Friday, June 29, 2018

Oslo is small but it packs a big punch

Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II is exhibited in Oslo, Norway 
( -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license  Image:  China Crisi)

OSLO, NORWAY Good things often come in small packages, and in the jewel box known as Scandinavia, Oslo is a tiny gem.

The Norwegian capital has a lot going for it these days. Especially considering it once languished in the shadow of its larger sisters Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen.

One factor for its newfound prestige is that "Lonely Planet" recently named Oslo one of its Top Ten best cities to visit in 2018. Thanks to "innovative architecture and unmissable museums alongside cool bars, bistros and cafés.

Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo
Combined with the status of being one of Europe's leading maritime centers as well as a major base for many Norwegian oil and gas companies, in recent years Oslo has been named one of the "European Cities of the Future."

Oslo is compact making it easy for travelers with limited time to see a lot without having to rush. On the other hand, travelers with the luxury of being able to dawdle can surround themselves within a city that has a variety of interesting sites. The key in Oslo is diversity.

The Stave Church at the Norsk Folkemuseum is more than
800 years old (Image: Mischa L. Rieser)

Begin with the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) which features more than 150 buildings that have been relocated from all over the country. The most popular attraction in the outdoor folk-center is Gol Stave Church which dates to sometime around 1200.

Among the lesser known aspects of Scandinavian culture is discovering the fascinating heritage of the Sami people. Americans more likely know them better as Lapps.

Not far from the city center, within easy walking distance, is Frogner Park. Frogner Park is the largest and best-known park in Norway, thanks primarily to the massive collection of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland.

The fountain in Vigeland Park 
( -- 
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Norway license  Image: Nickrds09)

Vigeland Park, the largest sculpture park in the world made by a single artist, was the life work of its creator. With 212 sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron, most of the complex was completed between 1939 and 1949.

Bronze sculptures line the Vigeland Bridge (,_Oslo.jpg
 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Norway license -- Image: Ignaz Wiradi)
Most of the sculptures are nudes, but lest you think there is anything salacious in the work, the figures range in age from very young to very old. Vigeland's idea was to represent the cycles of life from birth to old age through his art, thus displaying many of his pieces in less than sensational or seductive appearance.

A newer, more landscaped park known as Ekebergparken Sculpture Park features works by Norwegian and international artists such as Salvador Dali.

One of the lesser known facts about is Vigeland is that he also designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal.

Home of the Nobel Peace Prize
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike  3.0 Unported  2. 5 Generic
 license and 1.0 Generic licesnse
Image: JZ at wikivoyage shared)
Speaking of the Nobel Peace Prize, every December 10th, the award is presented in the town hall in Oslo. All the other Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm.

December 10 marks the day of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. Oddly enough, he went to his grave without  explaining exactly why the Peace Prize was to be given in Oslo with the others being presented in Stockholm, leaving the reason up for speculation.

Several renowned writers either lived or were born in Oslo including Knut Hamsun and Henrik Ibsen.

Exterior of the Munch Museum in Oslo
( --  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license -- Image: Jodyno)

Recently the Munch Museum honoring provocative expressionist artist Edvard Munch opened in Oslo featuring, of course, his most famous work "The Scream." Upon his death, Munch donated his entire collection to the city.

The Scream by Edvard
Munch  (
Image: Robert Taylor)
The museum itself with its wave-like curl at the top is a perfect example of Oslo's newfound reputation for  architectural diversity. In 1814, when Oslo was made the capital with the name of Christiania, there were hardly any buildings at all that were suitable enough for government institutions. Architecturally, Oslo has come a long way in the past two centuries.

You can always tell a city that has great attractions when it offers museums that appeal to non-museum lovers. Oslo has two.
The famous  reed boat, Ra II, sailed by Thor Heyerdahl
(Image: Daderot)
The Kon-Tiki Museum showcases both of Thor Heyerdahl's historic boats in a single fascinating exhibition. In 1947, the famous adventurer crossed the Pacific Ocean on the balsawood raft Kon Tiki.

He later accomplished a similar achievement when he piloted Ra, Ra II and Tigris across the Atlantic in papyrus and reed boats in an effort to prove that ancient civilizations could indeed make contact over long distances.

Heyerdahl also explored the Galapagos where Charles Darwin set forth many of his theories, and he did archeological excavations on remote Easter Island as well.

