Arctic Expedition Part 4 – Copenhagen, Denmark

August – September 2022

After an easy flight, the 28 of us who are on this part of the trip were met at the Copenhagen airport and bussed to the center of town. Once there, we walked to Nyhaven Faergekroen and had lunch of “fruit of the sea” plate and a local beer in an underground restaurant. We then walked around the area of Nyhaven where a canal runs down the middle of the avenue with various boats docked along-side. Hans Christian Andersen lived 3 different times on this street because it was close to the Royal Theater. We then walked along the wharf seeing the Play House Theatre and the Opera House opposite us across the water. We then traveled along the Sankt Anna Plads to our hotel – the Phoenix Copenhagen which was once a Royal Palace.  It has many rooms and our room has a chandelier. We then strolled to the local grocery for some snacks and on to the Royal Gardens where we explored the beautifully manicured grounds.  At the far end of the gardens is Rosenberg Castle which was just closing for the day. In the gardens, we saw locals playing a drinking game with a throwing stick and numbered pins, young adults playing spike ball, and some children playgroups on the ground with bicycles everywhere. From there, we met our guide, got our metro passes, and learned to use to use the local metro transport by going to Tivoli the world’s first amusement park. We arrived in time to see a ballet story in progress and then walked the park admiring the lights and creativity. We stopped for beer and pizza at Mazzolli’s and then took the metro on our own back to the hotel.

Copenhagen Canal Housing
The Royal Gardens
Tivoli Gardens and Ammusment Park

Friday morning began with a walking tour after breakfast where we went to the Odd Fellow Palace across from the hotel to Saint Anne street and the church of the army. Along the way, we noted “stumbling block” embedded in the pavement in commemoration of Jewish people taken from there during WW II. There are 5×5 brass plaques in the sidewalk with people’s names placed in their memory. We explore the local streets and remark at the renaissance architecture with its Dutch gables, and copper  parapets. In the area called Fredericksburg we encounter a bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt who is credited with helping to liberate Denmark, and we pass the Swedish embassy and a house where Hans Christian Anderson once lived. We wander towards the harbor where we find the Amalia Bourg  – an Octagon-shaped square where several Royal palaces are located, including queen Margaret’s and the Crown Prince’s. Princess Beatrice’s home includes a green-doored museum where is kept the world’s first original Fabergè egg. From the waterfront, one can see the Opera House and the famous Marble Church. The harbor water so clean that one can swim in it, as it is considered a recreational harbor only for shallow draft vessels with no industry are allowed here. Strolling along the harbor we see the national bird – the swan – swimming along, along with the historic F352 ship museum – the ship famously remembered as having accidently fired the “oops missile” into a group of summer homes. At the “Point” there is a canon salute fired daily at 7:30am, and in the harbor is docked the Royal yacht, the “Danne Breog”. 

The Royal Copenhagen China Store

The Öresund – the sound of water between Denmark and Sweden – is full of windmills. Along the shore is the massive Maersk building with its white 7-pointed star. At the end of the harbor is the Poseidon Gate and the Gefion Fountain. Beyond this is the “English Church” and the gates to the army citadel with its moat and swans. Beyond the citadel is the “Little Mermaid” which we well come back to visit another day. Heading back from the waterfront, we pass remnants of some of the 44 bunkers from WW II that have been left in public spaces as reminders. We continue back past the Design Museum, the Russian Church and the Marble Church, where we catch the Metro to Gammel  Strand to stroll along the longest pedestrian street in Denmark – 4 miles long. We are also informed that, by  law, no street can have sharp 90 -degree corners because fire engines would not be able to maneuver  around them. From the walk, we can see the underwater sculptures, and the Christiansburg House of Parliament. We decide to explore the National Museum and walk through the history of Denmark from 1600-1800 and especially enjoy the historical toy section. After stopping for a sandwich for lunch, we take the Metro back to hotel. From there, we explore on our own and walk back to Rosenberg Castle and toured the building, especially the throne room and the vault with the Crown Jewels. Then we go across the street to enjoy the Botanical Garden, especially its the pond, the palm greenhouse, and the spectacular butterfly garden. After enjoying a glass of wine there, we return to hotel. That evening, we meet our guide and fellow travelers for a dinner of street food across the bridge at Nordatlantens Brugge to the Granlanske Hendas Placs a street food court alongside the canals with a wide range of choices of drink and food.  We enjoyed gin and tonics and gyros before returning to the hotel for the evening.

Denmark’s Queens Crown Jewels
Copenhagen Butterfly Center

The next morning, we were up early to walk to the local Starbucks before meeting our group to catch the Metro and meet a canal boat for a 1-hour water tour of the harbor. We cruised past Parliament, the National Bank, and the Opera House before heading up some smaller canals where there were many small apartments. We went past Copenhill – the novel waste treatment center, past numerous Navy vessels, the Royal yacht, and back to see the Little Mermaid and the Citadel from the water. After returning to the dock, we walked to the “Bloc” – the Danish Architecture Center where we toured the Space Saga, women in architecture, chairs and rode down the indoor 4-story slide. From there, we walked to Hejbro Plas (an outdoor plaza with restaurant) where we had sandwiches and a beer. We then left the group to explore the city’s LEGO store which contained an awesome display of Lego  creations and numerous kits. Then, it was Metro back to the Marble Church and a short walk back to the waterfront to visit from the shore Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid statue. On the way back to the hotel, we toured the local Design Museum and enjoyed the exhibitions of “what if tomorrow”, “iconic chairs”, and “snuff boxes”, before returning to our room to get ready for dinner. In coming to the lobby to meet for dinner, we are surprised to see couples in ball gowns and formal attire ( military navy and army, tuxedos, and tails) walked through. Down the street at the National Theater was a reception for Queen Margaret – 50 years on the throne. Most of the parades and celebrations had been cancelled due to Queen Elizabeth’s death (her cousin) just days before, however, this private ball for her was still taking place. We all waked to a Vietnamese cafe for a dinner of vegetable rolls and BBQ pork before calling it a night.

Copenhagen Lego Store
Copenhagen Famous Little Mermaid
Queen Anniversary Parade

Sunday morning after breakfast, we all met and took the Metro to Christiana, an area of town famous for art and free expression. The area was originally a military base that was closed in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, squatters and hippies took over the area and a free spirit, peace and love, and drug culture took over the area. By 1973, an agreement  with the government was put in place for them to use city sewage, but they would be responsible for their own recycling, their own schools, daycare, etc. No one “owns” property there as all property is by free “rent” that includes a “tax” that is paid back to the community, (1,200 DK/month). The Community elected elders decide who can live there and where they can live. They are responsible for their own policing and “soft” drugs are allowed within their limits. They make money off tourists who come to visit the unique social experiment. They follow no Danish rules. “Pusher street” is a green light district which is an open market for marijuana created to make the business less criminal. 

Cristiana – Home of Free Spirits

There are no sales to under 18 years and no photographs are allowed in that area. No hard drugs are ever allowed there and if someone gets caught, they are thrown out or sent to rehab. There are no gangs allowed. Our guide for the area is a former London IT entrepreneur who was a street artist in Paris before settling in Cristiana. He arrived 10 years ago. Christiana is divided into 15 villages where the people decide their personal economy and how they want to live there. It boasts 18 stages (9 indoor and 9 outdoor), supports 90 factory workers, and its total population is 900 people (700 adult and 200 children). It receives ~2 million guests year. Most residents are crafts-people and artists of all kinds – some make it big and some just live there. There are also a number of “social vulnerables” – refugees, mentally ill, homeless – about 1500 hang out there. However, all people are welcomed on equal terms as long as they respect others. 

300 residents work in the downtown area, and those who work on Pusher street selling pot must live within Christiana. The area is  ~2 kilometers long with one entrance and one exit. They encourage gardening and encourage wildlife habitation, currently hosting ~300 animals and a variety of plants.

Christiana community rules:

1- Take care of everyone

2- Democracy – but must talk till all are in agreement (they take no votes) – everything is decided through meetings

3-No one may buy or sell a house or land. There is no cost, but one is required to maintain it by oneself. Children cannot inherit property, but can stay if they already live there.

Limitations: Because it was an old military munitions base, there is no digging, no underground structures, no water sports, no swimming or skiing in the lake. Unless a garden is raised and made with imported dirt, no plants or berries growing on the ground can be eaten. Anyone can call a meeting of the community – time and place is published in the local magazine. Everyone is invited and everyone can have their say. Decisions are by consensus. No private automobiles allowed there. Everything has a “name” including houses, areas and even bicycles. Numerous famous artists and musicians have resided there, and there are some very original structures located there – houses shaped like bananas, diamonds, Japanese, Chinese – all are homemade houses and all built pre-1989. There is a Community bathhouse with sauna, a health house for social vulnerables, and Great Hall for 2000 people that is used for concerts where Bob Dillon, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica have all played. It takes ~2.5 hours to walk to the edge of their town, but it is all very “park-like.

