Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Oslo, Norway - an opera house and a ski-jump

Norway, with a population of 5.2 million, is about the size of Montana which is home to just over 1 million. Oslo, where about 660,000 live, is the capital city of Norway and it is situated at the head of the Oslofjorden. 
A great deal of construction was going on all around the city making for plenty of traffic jams. By and large, there is not much to see in Oslo and popular sites to show to tourists comprise a quirky opera house and the Olympic ski jump. Some more images here.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Torshavn, Faroe Islands - time to mow the roof!?

The Faroe Islands have been an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark since 1948. The country occupies a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic ocean about halfway between Scotland and Iceland comprising 18 main islands and many smaller ones. The total population is about 50,000 of which 18,000 or so live in the capital, Torshavn, which is on Streymoy, the largest island of the group.
Although the latitude of Torshavn is 62 degrees north the weather is surprisingly mild with above freezing averages for every month of the year. This is due to the presence of the Gulf Stream which is also responsible for England's relatively temperate climate. The Faroe Islands' economy remains predominantly dependent on the fishing industry and their fortunes tend to fluctuate accordingly. Efforts to diversify include tourism and some prospect of undersea oil stocks have recently emerged.
We spent a pleasant few hours trudging round taking stock of the place. More exciting snaps here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Akureyri, Iceland - land of the midnight sun

Since we approached Greenland a week ago it has not been dark outside. Due to our proximity to the Arctic Circle and the time of year it has been possible to read a newspaper outdoors at any time of the day or night. 
Akureyri is less than 100 miles outside of the circle and, when we left in the evening, we sailed several degrees into the circle. In this location at this time of year midnight sun is still just happening. The sun sets just west of due north but the sunset morphs immediately into a sunrise with the sun re-appearing just east of north. We were prepared to hang out and watch this phenomenon but sadly the weather reverted to type and everything was hidden behind low cloud, fog and periods of rain.
The downside of the midnight sun of course is the wintertime midday darkness. At these latitudes daylight is limited to just a few hours each day for several months with little or no actual sunshine. Further north, weeks go by with no useful daylight whatsoever, a situation that is difficult to imagine.
Like the midnight sun, our sortie into town was also influenced by the weather. Believing that things were improving we set off. After 40 minutes or so the drizzle returned and every aspect went downhill from there. On reflection however, a worthwhile visit to round off our Icelandic experience. Additional pictures.

Isafjordur, Iceland - a day in the sun!

From Reykjavik, we headed north up the west coast of Iceland to Isafjordur which, in line with Iceland's general climate, is subject to persistent high winds and only a few clear days each year. It was apparently on its best behavior for our visit for it was warm with a light breeze and sparkling sunshine from arrival to departure.
At the extreme northwest of Iceland (about 11 o'clock on a map), Isafjordur was traditionally a fishing village but its population has fallen dramatically since the 60s, following the declining fortunes of that industry, to a current level of 2,600. Continuing efforts to bolster the economy include tourism, especially cruise ships, an annual music festival and promotion of the nature reserve on the peninsula. A clean cut and airy little town it was refreshing to enjoy the laid back atmosphere and some warmer weather. Additional images here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Reykjavik, Iceland - city without a soul

Iceland is a popular tourist destination and Reykjavik, the capital, is raved about by many. The country is about the size of Kentucky and the entire population of 332,000 about equal to Honolulu, Hawaii. Vaguely circular in shape with the northern edge touching the Arctic circle, the capital is on the southwest coast at about 8 o'clock. Almost 70% of the population live in Reykjavik and its environs.
The city was not to our taste - bleak architecture, paucity of color, discourteous drivers and an almost vanished old town all conspired to make us feel like intruders. On the positive side, construction was going full tilt with busy cranes dominating the skyline and road mending season going gangbusters. We performed our customary schlep around the hot-spots but were happy to return to our cozy corner on the boat. More drear here.

Prince Christian Sound - a bonus with a bonus

The route from Qaqortoq to Reykjavic was scheduled to take a shortcut across the southern end of Greenland by navigating the Prince Christian Sound providing there was no pack ice along that route. The Sound is actually a fjord separating the mainland from a small archipelago that is also part of Greenland - we were not actually planning to sail over land.
No ice pack was reported, so we turned left and embarked on a 60 mile journey walled in by steep cliffs ranging up to 4,000 feet in height. Bonus #1.
Several glaciers empty into the fjord making it a significant source of icebergs. What we didn't know was that the cruise company planned to make a promotional movie involving a glacier and that was the Bonus on a Bonus - we got to enjoy the whole thing even though we realized afterwards that we had been duped into becoming unpaid extras! Following are some snaps taken along the way...
See the sights here.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Qaqortoq, Greenland - colorful and cute

