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Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2 2008
The Land of the Midnight Sun - Part 1

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Gravdal in the Lofoten Islands

There is a formal line which is the Arctic Circle, and QE2 crossed that line, heading north, at 0235 early in the morning of 6 June. We continued further north, and QE2 made her maiden call on 6 June at the Port of Leknes near Gravdal in the Lofoten Islands. As well as being a maiden call it would be the final visit there too. One of the rituals of a maiden call is that the local mayor and other dignitaries have to be entertained on board. Lofoten comprises six larger and many smaller islands. Gravdal lies well above the Arctic Circle and was said to be one of the largest villages in the island of Vestvagoy. At anchor, there was an impressive view of the Black Wall, rocky peaks formally named the Lofotenveggen, straight ahead.

We decided to take a short organised tour in the morning, which got us off the QE2 by tender ahead of everyone else. At the tender pier there was nothing; the small village of Gravdal with its pretty Buksnes Church was to the left and the larger town of Leknes was to the right. Neither was easy walking distance although Gravdal was closer. We were glad we had taken an organised tour.

We drove through Leknes then along the main road north-east ‘King Olaf’s Road’ towards the mountains before turning left and then right to Haukland and through a narrow tunnel to arrive at our destination - the beach at Utakleiv. The roads and the beautiful empty beach reminded us of New Zealand. We returned through the tunnel and stopped at the beach at Haukland. The turquoise sea and white sand was inviting, but the water was cold.

We drove back to Gravdal and then continued south to the fishing village of Ballstad. We passed racks of fish drying on the entrance to the village, and our coach stopped outside the commercial centre where there was a post office and a small supermarket. While most people strolled towards the shops we set off at high speed back towards the racks of fish so we could get pictures. We had not been to the gym in the morning so a brisk walk was ideally timed and helped counteract the excesses at breakfast. We were just last back at the coach, and with 1 minute to spare before the stated departure time. Other people said they had climbed a nearby hill and obtained good pictures from the top. We remarked on a number of rorbu cabins, now converted into holiday homes, as well as a thriving boat building and repair business.

At the end of our excursion we got off our coach at the tender pier and directly onto the free shuttle bus which went to the Commercial Centre in Leknes. It was too late to go back home to the QE2 for lunch by tender and then come out again. Leknes had a few basic shops, a petrol station and supermarket, as well as local crafts and souvenirs. We did not have great expectations, and after half an hour we were glad to catch the shuttle bus back to QE2. Other passengers and staff said that the shopping in the town was ‘dire’ but it was better than we expected.

We were just back in time for afternoon tea, so we were able to fill up with delicate sandwiches, scones and cakes. After everyone had returned the tenders were brought back on board and the anchor weighed. Our next port would be Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, some 777 nautical miles away. We were now noticing that it was daylight for 24 hours and after dinner there was an Arctic Party on the open decks to admire ice carvings by the QE2 Food Artists and dance the night/everlasting daylight away. It was strange to see the ice carvings illuminated by the midnight sun.

7 June was our second day at sea, so by tradition it is a formal evening and Captain Ian McNaught invites all guests dining in the Mauretania Restaurant for cocktails. It was going to risk being a serious drinking day because we had also received invitations to a Cunard World Club private wine tasting at 1530. Five wines were tasted – USA Sonoma County Kenwood 2006 (sauvignon blanc) $25, Chablis 2006 $30, Lindeman’s Bin 40 Merlot 2006 $24, Mendoza Terrazas Malbec 2006 $32, and USA Alexander Valley Chateau Souverain 2000 (cabernet sauvignon) $40. Wine tastings are always at the cheap end of the wine list; the Kenwood 2006 was however surprisingly good for its price, and we liked the Chateau Souverain.

It was soon time to get into formal evening clothes for dinner and cocktails and we intercepted the Captain’s receiving line at the staircase by the Caronia restaurant, thereby avoiding one of the photographers. Because it was going to be our last cruise on QE2 with Captain McNaught we wanted to get a formal photograph with him. The cocktails finished promptly just before 2030. We were looking forward to dinner because Captain McNaught and his wife Susan would be hosting our table. While Ian had met us before, his wife had not, and she admitted to spending a lot of time memorising our pictures on the ship’s computer system so that she knew who we were. We were now getting accustomed to the two bottles of white wine, followed by one of red. Wine for tables which are hosted come from a limited selection, and the favourites seemed to be Nobilo sauvignon blanc for the white and Rosemount Shiraz for the red.

