Order of the Blue Nose

Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.

“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”

Of course, we were disappointed.

Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.

But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.


Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.

While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),

Here Comes the Sun

the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.

Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:

Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.

The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.

The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.

The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.

Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”

The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…

Hear ye… hear ye….

Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.

(Applause)

Captain Nilsen continued…

This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.

We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!

I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?

drinking aquavit (2)

But I wasn’t alone.

Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.

closed eyes

What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…

red eye

pursed lip

plaid shirt

man wirth glasses

lady with glasses

grinning lady

glassy eyes

Chinese freckles

beard man

United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.

To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.

Certificate

Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.

Arctic Circle marker

Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”

Praying for a Glimpse of Pulpit Rock

Having pre-booked Rødne’s 3-hour scenic cruise through Lysefjord–Western Norway’s most picturesque passage–

route map

Leah and I were on an impossible mission to view Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), considering the current gray skies and dismal forecast. Reknown for its views, and famous for its cliffhanger scene in Mission: Impossible–Fallout, we considered Preikestolen a must-see.

On the bright side, there was plenty of legroom aboard Rødne’s Rygerdronningen, a 297-passenger, high-speed catamaran that carried only 24 guests this particular day, many with camera lenses as long as my arm.

boat tour

We pushed off at 11:00 am sharp,

playground

easing out of the harbor’s protected waters,

marina (2)

and beyond the bridge,

bridge columns (2)

where it became perfectly clear to us that this was a perfect day for seabirds,

seabirds

but less so for Leah–who required a double dose of dramimine to deal with the swells propagating across the horizon.

pier house

Along the journey, we passed scores of coastline cottages,

summer cottage

whose owners regulary commute to town by boat during the summer months…

boathouse

unless they have the means to vacation in Rogaland all summer long.

tiered roof

 

Midway through our voyage we passed under the Lysefjord Bridge–gateway to Lysefjord–

Lysefjord Bridge1

connecting Forsand with Oanes, a small farming village on the coastline,

mountain valley

that’s dwarfed by an imposing edifice.

gateway to Lysefjord

We eased into the fjord,

into the fjords

flanked by looming walls of granite…

cliffside

until the captain navigated the bow of the ship within a hair’s breath of the Vagabond’s Cave.

cave entrance (2)

Legend has it that the cave was named after a group of vagabonds who used the shelter as a hideout for months, trying to escape the police.

cliff face

As we backed out of the grotto to pursue a course to Pulpit Rock, the weather turned to sleet and snow, shrouding the cliff’s signature square flat top, 604 meters above the fjord, and driving most of the passengers indoors.

pulpit rock

But there were some intrepid sailors who were undeterred, because they had little choice in their RIB (rigid inflatable boat).

RIB (2)

We followed at our own pace…

falls and RIB (2)

until we reached Hengjane Waterfall, cascading 400 meters (1312 ft) into the fjord.

Hengjane Waterfall (2)

Soon after, we U-turned to retrace our wake before returning to Skavanger.

through fjord storm

Marie-Charlotte van Kerckhoven was among the few passengers on board. While nursing a hot coffee, Leah and I heard about her hiking expedition to the top of Pulpit Rock the day before. Braving freezing temperatures and two feet of snow, she and her hiking buddy made the ascent to the 25 by 25 meters flat top in 4 hours.

She was happy to share her view,

view from the top

and even happier to report that here was no trace of Tom Cruise ever being there.

Next port of call: Bodø

Stavanger

Leah and I crossed a rocky North Sea from Tilbury, England aboard Viking Star (more on this Viking ocean liner later),

cruise port

and docked at Stavanger Port on an overcast morning.

Port Authority

Stavanger is Norway’s third largest region, and best known as the European capital for the oil and gas industry–which explains the town’s Norwegian Petroleum Museum, and its unusual derrick-like design on the city’s waterfront.

petroleum museum

Stavanger is also a popular tourist hub, as it’s the gateway to the fjords. To that end, Leah and I had booked an off-ship excursion to Rogaland to cruise through Lysefjord in search of Preikestolen, better known as Pulpit Rock.

