Niagara Falls is a truly horrible town near an awesome (in the biblical sense of the word) waterfall. We were there for three full days and did just about every single thing there is to do in the area. Besides the actual falls – which you can hardly see past all the tourists – we discovered there are many wonderful corners. One of those that we found especially impressive was the rapids a few kilometres downstream of the falls, which are some of the most dangerous in the world:
Equally recommendable, if arduous, are the hiking trails at Niagara Glen. They’re not very well marked, so you might not always end up where you meant to go and you’ll definitely break a sweat along the way, but no matter where the trails take you, it will be worth it. Did I mention that it’s for free? If you don’t suffer from vertigo, the Aero Cart
, which takes you across the famous Niagara whirlpool, is also a must-do:
We also visited the Butterfly Conservatory, which turned out to be exactly like every other butterfly conservatory in the world. Niagara’s Fury, a show «for all senses», we found absolutely horrible. After watching a confusing cartoon about a timetraveling rodent, you get to stand on a vibrating platform where you have water sprayed at you while nigh unidentifiable images of the geological history of the falls are projected all around you. There’s also a somewhat sub-par botanical garden which you could absolutely skip. The Hornblower tour, which takes you very close to the falls on a ship is a must but didn’t exactly grab us.
Worst of all was when we decided to go into the town to grab a bite to eat. Turns out that Niagara Falls is essentially a would-be Las Vegas without any charm, who knew? We did however end up finding some good food at the edge of the city.
Sailing into the Manhattan harbour might very well be the most impressive way to first see New York. Under a beaming sun, we cruised underneath the Verrazano-Narrows-Bridge and past the statue of liberty. The entire way, we had a fantastic view of New York’s skyline. Up till this point we only knew it from movies, tv or the internet. It took a while to fully internalise that buildings like the One World Trade Center or the Empire State Building actually exist. This was an almost surreal experience.
Overwhelmed by the Big Apple
Since we had only one full day before we had to take a train to Niagara Falls, we decided to explore the area around our hotel. This proved harder than we had anticipated; Midtown Manhattan, it seems, is bursting out of its seams with people. I had sever seen this many people crammed so close together – safe for maybe at a festival. I don’t think there was a single moment where we couldn’t hear a single siren or car horn. Another thing we had to get used to, is that, because of all the buildings, you often can’t see the sky unless you specifically look for it. To get over the shock, we treated ourselves to a burger and some fries at a real New York burger chain, called Shake Shack, and put up our tired feet in the surprisingly calm Bryant Park.
The penultimate scheduled stop of our cruise was Boston. A city which immediately captured Rik and me. We started exploring from the center and made our way over the Commonwealth Avenue. On our way to our goal – the Mapparium, a three-story-tall, stained glass, inverted globe depicting the earth – we encountered many charming little corners of Boston.
The Mapparium was very impressive both optically and acoustically. Unfortunately, the visit left us with a bit of a sour taste since it was located in the Mary Baker Eddy Library. In case you are unfamiliar with that name – as we were – Mary Baker Eddy founded «Christian Science». Followers of Christian Science strongly believe that prayer can heal all kinds of illnesses and actively discourage fellow believers to stay clear of any modern medicine. So, any money you spend going to the Mapparium goes towards religious nuts.
We had a significantly less trouble parting from our money when we spent a few bucks on a ride in a paddle-powered swan boat in Boston’s public garden. What made it even better was the saxophone player playing the Star Wars theme song on a nearby bridge.
After a nice stroll along the Charles River we decided to top off our day in Boston with a brief visit to the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. We found it to be a beautiful building, but very much geared to tourists. Safe to say we didn’t buy any food there. For that, we made our way back to the ship where we could enjoy Boston’s beautiful skyline.
During our 15 day journey on the Oceania Insignia, we had five full-day opportunities to take a break at sea. The Insignia is a rather small ship, with a maximum capacity of 680 guests. So the on board entertainment options are limited. When the weather didn’t play along, we spent a lot of time in the library, reading and browsing the internet. Additionally we had cooking presentations by the chef and lectures by the the on board expert about the ports of call and their history to look forward too. Whenever the weather allowed it, we could be found playing shuffleboard mini golf or table tennis or relaxing by the pool.
Every evening there was a show. Though the quality of the singers, dancers, magicians and what-have-you varied quite a lot. Those expecting broadway level entertainment and generally have difficulties keeping themselves busy should not be looking at cruising with the Insignia. The few activities that were offered – like table tennis and poker tournaments or bridge lessons and trivia games – were the same every day (or sea day in case of poker). Not exactly what you’d call variety. On the other hand, the small size of the ship does allow you to get to know your fellow travellers more quickly. I our case the vast majority was quite a bit older than we are, which is of course in no way Oceania’s fault.
The highlight: food
Oceania is known for its excellent cuisine and we can only confirm that it’s deserved. The grand dining room as well as both speciality restaurants – a steakhouse and an italian – offered fantastic food throughout. There is also a buffet restaurant which was often overcrowded – and which we for that reason didn’t visit very often – and a poolside grill offering exquisite burgers and sandwiches. As opposed to most comparable cruising companies, Oceania offers all of this as included in the price, even the speciality dining restaurants and all drinks save for alcoholic beverages, which are available for normal pub prices.
When we arrived in Halifax, the weather left a great deal to be desired. So we decided to kick the day off by walking to and subsequently paying a visit to the Public Library. This hyper modern library is located in the heart of the city and contained an eatery which offers a fantastic piece of cake. And since it was the weekend, we also got the opportunity to play some pinball. Yes, pinball, in a library. On the third floor, where you can find all kinds of media for kids and teenagers, there is a room with pinball machines from all decades which you can play for free on the weekends.
