Friday, July 31, 2015

Playing tourist while back home in Penang!

View from a car being driven along a 

 The Khoo Kongsi may look like it came out of a Chinese 
fairytale but it really is located in the heart of George Town!

And while this structure is distinctively Thai in style, 
it too is situated in Penang :)

"Take lots of pictures!", an American friend who regularly visits this blog asked me to do when I was back home in Penang.  But if truth be told, I didn't take that many on my most recent visit -- and, in fact, only one of the above photos was taken last month!

One reason why I don't take as many photos in Penang as I do in, say, Hong Kong is because I spend much more time at the family home than out and about in town and beyond.  And when I'm moving about in town, it's far more likely to be inside a car (with the air-conditioning on and the windows wound up) than on foot.  (I think Malaysians may be even more into cars than Americans; with pretty much everyone who can afford to have one owning one, or more, vehicles!)

It's also the case that often on my visits back to my home state, I tend to gravitate towards familiar haunts rather than spend that much time checking out some place new.  At the same time though, the years I've spent living outside of Penang sometimes have enabled me to see places and structures that I've been long acquainted more with the eyes of a stranger than many another Penangite.  

Like my mother has remarked more than once, I sometimes behave like a tourist in the place where I was born!  To my mind, this is not necessarily a bad thing -- in that this doesn't mean that I don't know my way around these parts any more.  Rather, it's more that I sometimes now have a greater ability to appreciate things that can seem regular and ordinary, even mundane, to long term area residents.

As an example, many of the old shophouses that line sections of Penang Road can appear run-down to the locals, who remember a time -- before big shopping complexes existed in Penang -- when things were livelier there.  But even while I too remember when the area seemed more "happening" and upscale than it now is, I nonetheless do feel that they continue to possess the kind of "character" that makes one hope that they'll be around for many years to come; something which is a distinct possibility, actually, courtesy of their being situated in Penang rather than much less physical heritage-appreciative Hong Kong!

And although the Khoo Kongsi main building is absolutely amazing looking to my eyes and has existed since 1906, I actually know quite a few Penangites who have never visited it and continue to have little interest in doing so!  When asked why, one will get answers like "I'm not a Khoo!" (i.e., I'm not from the clan that this incredibly ornate clan house is officially for) and "What could be so special about it?"  To those who think the latter especially, I'd say, "Well, you'll never know until you see it!"

As for the Wat Chayamangkalaram Thai Buddhist Temple which is better known locally as the Sleeping Buddha Temple because it's home to a large reclining Buddha statue, it's principally seen by Penangites as a Thai Buddhist place of worship.  As such, those who aren't followers of Thai Buddhism don't see much reason to visit -- and I mean those who are Buddhists but follow other schools of Buddhism as well as non-Buddhists!  

The irony though is that when those same people go and visit other countries, they're likely to visit places of worship (such as London's St Paul's Cathedral, Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral or Kyoto's Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizudera) to admire their beauty and such.  But somehow, it just wouldn't occur to them to do the same with regards to places of worship in their own neck of the woods.

In summary: I'd recommend that people try "playing tourist" in their home territory every once in a while.  And I'm willing to bet that when doing so, chances are high that you'll gain a greater appreciation of -- or even just plain notice -- the physical beauty and/or cultural heritage that exists around you! :)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Following in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain by having a meal at Muthu's in Penang!

Would you believe that Anthony Bourdain ate here?

 Sample some of the banana leaf rice at Muthu's
and then you'd believe!

A while back, Anthony Bourdain went to Penang and made a mouth-watering No Reservations episode chronicling his foodie experiences there.  Among his surprisingly Malay food bereft choices of places to eat were ones that were familiar to me, such as the Chinese assam laksa stall at Air Itam market and the hawker center over at New Lane.  But I have to admit that there were a few others that I hadn't previously heard of, including the banana leaf rice place that Penangite Leonard da Silva took him to and where they ate with obvious relish.

Fast forward to my most recent visit back to Penang and two family friends telling me that they had managed to track down Muthu's -- by recognizing the tiles they saw on the walls when watching (obviously very carefully!) the Penang episode of No Reservations!  And after giving due warning that the ethnic Indian eatery doesn't have air conditioning, they took me there for lunch one day.

