Gotland Island, Sweden

September 13th

Due to a high wind forecast in the Swedish archipelago, our plans for the day changed slightly and instead of visiting the Swedish islands, we remained in Stockholm for an extra day. I can’t say I was too disappointed!

The previous afternoon, as I was walking around, to my delight I came across a vegan bakery and cafe. But unfortunately, it was closed. So the next morning I disembarked the ship early, before breakfast, and retraced my steps to the little cafe. My plan was to spend a few hours writing and catching up on emails as I enjoyed a vegan breakfast and coffee. From the case I chose an egg-free quiche and carrot cake, but since the shopowners had run out of coffee beans (?!), I had to find my coffee (and WiFi) elsewhere.

For the remainder of the morning and afternoon, I wound my way through the Old City and streets of Stockholm. I visited a Birkenstock store, an indoor specialty food market, many small handmade craft stores, and numerous other little shops. As I said before, Stockholm (and probably all of Sweden) is very expensive, so I didn’t buy much! But I enjoyed meandering along the narrow cobblestone streets and taking picture after picture of brightly colored buildings, beautiful churches, and quaint houses.

That night, after returning to the ship, the NG Explorer sailed away from Stockholm, toward the Baltic Island of Gotland, where we would spend the next day exploring Viking ruins.

September 14

Once again, the weather dictated what we could (or could not) do this morning. The winds were still very high, preventing us from docking in the small port town of Visby on Gotland island. So instead, the morning was spent cruising north along the west coast of Gotland until we reached a calm place where the Explorer could anchor safely. After lunch we took Zodiacs to shore and boarded buses (that were arranged in a matter of hours) and drove 45 minutes to the historic town of Visby. A wealth of archaeological finds on the island, such as ship burials from the Bronze Age and silver treasure of the Viking era, suggest that the islands’ strategic position in the Baltic Sea made it a huge trading area as far back as the Viking times. The Hanseatic League, “a medieval league of towns of northern Germany and adjacent countries for the promotion and protection of commerce” was once centered in Visby, the capital of Gotland.

Today, the medieval old town of Visby has been beautifully restored and I went for a long walk around the imposing outer wall that was built in the 13th century as a defense against attackers. Almost two miles long, it was originally 18 feet high and surrounded by a deep moat. At regular intervals there are stone towers and ramparts that we could climb to get a better view of the inner city as well as the encompassing sea.

The old town itself is very similar to the other villages we’ve visited – cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, bright houses with shuttered windows, and cafes lining every corner. I still find every one charming and delightful, however.

There was a museum containing relics of the Viking era, but I have been slightly museum-ed out, so I opted to continue walking around town. Later in the afternoon there was a small folk band of local musicians who performed for us in the courtyard of the museum. They played traditional songs on violin as well as the strange-looking nickel harp.

Then it was back to the buses for the ride north to where the NG Explorer was anchored. Having not slept well the previous night from all the rocking and the walk around the outer wall, I was exhausted! On the ride, though, I sat next to a woman who I have actually traveled with before. She’s a film maker and she’s working on a documentary about what makes people happy. What is it in life that makes it worth living? She is convinced that even though our visible lives – our homes, living rooms, cars, etc… – have all greatly ‘improved’ throughout the last few decades, the quality of our lives, specifically our happiness and contentment, has taken a nosedive. So what is it really, that we have lost? A very interesting questions that I think very few people can answer. Our society seems to be so caught up in what we don’t have, we forget to stop and enjoy what we actually do have. And that’s where we lose our happiness. She’s not sure when the documentary will be finished, but I think it will definitely be worth watching!






Stockholm, Sweden = best city ever

I am finding it very hard to keep up with my blog daily because we’re so busy! So keep in mind that I’m a few days behind. I’ll start with today, though, and move backwards. I’m in Stockholm Sweden and I’m in love with the city! It is such a beautiful port. As the Explorer was entering the city, we had two options. We could either enter aboard the ship as it sailed through the harbor, or we could enter via Zodiac (at 6:30 am) and take an alternate route through a narrow manmade canal that passed by a scenic park and along the most expensive (and beautiful) streets in Stockholm. I chose the Zodiac, of course. I started out in a guest boat, and about ten minutes into the ride we came across another Zodiac manned by the hotel staff (hotel manger, head chef, pastry chef, etc…) who were handing out cups of hot chocolate, tea, coffee and slices of homemade cinnamon cake. They kidnapped me and took me on a longer, more indirect tour of the boat-lined harbor. It started to sprinkle a bit, so they hoisted up a huge umbrella so we wouldn’t get wet. We passed under bridges and along tree-lined streets. All of the old buildings here are gorgeous – made out of stone and very well preserved.

After I was returned to the ship and had breakfast, we loaded the busses that would take us to the Vasa Museum. Like I said before, I’m not usually into museums, but all the ones we have gone to have been great. The story behind the Vasa is a short and amusing one. It was a huge, beautifully decorated and painted warship with numerous intricately carved figures built for the King in 1628. After completion it sailed, with over three hundred men and thousands of tons of heavy canons, 1,500 meters (or just under a mile) before it capsized and sank. Apparently it didn’t have enough ballast – extra weight – in the hull, but if they had added more, water would have come in through the gun holes. There was a lot of finger pointing regarding its fate, but ultimately the blame came down to the King and of course they couldn’t criticize the King. So, the Vasa was deemed lost and soon forgot about. That is until 1961 when a shipwreck specialist successfully located its position and initiated a recovery. The ship, which had been sitting in brackish water for 300 years was slowly lifted up to the surface and over the next 40 years, it was preserved and restored. Today it sits in its own museum with its history written across the walls. There were approximately 50 deaths that occurred when the ship sank and the bones of several of the sailors lay beneath glass in one of the exhibits. Artists have even reconstructed the facial features of a few so that they look like living, vibrant people.

After the museum we got back on the busses and went for a short tour through the city. Somewhere along the way I think I fell a little bit more in love with its layout. It’s so beautiful! After lunch we had a special guest speaker come aboard. Lech Walesa, former President of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1983, entertained us with his humorous wit and jovial charm. Like Gorbachev, Lech Walesa insisted that we are in dire need of change throughout the world and since the US has been a superpower for many years, many countries are looking to us to lead that change.

The afternoon was ours to enjoy. Long ago I decided that the best way to see a city is by bike, but since I didn’t have access to two wheels, the next best thing is to go for a run and get (a little) lost. So that’s what I did (I also went for a run in Finland, but I haven’t written about that yet). With a map and my iPhone (for music) in hand, I started out on the cobblestone streets. I had a rough idea of where I was going, but I inherited my parents genes and nothing seems to work out as planned. I ended half running, half walking around an island that was bigger than I thought it was. It was a beautiful park, though, and I saw some nice views of the city. It just took me 2 1/2 hours to get around (I ran probably half of it). Needless to say, I was tired when I got back, but I still wanted to see the Old City of Gamla Stan, located just a short distance from the ship. I walked around the narrow cobblestone streets lined with cafes and shops for a bit, then headed back to the ship for dinner. Once again, however, I got kidnapped by the crew and brought up to a skyscraper restaurant and bar that looked out over the city for some food and drinks. They wanted me to go out with them after, but I declined and went to bed instead.

Now going back to yesterday. We were in Finland on a small group of islets called the Aland Islands (pronounced Owland). Just after breakfast we disembarked onto a barren piece of rock with a solitary lighthouse that was used many years ago to help ships navigate the perilous waters. The lighthouse had an enormous horn that they sounded off for us as we explored the island. Also in the light house were various rooms, including several bedrooms, a kitchen, the attic where the horn was, a lookout tower, and the machinery room down below where they (somehow) sounded off the horn. It didn’t take long to circle the island, and after an hour or so we returned to the ship.

After lunch we docked in the small port (and biggest town of the Alands), called Mariehamn. The main attraction was the tall sailing ship called the Pommern, which once sailed around Cape Horn from Europe to Australia multiple times, carrying cargo and goods. Today it has been converted into a museum where we could see what it was like to live aboard a tall sailing ship in the early 1900s. We made our way down three levels and through the captains quarters, crew bunks, the galley, storeroom, and vast cargo space. Although the sails weren’t flying, up on deck we could see the complicated rigging and ladders that led up to the tall masts. It was very cool!

As I mentioned before, I decided to explore Mariehamn and its surrounding area by going for a jog. I managed to find a nice gravel trail that led me up to a lookout where I could look down on the Pommern and Explorer. It was nice to get outside and get some exercise.

And I think that gets me all caught up! We still have many more days, though, and five more countries, so check back for more posts!







The National Geographic Explorer

Coming from the Sea Bird and the Sea Lion, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the Explorer. I had heard from other staff and guests that it’s a beautiful ship, but how so, I had no clue. Well having been on the ship for two days now, I can say that it is elegant in a semi-luxurious kind of way. The Sea Bird and Sea Lion are cozy, sort of like a comfortable home, but the Explorer is more like being in a nice hotel. The Philippino and European crew are super friendly and the staff, many of which I know, are enthusiastic and ready to share their knowledge about the places we visit. As I stepped onboard I was greeted by some of the officers and crew and had my picture taken for my key card that served two purposes – 1. To lock/unlock my cabin door and 2. To swipe myself on and off the ship when doing shore activities. Then I was shown to my room by one of the stewardesses. At first I felt like I was in a maze, but it didn’t take me long to figure out the lay of the ship. My room was cute, comfortable, and spacious compared to my berth on the SB/SL. The bathroom, too, was enormous by comparison. After a quick unpack, I went to explore to rest of the the ship. I found the lounge, which is very nice and outfitted with large screen TVs for talks and movies, comfortable swivel chairs, and a bar. The sundeck at the back of the ship has tables and lounge chairs for nice days and just above the sundeck is the gym that has floor to ceiling windows so you can look out over the ocean (or sea) as you work out. Next door to the gym is the spa and sauna, which I haven’t used yet, but the Hotel Manager gave me a free massage, which I’m very much looking forward to! There is also a very nice Global market (or gift store), as well as the dining room, bistro, and downstairs bar. As we were sailing out of St. Petersburg everyone gathered on the bow or up high above the bridge deck to watch the receding city skyline of church steeples, rounded domes, block-style buildings of St. Petersburg. In the harbor we passed the white sailboat of the Princess of Denmark, who was in the city for a visit. Then it was on to Estonia, our first stop in our Baltic Sea adventure!

September 10
To prepare us for our visit to Estonia, we were shown a movie called “The Singing Revolution” which gave us a better understanding of Estonia’s history. And it’s a bloody one. For centuries Estonians have endured one invasion after another, almost all costing lives and bringing destruction. In most recent history, before WWII, Estonia was invaded by Russia and many Estonians were killed or exiled to Siberia. Those who weren’t lived in poverty and fear that they would be next. Then Germany attacked and for a brief intermittence, the Germans occupied the small Baltic state. After WWII Russia regained control, but by then the Estonians wanted independence. And they did this through a “singing revolution”. It was a peaceful, but strong, revolution where the Estonians were united together by their love for singing. The movement gathered support and power until pretty soon they had leaders and a political party. In 1991, after Gorbachev was arrested and the USSR fell, Estonia was granted independence. It’s a very good film and there’s lots more to it than what I just described. I’d definitely recommend watching it!

As the Explorer slowly made its way toward Tallin, the capital of Estonia, we could see the tall church spires and red-tiled roofs of the Old City. For the morning, we had a walking tour of the town and we also visited the singing grounds where the revolution first began. Now it’s a site for many international concerts as well as their Song Festival that happens every five years.

The Old Town of Tallin is beautiful. Narrow cobblestone streets, quaint cottages, cafes, restaurants, and shops lining the sidewalks, and (because it’s a tourist destination), people dressed up in traditional cloths selling things like candied nuts and handmade wool socks. It was sunny when we left the ship, but as soon as we started walking a huge dark cloud appeared over our heads and let loose the rain. We ducked inside an old church, then ran from shop to shop to avoid getting too soaked. The rain finally let up, though, and we continued on to the central square where we entered an underground cafe to have some mulled wine, traditional cake, and coffee. We needed it to dry off and warm up!

The tour continued after our mid-morning snack and then we had the choice to return to the ship for lunch, or stay in town. I chose to stay. The alleyways and numerous shops were too mysterious and enchanting to risk the chance of missing out on anything. So, for the next few hours I wandered around, peering into shops and enjoying the medieval feel of the Old City’s streets.

We set sail (figuratively) from Tallin later that afternoon, heading toward our next destination and country. Tomorrow will be the Aland Islands (pronounced Owland), which are technically part of Finland, but they speak Swedish. Should be another great day!




Lost in St. Petersburg. Sort of.

Ok, so going way back to the 8th of September (happy birthday, mom), which is where I left off, it was our second full day in St. Petersburg. September 8th is an important date for the Russians because it’s the 70th anniversary marking the beginning of the siege on Russia by the Germans at the start of the second World War. The war lasted three years, from 1941 to 1945 and in that time thousands and thousands of Russians died from starvation, bombs, and from the front line. Throughout the day we saw bouquets of flowers, ribbons, and other memorabilia that symbolized the country’s (and it’s people) remembrance of hard times.