After visiting Christiana, we connected with a different tourist group because we wanted to visit Copenhill. We took the local bus to the opposite shore across the harbor and had lunch at Reffen Koban, a large area of former dock industry and old buildings turned into a huge street food area with playgrounds for children. The area is also seeing new gardens and housing in areas reclaimed from industrial use.  For lunch, we had duck confit and melty cheese with rose sangria. Then we took another local bus to near Copenhill and walked to its entrance. Copenhill is a large waste recycling center with a recreational facility build on-top of it. It boasts the largest climbing wall in Europe at 82-meters high. Rappelling down the block walls is also popular. Only steam and CO2 exit the plant as it recycles the waste from ~95,000 households a day. Copenhill was designed by J. Engels because he could stand on the roof of his house as a child and he wanted to design the building with a useful roof. On the roof, and down the side is a Ski slope made of recycled plastic. The view from the top allows one to see all the way to Sweden, and its Barsebäck nuclear plant. There is also a Cafe on top. Currently, windmills produce 40% energy for Copenhagen.  We took the bus back to the Metro and then the Metro to Magasin Shopping Mall that was once a hotel. Preserved in the back of a store is the original attic where Hans Christian Anderson lived for a year. To get there, one has to take the escalator to 3rd floor and walk to an exit stairwell and through a door to a conference area and then back to a small attic room with the original wood rafters left as if time had stopped. His notes, quill pen, and top hat sit on the shelf. We returned to our hotel, enjoyed a shot of Danish Schnaps, before getting ready for dinner. Tonight, we walked to our restaurant for our last dinner with the group – a lovely steak dinner with deconstructed cheese cake.

Copen Hill
Copen Hill – Recreational Recycling Center Climbing W all

The next morning, we said goodbye to our new friends and travel guides, boarded our plane, and headed for home.

Arctic Expedition Part 3 – The Islands & Wildlife of Svalbard

August – September 2022

On Saturday we arrived at our landing site at Faksevagen. Rocky took a long strenuous hike to the top of the ridge line and then down to the beach and back including a 1200’ assent. Julie took the medium hike along the beach before doing a 300 ft assent to a smaller peak where she saw a herd of reindeer who had already gotten there white winter fur. That filled the morning, and so it was back to the ship for lunch while it sailed ~3.5 hours to Kinnvika, which is on the north side of Murchinsonfjord.  Here the abandoned buildings are from 1956 where the Finns and the Swedes had established a scientific station during the year of the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958. The scientists carried out internationally agreed observations in geophysics, meteorology, northern lights, and earth magnetism. The site was abandoned after the experiments were completed. We went ashore to explore the site. Some of the buildings were open to walk through. The area is a desert of stone and rock with numerous small buildings including bunkhouses, kitchen, a great hall, and a sauna. There was rusty old track vehicle and lots of abandoned rusting implements. The site was temporarily used for experiments briefly again in 2007-2008 by a professor who was looking for organisms that lived in the ice. He lived in the hut with whale bones at its entrance. Then, in 2018 the governor of Svalbard renovated the site for heritage reasons. The area was also populated with a large number of Arctic terns! Arctic terns migrate annually over 93 days and 20,000 miles to Antarctica, but they have the ability to always return to the same spot over their 30-year life-span.

Abandoned Research Center

The next day we again had two hikes to choose from – one 3-hours long and 3 ½ miles up the side of a glacier to a high ridge, and one about 1-mile long to 3 separate viewpoints. Both ended at an old trappers hut named the “Texas Bar”. The hut had a front room for washing up and storage, and the main room slept 3, had an eating area, and a fully stocked bar. Travelers often take a drink, and occasionally leave a bottle. In 1936 a trapper invited his wife from Vienna Switzerland to join him in Svalbard, as well as his trapper friend, Trapper Tina. Her story can be read in a book title “A Woman in the Polar Night”. That afternoon, we took the zodiacs to the ice wall of the Monacobreen glacier where we saw numerous birds and some bearded seals. While there, the glacier calved a number of times – the most ever seen by the crew in our 1.5 hours of sightseeing. The Island in front of glacier was originally found on 1974 but then got covered again when glacier surged forward in 2004. Today, it is visible again. After returning to the ship, we were all invited for a High Tea, and then a charge to “polar plunge” into the swimming pool filled with the Arctic seawater. Rocky and 11 others took the “plunge”, as did about 8 of our guides. This was followed by a celebration with champagne and shots of aquavit followed by a daily wrap-up, dinner and dancing.

Old Hunter Cabin
Zodiac to the Glacier

The next morning we were up early to look for wildlife at Ytre Norskoya, but visibility was poor so we went back to bed. After breakfast, we sat on the observation deck and watched the puffins at the shore. However, because of the strong currents, large ocean swells, and high wind we were unable to land there. Instead, we attended a lecture on permafrost and mercury poisoning. Twenty-eight percent of the entire earth is permanently frozen, and lies in the Arctic which is 90% of the ground. In Alaska, they study permafrost in an old military tunnel that is 60 feet underground. They have found that if they thaw some of the permafrost from 30,000 years ago, some of the bacterium frozen comes back to life. There is natural mercury in the permafrost and it is double the amount found in other ground. 

Peaceful Ice Harbour

Mercury has increased in plants and animals since the industrial revolution and is in nearly everything to some degree. Fisheries are required to measure mercury levels in all large fish, and if mercury levels are high, the fish cannot be sold. After the lectures, we prepared for a zodiac cruise of a small bay where we saw over a 100 Harbour seals sunny themselves on the rocks. They took a quick look at us and then went back to sunny themselves. We then took the zodiacs back to Ytre Norskeya, which had been a safe-haven for whaler’s ships and a good look out location for whales.  Here we walked the sandy beach, saw the processing ovens for whale blubber, and viewed a raised hill where 182 British whalers, who died over the years, were buried. We also saw polar bear footprints leading across the site and a second set of polar bear prints at a 90 degree axis to the first. There were a large number of bird footprints everywhere. There was a relatively recent cabin sitting high against the cliff that is owned by the current deputy governor. Large orange jellyfish with long tentacle’s were all around on the beach. After the excursion, it was back to the ship for lunch and onto the next site. After going ashore, we marveled at the colorful lichens and took pictures of the seals on the rocks. That night, there was a “Birthday Dinner” celebration for Rocky with our newest friends: Cindy & Paul, Heather & Marty, and our guide Andrea. 

Harbour Seals Sunning Themselves
Polar Bear Footprints

Tuesday morning, we were up early to watch the seabirds and admire the many glaciers. However, after breakfast, we were unable to land at Signehamma – a German weather station from WW II – due to morning fog. Instead, we learned about Salomon August Andrée and his failed polar balloon expeditions. He was born in Sweden in 1854 and dreamed of becoming the first to reach the North Pole via a hydrogen balloon. In 1886 he began to assemble a huge balloon with a 3-story-tall basket in Svalbard from 60 Chinese silks that was 20-meters in diameter. His plan was to maneuver to the North Pole releasing homing pigeons along the way, and eventually land in Alaska. The 1896 winds delayed him one year, and then, in 1897 he launched. The balloon moved north, lost some of its ropes and sailed away never to be seen again. However, in 1924 a group sailing to Spitsbergen’s most northern island found the balloon and corpses of the crew still in their sleeping bags. The balloon’s cameras and film were recovered and revealed that the balloon rose too high and then crashed. They had only made it to the 82 degree latitude. The balloon and their bodies were returned to Sweden. After lunch, we arrived in Hamburgbukta where we took zodiacs to shore and were amused by the harbor seals on the rocks. This was the sandiest beach we had yet encountered. After returning to the ship, a couple of the guides told us of their “ski and kite expedition” adventure across Svalbard during the Covid shutdown. They crossed the island south to north, were attacked by a polar bear, and took over a month of surviving on the ice to do it. Then we docked at the town of Ny Alesund which had started as a mine. It was here that in 1926 Roald Amundsen and 15 other men launched the zeppelin “Norge” to successfully reach the North Pole. This followed his failed attempt in 1918 to reach the North Pole by traversing the Northeast Passage on the ship Maud. We walked the gravel streets that house only 30 people in the winter-time but ~200 people in the summer as 10 different countries have research centers here. This is the most northern established town in the world and we visited the zeppelin mast tower, the local museum and the small souvenir shop. That night, we had our farewell dinner on the ship and said farewell to the captain and his wife.

Julie & Rocky in Svalbard
Svalbard Map

The next morning, we returned to Longyearbyen where we visited the Global Seed Vault and watched a large pod of beluga whales cruising up and down the harbor. 

Beluga Whales on the Move

From there, we flew back to Oslo where we had our trip’s official Farewell Dinner. The, early the next morning, we began our trip’s extension with an early morning 3-hour flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Arctic Expedition Part 2 – Introduction to Svalbard

August – September 2022

We began our trip to Svalbard with a private Norwegian flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen. Once there, we began to learn about the islands of Svalbard, of which the most mountainous is Spitsbergen, and whose largest town is Longyearbyen – population 2000. The other two largest towns are Sveagriva – population 500, and  Ny Alesund – population 200. There are no native people to the islands as it was first discovered by Europeans in 1596 by the Dutch sea explorer Willem Barents. From 1610-1850 the Dutch and British used the islands for whaling, before being abandoned to hunters who trapped musk ox while hunting for duck, fox, and seals. In the early 20th century, the islands were used as the jumping off point in the race to the North Pole, including in 1926 when Ronald Amundson tried to reach North Pole by dirigible. In the 1930’s, coal mining  became the only industry, but today there is only one coal mine left and it is scheduled to be shut down in 2025. Today, the islands’ leading industry is tourism including wildlife watching in the summer and snowmobile exploring in the winter. 