But with some time to kill before our departure, we disembarked early to stroll along the harbor plaza to find our bearings, and regain our sea legs after a day and a half of cruising.

welcome

The plaza was sleepy for an early Wednesday morning, but it was refreshing to have the place to ourselves.

bronze man (2)

We could enjoy the local art (that celebrates the shrimping industry)…

pillar sculpture (2)

without concern for another’s footsteps.

Dalai Lama

We opted to tour the Gamle Stravanger (Old Town), where 173 wooden buildings from the turn of the 18th century have been preserved…

rooftop cluster

down to the cast bronze utility plate covers.

Stavanger 1866A casual walk along Old Town’s winding roads of white cottages…

 

Old Town tree

soon brought us to an end-of-the-road cafe,

cafe

where old begat new,

old town district

and reminded us how far we’ve come…

My Little Ponies

and the distance we’ve traveled.

Our adventure continues…

Photos I Shouldn’t Have Taken

Our time in London was limited–only two days to explore the sights. With so much to see and so little time, Leah and I buckled down for a tour of London’s greatest hits, which easily includes a visit to Westminster Abbey, England’s Gothic royal church, and familiar site for British coronations and weddings, and national celebrations dating back to the 11th century.

WA panorama

We walked around the massive structure until we found the gate entry. Signage informed us that access to this London landmark would set us back 23£ ($30 with current exchange rates), but seniors were entitled to a 3£ discount.

north facade

The price seemed steep, but the opportunity to walk through history doesn’t come along every day.

relief of Christ

There is a strict NO PHOTOGRAPHY policy inside, which the church keepers will tell you is for the benefit of giving their guests an experience without distraction, and to perserve the solemnity of a working house of worship.

Nevertheless, we walked through the transepts and chapels listening to interactive video recordings while admiring the captivating architecture and memorials, and reflecting on the notion that Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton lie beneath our feet.

But with a newly purchased camera dangling around my neck (Sony RX10 IV), I couldn’t resist the urge.

WA main hall

I had to see what this camera could reproduce in low light…

quire

using advanced stabilization software for hand-held shots…

High Altar

until I was admonished by an Abbey marshal in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel while capturing an overhead view from a polished mirror.

royal tomb room

My bad! He wouldn’t leave my side until I reversed the shade and capped my lens. Even then, I could feel his eyes trained on me as I walked around the royal tombs acting as contrite as I could possibly be.

Fortunately, photography IS allowed in the College Garden,

courtyard

the Cloisters,

cloisters

and the Chapter House.

columnfresco

stained glass reflection

As we prepared to leave through the Great West Door, Leah and I walked past the Grave of the Unknown Warrior toward the Coronation Chair behind glass, I was so tempted to surreptitiously point and shoot…but thought better of it. Lesson learned.

As serendipity would have it, the Marshal and I reunited outside, and all was forgiven.

marshall

We parted as friends, and I believe I was absolved for my vainglory sin. He used our final moments together to tell us the tale of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, his favorite modern martyr, whose ediface adorns the Abbey’s Great West Door.

Elizabeth

According to Marshal John…

Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt was born on 1st November 1864. She was named after Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Catholic saint of her own family. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live under the protection of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. If her childhood was Lutheran, the religious culture of her adolescence was distinctively Anglican. In 1884 Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Elizabeth found Orthodoxy increasingly absorbing, and in 1891 she adopted the faith.

Although her life had assurance and all the comforts of eminence, it rested on fragile foundations. The Tsarist state maintained its grip over a changing society by repression. Talk of revolution persisted, and grew louder. Acts of terrorism mounted. On 18th February 1905, the Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated.

This marked a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. Now she gave away her jewellery and sold her most luxurious possessions, and with the proceeds she opened the Martha and Mary home in Moscow, to foster the prayer and charity of devout women. Here there arose a new vision of a diaconate for women, one that combined intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. In April 1909 Elizabeth and seventeen women were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy. Their work flourished: soon they opened a hospital and a variety of other philanthropic ventures arose.

