The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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Taking orchids to Jan Mayen on the MS Hanseatic


Godafuss Falls in Iceland.

By David Bear

MS HANSEATIC ON THE NORWEGIAN SEA - On our final night at sea we finally saw it. After a week blanketed by cloud, the day ended with clear skies.           

            As we watched the sun's golden orb sink slowly into the vast horizon spreading off the ship's stern, I kept glancing at my watch. At 10 minutes to midnight the final fiery comma melted away, but even then there was no darkness. An hour later, Earth's curve was still clearly defined by the heaven's solar glow. 

            Welcome to the sea of the midnight sun. Adventure is a relative term. While travel adventures may entail risk or danger, at their core they involve actively seeking experiences which are thrilling or remarkable, putting yourself in unfamiliar circumstances to expand your knowledge of the world and ultimately, yourself.

            Ocean cruises conjure different expectations, but for me, a shipboard experience offers a comfortable, convenient chance to grab a sense some of interesting places I might never visit otherwise. 

            In those terms, an ocean cruise can certainly qualify as an adventure. While brief port calls never provide as in-depth an experience of a destination as spending several days there, they provide familiarity impossible to get staying at home. If the itinerary is somewhere exotic, that's even better, adding the opportunity for adventure, albeit personal ones.  

It was the "Summer on the Ice" itinerary that captured my interest when I came across the cruise offered by a German line, Hapag-Lloyd. The 14-night "expeditionary" voyage on the MS Hanseatic sailed from northern Norway to Jan Mayen Island, a volcanic upthrust in the Arctic Ocean at 71 degree north latitude, then south to Iceland and on to Greenland. 

            Carrying just 180 passengers, the Hanseatic may be a small cruise ship, but by expeditionary standards, she's a large and luxurious vessel. Built in 1993 with an ice rating of "A1Super" (the highest given to cruise ships), the ship combines five-star accommodations and amenities with a hull tough enough to maneuver safely through iceberg-strewn seas. Catering primarily to Germans and other Europeans, the line's continental class was built in, rather than added as a design concept, as is often the case on many large cruise ships these days.

            That class also included such formalities as dressing in a jacket and tie for dinner (although more casual attire is suitable throughout the day), and assigned table seatings. That most shipboard communications would be conducted in German, a language with which I have some familiarity, added to the prospect of adventure.
Although circumstances permitted us to only take the first week of the cruise, debarking in Reykjavik, Iceland, it still sounded like a cool way to escape the July heat. My wife Sari was quick to agree.

            At any rate, we eventually found ourselves boarding the Hanseatic in the port of Tromso, Norway, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, an agreeable city of 65,000, once called the Paris of the Arctic and embarkation point for numerous early Polar expeditions. 
The Hanseatic sailing was sold out, but security and embarkation went quickly, and we were in our cabin within 10 minutes of setting foot on the vessel, our luggage arriving shortly afterward.

            Although not huge, our cabin was more than ample and handsomely fitted with lots of mirrors and polished wood, and a wide, rectangular window. Two comfortable beds featured fluffy duvets and high thread count sheets. The sitting area by the window had a settee, chairs, table and desk. A beautiful, full flowering white orchid on the table was the perfect decoration. 
The in-cabin entertainment system included a large flat-screen TV with a selection of channels and movies, as well as free e-mail to the outer world. The neat bathroom had a large, glass front shower faced in rosy marble. 
All in all, a cozy abode for an adventure at sea. 

            After unpacking, we headed out to explore the compact vessel. Three of her six decks are primarily occupied with passenger cabins, with a large lounge and two dining rooms situated in the aft portions. A handsome lounge/library occupies the prime observation point directly above the ship's bridge. On the top deck amidships, a small, saltwater pool, exercise room, sauna and hot tub provide the possibility of physical diversion, while a small auditorium on the lowest deck is the venue for a schedule of lectures by a half dozen naturalists and scientists who were on-board.