Having become regulars at Muthu's (one of them told me that he makes sure to go eat there at least once a week!), they made a point to emphasize that we needed to go there before lunch hour for government and office workers, otherwise it'd be crazy busy there and we may not be able to get a seat at this obviously very popular eatery!  So, getting there as early to beat the lunch crowd, we managed to have a pleasantly leisurely as well as quiet lunch -- one that gave us the opportunity to chat as well as relish the taste of the food put before us!

Among the first things one notices about the place is how unassuming it is -- to the point where it's the kind of place which many people walking past it on Lebuh Acheh (or Acheen Street, as long-term Penangites are wont to call it) might not even notice is an eatery that's open to the public!  Another is that it's determinedly no frills -- what with the food being served on banana leaves rather than plates, no utensils being placed on the table (with the expectation that you'll eat with your hands), and there being very few drink choices on offer. (Forget alcohol, you can't even get regular soft drinks; so I settled for an Indian yoghurt drink to quench my thirst and bring down the "fire" of the food instead!).

But while there are people who have been unimpressed with the food -- complaining, among other things, that the rice was served cold (or, as least, luke warm rather than piping hot) and that the curry dishes weren't all that strong tasting -- I did enjoy my lunch, and thought that the crab gravy (with the other gravy available that day being made out of fish and prawn)  that I opted to have poured onto my white rice was actually quite divine!

I don't know how much the total bill amounted to, since my family friends treated me to lunch that day.  I'm pretty sure though that the meal at one of their favorite eateries was quite the bargain, even by Penang terms; and this even though they ordered a number of extra side dishes to go with the standard lunch offerings.  

In any event, the upshot is that if I lived in Penang, I could see myself returning there fairly regularly -- though once a week may be too much and I'm sure that there are proprietors and fans of more upscale banana leaf rice places, like Passions of Kerala, who may be scratching their heads and wondering why Anthony Bourdain didn't opt to eat at their place instead! ;b

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I am, I yam or Ayam?!

Penang-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic
paints on canvas and doors as well as walls! ;b 

The works of Zacharevic and 17 other artists make up the

Earlier today, a tram passed by me over here in Hong Kong bearing advertising for this year's George Town Festival (taking place this August).  These days, however, one doesn't have to wait for this annual fest to come along to check out artistic happenings in Penang.  And we're no longer just talking about local or even regional art either!  

Also, while there remains plenty of street art on (very popular) display in George Town, there's also art to be found in physically cooler surroundings, such as the air-conditioned gallery space inside the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (or E&O in local parlance) --as I found when visiting the hotel on my most recent Penang trip.

The Ayam What Ayam exhibition does include a number of works featuring chicken imagery.  ("Ayam" is the word in Bahasa Malaysia for chicken.)  But, of course, I realize that it's also referencing the "I am what I am" quote which I had long attributed to Popeye the Sailorman (who I knew via comics and also a TV series when I was a kid growing up in Malaysia!) but I've since come to realize is how, according to the Hebrew bible, God responded to Moses' query as to what he was!

Of course, given Popeye's accent, it came out more like "I yam what I yam" when the cartoon character said it!  And continuing with the stroll down Memory Lane: one day while I was an undergraduate at Beloit College, I strolled into the lounge shared by students and faculty in the anthropology building (which was one of my regular campus haunts) to find that an anonymous wag had written out a punny poem on a blackboard that referenced a number of anthropologists who had studied the yam growers par excellence living on the Trobriand Islands, and whose works were required reading as part of the Theory and Technique in Cultural Anthropology course.

Decades on, I still remember the opening line of that amusing poem being "'I yam what I yam,' Malinowski cried". (Bronislaw Malinowski is one of modern anthropology's founding fathers and known, among other things, for his pioneering fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders.)  Whereupon he was told not to be such a "Weiner" (deliberately misspelled to reference another influential anthropologist, Annette Weiner), and that his excuse was just not "Goodenough" (a reference to -- yep -- another respected anthropologist, this time Ward Goodenough!)! ;D     

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Along Memory Lane back to Balik Pulau

five foot way along the main road of Balik Pulau
Strolling along this covered walkway can feel like
one's transported back to another, quieter as well as older age
Even the occasional item of strewn litter on the ground
cannot take away from these five foot ways' charms

