Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Where do we go from here?

What would you most like to read about? Money-saving strategies and dreams on a dime? Trips close to home? Family travel? Far-away places? Luxuries?

Let us know...just Click to Comment below.

More scenes from Greenland

At last, I'm back in the photo zone (sort of!) Here are more views of Greenland:

The blue, blue ice of Evighedsfjorden glacier.

Fram "living room'' near the reception desk.

A gray day on Greenland's icecap:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The ice cap

I had imagined this as a lazy trip, vaguely interesting. Instead, it's been that rare combination of fascinating and relaxing. We've had too little sleep ... but then, who could sleep in an endless day?

Tomorrow, too soon, we head for shore in search of musk ox and reindeer on the Arctic ice cap. It will be our final foray before heading back to the U.S. on the direct flight to Baltimore.

Since my laptop is still hinky, this will likely be my last post until Saturday a.m. Check back then to see the latest report and ... with luck ... PLENTY of photos!

Blue ice of Greenland

The great thing about seasickness is that once it's over, it's over.

Two hours ago I was clutching my stomach and soul as we forged through 50 mph winds. My plan for the rest of the day: sleep, with occasional dashes to the nearest loo.

Then we moved into a fjord, and all was calm. And I found myself bounding down the steps to the Polar Cirkel boat for a visit to the front of the Evighedsfjorden glacier.

You might think that all glaciers -- and all ice -- look alike, but they're as different as children in the same family. Unlike the white bergs that have been smoothed by the sea of Ilulissat's icefjord, this one is a rugged mass of shards splintering into the salty, frigid bath.

From the ship we can see the top of the glacier, measuring about 170 meters between two peaks of 900 meters and 1200 meters. From the Polar Cirkel boat we see a face of about 70 meters. Ice against black rock, ice filtering into the sea. We can hear our launch crunch over it as we move ever closer to the front.

Some of the ice is white, which means it contains bubbles. Some is a blue as a schmaltzy curacao cocktail or an aquamarine stone, blue and brilliant and completely without bubbles. Most of this, we are told, has probably been compacted by the weight of centuries.

A chunk of the blue spills into the sea. A flock of birds whirls overhead, dashing for the krill and other sealife that will be disturbed and become easy prey.

Our boat moves off quickly, to avoid the wave that will form and flow outward.

Cool as ice.

Greenland: Calm night, rough day

We've been incredibly lucky with weather: Disneyesque days, calm nights. Only once were we delayed by fog, and that turned out to be a minor inconvenience.

Last night proved a marvel of nature. As the waitstaff and others were performing in the crew show, a triple rainbow appeared on the horizon, painting the icebergs into a rosy kaleidoscope.

Today we pay. We're in open seas in a gale, heading for yet another fjord and glacier. Those with weak stomachs are bolting for the Dramamine; heartier souls are staring down the horizon. Only a fool would be at a computer screen.

I can't imagine anyone is going to want to go out in the Polar Cirkel boats once we arrive. But who cares? Up to now, the weather has been crystalline; who can complain?

New pix from Greenland

Check below: We've added more photos!

Here, also, are a few scenes from Ilulissat:

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Answers to questions

If you left me a question, look back at your original posting under Comments. I try to answer them there!

On Greenland's thinning ice

The world’s most prolific glacier slides into the sea at a rate of 40 meters per day … more than 120 feet. Yet the huge ice chunks that split from it can’t move far; the mouth of the fjord is shallow, only about 200 meters deep, and the bergs back up like cars waiting to get through the Golden Glades Interchange. Rush hour lasts for months.

The result is an ice jam of Matterhorns and Space Mountains, amphitheaters and Gibraltar Rocks, Soviet apartment blocks … all curved and swept and carved and etched into ice. It all sits just outside the town of Ilulissat … which is why 20,000 of the 30,000 visitors (including us!) to Greenland this year will come here.

You can actually hike to part of the ice wall. The view is staggering … or so you will think, until you sail along the 3.5 miles of frozen edge in a small boat.

No cruise ship view in Alaska comes close to this majesty. And it’s all the more inspiring because you know it may not last.

