The prime reason that we booked our cruise to Norway was to see the Northern Lights and, after the excitement of seeing them on just the 4th night of our trip, we were able to settle in, sit back and relax to enjoy the scenery whilst sailing from port to port. We were also keen to learn about the history of the remaining places on our itinerary as well as explore the ship further. We had the ideal opportunity as we spent a few days at sea on our way to Tromso, our next stop.
The Cunard Queen Elizabeth is a spectacular ship and I was amazed by the decor. So many decks, so much to do; so much choice from dining to entertainment, relaxing to wellbeing. Everyone is catered for. I discovered the extensive library, the shopping mall, art gallery, casino and countless bars. The photography desk, Garden Room, quizzes held 3 or 4 times a day, and the traditional English Pub. Boredom was my main fear when booking a cruise, I needn’t have worried!
As we travelled North, the seas were intermittently choppy and at times the upper decks were closed and the swimming pool became a Tsunami; rightly cordoned off from use. Having done a DNA analysis as part of my family tree tracing I understand that I am 20% Norwegian/Icelandic and it occurred to me how brave the Viking explorers/marauders were setting sail from their homeland not knowing if they would fall off the edge, find the land of their dreams or sail home disappointed.
On our approach to Tromso, we sailed through the fjords but the weather was not in our favour; cloudy and dull with 1″ of snow on the upper decks making walking around the ship quite treacherous although some amongst us were sure-footed enough to start a snowball fight and build a small snowman! We had an early breakfast and, when we had docked (on time as always) we went down to Deck 1 ready for our coach tour of Tromso. Looking at the weather forecast, we were pleased that we had booked the coach trip instead of walking around the city and looked forward to a couple of hours snug and warm whilst being shown the highlights of this Arctic Capital.
I know several people who have had seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) on their bucket list for many years waiting for the opportunity to visit a likely location. Some people are lucky enough to see them on their first attempt, others are not so lucky and despite all the planning, come home disappointed. I also know some who have seen them multiple times and all I can say is that success is a bit of a lottery!
Having said that, it is possible to accurately predict the appearance of the Northern Lights. It’s all to do with the geo-magnetics and solar activity and scientists who analyse solar activity are able to identify not only when the Aurora will be most prevalent but also how strong it will be. On our cruise, Mr Maclean told us that, having consulted with his colleagues, the solar activity was very good and, if the weather conditions are in our favour, we would see a spectacular sight.
So, although the presence, likelihood and strength of the Aurora can be predicted (good news) the bad news is that however amazing the Aurora is, you won’t see it on a cloudy night. The weather is something that cannot be accurately predicted and Borealis spotters are at the mercy of the elements.
Monday evening, cruising between Alesund and Tromso heading North, was a “perfect” evening for catching sight of the Aurora. The sky was clear and full of stars. It was also extremely cold on deck so I ventured outside looking like Nanook of the North dressed in thermals, winter jacket, woolly hat, snood, thermal trousers, thermal sock and walking boots. I also put a hand-warming pack into my pocket, not only to keep my hands warm so I could operate the camera, but also to keep the batteries warm in the cameras I wasn’t using. (batteries wear out quickly in cold weather) For two hours I was the only person out on deck and to be honest, I was getting a bit fed up. I’m not the most patient of people and was on the verge of giving up and going back to my nice warm stateroom when I spotted a grey-green fuzzy cloud in the sky. Another thing I learned from John Maclean’s brilliant talk was that a lot of people missed the Aurora not realising what they are looking at. The human naked eye cannot see the spectrum of colour that the Aurora produces BUT when you point your camera at a grey-green fuzzy “cloud” in the night sky, you might just see this;
At which point, although the image wasn’t that exciting, I clearly was not looking at a dull grey-green cloud but the beginnings of the Aurora Borealis. I abandoned all thoughts of going back to my stateroom and continued to take photos as the lights developed.
I am particularly fond of this last photo as it shows the different colours which can appear during a solar storm and if I never see the Aurora Borealis again, I am content that I have seen a spectacular sight and I will cross it off my Bucket List.