Map of Svalbard Islands

The town of Longyearbyen is located on the 78th degree parallel. From the tiny airport, we took a bus to the town’s center which consisted of one street with a dozen shops. On the hillside are the bucket line remnants of the former coal industry. We shopped for souvenirs and had a local beer before boarding our ship and being briefed on the rules of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). There are 152 guests on the ship with most being experienced travelers. Dinner that night was lamb followed by cocktails in main bar. The ship had a pool and an exercise center and was outfitted with zodiacs for exploring.

The Town of Longyearbien
Ready to Cruise

The next morning breakfast was interrupted by a Humpback whale in front of the ship. We soon went ashore at Bamsebu via zodiac where there were the remnants of hundreds of beluga whale bones as well as a research hut where 2 women spent the winter of 2019. We hiked 3-miles from the beach to a ridge, then along the ridge across a couple of valleys before returning to the beach .  Along the way, we saw several reindeer who have lifespans of about 10-years. The males are ~150-200 lbs. and the females are 120-150 lbs. in size. They are vegetarian, but will eat almost any plant or root they can find. Some of the males were shedding their velvet from their antlers  while we were there. They mate in October and give birth in May. We were warmed by the hot chocolate that awaited us when we returned to ship at noon.

Reindeer Losing Velvet
Baluga Whale Bones

There were plenty of birds in Svalbard, 234 species, but there are no raptures. The most common bird species are the arctic tern, the barnacle goose, the pink- footed goose, the arctic skua, the ivory gull, the black legged kittiwake, the northern fulmar, (cousin to Albatross), the purple sandpiper , the common eider, the guillemot, the little auk, the rock ptarmigan, and our favorite –the  Puffins – which we could see on the nearby cliffs. While drinking wine on the observation deck we saw our first beluga whales – snowy white with no large dorsal fins and ~15 foot long. That afternoon on our way to Ingeborgfjellet to see one of the islands’ largest (2300 ft) mountain, we saw a polar laying on a ridge nearby. Since we could not safely go ashore, the scouts put all of the zodiacs in the water so we could go view the polar bear from the sea.  The polar bear was a female with a GPS collar around her neck. She wandered down the shore line for several miles as our 17 zodiacs watched her, never getting to close.  Eventually she just sat down on the shore to watch us.  We left her and continue down the coast to view the nearby glacier before returning to ship for the Captains reception and meeting our crew. That night after dinner, we visited the bridge where two staff are always on duty in 4 hour shifts.

Female Polar Bear on Shore

The next morning after breakfast we learned more about the geology of Svalbard. There are no bushes, shrubs or trees on Svalbard’s islands. The oldest rocks are a billion years old with little soil cover over ancient limestone. Later that morning, we took zodiacs and landed at Gnaalodden, walked to the end of the peninsula where we saw Wanny Wolstad’s legendary woman’s trapper cabin. The area was home to many birds and several foxes. It was here we found our first collectable beach glass. After returning to the ship, we saw another pod of Beluga whales including a baby whale. That day for lunch, we had a BBQ of: burgers, sausage, ribs, chicken, swordfish and leg of lamb with a salad bar and a desert bar, all on the rear of deck of the ship next to the pool. In the afternoon, we embarked on the zodiacs for 2.5 hour ride to tour of the Burgerbukta area with its ice caps and glaciers. From the zodiac, we collected a small iceberg to return with us to the ship and then sat quietly to listen to the ice which sounds like a gentle rain.  Suddenly, we heard cracking and a loud “boom” as a piece of the glacier calved off and flipped over.  We sped away to miss the wave that the calving caused and returned to ship for “happy hour” cocktails using the chuck of glacier ice we brought back with us. Dinner that night was salad and duck, followed by a guests $5 gift exchange. Roc ended up a laser pointer  and Julie got well-appreciated hand warmers

One of hundreds of Glaciers

The next morning, Thursday September 1st, we woke to a fogged-in sea. But, by after breakfast, the fog had cleared and we boarded our zodiacs for a trip into Habenichtbukta Bay where we saw a giant sperm whale skull lying on the beach. Upon exiting the bay we came upon a large group of walruses and piles of walrus bones from previous kills in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We then traveled over to the next bay where we saw the remains of a number of trapper huts and a human burial site from the 1750’s. Then, on one of several little islands we came upon a pod of 4 walruses, and further on 20 more, and then 4-6 more walruses swimming in the water near us. We returned to the ship for lunch and a lecture on climate change recapping the findings presented at last international climate change conference. After lunch, a small group of hikers, (12, including Rocky), disembarked for a ravine climb/scramble up Kapp Lee – 1000 feet nearly straight up for 2.5 hours. At the top, they saw reindeer and got an excellent view from the top of the island. Julie went to inspect the trapper huts and shoreline and was able to watch ~100 walruses laying on the beach, occasionally moving into and out of the water. The walruses use their tusks as an extra appendage. They are very social animals with a breeding season in January. There are 2 species of walruses – Atlantic and Pacific, and their whiskers are very powerful and useful as they scour the bottom of the seafloor, vacuum sucking the innards of clams and leaving the clam shell behind. They eat ~175 pounds of clam per day, but only dive for ~5 minutes at a time. Both genders have tusks with the female’s being straight and slender and the male’s being thicker and bigger. Their skin turns pink when they get warm and turns white grey in winter. The families stay together as the females have a 10-month gestation period, and the calves are ~40 lbs. when born. Their lifespan is ~20 years. One of the hazards for the Svalbard wildlife is plastic pollution as 60-80% of the plastic comes from the fishing industry  There is a “Clean up Svalbard” community project in place where all plastic is returned to Longyearbyen if found. Over 20 tons of waste has been removed from beaches so far in this 20-year project. In addition to the walruses, we have seen dozens of glaciers. A glacier is defined as “moving ice” – if the glacier does not move, it is a polar ice cap. Upon returning to the ship, we had a dinner of gnocchi and tuna with Andrea, our trip lead from Argentina. That night, we sailed through a channel to Brasvellbreen.

Walruses on Shore
Curious Walrus Close-Up
Arctic Meadow

The next morning, we arrived at Brasvellbreen – a 100-mile-long glacier wall which is like a giant table 70-90 feet tall going on forever.  Along the way there are several waterfalls and many birds. After a buffet breakfast, we spent some time learning more out our local guides. The all live in Longyearbyen under Norwegian law, but operate independently with their own mayor, and pay no taxes. No permanent residents are allowed in Svalbard, and no one is allowed to be born there or die there – they must return to the Norwegian mainland. In addition, being born in Norway does not confer citizenship – it must be applied for. In the winter, temperatures reach -40 degrees and the town hosts a Polar Studies University with 200 professors. Nearly all the guides arrived in Svalbard via studies at the University but the town has no banks, hosts no weddings, has only a single non-denominational church, and little crime. Actually, because of the threat of weather and polar bears, nearly all residents leave their doors unlocked to allow for emergency sheltering. Lomgyearbyen is also home to the Global Seed Vault where over 1000 species are currently stored, but it can hold 3,500 more. Every resident has an ID cord and each resident is only allowed 24 bottles of beer or 2-liters of hard alcohol per month. Dogs are the only pets allowed. On the average, 2 polar bears are killed per year for attacks on people in and around the town. The Svalbard Treaty allows no military presence on the island, although they have one of the largest defense satellite setups in the world. A series of above ground hot water pipes provide heating and keep the water lines from freezing, and the town is actually too far north to see the Aurora Borealis. All waste and trash is brought back to the mainland and there is no landfill allowed in Svalbard.

Rock & Julie at Glacier Ice Wall
Global Seed Vault in Svalbard

 We continued north to the Nord Ausrlande area and the Maybrean glacier and icecap. This island is covered by a single glacier, part of the ~7700 billion tons of ice in Svalbard. In the past 10-years, the Svalbard glaciers have lost an average of 1.5 feet, as the age of the ice from one side to the other is billions of years old. That morning, because of the number of icebergs in the water, we were unable to make a zodiac landing at Vibebukta. However, after lunch we cruised on to Torellneset.and made a landing there. This area was a polar desert with walruses laying on a beach of stones. We saw one female that was nursing her young, and soon the beach filled with 10 others. On the way to this beach we spotted a Minke whale in the bay and a second Minke whale deep in the same bay where we were watching the walrus. After strolling and exploring the beach, we went back on-board for a lecture on whales, cocktail hour, and dinner. The next morning, there would be two optional hikes at Faksevagen – one would be of medium difficulty and about one hour long and the other would be ~3-miles, more difficult, but would afford a great view.  

Polar Waters

Arctic Expedition Part 1 – Oslo to Svalbard, Norway

Austust – September 2022

Having already visited Antarctica in 2019 and seen the southern polar ice-sheets and wildlife, we decided it would be appropriate to “go north” and explore the northern lands and view the northern polar wildlife, and thus we planned at trip to Svalbard, Norway – the furthest northern habited place on earth.

