Day 20 - 22 (15 - 17 January): 69 hours in London

Why 69 hours? There was no specific plan. It was just how things panned out.

We spent a day retracing family footsteps. After a fruitless visit to the National Archives in Kew, the Navigatrix's internal GPS guided us to her childhood home in Chiswick. When it comes to things like this she is direct and precise - in other direction she is less so (stay tuned for an example of the lack of precision in future posts).

Rowing upstream on the Thames. The childhood home is on the opposite side, just behind the island.

Rowing upstream on the Thames. The childhood home is on the opposite side, just behind the island.

Kew and Chiswick are charming suburbs of London with rows of Victorian terraces laid out along narrow streets. We walk along the muddy tow path following the Thames and discover  the home of an endangered snail habitat. As we cross the river at Kew Bridge we get a reminder of home as a Qantas A380 flies overhead on approach to Heathrow.

Wheels down. Nearly there!

Wheels down. Nearly there!

In Chiswick we pause outside the old home and the Navigatrix rekindles childhood memories by mudlarking down at the waterline. She finds bits of Delft Victorian pottery, carved stone and interesting old bits and bobs. The Navigator is reminded of the scene from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' where Arthur visits the peasants from the anarcho-syndicalist commune: "Oi Dennis! There's some lovely filth down here!!". We finish our time in Chiswick at The City Barge - the pub next door to her old home. There is some irony in drinking a German beer in England whilst looking at the Thames but alas the keg for the local beer was broken. We revel in the winter sun so we sit outside on the tow path with our drinks and crisps.

We had ordered a Spitfire...

We had ordered a Spitfire...

We caught up with family for dinner at a restaurant near the London Eye with a fabulous view of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. 

Moonrise over Big Ben

Moonrise over Big Ben

We are fortunate to be at the first Lumiere light festival in London - their version of Sydney's Vivid (http://www.visitlondon.com/lumiere). The displays are spread around town and we visit the installations at Picadilly, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Kings Cross. The exhibits at Leicester Square and Kings Cross are impressive. The festival certainly brought out the crowds and the clear skies (how very unlike London) made it even more enjoyable to stroll around town. 

The Light Garden at Leicester Square

The Light Garden at Leicester Square

The next day we head to St Pauls and take the challenge of the 528 steps to the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome. The Navigatrix was determined to do this after trying in a previous visit and turning back. Previously we had ascended a tiny stone circular staircase rising from near the High Altar and we now discovered this was the alternate route as the main staircase was being renovated. The main staircase is an easy climb, with wide wooden stairs having a shallow rise.

At the Whispering Gallery we are delighted by the acoustics. As we sit on the bench the gentle buzz of noise occasionally tunes into a specific conversation: "Kathy? Kathy, can you hear me? Say something!" "Oh my God! I can hear you!!" We try it ourselves and are amazed at how clear the slightest whisper carries around the wall. We climb further (this time through the narrow stone staircase) to the Stone Gallery and then higher again in between the exterior and interior domes to the Golden Gallery.

A vertigo inducing view 85 meters down to the floor of St Pauls

A vertigo inducing view 85 meters down to the floor of St Pauls

Once we tiptoe outside onto the crowded balcony we are rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views of the London skyline.

Iconic London

Iconic London

In the evening we head to the Adelphi Theatre to see Kinky Boots, a musical version of the 2005 film with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. Her style is immediately recognised but refrains from rehashing 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' or 'Time After Time'. Refreshingly the songs generally add to the story, in particular 'Not my Father's Son' a duet between the two male leads Charlie & Lola and also 'The History of Wrong Guys' for the female lead Nicola. Matt Henry (a finalist in The Voice UK) carries the show as Lola, the cross dressing ex boxer who demands the iconic thigh-high red boots which are the symbol of the show. It's a story about overcoming prejudices of all kinds, not only gender, race and class but also those put upon a son by their father. All the lead characters have an emotional journey to undertake and the audience cheered when each each overcame their gender illusions. This is an amazing show and fully deserves its six Tony Awards (the British Olivier Awards are announced in April). If you get the chance to see Kinky Boots you should make all efforts to go - you will not regret it.

The gothic granduer of St Pancras, directly across the road from our hotel

The gothic granduer of St Pancras, directly across the road from our hotel

On our way home the typical London weather reverts. Drizzle sets in as we make our way to Oxford Circus to see the last of Lumiere.  

Looking more like the Northern Lights over London

Looking more like the Northern Lights over London

Overnight there is 5cm of snow, mostly in the  western suburbs. The usual one hour tube ride from Kings Cross to Heathrow takes more like two hours after delays and train changes at Acton Green. At Heathrow, our flight to Paris is delayed by over an hour due to the snow, de-icing and other schedule conflicts.

We enjoyed our time in London. The clear weather certainly made a difference and the positive temperatures (which we had not experienced for over two weeks) were welcomed. London had a positive vibe, perhaps Lumiere also made a difference as it fostered a festival atmosphere.

All in all, a great 69 hours.

Day 19 (14 January): BGO - LHR in business class

Airline: British Airways

The Plane: A319

Loyalty: Oneworld Alliance. These seats were purchased via BA.com and our Qantas Frequent Flyer numbers were attached to the flight. We earn 40 status credits for this flight. 

Flight time: Scheduled for 2 hours and 5 minutes, with actual flight time of 1 hour and 45 minutes (see the de-icing incident below). We leave on time but have to circle over London on approach, so land approximately 20 minutes late.

Seats: 3A, 3C in business class.  The flight was originally booked for economy but we purchased a discounted upgrade to business class. This was more cost effective than purchasing extra baggage for both of us at GBP100 per bag.  The upgrade is regularly offered via the "Manage Booking" link on BA.com. Unfortunately there is no business class lounge (airline or third party) in Bergen airport, or apparently any other regional Norwegian airport. 

The seat configuration is 3-3 but in business class the middle seat is given over to a tray mounted between the armrests. This means there is no extra width or legroom compared to economy, which is somewhat disappointing. It certainly doesn't measure up to Qantas business class. 

Entertainment: No personal screens. Small fixed screens lower from underneath the overhead cabins but only display the flight map.

Food: A drink and snack is served immediately after take-off.  

Dinner is served after about 30 minutes with a choice of either Caesar salad with chicken or prawn tagliatelle. Unfortunately, as we are the last served in business class the Navigator does not get a choice - tagliatelle it is. The meal size is generous and served with proper cutlery and plateware but the prawns are stale and tasteless. Heidseike Monopole Blue Top champagne is served with dinner and again this is a less than satisfactory offering, especially considering it is real champagne. 

We had ordered ahead of time a gluten free meal for the Navigatrix but she was served pasta. A curious choice by the caterers, which we think was a mistake. The meal was politely declined, as it was under sized and lacking in protein. It looked more like she had been given the vegetarian mail. It was not labelled. Also the cabin lacked basics such as pillows and blankets with the excuse that they had forgotten to load them.

The combination of below average food and lack of extra legroom make this business class experience something even less than premium economy, if that. This was somewhat disappointing and would have been even more so had we paid full price.

The Flight: Business class is less than half full so boarding is quick and efficient. Despite this being the same plane as when we flew HEL-OSL, the overheads bins are ample and swallow our carry-on cases. 

The captain informs us there will be a long taxi to the edge of the tarmac "so we can de-ice the wings". Now there's something you do not hear on Australian flights. Unfortunately we do not have a photo but de-icing involves spraying a mixture of glycol and water across the wings and tail. The plane stops in a special de-icing pad (so the mixture can be recycled) and trucks with hoses on cranes dance around the plane as they spray the mixture across the critical air surfaces. 

The service is friendly during the flight. The approach to London (even with the extra circuit) is thrilling as we play spot the landmark.  We dock at the main Terminal 5 (not satellite B or C) and disembark quickly.

This purchased upgrade is a cost effective way of getting into business with full status credits and mileage. It works out to be about 50% of the listed price for a business class seat.  Of course, these are only offered subject to full price bookings but we secured the upgrade about 2 months before flying. Therefore it pays to keep checking periodically. For us, the extra baggage benefits were worth every cent. However, don't expect a full business class experience on these short haul (less than 3 hour) European flights. 

Daily Highlights of the 12 night Classic Hurtigruten Voyage

Day 1 (West Cape & Ålesund): We round the western most point of Norway, which is on the same longitude as Marseille, France. Here we cross one of the many open stretches of sea. Today it is relatively flat and the Expedition staff say we are lucky. "Usually people are leaning over the side at this point," they say. Look how dark it is at 08:30 in the morning. 

