The Magical Mekong

By | Cambodia, Cruising, Vietnam | No Comments

River cruise offers unique glimpse into Vietnamese, Cambodian cultures

The Arizona Republic — February 18, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “Can you please pass the tarantula?”

Deep-fried tarantula

Deep-fried tarantula is a Cambodian specialty

I was joking – sort of – at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, after the waiter brought two of the large and hairy deep-fried arachnids to the table following the main course.

At first, I mainly just wanted to photograph the dish popular in rural Cambodia, attractively presented on a serving plate with a lime and spicy dipping sauce.  But the rest of our group dared me into taking it a step further.

I bit.  Literally.  In two bites, I downed the creature – eight legs and all – to the laughter and applause of the group.

Welcome to the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, which offers an unvarnished and fascinating glimpse into the fabric of an exotic and welcoming culture that has changed little over the centuries.

Scenic Spirit

The Scenic Spirit anchored on the Mekong River near Tan Chau, Vietnam

I recently spent a week cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia aboard the Scenic Spirit, a 2-year-old 68-passenger ship owned by Scenic Cruises, an Australian-owned high-end line with a growing presence in North America.  Most of our passengers were from Australia and England; I was one of five Americans on the trip.

Mekong cruises offer a chance to sail past ancient hilltop pagodas, floating villages and seemingly endless fields of rice, fruit plantations and sugar cane.  And you’ll do so in relative solitude compared to cruises on more heralded rivers in Europe like the Danube, Seine and Rhine.

Indeed, during the Vietnam portion of the trip, we didn’t encounter even one other cruise ship, a pleasant difference from river trips in Europe where there are often so many ships parked in port at one time, you need to walk across several other vessels to reach your own.

View of Mekong River

View of the Mekong River from the Wat Hanchey Monastery in Cambodia

Known as Southeast Asia’s “rice bowl,” the Mekong is the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of people in the region, who use the river for trade, transportation, farming and fishing.  The river traverses six Asian countries – starting in China’s Tibetan Plateau before meandering through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

We leisurely covered about 180 miles over seven days on a small portion of the river, sailing upstream from My Tho, about a two-hour bus ride southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and disembarked in Kampong Chan, Cambodia.  Most of the ship’s passengers also booked post-cruise land tours of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, in northwestern Cambodia.

Aside from the tarantula, I sampled rice wine infused with a venomous cobra snake (the locals call it “Vietnamese Viagra,”) and a fiery red chile-pepper I picked right off the vine that made a jalapeno from back home taste like a bland cucumber in comparison.

As most of the villages we visited didn’t have docking facilities for large boats, the Scenic Spirit would drop anchor in the Mekong and we would take sampans – long, narrow wooden boats – into towns along the river.  Once on land, we rode rickshaws, tuk-tuks and ox carts to see the sites.

Cambodian monks

Monks chant a blessing at the Oudong Monastery in Cambodia

We visited an outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam, where they peddle everything from live roosters to fresh red snapper to roasted rat meat.  It’s where the locals go to buy their dinner each day, unlike the touristy floating markets you’ll find in Thailand.

There was a trip to a rural school, a silk factory and the opulent Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the country’s 64-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni resides.

I especially found meaningful a visit to the home of a 70-year-old man who had fought in the South Vietnamese army alongside Americans.  After the war, he was sent to a “re-education camp.”  It was a stark reminder of the region’s tragic past.  Despite all they have endured, I have found the Vietnamese some of the friendliest people on the planet, always quick with a smile.

As far as any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war years, we never experienced the slightest hint of it.  Duc Ho, one of our Scenic tour directors, says attitudes of the Vietnamese people changed dramatically in 1995 when – thanks in large part to the work of Arizona Sen. John McCain — the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.

Sa Dec market

Produce vendors at the outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam

“Before, people were really angry toward Americans,” says Duc. “The younger generation now thinks differently.  It’s over.  It’s history.”

While we waited on the Mekong to clear immigration at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, Scenic brought onboard a local dance troupe, which performed a traditional acrobatic Vietnamese lion dance. It’s believed the dance brings good luck and fortune, not to mention a chance for the ship’s passengers to admire some delightfully animated costumes (see video shot by the author: Vietnamese lion dance).

At Phnom Penh, we veered off the Mekong to the Tonle Sap River to visit Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia and home to the country’s largest monastery.  Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country and it was fascinating to learn about the lives of the hundreds of monks and nuns who live in Oudong.

In fact, one of our Scenic guides, Mao (nicknamed “The Chairman,”) had spent six years himself as a monk and offered our group unique insights into the faith and the integral role it plays in Cambodians’ lives.

Mekong sunrise

Sunrise on the Mekong River in Vietnam

At the monastery, we sat on the floor of a temple for a private blessing as two monks wearing traditional saffron robes chanted Buddhist prayers and tossed jasmine flower petals at us (see video shot by the author: Buddhist monks chant blessing).

We also visited a monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Mekong called Wat Hanchey, home to novice monks, most of whom are teenagers.

The Mekong is ideal for travelers looking for a less-crowded, more authentic experience than is found on many other river cruises.  This year just 19 ships catering to foreign tourists are cruising the river; most hold well fewer than 100 passengers.

As for the tarantula, I survived without even a hint of a stomach ache.

More importantly, after a week on the Mekong, I’ve had a memorable taste of rural life in a culture so remarkably different from our own.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Cruising Russia’s Volga River

By | Cruising, Russia | One Comment

Despite political tensions, cruising gaining steam on Europe’s longest river

The Arizona Republic — August 13, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia – A political pariah?  Perhaps.

Scenic Tsar

The Scenic Tsar docked on the Volga River

But are Russia’s geopolitical controversies, heightened tensions with the United States and reports of election meddling keeping Western tourists away?

If you look at the recent surge in cruising on the Volga River, the answer is clear.


Traffic on the Volga, Europe’s longest river, has rebounded sharply in the past two years, as we learned on a recent two-week cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Travelers looking for a more adventurous trip than is offered on Western European rivers like the Danube and Rhine are finding the Volga a compelling alternative.

We were sailing on the Scenic Tsar, a 112-passenger ship chartered by Scenic Cruises, an Australia-based line that also markets its trips to North Americans and Europeans.

Volga River

Scenery on the Volga between Moscow and St. Petersburg

Scenic, along with Viking, Uniworld and other cruise lines, is increasing its presence on the Volga.  Last year, Scenic offered four cruises on the river.  This summer, the number jumped to 10 with passenger capacity close to 100 percent.  And next summer, Scenic will have 12 sailings from May through October; 60 percent of the cabins already are sold.

The growth in the Volga’s popularity is easily visible.  There were as many as nine cruise ships at one time in some ports along the route.  Indeed, to return to the Scenic Tsar after a day of sightseeing we often had to cross through the lobbies of several other ships that were triple- and quadruple-parked by the pier.

Diana Lapshina, our Russian-born cruise director who has worked for Scenic since it first started sailing the Volga in 2012, says travelers aren’t deterred by negative media coverage of Russia.

“You go, you see, you taste, you experience, and only then you can tell whether the mass media was right or wrong,” she says.  “You have to see it yourself.”

River cruising makes a lot of sense in Russia, where English is not widely spoken and getting around by bus or train can be challenging.  Moscow’s hotels are some of the priciest in the world.

Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square on a rainy afternoon

The trip started with three days in the Russian capital, Europe’s most populous city with 18 million residents in its metropolitan area.  Traffic is a mess as Moscow’s infrastructure is undergoing extensive construction in preparation for next summer’s FIFA World Cup soccer finals.