After 2 days and 3 nights at sea, we have survived the euphoria of Sail Away, the Black and White Gala evening (which we avoided) and the disturbing consequences of opening our balcony door at the same time as the Stateroom door, to arrive at our first port of call, Alesund.
Alesund is known as the Art Nouveau town and walking around it is clear why. The consistent architectural style of the buildings came about due to the fire which devasted the town in 1904. Buildings made mostly of wood were susceptible to fire and, along with a prevailing wind which helped to fan the flames, the town was destroyed leaving 10,000 people without their home.
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany helped to rebuild the town in the Art Nouveau style prevalent at the time and as the building was completed between 1904-1907 the Art Nouveau style dominated. Even the drain covers reflect the Art Nouveau period!
After lunch and a crafty afternoon snooze I went up to the photography desk for guidance on how to set up my cameras to photograph the Northern Lights. Before I watched John Maclean’s invaluable talk onboard about the Northern Lights, how they are formed, when they appear and how to photograph them successfully I thought it was a case of “point-and-shoot”. How wrong could I be?!
To understand how to take successful photographs of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), you need to get to grips with some of the science. It sounds daunting but its actually very interesting and helps to get the best out of your cameras.
Roxy, the amazing photo desk manager gave a comprehensive understanding of our camera functionality; f-stops; aperture settings; shutter-speed and ISOs all came together in a fail-safe way to get that once-in-a-lifetime photo. Before leaving the session, Roxy helped me to set up my cameras ready in case I should spot the elusive Lights; My fuji; Canon and i-phone were now on full alert and I wasn’t going to change the settings until I saw the Lights!
Earlier that day the Captain confirmed that we had sailed into the Arctic Circle and the chances of seeing the Northern Lights were increasing the further we travelled north.
Seeing the Northern Lights has been the Number 2 would-like experience on my Bucket List for some time and I was hoping to arrange a visit to Iceland or one of the Northern-most parts of Scandanavia next year to celebrate my next “big” birthday. After an evening out with the Hubster and Pooch I came across an online advert for a 12-night cruise on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth calling at various ports in Norway travelling up into the Arctic Circle with the aim of “finding” the Northern Lights. The cost was very tempting and, feeling that this could be the moment with all my stars aligned (together with the effect of several glasses of wine), I booked it!
I booked it on Friday evening with the departure date the following Friday- I had just 6 days to get our paperwork in order which, when taking the weekend out of the equation, reduced it to just 4 working days. I have never been on a cruise before and have always avoided them on the basis that I would be bored. I needn’t have worried (another story) but with holidays just starting to take off again after the COVID19 Pandemic, the amount of paperwork required to be completed before we set foot onboard was daunting. Luckily, our passports were valid for travel and, having had lots of medical tests last year, I was already registered with the NHS to access my up to date Corona Virus immunisation status. I knew therefore how to get Hubster registered quickly although, when I applied for his certificate of immunisation the message popped up “…..it could take up to 10 days to hit your account.”
We hadn’t got 10 days! As it happens, it appeared within 48 hours so stress levels were reduced considerably. We also had other forms to complete for both Cunard and the UK Government so when we left for our holiday the following Friday I had a portfolio full of paperwork to hand over.
If only it was that easy…….we still had the last and perhaps most worrying hurdle to overcome, a real-time COVID19 test taken at the port with results sent through to our mobiles within 40 minutes. Would our 3 hour drive down to Southampton be a wasted journey? I couldn’t bear to have got everything sorted within one week from booking only to test positive for COVID and sent home.
Thankfully we both tested negative and were allowed to park our car, unload our bags and get onboard. It was a big relief.
The on-boarding process was very efficient and it wasn’t long before we were shown to our Stateroom (don’t call it a cabin) and we could get ready for “Sail-Away.” Who knew that leaving port was called “Sail-Away”?- and that it is celebrated across the ship ( never call it a boat).