Moonrise over West Cape

Moonrise over West Cape

Ålesund is our long stop for the day (3 hours). Ålesund is a town of approximately 45,000 and is spread over five islands connected by sea tunnels. The ship offers a walking tour to climb the 500 steps to the top of Aksla Mountain behind the city for a spectacular view of the town and surrounds. There is also an optional excursion to an Aquarium but this is cancelled due to lack of interest. We opt for a walk around the town to admire the Art Nouveau architecture. The town was completely destroyed by fire in 1904 and was rebuilt . We find an artist in his gallery and purchase some watercolours. On the dock next to the ship, a local fishing boat from the late 1800's is being restored. We can smell the fresh pine wood as it is worked.

Sunmore sand bank fishing vessel

Sunmore sand bank fishing vessel

Day 2 (Trondheim): We wake up in Trondheim for a 6 hour stay. Trondheim is Norway's third largest city with 180,000 people and it shows, with large shopping malls containing chain stores such as H&M and McDonalds. We walk the 15 minutes into town and visit Nidaros Cathedral, the world’s northernmost gothic cathedral.

Western facade of Nidaros Cathedral

Western facade of Nidaros Cathedral

Built from 1070 onwards over the tomb of St. Olav, the Viking king who brought Christianity to Norway and who founded the city in 997, the cathedral was completed around 1300. Olav's approach to converting the Vikings to Christianity was blunt, to say the least. People were baptised - read: had their heads held under water until they converted.

We walk back to the ship via the old town, full of cobblestone streets and wooden buildings. Even at 11:00 in the morning the streets are nearly deserted. The temperature was -10 degrees though. 

NIdelva (Nid River) and Trondheim Old Town

NIdelva (Nid River) and Trondheim Old Town

In the afternoon we pass Kjeungskær Lighthouse, a curious octagonal building on an archipelago of rocks scattered across the fjord mouth. The lighthouse was large enough for a family and a teacher for the children. The only problem was that the children had to be tied to the house with rope to stop them falling into the water. 

Kjeungskaer Lighthouse. "Kids! Watch out for the last step!"

Kjeungskaer Lighthouse. "Kids! Watch out for the last step!"

Day 3 (Bodø): The previous night we were blessed to see the Northern Lights but are still up at 7:00 for the crossing of the Arctic Circle. A sculpture of the globe marks the spot and the previous day we had to guess the exact time we crossed the line. The Navigator was closest (12 seconds off) and so got ice water tipped down the back of his neck as the prize. We also purchase a glass of champagne to celebrate the crossing.

This many ice cubes. The one on the left was down my butt.

This many ice cubes. The one on the left was down my butt.

At Bodø (2.5 hours) we take the bus tour to Saltsraumen. Here over 370 million cubic meters of water pass through a 150 meter wide channel every six hours as the tide changes, reaching speeds of up to 22 knots. There is a 1 meter difference in water levels between the fjord and the open sea and this height difference and the volume of water creates maelstroms (whirlpools) where the difference in water height is clearly visible. In some locations the water even flows in the opposite direction to the tide. In the summer time you can ride the maelstrom in rigid inflatable boats but this is not available in the winter. Understandably, as we get snow on the ride to the fjord.

The tide is flowing to the right and the water closest to the railing is flowing left.

The tide is flowing to the right and the water closest to the railing is flowing left.

Bodø has the densest population of white-tailed sea eagles in the world and we see one fly out from the undergrowth as we walk down to the waterline. It is a small town with half of the population of 50,000 made up by the nearby military airbase. Apart from the maelstrom, the only other attraction is the glass covered shopping mall. The town is quite modern having being mostly destroyed in WWII, apart from the area surrounding the brewery.

That night we dock in Solvær for an hour and then voyage to the Trollfjord. We are treated to a spectacular display of the Northern Lights as the ship pauses at the head of the fjord and lights up the cliffs which rise sheer out of the water.

Day 4 (Tromsø): On the way to Tromsø the sea is throwing off sea fog due the difference between the temperature of the water and air.

Tromsø is the largest town above the Arctic Circle with a population of over 70,000. During the 19th century, Tromsø became known as the "Paris of the North" and whilst the origin of the nickname is unclear the city still dines out on it. The stop here was 4 hours but we didn't get to see much of the city as we went straight to dog sledding (see http://www.marinus.com.au/blog-1/2016/1/20/who-let-the-dogs-out-husky-sledding-in-tromso-7-january) and the light was already fading even at 14:30. We did see the spectacular tunnels through the mountains, which include roundabouts! The Norwegians know how to do infrastructure. A tour of the city is also available from the boat.

In the evening we are treated to stockfish tasting. Stockfish is unsalted fish, typically cod, dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks on the foreshore of the any village.

Fish drying racks in Svolvaer

Fish drying racks in Svolvaer

The captain tries to break it apart with a hammer, until a local lady exclaims in disgust, takes over and smashes it against the side of a table. It's generally used as a snack (like potato chips) and apparently goes well with beer. It has a unique taste and smell. The Norwegian lady asks the Navigatrix if she likes it. The Navigatrix (who likes fish) has to decline.

"Oh give it to me - you're not doing it properly!"

"Oh give it to me - you're not doing it properly!"

Day 5 (Honningsvåg & Kjøllefjord):

In the morning we get a demonstration on how to de-bone a reindeer leg (yum, this will be dinner tonight) and have a taste of reindeer carpaccio.

Honningsvåg lies on the island of Magerøya but still technically part of the European mainland. Hence, Honningsvåg claims to be the most northern town in Europe. The stop here (3.5 hours) is solely for the bus trip to Nordkapp (North Cape) which we decline as the clouds are low and full of snow. Nonetheless, people who did take this tour said it was well worth it and there was enough light to see the monuments at the Cape.

Instead, we walk through the snow to the service station placed exactly on the 71st parallel, stopping to talk to locals clearing snow from their balconies and driveways, as well as dodging the snow ploughs clearing the roads. None of the cars have chains but rather tyres with deeper tread which runs laterally across the tyre as well as longitudinally. It helps that the snow is soft, dry and powdery and the temperature so cold that it doesn't have a chance to form ice.

Kjøllefjord itself is not much of a stop by itself at only 15 minutes. However it's the trip into port which is the highlight. We pass Finnkirka, a rock formation which has special significance to the Sami population as a place of sacrifice. Some smart electronics lights up the formation for when we travel passed (note: it's 4 o'clock in the afternoon!) and the Expedition Team play a recording of Sami music.

Then a local fisherman comes on board to show us King Crab caught in the area. The Russians introduced this species to local waters and as it has no natural predators it is wiping out the sea floor. Despite this, the Russians still control how many are fished annually. The local fisherman has three crabs in his basket which he says will be worth about Kr2400 (about AUD$400).

One of our fellow Australian passengers uses the fisherman's gloves to hold the crab.

"These gloves are so warm," she says. "I'd like to keep them."

"Keep them," says the fisherman. "I have many."

"I was only joking," replies the Australian. "It's just our humour."

The fisherman points to his beanie which displays the Australian coat of arms.

"How did you get an Australian beanie?" we ask.

"A friend on Facebook."

Day 6 (Kirkenes & Vardø): Kirkenes marks the end of the northern leg of the journey and some passengers disembark at this port, many headed for the Snow Hotel. We stop here for 3.5 hours. Other tours operated here include a trip to the Russian border (approx. 20kms away) or dog sledding. We catch the local bus to the Borderland Museum, which has a fascinating display showing the period through WWII and describing the Norwegian resistance and liberation by the Russians in 1944.

A WWII Russian Ilyushin, rescued from a nearby lake in 1984 and fully restored.

A WWII Russian Ilyushin, rescued from a nearby lake in 1984 and fully restored.

The museum also had a description of Sami indigenous culture, their history in this land and an exhibition by John Savio, a famous Sami artist from the early 20th century. We walked the 2km back to the town and caught the bus back to the ship. This is the only port where we saw ice in the water. The Gulfstream does not come passed the North Cape and there is plenty of fresh water (which freezes at higher temperatures) coming into this fjord.

Ice in Kirkenes Harbour

Ice in Kirkenes Harbour

We head back south on the return leg. At Vardø we stop for an hour. Vardø is the easternmost town in Norway and is actually further east than St Petersburg, Kiev & Istanbul. There is a guided tour to the Witch House which commemorates the witch trials from the 1600's. The house is built over the "witch-hole" where the accused were imprisoned. On the way to the Witch House there is a fortress on a site which has been fortified since 1460. It has a small exhibition including an original Enigma machine from WWII. 

The other reason to stop at Vardø is the opportunity to have an Arctic swim in water that is 2 degrees. Participants walk a couple of minutes passed the rear of the ship to a small community hall. There they change into swimmers and don neoprene boots to walk the last twenty meters through the snow. At the plunge pool they take lots as to who will go in first as there is only room for a few people at a time. In they go! 