We were making our way to the citadel when we were surprised by a rain shower. As entrance into the citadel was free, as a way to celebrate Canada’s 150th birth year, we used the opportunity to visit the citadel and the museum inside it. By midday, the raining had stopped and we could step outside to see – and hear – a historic canon being loaded and fired at 12 exactly. If you ever visit Halifax, we can recommend making sure you’re there for this midday ritual.
In the afternoon we took it upon ourselves to shed some of the Calories we consumed on the cruise. In two hour kayak tour, we explored the harbor and the nearby Georges island. Tons of fun was had! The weather got a lot better as the tour progressed and by the time we got back to shore, the sun was beaming down on Halifax where the ongoing busker festival had really kicked off. Myriads of food stands, musicians and acrobats lined the streets. Luckily we had time until 11:30 to board the ship.
The Opera House, the Harbour bridge, the Queen-Victoria building – Sydney, Australia is known accross the globe. Sydney, Canada slightly less so. And it’s not particularly surprising. The city has a few nice houses and the largest fiddle in the world. And… that’s about it. We also visited the Brenton Centre for Crafts and Design centre, which had a very interesting exhibition featuring two photographers’ perspective on Japan. Though that didn’t kill much more than 20 minutes of time either.
Luckily enough, the day we were in Sydney happened to be Pride Day. This meant that we were witness to an incredibly colorful and cheerful Parade celebrating all things LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). It really brightened up the somber town and the even more somber weather.
Our first impression of Paamiut from our ship was not exactly breathtaking:
Our second impression was better, but not by much. This town is miniscule and offers no noteworthy sights safe for an old-ish wooden church. We had to take a tender boat to get on land and took one back scarcely an hour later. That’s all the time you need to see everything Paamiut has to offer. Besides the church, there is a bar and two cemeteries. That’s it. To top it all off, the town also lacks the idyllic charm of Qaqortoq, is in much better shape and surrounded by stunning nature. It also tends to get more sun.
When we anchored a few hundred meters off the coast of Qaqortoq after two days at sea, we couldn’t see anything. Not even the slightest hint of the settlement with 3200 inhabitants was visible through the thick fog. It wasn’t until the afternoon that the mist started clearing up and a picturesque little town with brightly colored houses was revealed. We got on the tender boat and started exploring.
At the historical center of Qaqortoq, we found the Frelserens Kirke. This church was built in 1832 out of prefabricated walls shipped in from Norway. Just about a century earlier, the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived on Greenland to convert Viking settlers from Catholicism to Protestantism. Sadly, there weren’t any Vikings left on Greenland. Perhaps he should have expected as much, as there hadn’t been any sign from them in over 300 years. With no Danes to convert, Egede decided to convert Inuit inhabitants instead.
From the church, we walked to the Tasersuaq lake. At its shore, we got acquainted with a large family of ducks and uncountable mosquitoes. If you’re sportier than Rik and I, you can set aside five hours of your time and hike around the entire lake. We decided to only walk a small portion of the way around. Afterwards, we strolled through Qaqortoq which turned out to be a very charming village. Its colorful houses, surprising number of wild flowers and tiny brook make it easy to imagine it as the setting for a Astrid Lindgren novel.
If you ever go to Iceland (which you absolutely should), you’re bound to notice: Iceland smells bad. More specifically, the water in Iceland smells like rotten eggs. Why is that?
Geothermally heated water
One of the side effects of the volcanic activity in Iceland (besides the great sights it provides) is that it gives the Icelandic access to an inexhaustible source of warm water. This means that warm water – as well as electricity – is very affordable and environmentally friendly in Iceland. The downside is that it results in water that contains sulfur, which smell likes rotten eggs.
But there is good news too:
It is completely safe
The amount sulfur found in the water is not at all harmful. More importantly, it only affects the warm water; cold Icelandic tap water is actually some of the purest and tastiest you can find anywhere in the world.
Now that you’ve read up on this peculiarity about Icelandic water, you hopefully won’t be surprised by it the way we were. When you go to take your first shower in Iceland you won’t think the plumbing might be mouldy. You’ll know that the cause is entirely harmless and actually one of the great things about Iceland.
Our first port of call was Isafjordur – or Ísafjörður as the Icelandic spell it. The small town in the northwest of Iceland has only about 2’600 inhabitants and is quite close to the arctic circle. We booked a horseback riding tour with Fosshestar and were picked up by one of their guides which happened to be a young girl from Switzerland. I think it is good that we’re not “echte Basler” (real Basileans) because for them it would probably the worst to take a bus for half an hour, fly for 4,5 hours, be on a ship for an entire night only to end up being greeted by a “Zürcher” at the pier of Isafjordur!
We however enjoyed making fun of the Icelandic for thinking they have good chocolate with a fellow countrywoman 😉 After a short ride into the countryside we arrived at the stable and met the Icelandic horses – don’t ever call them ponies around an Icelandic, they don’t like that at all. Icelandic horses are strong and sturdy animals, known for their ability to navigate on difficult terrain and the fact, that they are not only able to walk, trot and gallop but are able to perform two additional gaits. One of them, the “tölt” we got to experience on our tour. It’s similar to a trot but more comfortable because the back of the horse stays more stable. You can check it out in this video.
Meeting the horses
First we got to know Blossi (my horse) and Lokkur (Rik’s horse), cleaned them up and saddled them. We practised riding in one of the stables until we were kind of able to signal the horses where we wanted them to go and how fast – not that they listened to us, but at least they knew what we wanted. Then we embarked on a ride through the beautiful countryside that led us over willows and rocks, through rivers and past the most adorable sheep.
These are Blossi and Lokkur looking glorious after the ride and us, well… not so much: