"" Writer's Wanderings: May 2012

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Reykjavik, Iceland - Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja towered above us. The closer we got the more impressive it became. A little winded from our climb through the streets of Reykjavik and somewhat breathless from the view before us, we stopped and admired the sleek modern architecture of the Lutheran church that was built in honor of Iceland’s poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-74). His most famous work is called Hymns of the Passion. He was one of the most influential pastors during the Age of Orthodoxy and wrote many important Lutheran hymns.

The church, designed by state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, took 38 years to build and was finished in 1986. The tower was the first part to be finished and rises 244 feet making it Iceland's tallest building. Inside the church itself, a simply designed interior and arched ceiling makes for a light and airy feeling. 

As we entered, we could hear organ music and were delighted to find an organist practicing, or perhaps performing for the tourists. The huge organ was built in Germany in 1992 and has 5275 pipes. 

Off the foyer was a small book store and a lady selling lift tickets for a trip to the tower's top. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to take in the views on such a beautiful day. Once the elevator reached the top of the tower, there was still a short climb to get to the very top which had openings covered with iron bars through which you could see in all directions. It was one of the most spectacular views I've seen in a long while. Well, worth the few kronurs for the trip to the top.

On the street level again, we passed by the statue of Leif Erikson in the plaza just in front of the church and began to make our way to where the Celebrity Serenity's shuttle bus was picking people up to return to the ship. Along the way, we couldn't pass up the free WiFi sign on a small coffee shop and stopped to have a cup of coffee and check in with the news back home. The coffee shop gal was very friendly and we enjoyed talking with her as well--it's always fun to share our homeland with others too.

A few minutes after leaving the coffee shop, we discovered that the map must have been a little dated since the intersection marked did not have any shuttle bus. We could see however a bus parked near the new opera house, another impressive building with amazing glass that seems to change color as the light hits it. We sprinted for the next bus back. We were scheduled for an afternoon tour and certainly didn't want to miss lunch before our tour. Cruisers never miss a meal.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Port of Call - Reykjavik, Iceland

Mountains, some snowcapped, some resembling a cake glazed with white icing dripping in the crevices contrasted with blue skies and air so clear that images miles away were sharply defined. Iceland had greeted us with a picture-perfect welcome—travel brochure quality. We feasted on the view from the Lido restaurant on the upper deck of the Crystal Serenity as we ate breakfast, eager to hear the announcement that we were cleared to go ashore. Below us were mounds of fish nets perfectly illustrating the major industry for this beautiful country.

Our day in Reykjavik was well-thought out thanks to our on board lecturer Jon Sigurdsson. A walk into town would be followed by a tour to outer areas surrounding the city. We donned our layers of clothing expecting the sunny day to be crisp or fresh as many on board ship called a cool breezy day. Solid ground beneath our feet was a pleasant change from a moving ship and we breathed in the wonderful scents of the North Atlantic seacoast.

The path into town was easy to find from the pier and we were soon setting our sights on the city of Reykjavik before us. We easily recognized the landmark church with its rocket-ship shape. Birds frolicked in the water along the shoreline. In the cliffs of Iceland, we hoped to see puffins. They would not be here in the harbor area.

Before long, we were unzipping the outer layer of clothes. The morning sun warmed us as we walked. On our left, just outside the city, we passed the large white house that was the site of the 1986 summit meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev. It is said the host had only ten days notice of the event.

We were told that on a clear day you could see for 75 miles even though the city’s name, Reykjavik, means “Bay of Smoke.” The name comes from the geothermal steam vents that provide running hot water and central heating for the whole city and make outdoor swimming a year-round possibility. Of course all that geothermal steam comes from the volcanic action below the terrain of Iceland. Such a peaceful place. Hard to imagine that at any given time one of its many volcanoes could begin to spew ash and lava as happened in 2010 to shut down air traffic through Europe.

At the edge of the city, we turned inward and began a short climb to Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic church of Reykjavik. It is said to be the tallest and most striking in Iceland. I only hoped they had an elevator.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Through My Lens - Iceland

Actually, the clouds were above Signal Hill in St. John's but the rest are from Iceland. More to follow. . .