We began our trip by flying from the US to Oslo, Norway to explore this part of Norway and recover from the time change.  Our group was small, ~15 people, and we quickly made our way from Oslo’s airport into town where we checked-in to the Thon Opera Hotel. Our hotel was on the harbor across the street from the Opera House, built in 2008, and centrally located near the Metro Central Station. The Opera House is constructed to be walked on its roof which is designed to represent an iceberg and the view from there shows the harbor’s art, architecture, and even its floating sauna houses. We took a walk along the harbor’s edge past the overnight ferry to Sweden, the cruise terminal (where the Regent’s-Seven Seas Splendor was docked), past the Akershus fortress’ outside walls to the town’s Nobel Peace center. After a food truck lunch, we visited the wooden carvings on outside walls and giant murals of City Hall where several weddings were in progress. Then past the National theater down Karl Johans St. looking at the gardens, shops and restaurants until we reached central station and were back to our hotel. For dinner, we decided to explore the Hammersbourg area where a large building houses the best street food in Oslo. Being Friday the place was packed with a line at the bar. There was a DJ, and 25 small food counters every kind of food (Chinese, American, Hawaiian, Argentinian, Korean! Greek, Peruvian, Mexican, etc.). Once there, we ate Japanese chicken and local beer, enjoying the scene before it converted to a nightclub.

Rocky with Mr. Thon
The Oslo Tiger Mascot

Much of the surrounding land around Oslo Harbor has been reclaimed from the sea as much of the area was underwater. In 1980, much of it was raised 4.5 meters higher, initially with 1100 pillars driven deep into the ground on which our hotel, the Thon Hotel Opera was first erected. They found 2500 medieval boats when the land was reclaimed from under nearby Central Station, and the local harbor store house, construction 1920 was already built on 1500 pillars. In the center of the harbor is anchored a floating sculpture of an Iceberg. The harbor is busy with bars and restaurants, cruise ships, and the huge Christian Radich steel 3-masted ship that sails for tours of the fjords. Atop city hall is located15 bronze bells that ring out a concert daily at 3:00pm. All along the harbor walk are chair sculptures as a reminder of the Jews taken out of the city when the Nazi’s occupied Norway during World War II. Today still stands the Akushuss Fortress which is operated by military and has been open since 1934. Nearby is the unique Munch Museum with 28,000 pieces of his art and a top floor with a café and a view of the fjord.

Oslo Harbour Ice Sculpture
Oslo City Hall
Wooden Murals at Oslo City Hall
Oslo Munch Museum
Oslo Harbour Floating Sauna

Oslo’s original name was “Kristianna” and the cathedral there is still named for it. The next day we were lucky to take a tour of the inside of the Opera house, including the many workshops that employ over 600 people in 50 different areas with 40 occupations. The Opera House holds 300 ballet and 300 operas per year with Norway’s only permanent orchestra. It cost 500M Euros to build taking 15 years just for parliament to decide on the architect and 5-years to construct. At the time, it was Norway’s single largest building and it transformed the fjord with its white Carrera marble roof that holds 5000 seated people and its inside main theater that holds 1400. It is considered one of the top-10 opera house in the world.  

Oslo Opera House

From there, we went to Vigeland Park which was designed by artist Vigeland who died in 1943 during the Nazi occupation. The park is divided into 5 sections beginning with embryo sculptures moving to child and adult, and with each sculpture in motion. At end of the bridge are grandfathers and grandchildren. There are rose gardens, mazes, and fountains. All the statues are bronz and were not destroyed by the Nazi’s. At the center of the end is a Phalanx that is 17 meters tall carved from a single 180-ton piece of granite. It took 121 sculptors working on it for 4 years. 

Famous Vigeland Sculpture Park

After lunch at local restaurant, Kaffistova, we walked to the ferry terminal and bought round trip tickets to Bygdey (Museum Island which hosts the Maritime, Fram, and Kon-tiki museums. We toured the Maritime Museum where we saw the Norway boat entry from the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the oldest dugout canoe, a wonderful children’s boat exploration area, various boats recovered from the seafloor.  Then we toured the Fram museum where the Fram mock-up is made for one to explore and learn about both its Arctic and Antarctica expeditions. The we explored the Kon-tiki museum where there is a Moa from Easter Island out front and the two reed boats that both failed after ~40 days at sea.  There are also cave mock-ups for exploration and the balsa wood Kon-tiki which did complete the mission. We returned to Oslo via Norway Yacht as they have no ferry….and took the tram back to central station and then walked to our hotel. That night, we returned to the Oslo Street Food Center for gyros and a local beer.

The Fram Museum

The next morning, we took the Tram from central station to the Akerhuss Fortress where we walked the various levels exploring the various viewpoints, buildings, military guards. and several cannon before we walked back to hotel. Then we traveled to the old Oppronnelige River & Sagene (sawmills) area where there were originally only two pedestrian bridges and are now 53 – 26 still for pedestrians only. In this area, the river falls 54 meters thus giving it 19 waterfalls that were historically used to power the textile industry. Between 1842 and 1900 – 40 factories were built on river for logging and for the textile industry (weaving and spinning). This early industrialism brought jobs but employed mostly women and children who worked 12 hours a day,  6 days a week, with no rights. By the 1970’s the river’s water was like brown soup and so polluted that no fish lived there. In the 1980’s, the government removed all old derelict factories, restricted the river’s and area’s use, and fish and birds have now returned. Five miles of river runs through Oslo and owning small little houses is popular there. After a lunch of duck confit with rhubarb soda, we took the Tram to the Nobel Peace Center and toured the museum learning the history and life of Alfred Nobel and how the Nobel Prize for Peace, Physic, Chemistry, Biology Literature and Economics has evolved. We then walked to the newest district Aker Brugge and Tjuvholmen where there were lots of apartments and condos with balconies and boats. This was a popular area for strolling, swimming at a small stone beach, and playing at playgrounds with lots of restaurants, food trucks, and ice cream stands and in the harbor kid boats. That night we had a salmon and apple krum cake welcome dinner at a local restaurant for our whole group, as the next morning we would get up early to fly to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

The Oppronnelige River Area
Home of the Nobel Prize
The Aker Brugge and Tjuvholmen Districts

2022 Detomo Family Holiday in Atlantis, Paradise, Bahamas

June 2022

In 2020 the 10 member “Rocco Detomo Family” had been scheduled for a holiday aboard the Disney Cruise out of Port Canaveral (Rocky & Julie, Michael, Julie, Dominic & Luca, and Anthony, Stephanie, Nora & Elliot). Unfortunately, the Covid-19 Pandemic cancelled all cruises and we scheduled out first “All Family Vacation” for 2022 in Atlantis, Bahamas, instead.

Our trip started with flights for everyone out of varying airports in in Baltimore-Washington Metroplex. This was the first challenge of the holiday, as the airlines were cancelling 1000’s of flights every day!  However, we all made it to Nassau, Bahamas in early afternoon on Sunday, June 26th.  The area had just been inundated with thunderstorms, and so, after a taxi-ride through submerged streets, we finally arrive at the main entrance to Atlantis. Each of the adults had been to Atlantis before, although none of us had ever actually stayed there. The grounds are covered with a water-world paradise of pools, aquariums, beaches, restaurants, and, of course, the ever-present casino.

Atlantis Resort from Room Window

While checking in, the grandkids marveled at the large aquarium sharks and sting rays, before we briefly settled-in and headed poolside to “Shark Bites” for our first meal there. Our rooms are all on the 10th floor with excellent views of the pools and aquariums, and of the lagoon and ocean. Atlantis is “cashless”, and the prices include all taxes and gratuity, and are easily put onto your room via your key. We then changed clothes and met at the “Royal Baths Pool” where the kids and adults all enjoyed the water, before we moved to the Lagoon Beach to snorkel and look at the colorful fish. It was here that Luca and Elliot began to hang-out and entertain each other.  At 5:00pm, everyone headed up to their rooms to prepare for dinner “on-their-own”. Rocky & Julie took the opportunity to head to an “off-site” grocery & liquor, market, but found it had just closed at 6:00pm since it was Sunday. They then went to a dinner of pulled port & craft beers at the “Pirate Republic” before heading to “The Coral Hotel” part of the Atlantis Complex where we explored the “predator Lagoon and the aquarium tunnels that allowed viewing of sharks, sting rays, goliath groupers, gars, and 6ft-long tarpon, among a variety of other fish and sea life. After reaching the Royal Hotel Lobby, we headed outside to watch the Hawksbill Sea turtles located in the Rescue and Rehabilitation area. Then, it was time to retire to our room to unpack and settle in for our first night.