            At 7 p.m. we attended the orientation and safety presentation in the Explorer's Lounge, and discovered it was to be a multilingual voyage. Following each explanation in German, the presenter provided an English translation. And then the young female leader of a group of 30 people from the Tokyo area offered her interpretation of what was being said.  It made for lengthy expositions, but somehow we all figured out how to put on our life preservers and where to go to should an emergency arise.    

            And then it was up to the main restaurant, where we met our dinner partners for the voyage, the other native English-speaking passengers on the ship, two brothers from New Zealand, Richard and Colin Adams, and Carol and Brian Scheer, who run a large farm in Australia. While we enjoyed a delicious multi-course meal, the Hanseatic negotiated the widening fjord and out into open ocean, with the steep cliffs of Norway's coastal islands creating a majestic panorama in our wake. 

            By the time dinner was done, it was almost 10 p.m. After a stroll through the quiet lounge, I found my way up to the top deck and the night. Even though a thick layer of clouds obscured the sky in all directions, there was enough light to see the coast miles astern across the choppy seas. Despite the choppy waters and stiff breeze, I was not cold in my sports jacket and stood a while contemplating in the direction of the North Pole, as close as I'd even been to the top of the world.  

            The next day we sailed west under leaden skies, with light squalls, but nothing that made the passage rough. With little to look at outside, we passed the time enjoying the ship's amenities, relaxing in the observation lounge over a backgammon board, attending hour long talks by several naturalists on board, using the exercise machines, sending e-mails home, watching a movie and just napping. 

            The day's highlight was another excellent dinner, this time with Herr Christian Schneider, the ship's hotel manager and a relaxed and personable host. Even now, I fondly remember our warm, wine-fueled conversation, looking at that menu makes my mouth water.

            By about 11 the following morning, we had covered over 300 nautical miles and were approaching Jan Mayen Island. Despite the prevailing cloud cover and warnings that clear views of the 7500 foot high Beerenberg Volcano at the island's northern end could be rare, we were in for a treat.

            As we neared the island, a window opened in the clouds. Backed by blue sky, the enormous, perfect cone loomed large and clear, with huge, shimmering glaciers streaming down its flanks. The world's most northerly above-water volcano, it last erupted in 1985. Even from more than a mile off shore, it was a stupendous sight.

As the ship circled slowly well offshore, James Webster, a volcanologist from the American Museum of Natural History who was along as a lecturer, provided expert commentary. Calling our attention to a sheer cliff that plunged into the sea, Dr. Webster pointed to a filigree of light grey rock radiating vertically up its flank. He explained that it was a volcanic cone literally sheared in cross section.

            Since Jan Mayer lies directly on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, the tectonic boundary that runs nearly Pole to Pole, he speculated this rare phenomenon might have resulted from a crack in the Earth.

            Then a pod of killer whales was spotted off the bow. For another half hour we tailed them at a respectful distance, with multi-lingual commentary provided by two of the voyage's other naturalists, Sylvia Stevens and David Fletcher.

            Then we turned and cruised south along Jan Mayen's 34-mile coast, enjoying a sumptuous luncheon. Completely uninhabited except for an 18-person Norwegian weather station, the island harbors virtually no animals other than birds nor plants larger than moss or lichen. However its waters teem with life. 

            When we reached the weather station about 2 p.m., the ship dropped anchor and passengers were shuttled into a black sand beach by the station in small Zodiac boats to explore for several hours. 

            Talk about off the beaten path. We were told by the station's commanding officer that the Hanseatic was first cruise ship to visit the island this year, and the only other outside contact is a re-supply plane that lands every three months. Jan Mayen is so off the charts, it doesn't even qualify as one of the more than 300 world destinations listed by the Traveler's Century Club.

            Not surprisingly, there were no planned diversions on the island and little else to do than to spend the sunny afternoon strolling along the rudimentary road that led from the station to the landing strip, watching the antics of birds and gawking at the singular scenery.  