Our Dutch friends take the slow approach and choose to walk in. The trick is to take your time, get past the first sucks of breath and then wait for your heartbeat to settle down. They last about 60 seconds in the water before getting out. However, they enjoy it so much they choose to do it again. One unlucky soul has to go in again because his wife didn't get a suitable photo!

Then it's back to the hall for a shower and get back into warm clothes. Even before the shower, the swimmer's blood flow is rushing back to the surface of the skin which makes them look like they have a bad case of sunburn. 

"Come on in. The water is beautiful!"

"Come on in. The water is beautiful!"

"What temperature is it when you do this in the summer?" asks the Navigator.

"We don't do it in the summer," replies the ship's tour operator (who also swam).

"Why not?"

"The water is too warm."

Day 7 (Hammerfest & Tromsø): We stop for two hours, which is long enough to do the Polar Bear Museum and sign up for the Polar Bear Club (Isbjørnklubben), which gives you a certificate, a sticker and a beautiful silver and enamel pin. If you can make it to Hammerfest on the third Sunday of January you can attend the annual general meeting. However, you have to attend in person. Elvis Presley was famously denied membership because he wouldn't come to Hammerfest. Take that!

Newest member!

Newest member!

The boat offers organised walking tours but we choose to wander around by ourselves. There is a large hill behind the centre which gives a great view of the surrounding bay (including the LNG plant which provides most of the employment). With more time we would have done this but instead we walk up to the local church and sneak in to the midday service.

Hammerfest Lutheran Church

Hammerfest Lutheran Church

After what turned out to be our final display of Northern Lights, we arrive into Tromsø at 23:30 for a tour hour stop. The boat offers a tour to the modern Artic Cathedral for a midnight concert of Grieg, Bach and Norwegian folk music is offered. We decline but many people attend and return with rave reviews.      

Arctic Cathedral in Tromso, lit up at midnight.

Arctic Cathedral in Tromso, lit up at midnight.

Day 8 (Harstad, Sortland, Stokmarkenes & Svolvær): We hop off the boat at 08:00 in Harstad for a 4 hour overland bus tour. Unfortunately at this time of the morning it's still pitch dark, so not much can be seen. We stop outside of town at Trondenes Cathedral, the oldest medieval church above the Arctic Circle dating back to the 1300's. We sit in this amazing building and experience a short service as we all say the Lord's Prayer in our own language - Norwegian, German, Afrikaans, Dutch and English. Afterwards we watch the boat sail away from Harstad - a slightly worrying experience.

Trondenes kirke

Trondenes kirke

"Come back!"

"Come back!"

Across the road is the Trondenes Historical Centre, which traces the history of the region from Sami times to the Vikings and then to the German occupation during WWII. Harstad housed a battery of "Adolf's Cannons" which were originally built for battleships and then repurposed as land cannons. There was also a POW camp for Russian prisoners.

Back on the bus and we drive inland, passing around the edge of fjords and then crossing over via a car ferry. More amazing Norwegian infrastructure: an island of only 200 people gets a bridge costing Kr200 million (about AUD$33 million). The Norwegians know what to do with their oil riches.  On the ferry we are served a delicious snack of Brunost (caramelised brown Scandinavian whey cheese) on waffles and mini crepes infused with cinnamon.

Car ferry across the Gullesfjord

Car ferry across the Gullesfjord

On the other side of the fjord we stop at a lake framed within spectacular mountains.

The contemplation chair at Langvatnet

The contemplation chair at Langvatnet

At Sortland we catch up with the boat. The bus driver times his run to make sure we cross the bridge at the same time as the boat passes underneath.

Catching up with the boat. We win the race to the dock.

Catching up with the boat. We win the race to the dock.

A few hours later we stop at Stockmarknes, which has a hospitality school run by Hurtigruten as well as a museum. Unfortunately even for ship guests it costs Kr80 to get in. Most of the museum can be missed but a visit to the 1955 vintage Finnmarken (up on blocks on the dock) is well worthwhile.

The 1955 Finnmarken, going nowhere on the mantelpiece.

The 1955 Finnmarken, going nowhere on the mantelpiece.

For the Navigatrix it brings back memories of long voyages between Australia and the United Kingdom, with four bunks to a room and the toilets and showers down the hall.

At Svolvær, the boat stops for two hours which is enough time to visit the Lofoten Warmuseum (Kr80). We are too tired after the previous long night and the early start but our fellow travellers returned with excellent reviews.

Day 9 (Brønnøysund): In the morning we cross back over the Arctic Circle. No competition this time but we all get a spoonful of cod liver oil for the privilege.

Going south across the Arctic Circle

Going south across the Arctic Circle

For some (especially the British passengers) it brought back memories of their childhood. Immediately the landscape changes - the snow doesn't come down to the waterline anymore. It's still cold though... - 8 today, most of which is wind chill from a brisk breeze. The ship heels over to one side as we struggle to dock at Nesna. Later we can't stop at Sandnessjoen and unfortunately one of the crew has to wait until the next port to get off. Hurtigruten will send him back home via train.

Outside of Sandnessjøen, we pass the mountain range "The Seven Sisters". At first, it looks like there are only six but after a few minutes the perspective changes to show the second of the "twins".

The twins are number 4 & 5 counting from left to right

The twins are number 4 & 5 counting from left to right

Later we stop at Brønnøysund (1.5 hours) and most of us get off to join the Expedition team for a brisk walk around the town. During the Viking era, the town was a nationally powerful chieftain seat and an important commercial centre along the coast. The original inhabitants were wiped out in an outright massacre by a conquering chief in the Norwegian civil wars that raged around the mid 1200's.

Christmas decorations still out in Bronnoysund

Christmas decorations still out in Bronnoysund

Day 10 (Trondheim): We awake again in Trondheim for a 3.5 hour stay. However, due to the early morning start we choose not to get off the boat as all the shops will be closed. About 20 of our remaining passengers disembark the boat here so the remainder of the voyage is an intimate gathering of about 80 passengers.

On the way out of the fjord later that morning we see the sun for the first time in a week. Even with the light during the day, it is still an uplifting experience to actually see the sun. We have a greater appreciation of how the locals manage three months without any sun.

First sun in a week

First sun in a week

At 16:30 we arrive at Kristiansund for 30 minutes - just enough time to go to the supermarket for chocolate and a softdrink. It's a shame we don't get more time in this port (on the way north we docked at around midnight) because this town of approx. 25,000 people looks really pretty.

Nordlandet kirke

Nordlandet kirke

Day 11 (Bergen): Last day. We leave the penultimate port of Florø during breakfast, so the whole day is about the last leg into Bergen. We pass through tiny passages and sail amongst expansive archipelagos of low lying islands.

Just made it. Lucky we didn't have dessert last night.

Just made it. Lucky we didn't have dessert last night.

The temperature has finally got above freezing, so all of the ice is melting from the ship. The Expedition team gathers us in the bar and we listen to classical music as we cruise the last stretch into Bergen.

Finally the ice and snow starts to melt 

Finally the ice and snow starts to melt 

We can't say this enough - we had a fantastic time with Hurtigruten on our voyage. We may well have been lucky with the weather as we didn't get any strong wind and only a couple of rough patches in open sea. Generally these only last a couple of hours at worst. The scenery is spectacular, the Norwegians are incredibly friendly, and there was always plenty of things to do on and off the boat. It was impossible to be bored. We will be back for sure. 

Day 8 - Day 19 (3 January - 14 January): 12 night Hurtigruten Classic Voyage from Bergen - Kirkenes - Bergen

Hurtigruten ("Express Route") is a daily passenger and freight shipping service along Norway's western and northern coast between Bergen and Kirkenes. The locals call it the Coastal Express and Hurtigruten ships sail almost the entire length of the country, completing the round-trip journey in 12 nights.

The line was originally conceived as a transport and communications link to the remote coastal communities of Norway, stopping about every two - three hours. With improved road and air transport in Norway (including some astonishing bridges as well as land and sea tunnels), the role of Hurtigruten has gradually changed to emphasise tourism. However, locals still get on and off to travel between communities and the ships can get quite busy if weather closes the roads.  We saw a man get on carrying only a computer bag and a briefcase. Some people also bring their car (there is capacity for 35) or motorcycle on board.  The boat takes on the post and offloads small volumes of supplies at every stop.

We board the Nordnorge and listen to a short safety briefing. The briefing  includes the worrying site of the thermal waterproof suit, which apparently only buys you about 15 minutes in the water - fingers crossed we do not need to use it. Afterwards we head up to cabin 620. As this is still a working boat, all the loading facilities are on the port side. Cabins on the port side are impacted by noise and lights from the dock, so we have chosen a cabin on the starboard side. Our cabin is officially listed as "obstructed view" but a careful inspection of the deck plans revealed 620 is right in the middle of the two lifeboats so our view is barely obstructed at all.