Anthony’s Family, The Grandkids, Michael’s Family
Hawksbill Turtle

Monday morning, we arose early to a rainstorm and headed to the hotel’s Starbuck’s for morning coffee and snack. While returning, we encountered part of the family at the local breakfast patisserie collecting goodies for the rest of their family. Unfortunately, the rain “cancelled” Tony & Steph’s family outing that was scheduled to swim with the turtles. But the rain soon stopped, and we all headed to the Lagoon for a walk and to the Royal Beach for some fun in the surf. After exploring the “Aquaventure” area more fully, we decided to take up seats around the large “Mayan Temple Pool” where a series of waterfalls, slides (Serpent), and splash zone at “Ripples” was enjoyed by everyone. Soon, however, Tony and Steph received a short-notice reschedule of the Turtle Adventure” and they were off for the rest of the afternoon. Meanwhile, the rest of us went to the “Splashers” pool where a huge water playground for kids exists and Dom & Luca played. Then, it was onto the “Rapid River”, an upscaled “Lazy River” with Class I rapids traversed by either single or double person tubes which took upwards of ½ hour to complete. Later that afternoon, we headed back to our rooms to prepare for dinner. All of us unknowingly ended up at the same restaurant, “Olives” where we shared stories from everyone’s encounters of the day before exiting and walking through the hotel’s underground aquarium viewing area. After viewing the family of “saw fish”, we returned to the hotel main floor where we all had ice creams at “Sun & Ice” before watching a bit of teen karaoke at the nearby dance floor.  The grandkids were all fascinated by the “less than perfect” performances and danced and laughed to a variety of songs. Then, on the way back to our rooms, we stopped to watch the hawksbill turtles and share more stories of everyone’s adventures of the day before  finally calling it a night.

Elliot, Luca and Nora on the Waterslides
The Splashers Water Playground
A Picture of Innocence

Tuesday, we met Tony for our morning walk to Starbucks before heading out to save family seats around the “Splashers” pool. That morning, the adults and kids rode a variety of slides and tubes, some of which rode through an underwater tube that crosses the shark pool. We swam and played at “Splashers” until 11am, when we decided to explore the hotel’s second of 3 beaches – “The Cove”.  Here, the kids built their first sandcastles, played in the surf, and walked the beach looking for “treasures”. The kids got to see their first sea anemone, although it was no longer alive. We had lunch at “Breakers” restaurant before dark clouds began to gather, and we headed back to our rooms. That afternoon, everyone explored on their own finding new displays, trails, and caves (“The Digs”). We met early for our first “All Family Dinner” at “Frankie’s Gone Bananas” which was located along side the Atlantis Marina – home to a few dozen 100-200ft-long super yachts. After dinner, we took the family shopping for Atlantis T-shirts and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, before everyone headed up to  their room for bedtime.

At the Cove Beach
Ice Cream while Watching the Fish

Wednesday morning, we again met Tony for our now-routine Starbucks run. After breakfast, Tony & Steph took Nora and Elliot to Dolphin Cay for a petting and feeding experience with the dolphins. The rest of us set-up at “Splashers” pool” where we swam and played all morning. Lunch was poolside with peanut butter & jelly, salad wraps and Cuban sandwiches. We then moved over to the Lagoon Beach where everyone built a sandcastle and the boys made a new friend, Christian. That afternoon, Tony & Steph took the family into Nassau for sightseeing and shopping, and, although the straw markets were still open, restaurants and stores in general close as soon as the cruise ships begin to leave the docks. That night, Mike & Julie left Dom and Luca with Grammy & Grandpa for pizza and a movie (Minions) while they went out for a romantic lobster dinner. After returning, everyone went back to their rooms for a good night’s sleep.

Lagoon Sand Castle
Caribbean Reef Shark
Ice Cream Time

Thursday began with our routine coffee run before everyone had breakfast and headed out to the aquariums to watch the 9”00am feeding of the sawfish and rays. Four of the sawfish are the only ones born in captivity and at 10-years old are already ~15ft. long. After the feedings, we took up seats around the Mayan Temple pool again so that everyone could ride the slides and play. Grammy, Grandpa, Mike, and Dom all rode the “Challenger” slide, which reaches high speeds down a 60ft-high steep incline. Then, the girls all met up for “girl-time” at the Coral Pool Swim-Up Bar where they had drinks and swam. At the “Tower of Power”, Grandpa discovered “The Abyss” – a 60ft. drop in darkness into an underground secluded pool. Mike & Dom and Grammy & Grandpa then tackled “The Surge” – a 2-peron tube slide that twists about before exiting into the Rapids River. The rest of the afternoon was filled with slides and River Rapids rides until we all returned to the rooms in the late afternoon to prepare for dinner. We all decided to eat at the “Burger Shack”, located at the end of the Marina Village, since reservations were not required. Ben & Jerry’s again provided post-dinner ice cream treats for the kids before we headed towards a family walk through “The Digs” before retiring for the night.

Caribbean Sawfish born at Atlantis
Luca and Mom on the Rapid River
Mike and Dominic Racing on the Challenger
Grammy and Grandpa with the Grandkids

On Friday morning, Mike joined our routine morning coffee trek. Today, we again set up at the Mayan Temple pool as the kids were becoming braver on experiencing the slides and river. Grammy, Steph, and Nora decided to explore the Baths Colonnade pool which is 5ft. deep and has pedestal seats located around each column and under each waterfall. Lunch that day was again from “Shark Bites” and the afternoon was filled with swimming, rides on the Jungle slide, and family time on the Rapids River. Friday night would be a final “All Family Dinner” which we had scheduled at “Carmines” – an Italian family-style restaurant located at the far-end of the Marina Village. We all sat at a large round table and ordered family-style servings which were huge and delicious. Although we could not eat it all, we gave it our best shot, and everyone agreed it was the best meal we had had together. After dinner, we wandered back towards the hotel through the “Junkaroo Market” which “pops-up” only on Friday evenings. The girls shopped the trinkets and the boys tried joining in with the local band before we returned to the hotel to take Family pictures, returned to our rooms to begin packing, and called it a night.

Italian Family Dinner at Carmines
Stephanie holds Storytime
The 2022 Atlantis Family Picture

Saturday morning was our last Starbucks walk before collecting our luggage and checking out of the Atlantis Resort. We all caught taxis to the airport where Tony & Steph’s flight took off on time, but rest of the family’s flight was delayed 3-hours. However, everyone made it back to the northeast at a reasonable time, ending our first All-Family vacation.

Biking the Pacific Northwest San Juan Islands – Part 2

June 2022

Our trip leaders were Paul & McKenna with Nina providing support, as our group of bike riders were 25 people strong. There was a surprisingly large contingent from Florida, 10 in all, including us, and well as 7 from California, and others sprinkled from around the Midwest and South. After checking the sizing of our assigned bicycles, we immediately set off on a 22-mile bike ride over relatively flat farming terrain, but in a rainstorm that soaked us to the skin. Upon returning to our suite, we took advantage of every source of heat to dry our shoes and clothes while we prepared for dinner at a local restaurant – Nell Thorn’s. Dinner that night was spectacular with the owner talking us through the night’s fare and the wine flowing freely. Our dinners of Halibut and Morel & Truffle Pasta exceeded even our highest expectations before returning to our hotel for a few games of cards and packing to check-out in the morning.

A Local Crabbing Boat in the fishing village of La Conner
Nina, McKenna, and Paul – The Backroads Team

Monday morning, we checked out, delivered our luggage to the Backroads Leaders, and walked to breakfast at the Thorn & Oyster Restaurant, before boarding our bicycles for the day’s ride. Today, we would bike 26-miles to Anacortes, past the refinery and over trestle bridges, to lunch in the park next to their Maritime Museum and marina. The Monday weather was fantastic with temperatures in the 50’s & 60’s with very little wind. After lunch, we strolled through the marina observing the lines of locals buying fresh-caught salmon, scallops, and halibut, before boarding our bicycles once again for the short 8-mile ride through the hills to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. The ferry would take us from the mainland to Orcas Island – the second-largest island in the San Juan Archipelago. Backroads collected our bikes and provided an assortment of drinks and snacks as we enjoyed the 90-minute ferry ride that first stopped at Shaw Island before arriving at Orcas Village located at the southern end of the middle peninsula on Orcas Island. Orcas Island is shaped a bit like an upside-down “W”, and we would be exploring the island from a location near the north end of the Island. Upon arriving, we were shuttled to the Outlook Hotel in the village of Eastsound. Again, we had an excellent room with a fireplace overlooking the East Sound and its near shore “Indian Island”. We used the remaining afternoon to clean-up and explore the town’s small commercial center, although most stores closed at 5pm. That night we enjoyed appetizers and dinner at the hotel before taking a stroll through their lovely gardens and around town.