The Gokstad is one of three Viking ships on display at the Viking Ship Museum
( -- 
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.-- ImageL Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

The Viking Ship Museum is the second place of interest for non-museum fans. Three ships trace the history of the age of the Vikings. The Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune along with numerous other relics from the era are more than enough to appeal to even the toughest museum critic.

Oslo has its own fjord in case you can't get to the west coast to
visit Bergen 
With more than 20 theaters, including the National Theatre of Norway situated between the Royal Palace and Parliament as well as six Michelin rated restaurants with Maaemo being the only three star restaurant in Norway's history, Oslo can keep travelers occupied for many days. And with a host of lively festivals each year, such as the six-day Oslo Jazz Festival, Oslo is truly making its mark for recognition among its better known sister cities.

The city nestles like a horseshoe along the shores of the Oslofjord with forests and hills radiating in most directions. Consequently, no place in the city is far from the countryside and, best of all, scenery lovers who cannot make it all the way west to Bergen and the fjords can get a taste of Norway's best known picturesque wonders in Oslo itself.

It all comes down to the fact that a traveler can no longer ignore little Oslo because its "fjords have a better idea."

Friday, June 22, 2018

Hiking in the heavens of Kandersteg, Switzlerland

Kandersteg is surrounded by mountains that appear to plunge from the sky  (from wikimedia commons Image: Earth Traveler)
KANDERSTEG, SWITZERLAND — Every now and then travelers will happen on to a place they overlooked in their guidebook and immediately fall in love with it. Kandersteg, Switzerland is one of those places.

The tiny village of roughly 1,200 inhabitants is sandwiched between the valley of the River Kander, situated to the west of the Jungfrau and the entrance, or exit, to the Lotschberg Tunnel. Basically, what that means is, if you are traveling to or from the capital city of Bern toward the canton of Valais, you cannot help but come to a halt in Kandersteg.

The Lotschberg Tunnel links
Kandersteg to Bern
Thanks to the construction of the 10-mile Lotschberg rail tunnel in the early 20th century, which connects Brig to the south with Bern in the north, Kandersteg's touristic economy has thrived even though its name doesn't always slip off your tongue.

Nearly a century after the opening of the original tunnel, the Swiss constructed a second tunnel in 2007 that is approximately 1,300 feet beneath the first. Today the new tunnel has become the primary connection between the two Swiss states.

Car shuttle train in Kandesteg
(Creative Commons
Image: Roland Zumbuhl)
Using typical Swiss ingenuity and engineering skills, the Lotschberg Tunnel is a masterpiece of architectural design. Travelers who require their cars during the snowy winter season, need not worry about using them. The Lotschberg Car Shuttle train transports passengers who remain in their cars  in open sided transport vehicles on the train.

Travel time from one end of the tunnel to the other is about 20 minutes, with transport service operating in each direction every  7 1/2 minutes during peak periods.

Since the northern end of the Lotschberg station unloads its cars in Kandersteg, it's little wonder the tiny Swiss village benefits from a steady influx of visitors.

The tunnel is 10 miles long and was renovated in 2007
(from wikimedia commons Image: Adrian Michael)
At nearly 4,100-feet above sea level at its highest point, the Lotschberg Tunnel boasts of being the highest point of the main Swiss national railway system.

Even without the tunnel however, Kandersteg would still thrive as a recreational haven for skiing and hiking thanks to its setting beneath majestic alpine landscapes which seem to plunge into the village.

Gorgeous lakes, hiking trails and cable cars abound in the Kandersteg region (
Kandersteg is cable car heaven, where you can elevate your spirits to dozens of magnificent lakes amid stunning sylvan scenery that immerses you in optimistic vibes.

Trite as it may sound, here you can almost hear the sounds of alphorns and yodeling among the serenity of the hills filled with wildflowers or snow.

Lake Oeschinen is the largest in the valley and a favorite
spot for visitors  (
Lake Oeschinen, the largest lake in the valley, is located about a mile east Kandersteg at the foot of Bluemlisalp Mountain.

Lake Oeschinen, which many Swiss consider the most beautiful lake in the country, can be easily accessed by the Kandersteg-Oeschinen cable car, which is one of numerous other mountainous cable car adventures in the region.

Blue Lake is world famous
Also nearby and accessible by bus from the railway station, is world-famous Lake Blausee (literally "Blue Lake") which, like so many mountain villages in the region has fervently retained it rural character.

In fact, the International Scout Centre is situated at the edge of town where it hosts more than 11,000 scouts from all over the world each year. The Swiss Alpine Club offers rustic accommodations in several mountain huts that are located in the valley.