The standard cabin is small at approx. 13 square meters but functional. It has a single bed on one side and a lounge on the other.  The lounge can be turned into a bed and if required the other bed can be folded up against the wall. There is a cupboard with hanging space, two cupboards with shelves and a small desk with a mirror. The bathroom is maybe only 1m x 1.8m with only just more than 1.8m headroom, so space is tight! With a little bit of effort we get everything stored away, however the many layers of thermal dressing is a one-person-at-a-time exercise.

On any of the 6 day voyages either south, north or the full 12 night return journey, the fare is full board. The breakfast buffet is served from 7:00 for the early risers and consists of cereals, yoghurt, hot English style breakfasts of sausage, meatballs, fried and boiled eggs as well as omelettes. There is also the traditional European style breakfast of cold meats, cheeses and many breads which can be toasted. Lunchtime varies between 11:30 and 12:30 depending on the port schedule and is also a buffet of hot food such as soups, stews and roasts as well as cold meats, fish and salads.

Dinner consists of a 3 course set menu, matched to local fare from each of the many regions through which we journey. Provided the chef is informed beforehand, gluten free and allergies are easily accommodated and there are substitutions for vegetarian and diabetic diets. The main course menu varies daily between either fish or meat, including dishes such as reindeer; vodka marinated  beef; cod; salmon, char and king crab. The food is as fresh as fresh can be (generally brought on board each day) and is delicious. The only complaint is that tea and coffee is not available after dinner and must be purchased at the cafe or bar.    

The voyage consists of 33 stops in each direction. In general, towns we visit at night going north we visit during the day (or what consists of a day) on the return south. At most ports the stop is anywhere from 15 - 30 minutes and once a day the boat will stop for 2 - 3 hours. 

In the ports with the longer stopovers, shore expeditions are organised by the delightful tour operators on board. They also conduct 'point of interest' briefings at various times during the day, as well as host a nightly gathering to discuss the events of the day, what's on for tomorrow and most importantly the weather and aurora forecast.

On the return leg from Kirkenes to Bergen we upgrade to a suite. If available, these can be picked up at the last minute for about half the list price. We move just down the hall to cabin 610 which is nearly twice the size. The extra space is given over to a double bed, fixed lounge and two easy chairs, a larger desk, TV, sound system, fridge and tea and coffee making facilities . The bathroom and storage space is unchanged, although bathrobes and toiletries are supplied.   

The Nordnorge was built in 1997 and is elegantly appointed with varnished wood, brass and carpet. The lounge, bar and cafe areas have soft leather easy chairs. There is also a laundry for travellers to do their own washing (Kr30 per token). Beautiful Norwegian art hangs in all of the public areas, including paintings, tapestries,  charcoal drawings as well as plans of the previous Nordnorge ships. Occasionally we docked at port alongside other Hurtigruten boats, some of which have pools and hot tubs. Fellow travellers went on board for a look and came back universally agreeing we had the better ship.  

The combination of the new cabin and the different ports make the southward leg feel like a different journey. We are blessed by the weather for the entire trip, with only two stages impacted by rough seas for only a few hours at a time. The Navigator (despite his moniker) can get seasick in a bathtub but is able to manage the voyage without problem. About half of the voyage is between the archipelago islands of Lofoton, Vesteralen and across the top of the North Cape, so the going only gets rough out in open seas as we cross the mouths of fjords. We get soft, powdery snow on four nights and above the Arctic Circle this stays on all external surfaces. It is not until we approach Bergen on the last day that the temperature warms up enough to melt away the snow.

The staff on board were  very friendly and extraordinarily helpful. All announcements are in Norwegian, English and German and many of the staff also speak Dutch, French and Spanish. The restaurant staff were attentive without being obtrusive and the lovely Sigrun in the bar was a wealth of information about things to do in the ports and Norway in general. At one point Sigrun even offered the Navigatrix the use of her hairdryer, which was going far above the call of duty.

Our fellow passengers included five other groups of Australians (we thought we would be the only ones on board), Dutch, German, British, Norwegian, South African and American travellers. We started the journey with about 150 passengers. About 50 got off in Kirkenes and were replaced by another 20 but other people got off in Tromso & Trondheim, so for the last few days we had about 80 people on board. On a ship capable of nearly 600 passengers this meant  the boat was almost deserted and certainly contributed to the attentive service from the staff. Of course there were itinerant travellers getting on and off at most ports. We chatted to one Norwegian family on their way to Tromso for a two week hospital visit for their son who was the youngest of eleven. Norway's health system pays for all travel costs if the treatment cannot be provided at or in a timely manner close to home.

A bit of snooping on our part revealed the lack of passengers is normal for the week or two after New Year, so if you are looking to chase the Northern Lights this is the best time to do it. We are keen to come back on do the voyage in the warmer months and were advised April, May or September are the best times - cheaper, not as busy, plenty of light but still some snow on the ground above the Arctic Circle to enhance the experience.

All in all we had a fantastic time on the M.S. Nordnorge and highly recommend it to anyone. Yes, it is not as cost effective and has less bells & whistles as other cruises. Amongst other things a 25% VAT in Norway contributes to the high prices. Drinks are expensive (AUD$10 for the cheapest beer) as is tea and coffee (AUD$4 - $5 per cup). We asked for tap water at lunch and dinner which was gladly provided.  

Despite the lack of light there was plenty to do. Some people chose to read books but we found there was plenty look at outside the windows from about 11:00 - 15:00. The Expedition staff also held plenty of lectures, discussions and briefings to help pass the time. We also made sure to get off the boat when we could, even if it was just to walk to the local supermarket for chocolate. Internet is plentiful and only drops out in narrow passages or on the open sea, although Skype refused to work and large uploads and downloads are problematic.

Make sure you're prepared with the right clothes and then the Arctic weather it is not a problem, even for the Navigatrix who gets cold easily. At a minimum you need a thermal base layer, merino wool mid layers, outer layers with minimum 80% down insulation, balaclava, scarf, beanie, gloves, snow boots and ice spikes. Don't forget hand and foot warmers!

Some (clearly unprepared) people complained it was "too cold"; the lack of choice at dinner time; "penny pinching" by charging for champagne when we crossed the Arctic Circle; and the tours being disorganised (they weren't). Some people just need to complain about something. 

Our only complaint was the refillable coffee cup advertised on the website was withdrawn on 1 January for a card system (buy 5 get 1 free). Also, the Hurtigruten museum charged Kr80 for entry - previously it had been free for ship guests. Even the ship staff did not know about that one. However, these are  trivial issues in the grand scheme of things.

We will do this journey again in the warmer months and can not  wait to start planning it.

Day 7 (3 January): Planes, Trains... and a Taxi: HEL-OSL-Bergen

Apologies for posts being out of order. This activity occurred before the Hurtigruten cruise.

HEL - OSL

Airline: Finnair

The Plane: A319

Loyalty: Qantas Club and Frequent Flyer Bronze. This is a continuation of NRT-HEL flight on the 140,000 point ticket. As the stopover in HEL was less than 24 hours this is regarded as a single leg from NRT-OSL, even after changing airlines. Our bags were checked all the way through to OSL from NRT so this made the overnight stopover a breeze. 

Flight time: 1 hour 10 minutes. We depart and arrive on time.

The seats: 7A, 7B in economy. Seat configuration is 3-3 so seats are narrow but legroom is adequate for the Navigator's 181cms.

Entertainment: No personal screens. Small fixed screens hang below the overhead storage. Charlie Chaplin's "The Tramp" is played during the flight.

The Flight: Boarding is problematic because the boarding pass scanners are not working properly, so the staff are already on the back foot. As this is a small plane there is a robust discussion about our carry-on bags needing to go into the hold, which we vehemently resist. The overheads bins are only big enough for a backpack and handbag, so everything else goes underneath the seat in front and accordingly space is a little cramped.

We notice the difference between the large windows on the 787 and these older planes. You really do have to dip your head to see the horizon, whereas on the 787 the view is expansive.

Service is brisk and a little brusque as the staff haven't recovered from the boarding pass dramas. Food is available for purchase on short haul (less than 3 hours) Finnair flights although  tea, coffee and water are complimentary. Marrimekko style almost makes up for the poor service.

We have flown Finnair many times before and were delighted. This time less so, presumably because of the problems at boarding, as well as an early morning start... in a snow-shower... at -8 degrees. To compound things, arrival at Oslo is at an open gate (no jet bridge) and the weather has not improved. This is not Finnair's fault but trudging through the snow to the terminal bus certainly sharpens the senses.  

OSL - Bergen (on NSB train).