Travel Map among San Juan Islands. Yellow stars – Hotel stays; Blue star – Orcas; Green star – Kayaking in Roche Harbor

Tuesday was another wonderful day, and, after arising early, we took an exploratory stroll along the waterfront. It was low tide, and many small crabs were left hiding under estuary rocks and the beach was awash in local kelp and seaweed. After a generous breakfast at the hotel’s New Leaf Café, we rode our bikes a short 5-miles along the Eastern Peninsula to Moran State Park – the 4th largest state park in Washington and land that preserved the ~300-year-old-growth forest from the extensive logging the island saw in the 19th & 20th Century. It originally was the estate of Seattle mayor and shipbuilder Robert Moran who moved there for health reasons. It also includes Mt. Constitution, the highest point among the Sam Juan Islands at 2409ft elevation. Along the way, a large buck and 2 other deer crossed our paths, but the ~500ft climb required effort. Unfortunately, the road and hiking trails to the summit were all closed for repair from the winter, so we took the occasion to hike the ~4-mile trail around Mountain Lake through the forest of huge Douglas firs and Red Cedars. After the hike, we returned to Cascade Lake Campgrounds for a picnic lunch before hiking the shorter 2-miles around Cascade Lake. Along the way, we were lucky to come upon a Bald Eagle sitting right above us looking for a fish to capture. After our hike, we boarded our bicycles and headed 6-miles north to the coast at Matia Viewpoint where we could look back to the mainland for a clear view of Mt. Baker covered in snow. Mt. Baker is a glacier-covered volcano in the Cascade range that towers 10,781ft high. It was then just a short 2-mile ride back to the Outlook Inn, where we had time to shop while the stores were open before meeting for dinner at the Madrona Bar and Grill where we enjoyed steak and Cioppino, (Italian Seafood Stew).

One of many Bald Eagles spotted in the San Juan Islands

Wednesday we would explore the other two peninsulas of Orcas Island located to the west. Again, we explored the beach in the morning before taking breakfast at the hotel, checking out, and beginning our 12-mile ride to Deer Harbor, the southwestern most town on the island. Along the way, we stopped and shopped at Orcas Island Pottery, a unique, locally made collection of pottery items with a tremendous view of the water and islands west to Canada. Deer Harbor was a quaint, working fishing village with numerous commercial and recreational ships. From Deer Harbor, we retraced part of our route and rode the 6 additional miles to Orcas Village. At Orcas Village, we surrendered our bicycles, changed clothes, and enjoyed a lovely outdoor lunch at the Orcas Hotel of BBQ Chicken & Salmon with grilled veggies. After lunch, we boarded the “Squito” Whale Watching boat to go in search of Orcas! Latest intel put a Biggs Pod, (“Biggs Pods” are pods of Orcas that are transient to the area, as opposed to “Resident Pods” that stay in the area year-round), near the U.S. – Canadian Border by the island of Patos. We take the 90-minute ride north, spotting the occasional Harbor Seal and porpoise, until we reach the southern shores of Patos where 3-4 Whale Watching vessels are cruising west-to-east a few hundred yards off from the Orcas pod that is cruising the island’s shores. Out Naturalist aboard identifies the pod as the T123 family of five with the ~37-year-old mother, (“Sidney), a mature 22-year-old mature juvenile male, (“Stanley”), and 3 younger juveniles ranging from 4-16 years old. We follow along at distance for about an hour before we need to return to Friday Town Harbor on the southern end of San Juan Island, our next destination. Along the way back, we cruise by Flattop Island – a flattish rock outcrop covered with Harbor Seals remaining safe onshore during the day. We then travelled past a couple of resident eagle nests on San Juan Island before docking at Friday Town Harbor and walking a short distance to the Harbor House Hotel, our location for the next two nights. That night dinner was on our own, so we shopped at the local grocery deli and relaxed at the hotel playing cards, eating, and drinking wine.

The T123 Biggs Orcas Pod
Stanley & Sidney of the T123 Orca Family spotted at Patos Island near the Canadian Border
Harbor Seals at Flattop Island

Thursday morning brought back the light rain, but after breakfast at the hotel, we biked 20-miles to Lime Kiln Point State Park on the western side of the island, stopping along the way at a Lavender Farm where we get warm, and taste lavender tea, lavender chocolate, lavender chutney, and lavender honey. At Lime Kiln State Park, the 1860’s lime kilns used for making lime for mortar, are renovated, and the coastal park still houses the 1919 Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse and a coastal whale observation overlook. From the State Park, we load our cold selves and our wet bikes and shuttle back to the hotel for a shower and a “picnic” in the hotel and ready ourselves for an afternoon of kayaking in the rain. We shuttle over to Roche Harbor at the north end of the island where we climb into our 2-person sea kayaks and begin our 2-hour paddling journey to Pearl Island and Posey Island Marine State Park – a small island state park that boasts only 2 campsites that can be reserved for $12 per night each. However, motorized boats are not allowed to beach there! After sampling a bit of fresh Pacific Bull Kelp, we kayak over to McCracken Point where we saw two occupied eagle’s nests. Then we paddled along the other side of Pearl Island and back to Roche Harbor before we exited the kayaks and took our soggy selves back to the hotel for a good hot shower. That evening, it was time for a bit of “Happy Hour” and our final “Farewell Dinner”.

Julie & Rocky in their Sea Kayak
Our Backroads Kayaking Group

Friday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, and climbed aboard our bicycles for the last time. The weather was spectacular, and the morning would be an enjoyable 11-mile ride past the airport and golf course, and along the Pear Point Loop and its lovely homes. Back at the hotel, we showered, packed our bags, checked out and walked to the ferry terminal where we shopped and drank coffee. Because of early morning fog, the ferry to Anacortes was running ~1-hour late, but we ate lunch onboard and arrived in plenty of time to say our goodbyes and shuttle back to La Conner to load up our car. From La Conner, we drove to the airport Hampton in Seattle as the rain began to fall yet again. After checking into the hotel, we turned in the car, walked to quick food stop, and prepared for our early morning flights.

The Outside Wall at the Killer Whale Museum in Friday Harbor

Saturday morning, it was up at 3:45am, hotel shuttle to the airport, flight check-in, and breakfast at the lounge before catching our 6:45am flight back through Chicago and onto Washington Reagan Airport. The end of a fantastic biking trip through the U.S. Northwest San Juan Islands.

Biking the Pacific Northwest San Juan Islands – Part 1

June 2022

Both my wife and I had visited Seattle for work numerous occasions in the past, but neither of us ever had the chance to really explore the San Juan Islands located northwest of Seattle in historically disputed territory. These islands are geologic mountain tops with deep ancient glacier canyons carved in between them, making a perfect home for humpback whales, pods of orcas, harbor seals, and nesting bald eagles. Our attention was directed this way when our facilitated bicycling trip planned for late Fall 2021 to Guatemala & Belize was disrupted by covid border crossing issues, and we chose instead to divert our invested resources within the United States. 

We found the San Juan Islands interesting because they have been historically explored, exploited, and claimed by many countries. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the U.S. west to the middle of the Strait of Georgia, and then by the main channel south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and from there westwards to the open ocean, preserving Vancouver as belonging to Britain. However, the US and Britain had differing opinions on identifying “the main channel”, which the U.S. claimed was the Haro Strait, and Britain claimed was the Rosario Strait. This led to both countries claiming the San Juan Islands, which led to an international dispute, (the Pig Wars), that was finally resolved through arbitration by Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany in 1871. The border was set through Haro Strait in 1872 and the San Juan Islands became part of  the U.S. Washington Territories. The San Juan Islands consist of over 100 islands and exposed rocks that serve as homes for people and wildlife, but only four islands are accessible to vehicular and foot traffic via the Washington State Ferries system.

Map of travels from Seattle to Bainbridge Island to Mt. Rainier and to La Conner

Our journey began in Washington Reagan airport with a layover in Chicago O’Hara until flying into Seattle airport. This was complicated by a ~2-hour delay in Chicago where the fueling crew spilled jet fuel on the tarmac requiring a thorough clean-up and aircraft safety inspection. Once in Seattle airport, we rented a car and traveled through typical rain to our hotel in downtown Seattle where we met up with my wife’s sister and brother-in-law who traveled from Ohio. Since it was now already evening, we took umbrellas, strolled through the shadow of the Space Needle, and settled into Zeke’s Pizzeria for dinner. We discussed our immediate plans as we decided to spend Friday and Saturday exploring the Seattle area before heading north to begin our adventure in the San Juan Islands.

The Seattle Needle from the 1962 World’s Fair
The Seattle Skyline from the Puget Sound Ferry

Friday morning, we checked out of the hotel and took the car ferry to nearby Bainbridge Island, a quaint and historic island set in Puget Sound. Apparently, the ferries are now escorted through the Sound with Coast Guard gunships that followed along beside us most of the way. The ferry arrived at the Eagle Harbor Terminal near the historic town of Winslow, where we parked our car and hiked the waterfront trails until the shops opened at 10am. After exploring the main street shops, we took lunch at the village grocery before heading by car north on the island to the famous Bloedel Reserve, a 150 acre beautifully manicured home, forest, and garden created by Virginia and Prentice Bloedel and preserved and operated today as a foundation. Despite the rain, we strolled the 2-miles of trails and enjoyed the spectacular colors of the flowers and botanicals. Then, we set out to another part of the island for the Grand Forest, to hike among the giant Lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and Red Cedar trees. After the hike, we stopped at Eleven Winery for some tasting and a few snacks before heading to the northern coast at Fay Bainbridge Park for a view across Puget Sound of the city of Seattle. This beach is renowned for its driftwood, and it did not disappoint. Having explored Bainbridge Island all day, we now drove north off the island via Agate Pass Bridge before turning south and heading to the town of Puyallup, south of Seattle, where we would stay for the next two nights. After checking into the hotel, we enjoyed dinner at Applebee’s before calling it a night.

