Saturday, January 14, 2017

Northern Lights in Finland above the Arctic circle

We have had the aurora boralis on our must see program for quite awhile. So as we were booking our Amsterdam trip for the family Christmas gathering in the Netherlands somewhere during a hot July day, I suggested to Sandee to go early in December and take the opportunity of being in Amsterdam to fly into Sweden for say 5 days, where I had identified a small village of about 200 inhabitants that had a hotel converted from an old military school complex that seasonally opened just for that purpose. I reserved through an internet booking site and got a confirmation number. 
Subsequently we booked a plane to an airport called Lulea and rented a Hertz Volvo to bring us via interstates to that village in about 2 hours.
By late October I tried to contact the internet agency for further info to the hotel and have a reconfirmation of our booking. Found out that the agency was out of business and emails bounced back. 

Trying to reach the hotel directly also did not succeed. I at long last found the company that developed and sold the booking website and a friendly Swedish gentleman informed me by return email that both organizations had ceased to exist. 
Nonrefundable plane tickets for 450 dollars was the cost offset against the savings of never buying travel insurance.  
But the god of auroras smiled on us and we were lucky to book the Muotka Wilderness Hotel for 5 nights outside a village called Saariselka, Finland. 
 This time we opted for a taxi service to bring us from the most northern Finnish airport, Ivalo, to Muotka several miles outside of the village surrounded by true snow laden Lapland forests.

The sun never rises above the horizon for 35 days during the period of our stay, giving our premises 4 hours a day from 10 am to 2 pm of spooky daylight, which gradually fades to clear starry nights and around 8 am the dawn light tries to gain ground again. 

Your picture show here clearly illuminates the atmosphere in which we found ourselves those glorious 5 days. 
Glorious, because during 3 of the five nights the lights danced for us high and low all over the sky.
Niina the bubbly hotel manager tries always to be the first person to greet you when you alight from the minivan. Her goal is to make every customer as happy as possible, with good quality buffet style meals, a range of activities you can sign up for and providing you with all the cold weather gear you need in a place, where the temperatures while we were there, dropped to minus 32 Celsius or minus 26 Fahrenheit. 
Since your extremities define your feeling of comfort, we had bought from Amazon foot and hand warmers to be strategically placed in our shoes and gloves, which amazingly last for 8 plus hours, warming those parts of our body. 
We also enjoyed during those starry nights the Big Dipper so low in the sky that it seemed touchable, and a moon looming large beyond and sometimes through the fir trees. 
We had booked an aurora cabin, which consist of a heated glass roof dome above our bed facing north into the sky that normally produces the dancing lights. It also had a sitting area, an ensuite bathroom and a sauna for 2.
I must admit to those of you that have not yet witnessed this phenomena in the skies, that at first instance a feeling of disappointment arises, as your eyes view more grayish than green in the dancing clouds. 
The camera, however, has much better pixel detecting vision than the human eye, and so YouTube and documentaries show much more color, as do the pictures in this blog. 
The scheduled activities you can optionally book and the 3 meals a day were a highlight as you only leave the compound with one of the booked activities or when calling a taxi to visit the nearby village.
We booked three activities, a sleigh trip to a Kota, or wooden hut that throughout Lapland can be found in the forests, so that travelers can find shelter when needed. The custom is to never lock a Kota and to leave it better provisioned than found with extra blankets, wood, kindling, etc. Therein you find a wood supply, a firepit and bunks to spend the bitter cold nights away from home in this Artic wonderland. For us together with 13 Singaporians it was a nightime outing to maybe witness auroras and place smores into the crackling flames. Well that night we had to stare into the firepit inside the Kota and never saw anything other than a thick wintery clouded snow laden sky.

The next day we did a husky safari trip followed the day after by a full day of snowmobiling with a midday luncheon at the top of a ski resort.
I will leave the pictures to tell the rest of the story, but you can tell Sandee's heart melted while holding the huskie babies.
All in all this resort comes highly recommended by us if all you want to accomplish is an aurora vacation and enjoy the winter beauty in true Lapland style. 
PS My camera had trouble with focus capturing the millisecond light flashes in a very dark environment, so my apologies for its or my shortcomings in photographing all this.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

God's Country, Scotland , a place to return to.