We pre-purchased tickets all the way from Oslo Lufthavn to Bergen via Oslo Sentral. The train from Lillehammer runs directly underneath the station and whisks us into Oslo in about 20 minutes. The second airport at Sydney needs to learn the lesson of these remote airports. Hopefully travellers won't have to endure a local, multi-stop train like we currently have to Kingsford Smith. At Oslo, there is also an express train but this operated by a separate company and couldn't be booked via NSB.no. Seats are unreserved but those with pre-purchased tickets ride in separate cars.

At Oslo Sentral we have a two hour layover for the train to Bergen. There are plenty of shops, fast food takeouts and a couple of mini supermarkets but this being a Sunday many were closed. There's no proper waiting room which meant sitting on uncomfortable metal seats in a draughty station while outside it's -8 degrees and snowing.

The train itself is comfortable, with seats in a 2-2 configuration. There is a fixed table in front of each row, so there is more than enough legroom and no danger of being squeezed if the person in front puts the seat back. The left side of the train faces forward and the right faces the rear. No matter, as the scenery is spectacular and we spent much of the journey rushing from side to side to take pictures.

Our car is about half full as we leave Oslo. The internet is free and reasonably fast given so everyone settles in with their technology for the 6 hour 40 minute journey over the mountains to Bergen. We are all greatly amused by the thermometer reading.

It's still snowing as we leave and the train kicks up flurries of snowflakes in the slipstream. The industrial outskirts of Oslo soon fade away to snow covered forests of Norwegian Spruce, wide rivers that alternately gush with water or are frozen thick. Mountains climb up to either side of the track which is mostly a single line. We occasionally have to stop on a siding and wait for an opposing train to pass.

Snow showers come and go as we climb higher and higher to over 1200 meters. At the ski resorts of Geilo and Ustaoset, the train suddenly fills up up with families coming home to Bergen in time for school to start again the next day. In the car behind is a child's play area which is fully occupied. 

Over the top and at Finse it's possible to change for the Flam railway. We press on down the hill to Bergen, with the gradient more noticeable and many long tunnels through the hills. By now the sun is gone and the only things visible are the occasional small town or isolated house. Once we get to Dale (pronounced 'Darl') we are back down at the waterline and the housing starts to build up. Still with an hour to go, we travel alongside one of the many fjords reaching back inland.

The train is certainly comfortable and is cost comparable to flying when travelling from one side of Norway to the other. We sense this is a better journey in the summer when there is more light to see things, although the snow covered landscape is beautiful.

In Bergen it's a 10 minute, 135 Krone (about $22) cab ride from the station to the Hurtigruten terminal. We are on board with plenty of time before sailing, so our day of multiple connections from Helsinki all the way to Bergen has gone largely to plan. 

Who Let The Dogs Out? Husky sledding in Tromso (7 January).

Having now seen the Northern Lights, we eagerly anticipated the next milestone on our Hurtigruten Voyage. As we came into Tromso at around 14:30 we saw the last of the daylight. Contrary to popular belief, the Arctic winter is not total darkness. There is some daylight between about 11:00 - 15:00 but the sun does not make it over the horizon. As can be seen in the photo below (which we promise is unedited), on a clear day the light is spectacular but once the light is gone it is inky black.

 

It was -12 degrees Celsius in the centre of town and we have five layers on. We hopped on the bus with our fellow sledders and drove 30 minutes to the Tromso Wilderness Centre on the outskirts of town. On the way, we got first hand experience of Norwegian engineering as we drove the tunnel between the centre of town and the airport. It's just a tunnel, right? How many tunnels do you know of that have a roundabout? This tunnel had at least two, with four different exits at each! 

By the time we get to Villmarkssenter the temperature has dipped to -16. Tromso's record low is apparently -18, so we were glad for the extra layers. Inside, an Australian lad from Melbourne is handing out a thermal suit to everyone. Well, not everyone - the couple in front of decide they don't need the suit. "I'm just warning you," says the Australian, his accent sounding thick and unusual after all the Norwegian voices we've heard so far. "I've been here for six months and you *will* be cold. I'm just saying..." They decide to take the suit after all.

What's a good Aussie boy from Melbourne doing all the way over here above the Arctic Circle? "Have you looked at the scenery?" he exclaims. "Have you seen how beautiful the girls are?" He is right on both counts.

It takes us another 15 minutes to get the thermal suits on but we finally make it outside. One section of our party is already over by the sleds, where the dogs are barking madly. The rest of the dogs are sitting on top of the kennels much like Snoopy does and are adding to the noise. "Come on! Let's go! Why do I have to be chained up? It's not fair! Come on - what are we waiting for?!?"

Half of our group goes out on the track and as the torchlight of the mushers disappears over the hill the noise stops. The rest of us go visit the six month old puppies. These are Alaskan huskies, smaller and with less fur than the Siberian huskies and without the blue eyes (in Kirkenes the dog sledding tour uses Siberian huskies). The dogs are incredibly friendly and just like all puppies want to jump up, lick faces, pull on shoelaces and anything dangling within reach.

One of our Dutch friends has a scarf with knitted dog faces and the puppies take a keen liking to it - she is mobbed.

The staff are keen to socialise the dogs so they get used to being around people and we are encouraged to pat and even pick them up. It will be at least another six months before they are allowed to pull a sled as their ligaments are too soft and their muscles not developed enough.

We are ushered out of the puppy pen and suddenly the older dogs who were left behind are up on their kennels again, staring out into the darkness. Sure enough, a minute or two later we can see the torchlight of the mushers snaking down the hill. Then the barking starts again. 

We make our way over to the sled, which is simple frame of birch lined with reindeer hide. We climb in and take a few minutes to get settled. The Navigator is at the back and the Navigatrix has to sit between his legs. With five layers on there's not much room! The dogs are anxious to be moving again. "Are we ready yet? Come on, I want to run! Ready now? Now?!? Come *on*!!!" 

Now a blanket is draped over the Navigatrix's legs, our musher pulls up the snow anchor holding the dogs and we're off! Suddenly the barking stops and the only noise we hear is the sled scrubbing over the ice and snow, the gentle breeze of our movement and the occasional call of the musher. All it takes is the mention of a dog's name and the animal pulls back into line, or on the call of "Go" they all strain harder against the harness. For the first time we notice the little red booties that wrap the dog's feet. Every now and then a dog will snatch a mouthful of snow. Their tongues hang out and their saliva freezes on their whiskers.  

There are three of us on the sled (including the musher) and the team of eight dogs pull us easily. Having said that, the dogs trot more than run but occasionally the team behind catches up with us and the lead dogs are right next to us, so close you can reach out and touch them. We continue into the wilderness for about 3 kilometers (15 minutes), with the torchlight just making it to the team in front. We're sure the dogs know the way to go as we wind our way between the birch saplings.


We had hoped to see the lights while we were on the sled but although it's pitch black it's probably too early in the evening. Apparently it's happened though. No matter, the torchlight makes the snow sparkle as if diamonds were scattered in amongst the drifts. 

We have caught up with the rest of our party, their dogs restless and impatient to be running again. Some of them are rubbing their backs in the snow as they wait for us. No rest for our team though. As soon as we arrive the groups sets off again and we head back to the kennels.

On our way back we have a view of the lights from Tromso and before we know it we're heading down the hill on the last part of our journey. The dog relish the opportunity to have a proper run. As we approach the kennels the musher has to throw down the snow anchor to get them to stop, otherwise they would keep running... running... running.

We spoke to our musher - from Wales no less! He says the dogs have done four trips today, so about 24 kilometres. When we marvel at the distance, he tells us the owner of the centre is a professional racer, currently in Finland doing a 2 day race of 120 kilometres a day. More exclamations of wonder from us. 

"That's nothing," he continues. "There's a race in February which is 250 kilometres in a day. Even then, the dogs still have energy to keep running. They'll do 300 - 350 kilometres in a day if you give them the chance." 

"What happens then?" we ask.

"They just stop. And fall over."

Our musher frees the dogs from the harness and they all run back to their individual kennels for dinner. There are 300 dogs at the Centre and each animal has their own kennel paired with a partner but out in the open on the snow. When not on the harness, they are on a long chain which gives them enough room to visit their neighbours or hop up on the roof of their kennel. They are perfectly comfortable on the snow - we saw two dogs cuddled up next to each other and fast asleep lying in the snow, rather than in their kennel with a bed of straw.

It's too cold for us, even with our five layers and thermal suit. As soon as we've disposed the suit, we rush across to the yurt for hot tea and chocolate cake. Our fellow Australian travellers and us spend time talking to the musher from Melbourne. He says the team is very multicultural: Swedes, Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Poles and of course Australian and Welsh. He works in the winter and the summer (and he means work: up at 6, works until 8, then sleeps. No time to chase Viking princesses) and travels in the spring and the autumn. He's looking forward to visiting Estonia this spring.

