Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Bergen (for Bill)

Sept. 8, 2017:

Dear Readers:

Apologies for our sloth in the much-delayed posting of this day in Bergen, Norway. Fortunately for us, today is a much less arduous day after our mammoth bus tour of yesterday. Jim and I were able to eat a leisurely breakfast aboard ship before setting off on foot to explore Bergen.


As with all these western Norwegian towns, the bay here is beautiful, and the sail into port was eye-catching with all the low islands in a very secluded bay carved by the glaciers’ retreat several millennia ago.Bergen-1

Bergen was founded in 1070 by King Olav Kirre. Over the centuries, it grew great in commercial clout. For a time during the Middle Ages, Bergen was the largest city in all the Nordic countries. In the 1400s, because of the strength of its fish and grain exports, it became one of the German Hanseatic League’s four great trading centers. The old town port area of Bergen known as the Bryggen was the center of this activity, so it was there we headed to check out Bergen’s maritime history and architecture.

The crazy crooked streets in the Bryggen


If you have seen any photos of Norway, chances are that at least one of them was of the darling Bryggen area. The old wooden trading houses in beautiful bright colors are amazingly photogenic! Jim and I had a blast wandering through the narrow alleyways that snake between the buildings. Like Ålesund, Bergen has a long history of fires destroying its central core, particularly in the heavily-trafficked Hanseatic wharf area. The last major fire took place in 1702, so most of the buildings only date back that far, even though the town’s history dates back much further.


The Hanseatic Bryggen area


In addition to its shipping past, Bergen is well known for two other contributions to world culture. It was the home of pianist/conductor Edvard Grieg, and is also home to the fashion houses of Dale of Norway (think iconic Norwegian knit sweaters) and the Ileana knitwear company, which has brought a much more contemporary floral motif and color palette to the huge Norwegian wool industry.

Our first stop was to wander through the grounds of the Bergen Castle (Bergenhus Festning) , which is a huge fortress built right on the water. It dates back to the 13th Century, when it was built by King Håkon Håkonssen. From the ramparts high above the town, there were beautiful views over the harbor.Bergen-7Bergen-9.jpg


Then we walked on through the Bryggen area and on to the central fish market, which is outdoors right at the harbor mouth.


The main downtown square


The fish market


Our major activity of the day was a ride up the funicular to Mount Floyen, which overlooks the harbor of Bergen. We were scheduled to take a hike around the top of the mountain, but the combination of rain beginning to fall, and my lingering cold meant that Jim and I took the trip up, took the requisite photos, admired the ubiquitous Norwegian sheep and went back down the hill, the better to have a warm drinkie on board the ship. That’s it folks; nothing more to see here!

The Bergen Funicular
Views from the Floyibanen


More Norwegian Sheep


Waterfalls and Whales

September 3, 2017:

Well, we got skunked last night on our attempt to see the Northern Lights. After dinner, Jim and I raced upstairs to see if we could see the lights. We threw open the drapes in our room to gauge the weather conditions and saw … FOG. Thick and complete fog. Drat.

Nonetheless, we awoke this morning excited for today’s adventures here in the northeastern part of Iceland. As the sun rose this morning, we watched as we sailed into yet another gorgeous Icelandic fjord. This town is quite a bit bigger than Isafjordur, and is in fact, Iceland’s second largest town, Akureyri.  We are in the northeast part of the island, and will travel both inland and to another fjord today.


One cute note about Akureyri as we drive out of town. In 2010, after the Icelanders had been dealing with the depressing effects of the economic downturn, the town fathers came up with an idea to have a special day of civic cheer in which they would think of a bunch of ideas to do things just to make people smile for a day. One of their better ideas was replacing the standard red light on a traffic signal with a red heart. It was such a popular idea, that now all the traffic signals in Akureyri sport these cute red lights.