Just 25 years ago, the bergs were a good 20 meters higher, says Frederike Bronny, the naturalist on board our Fram sailing. She was here then, as she has been in most of the years since. Today the highest bergs reach to about 80 meters – yes, that’s more than 260 feet – but then, the highest bergs were 20 meters higher, or about 325 feet.

Part of this is natural cycle. But scientists agree that human activity is a significant contributor to the climate change.

The glacier itself is receding quickly, and one estimate suggests that within 10 years the glacier will no longer reach the sea, which means that the huge icebergs will be gone.

That might have been welcome news for the passengers aboard the Titanic. It is thought that the iceberg they struck came from Ilulissat’s Kangia Glacier via the Labrador Current.

But the meltdown is bad news for Floridians. Scientists differ on exactly how fast they expect the seas to rise; for now, the Greenland icecap remains a stable 3 kilometers deep. But when it melts, a lot of landlocked South Floridians will have oceanfront property. That’s likely to take a few hundred years … but still, maybe we should trade in our gas guzzlers for hybrids ASAP.


More on melting glaciers: See the June 2007 issue of National Geographic
More on this cruise: Norwegian Coastal Voyage / Hurtigruten
More on cruising: Cruise Critic
More on travel: The Miami Herald's travel page

Monday, July 23, 2007

Scenes from Ummannaq

The Midnight Sun

It’s past midnight, but the sun sparkles just behind the jagged peaks, and the clouds above glow with rosy light. A waterfall gushes from a rocky cleft, beneath the downy hood of a glacier. The light glints off the ice floes glinting like a thousand mirrors on the calm waters before us. No one can bear the idea of going to bed.

“It’s just amazing,’’ says Martina, a German woman clinging to the endless day. “Everywhere you look there’s ice pouring down. I think this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.’’

Someone spots a disturbance in the water ahead, and we dash to front of the glassed-in deck just in time to see black fins roiling. A whale, we suspect.

Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter. In this mystical, magical place, anything seems possible.

In Greenland's north

The day here lasts, literally, for months. We’re a few hundred degrees north of the Arctic Circle; it will be a week yet before the first shadowy hours of night edge their way into the light. Which means that despite a fog-delayed start to the morning, we’re able to make our way to the village of Ukkussiat, population 180, settled in the crook of a 4,300-foot granite massive.

The entire town comes out to meet the ship as we clamber from our Polar Circle launches onto the town dock. It’s more than just a chance to sell a few handicrafts –intricate glass bead necklaces that are part of the national dress, and figures carved from the local soapstone. It’s a happening.

The mayor leads us to the one-room schoolhouse, where a dozen children in jeans and t-shirts – Just do it! proclaims one advertising Nike – will perform traditional dances that look remarkably like American square dances or an Austrian quadrille.

On school days, 26 students learn here, taught by six teachers. After the 9th grade they move on to school in the larger, nearby town of Ummannaq or take up a traditional lifestyle of hunting and fishing. The dead seal we’ve seen down at the habor was shot by a 12-year-old boy, who has already bagged more than 30 seals in his hunting career. Some of the meat will be eaten raw, some dried for winter, some cooked.

But today is for showing off the village and socializing with the visitors and the ship’s crew, who clearly have become friends.

One of the women invites nearly a dozen of us to her home for coffee. In Greenland, coffee is more than simply a drink, it’s a social gathering where thick sugary bread and cookies are the fuel for celebration and welcome. Amalie is our host, welcoming us into a small house with a sitting room lined with family photos: the daughter as a baby, and now, standing before us, a 17-year-old, about to go off to Denmark for a year of study.

The daughter’s room is lined with posters of rock stars. Greenlandic rap plays on the radio.

We ask all kinds of questions: How big is Amalie’s family (just herself, husband and daughter)? Did she grow up here (nearby)?

Some day, settlements like these will diminish in number, perhaps disappear altogether, explains Janus, one of our guides. The government plan is to draw down the number of settlements in the next 15-20 years. The problem: No one knows which ones will survive and which will be closed … so no one wants to invest in them.

And moving to another village can be a real hardship. While the men know the hunting and fishing grounds around their home, they will not have that crucial local knowledge in a new place.

