Tis the Season to be Jolly

Warm holiday wishes to family, friends, and Tales and Travel followers. Thank you  for reading, commenting and inspiring me to continue this venture.

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We will join our friend Cindy Egolf today (Christmas Eve) for lunch across the border in Italy. Cindy is an orchestra conductor. Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8FERvEZeak  She is awesome.

For Christmas, it’s just us and the cats.   I will try something very French: Pigeon, a challenging experiment.  I have been researching recipes.  And, I will make pumpkin pie for Bob, his favorite.

I had hoped to go to nearby Monaco for a serious Christmas décor photo shoot, but that did not happen. Not to worry. The decorations will still be there, so maybe I will make it for a pre New Year’s photo shoot. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are a few random holiday shots. I had a quick preview of Monaco’s decorations on an outing to attend an opera there, but I only had the phone camera. They deserve better.

Wherever, whatever you celebrate, make it fun and delicious.

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Monte Carlo Casino
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Casino’s  Christmas forest
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Our neighborhood:  Roquebrune and Menton with Christmas lights long the coast.
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Neighborhood view the morning after the day of a deluge — we have had a few.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.  Joyeux Noel. Buon Natale. Frohe Weihnachten — Bob and Leah

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Norway: A Northern Wonder

IMG_3337Norway is all about nature and the outdoors. Year round, even in the frigid Arctic winters, Norwegians spend time outdoors – hiking, skiing, climbing, boating, fishing… They are passionate about their forests, mountains, lakes and the sea.

During our cruise of the Norwegian fjords (see previous post, “Ship Ahoy Norway”) I IMG_3047talked to Norwegians and tourists, as well as those who have moved to Norway. I wanted to know more about life in this country where hours of daylight in winter are few, yet summer days are wonderfully long, where winter temperatures can drop to well below zero, and summer temperatures in most of the country rarely reach above 20 degrees C (68 F).

IMG_3555“I moved here for the nature,”said a bus driver originally from Karlsruhe, Germany, who drives a dog sled in winter. He also worked and lived in Iceland, “but this is better.”

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Two hikers, also from Germany and on their fifth visit to Norway, told me they come for nature and the landscapes. “People here have a good rapport with nature.”

Victoria, a tour guide from Munich, came to Norway seven years ago to work as a biologist. She never left. “I am absolutely happy here.”

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“I love nature,” said Haakon Hansen, a Norwegian lecturer on the ship. He skis, dives, hikes, fishes, snowboards. “You can do it all here.”

During one of his lectures, Hansen told us about Freiluftsliv,a concept coined by Henrik Ibsen, remowned Norwegian playwright, in 1859 literally meaning “free air life,” or an outdoors lifestyle. “It’s a concept that permeates every aspect of life in Norway,” noted an article in Forbes.

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It is the guiding principle in Norway and said to be the key to happiness in the country. And, according to the happiness index, Norwegians, after Finns, are the world’s happiest people.

We also learned that in Norway every man has the right to roam, to enjoy and use

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Globe at North Cape marking northernmost point on the continent.

nature. You can pick berries and gather mushrooms wherever you like. You can camp everywhere, even on private property as long as you are 150 meters from a house.

To none are nature and the outdoors more important than to the Sami, an indigenous, nomadic people who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. “Our religion is nature. Nature is our culture,” said Ailu Utsi. During one of our cruise excursions, we visited Ailu and his wife Ellinor in their Sami tent.

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Ailu and Ellinor Utsi with canine companion.

Historically the Sami, renowned for herding reindeer, were known as Lapps and their homeland, Lapland. But, “this is not Lapland,” Ellinor Utsi adamantly proclaimed. The couple talked about the prejudice and persecution the Sami suffered in Norway until 1970. Their language was outlawed. Children had to go to boarding schools and could not speak Sami. Many of their traditions were suppressed. That began to change in 1970 and today Sami are represented in the Norwegian parliament. Sami is the second language in the country. The language, related to Finnish, Hungarian and Russian, is rich in words to describe nature. “We have 300 words to describe snow.”

The Sami follow their reindeer herds. In summer some 5,000 Sami families and 8,000

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reindeer live on the Nordkyn peninsula where we visited them. In the winter they move near the Finnish border. During our visit we tasted reindeer broth. Good, but it was the reindeer we had one evening on the ship that was the ultra mouth-watering treat – much better than the best beef tenderloin, in my opinion. At the market in Bergen, Bob and I had grilled reindeer sausage, also delicious. I bought several reindeer sausages to bring home.