We visited the Kremlin and walked past the office of President Vladimir Putin, then dodged the rain in nearby Red Square with its iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral.  We saw the internationally renowned Russian circus, attended a show featuring 50 dazzlingly costumed folk dancers and toured the State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world.

I especially enjoyed the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, where the Russians trumpet their many accomplishments during the space race with America, including putting the first man into orbit in 1961.

After touring the museum, we were given a private audience with Alexsandr Leveykin, a former Soviet cosmonaut who spent six months on the Mir space station in the 1980s.  I asked what his reaction was in 1969 (he was 18 at the time) when he heard the news that U.S. astronauts had landed on the moon.

Peterhof Palace

The upper gardens of Peterhof Palace near St. Petersburg

“I did not have any disappointment and was very happy people made it to the moon,” he said through an interpreter, adding that America’s achievement received little coverage in the Soviet media.  “With no competition, there is no progress.”

After leaving Moscow, we stopped at several villages along the Volga and its tributaries, where we experienced a more tranquil side of Russian life.  In Uglich, a town of about 35,000 people believed to be more than 1,000 years old, we attended a mesmerizing concert at an Orthodox church in which a small choir was accompanied by Russian balalaikas (see video shot by the author: Uglich church concert).

Onboard the Scenic Tsar, we took Russian language classes, learned how to paint matryoshka (nesting) dolls, attended lectures on Russian history and sampled vodka and caviar.  As much as I tried, I just couldn’t develop a taste for borscht, a bright red beet soup that’s a Russian staple.

The cruise ended with three days in St. Petersburg (called Leningrad during Soviet times), considered Russia’s cultural capital.  A popular stop on Baltic Sea cruises, St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.

Lake Ladoga

Sunset over Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake

We also visited two of the most magnificent palaces outside of Versailles — Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Russian tsars.  Scenic also treated us to a private ballet performance at a downtown theater, complete with a champagne and caviar reception.

All told, we sailed about 1,100 miles between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Along the way, we visited four UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed the largest lake in Europe — Lake Ladoga — and did our best to more fully understand a country that continues to be a source of angst and fear for many Americans.

“This is a trip about learning, not sunbathing,” cruise director Lapshina says.  “Here, you have to see something and contemplate it.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

The Romantic Rhine

By | Cruising, France, Germany, Netherlands | No Comments

40-mile Rhine gorge highlight of rainy river cruise on Scenic Opal

The Arizona Republic — July 17, 2016

MIDDLE RHINE VALLEY, Germany – Even under perpetually gloomy skies and unseasonably steady rain that caused flooding and disrupted the itineraries of numerous river cruises, it’s still easy to see why Germany’s longest river is widely known as the “romantic Rhine.”

Koblenz castle

A rainbow arches over the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress following heavy rains in Koblenz, Germany

The most idyllic portion of the Rhine is a 40-mile stretch in western Germany flowing north from Rüdesheim to Koblenz.  Called the Rhine Gorge, the region is liberally punctuated with remote chapels, terraced vineyards, about 60 villages nestled beneath jagged peaks, and a medieval castle at virtually every bend of the river.

The Middle Rhine has been romanticized over the centuries by numerous poets, painters and composers.  Noting that the gorge “graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape,” UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

In short, the gorge is a storybook blend of nature and manmade wonders.

The four-hour passage through the gorge was the highlight of a week-long Rhine River cruise in June on the Australian-owned Scenic Opal, a 169-passenger luxury “Space Ship” that was launched in 2015.  It is one of 15 ships in the Scenic fleet, 13 of which are sailing on European rivers this summer.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle appears to be drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land obscured by high waters

The cruise was supposed to have started in Basel, Switzerland, and then head north on the Rhine through France and Germany before ending in the Netherlands, where the river empties into the North Sea.  But heavy rains spanning several weeks in the region led to high waters and made southern portions of the Rhine unnavigable for larger vessels like the Opal.

Numerous boats that ventured too far south were stranded — stuck up the river without a proverbial paddle.  Fortunately, our captain made a strategic decision three days before the cruise started to park the Opal farther north in Mannheim, Germany, where we were bused after arriving by air in Zurich, Switzerland.  So instead of visiting our first two ports by boat, we were taken there by bus.

It made for a chaotic and exhausting first couple of days of the trip but we were able to see all of the ports on our itinerary, including the city of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of northeastern France on the French side of the Rhine.  Strasbourg’s medieval city center, featuring an ensemble of historic houses, museums and churches, is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Strasbourg France

The medieval city center in Strasbourg, France, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We also spent a day exploring the university city of Heidelberg, Germany, which was largely spared from bombing during World War II and thus retains its baroque charm.

By the third day, we were back on schedule and set sail from Rüdesheim through the Rhine gorge.  It didn’t take long to see the impact of the heavy rains and flooding.

The famous 14th century Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, built on a small island near the town of Kaub, appeared to be aimlessly drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land totally obscured by the high waters.  The Rhine has long been a vital transport hub in Europe and the castle used to function as a toll booth for ships.

We later passed the stunning Marksburg Castle, built in 1117 to protect the town of Braubach.  Marksburg is the only castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed, having survived the Middle Ages, the rule of Napoleon and two world wars.

Koblenz flooding

A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle River in Koblenz was several feet under water

Our trip through the gorge ended in the city of Koblenz, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.  Finally, the sun peeked out for a few minutes and we were rewarded with a resplendent rainbow arching over the impressive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, built high on a mountain in the early 1800s and now connected to the city by a cable car over the Rhine.

The following day we took a walking tour of Koblenz and once again witnessed the flooding that has caused so much havoc in the region this season.  A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle was several feet under water.

“We have never had so much rain as this year,” said Homeira, our Koblenz guide, describing an unusual weather pattern that has impacted much of Europe this spring, even leading to a several-day closure in June of the Louvre in Paris after the River Seine reached its highest level in more than 30 years.

Kölsch beer

Kölsch beer in a Cologne pub

While the rain was an annoyance, the surprisingly cool temperatures – highs most days were in the 60s – were perfect for sightseeing.

In addition to the sightseeing tours, Scenic did a good job of immersing the 153 passengers onboard – about two-thirds of whom were Americans and Canadians — in German culture.  There were German language lessons, a performance by a local brass band featuring a long alpenhorn that looked straight out of a Ricola commercial (see video: German brass band), and a lecture about German beer.

We learned about kölsch, a light, all-barley ale brewed only in Cologne, our last German stop on the itinerary and the largest city on the Rhine, with a population of more than 1 million.

Kölsch, produced by more than a dozen breweries in the Cologne area, is typically served in small distinctive glasses called stange.  They are designed as such so that the beer can be consumed before it goes flat.

Scenic Opal

The Scenic Opal docked on the Rhine River in Rüdesheim, Germany

Kölsch is the Lay‘s potato chip of Rhineland beer.  As we noticed during a visit to a Cologne pub, it’s rare to see a German drink just one.

Our cruise concluded with a full day in Amsterdam, where we ventured into the countryside to see the lovely Dutch villages of Volendam and Edam and tour a cheese factory.  The following morning, we were bused to the airport during yet another downpour.  By then, we had grown used to it.

Despite the inclement weather throughout the week, the historic – and romantic — Rhine River gorge had single-handedly made the trip unforgettable.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited here in the late 1820s and wrote: “Beneath me flows the Rhine, and, like the stream of time, it flows amid the ruins of the past.”