In March 1917 the Tsarist state, fatally damaged by the war with Germany, collapsed. In October, a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, seized power. Civil war followed. The Bolshevik party was avowedly atheistic, and it saw in the Orthodox Church a pillar of the old regime. In power, it persecuted the Church with terrible force. In time, hundreds of priests and nuns were imprisoned, taken away to distant labour camps, and killed. Churches were closed or destroyed. On 7th May 1918 Elizabeth was arrested with two sisters from her convent, and transported across country to Perm, then to Ekatarinburg, and finally to Alapaevsk. On 17th July the Tsar and his family were shot dead. During the following night Elizabeth, a sister from SS Mary and Martha named Varvara, and members of the royal family were murdered in a mineshaft.

In the Soviet Union Christianity survived in the face of periodic persecution and sustained oppression. But Elizabeth was remembered. In 1984 she was recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.

I’m certain that Saint Elizabeth, in her charity, would have pardoned me too.

Western Towers

To avoid taking interior photos of Westminster Abbey, go to https://www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/photo-gallery for complementary images.

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Entertainment

See  Part 1 before continuing…

With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.

Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,

animal people1 (2)

beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,

Cirque leads

who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.

Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters:    a skip rope team…

jump rope

a Risley acrobatic duo,


a silk curtain dancer…

curtain split1

curtain split

an audience participant…

audience member

dueling pirates…

pirate ship

a juggler…

juggler

a hand-balancer/contortionist…

contortionist

pageant and puppetry…

fish puppet

puppets

strap aerielists…

rings couple (2)

and a trampoline wall before the finale…


The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.

As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.

pets

And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.

With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,

jungle

deep within the repurposed Yucatán jungle.

 

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Eatertainment

Cirque du Soleil is seemingly ubiquitous–with a dozen touring companies scouring the continents, and 7 different resident shows selling out across the Las Vegas strip, making this entertainment company the most prolific circus producer on the planet.

But JOYÀ is different, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my family.

family portrait

Staged in a custom-built, butterfly-inspired structure surrounded by a cenote within the Riviera Maya jungle,

theater1

the 600-seat theater features a thrust stage anchored by perimeter table service, and  tiered seating beyond the waiters’ service stations.

theater

For the epicure, this production offers a dinner component one-hour before showtime that relies on gastronomic smoke and mirrors to draw the guest deeper into the Mexican experience.

According to Mexican Top Chef Alexis Bostelmann, “Each element of this magnificent show served as my inspiration, where imaginative curiosity is met with unexpected discovery,” said Bostelmann.

The adventure began with an edible menu, 

edible menu

followed by a polished slab of wood featuring a salad of edible flowers and Iberian ham, served with a lobster taco, a sweet potato, and fresh ceviche seasoned with coconut, mint and passion fruit.

appetizer platter

I said “yes” to the protein option to garnish my salad: locally-sourced chinicuiles–a salty worm that feeds off maguey roots, and is often found swimming at the bottom of a mezcal bottle. A true Mexican delicacy!

salad with worm garnish

Our featured beverage, in addition to a chilled bottle of Mecier Brut Champagne was  Dragon Breath–a signature tequila concoction that was smokin’ and refreshing!

dry ice cocktail

We noshed on a basket of bread bark,

bread basket (2)

and broccoli boughs while we waited for the second course.

bread treat (2)

My entree arrived under a meteor shell. I opted for braised short ribs nestled beside a dugout dinosaur bone of grilled veggies, and accompanied by a geode-styled crock filled with ginger, coconut and sweet potato mash. 

short ribs

Leah received a treasure chest of jewels…

treasure

accented by a fillet of salmon resting on a poblano-mint puree, elevated by a tower of grilled vegetables, and an oyster-sized seaweed salad topped with a coconut milk pearl.

salmon entree

All the while, our remaining senses were treated to traditional Latin music performed with a jazzy twist.

music interlude

After the second course was cleared, we were presented with a novel idea–

book of pastries

–a quartet of desserts plated within the pages of the Periodic Table of Pastries.

dessert box

Yum!

“My goal was to present a menu rooted in historical meaning that parallels the show’s beloved storyline so that once the performance begins, guests will connect all the details for a completely immersive theatrical experience,” Bostelmann added.

If dinner set the scene, then the show would bear more earthly delights. Noah, Nathan, Leah and I waited for the lights to dim…

lanterns

and let Cirque du Soleil transport us to a magical place, where gravity is optional.