Riding the train from Bern through the Kander Valley to Kandersteg is an adventure all its own. The tracks are elevated so passengers look down into scenery that becomes almost a world of "Lilliputian" proportions. A sensation of an omnipotence is not uncommon as riders peer into  miniaturized landscapes of rolling farmland set beneath massive mountains and snowcapped peaks.

Winter is also a great time to visit Kandersteg (
Kandersteg fulfills the growing desire to get off the train and explore. The village beckons as it emerges with its "Toonerville Trolley" setting that is both awe inspiring and humbling at the same time.

Among the most famous routes for rambunctious travelers who wish to stay on the move, is across the Gemmi Pass that runs to Leukerbad in Valais with cable car transportation operating at each end.

 Another popular outing, that is a bit more adventurous, is traveling through the wild Gastern Valley across the Lotschen Pass to the Lotschental. The Lotschental is the largest valley on the northern side of the Rhone Valley in the Bernese Alps. It, too, is in the canton of Valais.

Bernese Oberland
(wikimedia commons
Image: Cristo Vlahos)
Kandersteg packs a lot of punch in a very small package. It's a year-round destination complete with typically clean, comfortable Swiss accommodations to suit any budget.

It is a great stop for a day trip coming from Bern or from Brig, but even better is to plan to spend a couple of nights to discover an aquatic playground nestled in fresh mountain air and stunning alpine vistas.

In fact, next time someone tells you to "take a hike", Kandersteg, Switzerland is a great place to start.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Cruising Alaska on Celebrity Solstice is an environmental theme park at sea

Celebrity Solstice in port in Ketchikan, Alaska
(Image: Robert Taylor)

ALASKA — If ever there was an ideal cruise, the 7-day itinerary from Seattle through Alaska aboard Celebrity Solstice has to be a top contender. It's almost like time travel by ship.

First, the sailing combines a perfect number of days at sea with plenty of time in port to keep passengers on the go in anticipation of new adventures.

Blue ice in Tracy Arm Fjord
(Image: Robert Taylor)
Another major factor, which is unusual for large cruise vessels, is the close proximity of the ship's docks to their disembarkation sites.

Third, thanks to Alaska's geography, when sailing through the northwestern wilderness of the nation's 49th state passengers are rarely out of sight of land, thus providing a sense of womb-like security.

Alaska has a sense of primeaval
nature  (Image: Robert Taylor)
And finally, Alaska's frontier ambience seems to step back in time where wildlife and the environment respectfully interact in abundance with humanity.

Among the best features of the Celebrity experience is the lecture series that is part of each cruise itinerary. On  current Alaskan sailings with Solstice, naturalist and National Geographic contributor Brent Nixon offers four lectures (Alaska, whales, bears and bald eagles) plus a personal narrative filled with quotes from other conservationists as Solstice sails into Tracy Arm Fjord to the edge of Dawes Glacier.

Dawes Glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord as seen from the deck of Celebrity Solstice  (Image: Robert Taylor)
Brisk temperatures pervade primeval surroundings of snow-capped peaks, blue tinged chunks of ice, waterfalls and Mother Nature's craftsmanship, all enhanced by the silence of calm blue-green waters amid echoes of the past.

The Solstice itinerary from and to Seattle includes stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, British Columbia, with time at sea through Tracy Arm Fjord and the famed Alaskan Inside Passage.

Sea planes are a preferred mode of transportation in Alaska

As the largest state in the union with one of the smallest populations, Alaska conveys the sensation of infinite space. As one excursion guide commented while driving through Juneau, "to your right is the state capitol. It's the tallest building in town...except when cruise ships are in port."

At first Solstice has so many off-ship excursions that the list may seem overwhelming. The best thing to do is to carefully scrutinize the tours, select the tours that are most personally appealing and then choose the ones that best suit your lifestyle.

Ketchikan hearkens to a frontier era  (Image: Robert Taylor)

: As the most southeastern city in Alaska with a population of less than 10,000, Ketchikan is the fifth largest community in Alaska. Located on Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan was named by Captain George Vancouver in 1793.

Vancouver named the community after Ketchikan Creek which flows through the town and empties into the Tongass Narrows just outside of downtown.

Natives lovingly call Ketchikan "the salmon capital of the world" which promises that during spawning season the opportunity for spotting hungry post-hibernating bears is at its peak.