During another cruise excursion we tasted yet another Norwegian special: King Crab. We were suited up in extreme cold weather suits for a ride on a RIB (Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat) to a place where these giant crustaceans were pulled from cages 30 meters deep in the Barents Sea. Several crabs (only males) were sacrificed for our repast.

“We only take males. The females lay millions of eggs every year, but not many survive,” said our boat captain and crab chef, Diemietri from Bulgaria. The crabs can weigh up to 20 kilos, but those we consumed were about 2 to 2 ½ kilos. The crabs live in the icy waters of the Barents Sea as well as the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, and the Gulf of Alaska. In the US, they are known as Alaskan crab.

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Diemietri, 58, has been in Norway for five years. He left his own business in Bulgaria where “there was too much corruption…they destroyed my business.” He says life in Norway is quiet, but he is happy. “I have a job. My pension is very good. The social system is very good here.”

Norway is a welfare state with a government pension for everyone. The average salary is about $58,000 per year. The cost of living is high, as is income tax, between 30% and 35 %, but the benefits are generous. University tuition, for example, is just $65 per semester.

Hansen raved about other Norway pluses. “We have a transparent society,’’ he told us. “The government publishes a tax list. You can see how much everyone makes and how much tax they pay. Norway is a safe country. People don’t touch other people’s stuff.”

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As friend and fellow traveler Karen remarked, “Norway has its act together.”

Norway is also spectacularly beautiful. I was enchanted with the ever changing scenery from the ship: fascinating clouds, dramatic silhouettes of mountains, magnificent fjords, pristine villages.

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More Norway photos below:

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Kvernes Stave Church dating from 1300.

 

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Enjoying the outdoors at a park in Bergen.
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View of Bergen from the top of the Fluibanen Funicular.
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Cathedral in Trondheim.

 

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My Take on Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano

I may be one of few who is not overwhelmed with Costa Rica. I did not dislike the beautiful country. The beaches are grand. The people are delightful. The food is good. But, I have been to too many other places that are more “me.” I had hopes of sighting interesting critters in the jungle on “safari” treks. I spotted few.

Beach near Manuel Antonio park

The critters are there. I suspect too many tourists have been tromping through the jungle, following guides with telescopes, sending the animals deep into the bush in search of peace and quiet.

While husband Bob spent two weeks with his daughter Kellie who has a holiday home in Costa Rica, I toured – on my own but with pre-arranged transportation between destinations. I joined guided tours through parks and to noteworthy sights during my visit last January

Too many tourists ?

The Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and where I joined my first guided hike. Groups like ours, all dutifully following a guide with a large telescope on a tripod, crowded the trails. Word spread quickly of a sighting. Instantly more guides, telescopes and tourists appeared.

Souvenir cell phone photo thanks to guide’s telescope.

Excitement was high at the sighting of a sloth hidden high in dense tree foliage. With the naked eye it was impossible to see anything but leaves. Those with gigantic zoom lenses (there were many) did manage to spot the creature. The rest of us relied on the guide’s telescope. Yet, even with high powered vision, all I could see was a tuft of fur.

This ritual was repeated time after time. The guide, with trained eyes and jungle experience, would spot a creature– various kinds of birds, lizards, sloths – camouflaged in the dense growth. Each of her followers then had a turn for a telescope view. And then, a keepsake photo with their cell phone camera which the guide placed, one by one, on the telescope.

Find the sloth.

It was steamy humid. I grew impatient and bored. I kept thinking of Africa where majestic creatures are often easy to spot. The tour ended on a beach where hundreds of monkeys frolicked. Monkeys may not be exotic, but they are fun and easy to see. I loved them.

More monkeys, iguanas, a rare lizard, all kind of birds, a deer – I saw them all on the grounds of the Posada Jungle Hotel adjacent to Manuel Antonio park where I spent four nights.  This was better than a guided safari, and at my doorstep.   The beach near the hotel was fabulous, for swimming and sunset viewing.  I spent several evenings aiming for the perfect sunset shot while sipping a mojito.  

Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is a stunning sight. I was lucky. It is often hidden in clouds, but I saw it in all its glory. There have been no regular volcano eruptions since 2010. The surrounding region is popular for hiking and all sorts of rugged,extreme adventure. I opted for gentle adventure, a hanging bridge hike and another hike near the volcano.

Hanging bridges are common in the Costa Rican jungle. I was intrigued. It is exciting, even a tinge scary,  to walk high above gorges  on these structures which gently sway as you cross.

After the near-the-volcano hike, we set off to the Tobacon Hot Springs, a jungle wonderland of hot springs, pools, waterfalls, streams – all a bit kitschy, but crazy fun.