Nearly 200 years later, what Longfellow admired is now even more historic and every bit as magnificent.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Undiscovered Treasure

By | Cruising, Myanmar | No Comments

Cruising an ideal way to visit this emerging democracy

The Arizona Republic — May 22, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar – Democracy is slowly coming to this little-known country in Southeast Asia of more than 50 million people, and with it, so are the tourists.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda

Isolated from the rest of the world for a half-century under a repressive military junta, Myanmar is now letting visitors explore its wondrous Buddhist pagodas, ancient archaeological sites and stately British colonial architecture.

I recently spent three days in Yangon, the largest city in this country formerly known as Burma.  The visit to Myanmar was the highlight of an 18-day cruise called “Imperial Treasures” on the Oceania Nautica that started in Hong Kong and ended in Mumbai, with other stops in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Cochin, India.  All told, we sailed more than 5,000 miles.

For me, the most coveted treasure on this exotic itinerary was the port call in Yangon.  Within five minutes of boarding a tour bus taking the ship’s passengers on a one-hour drive from the pier to downtown Yangon, the sense of excitement among the locals was palpable.

“The whole country is very happy,” our guide Khin said when discussing the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which assumed power in February.  The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory and now controls the parliament.  However, the military hasn’t completely relinquished its grip on power and Myanmar still faces a long road to full democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi portrait

A street portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in downtown Yangon

The new political era has led to a dramatic jump in tourism.  According to government statistics, the number of international visitors has nearly quadrupled in the last five years to more than 3 million travelers in 2014.  Projections are that foreign arrivals will reach 7.5 million by 2020.

In that sense, Myanmar evokes comparisons to Cuba.  If you want to visit before the country becomes overrun with tourists and loses some of its character, now is the time to go.

Yangon, called Rangoon under British rule, is a congested city of more than 5 million people who seem welcoming to the relatively new influx of visitors – and the foreign currency they are bringing to this impoverished nation.

The city’s must-see attraction is the spectacular 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, a monument to Buddhism that was built on a hilltop in the center of Yangon.  Its glorious stupas, shrines and sculptures sprawl over 12 acres.  The pagoda’s glistening center dome is covered with thousands of priceless gold plates and other precious gems.

According to Buddhist tradition, visitors are asked to remove their shoes and socks before entering the Shwedagon complex.  In the mid-afternoon, when temperatures soar past 100, strolling barefoot on the hot pavement makes exploring uncomfortable, so it’s best to go early or late in the day.

Karaweik Royal Barge

The Karaweik Royal Barge on a Yangon lake

From Shwedagon, it’s a 15-minute walk to the surrealistic Karaweik Royal Barge, a floating palace on the eastern edge of Royal Kandawgyi Lake.  Built in the shape of the mythical karaweik bird, the barge is a stunning example of traditional Myanmar architecture.  It is used as a restaurant and also hosts cultural performances.

The Nautica’s passengers were treated to a performance of one of Myanmar’s most famous folklore groups, when the Ta Khaing Lone Shwe Dance Troupe was brought onboard for an evening show in the ship’s theater.  The performers wowed us with their grace, beautiful costumes, unusual musical instruments and intricate dance moves (to see a video clip I shot onboard the Nautica, click on this link: Myanmar folklore show.)

Interested in the country’s political landscape, I visited the home of the 70-year-old Suu Kyi, where she still lives and once spent 15 years under house arrest for her opposition to the government.  Even though the inside of the home is closed to visitors, it is viewed by many Myanmar people as a shrine.  A large portrait outside the complex honors Suu Kyi’s father, who was the driving force behind the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.

Novice Buddhist monk

A novice Buddhist monk at a Yangon monastery

Nearby, I also visited the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, which sells Aung San Suu Kyi merchandise such as posters, calendars and books to raise money for the pro-democracy movement. For $2 (U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Yangon), I bought an NLD hat.

About 90 percent of the country’s population practice Buddhism. Oceania arranged to take us to an authentic “noviciation” ceremony, in which three six-year-old boys were inducted as novice Buddhist monks at a Yangon monastery.  After having their heads shaved, the boys donned their purple robes for the first time.  Most males in Myanmar serve as monks for at least part of their lives.

Oceania, an upscale Florida-based cruise line with a fleet of six midsize ships known for high-end cuisine and off-the-beaten-path destinations, has been calling on Myanmar since 2011.  Two Oceania ships – the 684-passenger Nautica and her sister ship, the Insignia, make two-or-three day stops in Yangon several times a year.  The Yangon River is only navigable by midsize and smaller vessels, which precludes the mega-ships from reaching the city.

Oceania Nautica

The Oceania Nautica docked in Phuket, Thailand

Our sailing was nearly full with 652 passengers, about 80 percent of whom were Americans and Canadians.

Having been closed off from the rest of the world for so long, the tourism infrastructure in Myanmar is still lacking.  English isn’t widely spoken, roads are in poor condition and sanitary conditions are sometimes less than ideal.

All this makes cruising an ideal way to explore Yangon, particularly for less-experienced travelers.

At the end of a full day of experiencing Yangon’s hectic pace, backwater charm, emerging democracy and relatively uncrowded sites, nothing beats returning to an air-conditioned ship, a delightful meal with a glass of good wine and a clean bathroom.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

spitsbergen polar bear

Spitsbergen: Alluring adventure near the North Pole

By | Cruising, Norway, Spitsbergen | No Comments

Arctic cruise offers pristine scenery, glimpses of glaciers and polar bears

The Arizona Republic — August 23, 2015

LONGYEARBYEN, Spitsbergen – If you come to this remote Arctic outpost, where there are more polar bears (3,000) than people (2,500) and where the sun doesn’t set from mid-April to late August, get used to hearing the adjective “northernmost.”


    Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen; the world’s northernmost city

Spitsbergen — an island under Norway’s jurisdiction — is home to the world’s northernmost city, church, hotel, newspaper, museum, blues festival, car dealership, Oktoberfest and marathon, just to name a few of the many geographic distinctions it proudly trumpets.

And if you’re short on Norwegian kroners, insert your debit card into the island’s one and only cash machine.  Yes, the SpareBank will welcome you to the “world’s northernmost ATM.”

At 15,251 square miles, about the same size as Ireland, Spitsbergen is the largest island in the ruggedly beautiful and unspoiled archipelago of Svalbard, 500 miles east of northern Greenland in the Arctic Sea.  Svalbard’s northern tip, at a latitude that reaches beyond the 80th parallel, is only about 600 miles from the North Pole.  That’s roughly the same distance between Phoenix and Denver.

In other words, if you want to venture north for the summer, this is about as far north as you can go.

Hurtigruten Nordstjernen

    The Hurtigruten-chartered MS Nordstjernen anchored in a Spitsbergen fjord

I recently spent a week in Spitsbergen as part of a land-sea expedition booked through Hurtigruten, a Norwegian-based cruise line that specializes in expeditions to Norway, the Arctic and Antarctica.

My trip began with three days in Longyearbyen, the administrative capital of Svalbard, which is loosely governed by Norway.  The city was founded by American entrepreneur John Munro Longyear, who established a coal-mining operation here in 1906.  Its economy still is fueled by coal mining and boosted by a budding tourism industry.

About 2,000 people live in Longyearbyen in bright, pastel-colored homes overlooking a fjord, giving it the distinction of being the world’s northernmost city (with “city” being defined by having a year-round population of at least 1,000).

Leave the city limits and a sign warns visitors of the perils of polar bears.  Even though polar bear attacks on Spitsbergen are extremely rare, visitors who venture out of Longyearbyen are required by law to either carry a firearm or be with someone who is.