Longyearbyen on Svalbard

Getting up in the morning was hard after the late evening before, and we emerged to find QE2 anchored at Longyearbyen on Svalbard at 0800. There were no organised tours because the local infrastructure is not able to offer them. There are no roads between the settlements on Svalbard and snow scooters or boats are the forms of transport. Everyone who wanted to go ashore had to make their own tours. We queued for tender tickets and then caught the free shuttle bus from the pier to the shopping centre and the Svalbard Museum.

The Svalbard Museum was initially opened in 1979 and until 2006 it was located in an ancient pig barn next to the remains of the first mining settlement at Skjæringa. The modern new museum, part of the Svalbard Science Centre, was officially opened on 26 April 2006. The museum provides an insight into everything from the discovery of Svalbard, 17th century whaling history, expeditions, winter trapping techniques, World War II on Svalbard, flora, fauna and geology and mining history. There were a number of stuffed animals, so there is no doubt what a polar bear and an arctic reindeer look like. We had noticed a few arctic reindeer grazing outside. We spent several interesting hours there.

Then it was only a short walk to the shopping centre. The town was much bigger that we expected, and seemed to have grown since Pete was there on business some 15 years earlier. We found that since the early 1990s there had been a definite policy to establish tourism facilities, recognising that this could contribute new jobs and increased stability in local society. Half of the 30,000 annual tourists arrive on overseas cruise liners, for a short visit, and are interested in local shopping, food and wine, and culture. The area is a tax free zone and the well-stocked general store had a good selection of items which to our surprise included Iitala glass from Finland. Souvenir prices seemed to be cheaper than further south, in spite of the transport costs. We bought some local glass Christmas tree decorations, and some slices of smoked reindeer to take back for afternoon tea. It was similar to smoked venison, but more expensive.

Walking back to the pier to catch a tender we passed the Governor’s House (Sysselmannen). It is here that important administrative functions are carried out including issuing permits for hunting and fishing, and registration for travelling outside the immediate town perimeter. With more polar bears than local inhabitants there are serious security precautions for visitor who which to explore the area. We arrived back at the pier at the same time as Susan McNaught so we chatted about our day out. She had also visited the Museum, and had then looked around the shops. QE2 looked perfect, waiting for us at anchor with the hills behind and their sprinkling of snow. It was another milestone; she would never be coming back to Longyearbyen.

Having missed lunch again we were in good time for afternoon tea, and shortly afterwards the tenders were recovered and the anchor raised. We were midway through our holiday, and with each hour now we were going south.

Tromso

Our next port was Tromso, some 583 nautical miles south, so 9 June was another day at sea and dinner was formal. We expected the Safety Officer to host our table and were looking forward to the inevitable white and red wines. But first there was another cocktail party, which was hosted by Captain McNaught and the cruise sales specialists Yoyo and Anna, and was for Cunard World Club members. We were surprised and pleased to meet Roma, who on this cruise was Night Purser and so she rarely saw passengers unless there was an emergency at night. We met her later officially when there was a flood in the laundry in the early morning. She had noticed that we were on board and had made a special effort to find us at the cocktail party. She is an excellent experienced member of the QE2 family with many skills, and was cruise sales specialist when we were on QE2 in September 2007.

We docked just below the University buildings in Tromso on 10 June. This part of Tromso is an island, and we had booked a morning tour to go up the Cable Car, then to the Arctic Cathedral and finally to the Polar Museum. The cable car and the arctic cathedral are both across the bridge from our moorings near central Tromso.

We were lucky; the cable car normally opens at 1000 but our tour had arranged an early opening, so we were in the first car of the morning at 0900 and when we got to the top there were no other people there. It was perfect. And the views were beautiful and clear. There was also just a little slushy snow. The Storsteinen Mountain is 422 m above sea level and there is a very good view of the town and its surroundings. Our guide pointed out the highlights, and we could imagine where the German battleship Tirpitz had been sunk on 12 November 1944. Just before 1000 we descended, piled into our coach and moved on to the Arctic cathedral. There was a long line of people waiting to go up the mountain as we came down, some wearing QE2 logo hats.

It is almost possible to walk to the Arctic cathedral from the cable car station, but it was much easier by coach. There is usually a small entrance fee. We found the building covered in scaffolding so the outside was not at its best. Inside was light and airy, but it was filled with hundreds of tourists with cameras, most from QE2. It was chaos, and there was no religious atmosphere of peace and calm. Built in 1965, the enormous triangular stained glass mosaic window, one of the largest in Europe, dominates the interior. The original organ had to be replaced in 2005. One item which did attract us was the silver salver and jug for baptisms.