 

Rio Frio near the Nicaraguan border

Birds were the star attraction during my relaxing boat tour of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge near the Nicaraguan border. The guide entertained us with interesting facts about Costa Rica, as well as river wildlife, as we

drifted past lush rainforest and wetlands. In addition to the birds, we saw bats, a few crocodiles, a lizard… but nothing that thrilled me.  I am spoiled.  It’s  hard to beat being up close and personal with mountain gorillas. (See previous post, “Gorillas in our Mist” Dec. 2015)

I was underwhelmed – and freezing – on the Monteverde Cloud Forest guided hike. This time it was cold and rainy. We learned a lot about various kinds of trees and vines, but – even with the telescope – spotted no exciting wildlife.

The van rides from one destination on my itinerary to the next were often long. The scenery, sometimes spectacular, and chatting with other passengers made the trips interesting. I met folks from the US, Canada, Scotland, England and Israel, including several young female backpackers en route to yoga retreats. Costa Rica is big with the yoga set. There were serious hikers and surfers. Costa Rica is also popular with surfers.

However, I did not come to Costa Rica to surf, nor to soothe my soul during a yoga retreat. Unfortunately I am too old for zip lining and canyoning. Spotting an illusive creature through a telescope did not thrill me. Granted, the beaches are super, but I do not need to travel so far for a fabulous beach

So, Costa Rica does not rank among my favorites, yet I am glad I experienced the country. And, tasted Costa Rican ceviche – a memorable culinary delight. Kellie shared her recipe. Click on photo top right.

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See below for  more Costa Rica.

Church at La Fortuna with cloud-covered Arenal.
This sloth was spotted in a roadside tree by a van driver. We stopped for photos.

Grimentz: Geraniums galore and more

 

And the winner is — Yvonne Rouvinet. The competition: Geraniums.

Grimentz, a tiny Swiss hamlet high in the Anniviers Valley in southern Switzerland, is the Shangri-la of geraniums. The fiery red blossoms are the village claim to fame – brimming from boxes on houses, apartments, hotels, shops. Tourists clog narrow cobblestone lanes with their cell phone cameras.

Yvonne Rouvinet and her prize-winning geraniums.

Every August the village sponsors a geranium contest. This year there were over 170 entries in three categories: apartments, businesses and chalets. Rouvinet took top honors in the apartment category, beating out 130 other competitors.

Grimentz, a quintessential Swiss village,  was my destination for a solo mountain break. Husband Bob stayed home with his daughter who was visiting.  I miss the Swiss Alps where Bob and I had so many amazing adventures. We biked, with panniers, six of the country’s nine national bike routes. We hiked, often spending nights in gemütlich mountain lodges and huts. We skied its challenging slopes. I enjoyed several terrific press trips to different parts of the country. Those were the days. We were younger and very fit.

The Grimentz-Sorebois cable car ascends to  2,700 meters.

At times it was all too nostalgic. I could not hold back the tears when I saw cyclists loading their bikes on the trains. How many times had we done the very same thing? I hate growing old. I still yearn to soar down black runs (red would do), hike to high peaks, bike those three remaining Swiss bike routes. Merde!

Reality really set in when I set out on a hike which the guy in the tourist office recommended as “flat and easy” – supposedly an hour and half trek to the Hotel Weisshorn. I rode the funicular from St. Luc to the start of the trail. I had a backpack, but unfortunately no hiking poles. The trail was stoney. From the onset, there were ups and downs, not steep, but not my idea of flat. I progressed slowly, stopping to take photos. This was the Planets Trail with markers for the various planets along the way. After about 45 minutes I reached a large clearing where an imposing planet-like structure stood at the edge of the mountain. A woman sat on a bench underneath. I approached and asked her about it.

Marie Claire takes a rest under Saturn.

“Saturn,” she answered. I told her I was on the way to the Hotel Weisshorn. “Oh, it’s up there,” she said, pointing to a distant building atop a mountain. No way. This was not a “flat, easy hike.” I was devastated. I was already tired and my knees hurt.

Marie Claire is from Belgium and has been coming to nearby Zinal every year for many, many years, this time with a son.  Her husband died in 2006. She hiked to the hotel two years ago, but intended to take a pass this year and head back down. Her son had charged ahead.  She invited me to join her for the descent. She saved me, lending me one of her hiking poles.

Flat?  How naive was I?  Nothing can be flat in the Swiss Alps.

We talked about our old and broken bodies. She has two knee replacements. I have one. We both have hip tendinitis. I have a decaying back. Marie Claire was also an inspiration, very positive about everything. “You have to keep moving.”

