Highlights of a Hurtigruten expedition cruise

Hurtigruten ships are known for their maneuverability and year-round sailings in often stormy seas. Their fleet of smaller explorer ships can sail into ports too narrow or shallow for larger ships in the fleet. Midnatsol-Hurtigruten

 

Polar-circle-boatsTo navigate extreme conditions, Hurtigruten uses Polarcirkel boats, a unique style of landing craft built with a unique hull design and interior construction for extra comfort and safety for expedition passengers.

These unique adventures, designed for explorer ships with fewer than 200Hurtigruten couple
passengers often result in friendships among guests that endure long after their cruise is over.

 

Kilchurn Castle
Hurtigruten’s explorer itineraries are not your same old, same old. An expedition voyage along the North Atlantic Viking Routes, for instance, includes stops at local attractions that are centuries old–like the ruined 13th century Kilchurn Castle on the Island of Oban.

Education is a key component of every expedition cruise. Hurtigruten employs an expert excursion team and partners with knowledgeable local guides who provide comprehensive information about historic sites, like this restored and reconstructed Iron Age Fort. Iron Age Fort

 

Likewise, the explorer routes are exceptional opportunities. The Viking Routes itinerary begins in Norway, then hops around Scotland before concluding in Iceland. At each port, a menu of on-shore programs enhances the travel experience by giving passengers the opportunity to interact with locals.

One caveat: Expedition cruises are not a good fit for travelers who want lavish entertainment options aboard their ship. These expeditions are designed to keep you occupied off the boat! But if you’re the type passengers who relishes the opportunity to spot a pod of whales, hike alongside sheep and puffins, kayak in caves or photograph rainbows that last for an hour–Hurtigruten’s explorer voyages are a great option.

Quite frankly, until I sailed the North Atlantic Islands a couple of months ago, I wasn’t exactly sure what an expedition cruise was all about.

FRAM-Iceberg-580x235My first clue came when I showed up wearing pink pants to dinner the first night aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Fram. Everybody else looked like they had just emerged from a big box outfitter store. “Honey, you look like an Easter egg in a hay field,” said the passenger from Texas seated next to me, referring to the sea of brown and grey fabrics around us. Furthermore, I’m absolutely positive I was the only one wearing bright fuscia-colored lipstick.

In my own defense, I was a last-minute booking, the grateful beneficiary of a spot on the ship that opened up as the result of a cancellation. And because I am usually available to travel on short notice, I eagerly embraced the chance for an in-depth experience encompassing a true Viking voyage from Norway to the historic landmarks of Scotland, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Faroes (including Torshavn, one of the oldest capitals in Northern Europe, founded in the 10th century) and Iceland.

Yes, the itinerary was amazing. Yes, the excursions were enthralling. Yes, the food was fresh, plentiful and delightfully presented. But what I discovered is that people who enjoy excursion-style cruising are travelers for whom the ship and the on-shore activities are a good fit. For me, it was a match made in heaven.

Here are seven reasons why I recommend you take a North Atlantic expedition cruise:

  1. Maneuverability

By definition, an expedition ship is smaller than a standard cruise ship. With capacities capped at a couple hundred passengers, overall length is usually less than 400 feet. Additionally, because the vessels are constructed to sail in extreme conditions, their beauty is more the style of an Olympic athlete than a magazine cover model. Furthermore, an expedition ship is more versatile – able to sail into smaller ports that are completely inaccessible to larger ships. As a result, you’re not competing with thousands of other passengers who get off at the same time you do.

  1. Flexibility

A floating city-type cruise ship is restricted to a rigid timetable and itinerary. By contrast, low passenger volume aboard an expedition cruise allows the captain to wiggle the sailing schedule to accommodate unusually good opportunities to provide exceptional guest experiences. In our case, we lollygagged an extra half-hour one afternoon to view nesting eagles. Another day, we got the option to book a seabird safari aboard the excursion boats. Don’t worry: You’ll never miss a meal because of a floating schedule. Dining hours are simply adjusted to meet passengers’ needs.

  1. Intimacy

A couple hundred passengers sharing the same space for two weeks have plenty of opportunities to forge close friendships. On our cruise, for example, a particularly savvy travel agent had marketed the Viking Route to fiber artists who would be interested in the wool industry of rural Scottish sheep farms. Because of their common interests, these ladies – previously unknown to each other – became fast friends and artistic colleagues during the course of the cruise.