Julie welcomed to Bainbridge Island
Sisters hugging a large Douglas Fir Tree

Puyallup is a small farming town located on the Puyallup River that flows as runoff from Mt. Rainier. We chose to stay here because it allows for easy first access to Mt. Rainier through the Nisqually Gate – the only open access to Mt. Rainier Park this early in the season. In addition, the extensive snow and rains of the past winter has destroyed numerous bridges and roads, and this was our only access up to the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. Along the winding road, following much of the Puyallup River, there are numerous viewpoints and trails to explore. We stopped along the way in the park at Longmire where we are informed that there is still 12ft of snow at Paradise and that many trails are still closed. However, we continue along the road until we reach Paradise just in time to explore the old lodge, check out the opening gift shop, and stretch our legs. We then begin the automobile descent back down to Longmire, stopping along the way to visit Narmada Falls, (whose lower-level trail was washed out), and taking a short hike to Christine Falls, (where we saw a couple of deer enjoying lunch at the Cougar Rock riverbank). At Longmire, we parked and hiked the 3.5-mile Wonderland Trail back to Cougar Rock campsites before returning to the car and finally exiting the park at Nisqually Gate. From here, we turned south and drove a local winding road through the beautiful, moss-covered Gifford Pinchot Forest. We stopped at Cruiser’s Pizza in the town of Packwood for fuel and a late lunch before returning to Puyallup for the evening.

The Puyallup River valley to Mt. Rainier
A view of Mt. Rainier from the town of Puyallup

Sunday morning, we checked out of the hotel and made the drive back to Seattle where we visited the Seattle Starbuck’s Reserve Roastery – the company’s flagship establishment. This downtown location was bustling with patrons and visitors and provided us with shopping, souvenirs, and fresh coffee. From here, we drove north up the coast to the small, historic town of La Conner to meet up with our Backroads’ Trip Leaders and group. We arrived a bit early, and so we explored the waterfront wharf that was populated with crabbing boats and fishing vessels, and toured the town’s Quilt Museum, before checking-in at the Channel Lodge hotel. Here, we had lunch and settled into our room – a suite with a fireplace, kitchen, living room and bedroom. 

The Channel Lodge Hotel in LaConner WA

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 6


Friday morning, we said our “goodbyes” to Marrakesh, and continued our 3-4-hour journey back to the coast and the “White City” of Casablanca. On the outskirts of town, we pass one of the city’s soccer stadiums – part of where the country’s hopes rest for hosting the 2030 World Cup. We get into town a bit before lunch, and we stop at the Women’s Solidarity Association in Casablanca. Founded in 1985, by Aicha Ech Channa, this non-profit organization provides professional experience to single women, mothers, and victims of abuse by training them to develop the skills needed to work in restaurants, bakeries, and hammams. There we spoke to the Association’s leader, Whabea, who explains to us that the children who are born out of wedlock, and their mothers, are generally not accepted into Moroccan Society, and are often cast out by their families, leaving them no way to support themselves or their child. The Association provides skills and services for about 50-60 women that helps them support themselves and navigate the social and legal complexities of their situation. They also provide childcare, and sexual education to local girls and schools to help in reducing the problem.  After a lively question and answer session, the Association serves us a lunch of traditional cuisine before we depart and drive through downtown past the Mohamed V Square where the Theater, French Embassy and Military Court all are located. We note the modern Tram transportation system that crisscrosses the city, and take note of the Post Office, Central Bank, Royal Navy, and the famous “Rick’s Café” modeled after the famous location from the movie “Casablanca”. Finally, we reach our next destination – the towering Hassan II Mosque built partly into the Atlantic Ocean. This mosque was built in 1985 and is the largest in Morocco, 3rd largest in the world, and boasts the tallest minaret in the world. It can hold 25,000 people on its main floor with another 5000 women in the balcony, and 75,000 more in its courtyard. It took 10,000 craftsmen and 3000 laborers working for years to complete and is currently staffed by 200 daily workers who provide security and clean. The inside is supported by 300 Italian marble pillars and is lit via either its movable roof or its 57 Italian chandeliers.  The 25-ton door takes 3-minutes to electrically open and is only used by the King and President of the country. We took the 1 1/2-hour tour of the mosque to admire its marble columns, intricately designed dome, and mosaic tiles. After touring the main floor, we made our way through the washing stations downstairs before exiting to the courtyard and touring the museum.

The Hassan II Mosque built partly into the Atlantic Ocean.
The courtyard of Hassan II Mosque that holds an additional 75,000 worshipers.
Rocky & Julie inside the Hassan II Mosque.
The downstairs washroom at the Hassan II Mosque.

We departed the mosque for a brief drive to our hotel, the centrally located Radisson Blu, where we checked-in and received our room assignments for the next two nights. Next, we both had our Covid PCR tests taken which were necessary to enter back into the United States. Then, Julie and I checked out the local Tram and shopped at the local grocery store for a few snacks and a bottle of wine before having dinner and calling it night.

Saturday morning, the rest of our group left for home, but the two of us stayed on an extra day to explore more on Casablanca. After meeting our guide for breakfast, we received documentation of our negative Covid tests, bid him goodbye, and then bought tickets for the Tram. We rode it to United Nations Square where we transferred to the Tram line that would take us to the beach south of Hassan II Mosque. Once reaching the beach, we walked 1 1/2-miles further south along the boardwalk to the Moroccan Mall – the largest Mall in all of Africa. The 3-story tall mall houses all the famous shops and is anchored by a huge, towering aquarium that is home to Atlantic fish including several species of sharks and rays. Here we shopped and explored until taking a seat for an iced tea at Starbucks and beginning our journey back to the city center. When we reached our transfer point at United Nations Square, we decided to try the local McDonald’s for lunch before strolling the rest of the way back to the Radisson Blu. After straightening out a mix up in rooms and having to move up 5 floors, we enjoyed a light fruit dinner and packed for our trip home that would begin early the next morning.

Modern architecture in Casablanca.
Pasta options at a Casablanca market.
The beach at Casablanca.
Inside the Morocco Mall in Casablanca – the largest mall in Africa.
The 3-story aquarium in Morocco Mall.
Is there Rocco in Morocco?

Sunday morning, September 12th, we were up at 4am for our taxi to the airport and our Air France flights home, again with a connection in Paris de Gaulle. The flight was comfortable, but uneventful, as our paperwork was all in order, and our trip home after 17 days was welcomed.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 5


The next morning, we leave for our trip to Marrakesh via the Tizin’Tichka Pass – the highest pass in Morocco at an elevation of 7422 ft. – (“Tizin’Tichka” in Berber means “The Pass of the Lost”).  We travel through the High Atlas Mountains for about five hours, pausing to take in viewpoints high above the valleys. The route along the Tizin’Tichka road is winding, hugging the side of the mountains following old caravan trails, but it has recently been improved and is a very scenic drive. 

Travel to Marrakesh along the historic Tizin’ Tichka Road.
Tizin’Tichka Pass – the highest pass in Morocco at an elevation of 7422 ft.

Along the way, we take a side-trip to Ait Ourir, a growing city founded on the outskirts of Marrakesh to stem the explosive growth of urban Marrakesh.  This is where our guide, Mohamed, lives with his family in a 4-story house that he saved for years to have built. He resides here with his parents, sister, brother & sister-in-law, wife, and 2 children. He even built a small sundry store on the ground floor for his father to operate. Schools, stores, and mosque are all nearby and it appears to be an excellent place to raise a family. We were greeted by the entire family and hosted with tea and an assortment of baked breads, crepes, and cakes.

In Ait Ourir to visit our guide’s family.

After a brief stay, we departed for our riad in Marrakesh, (the “red” city), where we had lunch of chicken skewers, rice, and veggies. Our riad, the Bahia Salam, was located in the heart of the old city and within walking distance of the souks and the old Jewish quarter. It was tucked back off a busy street but enjoyed the quiet of its flowered enclosures and rooftop terrace and pool. After lunch, we took an orientation walk with our local guide, Aziz, to the nearby square Djemaa El Fna, located at the intersection of the souks and the Koutoubia Mosque, the tallest structure in Marrakesh which will remain so by law. The name, “Djemaa El Fna” translates to “assembly of the dead”, and was in commemoration of the large number of public executions that occurred there in 1050 AD.  Today, it has turned into an area that is filled with street vendors, musicians, snake charmers, and pet monkeys. Food stalls line the streets with an assortment of beggars, diners, and shoppers milling about the square.  Horse-drawn carriages, motorbikes, and cars are restricted to the outskirts of the square at night and huge pedestrian traffic takes over the area.

Spices in Marrakesh’s Souks.

After a short walk, we entered a small custom spice shop, Medina Herbal, where different herbs and spices are used for creams and teas. Here we bought natural, organic saffron, the stigma threads taken from the flower of the Crocus Sativus plant. It is the world’s most costly spice by weight but is often sought for its flavoring and coloring properties. Then, after returning to the riad, Julie and I decide to explore the Jewish area located just a short distance away. Here we shop for spices and clothes and look for gifts that we can return home with. That night dinner was on our own, and we found some local fare to sample while wandering the maze of alleyways.

Custom spices at Medina Herbal.
Shopping in the Square of Djemaa El Fna.