Spitsbergen polar bear

      A polar bear looking for food on a small island in a fjord

So if you’re a tour guide on Spitsbergen, in addition to carrying maps, water and a cellphone, you better be packing heat.  Even the driver of a large bus I boarded for a two-hour city tour of Longyearbyen — a white-bearded Norwegian named Wiggo — was toting a high-powered rifle.

“It’s just insurance,” he told me.  “Better safe than sorry.”

After three days of sightseeing in Longyearbyen, including a popular “dogsled on wheels” trip along the city’s harbor and a boat trip to an abandoned Russian mining town called Pyramiden, I boarded the M.S. Nordstjernen (“North Star” in Norwegian) for a four-day cruise around the archipelago.

The Nordstjernen, chartered by Hurtigruten for summer excursions in the Arctic, the Nordstjernen has been sailing since 1956.  Its cabins are small and it lacks many of the amenities found on newer and larger cruise ships – no TV, Internet access or nightly entertainment – but the classic old-school steamer is perfectly suited for Spitsbergen’s icy waters and rugged landscape.

Indeed, a huge luxury liner would seem as out of place in Spitsbergen as a saguaro cactus.

Spitsbergen guide

Guides in Spitsbergen are required to be armed due to the threat of polar bears

The Nordstjernen can accommodate 108 passengers – excluding the crew — and was 80 percent full on my sailing.  About half of the passengers were Norwegians; there also was a large contingent of Germans.  I was one of only four Americans aboard.

After leaving Longyearbyen, we arrived two hours later in the unusual town of Barentsburg, Spitsbergen’s second-largest community.  Barentsburg is owned by a Russian coal-mining company, and most of its 400 residents are Russians and Ukranians.  As a reminder of its Soviet past and as a novelty for tourists, the town still displays a statue of Lenin on its main square in front of a large banner that says in Russian: “Communism is our goal.”

We were aboard the Nordstjernen less than 24 hours when we spotted our first polar bear of the trip, a male scavenging for food on top a small island about 100 yards from the ship.  We had another good look at a bear swimming in a fjord the next day.  When a bear was seen, an announcement would be made over the ship’s public-address system and the Nordstjernen would stop so everyone could come out on deck – binoculars and cameras in hand — for a look at the so-called “King of the Arctic.”

During the trip, we also observed beluga whales, Arctic foxes, reindeer, walruses, a wide variety of birdlife and some surprisingly diverse and colorful Arctic flowers.

Spitsbergen's Kronebreen Glacier

 Spitsbergen’s massive Kronebreen Glacier

Despite its northerly location, Svalbard has a relatively mild climate.  Thanks to the northern branch of the warm Gulf Stream, the island’s western coast, where we sailed, is the world’s most northerly ice-free area.  Temperatures were in the 40s; one day was so mild that about a dozen of the Nordstjernen’s hardiest passengers went swimming in 40-degree water in a bay following a nature hike.

About 60 percent of Spitsbergen is covered by glaciers.  We got a breathtaking look at the Kronebreen Glacier, when the ship’s tenders took us within about 300 yards of the massive blue and white-colored ice (to see a video clip of the glacier, click on this link: Kronebreen Glacier.)  We were not allowed to sail closer due to the constant threat of summertime calving.

One of the Nordstjernen’s guides just completed her master’s degree in glaciology at a university in Longyearbyen.  Her thesis about how much the Kronebreen has receded in recent years was the topic of one of several fascinating lectures presented during the cruise.

On a foggy Sunday night, we passed the 80th parallel, one of the few places on Earth where you can sail in open water at that latitude.  The captain commemorated the occasion by honking the ship’s horn and the passengers celebrated with a champagne toast.  Through the fog, we got a brief glimpse of a small island of Moffen, populated by a colony of walruses.

Spitsbergen guide

Nordstjernen passengers celebrate crossing the 80th parallel with a champagne toast

Our final stop was in Ny-Alesund, an Arctic research base on Spitsbergen that hosts scientists from 10 countries.  It is the northernmost non-military settlement in the world.

Ny-Alesund also features the world’s most northerly hotel – the Nordpol Hotellet (North Pole Hotel).  But you won’t find it on  The hotel is reserved for friends and family of the town’s residents.  Only 35 people live in this settlement year-round, although that number can swell to more than 100 during the summer.

Tourism in Spitsbergen is growing but remains relatively low due to its remote Arctic location and high prices for hotels, restaurants and tours.  About 50,000 tourists visit each year, half of whom arrive on cruise ships.  Other than cruising, the only way to reach the island is via flights from the Norwegian mainland.

But once you get there, you’ll experience a unique summertime escape from the Arizona heat.  You’ll enjoy spotting and photographing wildlife – including a rare chance to see polar bears in their natural habitat — and gazing at pristine scenery in a place where you won’t have to rub elbows with a lot of fellow tourists.

And you’ll do it all near the top of the world.

© 2015 Dan Fellner

View of Budapest

Winter on the Danube River

By | Austria, Cruising, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia | 2 Comments

Off-season cruise offers few crowds, lower fares and festive Christmas markets

The Arizona Republic — January 18, 2015

WACHAU VALLEY, Austria – With instructions as simple as those uttered by the mayor of Munchkin City, an assistant at the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, told me how to bike to Durnstein, 20 miles down the Danube River.

“Follow the green signs with the number 6,” Franz said.  “You won’t get lost.”

Emerald Sky

   The Emerald Sky cruises through the scenic Wachau Valley

I was three days into a weeklong Danube River cruise in December on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Sky that sailed about 400 miles from Nuremberg, Germany, southeast to Budapest, Hungary.

After spending the morning exploring Melk’s abbey, I decided to take one of the Sky’s bikes and catch up to the boat later in the afternoon in Durnstein, a town best known for a 12th century castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned after returning from the Crusades.

I would be biking in Austria’s famed Wachau Valley, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its architectural and agricultural history.  The area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.

Within a half-mile of leaving the ship, there was a fork in the path and no green sign – or scarecrow — to point me in the right direction.  I took a path toward the river.  It was the wrong choice and I wound up at a dead end.  After a half-hour to get back to the path, my traveling partner had to turn back to the ship because of a broken bicycle seat.  I was on my own and the proverbial Oz was starting to seem unreachable.

Danube bike path

 The bike path from Melk to Durnstein, Austria

Soon, I was at a bridge crossing the Danube that was so steep, I could barely walk the bike across.  My knee started aching.  The temperature was in the upper 30s and despite five layers of clothing, I was shivering.  My nose started running.  The path was hillier than I imagined and I worried that I wouldn’t make it to the ship before dark.

I’m not an avid cyclist.  Had I bitten off more schnitzel than I could chew?

But once I crossed the bridge to the north side of the river, I realized the journey was well worth some minor discomfort.  The terrain was mostly downhill and I pedaled my way through idyllic towns called Wosendorf, Spitz and Willendorf.  I glided past rolling hills dotted with steep vineyards dormant for the winter, and ancient castles and monasteries.  Under the afternoon sunshine, I saw why the Austrian composer Johann Strauss dubbed the river the “Blue Danube.”

Franz was right.  As long as I stayed on the path with the green sign showing the number 6, I was fine.  I made it to Durnstein just a few minutes after the ship docked, in time to remove my helmet and join my fellow passengers on a guided walking tour of the town before dark.  It had been the most scenic and invigorating bike trip I could have imagined.

Cesky Krumlov

The medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic

The bike trip through the Wachau Valley is the type of experience that makes European river trips one of the fastest-growing segments of the cruise industry.  Seasoned cruisers are looking for more authentic and immersive experiences than they can find on huge oceanliners.  A river cruise carries far fewer passengers and can dock in small towns, often within walking distance of the main sites.

