. It is barren but beautiful as only the barren can be. The heather, late this year, takes the breath away. We did indeed visit a herd of Shetland ponies which are mean little bastards but somehow retain the reputation as gentle little creatures for little children to ride at birthday parties. The main – hell, only – town of Lerwick is a charming place with lots of stores selling local wool products at reasonable prices. It is said that Shetlanders are fishermen who raise some sheep while its southern neighbour, Orkney (NO! not The Orkneys) is inhabited by shepherds who fish.

Though part of Great Britain for 500 years and nominally Scots, Shetland’s Norse background is evident in the look of the people and the native tongue which little used now, is Norse, not Gaelic.

The Faroe Islands to our great surprise, were wonderful. Our guide was an American who had come to the islands with her husband (she was paid to tell us about the Faroe Islands not her personal life she warned us – and then proceeded to do so!) was fluent in the old Faroe tongue which is very much in use. Politically the islands are nominally part of Denmark but have sufficient independence to stay out of the EU. Had they joined, they would have lost their fishing rights and this place fishes.

Interestingly, until this year they had an annual slaughter of pilot whales – this being the year that Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd put an end of it. (If you want to know where I stand, I’m a proud member of the Sea Shepherd Society Board of Advisors) What was interesting that not a word about this was said even though one of its stamps shows a man clubbing a whale.

The history of Faroe (NOT the Faroes – the Vikings have a thing about definite articles, it seems) is much the history of Norway and Denmark and one is wise, before going there, to hit the Internet and get some background.)

These islands, barren though they are, are beautiful in the same way Shetland is, only more so!

Our next stop was the interesting island of Heimaey, part of Iceland, The interesting part is that a volcano in 1973, Eldfell, added a large amount of land and would have blocked up the main harbour, Helgafell, had the citizens not diverted, by way of water, the lava flow. We circumnavigated the island in small boats and saw the obligatory whale and puffin (for some reason one of my favourite birds.) What sticks in my memory about the small village is that their only tourist shop was closed, it being Sunday! Here they get a handful of tourists a year yet close out visitors from a cruise ship. It annoyed me, I can tell you, because I collect baseball caps and this was my only blank!

Reykjavik is a marvellous city in a remarkable country. It’s much as I had come to expect but was staggered by Godafoss Falls seen below along with an interesting touristy note taken off the ‘net.

This popular wide river waterfall on the Skjálfandafljót played a role in Icelandic history. During that time, the law speaker (named Þorgeir) for the alþing (assembly) in the year 1000 had to make a nontrivial decision whether to make Iceland Christian or not. At a time when you either converted or faced death, the decision was made to make the country Christian and Þorgeir tossed his Norse deity idols into the waterfall. Besides history, this waterfall also holds its own in scenic allure, which you can experience from both sides of the river and get up close. It’s definitely a not-to-be-missed attraction.

The tour we took was called the Golden Circle complete with geysers, waterfalls, rivers and remarkable scenery.

Reykjavik surprised me by its size and modern look. It’s a very old city and is steeped in Norse history. This is a place I could have stayed for two weeks.

The Kingdom of Iceland is a sovereign country under the Crown of Denmark.

Qaqortoq, (try pronouncing that with or without a mouthful of porridge!) Greenland is a small yet attractive village that rates well with me because I could and did get a baseball cap! Erik “the Red” showed a keen wit calling this place Greenland! It’s a place I wouldn’t go to for its own attractions but wouldn’t miss when following the Vikings.

Our next stop was to be L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, the famous Viking “Vinland” however we were in the tail-end of a major hurricane and the skipper decided to head through Sable Passage into the peaceful St Lawrence thence to Saguenay, Quebec. The problem was that L’Anse is very shallow so tenders would be needed and the water was too choppy for that.

Saguenay is a city in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, Canada, on the Saguenay River, about 200 kilometres north of Quebec City and was a very happy surprise.

We did a little bus tour that sounds pretty corny but in fact was great fun.

First we visited a small, independent soap company whose head, and the spokesman, was a comedy act itself worth the visit. Then we saw a glassblower, not the kind you see at the fair, but an artist who made a glass beluga before our very eyes. Then we saw a sheep farm that makes goat’s cheese. I guess you had to be there but we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Our last two days were in Quebec City where Wendy had not been. We did the usual touristy things, the Plains Of Abraham, Montmorency Falls, the Old City and we stayed at the Chateau Frontenac. It was way over our financial heads but, I suppose, I did get my baseball cap, the most expensive I’ve ever seen around the world.