Alas, our time is over and we're on the bus to be whisked back to the ship. Sledding at Tromso Villmarkssenter is an absolute blast. The dogs are a joy to be around and the ride through the snow filled forest was an unforgettable experience. 

Chasing the Northern Lights (5 - 7, 10 January).

Mission accomplished! We saw the Northern Lights. It was truly an iconic, magical and a spiritual experience.

We sailed on Hurtigruten's M.S. Nordnorge on the 12 night classic voyage from Bergen - Kirkenes - Bergen, which includes 6 nights above the Arctic Circle. We were only two nights in and hadn't even reached the Arctic Circle yet when the lights appeared. On the night of the 5th we were tucked up in bed and fast asleep. Before dinner, we had discussed the likelihood of seeing the lights with the crew who had said: "It will be cold and clear so possible but not probable. We are not above the Arctic Circle yet." So we had gone to bed without expectations.

At 1:30am the call came through on the intercom. We were so asleep we confused the Norwegian call with the announcement about crossing the Arctic Circle planned for about 7:00 am. Then the English announcement came through. We have never got dressed so quickly in our lives! Three layers required, it's -10 outside.

Onto the rear deck and the lights are immediately visible, arcing from horizon to horizon across the sky. At first viewing the lights are a grey-silver colour. After our eyes adjusted a little more we started to see tinges of green in the lights.

 

The longer we looked, the more we noticed about how the lights shift and move. It's hard to fully describe but it's like watching those sudden rainstorms on a summer's day - the one where the sun illuminates the sheets of rain as it falls and you can see it twisting, turning and rolling. Tonight the lights are concentrated into narrow, wispy bands like long hair blowing in the breeze. As we look, individual tresses of light flash on and off as if they were a neon illumination.

 

The photos do more justice than what can be seen with the naked eye. Certainly the intensity of green and tinges of red are only visible in the photos. We were treated to an hour of the lights before they became less intense and gradually faded away into the night.

The next night (6 January) there was some talk of having seen the lights before dinner at 7pm. The forecast for solar activity was high. After dinner at 9pm we were docked in Solvaer and about to go onshore for a walk when the call came through. Up on deck again and tonight the display lit up the night sky with different shades and patterns than the night before. This time the lights were more widespread over the sky and with less of the bands we saw the night before. The photos showed the lights as all green and with little of the other colours from the night before.

 

The movement of the lights continues and at one point we saw them materialising over the snow covered mountain, much like cloud forms over mountains. The display lasts for over four hours as we left Solvaer and headed north to the Trollfjord. At the fjord we were served fish cakes as well as a secret mix of hot dark rum and spiced tea as the ship lit up the entrance to the fjord with its searchlight. Even this was not enough to dull out the northern lights, nor the shooting stars which fly across the sky. 

 

As we left the fjord, the lights continued to zoom across the sky and the captain announced them again. We spent another hour outside, which despite it being -10 degrees was manageable with three layers of clothing (the Navigatrix had five). We spoke with one of the Expedition staff who said displays this long are not unusual. Eventually we realised we were the only ones left on deck and so headed indoors.

We see the lights again the next night (7 January) as we left Tromso, after an afternoon of dog sledding. Although it was colder (-16 degrees) we are still comfortable with the correct layers. There are more clouds out tonight, so photographs are not as clear. They initially show a column cloud of green, much like smoke from a chimney, which eventually contracts to a single band which looks like a curtain as it sways and drifts across the sky. Tonight the lights are more green to the naked eye.

 

The next three nights we have snow as we cross over N071 degrees, pass the North Cape and then turn around at Kirkenes and follow our path home. As we approach Tromso again the skies clear and the temperature drops. We now have a band of fellow photographers clustered in the ship's bar. Every ten minutes or so one of us braved the cold to check the skies. Sometimes the only way to make sure was to take a test photograph. Eventually the lights came out again. Our Dutch friends gave us the thumbs up and we all rush out. 

If it's possible, the display was even larger and more intense in colour. They were clearly green to the naked eye. On one side of the sky the lights were thick like cloud, swirling and boiling along their edge. Yet on the other side the lights were as painted in the sky with a brush of the finest bristles. At other times they hang in the sky in wispy bands, billowing like sheer curtains. Alas, the photographs of tonight are blurry - in the rush I had not set the manual focus correctly.  


Unfortunately, snow and cloud prevent viewings on any other nights despite a strong forecast (index 4) for lights. We were truly blessed to have seen them for four nights out of twelve. People who have witnessed the lights are right when they say the northern lights are an amazing experience. The colours do get more intense the further north you can get. We didn't get the really vibrant red or even white display but even locals say that happens rarely. Things could have been worse - the lovely Sigrun from behind the ship's bar told a story of an unfortunate German man who did the voyage five times and still did not see anything. Perhaps the experience may be better from land where there is no movement of the ship in the photos. Then again, you could be stuck in a blizzard for a week and see nothing.

According to Norse legend, when the goddess Freya and her Valkeries ride on their missions their armour creates the eerie, flickering and flashing lights. We were awestruck by their display and count our lucky stars we got to see such an amazing display on so many nights. If you get the chance to come above the Arctic Circle you should do so. The lights are not to be missed. 

Hurtigruten Voyage

On our way to Bergen to pick up the Nordnorge for the next 12 nights. We're not sure of internet coverage so posts might be patchy.

Keep an eye out on the main page for any updates.

Day 6 (2 January): NRT - HEL

Airline: JAL

The Plane: 787-8 Dreamliner

Loyalty: Qantas Club and Frequent Flyer Bronze. This ticket is a 140,000 point, 5 stopover itinerary. No entry to the Qantas Club at NRT as flyers must be on a QF designated flight.

Flight time: Scheduled for 9 hours 45 minutes. We depart on time with typical Japanese efficiency and with favourable weather land 50 minutes early.

Seats: 47A, 47C in economy. These seats are side-by-side despite the letter assignment. Legroom and width are adequate and similar to other airline economy seats. JAL supplies a moulded cushion for the small of your back and this significantly improves comfort. Seat configuration is 2-4-2 in economy, 2-3-2 in premium economy and 1-2-1 in business.  Windows are larger than on other planes and can be tinted individually via a switch to suit your light requirement. They do take about 10 - 15 seconds to adjust which is a bit disconcerting at first.

Entertainment: The increasingly familiar iPad sized touchscreen is mounted in the headrest of the seat in front and includes the USB port for charging devices. The headphone socket is in the armrest. As is now becoming the norm there is more than enough content. All movies are either subtitled in Japanese or in English. There is a Manga e-book section, games and the now obligatory interactive flight map. As most of our flight is over Siberia there aren't many points of interest!

Food: Lunch was served about 90 minutes into the flight and comprised a choice of grilled chicken, salmon and rice or beef and pork with Hamburg sauce and rice (which was in fact just a hamburger patty). We chose one of each. There was also a green salad, fruit salad and pickled julienned carrots. Each tray was beautifully presented with exquisitely shaped bowls and  metal cutlery. Qantas could take a lesson from JAL on their food quantity and presentation.  A snack of noodles and miso soup was served about 90 minutes before landing. Between meals attention flight attendants constantly patrolled the aisles serving either water, juice or cold green tea. The cabin crew's attention to detail and caring attitude to individual passengers was very much appreciated.

The flight: Despite warnings of turbulent weather the flight was smooth. We were treated to yet another view of Mt Fuji as we climbed out of NRT. Midway through the flight we crossed into Arctic circle and were treated to the extraordinary sight of the sun setting, rising and then setting again. For some of the trip the sun stayed just out of sight, bathing the horizon with a warm red glow. From a balmy 10 degrees Celsius and partly cloudy skies in NRT, we landed in a snow shower at Helsinki with cloud down to 100 meters and the temperature at -7 degrees. Quite a change!

Overnight here and then onto Oslo and then Bergen. 

Day 5 (1 January): Back to Narita

Today we headed back to Tokyo. Thanks to the wonderful lady at JR Narita, we had reserved seats for our return journey and obviously far less people were travelling. To give you a sense of the volume of people travelling earlier in the week, there is a train from Tokyo to Kyoto every 5 - 10 minutes. And we still couldn't reserve a seat! 

Kyoto is a large city. Nothing like Tokyo of course but what's the likelihood of running into the same people not once, not twice but thrice? We took a group photo on behalf of an Australian family in the Bamboo Forest. Then we ran into them on the bus to the Golden Temple. Sure enough, they're on the same train as us going back to Tokyo! When we arrived at the hotel on Wednesday, we chatted to an Australian couple of Japanese heritage from Sydney. We bumped into them at the packed Fushimi train platform the previous night.

