Hello from Norway and the Crystal Serenity!
Despite sporting a layered look that included a sweatshirt, sweater and parka, I was shivering this morning on a windswept hill overlooking the tiny Norwegian frontier community of Longyearbyen. Located in the Svalbard island archipelago about 600 miles from the North Pole, the town is surrounded by stunning glaciers and is home to a hardy community of 2,000, who are involved in mining, scientific research and adventure tourism.
The residents are outnumbered by nearly 3,000 polar bears who roam this island, which is roughly the size of Ireland. Bear sightings occur rarely in the city limits, and hardly at all in what passes for summer in these parts, said Klaus, our young guide on an early-morning walk around the town.
When some in our group expressed disappointment at that news, Klaus laughed and shook his head. “It’s better that way, for us and the bears,” he said. “When a bear is spotted near town, we have to alert the rangers and make sure all the kids are safe inside the schools until they are chased away.”
Check out that glacier.
I learned later that the guides who accompanied other passengers on a hike to a glacier this afternoon carried rifles with them, just in case!
Tidy farms and villages dot Norway's landscape.
Longyearbyen is one of the unusual ports of call on my two-week cruise on the luxurious Crystal Serenity. Last week, 700 other passengers and I embarked from enchanting Copenhagen and headed north along the Norwegian coast until we reached Geiranger, the most dramatic of the country’s fabled fjords. As the ship entered the narrow waterway, passengers secured prime spots on the top deck to stare at the sheer cliffs and thundering waterfalls.
The Crystal Serenity in the famous Geiranger fjord.
After the Serenity anchored, we assembled in the ship’s lounge for an eight-hour shore excursion. Our bus passed deep-blue mountain lakes, tidy villages and glacier-carved valleys. After a lunch of potato soup and grilled salmon at an historic hotel, the trip climaxed with a hairpin-turn climb to the top of 4,500-ft. Mount Dalsnibba. From this dramatic vantage point, we took in the spectacular view of mountains and forests. In the fjord far below, we could just make out the Serenity, which looked like a tiny model ship.
North Cape's magnificent views.
Our next port of call was Honningsvag, the gateway to Norway’s North Cape, the northernmost point of the continent of Europe. Despite the remote location, more than 250,000 people visit this spot annually. Two other cruise ships were in port during our visit. But thankfully, most of the day-trippers had departed by the time our bus arrived at the tastefully designed North Cape Visitor’s Center in late afternoon. So it was easy to get caught up in the dramatic surroundings, as we literally stood at the edge of the earth and peered over a cliff at the churning ocean.
Here I am at the Artico Ice Bar.
Earlier, in Honningsvag, we went to the Artico Ice Bar, an establishment I would have disparaged as a tourist trap if I’d encountered it in the United States. But here, I happily plunked down the Norwegian equivalent of $25 to spend a few minutes inside a watering hole made of frozen water. After slipping into red ponchos provided by the management, we admired the ice-block walls, had a couple of drinks while leaning on the ice-block counter, and even took some cheesy pictures sitting on a dogsled. And we loved every minute of it!
A rippling fjord--another example of Norway's breathtaking scenery.
Later in this cruise, we’ll take in more spectacular scenery when we stop in the Norwegian cities of Alesund, Skjolden and Bergen. But now, I’m enjoying several sea days in a row. And on the Crystal Serenity, that can be the best part of the trip.
That’s because you can be as active or as lethargic as you want on this magnificent, 820-foot-long vessel. On the first sea day, I took a stretch class in the fitness center, a French lesson in the studio, and listened to guest lecturers talk about everything from personal health to glacier formation. My favorite lecturer, however,was Howard Fineman, the MSNBC political commentator and Huffington Post editor. In fact, I settled on this cruise in part when I learned Fineman would be one of the on-board speakers. My friend and I even referred to this as “The Howard Fineman cruise” when we were planning our trip.
Fineman laughed when I told him that on the first day, when I spotted him filling out shore excursion forms. “I’ll try not to disappoint,” he said. And he hasn’t, delivering witty and perceptive talks about the 2012 election landscape and the changing media world. His final lecture will compare and contrast the many presidents he has covered.
I’ve been on the Serenity on five previous cruises, and it feels like a second home to me. I have so many favorite spots, like the Palm Court on Deck 12, a grand room with a sweeping ocean view that’s the site of cocktail parties, dance classes and afternoon teas. I love curling up with my Kindle in one of the Palm Court’s comfy chairs and staring at the horizon for an hour or two. I also hang out in the Bistro, which serves cappuccinos, snacks and sweets in a European coffee-house atmosphere. And I frequent the dark, cozy Avenue Saloon, where a pianist plays standards late into the night.
Christened in 2003, the Serenity has just emerged from drydock, where its staterooms, penthouses and boutiques were refreshed. Also, circular pod beds and plush sofa groupings in shades of lime green, azure and mango were added to the pool deck (which is getting a fair amount of use on this trip despite the chilly weather).
The Serenity has a capacity of 1,070 guests. But even when it’s full, it never seems crowded because the space-per-passenger ratio is the highest in the industry. On this cruise, there’s even more room to spread out, since the passengers barely outnumber the crew of 655.
A string quartet plays on the ship.
Service is the Crystal line’s hallmark, and on this cruise it’s better than ever. Many of the crew members have recognized me from previous voyages, and some even remembered my name. But the staff makes even first-time Crystal cruisers feel like part of the family immediately. Loyal repeat cruisers make up a big percentage of the passenger list, though–nearly 70 percent on this cruise. Some guests have sailed 20 or 30 times or more.
Some are lured by the varied entertainment options, from lavish Broadway-style revues in the Galaxy Lounge to the jazz and rock bands who play in the Stardust Club. On this cruise, a string quartet, an opera singer, a classical pianist and a classical violinist also presented concerts.
Though the overall mood is relaxed, not stuffy, there’s a theatrical, performance aspect to many events on the ship. The tuxedoed waiters line up to greet you at the entrance to the dining room, and the white-hatted chefs came out to take bows before the Grand Buffet. The ship put on a special Midnight Sun party at 11:30 p.m. in the Palm Court on the night we sailed past the North Cape. I expected only a few dozen to turn out, but the room was packed with hundreds of people who were New Years eve-giddy as they danced and toasted the strange sight of bright sunshine at bedtime.
Thank goodness the curtains in my stateroom do a great job of keeping the light out. A good night’s sleep is a necessity on this trip. Because on board or in port, I don’t want to miss a thing!