Our travels this morning take us inland to see some incredible waterfalls.  In fact, we will travel to one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Godafoss. The name, Godafoss, means “waterfall of the Gods”. Legend has it that Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, one of the Icelandic chieftains, and the equivalent of the speaker of the Icelandic parliament (Althing) decreed in the year 999 or 1000 AD that Iceland should convert to Christianity. Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, who was himself a pagan priest at that time, had debated the switch to Christianity with the other chieftains at the Althing, but the vote was pretty much split down the middle, so he went off to meditate under a fur blanket for a day and night, and when he came back, he pronounced that he had been told to convert Iceland. He did this in spectacular fashion by throwing all his pagan articles of practice (dolls and runes and such) into the huge waterfall, which became known as Godafoss.

We drove for about an hour into the interior of Iceland, and saw some beautiful countryside crisscrossed by streams and rivers running through fields dotted with sheep. We didn’t know it, but this is prime fly fishing area, with many anglers coming to fish for both the large ocean-going trout and salmon.



I kept looking for a mountain range from which a great waterfall could fall, so it was with great surprise that I caught a glimpse of the waterfall almost hidden in a deep gorge.


We hiked along the path and down into the gorge to get these photos. As we hiked back up, we were lucky enough to have a rainbow form in the mist and sunlight atop the waterfall. Wow!




From here, it was on to the seaside town of Húsavík; the self-proclaimed whale-watching capital of Europe. We visited the whale museum (really cool exhibits and skeletons of various whales, except for the horrible smell), and ate lunch at a local restaurant.

Húsavík Harbor
Narwhal skeleton


Then it was off to get suited up in toe to head waterproof coveralls for our whale watching trip. It was a glorious day for a boat ride, even if a bit cold. However, with the sun beating down, it wasn’t long until we were all thinking of ditching our weatherproof gear. It would have to wait however, as we finally sighted a humpback whale, which we monitored as it grazed and spouted. Chris Brady: I’m waiting for you and Chelsea to identify this guy by his tale flukes!

Sailing out of Húsavík harbor




Double bonus: as I was editing these photos, it became apparent that we had seen not one; but two whales, which could be distinguished by their separate “blows”. I’m guessing from the size and positioning, it was probably a baby swimming alongside mommy. The whales made for a perfect cap to the day!


Then it was time to head back for Akureyri, which we made just in time to cast off lines for our next port, Tórshavn, in the Faroe Islands day after tomorrow.


Our Princely Passage Through Prinz Kristian Sund

August 30, 2017:

Jim and I arose with the dawn on this, our last day in Greenland. And what a grand day it was!  We bundled up to survive the cold wind off the glaciers, and rushed up on deck. At 7 this morning, we began our 7 hour passage through Prinz Kristian Sund (Prince Christian Sound), named for the late Prince, and later King of Denmark.

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As Wikipedia says: “The Prince Christian Sound connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. It is around 100 km (60 miles) long and it is narrow, sometimes only 500 m (1500 ft) wide. There is only one settlement along this sound, Aappilattoq.

The long fjord system is mostly surrounded by steep mountains reaching over 1200 m height. Many glaciers going straight into its waters calving icebergs.”

Once again, we have been blessed with a glorious day for this passage. In fact, until last night, we were not even sure we were going to be able to do this part of our trip, as all the calving glaciers can create so much sea ice and glaciers that the passage can become unsafe, which happened to another ship just three weeks ago.  While there is a possibility of seeing marine life, and animals on the surrounding slopes, the real show of the day is the topography itself. The steep walls of the main fjords and those that branch off from them are crowned with numerous glaciers, both hanging, and some reaching the sea. The water itself is a mix of saltwater overlaid with fresh water laying on top from the melting glaciers. Jim and I watched awestruck as we glided through this incredible fjord.

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Jim and I have been fortunate enough to see both the Alaskan glaciers in the Bay of Glaciers and the Patagonian glaciers in Chile and Argentina. However, this is really a contender for the most awe-inspiring glacier cruise! To cap matters, the whole 100 kilometer channel is incredibly remote, with much of the passage blocked by ice most of the year. The only settlement of any size is the tiny town of Aappilattoq, which we passed about two hours into the transit. Waving goodbye to Aappilattoq, we allowed ourselves to go downstairs for breakfast. It was such a beautiful day, we actually ate outside with a prime view of the glaciers behind us.