Alaskan seafood slept in the
ocean the night before
(Image: Robert Taylor)
Among the favorite attractions are Misty Fjords National Monument and the Saxman Totem Park where visitors will discover the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world.

Just for fun, the U.S. Postal Service states that one of Ketchikan's two zip codes, 99950, is the highest-numbered code in the country.

Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier is one of the capital's main attractions  (Image: Robert Taylor)

JUNEAU: The capital city of Alaska is a bit of an enigma. As the second largest city, by area, in the United States, Juneau is actually bigger than both Rhode Island and Delaware.

Oddly, enough however, due to its geographical location in the rugged terrain of the Alaskan panhandle, there are no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska or North America.

Orcas put on a dazzling show for visitors  (Image:

Thus, in Juneau in general and Alaska specifically, when you call for UBER, you might just get a seaplane. Float planes are one of the best ways to navigate the vast wilderness frontier of the state.

Named after Joe Juneau, a gold prospector from Quebec, the city lies about 12 miles from Mendenhall Valley and its famous glacier which has receded more than 2.5  miles since the year 1500.

Red Dog Saloon is steeped in
history and atmosphere

(Image:  from en.wikipedia)

For visitors, Juneau offers some of the best whale watching in the state. Outfitters guarantee sightings of humpbacks and/or orcas or they will refund $100 at the end of the trip. It's a promise that is yet to be broken.

If time permits, visit the famous Red Dog Saloon, which has been a gathering spot since the days of Juneau's mining era.  The earliest owners, Earl and Thelma Forsythe provided dancing while long time entertainer “Ragtime Hattie” played the piano in white gloves and a silver dollar halter top.

The White Pass and Yukon train tunnels to the Klondike gold fields  (Image: Robert Taylor)

SKAGWAY: Another good port for whale watching is Skagway, but the most popular attraction at this port is the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow gauge railway.

Thanks to the need to link the railway close to the port during construction, cruise ship passengers get the benefit of only having to walk about 200 yards to reach the train.

The overland Chilkoot Route was
rugged and dangerous
(Image: Robert Taylor)

The isolated rail system linking Skagway with the capital of Yukon, Whitehorse, was completed in 1900 to provide miners access to the goldfields during the Klondike Gold Rush.

When finished, it became the primary route to the interior of the Yukon, replacing the treacherous Chilkoot Trail and other overland routes.

The White Pass narrow gauge train is scenic as well as
historic  (Image: Robert Taylor)

With no direct connection to any other railroad, today the purely touristic vintage train travels approximately 20 miles into untamed wilderness past historic landmarks that pay tribute to man's entrepreneurial spirit.

Adding to the folkloric image of Skagway, it is part of the setting for Jack London's book "The Call of the Wild" while the film "North to Alaska" was also filmed nearby.

When Celebrity Solstice is in port, it is usually the highest spot
in town  (Image: Robert Taylor)

Combining the diversity of Celebrity Solstice's onboard activities with a feast of off-ship excursions, top-notch entertainment, delectable cuisine and first-rate service  makes for a cruise itinerary that's tough to beat.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Alaska comes alive aboard Celebrity Solstice

Dawes Glacier is the prize at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord

ALASKA — The Inuit called her Alaskaq. Today she is more commonly known as "Alaska."

That's how naturalist Brent Nixon introduces his series of lectures aboard the cruise ship Celebrity Solstice at the beginning of each Alaskan cruise this summer.

As Albert Einstein once said  "look deep into Nature and you will find the answer to everything!"
Naturalist Brent Nixon's lectures
are inspiring

Nixon's lectures aboard Celebrity Solstice in the summer of 2018 encompass a history of Alaska, whales, bears and bald eagles as well as personal narratives chock full of quotes from explorers and writers with similar passions for nature.

But that's only for starters because Celebrity Solstice begins with a bang that sets the standard for cruising Alaska that offers more value for the traveling dollar than you can imagine.
Celebrity Solstice in port at Ketchikan (Taylor)
For the most part, cruises are generally the same, with an emphasis on dining, shipboard entertainment and excursions.

Which means that to excel, a cruise line must do things that are both innovative and creative to stand out among the competition. It is in this category where Celebrity excels. Solstice, for example, was the first in the industry to incorporate solar panels aboard ship.
Celibrity Edge does her maiden voyage later this year
In the latter part of the year, the line will unveil Celebrity Edge which will change the cruising experience forever.