The modern town of Qaqortoq (pronounced Quacker Tock) was founded in 1774 and was originally named Julianhab after the then queen of Denmark. The current population is about 3,200 souls making it the fourth largest in Greenland.
In common with the rest of the country, Qaqortoq is not connected to any other town by a road system. Travel can be conducted by ATV in the summer time and snowmobile at other times. Beyond that, boats and helicopters rule. As was the case in 1774, seal-skins are the core economic product and most of these go to Denmark.
In the late 20th century the Greenland artist Aka Hoegh started a project to produce an open air art gallery by sculpting rocks around the area. Many of these can be seen when strolling in town. The town is also home to Greenland's oldest fountain, built in 1932 and showing whales spouting water from their blowholes.
Unemployment is perennially high in the region and although the Qaqortoq economy is enhanced a little by tourism, fishing and government administrative services, the area remains heavily dependent on block grants from Denmark.

Additional images here.

Paamiut, Greenland - "move along, nothing to see here"

The region around the present town has been populated since 1500 BCE or thereabouts. Frederikshaab was formally organized in 1742 by the Jacob Severin Company which traded fur and whale products and was named to honor the then Crown Prince Frederick.
A climatic warming trend beginning in the 1920s brought cod fish into the local sea the town prospered from this until the last decade of the 20th century when the cod stock diminished. At that time all the residents of the Paamiut region were encouraged to move into the town, which was renamed Parrmiut, and these moves resulted in a population peak. 
Over the intervening quarter century the population has atrophied by about one third and stands currently at around 1500 but continues to fall. 
Fishing remains the central economic activity and it is augmented each fall by seal hunting when the icebergs begin to move northward along the west coast of Greenland carrying the seals with them. Check out more here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Nuuk, Greenland - life in the big city

The USA is the third largest country in the world by land area, after Russia and Canada. It is also the third largest by population after China and India. Greenland is almost one quarter the size of the USA and comes in at number 12 world wide by size. However, the entire population of Greenland would not fill the seats of any one of the 60 largest stadiums in America and, in fact would only half fill the largest (Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor). That a country more than twice the size of Texas and California combined should be home to just 56,000 people takes some getting used to.
One reality is that 80% of the country is covered by the second largest ice mass in the world at 1,500 miles long, up to 680 miles wide and nearly 2 miles thick in places. If it were to melt it would lead to a global sea level increase of about 14 feet! The oldest ice, believed to be 110,000 years old, is continually being squeezed out in the form of glaciers and "calving" icebergs into the ocean as chunks break off. Brr! 
Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark but enjoys a good deal of autonomy. Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and has a population of 17,000. The economy relies partly on the fishing industry and partly on block grants from Denmark. The most recent indigenous inhabitants were the Inuit people and these have been joined by Danish immigrants in more recent times. More illuminating images here.

St. John's, Newfoundland - always read the small print

We pitched up in St. John's on schedule, albeit on goofy Newfie time which is 90 minutes ahead of Eastern time. Go figure, The weather was foul so we checked the warranty. Turns out that the city is one of the rainiest in Canada, holds the record for foggiest (124 days each year), the windiest averaging 15 MPH and the cloudiest with less than 1,500 hours of sunshine a year. Yikes!
At 100,000 population, St. John's is both the capital and the largest city in Canada's Newfoundland province. In common it seems with many other northeast US and Canadian cities, most of St. John's was burned to the ground in the late 19th century vanquishing forever early sheds, shacks, homes and other flammable historic infrastructure. A few structures, mainly those of stone, did survive the inferno.
It was pleasing that economically St. John's is doing well. The government is the largest employer enjoying federal, provincial and municipal funding. The fishing industry, which collapsed at the end of the 20th century has been handily replaced by the more reliable and lucrative undersea oil industry raising local incomes to the second highest in the nation and unemployment to the second lowest. 
Anyway, weather statistics notwithstanding, we launched into the murky gloom with our usual banal optimism, assuring ourselves that it would improve shortly. More pictures.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Peggy's Cove - a Nova Scotia Sojourn