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Tiny Aappilattoq

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In addition to the incredible views of the glaciers, there were also countless icebergs, and a constant wash of “sea brash” (the smaller iceberg pieces that litter the surface of the water. At one point, we all became very excited because we thought we saw a large seal sunning itself on an iceberg. However, it was just a bit of dirty ice caused by the terminal moraine at as the iceberg relentlessly ground itself down to the water and calved from its glacier. Darn! However, in my opinion, by far and away the best feature we saw was a glimpse into the massive Greenland ice sheet.Prinz Kristian Sund-213

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“Seal” fake out
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Exiting Prinz Kristian Sund

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Finally, about 1:30, we exited fjord, and sailed out into the Irminger Sea.  Our naturalist aboard, Dr. Michael Scott, had told us that this stretch to Iceland is some of the best whale watching area in the world, so we didn’t want to miss a minute.  Jim and I took a break about 1:45 for a belated lunch. While we were eating on the stern veranda, sure enough, at least 25 whales passed by, spouting off like a calliope, but no photos as they were too far away (and my camera equipment was having a well-deserved nap).

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Southern tip of the Greenland ice cap


Qaqortoq. Yes, It’s a Place.

August 29, 2017:

Although still chilly this morning, it is not the bone-chilling cold of yesterday as we pull into the harbor of Qaqortoq, on the southwestern coast of Greenland. This town is very small, but not as small as Paamiut. Fortunately, the sun is shining, as we have a hike planned along a lake, which lies just outside of town. The walk through town is charming and everyone seems to have flung open their doors to greet us (or maybe just the sunshine). We expected another cold day today, but we were shedding layers before we even started our walk/hike.



We’re pretty much at the far southwestern tip of Greenland, which was originally populated by the Saqqaq people about 4300 years ago. There are some records of habitation dating from the Dorset peoples of NE Canada about 2300 years ago. However, recorded history dates back to the first Norse settlements established in the late 10th Century A.D., especially around the Hvalsey settlement, which is about 19 kilometers (12 miles) to the NE of Qaqortoq. However, for whatever reasons, those settlements died out in the 15th Century, and the current habitation dates only to 1774, when a Danish-Norwegian trader named Anders Olsen established a trading post here, originally called Julianehåb (Juliane’s Hope) after the Danish queen. Fast forward to the present day when we find Greenland a semi-autonomous state, still largely dependent on Denmark for trading and funding. The main industries are fishing and seal-hunting, and Denmark purchases about 60% of the economic output of this isolated town of just of over 3,000 people. Sadly, like in Paamiut, it appears most of the tourist souvenirs appear to be sealskin products. Sad!





With that, we were happy to proceed to our walk in the outskirts of town! The hills ringing the town appear to be a combination of granitic and basaltic stones, on which lichens and mosses appear to be struggling to survive. There are no trees here, but, upon closer inspection, you notice a whole alpine-like ecosystem covering the hills. There are tiny streams everywhere, and furzes and heathers cover the rocky ground, punctuated by tiny wildflowers and wild berries including Icelandic blueberries and cow berries. The hills are open to anyone who desires to gather them and they are all ripening now. Because the day is so still and calm, the lake surface is like a mirror, which makes for some great photography! Jim and I walked about six miles in total along the rocky lakeside path, winding up back in town. We sampled one local beer at the local tavern, and then headed back for the ship.


Arctic vegetation



Gathering Arctic Blueberries


Qaqortoq-73Qaqortoq-80Once again, we are blessed with a beautiful sail away. It’s even warm enough that Jim strips down a shorts and flip flops, even though we can see little icebergs bobbing in the bay.



But, first, a lovely parting gift from Qaqortoq … as Jim and I were having a cocktail standing at the balcony of our cabin, a juvenile humpback whale surfaced right below us, and spouted off. What a fun send off!Qaqortoq-86

Juvenile Humpback surfacing right under our balcony


Bye bye, icebergs!