As we were staring in disbelief at the "TSA guy", who emptied our plastic baggies, when leaving the airport in Edinburgh, while protesting that we came in with the same content in our baggies from Amsterdam, and that we there passed inspection, he simply replied: "they should have done what we are now doing here in God's country. 
Edinburgh a port city
A view of the castle
I will spare you his follow up opinion about the US TSA system. In the end however, he was kind enough to let us choose which bottles we wanted to place in his slightly larger plastic baggies, before confiscating the rest, claiming, that the deodorant and toothpaste were liquids.
Scotland colorful and amazing views
Those words "God's Country", keep resonating in my head, as I review and choose the pictures for this blog.
We never pass up arboretums anywhere
In the two weeks we spent in Scotland, we visited Edinburgh (Scots pronounce it as Edinborough, stressing the latter part of the word) and did the tourist thing, like the hop on hop off, the Royal Mile, the Royal Palace etc etc. 
On the bottom of the Royal Mile hill lies the Royal Castle where Mary Queen of Scots resided
4 nights is not enough to really meld with this city and begin to get to really know and enjoy this 2000 year old place, built on a lava stream, with its densely built old town buildings, featuring numerous closes and wynds. 
Old town views
No Roman remains here, they never were able to conquer these lands. In fact Emperor Hadrian had to build a wall to keep the Scots out of England.
The pub is Stirling where we resided in the left top room
Then followed 3 nights in Stirling with lodging above a pub in the old town, where we had a car to visit the surrounding lowlands.
Stirling's Royal Castle
We travelled this time by Scotsrail to and fro. And last but not least, we feasted 6 nights on a small wooden ship with 6 cabins, departing from Oban on the western coast and during our trip 10 passengers saw the rainy and cloudy Inner Hebrides. So that is the coming story today.
Hebrides views 
For you readers who claim Scottish heritage: you will find on Princess Street a building aptly called the "Register House", where for centuries all "Hatches, Matches and Dispatches" have been recorded.
The newest Majestic line ship, not wooden like ours, but same size
Happy Sandee as she should always be if I can have my way
Let's start this story on the west coast, where we visited last and introduce you to the Majestic Line a small cruising company with 3 small ships. We boarded the Glen Massan and sailed the Inner Hebrides (pronounced for your edification as "Heb bre dees")
Quiet night views in protected lochs
The stormy weather and thus rough seas prevented us from straying away from protected lochs, and views were not too expansive due to the cloud cover. 
Good food Good company
But all in all the crew and passengers made it a relaxing trip, filled with food and drink. I counted 9 stops during the six night trip, several distilleries and picturesque villages. 
Distillery visit - there are many of them all around the country
I tried every evening a glass from a different scotch bottle and came to no absolute winner during my tasting tests. The chef provided 3 times a day wonderful food and the freely served house wine flowed into our glasses, bottle by bottle. 
Our "retired chef" who now provided us 3 times a day food we lauded every time
Wonderful Scottish names were visited, such as Loch Spelvie, Loch Sunart, Sound of Sleat, the villages of Strontian, Craignure, Tobermory, Aird of Sleat etc etc. 
Views one never tires of
At the end of the trip, I for one decided, if we are returning here, I want to stay land-based for awhile during the best possible season, not just sail between them and walking a village for a few hours.
Stirling above and below, one senses history here
One of the heralded kings I never heard about before this trip
Ok let's now fast backwards (Editor's note: Erik's counter to "fast forward") to the city of Stirling, the Royal seat of the Kingdom of Scotland created in 1130 by King David I; the city where King James VI, infant son of Mary, Queen of Scots was coronated as King of Scots, among other noted feats in Stirling. 
The light colored building was added centuries later 
For history buffs, King Robert the Bruce and before him King David I, scheming exploits to become famous are a fascinating read. The castle dominates the town and just below that castle we found the Portcullis tavern, where we lodged and were fed. 
We really enjoyed walking Stirling 
It is in this town that in a small corner grocery store, I found two 2007 Gran Reserva Rioja bottles on a high shelf for the measly price of 8 pound each. I savored those bottles to the last drop, and it will make me remember Stirling to my dying days.
Imagine this to be a block of ice thousands of years ago, while green erupted all around it
Leaving the dock onto Lake Lochmond
A view on the Killin Heritage path walk
Driving Country roads meeting locals
Our little rental car brought us to Loch Lomond & the Trossachs national park over winding tree leaf covered park roads to Loch Katrine, where we had a few hours touring on the Sir Walter Scott, looking below a blanket on its bow at the green slopes rising above the waterline, and after that, an hour driving northwards, we walked a part of the Killin Heritage Path. 
 Mary Queen of Scots 
Many lochs were the deeper troughs cut during the ice age by the hundreds of tons of ice mass, pushing southwards from the North Pole. The changing climate left these deep lochs filled with rock solid ice that took decades to melt, creating lakes and ponds, while the hills surrounding them got lush and green again.
I forgot the names of these places during our day trip, but it represents what we saw a lot of
The second driving day we traversed a 91 mile / 148 km route called "Abbeys, Battlefields and Castles" in a tour guide and drove through towns with names like Dollar, Causewayhead, Perth, Dunblane, Culross, Blackness, Bo'ness, Linithgow and Bannockburn. I list these names not just for the questions some of them raise, but also as a memory aid for my beloved spouse as she one day may peruse this blog.
The landscape was a lovely multicolor green with pastures, forest and streams noisily flowing past our open car windows.
So colorful so rustic
One township was so frozen in time, that one seemed to wander back a few centuries, through the Celtic "stones" as it were. Read Diana Gabaldon's historical time travel novel series Outlander.
And then there was "Edinborough", but about that part of our trip in the next blog.
 For my Dutch Readers: other nations use words we would not use in public