  1. Variety of experiences

Just below the surface of expedition cruising is an entire universe of experiences outside the realm of traditional large-ship activities. For the most part, expedition itineraries are designed for adventure with the active traveler in mind. One day, you might be hiking up a hillside to tour a centuries-old castle or cathedral. The next day, you might be bouncing around the ocean in a Polarcirkel boat – Hurtigruten’s virtually unsinkable landing craft with unique hull design and “step-bow and railing” construction for comfort and safety. Another day, you might spend the morning sightseeing aboard a city tour bus to help you get your bearings before you step off for an afternoon of free time in town.

  1. Education

As far as I know, continuing education credits were not offered aboard our ship; but the level of expertise by Hurtigruten’s team of expedition guides was truly impressive. Daily lectures (in three languages) helped us understand and appreciate what we were scheduled to see the next day. Inquisitive passengers arrived early to get the best seating and stayed after “class” to ask specific questions. I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of lifelong learners.

  1. Interaction with local cultures

Large cruise ships are limited to heavily commercialized ports of call. Expedition cruises, on the other hand, are able to slither into shallow water where they launch excursion boats to shuttle passengers eight at a time to shore. As a result, we trickled into tiny towns like friends coming to visit. What a treat!

  1. Inspiration

Passengers aboard the MS Fram got up early and stayed out late…only not in onboard casinos and nightclubs. Granted, the average age of our passengers was over 50, but these folks were up early – either in the gym or walking the decks, reading their iPads or making notes in their excursion guides, taking sunrise shots at 4 a.m. or sunset photos at 10 p.m. “I don’t come on these cruises to be entertained,” said my Texas sweetie at dinner. “I come to be inspired…by nature, by adventure and by people. For me, the magic of expedition cruising is what happens when you least expect it: a pod of whales breaches the water, a couple decides to renew their wedding vows in an ancient cathedral or a rainbow glitters the sky and follows our ship for a full hour until sundown. How can you top that?”

Amen, Sister. I’m hooked and rebooked.

Additional information, brochures and reservations can be obtained from travel agents or Hurtigruten, or 877-301-3117; or fax at 888-524-2145. To order brochures 24 hours a day, call toll free, 800-582-0835.

Seven Stars Resort: True serenity in Turks and Caicos

Seven Stars Resort is named for the the seven stars of the Pleiades constellation mentioned in Greek mythology. Each of the stars represents one of the seven daughters of the god Atlas and goddess Pleione: Maia, Electra, Taygete, Celaeno, Alcyone, Sterope and Merope. Seven Stars Ocean View

But the real star at this luxurious oceanfront resort in Turks and Caicos is you.

Whether you’re sipping signature cocktails around the magnificent mosaic-tiled swimming pool (the only heated salt-water pool on the island) or tasting tapas oceanside at sunset, Seven Stars Resort offers a variety of island-inspired gourmet dining experiences.

Seven Stars Garden ViewEvening will find you resting comfortably in a roomy luxurious suite so peaceful, you’ll suspect a glittery Caribbean fairy godmother sprinkled your pillow with stardust.

No matter where you roam on the grounds of Seven Stars, you’ll find genuinely hospitable employees who function as resort ambassadors empowered to solve problems and enhance positive experiences for their guests–which is the true essence of Seven Stars’ service.

 

Why you should pack an empty water bottle in your carry-on

  • Water-Bottle-Duct-TapeBefore you leave home, wrap an empty water bottle with a couple yards of duct tape. Tear off tiny bits as needed to prevent blisters, repair a raincoat or to conceal valuables in unusual places (like the inside of a Band-aid box). In emergencies, duct tape can function like sutures or can be used to make a splint.
  • Pack your empty water bottle with a couple of envelopes of  instant coffee (like Starbucks Via) and vitamin enhancers. Throw in a couple of protein bars, too. After you get through airport security, fill the bottle with free water from a fountain or a restaurant. A little pre-trip planning will help stifle the impulse to overspend or to eat junk food during unexpected delays.
  • After you get back home, use the empty bottle to help you separate egg yolks.