One day when I was back in Penang last month, my mother, two old friends and I drove over to Balik Pulau, the town on the western, quieter side of Penang Island.  As one might expect of Penangites, our chief reason for going there was food-related: that is, we went there for a laksa lunch, and some food shopping at the town's municipal market!  
What with it being Ramadan, my favorite Malay assam laksa stall over at Shamrock Beach wasn't open on weekends like it's usually the case.  So, I welcomed my mother's suggestion of heading over to the "back of the island" (as its name translates from Bahasa Malaysia into English) to eat at a stall there that serves up both assam laksa and the creamier Siam laksa (AKA laksa lemak).  (On the other hand, I eschewed one of our family friend's recommendation that I opt for an assam laksa and Siam laksa mix, like it apparently is her wont to do!)
Some of my earliest memories of Balik Pulau involve eating assam laksa with my parents at a stall located just meters away from where we ended up eating this time around.  I also remember spending time as a child wandering around the smelly -- but atmospheric -- old municipal market which now has been torn down and replaced by a much larger complex whose architecture I reckon resembles -- at least from the outside -- an apartment block rather than something more befitting a marketplace!
Although both the old laksa stall and municipal market are no more, much of the old section of the town looks to have been spared the wrecking ball still.  And while not entirely frozen in time (among other things, I only saw one house and shop front in the town center that has retained its old carved wooden door and window frames), there is a sense that time goes by at a slower pace in this neck of the woods still than over on the busier sides of Penang Island over to the east and north.
Now more easily accessible to the other sections of Penang Island than in my childhood (with such as the construction of a road connecting this part of the island to Air Itam -- which, of course, also is home to another locally famous laksa stall), Balik Pulau still appears to lie off the beaten track for most visitors to Penang.  Those in search of culture heritage sights as well as foodie delights who venture out to there should feel amply rewarded for their troubles though.
Foodies should note that there are many lover of the spiky "king of fruits" who believe that the best durians are grown -- and to be found -- in the Balik Pulau area.  As for those primarily attracted to Penang because of UNESCO World Heritage-listed George Town: wouldn't you like to stroll along the five foot ways pictured at the top of this blog post?  Granted that they don't possess the tiled beauty of some of those found in the state capital but I found them to have their own pleasing aesthetic qualities, not least in their continuing -- but who knows how long more this will last? -- to feel "authentic" rather than have been altered to try to suit tourist tastes. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Cheung Chau's "floating" children

This is the kind of scene one is likely to come across
in the alleys of Cheung Chau at Bun Festival-time
A clearer look at some of the child participants 
 Where did the (bulk of the) floating child go?! ;O
Last Saturday morning, I went to Cheung Chau to take part in a beach clean-up (like that which I had spotted taking place at a Discovery Bay beach while hiking the area sometime back).  While on board the ferry taking me to the island that I'll forever associate with the movie Just One Look, I got to realizing that I had yet to blog about my previous visit to it; one made special by it having been the first time that I went there during the famous Cheung Chau Bun Festival (which featured in another beloved Hong Kong film, My Life as McDull).

Rather than go and watch the bun scrambling (which ended up not taking place this year because of bad weather), I focused on checking out the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) parade which I got an enticing taste of on a visit to Cheung Chau five days before the Bun Festival a few years ago.  Even after one finds out how the children are made to look like they're "floating" atop objects that shouldn't be able to support their weight, it still can make for a surreal as well as cool sight!

With the temperatures having risen to a pretty high level by the time the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) parade got going, some of the young participants looked like in danger of wilting in the heat.  And in at least one case, a participant decided that he (or she) had had enough midway through the parade.  The funny thing though was that the rest of his (or her) party continued on the parade route, causing great mirth since it looked like the chief participant in that party had partly vapourized (see the third picture from the top of this blog post)! 