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cruising Transatlantic - Sea Days

While there are all sorts of interesting activities on board a ship crossing the Atlantic to reposition for a different season of sailing in another part of the world, one of the most popular is the lecture series. Several speakers were booked on the Crystal Serenity to speak on a variety of topics including the places we were to visit, politics, and gem stones.

One speaker, Jon Sigurdsson, was actually from Reykjavik, Iceland. Look at his last name. One of the first things he told us was that Icelanders name their children by signifying who their father was. His son’s last name is Jonsson.  He went on to show us magnificent pictures of Iceland and talk about the volcanoes and the part they play in the lives of Icelanders. Homes and buildings are kept warm with geo thermal heat that is piped in from the numerous hot springs. It is also a source for their electricity. I guess if you live on top of volcanic activity you make the best of it.

We were surprised and pleased to discover that this was also an NFL Legends theme cruise. On board with us were Coach Don Shula, Coach Dan Vermeil, and Dr. Jim Tunney who is known as the “Dean of NFL Referees.” Each gave a talk—Shula about football and Vermeil and Tunney more motivational talks. All together on stage one day they kibitzed about bad calls and bantered about football past and present.
The highlight of the last day at sea before reaching Reykjavik however was the spectacular sunset which occurred at about 11 p.m. It was still a little too early in the season for the “midnight sun” in the North Atlantic, but it was getting close to that. Sunrise the next morning was a little after 4 a.m.
 As we watched the sky redden, we couldn’t help but hope that the old saying, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” would hold out for us and bring us a beautiful weather day for Iceland. So far, the North Atlantic had been more than kind to us. It was not without its bumps a couple of times but nothing like the video from Deadliest Catch.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Transatlantic Cruising - Days at Sea

Transatlantic cruises are generally less expensive than other cruises because there are fewer ports included on the itinerary. Fewer ports mean fewer port fees added to your cruise cost. In addition cruise lines offer all sorts of great ideas for spending those days at sea. A straight crossing usually takes six days. Our Crystal Serenity cruise, the New World to Norway spent three days at sea crossing between St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, and Reykjavik, Iceland. Those three days were filled with all sorts of things to do.

The sea days are a great time to explore the ship and find all the wonderful nooks and crannies with special views, décor, entertainment, etc. The atrium of the ship is always a showpiece on most any ship and the Crystal Serenity is no exception. A string quartet and a wonderful pianist provided music that wafted through the open area to several decks in the evenings. On occasion, it was also a showcase for activities that included a fashion show and a wonderful elegant buffet.
Central to any cruise experience is the dining room. Ours was tastefully done and provided the venue for fine dining—a specialty of Crystal cruises. Several specialty restaurants were available as well and we enjoyed dinners in Prego's, The Silk Road, and Tastes several times. Tastes was a great casual place for dining especially on the nights where we were cruising out of a port with great views. We dined there as we sailed out of New York City and I was able to run outside and grab great pictures of the Statue of Liberty as we passed by. 

Some of the other opportunities afforded us on this crossing and this ship in particular were language lessons (this cruise it was Spanish), a variety of computer courses taught in a lab with the largest monitors I think I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship, and an opportunity to learn to play the keyboard. Yamaha has a room full of keyboards and we were privileged to have the teacher, John Waltrip, and his wife Flo as our tablemates at dinner for the cruise. They had so many interested in keyboarding that they organized extra classes for beginners and advanced students.

Crystal is one of the lines that provides dance hosts for the single ladies who are unescorted and wish to enjoy the dance floor and of course lessons are available for anyone wanting to brush up on their two or three or four step.

Painting with watercolors, bridge lessons, and recent movies are just a few more of the activities to choose from as the ship crosses the big puddle.

As a side note, we were fascinated with the cans of sand that were situated at each elevator entrance. They are not seen as often in public places anymore because of the restrictions on smoking in so many venues now. While there were some smokers on board, we did not see one cigarette butt in any of the cans of sand. There was however one lovely young attendant whose job it was to go around and restamp the double seahorse image, the signature of Crystal Cruise Line, into the sand several times a day. You see, as the ship vibrated slightly or wiggled in the waves, the sand settled and the stamped logo would disappear. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be sifted from the disappearing logo in the sand but my mind is in cruise mode. I’ll think about it when I get home.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Port of Call - St. John's, Newfoundland

Arriving at a port on a Sunday is always an iffy proposition when it comes to what you might see. St. John’s, Newfoundland, in Canada was very quiet. While there were quite a few shops and restaurants open, the residents in this small city were not out in droves and the streets were pretty much taken over by the passengers of our cruise ship the Crystal Serenity.