After Sail-Away and watching the harbour lights of Southampton fade into the evening we needed to get ready for our first evening meal onboard-in the Britannia restaurant and so we went to change into our smart casual, jacket and tie outfits whilst enjoying our complimentary bottle of fizz.
Back in 2008, the New Economics Foundation published the “Five Ways to Wellbeing” with 5 funky multi-colour postcards to accompany the launch. Each card details mental health messages under separate headings aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing for everyone. Although the original ideas are over a decade old, they still resonate perhaps even more so whilst we still adapt to our “new normal” lives during and after the COVID19 Pandemic. You can read more about the original report on the NEF website alongside a great follow-up article about the “Five Ways to Wellbeing during the Coronavirus crisis” but I have taken just one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing messages today.
That message is “Give.”
“Giving” doesn’t necessarily incur monetary cost and that’s what is so good about this message. “Giving” is proven to make a person feel better whether you are the giver or recipient. I know it lifts my mood if I can impart just a microbe of happiness into someone’s day as I understand what it’s like to feel isolated, out of my comfort zone and generally miserable. It’s amazing what a smile can do! Here’s some ideas;
Say “Hello” to a stranger
Do a chore for someone
Compliment a parent on their child’s behaviour
Make time to speak to an elderly person
Give someone a hug
Let someone go ahead of you in a queue
Send someone a small, anonymous gift.
There are many small random acts of kindness which fit the bill and I guarantee that (hopefully!) they will be received in the spirit in which they are given so that you spread a little happiness and you will feel good about yourself.
Where do I begin?
Taking up my blog again, I realise that not only have I a lot of travels and experiences to share, but I should also bring everyone up to date on my mental health. I started this blog more than 10 years ago after admitting my experiences with depression and subsequently starting to work with my employer, various mental health charities, friends and colleagues to encourage more open and honest discussion and appreciation about and of poor mental health. I broke down barriers and stigma about mental health, I was a media-volunteer for a number of charities leading to articles published in the Daily Mail, Financial Times, Stella magazine (Telegraph) and an appearance every 30 minutes on Sky News! It is possible to suffer from various types of depression and/or anxiety whilst remaining “high-performing” either at work or as an individual. In other words, you can act the part of a “normal, happy person” so that others don’t guess or realise that you are in pieces and struggling to cope. I have always said that I can out-act Meryl Streep every day of the week…… After a while, I retreated from the publicity despite my determination to get the subject of mental health both good and bad out in the open. It was very tiring and took a lot of my energy which I need, even now, to remain mentally stable; I now leave all the media contributions to others who can spare their time and energy. I have mixed-feelings about where we are as a nation regarding poor mental health. Suffice to say that I was saying, explaining and suggesting things 10 years before my time and it all seems rather stale to me now. Thankfully I have moved on. Not just with my own mental health which I now have under control and stablised, but also recognising that, as I predicted many years ago, poor mental health is far more widespread and attributable to many and varied reasons as well as affecting people at different times of their lives than previously thought. Mental health has to be nurtured and maintained alongside your cardio, strength and flexibility exercises. I find it both sad and frustrating that we are still in the embryonic stage of encouraging the value of good mental health habits but any progress is welcome. In the end it’s all about money. Like many other conditions, there is just not enough money or investment in mental health resources. It’s not good enough to rely on charitable organisations to provide support in crisis and we need more qualified psychotherapists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses, GPS qualified to deliver mental health care and support, counsellors, Cognitive Behavioural specialists, Psychiatrists on duty 24/7 in A&E departments, less stigma about mental health problems, more training for police and emergency services, and less stigma and more support for those sectioned as a result of their behaviour. I have been lucky….I have always had amazing support from my GPs, employer, family and friends. Not everyone is so lucky…so whilst I am not directly involved in mental health initiatives at the moment, I do have a lot of information to impart if you need it. Happy to help 🙂
To start my blogging again feels like coming home. I always keep a journal but doing it online means that I can pepper my posts with pictures and photographs much easier than on paper. I have a lot of catching up to do but am looking forward to re-connecting with my blog-hobnobs.