Passengers can spend considerably more for a cruise, but Celebrity offers more bang for the traveling dollar than any of her competitors in the price range. Celebrity cruises may just be the most active ships afloat while they are at sea with something to do virtually every minute you are sailing.
Seaplanes are the preferred
means of transportation

Most activities are done in 45 minute increments which  allow demonstrations and entertainers ample time to teach and perform without "overdoing" things.

Throughout the day cruisers try glass blowing, enjoy dance lessons, take cooking classes, attend lectures, make bids at art auctions, play trivia or simply enjoy any one of four or five different lounge performers who play a diversity of genres from folk music to rock and even classical.

Salsa class taught by the Solstice production team  (Taylor)

While most cruise lines also offer a variety of activities  throughout the day, Celebrity's onboard performances, including the lounge performers, are superb.

In Alaska, the Off-Off-Off Broadway shows are about as far from the Big Apple as you can get, but productions rival anything you will see in New York. Staging, lighting, music, dancing and the all round quality of the entertainment only serves to enhance the cruise experience.
Ged Parker, guitarist/singer
from Liverpool  (Taylor)

In the lounges, singers like guitarist Ged Parker of Liverpool regularly perform an eclectic range of music from the Beatles, to Irish folk tunes, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and everything in between. His mellow style and voice remind you a little of Rod Stewart.
Classical strings by Adagio
from Ukraine  (Taylor)

At the other end of the spectrum, passengers can enjoy the renderings of Adagio. Kseniia  Pevnieva plays cello while Dina Khomenko is featured on the violin. The Ukrainian women met while studying music and teamed up to form a unique sound that includes light classics to contemporary show tunes. Now and then they even join the production staff to play in the band for a theatrical show.
The production dancers and band have the jumping at midship
Speaking of lounges, one of the neatest places on Solstice is a dark quiet room that separates Cafe Al Bacio, the coffee bar, and the Ensemble Lounge on Deck 5. There are no chairs in the room, and no one ever stays there long enough to enjoy the soothing sweet nighttime sounds of crickets and bullfrogs. It may just be the most peaceful spot on the ship.

Solstice library is a quiet
place  (Taylor)

Service is a key to making people feel happy and to enjoy their time on the shi. With a crew representing 65 countries, cruising may just be the greatest good will ambassador in the world for demonstrating that people from different cultures and backgrounds can, indeed, work together.

Celebrity's staff is second to none, with top-notch service from every discipline on their ships beginning with stateroom services, lounge servers, dining room attendants, performers and, of course, the cruise staff itself.
Sign on the bridge is a constant
reminder to the staff  (Taylor)

All anyone needs to know about Celebrity's commitment to a safe, enjoyable cruise is captured in 7 short words posted on the bridge that serve as a constant reminder to the crew

Watch a dynamic show in the theater and greet the singers and dancers afterwards. You may be amazed at how humble and appreciative these talented young people are when you thank them for a job well done.
Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier is Mother Nature at her finest
Shore excursions are too numerous to count. The best thing to do is go through the list and eliminate the outings that do not appeal. Then go back to determine the tours you most prefer.
Killer whales perform synchronized swimming  (

Here again, Celebrity outdoes itself with whale watching and wildlife tours, trips to glaciers, hiking, zip-lining, dog sledding, riding historic trains, gardens and anything else you can imagine.
Historic narrow gauge train heads into Yukon  (Taylor)

Logistics is the name of the game, and Celebrity does it as well as anyone in the industry. Breaking the day into categories that take into consideration the amount of time in port, time at sea, dining arrangements and all other facets of the cruise are expertly coordinated in such a way that travelers are not overwhelmed at being unable to see and do whatever interests them.

Dining in Epernay, the main dining room, is done in two seatings with theatrical shows usually taking place at 7 and 9 p.m. so that anyone who wants to attend can do so. Dinner menus offers several new entrees each night as well as at three appetizers and main choices that are available every evening.
\Blue ice floats past Solstice
in Tracy Arm Fjord  (Taylor)

Cruising to Alaska is a life-altering experience aboard a ship named Solstice which could not be more appropriate for the time of year that it sails.

For value for your traveling dollar, Celebrity cruises is a first-rate experience that you will remember forever. If you sail with Solsice, be sure to meet Captain Tasos at the outset of your journey and you will know immediately that you are in good hands.

And if you are fortunate enough to sail when Brent Nixon is aboard, well, that's like icing on your Baked Alaskaq.