The future is uncertain. But on this clear and glorious day in Ukkussiat, the present is a gift.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Santa's Summer Home

We know now why Santa has reindeer, and it isn't just for his annual global airfreight delivery.

Without his reindeer, Santa would have to hike for more than an hour over a rocky outcrop to get to his summer home, near Ummannaq.

Having failed to order up a reindeer taxi, we took the long route. It was a foggy day here in North Greenland ... so foggy that we couldn't take the Polar Circle launches from our ship into the town until past noon. But once the fog lifted, we were rewarded with an elf-tale scene: Massive ice bergs, snow and glacier-capped mountains, red and blue houses set atop stair-step hills above the fishing harbor.

Up the hill, across the rocks, over a mountains, past the water pipes (you can't bury things underground here), beyond the sleeping dogs (not much work for them in summer) and through the wildflowers we hiked, until we came to Santa's summer hut near a small stream.

Santa, we learned, must be a short guy. His ceiling is only about 5 feet high, and his sealskin-covered bed is barely long enough for a dwarf.

We found a tree all decorated for Christmas and a gaily wrapped package ... but no Santa. Said Janus, one of our guides, "I heard he's gone to Honolulu.''

Greenland: Photos at last!

Andrew, from the Fram's expedition staff, has helped me upload a couple of photos to this posting and a previous one. Here's a glimpse of what we're seeing:

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Share your thoughts, questions

Sorry there are no photos at the moment. My laptop has fried, and I'm not sure when I can get back to a photo-friendly scenario. Once I am back, though, I promise to post plenty of photos!

Meanwhile, feel free to ask me questions or share your own experiences about traveling in Greenland. Just click below where it says, Click to Comment.

Icy Greenland

Qequertarsuaq, on Disko Island, is a pleasant tumble of bright cottages ... smaller than Sisimiut, with only about 1,000 people. We head off walking through the town on a hike that will take us to a nearby waterfall.

As we pass beyond the houses toward the black-sand beach, we spot huge curves and swirls of blue-gray-white: Icebergs.

"That's what we've come here to see, isn't it?'' says Ruth, a German woman traveling with her mother.

The hike along the mountain leads past dozens of wildflowers, and it's a curious sight: bright fuschia blooms juxtaposed with ice blocks so accessible that the kids in the group run up to play with chunks washed ashore.

It's a friendly town with a pretty much and a small museum chronicling the town's history. But the ice steals the show.

Our ship heads out through a fjord where chunks of ice bob like corks on the flat water. Then the corks become massive, bigger than buses, bigger than our ship. "It's bigger than we are, and that's just the part we can see,'' says Arden, as we all jump from our dinner table to catch the view. We reckon its above-water height at 60 meters, knowing that seven-eights still lie below view.

Later, Andrew, one of the ship's expedition leaders, and I try to figure out the volume of the larger icebergs. About 10 million cubic meters, we figure.

The scene changes, revealing ever more ice, but mostly in smaller chards rather than the curved, carved masses that seem as fanciful as Cinderella's castle.

The huge bergs are going fast, though. Frederike Bronny, one of the expedition staff, recounts a sad statistic from a study by a Danish scientist: In less than a decade, the larger icebergs will be gone. More victims of global warming.



-- Cruise Critic, for more on cruises
-- Norwegian Coastal Voyage, for information on our sailing
-- Greenland tourism, for more on greenland

Friday, July 20, 2007

Greenland's Second City

Today we visited Sisimiut, a fishing town whose main business is shrimping and fishing. The world's largest cold-water shrimp factory sits on its dock, and last year that factory processed and shipped 18,000 tons of shrimp. It helps that the harbor here is warm enough to be accessible all year.

Population: 5,500.

Being the second-largest city means options. The supermarket sells a surprisingly large selection of wines -- Chilean, Australian and French -- and Maile mustard, along with musk ox steaks. There's a small airport here, video rental store, plus plenty of taxis and a small museum.

Still, you get the feeling that people here work hard and don't have much. You don't see many toys around.

One of the cultural aspects of Greenland is the natural resources: People here legally kill and sell seals, dolphins and whales. All are plentiful, and with a national population just over 32,000, the impact isn't heavy.

Still, it's eerie to see seal meat at the dock, already skinned and bagged. "Oh, I don't want to look at that!'' said the ship passenger next to me. Stranger still to see purses, boots and suits made from seal skin.

But not so strange when you learn about the history. In the 1700s, Inuit peoples made this a significant base. By summer they were nomadic, but in winter they came here, building homes from peat near the harbor so they could easily head out in kayaks for hunting and fishing. The homes were heated with oil made from whale and seal blubber; what else did they have?

When Danish explorers came here, they tried to trade pearls and ladies dresses...useless to the local people. Still, the pearls caught on, and sweaters dotted with pearls and beads are still part of the national costume.


- Check out Cruise Critic, which features reviews from experts (such as my blog) along with terrific message boards.
- David Molyneaux, retired travel editor from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, also writes about cruises on his blog, Travel Mavens.

- For more on Travel in Florida and throughout the world, see the Miami Herald's Travel page, where you will find more stories by me.

Greenland, Euro-style

This Greenland expedition is American-friendly -- but it's a decidely European experience.

On the American-friendly side: Announcements are in English as well as Danish (and often, German.) Tours are offered in English, and the staff speaks perfect English. It's also relatively easy to get here from America: Air Greenland offers a direct flight from Baltimore that takes about five hours.

Despite the ease, there are only five Americans on board: myself, The Husband, and three Californians. Dave is an astronomer; Arden is a geologist with his wife, Charlene.

European twists: Bedding, food, faiclities, pricing and even the languid pace are Northern European. No children's programs here; a few families have brought pre-teens and teens, but they stick with parents or grandparents (unless they're racing cars on the X-box right here next to the Internet cafe.) Our beds feature duvets but no topsheet -- as is the custom in Germany and Scandanavia. Facilities includes European favorites: workout room, Jacuzzis and a sauna.

And foodwise, the approach is definitely Northern European: fresh and tasty, but heavy on fish (fresh and smoked), starches (potatoes, macaroni salads), sugary desserts, meats smoked and those well and thoroughly cooked. (Reindeer features regularly and, predictably, tastes like beef.) Dinner is a set menu of starter, soup, entree and dessert; the alternative entree must be ordered early in the day.

Things you won't find on board: Red cocktail sauce, light beer, spa and casino.

Another European trait: A sense of reserve among many guests. This is due partly to language, partly to generation: Most of the guests on board are well past 65. (Those younger are more likely to chat, we've found.) Part of it is also culture. Americans as a breed tend to be outgoing; experience has taught me that it's much rarer for Europeans to chat up strangers and the staff.

Greenland: Aboard the Fram

The Fram is a new ship, purpose-built for expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. We've found it comfortable and modern but lulling, with lots of big windows for watching the world go by beneath the glow of the Midnight Sun.

A few facts:

- Launched in 2007
- Named for the Fram, a Danish exploration ship that sailed these waters in 1898
- Berths: 318
- Passengers on this sailing: 261
- Crew on this sailing: 77
- Length: 114 meters (about 372 feet)
- Beam: 20.2 meters (about 65 feet)
- 12,700 tons
- 8 decks
- One main dining room, plus a bistro with 24-hour coffee and cakes (included)
- Panoramic bar
- Least expensive inside cabin: $3,673, including air from Baltimore

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Greenland: On board the Fram

This is a true expedition. There's not a lot of there there to Kangerlussauq...maybe two dozen buildings, including the airport, a pizzeria, bowling alley, swimming pool and a couple of hotels. All are pre-fab buildings; in a place where cold and snow dominate and trees are no where in sight, the usual construction methods don't work.

We wander over to the local museum, a mecca for aviation buffs -- The Husband is enthralled -- but interesting enough even for a non-flyer. Among the many exhibits: Photos of polar bears shot when they threatened the local population (last one, 1998) and the story of Willie the Musk Ox. Willie so adored people that he became a community threat. The local officials lassoed him from a four-wheel pick-up and tried to move him far away, but he returned. When he threatened an air transit passenger and her child, he had to be put down. Sad, but what else could they do?