While waiting for clearance from immigration so we could go ashore, we scoped out the town as much as possible from the top deck of our ship. Up on a hill we could see a large basilica. We set our goal to climb up to that spot, check it out and then see what the shops might have to offer on the main street in town.  After all, we figured, if nothing else was open, at least the church would be. Not so.

We made it all the way up the hill stopping to take a few pictures of nothing in particular along the way. If you stop for pictures as you climb, people are less apt to notice how out of shape you are. You can claim the breathlessness is from taking in a beautiful view. When we reached the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, a cathedral founded in 1841, we found several other hardy (and breathless) souls who informed us that it was closed. The good news was that the walk back to the ship would be all downhill.

St. John’s, the city not the cathedral, is a fishing town. There were dozens of fishing boats in the harbor. It’s wealth at one time was built on salted fish. The weather there so far north is often cold and harsh. To compensate for so many gray days, the homes and buildings are brightly colored. The city is said to be one of the oldest in North America dating back to the time of the Vikings. It is also said to be the most easterly city of North America.

There is much history to be garnered here but unfortunately a lot of historical places were lost to a large fire in the late 1800s. Still, there is Signal Hill, the site of Marconi’s first transatlantic signal, a 17th/18th century French fortress called Castle Hill and Cape Spear Lighthouse in nearby Avalon, and several other points of interest that will have us coming back to visit when we can spend more time.

Our gray day turned sunny just in time for the sail away. We were amazed when our ship was able to turn in the very small harbor and head out through one of the narrowest channels we have ever encountered. This was almost as narrow as the one in Bermuda when we docked in the old town. Once out of the channel, we could see what we had missed in the fog of the morning—a breathtaking view of the coast and even a couple of lost icebergs that had gotten hung up along the shore and were quietly melting away in the warming seasonal weather.


 The captain set course for Iceland and the ship picked up speed. Would the North Atlantic be kind to us?


Monday, May 21, 2012

Port of Call - Boston, Mass.

Before me was a huge X etched into a piece of granite and under it a sign that read “Welcome to our safe house.” I had just entered the Greater Boston Food Bank facility. Not your usual cruise ship excursion. Six of us, including one of the ship’s photographers from the Crystal Serenity, had boarded a large van at the dock and been transported about twenty minutes away to the huge warehouse that is this organization’s central distribution center. The center serves more than 394,000 people of Eastern Massachusetts.

But why was it called a “safe house”? I read the explanation beneath the X. As a young child, Kip Tiernan, the founder of the food bank had watched her grandmother during the Great Depression feed many homeless, helpless, and hungry men who came to her back door in New Haven, Connecticut. When seven-year-old Kip asked her grandmother how the men knew to come to the door, she told her to watch them as they left. Kip noticed the next man leave and pause a moment out on the sidewalk. He picked up a piece of charcoal and marked a large X, the hobo symbol for a safe house. It was her first experience of community organizing.

“It is no secret if you are scarred by struggle you can be transformed by hope,” Tiernan said, “And my grandmother gave them that.”

So we entered the “safe house” and were introduced to the volunteer organizer who gave us a general introduction to all of the organizations that the food bank serves. A large group of young people from a local business joined us as well as regular volunteers and we walked past huge shelves filled with non-perishable foods and entered a room full of boxes of potato chips.

The group organizer for that project set us up to take empty boxes, put four bags of chips in each, replace the top and stack the boxes to be set on shelves for distribution later. In about an hour, we had repacked all the chips and sent them on their way.

Next, after proving ourselves with the chips project, our leader had volunteers bring in frozen meats and poultry for us to sort and redistribute in boxes for distribution. That job took about an hour as well.