Despite the trying conditions, some of the other "floating" children appeared to be enjoying being the center of attention, not only staying the course but also keeping on smiles and responding to waves from the crowd by happily waving back.  Clearly they were aware that, even with the "competition" including such as colorful "dragons", "lions" and "unicorns" (like those seen at the Tam Kung Birthday Parade in Shau Kei Wan which takes place on the same day as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival's main day), they were the undisputed stars of the endearingly quirky show! :)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hong Kong sightseeing recommendations after a downpour

This is the kind of scene one can expect to encounter
when hiking in Hong Kong after a storm

At Aberdeen Upper Reservoir, there was much more
run-off pouring out then I had previously seen during a drier month 

And it was the same story at Aberdeen Lower Reservoir
(For comparison, here's a link to a blog post with photos from drier times!)

For the past few weeks, my most checked out blog post has been that suggesting "Things to do in Hong Kong when it rains".  Since I subsequently wrote about "Some more things to do in Hong Kong when it rains", I don't plan to add to that subject today.  Instead, here's letting interested readers know what I did this afternoon -- one which surprised some people in being rainless (at least over the part of The Big Lychee where I was), especially in view of a not insubstantial amount of precipitation having fallen over the territory in the morning.

Regular readers won't be too surprised to learn that I went hiking today -- this being Sunday, my regular hike day and all.  On occasions where it's recently rained, I tend to prefer to go for largely paved paths; since I'm generally not a fan of areas that get super muddy and where one is in danger of encountering a number of overflowing hill streams. For quite apart from not liking to get all that dirty and wet, I also think that it can make situations when one is more likely to slip, and slip up!

Also, when hiking after rain has poured down in Hong Kong, I tend to prefer going along trails that I know are most likely to be well maintained, such as those that make up Hong Kong hiking's big four (i.e., the Maclehose, Wilson, Hong Kong, and Lantau Trails).  Thus it was that I started off today at Wan Chai Gap and quickly got on a section of Stage 4 of the Hong Kong Trail.

But while my hike began innocously enough on a paved road, the trail quickly got more slippery than I expected: first, because so many fruits and trees had fallen from the trees and plants on either side of it, and had been squished by previous hikers; and subsequently because the unpaved bits of the trail which had been easy enough to go along during drier times now were on the muddy and slippery side!

About 10 minutes into the hike (which had began at Wan Chai Gap after I had got off the bus that had taken me up there from the concrete jungle on the southern banks of Victoria Harbour, I came across a sight that I actually hadn't expected to see along the trail: one which had water overflowing over a paved section of a trail, courtesy of two hill streams which were flowing much more strongly and with far greater volume than I had seen in all of the previous times I had been on this actually not unfamiliar route!

Telling myself to be brave, I decided to walk along and beyond the waterlogged path rather than turn back so early in my hike.  And I'm happy to report that while I encountered some muddy sections later on, I didn't have to deal with much overflowing water after that! 

Also, seeing -- and hearing -- so much rushing water early on in the hike did get me thinking that perhaps this afternoon would be a good time to go have a look at the nearby reservoirs.  And so it proved, with the voluminous run-off from both the Aberdeen Upper and Lower Reservoirs making for quite the impressive sight!

So, for those seeking Hong Kong sightseeing recommendations for the afternoons (or days) after a substantial amount of rain has fallen: why not go and visit those reservoirs where one can see the run-off, and/or those waterfalls which exist all year round but are particularly strong flowing during the wetter times of the year such as that at Mui Wo's Silvermine Bay along with the cascades over at Chiu Keng Tam (AKA Mirror Pool) and Bride's Pool?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Regular sights for Norwegians but not so much for the rest of us! (Photo-essay)

For the first seven years after returning to Asia, I didn't leave the continent even once (well, if one were to look upon Turkey as an Asian rather than/as well as European country, as during that time, I did vacation in Istanbul!).  One big reason was because after decades spent living outside of my home continent, I decided that I wanted to get to know it better -- and consequently have made my first visits to mainland China, Taiwan and Vietnam, along with revisiting the likes of Singapore, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and Macau (and, of course, Hong Kong while I was living in Malaysia, and vice versa!).        

Beginning in 2010 though, I started venturing beyond Asia once more.  After my visits to Germany and Luxembourg, I've been inspired to write lists of things I learnt about the countries after holidaying in them.  Considering how much I've already written about Norway in recent weeks (e.g., here, here and here!), however, I don't think I need to do so for this incredibly scenic Nordic country.  Instead, here's offering up eight more photos of the kind of scenery and sights that caught my eye during a vacation that both my mother and I thoroughly enjoyed... :)

This is what it looked like on the waterfront
after 10pm in Bergen one night in early June! 