After taking photos we were glad to get back in our coach, cross the bridge to the main part of the city, and visit the Polar Museum. On the waterfront, the building dates from 1830 and was a bonded warehouse. The Polar Museum was officially opened on 18 June 1978. Our guide gave a good introduction o the exhibits and we were then left to wander around. There are 5 rooms on the ground floor describing trapping in the Arctic, Svalbard in the 1600’s and 1700’s, hunting generally, and seal hunting in particular. The import of sealskin products from young seals to the EEC was prohibited in 1973, although there are items which seem to be made of sealskin for sale in souvenir shops throughout Tromso. Upstairs there are 3 further rooms about explorers and trappers. The main display is about the career of Roald Amundsen (a famous explorer who was first to reach the south pole on 14 December 1911), and there are stories about Henry Rudi (a famous trapper) and Wanny Woldstad (a female trapper), as well as more information about hunting walrus and polar bear.

Our coach then took us around Tromso island and back to the QE2. While we had been away a large marquee at the bottom of the gangway had been filled with local souvenir stalls. There were lots of people walking around aimlessly and no sign of a shuttle bus back to town; there were no queues either. Eventually a shuttle bus sign was found and a few people followed it. Most people were waiting for organised tours, fortunately. We caught the shuttle bus, which deposited us next to the statue of Roald Amundsen and just opposite the tourist information office. It was also near to the cathedral, with its elegant spire which would be a good landmark to find our way back. The Arctic cathedral is really only a fancy church; the Tromso Lutheran cathedral is in the city centre. Sadly it too was covered in scaffolding, and locked.

Some QE2 tours also went to Polaria, an arctic-themed experience centre, so we decided to visit and complete the arctic cultural experience. It was within walking distance. We were most interested in exploring the Polstjerna, a 1949 seal hunting vessel, which completed 33 Arctic expeditions and was preserved in a covered glass hanger next door to Polaria. One ticket covers the two. Polaria was officially opened on 1 December 1998 as a national showcase of polar research. The panoramic wide screen film about Svalbard was a good aerial introduction to the arctic, and was impressive video work. Then there were three bearded seals in a large pool, as well as aquariums of other fish. The gift shop was one of the best in terms of quality and variety, and prices were reasonable, for Norway. Pauline spent longer looking at the leather goods there than she had spent looking at the bearded seals. As we left crocodiles of QE2 people were arriving to see the film.

On the way back we passed Mack’s brewery. It has always advertised itself as the world’s northernmost brewery and the production equipment could be seen from the pavement. The tour had been at 1300 and we had been just too late to join in, but at the end of the afternoon the Olhallen (Beer Hall) was still open. It is the town’s oldest watering hole, opening on 29 February 1928. Two small glasses of beer cost 65 kr, about £7. One was a dark strong porter, whereas the other was a nice amber session drink. There were lots of choices and we could have spent a happy hour sampling them all. Norway is very expensive for shopping, and exceptionally expensive for alcohol. The beer hall does food at lunchtime and if we visit Tromso again we would plan to take lunch and the tour.

Tonight was the last evening above the Arctic Circle, with perpetual daylight.
11 June was a day at sea, and there was a lot to do. We usually attend the cooking demonstrations but it was in the morning just after Pete was scheduled to give his talk “Why buy a Window when you can have a house for free?” We were pleased that the Chart Room was full, and it was a lively mixture of lecture and discussion. Three of the attendees arrived carrying the little Asus netbooks which run under Linux. Pauline said she would like one – they come in several pretty colours as well as weighing under a kilogram and having a solid state disk. It was almost lunchtime before the session was finished, and that was mainly because the book club were using the Chart Room and asked us to be quiet and continue elsewhere. Fortunately the cooking demonstration is recorded so we watched it later in our cabin.

It was not the last day at sea on this cruise, but the final day at sea was just before we arrived in Southampton so this evening was the final formal evening for dinner. Usually we have an invitation to attend one of the senior officer’s cocktail parties, and we were delighted to receive an invitation to drinks with Captain Ian McNaught in his quarters. We have only been invited to a similar cocktail party once before, with Captain Ron Warwick, and generally we have invitations from the engineers or the Hotel Manager. We get on well with the engineers, and Pauline always lets them know she is an engineer, although of the wrong sort. In previous years the parties were all held on the same evening, and we knew some people who received invitations to all three parties, and managed to rush between them all in the hour or so allocated.

All of us on the Captain’s Table had been invited, so it was clear that everyone was going to arrive at the table for dinner at the same time. Our host for this evening was the navigator, and we had seen him around the ship and on the bridge. We had an interesting and entertaining evening and discovered he was planning to learn to fly so we had some unexpected common interests.

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