Tomorrow, we are looking forward to a day-long transit of Prinz Kristian Sound; a deep fjord system that bisects the lower tip of Greenland from its southernmost Cape Farewell archipelago.

Look! Look! It’s Nuuk!

August 27, 2017:

After two days at sea, with rough, foggy and cold weather, we pulled into Nuuk, Greenland this morning to gorgeous clear skies and a balmy 42 degrees. I spent most of the last two days editing puffin pictures from St. Johns, which I wasn’t able to upload over the last two days at sea, but we were both glad to see the sun again!





Our excursion today takes us into the fjords surrounding Nuuk, the Greenlandic capital. We’re about 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle on the southwest coast of Greenland. This area was first colonized by Eric the Red, the Icelandic Viking. He brought with him 14 boats of Icelandic and Norwegian settlers, who primarily settled to take advantage of the incredible fishing off the Great Banks. He named the island “Greenland”, because as opposed to Iceland, there were actually areas along the coasts of this Arctic island which actually thawed long enough to become partially green (at least for a few days a year). This may have been the first recorded example of real estate puffery known to man because everyone who has visited this region will tell you that Iceland is way more green than Greenland!

Jim and I caught the first tender to the shore a short way from where our ship is moored in a glacial bay some ways inland from the actual coast. We were met at the dock by a small, but powerful, speed boat captained by a native Greenlander named Eric. Most of the people here show the mixed heritage of their Scandinavian and Inuit backgrounds, and both the captain and his first mate, Lena, also show the strong influence of their Inuit roots.

The approach to Nuuk is lovely, with the rising sun shining on postcard perfect houses painted in vibrant colors! The whole coastal area of Greenland was carved by the glaciers, some of which still meet the coastline. Many of those glaciers still calve icebergs into the bay, and the coast is carved into watery “arms” where the glaciers passed. We are searching for both whales and icebergs as we head out to cruise in this fjorded wonderland.




Nuuk-37Almost right away, we see out first iceberg; a baby by Antarctic standards. This is a beautiful day for a harbor cruise, and the water is almost glass-like. However, what we all most want to see are whales; most likely humpbacks, at this time of year. We keep our eyes peeled, and I go outside periodically to snap photos as we fly across the fjords.









Sadly, it was not to be! Although there are 8-10 whales usually in the fjords surrounding Nuuk, it is a huge area encompassing miles. Eric tells us that finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack. On our way back to the ship, we stop briefly at a waterfall created by glacial melt, and Lena hops to the land to harvest some wild Greenlandic greens. We all taste what passes for salad in Greenland, and then head back to town.Nuuk-78

It’s Sunday here in Nuuk, so not much is open. Nonetheless, Jim and I walk up the slopes into to town and we climb the hill up to the monument of Hans Egede, one of the early missionaries to this area. From there, we walked to what passes for the “mall” in town, and tried to find passable Internet to upload yesterday’s post. As you can no doubt tell from the belated post, we were not successful! Oh, Well! I used the opportunity to do a little shopping. We stocked up on some carved soapstone gifts for our relatives in Sweden, and I purchased a new warmer cap made from woven musk ox fur. Items made from seal fur were everywhere since they are not endangered animals, but I couldn’t bring myself to purchase them.




Hans Egede Monument



Then, it was back to the boat! Jim and I enjoyed a gorgeous sail away from Nuuk harbor up on the bow deck high on the 12th floor of the ship. We searched vainly to see any whales in the harbor as we sailed away, but it was not to be. After searching for nearly an hour, and freezing to death, we retreated back to the cabin to get ready for dinner. Tonight, newly made shipboard friends, Rob and Sarah, will join us for a specialty Indian dinner prepared just for us in the main dining room. Tomorrow, we land in Paamiut, Greenland.





Power Puffin Watchers!