Boarding time, and a bus whisked us to the harbor, a simple waterfront with a dock, two or three local boats and a single storage building. We donned our life vests and hopped aboard eight-passenger open launches for the 10-minute ride to our home for the next six days, the Fram.

The staff is friendly and helpful. Interiors: Soothing pale woods, copper etchings, wide windows. No balconies in the cabins: This ship goes to the Arctic and Antarctica, and there's no value in freezing. In this wilderness, comfort will be king.

Cruising icy Greenland

Those of us familiar with big U.S. cruise ships think of nightclubs, endless shopping, non-stop action. Norwegian Coastal Voyage's Greenland Expedition is something altogether different: A journey to the world's largest noncontinental island where nature is the attraction.

No dressy clothes required here. What you need instead is a fleece, hiking boots and waterproof gloves.

Our trip begins today, in the Greenland town of Kangerlussaug -- perhaps better known as Sondre Stromford, home to a U.S. air base from World War II through the 1980s. At 66 degrees 57 minutes north, we're just above the Arctic Circle.

It's warmer than we expect: Close to 55 degrees, and downright toasty in the sun. And that's something of a problem. As you know from National Geographic and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the miles-thick ice cap is melting. When it melts enough, some U.S. coastal cities may flood.

We chat about this in the airport restaurant with a local man who asks where we're from. "Please give a message to your president,'' he says when he learns we're Americans. "The ice is melting. It's accelerating every day.''

The man, a traditional healer, has a camp on the ice cap just above the town here and has lived in Greenland all his 60 years. He's a native person known as Your Uncle on the Hill, involved with organizing a meeting on global climate awareness among native peoples from across the Americas next summer.

He sits with his cousin. "When we were born, the ice cap was 5 kilometers deep,'' says Angaangag Lyberth, "Uncle's'' name. "Now it's only 3 kilometers deep.''

More immediately, it's a problem for some of our fellow travelers. One of the touring options for today is a Musk Ox safari. But because of the hot season, the oxen have moved far from town, up near the ice cap. The safari today spots only a single ox.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Gotta go, gotta go

In about 15 minutes we head for the airport for the late-night flight to Copenhagen, then on to Greenland. No sleep tonight!

Iceland´s best ride

Iceland has only 300,000 people. We haven´t seen the stats yet on the equine population, but we´re betting it´s bigger.

Every field, it seems, is home to a dozen or more Icelandic horses -- short, squat little ponies originally from Scandanavia and the Shetlands. They come in coal black, bay, even piebald. In summer, their manes are almost lionesque; in winter, they look like wooly mammoths.

Today we rode them. Turns out those short little legs pack plenty of power and provide a smooth, even gait, with a trot that feels like sailing. Now there´s a treat.

How expensive is it?

Price of a 12-inch pepperoni pizza at a take-away joint in downtown Reykjavik -- $30.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Iceland - Fire and Ice

Iceland takes its name from its glacial snowcaps which, like snowcaps in many places, seem to be melting. At least that´s the case with the one I visited today, Snaeffelsjorg, setting for Jules Vernes´ mythical Journey to the Center of the Earth.

We bypassed the rewards of a 5-hour hike to the top in favor of the immediate gratification of a snowmobile tour, whisking to the crater in under 15 minutes. It was a stellar, crystaline day here, and the views were spectacular, with snowcapped basalt peaks showing patches of black rock -- a minke whale of a mountain -- trickling to green hills and curved beaches and azure sea. (I´d share pix, but my laptop is fried again.)

The earth here is remarkable, with fields of green sheltered by rippled peaks and cliffs and strange, prehistoric-looking lava fields strewn with rocks ... the spew and vomit of a raging earth.

Looking around, you realize the place and the elves, trolls and gods that live here must be unsettled; something boils beneath.

And it does, we learn tonight, when we go to the two-hour Volcano Show. Not evil -- this is a placid place -- but an earth in tumult, perhaps not ever-ready to boil over, but ready enough to create both havoc and magic at any moment.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Reykjavik's Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is one of Reykavik’s most famous attractions: A wide thermal pool that draws families, couples and simply the curious, who wade through the hot spots, sip beer beneath a bridge, slather mineral mud on their faces.

It’s part tourist trap, part transcendent voyage into an ethereal universe. Steam rises from the pool, carved from a lava landscape that looks like it should be on the moon. It’s an attraction for real people with real bodies; cellulite is a familiar here, and nobody winces at it.

I don’t expect it to be a social experience. But soaking, it seems, brings out the chat.

A lovely Norwegian mom and her 15-year-old, Ingeborg, advise us about the mud. Don’t get it too close to your eyes, the mom warns.

From there we move to fishing – the Mediterranean is losing it’s tuna, we’ve read – and whale hunting, still practiced in Norway.

What do these Norwegians think about it? The mom thinks it’s OK, as long as the fishermen are conservative about the haul. The daughter thinks it’s not a good idea. “Why do it when there are other resources?’’ she asks.

The mom, dad and daughter have spent two weeks driving around Iceland. Ingeborg has liked the Westfjords best … but thinks the roads need help.

The subject moves to America; it always does. “Americans are egocentric, I think,’’ says the daughter. “The spotlight is always on them. And Americans, they are always afraid,’’ she says. She’s never visited the U.S., but she clearly reads. She’s always had opinions, the mother says.

The daughter doesn’t understand the outcome of the last presidential election. Another election is coming soon, I tell her.

A Spanish couple joins in. He works for an American multinational. The coming American election is a hot topic among Europeans; they always want to know who will win. We don’t know, we tell them.

The Spaniards, too, have spent a couple of weeks driving around Iceland. “I’m a curious person,’’ he tells us. “I came here for a few days once on business. I thought it would be interesting to look around.’’

They’ve enjoyed it here, but thought the geothermals at Yellowstone more impressive – especially when combined with Yellowstone's wildelife. Still, Iceland has fjords with icebergs .. something you can’t see in Wyoming.

Reykjavik's Summer Love

Reykajik has the feel of a town burning with summer love. The streets are filled with Icelanders and visitors soaking up warmth and wine. Skateboarders zip into the towns central plaza. Cyclists and joggers pound the harborside path long beyond the hour that working people should have gone home. The thin grass glows with the ravenous emerald of the short-lived: relentless and fleeting. The sun may last long tonight, but summer is waning already, and even the plants and the Icelandic ponies know it.

11 p.m. The sun is still bright enough to wash the top of the spectacular concrete Hallgrimskirja church and the upper stories of the downtown hotels – none of them more than a few stories – in gold. If the sun does set here, I won’t be awake to see it.

Iceland is sooo expensive

Iceland makes London look cheap. Rental car: $150 per day. A bed in a hostel: More than $100.

A Tandoori chicken dinner for two, with two beers: $100.

It’s all expensive, says the father next to us. He and his teenage son are visiting from Calgary; they’ve been here a week. “Every time we sit down it costs at least $70.’’

Friday, July 13, 2007

Greenland route

Starting Monday, I'll be in Iceland.

By Thursday, I'll be boarding Norwegian Coastal Voyage's Fram on a week-long itinerary in Greenland. Here's a map of where I'll be going.

If you're looking for info on other voyages, check out Cruise Critic, a website that mixes expert opinions with tips and message boards from regular cruisers. Cruise Critic will be posting my blog during this trip.

Check out these experts

People ask me what other blogs I recommend. Here are three, run by colleagues who are experts with the highest professional standards. (They're also fun people!)

Travel Mavens: David Molyneaux, retired travel editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, specializes in cruises and golf, but his expertise spans the world of travel. Read his tips at TravelMavens.net.

Adventure: Author, journalist and veteran adventurer Don George offers tips at his adventure blog, Don's Place. For a more literary approach to travel, check out RECCE.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Greenland, Iceland

In a few days, I'll head out to Iceland and Greenland.

Rumor has it that the names should be reversed. Chuck Cobb, Miami resident and former ambassador to Iceland, says I should take shorts: the temps will be about the same as Maine (and in winter, he says, Iceland is usually a little warmer than Manhattan. Go figure.)

Greenland's name apparently was a marketing spin by Viking Eric the Red (950ish, give or take 50 years), who led a group of Icelandic families to Greenland after he ran afoul of the law. Greenland's high this time of year hovers around 50 degrees.

Guess I better pack my woolies....