Primland Resort: Magic in the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

Primland-Tree-HouseRemember the feeling you had as a kid when somebody finally invited you to visit the Secret Clubhouse? That’s how I felt when a friend invited me to visit Primland, a resort in Meadows of Dan, Va., where lodging options include the Golden Eagle Tree House, located at the 4th green of The Highland Course. Yes, it’s poised 2,000 feet above the Dan River Gorge, but it comes with postcard-quality vistas of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Primland is the sort of place that requires special radar. You’ll see it embroidered on high-end golf shirts, photo-splashed in glossy top-tier travel magazines and whispered among luxury travelers trusting their best friends to keep their special finds special.

“Southern hospitality is renowned all over the world, but our staff work hard to make sure a visit to Primland is a treat rather than a treatment,” says Steve Helms, vice president. “Over the last few years, we’ve added to the range of options available to our guests – from accommodations to dining to physically challenging pursuits that take place in a variety of locations across our 12,000-acre footprint.”

Every description of Primland sounds either like exaggeration or downright hyperbole. But it’s not.

Primland Great Hall

Primland Great Hall

When I describe my suite at Primland as the finest I’ve ever experienced, I mean it. But don’t think glitz and glam; think understated elegance. Plus every electronic gizmo you can think of.

Ambiance inside the 72,000-square foot Lodge is peaceful as an afternoon nap, quiet as a library and welcoming as your grandmother’s dinner table. Constructed with natural indigenous materials, The Lodge and three Fairway cottages reflect the architectural style of historic structures in the Virginia Mountains.

2012-06-27 19.44.26

Guests at Primland find their way around like friends, wandering in bathrobes to the spa, pool and fitness center. Others enjoy the movie theater or squeeze in a meeting in one of the boardrooms. And depending on the time of day, there is nearly always somebody feasting on farm-to-fork food, served in casual to fine dining settings.

These are definitely my kind of friends!

Salmon fishing in Scotland

What happens on the Glorious 12th?

How do you go about stalking a real life Monarch of the Glen?

What is a Macnab?

If only I had read Rebertson’s Guide to Field Sports in Scotland before my guide from River & Green picked me up at The Gleneagles HotelRiver-Green

Had I read the book, I would have known who owns the rivers and the land and how much or how little you can pay for a a day’s fishing, as I did with a salmon casting champion who assists rods (anglers) on the Coupar Grange beat of the River Isle in Scotland. I would have had a better understanding of the part field sports play in conservation of the Scottish countryside. And I would have comprehended that while field sports are not the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous, they do comprise a heritage of etiquette as detailed as customs for country club cotillions in the Deep South of the U.S.

I would have known that my Columbia fishing pants and my North Face fleece pullover were not appropriate attire. 2013-09-06 10.02.21And my guide, Ian Walls, surely would have been spared a few embarrassing moments!2013-09-06 08.52.53

Nevertheless, learning to salmon fish with junior ghillie Jamie Cathro is one of my fondest memories on the water.

Where to eat in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arbor is Heart of America. It’s easy to get around and attracts a diverse audience – music fans, art aficionados, theater and film buffs, book collectors, shoppers, foodies, environmental advocates and University of Michigan alums–Big Blues–who hang out at the Big House: the largest stadium in the U.S., with an official capacity of 109,901.

Two of my favorite restaurants are:

Frita Batidos 

French-trained owner/chef Eve Aronoff’s “fantasy” restaurant inspired by her time in Miami.

Expect “slow, natural and local” ingredients in her Cuban street food: The frita, a burger traditionally made from spicy chorizo served with shoestring fries on top in a soft egg bun, and batidos, tropical milkshakes made with fresh fruit, crushed ice, and sweetened milk, with or without rum. $$

Zingerman’s Roadhouse

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Zingerman’s Deli

Chef and managing partner Alex Young is the 2011 winner of the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Great Lakes (selected over four Chicago finalists). Chef Young combines Zingerman’s passion for a global approach to food (not confined to any single movement or interest) with a passion for local and natural foods. $$-$$$

Cinderella Cruising along the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers

“In my own little corner in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be,” sang Lesley Ann Warren in the 1965 television production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. She knew romance is seeded with the eyes and fertilized by the heart.

My love affair with Scenic Cruises started when I looked at their web site, and it blossomed onboard the Jade “Space Ship” as we sailed along the Rhine, the Main and the Danube rivers.Scenic-Jade-River2

And just in case you’re one of those savvy travelers who speculates television overplays the hype of European river cruising, let me assure you the commercials are if anything, understated.