            With the snowy volcano looming in the distance, virtually everything in between was empty and ebony; broad black beaches, precipitous black hills, tower black cliffs and imposing black peaks, with only occasional sparse patches of green scattered about, the earliest vestiges of life in the most primordial of landscapes. Walking on the broad, hard packed, black sand landing strip was certainly unlike any place I had ever seen.  

            At any rate, we caught one of the last zodiacs back to the ship, and at 5:30 the anchor was raised and we were under way. The last boat back was a contingent of the ship's staff, including Herr Schneider, who had gone fishing around a large rock off-shore. In a little under an hour, they had hooked nearly 100 pounds of cod, which would show up on that evening's dinner menu, poached with chardonnay sauce. Talk about fresh fish. 

            Shortly after we sailed away from Jan Mayen, we lost our clear sky and cruised into a cloud bank that extended well into the night. No matter. After another excellent dinner, we capped our full day of expedition and adventure with a little classical music in the lounge, presented by a young couple, Maria Mazo and Thomas Brogsitter, she a remarkable pianist and he an enthusiastic violinist. It proved an interesting juxtaposition, to be sitting comfortably on a ship sailing in the Arctic Ocean, listening to excellent classical concert. On this cruise the culture quotient was high. 

            Our wet weather continued the next day, which was intended to be spent sailing to Akureyri, the largest port in northeast Iceland. But the Hanseatic had made such good headway, the captain decided we had time to make an unscheduled side trip to Grimsey Island, a sliver of rock off the north coast of Iceland near the entrance to Akureyri fjord.   

            Grimsey is noted as a birdwatching spot, and the ship circled off its steep shore for about 45 minutes, during which time we saw thousands of puffins covering the cliffs and huge flocks of sea terns swarming over schools of fish. One more adventure under our belts.

            Dinner that evening was served as the ship bobbed off Iceland's northeast tip in the shadow of high cliffs and waterfalls that plunged into the sea. After dinner, we steamed into Akureyi fjord, a wide channel perhaps 20 miles long that led to the port. 

            With about 16,000 inhabitants, Akureyi is a relatively new town, the oldest buildings dating to about 1900 and much of it constructed in the last 40 years. It was definitely past dusk as we reached the city's only pier for cruise ships, it having only been vacated by its previous vessel. Even though after 11:00 p.m., it was light enough so several passengers got off to explore the town, but we decided to stay on board. 

            We had to be up early the next morning.  We had signed up for our only off-ship tour, an 8-hour bus expedition to the thermal area around the Lake Myvatn thermal area.  
After breakfast we boarded our designated bus and it headed up into the high hills above Akureyi and into a cloud bank.  The first stop was a thermal field next to Namafjall Mountain, a moonscape of  boiling mud pots and sulfuric steam vents. Then there was a short visit at the lake itself, a huge but shallow watery expanse in a volcanic depression. 

            I was surprised to discover the interior of Iceland to be agricultural with sheep and cows, and lots of white plastic wrapped hay bales sitting in the fields.  
Lunch was at a lake-side restaurant in an area dotted with of pseudo-craters and swarms of tiny midges that filled the air. Coming inside as much to escape the bugs as to eat, we had no idea our next adventure was about to begin. 

            Seated at the only remaining open table, we were soon joined by two couples from Japan. Clearly distinguished looking and, I supposed, in their mid-60s, they seemed to be most personable. The problem was they spoke no English, and we spoke no Japanese. With no common language and little inclination to struggle through that barrier, we all sat in silence until the Japanese group leader came to introduce us. In English, she explained that the four were from Yokahama, the port near Tokyo.  When she asked me where we were from, I replied Pittsburgh.

            The other gentleman immediately brightened up and said something it took me a moment to realize was "Pirates." 
I nodded, answering "Baseball." 
He nodded and quickly responded, "Clemente," and after a moment "Ichiro" and then "Matsui." 