There are lots of Westerner's in Kyoto. Maybe it's because it's a smaller city (pop. 1.5 million, so bigger than Adelaide but smaller than Perth) and they're easier to spot. The Navigator heard Russians at Roanji ("Da... da... NYET!") and on the trolley from Arashiyama we chatted to an American couple - he was serving in the armed forces at Okinawa and was on 4 days leave. We also saw lots of other Americans and Canadians of Japanese heritage that only become Westerners when they opened their mouths and spoke 

The Shinkansen is great. So fast - we travelled the 513kms from Kyoto to Tokyo in just under three hours. It took more than half that time to cover the remaining 70kms from Tokyo to Narita! So much legroom too - about double the space of an aeroplane. Why would anyone fly domestically in Japan?

Today the weather God blessed us again with perfectly clear skies and this time we were able to see Mt Fuji from the train. We had advised the thrice-met Australian family about how to get to the Five Lakes region from Tokyo. They probably don't need to go now!

 

At 3pm on a public holiday, the train from Tokyo back to Narita was packed and we had to stand to Chiba (about half the distance). Ohhh, the horrors! When we found a seat together, we happened to be joined by probably the best English speaking, cross dressing, trans gender wannabe. The Navigatrix will post separately on this gentleman who kept us entertained all the way to Narita.

Back at the hotel Mt Fuji was still showing herself, now from 190kms away.

 

Dinner was again at our favoured noodle restaurant Ramen Bayashi where the food is cheap, fast and delicious. We assume if all the flight crews eat there it must be good. Then we continued down the hill to Narita Temple and wandered amongst the crowds conducting their New Years prayers.

We love Japan. There is plenty more to see in Kyoto (as said previously, a better season for the gardens would enhance the experience even further) and many other cities and places to visit. The people are friendly, most speak enough English to get by and it's easy to get around. Yes it's crowded and Tokyo especially is frenetic but with a bit of patience and as long as you're prepared with cash then the country is a joy.

Off to Finland tomorrow. 

Day 4 (31 December): New Years Eve - Kyoto style

New Years is a family orientated holiday. People go home to see family, friends and celebrate with traditional foods. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are also visited, with thousands of people paying respects to their deceased family and friends and to pray for the last time of the year. They also secure their good fortune by purchasing a lucky talisman for the year and throwing out the previous years charm. It is a truly wonderful time to be in Japan, witnessing the mad every day rush slowing to a more peaceful time to spend with family and friends.

With a full day in front of us, we took off with a one-day combined bus/subway pass for Y1200.  Today's tip: the ticket and vending machines only take coins from Y10 upwards (what to do with all those Y1 and Y5 coins?) and only Y1000 notes. We tried a Y10000 note three times before working out the system.

Tickets secured and now with slightly less than a full day in front of us, we headed to Arashiyama in the north west of the city. We thought buildings in Tokyo were crowded in close. In Kyoto the houses are almost within touching distance of the railway lines and are jammed cheek to jowl. 

The Navigatrix will post separately with details about all the gardens we visited today, so below is just a short summary. 

At Tenyru-ji temple we strolled the beautiful grounds, including a contemplative rock garden, pond with giant koi, moss garden and hills for taking in the view of the buildings and the city. Next door is the Bamboo Forest, a most tranquil and peaceful space bathed in dappled green light. The only disturbance is the nearby railway line.

 

The centre of Arashiyama is more touristy with lots of souvenir shops, food stalls and barkers hawking rickshaw rides. We saw one Western-looking family done up in the full Shogun and Geisha outfit riding in a rickshaw. We also saw a Ferrari California convertible trundle by with the top down. A curious mixture of the old and the new.
    
From Arishiyama we rode a tiny trolley car up the hill to Roanyu-ji. This is home to the world famous Zen rock garden, which wasn't very Zen-like with hundreds of tourists crowding in to look. Shoes off in the temple because only Japanses leather slippers allowed. The Navigatrix found them comfortable but they were way too small for the Navigator. We sense we picked the wrong season to visit the gardens. Spring and the cherry blossoms would be amazing, as would autumn with the maple colours. Even photos of the gardens covered in snow look amazing but we got something in between with only the evergreens providing colour.

 


 
Onto the local bus up the hill to Kinkaru-ji, otherwise known as the Golden Temple. Even more people were here to ring the bell and say their prayers, as this is one of the temples to celebrate the New Year. There were many food stalls set up as well as shops selling New Years items such as arrows, good fortune cakes and cookies. Kinkaru-ji also has an expansive garden to stroll through. In many locations there are wishing ponds to toss coins. If you can get your coin in the bowl then that's clearly a good shot and good fortune- sort of like an ancient version of darts.

 


  
We got back onto the local bus just as it started to sprinkle rain and headed to the Imperial Palace, which was unfortunately closed. Second tip for the day: Check opening times before building an itinerary. With that lesson in mind we realised we weren't going to make it to our next destination in time, so instead headed for Fushimi Inari, otherwise known as the Red Temple.

Fushimi is another of the temples in the city popular for celebrating New Year and the party atmosphere was well under way. The Navigatrix was tempted by the barbequed fish on a stick, whilst the Navigator was similarly tempted by pork wrapped rice balls but dinner waited for us back at the hotel. Fushimi is famous for its 1000 red painted wooden gates which cover the path to the large shrine on the top of the hill. We only went part of the way up the hill - other people we spoke to said it was two hours to do the full journey. Each temple also seems to have an animal mascot. Fushimi's is a rather cute fox and the smaller shrine part way up the hill was covered with little fox shaped message boards. People write their New Years wishes, draw a fox face on the reverse side and tie the boards to the wall.

 

We went back down the hill just in time to catch the final sunset for 2015 and head back home. Back at our apartment, the staff served buckwheat noodles and Miso soup to celebrate New Year Japanese style. The buckwheat (soga) noodles are traditionally eaten on New Years Eve as the soga is easy to cut (signifying the end of the year) and can be made into long noodles, which represents longevity.
 
Always ask locals the best places to go, especially for a celebration. Everyone said Kiyomuzi-dera, a large wooden temple on the hill to the east of town. We headed via the bus at 10pm, walking 850 metres uphill to the temple through a narrow street with shops full of small family-run food and handmade craft shops. Even this early it was getting very busy. Up through the temple gate and past the pagoda. We paid our entrance fee to the main hall and said our New Years prayers. We washed our hands with the stream water in the traditional way to cleanse ourselves - left hand, then right hand, then drink from your left hand, then cleanse the left hand again. We then climbed down into the valley to see the engineering marvel built in the 1500's, with its massive wooden poles holding the temple to the hillside. No nails involved.

 

We kept going through the temple gardens and then returned to the main prayer hall and deck. Kyoto city lights and the modern Tower (every Japanese city seems to have a tower) are clearly seen from here. We purchased our NY charm of health blessed by the monks and crowded shoulder to shoulder onto the viewing platform. This period leading up to midnight is sacred - no drunken hooligans (maybe sake is drunk at home to warm up on return), no fireworks. Just a countdown to the stroke of midnight. Lots of subdued cheering but no hugs or kissing. 

Then the crowd moved off immediately to line up and say their first prayer of the year, or be lucky enough to ring the temple bell with the monks 108 times and have their photo taken by an obliging monk in the process (almost like Disneyland!).

 

With more good local advice we lined up for a taxi (the buses were packed and we would have waited longer). Then like every city in the world, we had to wait. Eventually cabs arrived to drop people off to the temple and we slowly moved up to the head of the queue. After a clear starry night, it started to rain but a local family told us the first rain this close after midnight is very good luck. When we finally got our cab, the Navigatrix thought our driver was 90 (she read his birthdate as being 1926) but he knew his way around and took a narrow laneway to get us out of the traffic jam of cars leaving the car park.

Home by 1.30am - a spiritual and joyful experience

Day 3 (30 December): Narita - Kyoto

Another train, this time the Shinkansen bullet train on the Tokkaido line.

Since arriving in Japan we had unsuccessfully tried to reserve our seats for this trip. However the holiday season meant there were no reserved seats on any train at any time today. The JR ticket officer was very helpful in writing down which train would best suit our timing, which platform it was on and advising it to catch it from Tokyo, not Shinagawa, because that was the best chance of getting an unreserved seat.

Narita to Tokyo on the Rapid was no problem. However Tokyo station was an absolute zoo. We don't think we've seen that many people trying to travel at the same time - even worse the Chicago O'Hare Airport on Memorial Day (which we've done twice!). Even just walking was difficult as once in a swimlane it has hard to get out before we were swept past where we wanted to go.

We secured some food and tea just in time and made it up to the platform to a sea of people waiting for trains. First priority was to find where the unreserved cars were. Second priority was to find the end of the queue to get on. The Japanese are a curious race - generally so polite and respectful but not so once the train doors opened. The queues promptly dissolved and there was a mad rush to get on. 