In fact, Scenic Cruises elevates the concept of river cruising to the five-star category with their “Ultimate Luxury Experience.”

For starters, it is a fully-inclusive experience (repeat that phrase over and over if you travel with or are married to a receipt collector) where the only extra costs are for spa services and personal items such as gifts.

“All inclusive” also means a magical level of luxury that includes personal butler service for every guest. There’s even a pillow menu to help make your dreamy sleep sweeter.

On top of that, stack on multiple five-star dining choices – the most of any European river cruise ship.

Scenic-Jade-foodThe Crystal Dining Room, for instance, features a variety of menu choices – from-the-buffet plus from-the-menu, including options for those passengers with dietary preferences – accompanied by high-end wines selected by the company’s sommelier.

Alternatively, Portabello Restaurant provides Italian-themed dining in an intimate setting toward the bow of the ship by reservation only.

As an exclusive dining experience, Table La Rive is a chef’s degustation table for 10 where all six courses are paired with wines chosen by the head chef.Scenic-sommelier

On the casual side, lighter fare – including an assortment of breakfast foods, sandwiches, soups, burgers, fish, custom pizzas, delicate pastries and rich gelatos – are available at the River Café.

Sometimes, the Sun Deck is converted to open-air dining space for a cruising-style picnic, complete with moving scenery that includes everything from flowers to forests, cows to castles, monuments to mountains.

Prefer a quiet night for solo dining on your balcony or breakfast in bed? Yes, room service is available, 24 hours a day.

In every case, Scenic’s “all inclusive” program includes all drinks, all day. For passengers like me who don’t drink alcohol, there’s a high-end coffee machine that is so spectacularly specialized, it shouldn’t even be called a machine. I kept looking for a hidden human barista behind the mirror!

It also includes all gratuities – not only for dining services, but also for butlers and cabin stewards. In fact, 85 percent of Scenic passengers end their cruises with a zero balance on their bills, so your nervous partner can bring a passport and forget about the wallet once you’re onboard!

Scenic Space Ship StateroomWorried about being cramped in a tiny stateroom? The roomy cabins and suites on Scenic’s “Space Ships” offer walk-out glassed-in balconies that convert to fully enclosed, all-weather Space-Lounges with the touch of button. And the same push-button technology that opens your room to the balcony also enables you to lower the top half of the glass enclosure for unobstructed views of the riverbank. (One night at dinner, I joked that next time, I should pack travel rod to take advantage of early morning casting opportunities from my cabin balcony. From the corner of my eye, I saw the sommelier smile ever so slightly.)

And to balance the walk-out balcony, each room features a glass walk-in shower outfitted with what has to be the coolest touch of all: a colored lighting system that sometimes inspires more than singing. Bowl sinks, lighted makeup mirrors and French brand L’Occitane amenities round out the luxury amenities.

Beyond the obvious benefits of having to unpack only once to settle into one of 169 rooms aboard a floating five-star luxury boutique hotel, you’ll enjoy a variety of exclusive events designed to give Scenic passenger privileged access to some of Europe’s historic and cultural highlights: from private ballet, opera and classical music performances in historic palaces and castles to artisan classes and home-hosted meals.Scenic-al-fresco

Apparently I’m not the only one who has been blown away by a Scenic Cruises experience. Recently named “Top Luxury Cruise Line” by the New York Travel Writers Association, Scenic also received an “Award of Excellence” from renowned guidebook author Steven B. Stern after achieving the highest rank of any river cruise company in his book, Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges.

Scenic Tours, parent company of Scenic Cruises, offers all-inclusive escorted tours in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and elsewhere.

Now, whenever I sit in my own little corner in my own little chair, I dream I am back on the Scenic Jade, cruising the “Jewels of Europe.”

Scenic Jade

Snowmobiling under the Northern Lights

Hurtigruten is a world leader in expedition cruising – ferrying freight and passengers up and down the Norwegian coast 365 days a year. One of the fleet’s 11 ships departs Bergen every day, sailing to Kirkenes and back in 12 days at an average speed of 15 knots.

adventures

Northern Lights of Norway (photo by Elliot Gillies)

I made my maiden winter voyage in 2012 aboard Hurtigruten’s Trollfjord, a 13-year old vessel with a maximum passenger capacity of 822. Decorated extensively with Norwegian wood and stone, the ship features panoramic lounges, roomy suites and original paintings by Lofoten artist Kaare Espolin Johnsen.

