Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Up North

Monday 2nd August 2010

I don't like Heathrow. Despite arriving at the ungodly hour of 5.30 in the morning, it was chaos. The scrum around the car drop-off point was nothing compared with the solid mass of people blocking the check-in hall around the SAS desks. Harrassed staff were trying to keep some semblance of order. I politely asked about the SAS Business check-in and was told to wait where I was. A bit later, I asked somebody else and he waved vaguely in the distance and said "Go straight to the desk". I pointed out that there was a extending tape barrier in the way so he moved this. I then had to negotiate people who thought they were waiting in a queue and initially didn't appreciate somebody cutting across. Then I was stopped by a permanent metal barrier forming part of the queuing lanes. But by then I'd spotted a completely free business class check-in so I managed to insinuate myself through the gap between two sections of barrier and hoist my hand baggage over the top of the barrier. Not elegant but very soon I was checked in on the 07:20 flight to Oslo. Up the escalator and my boarding card got me into the 'Express' security lane. The usual officious staff were on duty as I partially disrobed and unpacked my computer for the X-ray. I apparently failed passing through the metal detector so a rather grim-faced woman carried out a very thorough search. This time, I didn't have to take my shoes off, but the grim-faced woman poked and prodded each shoe for a while.

Having run this gauntlet, I was allowed into the duty-free area. I wanted a newspaper but W.H. Smith was still closed, with a short queue of people waiting outside. So, not possessing sunglasses which were strongly recommended by the tour operator, I had a look at a couple of sunglasses boutiques. I couldn't believe the prices so ended up with Boots Polaroid sunglasses on a 'buy one get one free' basis. By this time, Smiths had opened but there was a pretty long queue waiting to pay.

Next, I made my way to the SAS Business lounge which I knew was quite reasonable. There was time for a glass of orange juice and a quick blog post. As is often the case, the mouse would only reach to suit a right-handed user. Then it was time to make my way to the gate where passengers were being processed rather slowly onto the waiting 737 (-500 or -600). The aircraft has the first 5 rows as premium - the first two rows are 'Business', the remaining rows 'Premium Economy'. All five rows are 3+3 like the rest of the aircraft, but I think they allocate the business rows 2+2.

It was a rather care-worn aircraft but the cabin crew were friendly. Problems started when they tried to remove the airbridge. For some reason, it wouldn't move and the Captain announced there would be some delay because of a problem with the airbridge. After about ten minutes there were some thumps and bangs but we didn't move. The captain confirmed they'd tried to push back anyway, without success. After a few more minutes, the airbridge slowly moved away and we were able to taxi away, about 15 minutes late. I assumed we'd lost our take-off slot but, in fact, we took off heading west without delay, performing a climbing right hand turn directly overhead Windsor Castle before heading out across the ripe cornfields of East Anglia towards the North Sea. The flight to Oslo took around two hours and they served a very decent hot breakfast

The airbridge seemed to work at Oslo and I was soon through passport check with a smiling welcome from the lady immigration officer. I then followed the signs for 'Transfer to Domestic'. It's not a big airport but big enough when you have to walk with your hand baggage through a long, straight corridor running the length of the combined International and Domestic Terminal to get to the baggage reclaim. After a few minutes, my bag arrived so then it was through the 'Green' customs channel and up in a lift to Domestic Departures. My bag was already checked through to Tromso and I had my boarding pass, so all I had to do was find the 'Bag Drop'. Initially, I went to the bag drop for the wrong airline but that was soon corrected and, having disposed of the bag, I proceeded to the departure gate where they were already boarding the flight. Some passengers were being asked to provide fingerprints but I was not, presumably because of the brand-new biometric passport I was using. The aircraft was another 737, this time the -400 version, and an all-economy flight. I was right at the back with a window seat.

The flight north to Tromso took about a hour and three quarters but it seemed longer because, having got up at 2.30 a.m., I was starting to get tired. I had a couple of cups of tea on the flight (tea and coffee were complimentary, everything else was chargeable). En-route, we'd been above the clouds in bright sun but on our descent we broke through low cloud to a rainy, gloomy Tromso Airport.

Once again, my bag turned up quite quickly so I went outside to find a taxi. The short queue was soon dealt with and the next returning taxi was mine. The drive to the harbour only took about ten minutes but the usual cruise terminal was occupied by a large ship, with no sign of the smaller vessel I was to join, so the young driver radioed his base who were able to explain where Silversea's 'Prince Albert II' was berthed. A few more minutes driving took us to the right vessel. I was made to feel very welcome by the crew, boarding formalities were completed very quickly and I was shown to my well-appointed cabin (which they call a 'suite').

It was around 2.0 p.m. and buffet lunch was being served until three in the restaurant, so I thought I'd check it out. The brightly-lit room can accommodate around 125 diners but there were only a few dozen eating and chatting as many of the guests had not yet arrived. The scene was one of quiet luxury - linen tableclothes, bone china crockery, heavy silver cutlery and sparkling glasses. Plenty of attentive staff were on hand although the meal was buffet-style. I had chicken soup, a small portion of steak and ale pie with some vegetables and bread and butter pudding with cream, finishing with a couple of cups of tea.

Tromso from the deck of 'Prince Albert II'

I explored the ship a little and wandered round on deck looking at the mainly-modern town of Tromso around us. Although the weather was dull, I was warm enough in a tee-shirt. Donning a parka and cap, I left the ship for a short walk in the vicinity of the berth before returning in time to work on the computer in my cabin before the compulsory Lifeboat Drill and Zodiac Briefing at 17:00 hours in the Theatre which, like the Restaurant, caters for the full passenger complement. It was rather reminiscent of schooldays as a roll-call was taken. A few passengers had missed their flight and the ship was making arrangements for them to join the ship the next day at Nord Kapp.

At around 6.0 p.m. we slipped away from the dock and headed north through a wide channel with good views of Tromso as we passed. I didn't bother with the Sail Away cocktails but we were all back in the Theatre at 18:45 for an introduction to the staff by Robin West, the Expedition Leader, after which it was time for dinner in the restaurant where I joined an English couple and three Americans at a table where I had a good view of our progress north. From the varied choices on offer, I took the Cold Beetroot Soup, Canneloni and Sea Bass, followed by Eton Mess.

After a jolly meal, I took a turn on the deck before finishing off with tea in the Panorama Lounge. After a lot of fiddling about unpacking, working on the computer is eventually got to bed. It's too late in the year to experience the Midnight Sun [Shows what she knows about it: Ed], but at present it gets dusk and stays that way until morning (what I think the Scots call the "simmer dim").

My collection of Arctic pictures is here.
My set of pictures around Tromso is here