I failed at the Weisshorn hike, but certainly I could master the hike around Lake Moiry. Clement Vianin, a Grimentz native and the manager of the charming Hotel Meleze where I stayed, suggested I take the bus to the Moiry glacier, then hike the trail around the lake to the dam and bus stop at the other end. Bravo. I did it.

Moiry Glacier.  Climate change has taken its toll.

Like all mountain glaciers, this one has suffered from climate change and has receded significantly.

The lake is a marvel of intense, vibrant turquoise. Minerals from the glacier’s melting ice give the lake its gorgeous hue.

Lake Moiry

I relished hiking around the lake at a snail’s pace, stopping for lots of photos. I even tried macro on some wildflowers. This is the Switzerland I love.

I was in heaven the first night when I entered the cozy, woodsy restaurant of the Hotel Meleze permeated with the aromas of Switzerland – fondue and raclette. I ordered one of my favorites, the deluxe version of Croute au Fromage, bread topped with ham, Gruyere and an egg, baked so the cheese melts and the egg cooks. This called for several glasses of Fendant (Swiss white wine). During my visit I indulged in other Swiss favorites, Rosti, grated potatoes with any melange of other ingredients. I chose one with lots of melted cheese and an

Cheesy Risotto

egg. I had another cheese bombshell, a Risotto speciality at the Becs de Bosson restaurant. Parmesan is pounded smooth in a big bowl as you watch. Grappa is added, then the hot rice. That was my Swiss cheese farewell. I savored it all, but by then I had had enough cheese and was ready for a return to fish from the Med.

Back to those geraniums. I plant them every summer, but mine never looked like those in Grimentz. “It’s the climate,” Rouvinet said. “Not too hot. That is not good.” She also pointed out that the old dark wood of the village buildings “gives a good effect” to the geraniums. Many of the ancient houses date from the 13th to the 15thcentury.

The villagers use a special fertilizer for geraniums. They caution against over-watering. Dead-heading the faded blossoms is also critical. Many chalets and apartments in Grimentz are not occupied year round. Thirty village volunteers visit unoccupied residences to care for the flowers.

Wooden houses were built upon a base of stone where grain was stored.  Wine now replaces grain .

Grimentz is in the French speaking part of Valais, a  bi-lingual canton in Switzerland.  The town, elevation 1,570 meters, is a ski resort as well as a geranium Mecca. It has just 450 permanent residents, but the number skyrockets to as many as 4,000 in winter when  skiers arrive. Summer and geraniums bring almost that number, but many just come for the day to admire red blossoms and take  photos.

Rouvinet’s prize? Not a bottle of champagne. Not a bottle of Fendant, but a bottle of fertilizer and a coupon to buy geraniums next year.

Scroll down for more photos.

Road to the Moiry Dam and glacier at right.
Picnic at Lake Moiry
Sunset in Grimentz
Name this flower

 

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Ship Ahoy Norway

fullsizeoutput_1ac0What a jolt.  Icy water was poured down my back.  Ah! Ouch!  And I volunteered for this? I was on board the MS Nordlys with some 300 other passengers cruising the Norwegian IMG_3117coast. This was our baptism, a rite of passage for crossing the Arctic Circle.   It was a chilling experience, but fun with lots of laughs, shrieks and photos. Participation was not obligatory.   Many, including husband Bob, passed on the baptism.

The Nordlys (northern lights) is part of the Hurtigruten fleet.  “Hurtigruten is not just a cruise ship. It is a unique hybrid, a cruise ship and a ferry,” said David Lam, a member of the expedition team on the MS Nordlys. “It’s a ferry with nice facilities.”

The ship was our home for 11 days as we embarked on a unique voyage exploring the stunning coast of Norway. Our cruise began and ended in Bergen, sailing all the way to Kirkenes on the Russian border and back. Passengers  representing seven different nationalities were onboard during our cruise. Many, like us, were senior citizens.

Days on ship begin with announcements in four languages (Norwegian, English, German and French) about 8:30 am. No sleeping in. If you want breakfast, it is time to get up. The ample buffet of all the usual breakfast goodies, including different kinds of smoked fish, ends at 10 a.m.

 

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Days are filled with interesting lectures, relaxing in comfortable lounges, marveling at the ever-changing scenery, and shore excursions. Announcements alert the passing of noteworthy sights. Passengers gather outdoors on deck7 (the Nordlys has 8 decks) for explanations and photo opps. We were blessed with several warm, sunny days, as well as cool and cloudy days, but only one rainy day.We experienced rough seas once. The boat rocked. We rocked when walking as if we had had one too many — but that would have been costly on the Nordlys.