Food aboard the Trollfjord reflects Norwegian traditions and her coastal beauty – characterized by “cleanliness, individuality and variation,” according to Coastal Flavours brochure posted outside the ship’s dining room. IMG_2646

“Our idea was to create a menu that reflects historical events, unique places and everyday moments that have shaped our culture and culinary traditions,” said Trollfjord’s executive chef Roy Kristensen. “And because Hurtigruten ships bring new and exciting ingredients from distant places to our communities, the dishes are often a combination of the known and unknown, familiar with unfamiliar.”

Norway - Dried Cod

Norway – Dried Cod

One evening, our dinner featured clipfish – the name given to cod originally dried on a sailing clipper.

Another night, our first-course salad was crowned with delicate Selbu Bla, a Norwegian blue cheese made from cow’s milk. The tanginess of the cheese was balanced with a not-too-sweet syrup made from Scandinavian cloudberries.

Throughout the week, the real culinary highlight – at least in my estimation – was fresh seafood brought on board from ports along our route.

Interestingly, despite the abundance of delectable food, I lost two pounds during my Hurtigruten cruise. I guess it’s not hard to figure, considering that most excursions available on the winter voyages require a moderate amount of exercise. But I can hardly think of more fun ways to work off a few meals!

In Alesund, for instance, we ate Norwegian sandwiches at Fjellstua, a quaint restaurant on top of Mount Aksla. Afterwards, we walked down 418 steps to meander streets lined with a generous collection of Art Deco buildings.

In Trondheim, a city founded by a Viking king in 997, we buried our heads to walk against a wind so strong it blew snow parallel to the ground. Our reward was a visit to the historic Nidaros Cathedral, where Norwegian royalty is crowned and thousands of brides are married each year.

In Tromso, we bonded with strong huskies that eventually pulled our sleds across the Norwegian wilderness in a wild ride similar to the feel of a wooden roller coaster. I’m pretty sure my heart used up most of the calories on this adventure – which, by the way, I would do again in another heartbeat!

Midway through our voyage, we sailed above the Arctic Circle, where the sun hangs low on the horizon and casts a blue glow across the landscape. And even though I’m known among my friends as a cold-weather wimp, I soon felt my heart melting with love for a country that had previously existed only as a memory from my fourth-grade geography class.

Rebecca with King Crab

Rebecca with King Crab

Near Kirkenes, we bundled up for a daytime sledge ride across a frozen fjord to harvest king crab. Originally from the northern Pacific Ocean near Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, king crab was introduced to the Barents Sea in the 1960s. These crabs can weigh up to 22 pounds and span up to three feet, toe to toe.

Pounding the ices with hatchets, our guides hauled in monster-sized king crabs, which were quickly hoisted back onto the sledge for a quick trip to a pot of boiling salt water back at our wilderness camp. Eighteen minutes later, our hosts plated up succulent claws and served them with melted butter, hearty Norwegian bread and thick hot chocolate. Thank goodness for a hefty hike on snowshoes later that afternoon!

On a trip like this one, it’s hard to choose a favorite experience. But seeing the Northern Lights will forever remain one of my all-time most memorable events.

First of all, I almost didn’t do the excursion at all because I had never driven a snow mobile, much less at night! Secondly, because it was night, it was cold as blue blazes.

Some of my fears dissipated when I realized the snowmobile folks provide outdoor wear created to keep ordinary people like me warm in sub-freezing temperatures.

Another chunk of my fears evaporated when I found out I could be a rider on a two-seater snowmobile.

But every last vestige of fear faded in the light of Aurora Borealis, the spectacular nightlights of heaven. Our vision comprised a triple-braided cord of dancing green light which arched the sky from horizon to horizon.

Standing in a valley of freshly fallen show, where the only sound was the clicking of cameras and the breathing of a dozen people, I couldn’t help but weep with gratitude for the privilege of such a sight.

“It’s the dream we carry in secret – that something miraculous will happen, that must happen, that time will open, that the heart will open, that doors will open, that mountain will open, that springs will gush, that the dream will open, that one morning we will glide into some harbor we didn’t know was there,” said the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge nearly a half-century ago.

For me, the dream is no longer secret. It happened. I was there. And I’ll go back, again and again.

Hurtigruten MS Trollfjord

Hurtigruten MS Trollfjord