Third priority was to find seats. No empty seats in the first car so we kept going. It didn't look good in the second car either and we were contemplating standing up until we spied two vacant seats and grabbed them. Phew! Lucky we did - another flood of people got on behind us and indeed people did stand for parts  if not all of their journey.

We marvel at how light many people are able to travel. Most Japanese are getting on with a mid sized suitcase at the largest and here we are with a full size suitcase, backpack crammed to the zipper, wheelie carry-on bag and a big handbag. At least our Airpocket is keeping the travel documents organised.

 

The Shinkansen whisked us away from Tokyo and within half an hour we were passed Yokohama and out of the city. A vastly rapid pace compared to the day before. After we went through Mishima there was much excitement on board as Mt Fuji approached - people had their cameras and smartphones at the ready but alas the mountain was obscured by cloud. We were on the southern side of the mountain today so this could have been the cloud forming off the mountain like we saw the day before. We felt blessed to have got the view we did the day before.

We continued south west through Nagoya and onto Kyoto. A short subway ride to the Citadines Gojo-Karasuma which is modern and beautifully appointed. A quick rest and then we sampled the delights of Uni Qlo and Daiso at the Aeon Mall - a Japanese version of Westfield. Useful tip: Daiso is 100 yen 108 with taxes. Perfect for forgotten items, travel goods, cosmetics and the best value Japanese souvenirs from pottery to Kimono dolls, and beautiful Japanese style tea towels. With apologies for our family and friends this is all we spent.  

Day 2 (29 December): Mt Fuji

Today we travelled from Narita to the Five Lakes region near Mt Fuji. According to the internet, Mt Fuji is generally visible (not obscured by cloud) from December - February. All weather forecasts predicted a clear day so we crossed our fingers and headed off.

Thank goodness for the JR passes and the ticket office, otherwise it would have been a bit overwhelming to complete all the connections. We rode the Narita Airport Express to Shinjuku than changed for a Rapid service (a train which stops at a limited number of stations) to Otsuki. We had reserved seats to Otsuki but rather than wait another hour we hopped into the unreserved car.

The week leading up to New Year is a peak holiday season in Japan. The train is packed with people heading home for the next few days to visit family and pay respects. Over the next hour we head further west through the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo. Mt Fuji teases us with glimpses as we approach the hills which hold in the western spread of the city.

Once through the tunnels and the narrow passes, the built up areas fade away and we are treated to wonderful vistas of forest, lakes and gushing streams. In some respects we are lucky - the weather is mild (approx. 10 degrees celcius) for this time of year and there is no snow on the ground, although frost lingers in some areas where the sun doesn't reach.

We reach Otsuki at midday, having already been travelling for three hours. There we join the crush of holiday makers heading to the Fujikyu Railway, which is a single line track which connects Otsuki on the JR line to Kawaguchiko in the lake district. This is a local line serving the little villages dotted along the valley. Here we take our first sample of Japanese vending machine culture with a hot chocolate which comes from the machine with the top already on! 

On the train we meet a couple from just outside of Milan. She is six months pregnant but certainly didn't look it. They're having a quick week in Japan (we sense the last holiday for a while for them) and are travelling impressively light with just a wheelie carry-on bag and a backpack. We chat about the mild weather both here and in Europe at the moment. It's not long before Mt Fuji reveals herself again, rising up over 3700 meters. We're at about 750 meters on the railway line.

Both the Italian couple and us have the same destination and we get off the train at Simone-Yoshida. Where?!? A tiny village that just seems to have houses. However on the hill is a small pagoda with an amazing view of the mountain. There's a problem - actually 397 of them. This is the number of steps up the hill to the pagoda. The Italian couple bound up suitcases in tow. It takes us a little longer.

 

However at the top the view is indeed amazing. The sky is perfectly clear and we can see the entire mountain. Cloud is forming on the other (western) side as the sun heats up the snow but we are blessed with a crystal clear view. We can even see the hiking trails zig-zagging up to the summit.

We have stumbled onto a secret. The Italian couple and us are the only Westerner's there. A Japanese couple are taking wedding photos with the mountain view - the bride has white woollen gloves to keep her hands warm. The only other people seem to be locals. There is not a tourist bus to be seen.

The light is tricky as we are looking directly at the sun, so getting a good photo is difficult. The Italians are experts (his father was apparently a photographer) and manage to take multiple exposures with the intent of stitching them together later on. A couple of tips later and we manage to get a passable photo.

From there we head further along the line to Kawaguchiko but not before passing the Fujiyama Highland theme park with some very scary looking rollercoasters. Somewhat out of place in such a beautiful setting.

At Kawaguchiko things are a lot more touristy with sight seeing buses, restaurants, souvenir shops and lots of hotels along the shore of the lake.  We can see why - it's a very pretty area. The lake is about a 10 minute walk down the hill from the train station. We're already noticing the number of shops closed for the holidays. At 3:30pm the sun is already setting and the temperature is dropping rapidly - it's already down to 6 degrees. At the lakeside we have some indecision over the sightseeing boat or the cable car before settling on the cable car to the top of one of the surrounding hills.

 

We're now at 1000 meters and the view is different again. A slightly different angle and also the sun in a different position creates a whole new perspective on the mountain. Cloud is now forming halfway up the slope, looking like a wispy necklace around a long neck. We choose to go down about 5 minutes too early - as we're waiting for the cable car the mountain is bathed in the pink light of the last sun.

 

Before we can head home we need some more cash and experience our first mild panic of the trip. None of the ATMs will recognise our international debit card. Fortunately a sign at the currency exchange tells us the 7-Eleven branded ATMS (and the Japan Post) do accept international cards so problem solved. Surprisingly, Japan is a cash economy. Every small shop, convenience store, supermarket, ticketing machine and just about everything else won't accept credit cards. The vending machines will take the Suica card (an NFC travel card with preloaded credit). Your credit card might come out in a major department store and certainly for your accommodation. Be prepared.

It's 3 degrees as we re-trace our steps back home to the opposite side of Tokyo. A super express train takes us from Otsuki through Akihibara where we see shoppers strolling the streets in the bright lights of the advertising signs before heading east out of the centre of the city. On approach to Chiba we get a glimpse of the nightly fireworks display from Tokyo Disneyland and from there it's onto Narita where things have warmed up to 5 degrees. 

794 steps up and down a hill, 380 kms of train travel over 8 hours and 1 truly magical mountain. Absolutely worth every magical moment of the iconic Mt Fuji, inspiration of Japanese religion, art and natural beauty.  

Day 1 (28 December): SYD-BNE-NRT

BNE-NRT

The Plane: A330-300

Loyalty: Qantas Club and Frequent Flyer Bronze. Seats were redeemed for 35,000 points each plus taxes. The Qantas Club in Brisbane International is small and was cramped with a large volume of travellers flying immediately after Boxing Day. 

Flight time: Scheduled for 10 hours. We depart on time and with favourable weather gain 30 minutes for a total flight time of 9.5 hours.

Seats: 47A, 47B. We paid $30 per seat beforehand to secure the seats on what was a full flight. The seats are narrow but had sufficient legroom for the Navigator to stretch out and for the Navigatrix to store her pillows and handbag.

Entertainment: A touchscreen about the size of an iPad is mounted in the headrest of the seat in front. It has a USB port for charging devices and the headphone sockets. There is plenty of content - I lost count of the number of available movies and didn't even get time to browse the TV or audio content. The headphones were a bit finicky and required regular twiddling to maintain stereo sound.

Food: Lunch was served about two hours into the flight. Chicken salad and Japanese beef were ordered via the Qantas website prior to the flight and arrived before everybody else received their meals. The chicken salad was short on protein but the Japanese beef was adequate and certainly tasted better than it looked in the website picture. A light snack of beef sliders and a hot dog was served about 90 minutes from arrival. Adequate again but nothing special.

The flight: On entering the plane for the SYD-BNE leg the flight attendant commented on our coats. "We're headed for -15 in Norway," we said. "That's not cold," piped up a passenger. "We've just come back from -23 in Canada." OK, you win.

On approach to Narita we were treated to the spectacular silhouette of Mt Fuji at sunset.

 

Passage through immigration at Narita Airport was brisk and efficiently Japanese. For the first time in memory Customs asked to check our bags!  We were at our hotel in Narita via the airport bus within an hour of arrival. 

Coming soon... The Northern Lights

Stay tuned!  The Navigator and Navigatrix are about to embark on another adventure.

Tokyo & Kyoto, Japan
The Norwegian Coastal Ferry: Bergen - Kirkenes - Bergen
London
Paris
Costa del Sol, Spain
Cruising the Caribbean
Los Angeles
Oahu, Hawaii

We'll record our observations here on the log. Don't forget to like The Navigator's Log on Facebook and also check out @thenavigatorslog on Instagram to keep in touch.