“On the big ships, you can sail for a week and just see water,” said Daniela Mocanu, the Emerald Sky’s Romanian-born cruise director.  “Here, you really get to see the towns along the river.  That’s what our passengers love.”

And there’s plenty of elbow room to explore, particularly if you go during the off-season.  The 182-passenger Emerald Sky was just over half-full during our December sailing.  Eighty percent of the passengers were British; there were only about 10 Americans onboard.

Vienna Christmas market

     There are about a dozen Christmas markets in Vienna

During the busy summer season, the Danube can become clogged with up to 270 cruise ships on the water at the same time.  At times, it gets so crowded in popular ports that ships have to triple park, forcing passengers to walk across two other ships just to get ashore.  During our week on the river, Mocanu said, there were only about 30 other cruise ships on our route.  Finding a parking place was never an issue.

Yes, the weather was chilly; highs most days were in the 30s and 40s.  But it never snowed or rained, and after a couple of gray days in Germany, we had sunshine for most of the week.  Bundled up in layers, hats, gloves and scarves, it was not uncomfortable exploring the ports on walking tours.

An added bonus of going in December is getting to see the numerous Christmas markets in central Europe.  These markets feature festively decorated stalls selling everything from local handicrafts to roasted chestnuts, schnitzel, pastries and hot wine, known as glühwein.  There are 12 Christmas markets in Vienna alone.

Budapest Hungary

     The Danube River cuts through the heart of Budapest

We visited Christmas markets in every country along the route – Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.  And 10 of us took an optional day trip via bus from Passau, Germany, to the stunningly beautiful medieval town of Cesky Krumlov – another UNESCO World Heritage Site — in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic.

In Slovakia, we were bussed to a town 45 minutes outside the capital city of Bratislava to visit the homes of villagers, who prepared homemade wine and sweets for us.  It was fascinating to hear the locals recount how their lives have changed since the fall of communism a quarter-century ago.

Prices for river cruises in the offseason are up to 50 percent less than the summer high season.  Cabins on our one-week sailing could be had for about $2,100 per person.  River cruises tend to be more inclusive than ocean cruises.  Our fare included daily sightseeing tours, airport transfers, local beers and wine with lunch and dinner, and all gratuities.  Service by the ship’s mostly eastern-European staff was outstanding.

Hungarian Parliament

View of the Hungarian Parliament from the Emerald Sky docked across the Danube River

Headquartered in Australia, Emerald Waterways is a newcomer to the European river cruise market.  The Sky, which made its inaugural voyage in April, was one of just two ships sailing in 2014 under the Emerald brand; two more Emerald ships will debut this spring.  Mocanu said most of the company’s 2015 summer sailings already are sold out.

Although nightly entertainment on river cruises lacks the glitz and variety offered on ocean liners, the Sky’s proximity to towns enabled it to bring onboard acts showcasing local culture.  A German oompah band performed and there was a Hungarian folklore show on our final night.  The Sky’s passengers were dazzled by acrobatic dancers backed by a musical quintet while we were docked across the Danube from a beautifully illuminated Hungarian Parliament building. (To see a video clip shot by the author of the Hungarian dancing, click on this link: Hungarian folk dancing on the Emerald Sky.)

The next morning we were driven to the Budapest airport for the trip home.  My knee was still sore from the bike ride.  My mood ached as well, as I realized the week had passed way too quickly.

© 2015 Dan Fellner

Denali whitewater rafting

Alaska-Yukon Adventure

By | Alaska, Cruising, Yukon Territory | 2 Comments

Pre and post-cruise land tours deliver breathtaking sights and fun

The Arizona Republic — August 24, 2014

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska – The Nenana River was in a nasty mood at 8 a.m. on a cold and rainy July morning and it looked like it was about to get even more ornery up ahead.

Our group of six was on a 12-mile whitewater rafting trip on this glacier-fed river that runs through Denali National Park less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  The water temperature was just 35 degrees; the air temperature wasn’t much warmer.

Nenana Rafting

 Whitewater rafting on the frigid Nenana River

As we approached an ominous-sounding section of the river called Ice Worm Rapids, our oarsman, a bearded young man named Wayne, warned us to hold on tight.

The raft plunged several feet.  No one fell off, but the only part of my body not covered by several layers of clothing – my face – was drenched by the ice-cold water.

Wayne, who looks like the quintessential Alaskan outdoorsman but actually is from Utah, laughed. “We call that a ‘glacial facial,’” he said.

If I wasn’t already awake from my morning coffee, the Nenana had certainly finished the job. I had wanted a true Alaskan adventure.  And while it was nerve-racking, uncomfortable and downright frigid at the time, I had found it.

This was my third visit to Alaska.  The first two trips had been relatively sedate cruises through the Inside Passage.  Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway are charming – albeit a bit touristy – ports of call.  This time, though, I wanted to see the Alaskan wilderness.

Holland America Volendam in Alaska

     The cruise portion of the trip began on the Holland America Volendam, here docked in Juneau, Alaska

So I did what an increasing number of Alaskan cruisers are doing every year. I booked a seven-day post-cruise land tour.  In addition to exploring the interior of Alaska, the journey also took me off the beaten path into Canada’s ruggedly scenic Yukon Territory.

My journey began in Vancouver, B.C., on the Holland America Volendam.  About one-third of the ship’s 1,450 passengers were thinking like me and combined the cruise with a land tour taken either before or after the sailing.

More than 200 passengers and I disembarked in Skagway, three days after we left Vancouver, while the same number of passengers did their land tours first, then joined the ship for the remaining four days of cruising back to Vancouver.

I spent the next week traversing the Yukon and Alaska on trains, buses and an airplane with 42 other adventure-seekers.  We were shepherded every step of the way by Patrick Sanady, our Holland America “journey host.”

Indeed, the land tour seemed like a seamless extension of the cruise.  Each hotel we stayed in was owned by Holland America; even the ubiquitous Purell dispensers so often seen on cruise ships were in every hotel lobby and restaurant.  And though there were no midnight buffets or ice sculptures, the food was more than passable.

Holland America says more than half of its Alaskan cruise passengers add a land tour, a number that’s grown dramatically in recent years.  On some itineraries, the number of people buying the “land + sea journey” has been as high as 70 percent.

White Pass Yukon Railroad

The historical White Pass and Yukon Railroad

The first leg of the land tour was the most spectacular.  Our group took the historical White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from Skagway to Fraser, B.C.  The railroad was built in 1898 to transport prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush.  Today, it takes mostly tourists through narrow mountain passes, past cascading waterfalls and across glacial terrain.  Billed as the “scenic railway of the world,” the three-hour, 28-mile trip did not disappoint.

A bus was waiting for us in Fraser, and then it was off to Whitehorse, capital of the sparsely populated Yukon Territory.  Larger than the state of California, the Yukon has a population of about 35,000.  As our driver Jess joked, the Yukon has the distinction of being the first Canadian region to be named after an American SUV.

Our three days spent in the Yukon were focused on learning about the colorful history of the gold rush, which brought more than 100,000 “stampeders” to the region after gold was found on a small tributary of the Yukon River near Dawson City in 1896.  Few of the prospectors struck it rich.  Only about 30,000 completed the arduous 449-mile, six-month journey from Skagway to Dawson City; the rest perished or gave up along the way.

Yukon gold panning

 Panning for gold at a working mine in the Yukon

It took our group just three days to make the trip.  In Dawson City, I especially enjoyed a sightseeing tour to a working gold mine.  James, our guide who lives and works at the mine, demonstrated how modern technology involving heavy equipment has made obsolete the gold-panning techniques used by the prospectors more than 100 years ago.