A little tired but feeling satisfied that we had contributed some help to their wonderful organization we returned to the orientation room and received a report that our total group of about 30 people had successfully sorted and repacked over 4,000 pounds of food making meals possible for more than 107 people.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen a cruise line organize the opportunity for its guests to contribute in this sort of way to a charitable organization. We are often asked to give money but never our time. It was quite enjoyable and satisfying and I hope to see more of those opportunities in the future.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Port of Call - Newport, RI

Our recent cruise on the Crystal Serenity took us up the east coast from New York City over to Iceland and on to Norway ending in Dover, England. This was the first time we’d seen the New England coast from a ship. Our first stop was in Newport, RI.
The ship anchored outside the harbor and we tendered into the marina area. Close by was a tourist information center combined with a transportation center that made it ideal for getting directions and finding our way. We had researched Newport a bit on the internet and decided that we would like to see one of the historic mansions (there are several) and do a part of the three mile cliff walk along the oceanfront. Unfortunately our day started with rain.

Undaunted by the weather, we climbed aboard one of the trolleys used by the town’s bus system and rode through the main town past the historical district, through the campus of Salve Regina University and got off at the Breakers, the mansion built by the Vanderbilt family.

Inside the mansion, we were handed headphones and an audio tour that was quite well done and we proceeded to explore the luxurious and opulent manor that was to be the summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt only lived a couple of years after the home was finished.

Innovative and somewhat modern conveniences are apparent everywhere in the home. The “new-fangled” electric lights had chains on them that could switch them from electric to gas should the power go off. The large stove in the kitchen did not have individual burners but rather a large flat metal plate that was heated for cooking—not unlike our glass plated stoves of today except ours are just flat burners.

Room after room (there is a total of 70) was ornately but tastefully decorated for the period which was dubbed the gilded age—perhaps because so much was actually gilded with gold. Bathtubs, while not gilded, had four faucets. Two were for fresh water and two were for salt water pumped in from the ocean.
The Breakers was only one of 60 mansions that line the streets of Bellevue and Harrison Avenues and Ocean Drive. Only a half dozen or so are open to the public. Some can be seen from the cliff walk.

 Newport was for many years the home of the America’s Cup Race and has quite a lot of other historical buildings worth looking at if you have the time. Unfortunately, when a ship stops for the day there is never enough time to do a place like Newport justice so we got out our bucket list and gave it a spot. We need to return, explore, and sample the chowder.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where Is The Largest Ball of Twine?

Cawker, Kansas, claims the world's largest ball of twine--no kidding! The ball originated with Frank Stoeber who started it in 1953 and in four years it grew to be 5,000 pounds and 8 feet high. It was donated to the city of Cawker in 1961. Kansas has not been on our destination map in all the years we have traveled but we always teased the kids when they were little that we would take them to see it--not really knowing it even existed.

Just what else is on that list of World's Largest? For that matter where is the list? A little searching turned up the World's Largest Things, Inc. website. And yes, there are t-shirts. But more importantly there's a whole list of the world's largest things in the United States. I see road-trip potential here.

For example, Kansas not only claims the world's largest ball of twine but Topeka claims the largest spur, Lawrence, the largest tepee and Oakley, the largest prairie dog. You might want to check some of these out first before gassing up the car. They are a little hokey.

But while we're on the topic, here are a few more I found interesting:

  • Alama, Arkansas - spinach can
  • Chico, California - yoyo
  • Riverside, California - paper cup
  • Wilmington, Delaware - ball of rubber bands (don't want to think about what would happen if this let loose!)
  • Douglas, Georgia - cuckoo clock
  • Stanton, Iowa - coffee pot and cup
  • Boy's Town, Nebraska - ball of stamps (I want to know who licked them all?)
And the list goes on. . .

But wait! How does Ohio fair? Well, Newark, Ohio, has the world's largest basket thanks to the Loganberger basket people and Cleveland. . . .We have the world's largest ink stamp! And they said it was only art.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Do you have Dromomania?

We often call our penchant for travel an addiction. The other day I got to wondering if it were truly possible to be addicted to travel. While I'm not sure about the psychological ramifications, I did find a word for it--dromomania. 
According to several dictionaries the term is defined this way: a passion for wandering or traveling, a mania for roaming, an uncontrollable impulse or desire to wander or travel. The term comes from the Greek dromos meaning running and mania which indicates insanity. 

Symptoms? Ours are easily apparent. At about a six week lapse in time between trips, we begin to get restless. It's more difficult to concentrate. We begin to look at planning beyond what is already planned--new places to see. As we take our daily walk and notice a plane, its contrail leaving a chalky white mark against the blue sky, we speculate about its destination. 

Is there a cure? If there is, keep it to yourself. I rather like dromomania. 
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