We had been warned – and indeed it had been my past experience – that the citizens were anti Anglo and went out of their way not to speak English. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our last night we visited an Irish Pub, inventively called St Patrick’s and had a whale of a time. Everywhere we went we met friendly faces that cheerfully handled English.  Apart from the ridiculous cost of the Chateau, a wonderful way to close out a wonderful vacation.

What about the overall trip?

We loved it and if it wasn’t the best we’ve ever taken, I can’t think of what was.

We’ve sailed the North and South Atlantic and the North and South Pacific and in doing that you must be ready for some rough weather. In fact, you must expect that anywhere you sail. We had some very rough weather starting in Faroe and ending in the St Lawrence. For someone partially disabled like me, getting to and fro can be a challenge. But it’s no big deal when you consider what you saw and did.

The “all inclusive” aspect of the cruise is great. You don’t have to worry about the tipping. I remember our first cruise where tipping was entirely optional and the last morning the waiters were all but throwing food at us! Evidently most passengers had not come up to the staff’s levels of expectation. Either all inclusive or a built in 15% is the best way to go.

On a cruise such as ours, it’s all but obligatory that you do some research. You will get bumph on the ship but it’s better if you spend an hour or so on the ‘net doing your own thing.

We prefer smaller ships – although they may be rougher – if only because you can dine when you wish. This trip we dined with our new friends when we felt like it whereas on larger ships you will be part of a table of, perhaps, 8 and over a few days, much less weeks, relations can be strained – especially if you are a bit argumentative (although I’m not saying that I am of course!) You can get relocated but that’s embarrassing and you can always get a table for two but you have that every day at home.

Excursions can be very good or very bad and they’re never cheap. There are several things you can do.

  • always “Google” the places you will see. It’s always so much better if you know what you’re going to see so you can ask each other if you really want to visit a cigar making factory in the Dominican Republic. Wendy and I will often swallow hard and pay the price of visiting a place we’ve always wanted to see, or seems to be right up our alley then simply not take excursions in ports where we can walk on shore and do our own exploring.
  • if you have a good cruise agent, as we have, ask them for what knowledge they can glean
  • consider joining another couple in a city, say, and get a cab, splitting the fare – this can be a terrific way to see the sights.

Remember that cruise ships provide a lot of entertainment possibilities such as lectures, bridge rooms, a library, swimming pool(s), exercise rooms and so on.

A word about travel agents. I will get the local agents pissed off by saying that I found Cruise Web online after what I considered a badly handled trip. I hit the Internet then contacted every cruise line I could find, doing my due diligence. It begat a great relationship and I have the one thing I want the most – a phone number if I need help. As time goes on, your agent gets to know, instinctively, what you’re looking for and, more importantly, what you’re not looking for.

In closing, we learned a great deal about the Vikings, a group that had such an impact on so many sailing in such flimsy craft and made two new friends – it doesn’t get any better.

5 Responses to “In the path of the Vikings: Norway, Shetland, Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland”

  1. Gary Keenan says:

    Hi Rafe
    Thanks mon ami. I really enjoyed reading of your recent travels.
    Actually, I could hear your voice as if you were once again reading about your adventures abroad on CKNW.
    Good on you!! You’re still living life to the fullest and continuing to contribute to the betterment of all of us.

    Best to you and Wendy,
    Your long time friend and admirer,

  2. Eleonore Beyer says:

    Thanka, Rafe An interesting and very useful column. I really enjoyed it!

  3. Bays Blackhall says:

    Rafe; That was an informative and descriptive Viking Adventure as only you can write. Really enjoyed it ! Must have been fun to get away from politics etc for awhile .

  4. Gordon Clark says:

    Marvelous excursion, Rafe! My Wendy and I envy your trip and your commentary.Although I have flown over Iceland the closest I’ve come to an Icelander is at Riverton and Gimli, MB. I was alarmed at your report about the prices at Chateau Frontenac – its bar having one of the best views in North America! We plan to go during 2012. Should I buy gold now?

  5. Dick and Judy Crater says:

    We are the couple that had the great pleasure of making Rafe and Wendy’s acquaintance on this wonderful trip. Rafe and I enjoyed the hell out of ripping the republican and the tea party boobies that provide so much material for comedians of all stripes. Too bad they cannot laugh at themselves or much of anything else. I really appreciated Rafe’s travelogue since now I have the labesl for the photos we took. Any body who comes across Rafe and Wendy in their travels could not find better travelling companions. Unless they are republicans or tea party-ers.

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