Nevertheless, James fitted us with boots and took us into the shallow waters of Gold Bottom Creek to try our luck at panning.  We were promised that we could keep whatever we found.  Two summers ago, a tourist pulled a 2-ounce gold nugget, worth an estimated $2,500, out of the river.  My luck wasn’t nearly so good.  After 15 minutes of shaking, dipping, bending and praying, the only material remaining at the bottom of my pan was worthless dirt. “It’s a bust,” James said after examining the results of my work.

However, not all of us went home empty-handed.  The tourist panning next to me – a man from Spain – had discovered a gold flake.  I vicariously celebrated his newfound riches until James burst my bubble once again.  “About a half-penny,” he said, when I asked him to estimate the value of the Spaniard’s discovery.

Alaskan Husky puppies

Alaskan Husky puppies at the kennel of Iditarod champion Jeff King

From Dawson City, Holland America put us on a one-hour charter flight to Fairbanks, gateway to Denali National Park.  Our first evening in Denali, I booked an excursion called the “Husky Homestead Tour,” which took us to the home and kennel of Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod sled-dog race champion.

We got to see about 50 Alaskan Huskies living on the property and were even allowed to pose for pictures with some adorable 6-week-old puppies.  Some of the older dogs put on a racing demonstration.  But because there was no snow on the ground, instead of tugging a sled, they pulled an ATV.

Afterward, King – who, if he wasn’t one of the best mushers in the world, could easily make a living as a stand-up comedian — regaled our group with stories of his 24 races in the Iditarod, a grueling 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome held each March.

The next morning I was up early for my whitewater-rafting trip on the Nenana River.  In the afternoon, our group took a 126-mile bus tour through the heart of Denali, which at 6 million acres is about the same size as the state of Vermont.

Alaskan scenery

  Alaskan scenery visible from the McKinley Explorer train

We saw caribou, moose and red foxes.  Unfortunately, clouds and rain rolled in and we didn’t get to see Denali’s most famous site – the notoriously camera-shy Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak.  Sanady, our guide, told us that only about 10 percent of visitors to Denali are lucky enough to see an unobscured view of the 20,320-foot mountain.

On our final day, we took an eight-hour train trip from Denali to Anchorage on the luxurious McKinley Explorer.  The weather hadn’t cleared up, but we still enjoyed some stunning views of the Alaska Mountain Range and deep river gorges.

Other than the temporary discomfort of a few mosquito bites and one sobering glacial facial, I had survived my true Alaskan adventure.

© 2014 Dan Fellner

Akureyri, Iceland

Cruising Iceland’s Scenic Tongue-Twisting Ports

By | Cruising, Iceland | No Comments

North Atlantic country highlight of Holland America’s “Voyage of the Vikings”

The Arizona Republic — August 25, 2013

AKUREYRI, Iceland – “If you don’t learn the correct pronunciations for each port, we’re not going to let you go ashore.”

I was in deep trouble.  About 1,250 passengers and I were sailing in the north Atlantic on a 17-day “Voyage of the Vikings” cruise on the Holland America Veendam.  Joseph L’Episcopo, one of the ship’s lecturers, was briefing us about the three tongue-twisting ports we would be visiting the following week in Iceland – Isafjordur, Akureyri and Seydisfjordur.

Akureyri Iceland

The city of Akureyri, known as the “Capital of North Iceland”

Of course, we knew that L’Episcopo was kidding. But had that edict been strictly enforced, I surely would have missed seeing one of the most stunningly scenic countries on Earth.

For Iceland offers a seemingly never-ending array of narrow fjords bordered by steep snow-capped mountains, tiny fishing villages, wildlife, glaciers, waterfalls, and enough volcanoes and geothermal activity to make it a geologist’s paradise.

It also has some of the most difficult-to-pronounce locations anywhere, none more notorious than the volcano Eyjafjallajökull.  Its 2010 eruption brought air traffic in northern Europe to a virtual standstill for several days, giving elocution-challenged newscasters fits in the process.

The Veendam had set sail across the Atlantic from Boston to Amsterdam, with stops in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Norway.  We also had been scheduled to stop in Qaqortoq, a port in southern Greenland, but heavy ice flows and fog forced our Dutch captain, Pieter Bos, to alter course.

Holland America Veendam in Iceland

 The Holland America Veendam docked in Akureyri

“Just like the Vikings more than 1,000 years ago, this trip is truly an adventure,” he announced over the ship’s public-address system, when we learned we wouldn’t make it to Greenland.  Like Erik the Red and Leif Ericson centuries before us, we had witnessed firsthand the unpredictability of navigating these icy waters.

About 75 percent of the ship’s passengers remained on the ship for the entire 35-day round-trip cruise that crisscrossed the Atlantic, starting and ending in Boston, so they were able to visit Greenland on the way back to North America.  The remaining 300 passengers and I were booked for the first half of the journey and left the ship in Amsterdam for a return flight home.

I was most looking forward to visiting the three ports in Iceland, and they more than made up for the disappointment of not reaching Greenland.

Isafjordur Iceland

The scenic harbor of Isafjordur, Iceland

The small island — about the same size as Kentucky – lies between Greenland and Scandinavia.  It became independent from Denmark in 1944 and has a population of about 320,000. Icelandic is the main language, although English is widely spoken.

Despite the country’s frigid name and northerly latitude, warming ocean currents keep the climate relatively moderate.  Our three days in port were gloriously sunny, with highs in the upper 50s.

Our first stop was Isafjordur, a fishing town of about 2,600 people with the largest harbor in the northwestern part of Iceland known as the Westfjords.  As we sailed into town, I was awestruck by the magnificence of the steep green and brown volcanic mountains – still topped with remnants from the winter snows — that towered over the harbor.

We visited the Osvor Maritime Museum overlooking the sea and learned about the lives of the Icelanders who have fished these waters for centuries.  Old fishing huts topped with grass roofs were on display, and freshly caught salted cod was drying outside on rocks, a technique still used to preserve fish.

Godafoss Iceland

The famous waterfall Godafoss (“Falls of the Gods”)

I most enjoyed the next day’s port stop, Akureyri, known as the “Capital of North Iceland.”  Located at the head of the longest fjord in the country, Akureyri has just 17,000 residents but ranks as Iceland’s fourth-largest city.

Akureyri is a gateway for some of Iceland’s most scenic treasures, including the famous waterfall called Godafoss (“Falls of the Gods”). Like most of the country’s natural wonders, the waterfall is steeped in Icelandic folklore and the locals believe it played an important role in the country’s conversion to Christianity more than 1,000 years ago.

As our tour bus drove farther into the Icelandic countryside, past sheep and pony-sized Icelandic horses grazing in green valleys, I noticed there were virtually no trees.  Indeed, the country is known for its mostly treeless terrain.

“If you get lost in an Iceland forest, all you have to do is stand up,” joked Kristin, our guide.  “The trees here are so short.”

Lake Myvatn Iceland

Lake Myvatn was formed during a massive volcanic eruption

We soon reached Lake Myvatn, which was formed during a volcanic eruption 2,300 years ago and remains geothermically active today.

But observing the lake’s beauty comes with a price.  Myvatn in English translates to “midge,” and as soon as we approached the lake’s dark-blue water, we found ourselves enveloped in a thick cloud of the swarming flies.  Fortunately, these pesky bugs rarely bite.

