By now some of you may have deduced that I was traveling for half the summer. In a rather unexpected turn of events, my friend Grace was asked last minute to teach pilates on a Crystal cruise ship and I was lucky enough to tag along as her guest. To add icing on the cake (or maybe the garnish on top of the icing), the cruise was going to Northern Europe, an area high on my bucket list.
Now, there are cruise ships, and then there is a Crystal cruise. Upon entering the ship through deck five, guests are greeted by a glistening, Titanic-esque staircase and sparkling crystal chandeliers (it doesn’t take long to realize the ship is cleaned every day from top to bottom). After getting an incredibly unflattering picture of yourself taken by a man holding up the equivalent of an external Skype camera (this is for your ID card, which is needed to come and go from the ship freely—you get the pleasure of seeing that terrible picture sometimes multiple times a day), you are sent to your room where your bags have magically been transported inside. Soon you learn that life on the ship is akin to life at Hogwarts, where you only have to think about something and it appears almost instantly (if you didn’t believe in house elves before, Crystal will persuade you otherwise).
On a Crystal cruise the daily dress code is country club casual (absolutely no jeans), with the occasional black tie night. The average age is 75 years old (and, yes, people DO pass away while onboard). There are multi-course meals every night (and food is available 24/7). They have tea time everyday (and whiskey whenever you want it).
Each night I snuggled into plushy white sheets and woke up with a new view outside my window...
A fleet of Russian icebreakers, waterfalls cascading into a Norwegian fjord, towns reminiscent of miniature golf courses, countryside homes nestled in isolation among conifer trees, uninhabited islands with mysterious labyrinths grown into the landscape, an old fortress whose canons point directly at the ship…Oh, and one time a really ugly orange crane.
When the ship is not ported, an entire entertainment department is onboard to help pass the time at sea or in lieu of going ashore. This guest entertainment includes fitness instructors, acrobats, singers, comedians, and also lecturers. The lecturers range from historians and political experts to arctic explorers and astronauts who have been to space five times.
On the first leg of the cruise, Grace and I figured out that one of the guest lecturers, Ed (a history professor at Pepperdine), researches each place the ship visits and knows all the best things to do. So at our first stop in Norway, we asked if we could tag along with him and his daughter, Sarah.
Ed explained that we could take a public bus from Leknes, where we were ported (a town our bus driver called a disgrace to Norway), to a small fishing village. For $12, a bus ride took us through an underwater tunnel that led to four other Lofoten Islands until two hours (and 100 waterfalls) later, we ended up in Å (pronounced something like “oh”).
I am not kidding when I say we stepped into Middle Earth. Å looked like the Shire, home of the hobbits. We climbed a mountain with no trail next to a fjord and saw the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen of waterfalls, ocean, mountain, houses, everything.
On the way back, the bus driver became our personal tour guide, stopping every so often to let us get out and take pictures, as well as telling us about the town.
The day couldn’t have turned out better.
Grace and I decided we were sticking with Ed from then on. We even donned our little group "the Ed Tours,” later renamed “Edventures” (for reasons apparent later in this blog post).
Two days later, we were ported in Narvik, Norway. We met Ed and Sarah bright and early to find a cloudy sky and decided to make our first outing a taxi ride to a fjord called Sjomen (pronounced Shoe-man). The taxi driver cut us a deal and gave us our second best tour of Norway (the first being in Å).
We finished that by 10am and headed to the train station where we expected to take a train from Narvik to cross the border into Sweden, a famous scenic route from WWII where they transported their highly coveted magnetite ore.
Ed was already talking to the ticketing lady by the time, Grace, Sarah and I made it into the train station behind him. He turned to us and said, “she thinks there are no more tickets left for the 10:40 train.” The woman interrupted with an agitated stare, saying, “I know there are no more tickets left, sir.”
Well, Ed walked outside to where the train was waiting, hopped on and showed up in the window a few minutes later, gesturing for us to get on. For a split second, I thought he was telling us to just ride the train illegally, but it turns out he spoke to the conductor, who sold him four tickets without hesitation. Ed handed us the tickets, saying, "there's always a way!"
We found seats (ironically next to a Crystal tour whose participants probably paid over $100 a person for a $12 train ride), crossed the border into Sweden, got off the train and hiked to a waterfall (and by hiked I mean, scaled rocks and snow on a mountainside behind the train tracks), then headed back on the train to Narvik.