Norway is very expensive. The cruise was very expensive. Alcoholic beverages and soft drinks, not covered in the cruise price, are expensive.KiZfEnLSRYWAfF8GRdJBGQ

When crossing the Arctic Circle and entering the region of the midnight sun and northern lights we were invited to toast the event with a glass of champagne with a strawberry. I naively thought this was gratis. No. That champagne cost 125 NOK (Norwegian krone, about $12.50).

No matter. It was fun minus champagne. The return Arctic circle crossing celebration involved a spoonful of wretched cod liver oil followed by a spoonful of a sweet liqueur. Grimaces and laughs this time. You could keep the spoon. Plus, have a glass of champagne for a price.

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Entering the legendary Troll fjord, a 2-kilometer fjord with a narrow entrance and surrounded with steep-sided mountains, called for another celebration. Most cruise ships are too large to enter the fjord. Smaller Hurtigruten ships, like the Nordlys, can only enter during the summer months. It was amazing  to witness the ship turn around in the tight space.

This feat was celebrated with a cup of troll coffee. Price: 99 NOK ($11) for a cup of coffee with a splash of schnapps. But, you could keep the souvenir fjord cup. I had passed on the champagne, but splurged on the coffee – shared with Bob.

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Troll fjord

“At Hurtigruten we give you the opportunity to travel with meaning. Building on our explorer heritage dating back to 1893, our explorations are grounded in the likings of people who value learning and personal growth over luxury…you won’t find waterslides, casinos or any sort of dress code,” states the Hurtigruten brochure.

We had booked an Arctic superior cabin on deck 6. It had all the necessities, including TV with CNN (important) but was miniscule. Galant Bob took the window side of the double bed. To get in and out, he had to side step.

A German woman from Augsburg told me she had taken four or five luxury cruises. “This is very different. It is not a luxury cruise, but I knew that. I am glad I came. I wanted to see Norway,” she said.

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The cruise is an excellent way to see Norway, especially if one participates in some of the shore excursions. They too are pricey, but offer the opportunity to see and learn about this Nordic land. We especially enjoyed biking in the town of Trondheim, a visit to the indigenous Sami, feasting on King Crab pulled directly from the frigid waters as we watched, and several bus excursions through  spectacular countryside.

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In addition to organizing entertaining celebrations and leading excursions, the friendly and knowledgeable expedition team conduct lectures covering various topics; polar explorations, birds of Norway, Norway and Norwegians, and more. The latter was enlightening. Norway vies with Finland for having the happiest citizens. Dream on, DT, Norwegians do not want to emigrate to the U.S.

While breakfast and lunch were buffet feasts with open seating, we had assigned seats for the three-course dinners. The food was good, innovative and interesting, focusing on local ingredients and Norwegian specialties.

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Tasty reindeer — better than beef, and said to be “sustainable.”

We received a menu with each meal explaining in detail the ingredients and preparation. The salmon was the best I have ever eaten, and the reindeer was a rare and delicious treat.

As mentioned, Hurtigruten is more than a cruise ship. In the late 19th century, services along the 780-mile coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes, a busy route for transportation of goods and people, were unreliable. Shipping companies were invited to submit tenders for operating an express route between Trondheim and Tromsø, or Hammerfest. In 1893, Captain Richard With’s steamer, DS Vesteraalen, established a regular sea link between the towns which was later expanded from Bergen to Kirkenes, a trip of only seven days. The connection was named “hurtigruten” – the fast route. With went on to explore other Nordic destinations.

“This marks the beginning of Hurtigruten’s adventurous and unique explorer operations,” states the company literature. Destinations now include Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica, as well as ports along the Norwegian coast.

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In addition to cruise passengers, cars, bicycles, motorcycles and some cargo were on board the Nordlys. We met many “walk-in” passengers who used the ship as a ferry from one stop to another. If their transit is less than 24 hours, they can travel without booking a cabin. Some, with backpacks nearby, stretch out on comfortable lounge chairs and sofas. They are free to use all ship facilities, including the jacuzzis.

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Hurtigruten is at the forefront of sustainable tourism. The company is building the first ever hybrid-powered expedition cruise ships and has eliminated single-use plastic from all its ships and hotels. Their “Coastal Kitchen” relies on locally sourced products.

Yes, it is expensive. But, it is a beautiful and enlightening experience (minus the baptism and cod liver oil). And now I have a Polar Arctic certificate.

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