The mothership stopped into Halifax, the capital of Canada's Nova Scotia province. We had pounded the streets of Halifax on a previous cruise and this time decided to visit Peggy's Cove, about an hours drive to the southwest. Our guide for the day was a charming lady named Ellen, a Nova Scotia native who, if nothing else, possessed a vivid imagination with which she entertainingly embellished the mundane. A bonus biology lesson for the day involved the intricacies of the sex lives of lobsters enthusiastically presented by our guide and brushing the borders of TMI. Kudos to Ellen!Peggy's Cove is one of numerous fishing villages around the rugged Atlantic fringe of maritime Canada. From a population of 300 or so at the beginning of the 20th century the post World War II decline in the fishing industry steadily reduced the head count to today's meager 37 souls. The village rose to prominence through the unwitting efforts of a Scandinavian artist, William deGarthe, who lived there until his death in 1983, producing many paintings of the area which drew visitors to the location. Today Peggy's Cove is a mini-Mecca for artists who, with sundry other curiosity seekers such as ourselves, manage to support the ice cream store and the ginger bread cafe. More pictures here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Saint John, with its population of 70,000, is the largest city in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It is located on the Bay of Fundy which has the distinction of having one of the largest tides in the world, averaging 45 feet compared to a global average of about 6 feet. On the day we visited the tide was near a cyclic minimum of just 29 feet. Even so, in the couple of hours we were away from the ship, the water rose a deck and a half - about 14 feet - necessitating several interim adjustments to the entry ramp.
Restored indoor market
Away from the bay, the land rises quite steeply and this has given rise to the development of a soulless multi-story mall with the numerous levels connected by escalators and enclosed aerial walkways crossing several streets. These features along with mixed commercial and retail use and a paucity of signage make it a place one wants to leave immediately. It was confided to me by a local however, that escalating through the mall was a convenient way to "climb" to the top of the city (known as uptown) and meandering downhill thereafter. Excellent plan.
Exiting from the high point of the mall and crossing yet one more street brings one to an entrance of the old city market which had been brought back from the dead by popular demand in the late '80s. A warm and dynamic atmosphere was a welcome contrast to the space-age sterility of the just vacated mall. An unusual feature of the market is the sloping floor which continues the climb to the top of the city over its quarter mile or so length.

Saint John is in a sorry state economically. It was the winter port for Quebec prior to year round ice-breaking being introduced on the Saint Lawrence seaway in the '60s at which point this revenue source vanished. A further blow fell in 2003 when all significant shipbuilding ceased due to over-zealous industrial action. A million and a half tourists now visit the area each year augmented by 200,000 cruise ship punters but this has yet to restore the previous prosperity. 
When the Tourist Office eagerly points out the moose statue, you know you're in trouble! See here for more scintillating pictures.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bar Harbor - you can't win them all

A street load of kitschy stores and not much more
In England, "After the Lord Mayor's show comes the dust cart" is a well known expression. What it means is that following any cavalcade of dignitaries with their horses and carriages the next act is usually the guy with a bucket and shovel. New York, always a tough act to follow, certainly reduces Bar Harbor to the figurative manure man,
First settled by Europeans in 1763 and incorporated in 1796 as Eden, it was renamed Bar Harbor in 1918. In the late 19th century the town serendipitously became a summer playground for the super-affluent including J D Rockefeller, Jr., J P Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Astor family. A month long fire in 1947 however, razed much of the town to the ground including 60 or 70 of the 10,000 sq ft rich and famous summer "cottages" and nearly 200 regular dwellings. Since then, the town has been graced by lesser luminaries such as Martha Stewart and John Travolta while the big names have moved on.
With a current population of a little over 5,000, Bar Harbor appears to survive today on general tourism, promotion of local sporting events and a cruise ship a day in the summer months, all served up in endless kitschy restaurants and stores. See here for more views.

Friday, May 12, 2017

New York - Some Older Icons

At the south end of Manhattan, part of South Street has been designated as the historical port district, occasionally hosting tall ships and generally keeping a few piers busy with tourists and promotional activities. Also, in recent years, New York has come to better value its heritage and acted to protect some other historical entities that had erstwhile been effectively abandoned. We set out to see what progress had been made and included our findings among the following sights.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

New York - Ever Re-inventing

A hundred years ago, the west side and the south end of Manhattan bristled with more than 100 piers making it one of the world's largest seaports. Today, almost all of these all have been demolished or re-purposed producing a mix of much sought after waterfront property, private marinas, helicopter parks, storage for towed vehicles, a few cruise ship ports and even a museum. The Good Ship Lollipop docked at pier 88 adjacent to the intersection of 42nd Street and 12th Avenue.
Seventy three years ago the USS Intrepid, an Essex Class carrier, was commissioned and, after operating in World War II, was refitted for the Vietnam war and other service including picking up manned space shots from the ocean. After being decommissioned in the early '80s the vessel was parked at pier 87 and became the foundation for the "Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum". For some views of this spectacle, click here.