What passes for regular scenery on the Norwegian coast ;b

prepared me for the sight of those I caught sight of in Norway!

 Now this really is off-piste skiing... :O

Sometimes humans and nature combine to produce 
picturesque sights

At other times, Mother Nature doesn't need any help
to create beautiful scenery

 The large amount of birds at Havøysund's port area
provide clues as to how rich with fish the nearby waters are!

 When the sun shines on the sea, land and snow in Norway,
it can produce truly awesome sights :)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Beer: expensive but good in Norway!

On the day I visited KODE, I lunched on this wonderful
soupy stew dish and Norwegian flatbread

Puppet Ponyo posing with the glass of beer I also had at lunch,
and the beer menu showing how expensive beer is in Norway!

Even mass produced beer in Norway is expensive
...and drinkable ;b

When I told her that I was going to Norway, my German friend -- who had kindly taken me to lots of biergarten and brauhaus when I visited Germany -- opined that I had picked the wrong European country to go to, as beer is super expensive in that Nordic country.  While there are many elements of my visit to Norway (including the country's amazing scenery and delicious food) that I did enjoy tremendously, it's also true enough that that I found the beer on sale there to be shockingly expensive, with the prices going as high as 70 kroner (~HK$67) for a small glass of admittedly very delicious (and alcoholic, at 10.4%) Konrads Stout and 210 kroner (around HK$199!) for something closer to a pint of the even more alcoholic (at 13%) Konrads cherry imperial stout at Tromso's Ølhallen bar!

In a recent international survey, Hong Kong was listed as being the second most expensive place to get beer in the world.  That finding is very hard to believe for me in light of what I discovered to be the case in Norway -- where beer is pricey, and also difficult to come across (not least because 7-Elevens don't sell alcoholic drinks and there are laws that make it so that you can't buy beer in supermarkets after 6pm on weekdays, 3pm on Saturday and at all on Sundays)!     

Because beer is not only high priced but also not that easily accessible, I only consumed it on a total of 8 times in the 15 days or so that I spent in Norway --  and on just one of those occasions did I actually drink more than one glass or bottle of the "liquid bread"! (Also, I only tasted some other type of alcohol on two other occasions: that is, the first time I crossed the Arctic Circle on the MS Richard With, and the first time I tried some Aquavit and -- sorry! -- thought it tasted medicinal!!)

For the most part, the beers I had in Norway were very good indeed.  In fact, I thought that some of them tasted downright excellent -- something that I had come to expect after having tasted the excellent Nøgne ø imperial stout over drafts over here in Hong Kong.   

Still, I hadn't expected good Norwegian microbrews to be so readily available in bars like the Ølhallen in Tromso with 56 beers on draft and bar-restaurants in Bergen such as the cosy Pingvinen with 18 different beers on tap.  And it was at Pingvinen, located just a few minutes' walk away from the main KODE museums and also the hotel I was staying in, that I went for lunch on my final full day in Norway, and so much did I like the place that I took my mother there for dinner later that day (Also, yes, I did have more beers that evening -- and ones different from what I had had at lunch!)  

Incidentally, at the bars I frequented in Norway, I didn't see anyone appear all that drunk.  In contrast, my mother and I watched -- with incredulity and some amusement -- two young women who had got on board the MS Richard With for a short period (as those locals who looked upon as a the Hurtigruten ships as ferries were wont to do) as they appeared pretty tipsy while drinking just one glass of beer, get into a giggly mood when they were drinking their second glasses of beer, act pretty loud when they were on their third beers and looked on the verge of throwing up when they had their fourth -- and, as it turned out, final -- beers!