After lunch of freshly caught salmon at a country hotel, we stopped for a hike at Dimmuborgir, known by the locals as the “dark city” because of its unusually shaped lava formations.  Look closely, they believe, and you can see a mischievous elf or troll lurking about.

The highlight of the day was a visit to a center of geothermal activity called Namafjall, a lunar-like landscape with numerous boiling mud pools and steam-emitting fumaroles.  There was a heavy scent of sulfur in the air.  That minor inconvenience was more than offset by the wondrous views of a place that looked like the set of a science-fiction movie.

Namafjall Iceland

 Namafjall is a center of geothermal activity

After we set sail from Akureyri, the Veendam briefly crossed the Arctic Circle before heading south to our next port.

To commemorate the occasion, the ship organized a “Polar Bear Plunge,” in which dozens of passengers simultaneously jumped into the swimming pool, a tradition designed to appease the Viking gods.  Later, we received certificates signed by the captain signifying that we had crossed the Arctic Circle.

Our third and final stop in Iceland – Seydisfjordur – was smaller than the first two ports but just as picturesque.  The town, surrounded by mountains, has fewer than 700 residents.  It is perhaps best known as having the largest collection of 19th-century wooden buildings in the country, many of which were prefabricated and shipped from Norway.

Because of high import duties and sales taxes, Iceland is one of Europe’s most expensive destinations.  That makes cruising there an excellent way to visit, as travelers are less affected by high hotel and restaurant costs.

Veendam Polar Bear Plunge

Veedam passengers take the “Polar Bear Plunge” to commemorate crossing the Arctic Circle

It was not uncommon to overhear fellow passengers complaining about the sticker shock of souvenirs and other items for sale in Icelandic shops.

On the return trip west from Amsterdam across the Atlantic to Boston, the Veendam stopped at three more Icelandic ports, including its largest city, Reykjavik.  As I took only the first half of the voyage, I regretted not seeing Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign country.

Not to mention the fact that I actually knew how to pronounce it.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

Saint Lucia Pitons

St. Lucia’s twin Pitons are a Caribbean marvel

By | Cruising, St. Lucia | No Comments

Island boasts stunning scenery, “drive-in volcano”

The Arizona Republic — February 5, 2012

SOUFRIERE, St. Lucia — “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the majestic Pitons.”

St Lucia's Pitons

St. Lucia’s twin volcanic cones, Gros Piton and Petit Piton

Our group of 18 applauds as our tour bus stops at a viewing point just outside the fishing port of Soufriere on St. Lucia’s west coast. Anthony, our guide, gives us a few minutes to get out and snap pictures of perhaps the most iconic natural splendor in all the Caribbean.

It is a moment I had eagerly awaited since our cruise ship, the Holland America Maasdam, set sail a week earlier from Fort Lauderdale on an 11-day southern Caribbean cruise.

The view of these stunning twin volcanic cones — Gros Piton and Petit Piton — jutting 2,600 feet straight out of the cobalt-blue Caribbean, doesn’t disappoint.

Our six-hour tour is called the World Heritage Route, so named because the Pitons were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

But before we get to the base of the Pitons and their famous “drive-in volcano,” our drive takes us along a bumpy mountain road with hairpin turns that Anthony refers to as “the local roller-coaster.”

Marigot Bay

James Michener once called Marigot Bay “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean”

We pass orchards of banana, coconut, mango and papaya trees, and incredibly lush rain forests that seem more evocative of an island in the South Pacific. The soil on this volcanic island is so fertile that there are more than 1,400 species of plants.

“If you put your feet into the ground, you also will grow a few inches taller yourself,” jokes Anthony, who in addition to one-liners, serenades us with Bob Marley songs as we head toward the Pitons.

We began the day when the Maasdam docked in Castries, the capital city of this island country located 21 miles from the French island of Martinique in the southeastern Caribbean. It’s a relatively small, mango-shaped island — only 238 square miles — about the same size as Chicago.

St. Lucia (pronounced loo-sha) has a history as bumpy as its roads. Coveting its strategic location and breathtaking beauty, the French and British went to battle 14 times over the island in a period spanning nearly two centuries, before Great Britain finally won the colonial tug-of-war in 1814. St. Lucia declared its independence from the British in 1979.

After a relatively slow start in building its tourism industry compared with other Caribbean islands, the country has emerged in the past 20 years as a popular honeymoon destination and cruise-ship port of call. It’s also carving a niche in the growing field of ecotourism.

While the French have been gone for nearly 200 years, their influence remains strong, most notably in the names of many towns, the cuisine and the French-based Creole dialect spoken by the locals.

St. Lucia drive-in volcano

Sulphur Springs, billed as the “world’s only drive-in volcano”

Just 8 miles south of Castries, we reach our first stop — Marigot Bay. Writer James Michener once described it as “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean.”

With dramatic tree-covered cliffs overlooking high-end resorts, restaurants, deserted white-sand beaches and a harbor full of luxurious yachts, it’s hard to argue with Michener’s assessment. A number of movies have been filmed here, including “Dr. Dolittle” (the original version starring Rex Harrison that was released in 1967, not the 1998 Eddie Murphy remake).

Marigot Bay’s stunning beauty aside, the main reason we came to St. Lucia was to see the Pitons. One hour later, we arrive near the base of the volcanic peaks in Soufriere, the former French capital of St. Lucia and the oldest town on the island, dating to 1746. Soufriere got its name — which means sulfur in French — because of the strong scent of the gas still emitted by the volcano today.

The scent intensifies as we enter Sulphur Springs, billed as the world’s only drive-in volcano. I’m tempted to hold my nose as we drive into the collapsed volcano’s lunarlike landscape, past plumes of heavy smoke and barren hills that have no vegetation because of the heavy concentration of sulfur in the air.

But Anthony tells us not to worry, as the gas carries healing properties. “The sulfur will make you look 10 years younger,” he reassures us.

Petit Piton

St. Lucia’s dramatic Petit Piton overlooks the Caribbean Sea

Our bus stops and we walk to a viewing point overlooking the bubbling tar pits. The volcano hasn’t fully erupted since 1766, so the odds are in our favor that we’ll survive this day, although scientists believe an eruption is likely in about 100 years.

Tourists used to be able to walk up to the tar pits. But that ended in the mid-1990s when a St. Lucian tour guide named Gabriel fell through the crust into one of the pits and suffered serious burns from the 200-degree water. He survived, and today the pool into which he fell bears his name. I walk about 200 yards down a hill and come to a spot where the water is a much milder 115 degrees. For $5, visitors can take a mud bath there.

After leaving the volcano, we stop at a nearby plantation called Morne Coubaril Estate to learn about the local vegetation and see an 18th-century donkey-powered sugar mill.

St. Lucia's Nobel Laureates

Statues in Castries honor the island’s two Nobel laureates

Following lunch of fish cakes and fruit, I take a five-minute walk from the plantation to a viewing point near the base of Petit Piton.

Had I been on St. Lucia for a longer stay, I would have hiked to the summit of Gros Piton, which takes about two hours each way. Hikers are required to hire a local guide to accompany them. It’s also possible to hike to the summit of Petit, although that is a much more difficult climb.

After the tour ended, I took a walk around downtown Castries, where about one-third of the island’s 173,000 residents live. Castries is not the prettiest capital city in the Caribbean; many of its historical buildings were destroyed by fire in 1948.

The heart of the city is Derek Walcott Square, named after a native son who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. Just a few feet from a statue honoring Walcott is a bust of St. Lucia’s other Nobel laureate, Arthur Lewis, who won the award in economics in 1977.

Holland America Maasdam

The Holland America Maasdam anchored in the Caribbean

The two men give St. Lucia the noteworthy distinction of being the sovereign country with the most Nobel laureates per capita in the world.

Back on the Maasdam after a very full day, we sailed north for our final stop, St. Maarten.  After we exited the Castries harbor, I caught one last glimpse of the Pitons.

The peaks were now more than 20 miles away, but still as magnificent and awe-inspiring as when I first laid eyes on them.

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Sisimiut Greenland

Greenland: Full of Stunning Scenery, Surprises

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Hurtigruten Fram explores west coast of world’s largest island

The Arizona Republic — August 14, 2011

UUMMANNAQ, Greenland — At the foot of a stunning heart-shaped mountain in a remote village on the west coast of Greenland, 375 miles north of the Arctic Circle, our small group of visitors from the Hurtigruten Fram cruise ship sits riveted to the words of a local hunter and fisherman.

Uummannaq, Greenland

A Hurtigruten tender shuttles passengers back to the Fram in Uummannaq, Greenland

Speaking in his native Greenlandic language, translated into English with the help of a fellow townsman, 61-year-old Ole Qvist leans on his dogsled and discusses the centuries-old techniques he uses to hunt seals, whales and the numerous types of fish in Uummannaq’s waters.

Suddenly, Qvist’s description of using seal-oil lamps to keep warm during the frigid Arctic nights is interrupted. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a ringing cellphone. While he chats for a couple of minutes, his fellow Greenlander takes out his phone and begins texting. Our group finds the incident hilarious and no one minds the brief high-tech hiatus.

Greenland is full of surprises. Only 56,000 people live on the world’s largest island, more than 80 percent of which is covered by ice, yet there are 55,000 cellphones. There are only about 100 miles of paved roads in the entire country, yet Greenland has one of the highest Internet-penetration rates in the world, even higher than the United States.

When it’s dark 24/7 and bitterly cold for several months of the year, cyberspace is a much easier way to stay connected than a dogsled.

Sisimiut Greenland

    Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest city

For travelers, there are other surprises. I was expecting the jaw-dropping beauty of fjords, icebergs, glaciers and scenic villages with brightly painted houses.

But I didn’t expect such a rich and welcoming culture. For the first time ever on a cruise, I felt as if the locals living in the small ports invaded by the Fram’s 226 mostly European passengers were as genuinely happy to see us as we were to see them.

And perhaps most surprisingly of all, I came home with more of a suntan than when I left. The June Arctic sun was strong, never set, and the gloves, scarf and hat I packed went unused until the final day, when a cold front blew in and dropped temperatures from the 50s to below freezing.

Sisimiut Greenland children

Children in Sisimiut take advantage of the mild summer weather

Greenland brings new meaning to “You can’t get there from here.” Technically, it is part of the North American continent and, at its closest point, is only 12 miles from Canada.

But there are no commercial flights to Greenland from North America. The only way to get there by plane is via Iceland or Denmark  (In 2012 Air Greenland added twice a week service from Nunavut in northern Canada during the summer months). 

To reach the Fram, a polar-expedition ship owned by the Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten, I flew to Copenhagen and caught a charter flight on Air Greenland to Kangerlussuaq, the country’s main international airport that was built by the American military during World War II.

The Fram was waiting for us anchored at the head of Kangerlussuaq Fjord, a 15-minute bus ride from the airport.

Hurtigruten Fram in Greenland

    The Hurtigruten Fram anchored amidst the icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland

Greenland had long been high on my wish list of places to visit, even more so than Antarctica. Both offer spectacular scenery and wildlife, but only Greenland has an indigenous culture, with both Inuit and Scandinavian influences.

I guess I’m more interested in learning about people than penguins.

Various Inuit cultures have lived here on and off for the past 4,000 years, surviving on hunting and fishing. Scandinavians started arriving at the end of the 10th century; Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814 and still belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark, although it now enjoys almost complete autonomy. The currency is Denmark’s krone, and most people are bilingual, speaking both Danish and Greenlandic.

Greenland children

Greenlanders are an interesting blend of Inuit and Danish cultures

Cruising is the most economical and practical way to see Greenland, as there are no roads linking the towns and flights within the country are sporadic and expensive. Hurtigruten is the leading player in the Greenland cruise market, with weeklong itineraries offered in summer that go up and down Disko Bay on the west coast. Some of the bigger cruise lines, including Princess and Holland America, make brief stops in Greenland on transatlantic sailings.

The first stop on the Fram’s itinerary was Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest “city.” Population: 5,200. The hub of the town is a fish-processing plant, Sisimiut’s leading employer. Hurtigruten organized a two-hour “Hike Back in Time,” which took us to ancient Inuit graves and hunting grounds. At the end of the day we were treated to a kayak demonstration in the harbor.

Sisimiut was the only stop on our itinerary that had a pier large enough to handle the Fram. For the rest of our stops, we dropped anchor and the ship’s tender boats — “Polar Cirkels” — shuttled us back and forth to the villages, or “settlements” as they are called here.

Greenland school children

Elementary school students on a nature walk in Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland

In the town of Qeqertarsuaq, on the volcanic Disko Island, we were on a guided hike through a valley watching humpback whales feeding in the harbor when we encountered children from a local elementary school on a field trip. Their teacher, Pilunnguaq Broberg, said nature walks are an essential part of the Greenlandic curriculum because so many of the students will end up making a living from hunting and fishing.

“Nature is very important to the Greenlandic people,” she said. “We get our food from nature.” She said the staples of their diet are fish, seal, whale and reindeer.

Our Hurtigruten expert lecturers repeatedly reminded us that we were on an “expedition,” not a cruise. They also taught us the Greenlandic word for “maybe” — immaqa. That meant nothing is certain in Greenland and that we should expect possible changes in the itinerary due to unpredictable weather and ice conditions.

Ilulissat iceberg

 A large iceberg near Ilulissat, Greenland

Indeed, too many icebergs in the harbor forced us to cancel a stop in Illulissat, home to the most productive glacier in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scientists believe an iceberg that calved from the Illulissat glacier likely sank the Titanic. Although we weren’t able to see the glacier, we spent a marvelous morning viewing the icebergs up close on rides in the Polar Cirkels.

In addition to whales, we saw wild muskox, which look like hairy goats on steroids, and Greenlandic dogs. These are working sled dogs, not pets, that closely resemble huskies. In some of the towns we visited, sled dogs outnumber people.

Greenlandic sled dogs

 Greenlandic sled dogs in Itilleq, Greenland

Polar bears typically aren’t found in this part of Greenland. But as we stopped at an island overlooking the Eqip Sermia glacier, Janus Kleist, a native Greenlander and a member of Hurtigruten’s expedition team, stood guard at the top of a bluff with binoculars and a shotgun, just in case a polar bear emerged from the water.

“Better safe than sorry,” he said.

Our final stop was perhaps my favorite. Itilleq is a town of about 100 people just a few hundred yards north of the Arctic Circle. The villagers welcomed us into their homes for a Greenlandic custom called kaffeemik, a social gathering in which visitors are served coffee and homemade cakes.

Eqip Sermia Glacier

Hurtigruten passengers gaze at the Eqip Sermia glacier

Afterward, a team of the ship’s passengers played soccer against the locals on a grassless field overlooking the harbor. The team from Itilleq prevailed, 6-4. I was the only American on the Fram side and no doubt reinforced the stereotype that soccer isn’t our best sport.

No one on our team seemed to mind losing, though. We had just spent a week cruising around one of the most remote — and ruggedly beautiful — places on Earth.

© 2011 Dan Fellner