Our destination for the morning was the Hermitage and the Winter Palace that overlooks the Neva River. Another residence of Catherine and her royal family, the Winter Palace is a gigantic edifice of columns, windows, carved mouldings, and Roman statues ringing the perimeters of the roof. We arrived early, before the crowds, and were guided from one ornate room to another all the while learning about the history of Catherine, Peter the Great, and other members of the royal family. What struck me the most was how carefully made everything was. All the paintings, glasses, vases, silk wall coverings, beds, chairs, etc… were all handmade and hand-carved. It showed the wealth of the family, but also their appreciation for good handicrafts. Today we can go to Walmart or Target and pick up a cheap imitation. Where has our appreciation for the finer things in life gone?

After finishing with the Winter Palace tour we moved on to the Hermitage, which is actually attached to the Palace. The Hermitage is now used as an art gallery and houses thousands of pieces of art and artifacts from around the world. Most impressive, perhaps, is its collection of paintings from famous artists. We slowly made our way through the multitude of rooms, looking at pieces from the likes of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Picasso, Monet, Giovanni, and many others that I can’t remember. I don’t consider myself a particularly big art lover, but this was impressive, especially in the confines of the beautifully renovated Hermitage. My favorite artist? Rembrandt, hands down.

After the Winter Palace, we loaded back onto the busses and headed to a restaurant for lunch. As we were walking down the street, one girl fell behind and I went back to see if she was ok. She said she felt nauseous and needed a minute to recover, so I stayed with here. When she was ready to continue on, we turned the corner and… everyone was gone. We had no idea where they went. So, for the next hour, we walked up and down the streets, knowing they couldn’t have gone far. 148 people for :)$- sake! In the end, we got separated (she stopped to look at a map, I turned a corner, and by the time I went back she was gone). I went to a hotel where the receptionist was very gracious about calling our hotel, getting in touch with someone from Lindblad, having them come over in a car, picking me up, and reuniting me with the rest of the group. I knew where I was and could have found my way back to the hotel, but I didn’t want to miss the afternoon activities which would be taking place right after lunch. I didn’t see Jennifer again until the next morning and apparently she had taken a cab back to the hotel. It was rather ridiculous. And we didn’t get lunch.

Anyway, moving on. For the afternoon we had a city tour around St. Petersburg by bus, stopping off at different site to snap a photo. For the most part I’m not a fan of bus tours, but this was a great way to see the city in a short amount of time. Among other sights, we saw Peter and Paul’s fortress, the Winter Palace from across the river, and the beautiful St. Isaac’s cathedral with a gold dome and numerous handmade tile mosaics gracing the walls.

Then it was back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. I ended up dining with three other women at a rooftop restaurant not far from the hotel called Terraza. We sat outside on wicker chairs with blankets for our legs and a nice view of the gold dome atop St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

It was a nice last evening to our brief, but highly enjoyable visit to St. Petersburg. And tomorrow we would be embarking the National Geographic Explorer!

September 9th
After enjoying the extensive breakfast buffet at The Grand Hotel Europe one last time, we gathered our things and boarded the busses that would take us to the Grand Palace. Another elaborate residence for the royal family, the Grand Palace was just as stunning as our other visits. After our tour through the rooms, we moved outside for a walk around the Palace grounds. Known for its fountains, we passed many pools, waterfalls, and intricately carved fountains. Some were even hidden or triggered by movement – an early century form of entertainment – so several of us got intermittently wet.

To get back into the city of St. Petersburg rather than taking a bus, we took hydrofoil boats across the river. I’m not 100% sure how they work, but somehow the boats are elevated off the water and they move by pushing the water underneath the hollowed out bottom.

We ate lunch at a pub and brewery then it was time to listen to former President Mikhail Gorbachev give a talk (just for us) about the history and future of the USA and Russia. Not knowing much about our history, I found it extremely interesting and I was glad to hear Gorbachev state his side of the story rather than say things that Americans want to hear. There were even a few people vocally expressing their objections, which I thought was rude. The main point that I took away was the fact that after the Cold War the United States declared victory when really (as Gorbachev said) it was a peace-driven negotiation between the two countries to reduce nuclear weapons. This declaration hurt Russia because it made them seem like the bad guys to the rest of the world and the US as the superpower.

Gorbachev had a plane to catch, so he wrapped things up and left us with one last thought. He said “Things have to change in order for world to become a better place.” This means relations between countries, mentality within countries, and the way we perceive and treat our own environment. And that change can’t happen unless we really want it.

We slowly filed out of the auditorium and boarded the busses one final time. We were headed to our home for the next 10 days, the National Geographic Explorer, which will take us to multiple countries along the the Baltic Sea and introduce us to new sights and foreign cultures. Needless to say, I was very excited! It was sad to leave St. Petersburg and Russia because I felt like I had just begun to understand it, but I also couldn’t wait to see what else was in store for us.