Continue to Part 2

Ta-ta, Tulum!

GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!
But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.
According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).
“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.
All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!
While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.
I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats.
Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.
Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.
We drove to the término, reaching our destination…
Santa Fe wall
and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.
beach and ruins.jpg
We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.
Tulum envisioned
Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.
castillo and tourists
castillo signage
In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…
Tulum vista
ruins 2
ruins 4
ruins
ruins3
Temple of Paintings
temple on the hill
except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.
Leah thru the gate
Leah and Nate.jpg
After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.
hilltop view
Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…

shoreline
and that was our next destination.
Sante Fe Beach Club
Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.
Brenda
Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.
Our captain motored out to open water,
Captain of Brenda.jpg
and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.
temple by the sea
Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.
snorkeling over a reef.jpg
Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…



while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…
pelican chilling
and keeping track of my sons.
Nate snorkeling
Noah and the bird
Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.
3 amigos

Free Fallin’ Off My Bucket List

This tune helps set the mood, so hit play and read until the video:


I’ve been an adrenelin junkie most of my adult life, so it figures that one day I would satisfy my urge to jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course). But for whatever reason, I never took advantage of the opportunity…until now.

The opportunity came in the form of a birthday present from my sons, Noah and Nate, but with a long ribbon attached: we’d be skydiving in Playa del Carmen, which was my gift to them to celebrate their belated birthdays!

birthday present (2)

We all came from different parts of the country. Leah and I flew from Jacksonville to Charlotte–where we met Nate, who transfered from Seattle–and continued with us to Cancun, hours ahead of Noah’s direct flight from Philly.

We thought about the weather when we arrived at Vidanta on Saturday. Our jump on Monday was conditional on the weather spirits. The winds had to be just right, and a sunny day would be a bonus. On Monday we got both.

I reserved a car from the resort’s travel center on Sunday, and returned the next day with my family to pick up my VW Polo at 9 am. I was expecting the agent, but nobody was there except for two women from Columbia, who were already waiting with their family for half-an-hour.

When we compared itineraries, the Columbians mentioned they were driving to Chichen Itza. In my mind, I thought that my family deserved priority check out. After all, we had a briefing and a plane to catch at Playa del Carmen’s aerodrome at 10 am. But I wasn’t going to make a stink about it, because we planned our departure with a half-hour contingency cushion. Nevertheless, a spark of adrenalin delivered a dose of shpilkes.

Besides, none of that mattered at 9:15 am when the agent was still a no-show, and the concierge kept her distance when Leah approached her about contacting the agent to secure an ETA, so we could make alternative plans. Another push of adrenalin and my irritation level moved to agita.

We hustled to a tram stop to catch an achingly s-l-o-w shuttle to the resort’s transit hub, and hailed a taxi the moment we got our bearings. A time check revealed 9:30 am. Google maps predicted a 10 am arrival. My pulse was racing just a bit, and I was feeling verklempt. We traveled the road to Playa mostly in silence.

We celebrated our arrival at exactly 10 am (how does Google do it?)

logo (2)

Typical paperwork to indemnify the company was waiting for us, and after weighing in, we anxiously waited for our tandem partners to arrive from an earlier jump. Nearby, our chutes were being prepared.

clearin the lines.jpg

packing the chute.jpg

Leah was driven to the jump drop on Playacar’s beach, while my sons and I met David, Jose and Juan, who we would trust our lives to.

beach landing

Finally, it was time to jump! On the way to the airport (walking distance), I learned that David had over 2400 jumps, of which 500 were tandem. I was really looking forward to this!

After an official passed us through security with a wand, we caught up with our pilot and plane, a twin engine AirVan outfitted for eight passengers parked along a single landing strip. Once we were prepped on the flight and outfitted with harnesses, we boarded the plane. Soon we were barrelling down the runway and airborne.



Our free fall time was approximately 40 seconds, and we were hurtling toward earth at approximately 200 km per hour (125 mph). No wonder my face was stretched to the max. But after touching down only meters away from our landing zone, I knew that this was a birthday gift I would long remember…

david and me (2)

until the next time!

the end

Thanks Noah and Nate for an adrenal rush of a lifetime!

Jeremy nd Noah

Tim and Nate