The impression my mother and I got was that many Norwegians are dissuaded from drinking alcohol by the high prices and difficulty acquiring them.   At the same time, when they do get their hands on alcohol, they are quite likely to binge drink -- and, because they don't imbibe that often and much, have lower alcohol tolerance than most "white" people I know.  All of which can make for quite the... unusual and interesting situation -- one that I don't think one would find if alcohol weren't such a "taboo" item, and is imbibed over meals (as is the case in, say, Japan)!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

KODE musings

is on display at Bergen's KODE
J. C. Dahl, also can be found in Bergen's art museums

And, of course, so too are those by the most world famous 
Norwegian artist of all, Edvard Munch
The day after many delighted people took advantage of the sun shining brightly on Bergen by doing such as hiking up Mount Ulriken and paragliding off it, it returned to being a city of rain.  Rather than let this dramatic change in the weather rain on my parade, I happily made my way to KODE, a group of art museums located just a few meters away from the hotel that I were staying at, after partaking of one of those expansive breakfast buffets that I came to know oh so very well and love in Norway.
KODE 1 (the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art) closed for two years for renovation in January 2015.  But that didn't really disturb my plans since the art museum in Bergen that I wanted most to check out was KODE 3, home of the Rasmus Meyer Collection of works from Norway's "golden age" of painting and -- this was what I really didn't want to miss -- the second largest collection of Edvard Munch paintings in the world.

Rather than make straight for the galleries that housed more than 150 works by Munch in total, I went through the other sections of the museum first -- and in doing so, was introduced to works by other Norwegian artists, including J.C. Dahl and Harriet Backer, a woman artist who I gathered was a significant influence on the Norwegian art scene, not least through her having operated an art school in Oslo that was the forerunner of the National Art Academy.
Early on in my visit, I was taken aback to see another museum visitor openly snapping photos inside the galleries (since many an art museum I've been, like Japan's Adachi Museum of Art, to doesn't allow photography of its exhibits).  But after I found out from a KODE staffer that photography (so long as it doesn't involve a flash or tripod) is allowed in the museums, I went and retrieved my camera from the locker that I had put it in (because bags are not allowed in KODE's public areas), and went on to blissfully use it to take some shots myself!
More surprises were in store in the section of KODE 3 dedicated to showcasing the works of Edvard Munch.  More specifically: even while the Expressionist painter has a not unjustified reputation for having been "a perpetually troubled artist preoccupied with human mortality", he also had -- both earlier and later in his life -- produced works that were considerably less anguished than any of the many versions of The Scream, and in which the human(oid) figures have far less grotesque faces. 
After a lunch break, I headed over to KODE 2.  Although the museum is perceived by many to be a modern and contemporary art showcase, it also is home to considerably older works (including works by 18th century Italian landscape painter Canaletto, and art from the Renaissance).  If truth be told, the newer art works were often far less impressive than the older pieces on display -- and when viewed chronologically, one is likely to conclude that art has devolved rather than evolved and developed over the centuries. 

In general, I definitely preferred the art on display in KODE 3 over KODE 2.  But, as it so happens, perhaps the artist whose works I was most enchanted by at the museums was a Norwegian neo-romantic painter who is the focus of a special exhibition running through to December 16 at KODE 2.
One of Norway's most beloved artists (but, I get the sense, little known outside his home country), Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) lived for a while in Paris and Germany but spent the bulk of his life back home in Jølster, a scenic part of western Norway. Inspired by the diverse likes of English landscape artist John Constable, French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau and Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, Astrup's works are nonetheless distinctively Norwegian -- with many of the landscapes depicted in his works recognizable as those found in his home territory.

Interestingly, a number of works in the Bergen museums got me recalling scenes and scenery that I had seen on my voyage along the Norwegian coast with Hurtigruten.  I'm thinking here of more than one of Astrup's paintings and woodblocks, and also such as the painting by Harriet Backer of the interior of the Uvdal Stave Church that had me wondering if that's how things were like at the stave church in Kvernes during its heyday.  And in doing so, I have to conclude that my experiences on the MS Richard With, and going on excursions like those to Geirangerfjord and along the Atlantic Road, enabled me to better appreciate those works than I otherwise would have! :) 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bergen's Mount Ulriken on a beautiful spring day (Photo-essay)

As I disembarked from the MS Richard With at Bergen 12 days after having gotten onto the ship at the same port, I consoled myself with the knowledge that my Norwegian adventure was not yet over.  And as we sailed into the Nordic country's second largest city, I was given another reason to feel cheery -- in that we were greeted with lots of sunshine, bright blue skies and temperatures hitting a balmy feeling  (when compared to what we had experienced for much of the cruise!) 16 degrees Celsius.