            Naming major league baseball players was as far as the conversation went, but the ice had been broken. Sports and the places we called home had given us a point of contact, not much perhaps in terms of international understanding, but at least now we knew something about each other. 

            After lunch, our first stop was Dimmuborgir, a old lava maze of odd basalt formations, columns arches, tubes and tunnels. Then before heading back to Akureyri, we stopped at Godafloss, a waterfall with twin cataracts about 25 feet high, something like Niagara, but nowhere near as impressive. 
Icelandic legend has it that a 10th-century chieftain was charged with deciding whether the island's population would continue to follow the old gods or become Christian. Having made his decision, he pitched all of his idols into this waterfall. 

            The tour's last stop was back in Akureyri itself, with a quick walk through its lovely botanical gardens. While it would be nice to have time to see the rest of the town, we had to get back to the ship before it weighed anchor.

            Our next port of call was Isafjordur, which is the largest town in western fjords region of Iceland, although it has just 4000 inhabitants. Situated on a sandspit between the towering hillsides of the fjord, the town once prospered as a fishing port, but the industry has declined. 

            After breakfast, we took two bicycles from the ship's small fleet, and went out for an exploration of our own along the west side of the fjord to the tiny town of Bolungarvik. Because the two-lane road paralleled the water, the pedaling was easy and the scenery stupendous, towering green slopes on one side and the broadening fjord on the other. 

            It took us an hour to cover the 10 miles to Iceland's most northerly settlement, situated just south of the Arctic Circle. Coasting down into the estuary, we passed the reconstructed remains of an old Icelandic fishing station, and half a mile further, an 18-hole golf course, which seemed somewhat incongruous given the setting. There wasn't much to explore in the tiny village, but our next adventure was just around the corner. 

            Pedaling back toward the ship, we passed through a nesting area for Arctic terns. Suddenly, in a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock's "The Birds" we were attacked by flocks of furious fowl, squawking and dive-bombing us to protest our presence.  One of them even landed a plop on top of Sari's head. Fortunately, she had her hood up, and we got back to the ship with no further mishap.

            After lunch, we still had two hours before departure, so I walked back into the village, strolling past shop windows, amazed how expensive everything was when I converted the prices in Icelandic kroner into dollars.  I was also surprised to discover copies of the new Harry Potter in the bookstore window only two days after it had been released.  

            Sailing north out of the fjord late that afternoon, we felt a sense of satisfaction tracing the route we had explored on bikes. We had faced uncertainty, expended effort and experienced danger, but had a better sense of the land, which certainly qualified as an adventure.

            And we were rewarded for our effort. After dinner we found ourselves up on the stern deck along with a contingent of fellow passengers. As previously explained, the sky that night was finally clear, and we made a multi-national happening out of watching the sun set, or at least dip below the horizon. It seemed a perfect coda to our enjoyable adventure. 

            We awoke the next morning in Reykjavik, our final stop, although the ship was continuing on to Greenland. At first somewhat sorry to be missing that part of the expedition, we felt our week on the Hanseatic had been a good amount of time.  

            And the next evening, flying back to Baltimore, our Iceland Air flight passed over Greenland at 38,000 feet. The sky was brilliantly clear, and it revealed a landscape of rocky points poking up through snowfields. 

            It took me a moment to realize I was seeing the top peaks of mountains that were otherwise entirely buried by frozen water, the vast Greenland Icecap. As we winged further south, the enormous icy blanket dissipated, unveiling an endless serration of sheer, jagged mountains, with enormous glaciers plunging into the frigid-looking fjords below.

            And further on, after Greenland ended, I could see the broad confetti of giant, glittering icebergs drifting south toward warmer climates. 
It occurred to me that this awesome vision was different certainly from the ones our Hanseatic shipmates were enjoying at that time, but every bit as inspirational. 

            After all, gaining a comprehensive perspective requires having many points of view. 
This is one of travel's inevitable lessons. 


For information on Hapag-Lloyd cruises - 877-445-7447 or  



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