Our last adventure of the day was to take a cable car to the top of a mountain and go to a lodge to have hot chocolate. The ride up was beautiful. Of course when we got off the cable car Ed wanted to hike to a tiny little hut at the top peak of the mountain (it was far). Sarah and I were very ready for hot chocolate, but with some coaxing from Grace decided to go halfway up the mountain. There were more waterfalls, it was beautiful, etc.
We got back to the top of the cable car and Ed asked one of the workers at the top how far the lodge was. This spry, young Norwegian girl claimed the lodge was just 15 minutes down the mountain and that it was only an additional 7 to the bottom from there. Sarah and I (again) were weary and suggested taking the cable car down anyway. Ed decided to see if we could get a refund on our return ticket, but they regretfully explained the tickets were only sold round trip (more on that later).
So, regardless of not getting a refund for the ride back, we head down the trail. This trail was more of a road. A wide road with gravel that zigzagged back and forth every 20-50 feet.
30 minutes into our hike down the mountain, there was still no lodge in sight. I noticed small trails leading off the road that had warning signs for hikers, saying “bikes only."
Now, I have a theory that Norway actually is Middle Earth and that Narvik is the Elvish land of Rivendell, hence, the Norwegians that live there are elves. That is the only possible way that I can imagine someone would be able to make it down that mountain in less than 30 minutes. Whether or not my theory is correct, we soon learned there were minutes as we know them and Norwegian minutes.
With no other choice, we kept walking.
By that time it was 4:00 pm. We had to be back on the boat by 5:30 pm. For those of you who have not been on a cruise ship, if you do not make it back to the ship by the time they say, they WILL leave you. This means you have to find your way to the next port yourself. Lucky for us, the next port was still in Norway, but in many other cases that means getting to another country with no passport in one or two days.
At this point we were starting to understand why they do not sell one way tickets for the cable car.
Ed was getting farther and farther ahead of us as we realized we were nowhere near the bottom of the hill. Not to mention losing time fast zigzagging back and forth. He called from up ahead, “I found a trail.”
After some convincing that it was not a bike trail, we all followed him onto it. This “trail" was about a foot wide of muddy ground with green ferns on either side of it and thin trees all around. With no other choice, we started walking.
Or, should I say, we started sliding.
Occasionally there were rocks or tree roots making a semblance of a natural “staircase,” but eventually we were just lunging for trees and hoping we caught them.
By then Ed was so far ahead of us that we couldn’t see him. He shouted every so often so we knew we were going the right way. At some point he called, “there’s the lodge!”
Keep in mind this is almost an hour down the mountain (conclusion: elvish people).
Sarah and Grace were behind me, laughing as we slipped and slid and lunged. I also had a case of the giggles, but admitted that in 20 more minutes it wouldn’t be so funny anymore.
The ground started sloping up and down, and eventually, finally, there was a house in sight and then a road!
Ed said, “See, we’re back!”
The only problem was that there were no cable cars in sight. It looked more like a residential neighborhood.
Thats because it was.
A nice family of four began passing in an SUV and I waved them down. Had there not been so many passengers in the backseat, I would have hitch hiked at that point. But, they assured us town was straight ahead.
The end of the road led to a fork. We knew the boat was to our left, but now we could see the cable cars to the right. It was around 4:30 now. Our shoes were covered in mud, our muscles burned, we were thirsty and hungry and tired. The cable cars seemed so far away, and yet we knew we would be able to call a taxi from there. So we headed toward the cable cars, the soothing sounds of nature overtaken by our tense and anxious silence. Just as I was thinking I could not walk another step, a city bus came around the bend.
I wouldn’t have thought twice about had Ed not thrown himself into the middle of the street, waving his arms frantically.
“Ed,” we called, “you’re going to get run over!”
But he kept waving until the bus stopped. We rushed on, asking in a huff how much it would be to get back to the town center. The driver took one look at us, said, “just get in.” Apparently he had one more stop and then was passing by our ship on his way home for dinner.
20 minutes later, the blessed man dropped us off in front of the ship and we had 30 minutes to spare.
And that was then end of that Edventure.
Surprisingly, that did not deter us from rejoining Ed two days later in our next port, Geiranger. I won’t go into detail (nothing too eventful happened), other than to tell you its the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. Granted, I have a lot more places to see before I settle on that blanket statement, but I do stand by my theory that Norwegians are elves and that Norway is Middle Earth.
However, I’ll leave you with a quote from Ed: “Even J.R.R Tolkein’s descriptions don’t do Norway justice.”
And I guess I have to agree.