Having previously gone up one of its seven hills by way of the Fløibanen Funicular and enjoyed the scenic vistas of "the gateway to the fjords of Norway" and its surrounding areas from up Mount Floyen, my mother and I decided to reacquaint ourselves with this charming city by taking the Ulriken643 cable car ride named after the highest of Bergen's septet of hills and its height in meters.  And yes, we were indeed treated to some spectacular sights up on Mount Ulriken on a spring day which a Norwegian man (who had hiked up the mountain with a baby on his back and his wife for company!) told us was the most beautiful it had been in his home city thus far this year! :)

A view of Bergen from the MS Richard With that includes
the TV tower-topped Mount Ulriken

The cable car system that took us 
both up and down the mountain

An alternative way to come down Mount Ulriken
that we saw a number of people opting for!

The most popular option that day appeared to involve 
hiking up the mountain and then taking the cable car down! :b

What splendid views that paraglider and his fellow 
extreme sports enthusiasts must have enjoyed that day...

There's no two ways about it: Norway is home to
some really incredible natural scenery

While humans definitely have left their mark on the landscape,
nature's beauty remains highly visible

 Puppet Ponyo on a cliff -- but not by the sea this time! ;b

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Little to complain about with regards to our Hurtigruten voyage! :)

The kind of scenery I saw through a window while having 
Lying on a deck chair watching the world go by can be 
a wonderfully relaxing experience -- and was irrestible 
for some folks even when temperatures were on the low side!

The closer we got to Bergen, the higher density 
the communities the ship passed by became, 
and the warmer the weather got too! 

I think it safe to surmise that the majority of 
the passengers aboard this Hurtigruten ship will
look back at their time on it with great fondness :)

Okay, there were days when Mother Nature was not at her best (and this seemingly more so on the southbound segment of our voyage -- so that those who opted to just go on this portion of the cruise may not feel as super positive about their vacation experience as those who went on just the northbound segment or took the round trip option).  And there were times when the MS Richard With being in the freight and ferry business interfered with the cruise component of its service by way of it having to keep to schedule so much that it had to shorten certain port calls.  

In addition, there were the rumblings of discontent about such as the hard-to-fathom policy in place that required full board passengers to pay additional charges for water at lunch and dinner (but not breakfast, when water was included in the meal charges along with all the milk, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and/or juices you wished to drink). Also, while I didn't personally hear any complaints from people about their cabins being located too close to the kitchen area, I have to say that I often smelt a strongly fishy stench when I stood on the part of the promenade deck that was directly above it -- and am very glad indeed that my mother's and my cabin was on the opposite side of the ship!

On the whole though, I actually don't think that there was much to complain about with regards to our coastal Norwegian cruise.  Indeed, I think the biggest gripe that many of the MS Richard With's passengers had was that the 12 day voyage did not seem long enough for many of us! And this all the more so since, ironically, despite having been behind schedule often on the two days before the ship's return to Bergen (as a result of it sailing against strong winds and waves for much of that time), we were able to get back to where our cruise adventure had begun shortly after lunchtime, like we were supposed to!

What with the passengers having been told to vacate their cabins in the morning (so that the crew could start cleaning and getting them ready for new occupants) and the day having brought the kind of beautiful weather one sees in postcards (more than in reality!), a good number of us folks decided to go and do what I had (mistakenly) envisioned that I would be doing a lot of while on a Scandinavian "Midnight Sun" cruise: i.e., lounge on a deckchair and view spectacular scenery in bright sunshine!  Sitting and shooting the breeze -- while enjoying the lovely views and weather -- with an English couple and a Belgian man I had befriended over the course of the voyage, so much felt right the world -- and I really did feel loathe for my Hurtigruten experience to end!

Incidentally, I found it telling that at our final briefing, tour manager Anna Olivia Wallinder told the ship's passengers that tipping was not expected but, of course, would be appreciated.  (This being Norway, the unwritten understanding was that crew members are paid well and thus don't depend on tips the way that, say, the crew for the Ha Long Bay cruise my mother and I went on a couple of years back did.)  