The second morning we had breakfast on the roof terrace before meeting again with Aziz for a foot tour of old city. Today was the country’s Election Day where Parliament members are selected from among 36 Political Parties. We did see a few voting lines, but no one we spoke to all day had actually voted. The King has final say on both the elected members, and on any “laws” or recommendations that Parliament might make. First, we walked to the nearby opulent Bahia Palace. This 19th-century palace houses 150 council rooms with large fireplaces and intricately painted cedar work lining the floor and walls. The open-air Court of Honor is lined with tiles and fountains. Then we walked 10-15 minutes through the souks to Le Jardin Secret, a beautifully manicured 400-year-old palatial estate featuring immaculately manicured gardens.

Ornate architecture of the Bahia Palace.
In the Gardens of Le Jardin Secret.

Then we traveled a complicated route to Palais Galerie Saadien, where custom Moroccan wool rugs are displayed, shopped for, and ordered. We liked the options offered and arranged to have someone meet us later at the riad to guide us back to the shop to explore an order. After that, we returned to Djemaa El Fna where we took seats in a local restaurant for a lunch of skewered grilled beef, chicken, and lamb. Then we returned to the riad for a short rest before our guide back to Palais Saadien arrived.  After negotiating another complicated maze of small alleys, we returned to the Galerie where we negotiated and ordered 4 handmade Moroccan wool rugs, (including a round one), to be made by a village craftswoman with the specific colors and design we selected. It would take 4-months to create these, and another month to ship them to us in the United States. After completing the transaction, we were guided back to Djemaa El Fna from which we could find our way back to the riad, where we enjoyed a leisurely swim in the roof-top pool.

Craftsman working a foot-lathe.
In Marrakesh’s souks to order rugs from Palais Saadien.

After cooling off, our travel group gathered downstairs for an adventurous tour of the city via an hour-long horse-drawn Carriage ride, in two “calleches”. The ride took us through the “old city”, past palaces and mosques and high-end shopping districts, before returning us to our riad. That night, we wandered through the medina by ourselves and eventually into the bustling Djemaa El Fna where we enjoyed a light dinner and ice cream for dessert. Thant night we sat beside the pool on the roof and enjoyed a glass of our local wine and the city bustled below.

Marrakesh’s horse drawn carriages.
Rocky & Julie on carriage ride in Marrakesh.

Thursday morning would begin our last day in Marrakesh, and we started it by arising at 4:30am and catching a hired limousine for the 45-minute drive out of town to the far edge of Marrakesh. Here, we exited in the dark to a large tent where we enjoyed tea while receiving a safety briefing and instructions for our upcoming sunrise hot-air balloon ride. After watching the balloons fill and arise, we boarded and began our ascent into the pre-dawn light sky. The balloon basket held 16 guests – quartered off into 8 compartments – plus the pilot. Our pilot was an Egyptian man who had flown tourists on balloons in Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, and South Africa, and who was so adept at the controls that we hardly noticed any ascents or descents, or even the landing. While floating along between 4000 and 6000 feet high, we watched the sun rise over Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains, while watching 3 other balloons jockey for viewpoints beneath us. After landing, we returned to the tent where we were given certificates and enjoyed a breakfast of omelets, pancakes, cheese, and fruit, while sipping on tea and banana smoothies.

At hot air balloon embarkation tent predawn.
Our hot air balloon for Marrakesh flyover.
Fellow balloon travelers over Marrakesh.

We then returned to the riad and went shopping in the souks looking for souvenirs and a painting that would fit a particular frame in our Florida bedroom. Luckily, we found an artist who had the right shapes and colors of a desert scene that we loved and negotiated for its purchase. While out, we found some lunch before returning to the riad for another relaxing swim in the pool. Then, in the afternoon, we gathered for a short ride to meet with Chaimae Benyamna, a female medical student whose scientist parents supported her pursuit of such an untraditional western lifestyle. We discussed challenges she has faced and that she continues to face in her aspiration of becoming a woman gynecologist in a country where the profession is dominated by men. After our discussion, we traveled to “The Red House”, a former lavish French home that has been converted into a very classy boutique hotel and restaurant where we enjoyed our trip’s “Farewell Dinner”. Here we had cocktails and petit fours, followed by squab with raisins and spice orange cake for dessert. We ended the evening with toasts and “Thank You’s” before making the trip back to our riad for our last night in Marrakesh.

Squab with Raisins Tagine.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 4

The Atlas Mountains & Ourrzazate

Sunday morning had us saying goodbye to our Sahara camp staff and taking our 4-wheel-drive vehicles back to the Macro Fossils Kasbah outside of Erfoud where we transferred back to our transport bus for the trip to Ourrzazate. Our first stop along the way was for a visit and explanation of the Khettaras. A Khettaras is an underground tunnel and well network that was constructed to bring water from its source to be distributed and used for families and irrigation in the Sahara. On each side of the High Atlas in Morocco, various societies have built thousands of these khettaras, each of them dug and maintained by hand.

Diagram of a Kettara’s design.
Photo of a Kettera with Water Bucket.

After descending and traveling along one of these underground tunnels, we continued our journey to the town of Tinejdad. Here we entered the Ksar of El Khorbat and visited a Berber Museum assembled within by a local Jewish activist. The Ksar, (a fortified village), is a walled and protected assemblage of homes and businesses typically built to keep desert raiders out. After visiting the museum, we had lunch at the Touroug Café, before continuing our journey. Our drive took us through the Todra Valley and past many proud Berber towns. The valley boasts green crops and “green doors” painted at the request of the government. The Berber Flag (green, blue, and yellow) flies prominently, and construction and development are apparent. The area is known not only for its silver mines, but also as the “Valley of Roses”. We pass through Kelaa M’gouna, a town brimming with rose gardens and the home to Morocco’s Annual “Rose Festival” in May of each year. We then make a short stop and travel through the town of Skoura which had long been a favorite place for second homes for French, Spanish and Canadian investors, but has been suffering for the past few years with an extensive drought. Next, we pass the Noor Power Plant – the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant project at 160MW and which cost ~$9 billion. China had designed and constructed it for Morocco, and still operates it, and it is only the first part of a planned 500MW facility. This area averages 300 days of sun per year totaling 2635 kWh/m2/year making it an ideal location for such a facility. Morocco aspires to reach 30% of its energy from solar and wind by 2030. Finally, we reach the city of Ourrzazate, and we check into the Berber Palace hotel. Ourrzazate is the “Moroccan Hollywood” and is home to several Movie Production Houses and Sets. The hotel was outfitted with all sorts of former movie paraphernalia and has hosted many movie stars during their filming. That night, we enjoy dinner and relax in our first air conditioning in over 3-days.

Inside of the Ksar of El Khorbat.
The Village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage sit.e

Our next day in Ourrzazate was the “Day in the Life” where we visit a local family and learn a bit more about their typical daily lives. We started the day by passing the Atlas and Cal Movie Studios on our way to meet our local guide in the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, our local guide, Ibrahim, gave us a brief history about the village before we stopped to see a roadside artist demonstrating a local drawing technique. He used saffron, green tea, and indigo to “invisibly” draw on paper, and then heats it to make the colorful images appear. Ibrahim grew up in the area and had seen the old town supplanted by a new village. He often worked in support of the Movie Productions, and during the filming of Season 4 of “Game of Thrones”, he had actually had a role on film as an extra. We then traveled into the village of Asfalou to visit a typical family. Mohamed and Hashema welcomed us into their home where we met their 5 children ranging from 3- to 15-years old. They have a small farm of olive trees and alfalfa which they use to raise small livestock, and to make bricks. Julie helped ~35-year-old Hashema make bread in a charcoal oven before we walk back into the farm and were followed by the children and their neighborhood friends. There, we took seats around a small campfire and enjoyed tea and the fresh-made bread. The children ask to sing for us, and they sing their national anthem. Then, ~50-year-old Mohamed shows us how he makes ~120 bricks every day out of straw, dung, and mud, which he sells for ~10 cents each. Rocky makes his best attempt to make a single brick, but it is difficult work that enjoys a chuckle from the audience. Then, we adjourn to “reception room”, a large area with banquette seating around the walls and interact with the children while Hashema finalized a delicious lunch of couscous & beef tagine.

Julie making bread with Hashema.
Mohamed with children.
Mohamed making bricks for income.

After we said our “goodbyes”, we traveled a short distance to the Imik Smik Women’s Association for Rural Development – a women cooperative partly supported by the Grand Circle Foundation. They currently support ~43 women to become entrepreneurial in the areas of weaving, sewing, and cooking, and provide an outlet for the marketing of the products they create. We enjoyed a spirited conversation led by the Association’s Leader, Fatima, and played “dress-up” with some of their local attire, before marveling at their ability to freestyle henna on our hands.

The women of Imik Smik Women’s Association for Rural Development.
Julie in Berber wedding dress.

Then, we returned to our Berber Palace to freshen-up before heading downtown to Dimitri’s Restaurant for a spectacular duck dinner. After dinner, we strolled through the city’s center market where people bought and sold their wares while children played and ate ice cream.  Finally, we made it back to our hotel and settled in for the night.

Evening market in Ourrzazate.