August 24, 2017:

Jim and I awoke this morning to glorious sunshine, which was quite the relief after a dreary day yesterday. It was all the more surprising when you consider that St. John’s, Newfoundland, has well over 100 days of fog every year, making it the most foggy place on Earth. Many of the businesses in town incorporate “fog” into their names; my favorite was a coffee shop called “Fog Off”.

St. John’s Visitors’ Bureau had certainly rolled out the red carpet for us, up to and including a beautiful Newfoundland dog. Jim and I wandered about the town and saw some of the key sights, including the town hall, the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the Supreme Court of the Province of Labrador and Newfoundland. However, my favorite was all the brightly painted row houses that dot the hillside of this neat and friendly town.

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Signal Hill on the entrance to St. Johns’ Harbor
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Newfoundland Dog Greeter

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As bright and sunny as it is today, it is not terribly difficult to imagine the town cloaked in snow; there are as many taverns and restaurants as there are churches, and many of the stores in town exist in indoor malls like you find in Toronto and Minneapolis. Jay Menzel: this poutine shop is for you! Once again, though, my primary mission this morning was to find a powerful Internet connection so I could upload the last two days blog posts.

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Anglican Church


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Typical street scene in St. John’s
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St. John’s Harbor
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Jay: This shop is for you!

Mission accomplished; Jim and I were ready for our excursion today: a whale and puffin watching boat trip into the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve! The Ecological Reserve is about a half hour to the southeast from St. John’s accessed from the harbor town of Bay Bulls. I’m so excited I can barely wait to get on the boat. We’ve never seen puffins in the wild, and the Witless Bay sanctuary is the largest nesting ground of the Atlantic Puffins in the world. About 260,000 nesting pairs of puffins return to the Reserve each year between late spring and summer. The islands are also home to huge colonies of Common Murres (called Guillemots in Europe), Leach’s Storm Petrel, and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There are four islands in the Reserve: Gull, Green, Great and Pee Pee islands.

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Today, we will visit Gull Island and go by Green island on our return. As you might imagine, with a name like Gull Island, this nesting ground is also home to thousands of different gulls, which, sadly, feed on baby puffins. Our tour operator for the cruise is O’Briens’ Whale and Puffin Watching Tour; run by the descendants one of the numerous Irish families in this area. Our tour guide, Con O’Brien, is also a very well-known local and national singing star. On the very rough trip over to Gull Island, Con serenaded us with an Irish ballad, and the boat’s sound system played several numbers by his group, the Irish Descendants.

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One of the O’Brien Whale & Puffin Watching Boats in Bay Bulls

As we approached Gull Island, you first saw puffins in the water, and then in huge swarms flying overhead. As we pulled in closer to the island, you could see them and their hundreds of burrows stretching up the slopes of the island. In many spots, hungry gulls would perch on the slopes near those burrows, just looking for a chance to pick off an unwary puffin. Although I know these are a ton of photos, please appreciate that I took over a 1,000 photos today!


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Herring Gulls
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Herring Gull hunting young puffins

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As we piloted around the island, and the topography changed, so did the kind of nesting birds we saw. While the puffins nest in burrows they dig into the grassy banks of the islands, murres lay their eggs right on naked rock ledges. We didn’t see any storm petrels of great auks, but we did see some kittiwakes, which also nest in the rock crevasses, but actually build grassy nests to shelter their eggs.

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Common Murres

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Black-legged Kittiwake

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Then it was time to return to port, and the serious hunt for whales began. Jim took the opportunity to try a local specialty beer called “Iceberg Beer” which aptly describes its water source. In the spring and early summer each year, Arctic icebergs wash down along the east coast of Newfoundland, and the icebergs are harvested to provide the water for the beer. 20,000 years pure, as the Newfoundlanders like to say!

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However, it wasn’t until we got back into Bay Bulls that we saw our first (and only) whale. This was a humpback grazing in the harbor, and it accommodatingly surfaced several times so we could record its passing.

On the way back to town, we stopped briefly for a photo opp in the scenic little town of Petty Harbor. Had we gone a couple more miles to the east, we would have seen the lighthouse at Cape Spear, which is the eastern-most point in North America. But, no worries! We will sail out within view of it tonight.