Also, Anna continued, the crew would be happy to get such as chocolates or hugs, if people were so inclined to give them!  While there was some laughter at that remark, a number of passengers -- including my mother and I! -- did end up throwing in some hugs while saying our individual goodbyes to certain favorite crew members (who we had enjoyed chatting with at various points during the voyage), and I have to say that the warmth of these wonderful folks really did seem pretty sincere.   

Together with many of our fellow passengers, their presence had certainly upped our enjoyment quotient while on board the good ship bearing the name of Hurtigruten's visionary founder.  All in all, I found their service and attitude superb -- and Anna, if you ever read this, don't worry, we do realize that your admittedly considerable abilities actually don't extend to controlling the weather in early June in Norway, or any other time for that matter! ;b

Monday, July 20, 2015

The scenic Atlantic Road, including the (in)famous Storseisundet Bridge

Would you go on that bridge? :O

 The Storseisundet Bridge viewed from a less scary angle

Some members of my group were put off going along 
this nearby walkway -- not by fear but, instead, 
the cold winds blowing that afternoon! ;b

As I outlined in a previous blog post, a voyage along a Hurtigruten ship is not a conventional cruise.  And despite such as the wonderful food served on board, it's not considered a luxury or luxurious cruise and actually is looked upon by many as a no-frills affair since there's next to nothing as far as organized activities on the ship are concerned; with light-hearted crossing the Arctic Circle ceremonies, daily briefings (complete with video) which my mother made a point to attend (but not me!) and the "live" broadcast of such as the Norway vs Germany Women's 2015 World Cup Finals match and a Swedish royal wedding just not cutting it for those expecting such as on-board casinos and variety shows!

Instead, this cruise line's main selling points are the often stunning scenery on view pretty much throughout the voyage, the many stops each day that its ships make (and the related opportunities to go on shore), and the varied shore excursions that don't come with the general package but which pretty much every passenger goes on at least once during their trip.

The first of the shore excursions offered by Hurtigruten that I went on was on was absolutely fantastic, seeing as it not only allowed me to see Geiranger Fjord from land (rather than just the water) and also introduced me to the wonders along the "Golden Route".  If truth be told, I was far less impressed by the Kirkenes "Russian Border" excursion since we didn't get as close to the Norwegian-Russian border than I expected that we would, and that played some part in my disinclination to go on more shore excursions than the three in total that I ended up opting for.  

As it turned out though, I'm definitely pleased that my mother and I did go on one more shore excursion after that -- since the Atlantic Road excursion yielded a number of visual highlights, including the sight of double rainbows in the sky (which I sadly was unable to photograph) and the two churches at Kvernes (which I happily managed to snap photos of -- both inside as well as outside of them). 

Also, although I personally think it a bit of a stretch for it to be billed the world's best road trip (as was the case in a 2006 piece in The Guardian) since it's only around 8.3 kilometers in length, the journey along the National Tourist Route-rated Atlantic Road between Kristiansund and Molde did offer up scenery so beautiful that I found myself wishing that we could be on this route -- which is built on several islands and skerries, and includes eight connecting bridges -- for quite a bit longer!

Speaking of length: The longest of these bridges is also the best known of them -- having appeared in numerous car commercials (such as this one) and numerous Youtube videos.  Our first glimpse of the 260-meter-long, 23-meter-high Storseisundet Bridge got some people gasping out loud because what we saw looked like it was part of a scary rollercoaster ride rather than a bona fide road on which vehicles go on!  So it was a very good thing indeed that close to it is a walkway where one can see this bridge from other angles and realize that it's only an optical illusion that makes it seem so terrifying.

That same walkway winds 360 degrees around a small knoll and offers up breathtakingly beautiful views of the surrounding land and sea.  But while the sun was out doing its bit to make the scenery even more attractive, the wind was doing what it could to make it bone-chillingly cold and put off some people (including my mother but also others from colder climes, such as a Philadelphia couple!) from completing the walking circuit!

Still, at least, pretty much everyone in my party did manage get far enough along the way to see that the Storseisundet Bridge is not a "bridge to nowhere" or anything like that!  So there was no one doing such as refusing to cross it and go along the rest of the Atlantic Road that would take us to Molde, where we'd meet up once more with the MS Richard With and the people on board who, as it transpired, had had to endure a few hours of bad weather -- and, in some cases, sea sickness -- while those of us on the shore excursion had been on terra firma!