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Once we got back to the ship, Jim and I headed up to the top deck to snap some final pictures of the terraced skyline of St. John’s. Jim and I enjoyed the sail away from the beauty of our balcony deck. We are pretty darn sure that as we enter the Labrador Current tonight enroute to Greenland, that this is the last night we will be able to enjoy the balcony in a long while! See you in a couple of days when we pull into port in Nuuk, Greenland!

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St. John’s Lighthouse
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Cape Spear Lighthouse
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Sailing into Saguenay

August 20, 2017:

During last night’s sail, we took a detour off the St. Lawrence seaway into the Saguenay Fjord; a deep glacial fjord which has an intriguing mix of very rich cold tidal water flowing in from the Labrador current running through the St. Lawrence estuary, overlaid with a much thinner layer of fresh river water  running into the fjord down the Saguenay River from Lac St. Jean. Since the fjord is open to the ocean, it has very abundant sea life, and whales follow that sea life up the fjord most of the way to Saguenay. Notably, the fjord is home to a small population of Beluga whales, which have probably populated the fjord since the last ice age. Sadly, this particular population is highly endangered, with only about 1,000 of them remaining. For this reason, the entire fjord area and some of the St. Lawrence estuary beyond has been named as a national marine park (with attendant restrictions on human interaction with the whales) in order to protect them. Overlaying the marine park is a national land park, stretching several miles inland from the shores of the fjord. This map generally shows the area we have entered.


Coming in to the beach area in Saguenay



Our activity du jour consists of a hike up into the national park in order to better see the fjord. However, since that didn’t happen until later this afternoon, Jim and I had time to walk into town and wander around. One thing you notice immediately is how many greeters are on hand to welcome you to the Saguenay region. All the greeters are volunteers, and there are about 50 of them that spring into action every time a cruise ship comes into town. As we later learned from our guide, tourism is now the number one industry here, although historically, the town was originally a huge logging and lumber/paper/pulp processing area. More recently (and still), the town is also home to a large aluminum smelting operation, which is crazy when you consider that bauxite does not naturally occur here, thus requiring it to be shipped in constantly. This enterprise only makes sense financially because of the abundance of cheap Canadian power, which is made possible by the numerous dams creating hydropower.


The guide was quick to tell us that the Saguenay region sees tourists for all four seasons, which seems hard to believe, given how remote it is (about 3 hours by car from Québec in the best of conditions), and that the town regularly gets 9 meters of snow, while the surrounding hills routinely get 30 meters! Apparently, ice fishing is also a big winter sport, but with temperatures that get down to minus 40 degrees every winter, the prospective charm of this is lost on us.

Jim and I wandered around town, and visited a local craft market. Then we hiked up to the upper elevations of the town to get the best views of the fjord, and returned to the ship through the lovely seaside park. There were numerous cafés with outside seating, but all I could think of was the snow accumulations soon to come.


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Artisans’ Market


View of Saguenay Fjord




We boarded school busses for our tour out to the Fjord du Saguenay National Park. There, a park ranger met us, and led us on a hike up a very rustic path, climbing about 200 meters up to a lookout overlooking Cape Trinity inlet. The Park is home to abundant wildlife, including moose, beavers, marmots, foxes, snowshoe hares, lynx, grey wolves and black bears. However, we saw none of them, but enjoyed a very fragrant hike through the woods nonetheless!







Upon our descent, it was time to beat feet back to the ship, because tonight was “Block Party” night aboard. This means that everyone gathers in the hallways outside their bedrooms to meet their neighbors, while the ship staff passed wine and appetizers. It was really nice meeting our cabin mates, and we learned that several of them are also from Southern California.








Then Jim and I went up to the top bow of the ship to watch the sunset cruise out the fjord. I was fortunate to catch a carved statue of the Virgin Mary high atop the entrance to Cape Trinity just as we lost the light. We ended the day with a lively dinner with a British couple we met earlier on the hike, Rob and Sarah, which made for a really special cap to a super day.