Good Times in Tromsø, Part 2!

On the bus ride back from the reindeer encounter, we started talking about what to do the rest of the day. We knew that if we were going to see the northern lights, this night would be our only shot, as we were headed to Trondheim the following afternoon, which would put us too far south. While discussing it, the woman sitting in front of us mentioned she’d done a northern lights tour the night before with Tromsø Safari (the same tour company we were looking at), and absolutely loved it. We’d also heard that one of the owners of the company was on-board our bus, so after we got off the bus, we decided to walk over and talk to him. We mentioned this was our last night in Tromsø, and he agreed, based on the rest of our itinerary, this would likely be our last shot to see them. Looking at the weather, which was pretty overcast and snowy, he also indicated that we were looking at a 30% chance that night at best. We decided to at least try, as we didn’t come all that way to give up!

After we finished talking to him, we headed in to the Radisson Blu to book our tour, as Tromsø Safari has a small booth on the left hand side of the lobby. They have a couple different options for northern lights tours that we were interested in, one being a minibus tour where you stay on the bus and they basically drive around various areas that give the best chance of seeing the lights based on weather reports, or a base camp tour, where they choose from one of their 5 different base camps based on the same weather forecasting. Turned out, the minibus tour was full, so we signed up for the base camp tour. They already knew which one they were heading to, a camp near the Finnish border in Helligskogen, which was a couple of hours away. You can see all of their base camp locations on this map, with the one we went to circled in red down in the bottom right. With Tromsø closer to the center of the image (in the yellow box), you can see how far we were going to be going chasing these things!

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We weren’t slated to meet up for the tour until late in the afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel to rest after doing a little shopping. After that needed rest period, we headed back towards the Radisson and grabbed a late lunch / early dinner at Pastafabrikken AS, just around the corner from where we were meeting for the tour. That lasagna was delicious!

At around 6:30, we arrived back at the Radisson and met up with our guide, Leander. The woman we spoke to on the bus earlier in the day had Leander as her guide and raved about him, so we were excited. After getting everyone on the bus, he explained that their weather forecasting predicted our best chance was at the Helligskogen base camp, and that we’d have a 2-2.5 hour drive out, with one snack/bathroom stop along the way. The drive was incredibly scenic while there was still light out, and even from a moving bus I was able to get some decent shots:

Upon arriving at the base camp, we all headed inside for a quick explanation of how things would go. Basically, we had the option of standing outside and watching for the lights to appear, or we could relax inside while waiting. For those who paid to add it on, dinner was provided. For those of us who didn’t there were some light snacks and drinks. Leander also walked around helping those with cameras set them up to successfully capture the lights, explaining the changes he was making as he did it. They also provide tripods, which was nice, as it meant I didn’t have to lug my tripod on the bus with us. I’d also left my DSLR in the hotel, which a part of me regrets, as it would have been fun to try and get some solid shots with it. Based on the low chance of seeing the lights, and knowing our guide would also take pictures of any lights that did appear, I decided against the extra weight. I did end up using a tripod with my iPhone to at least try and get some pictures, however. I’d downloaded a couple of apps prior to travelling to Norway, sticking with NightCap Pro to shoot with at base camp. I got it set up, attached to the tripod (using my Shoulderpod S1), and headed outside to wait for the show. We didn’t have to wait long 🙂

Leander had warned us all along that the low cloud cover that was over the entire area meant we didn’t have the best chance to see the lights, but he was also in touch with the mini-bus to check their progress in case they spotted them. If they did, we’d have the option to hop on the bus and head in that direction. Fortunately, it never came to that. A handful of us had been wandering around outside when the clouds parted and suddenly we saw them! A very dull greenish-grey streak suddenly appeared overhead and kept getting slightly stronger. The northern lights!

I should pause here and mention one thing to anybody that hasn’t seen them in person before: the vibrant colors you see in pictures of the lights are accomplished via outstanding photography and post processing. In person, at least from what I’ve read and now seen, the lights are fairly dull in color and tend to be more grey. As an example, here’s one of my relatively unedited pictures from NightCap Pro (noise reduction applied, no other edits)

After I took a few shots in different places, Leander was set up to take pictures of anyone who wanted a shot with his camera. We jumped at the chance and got a couple of family shots, along with a solo of Bayley. One really awesome thing about Tromsø Safari’s tour is that they don’t charge extra for the pictures your guide takes, so we have all of the full resolution images Leander shot while we were there. Take a look, he did amazing work!

The lights hung around for 15-20 minutes, shifting location the whole time. After they disappeared, we hung around for another 20min or so hoping they’d come back, but no such luck. Frankly, considering the weather in the time leading up to our tour, I feel lucky that we got to see them at all. Regardless, that was about the time we had to head back to Tromsø, so we all gathered up our stuff and hopped on the bus for the long ride back.

We absolutely loved our tour with Tromsø Safari, and would recommend them to anyone visiting the area who’s in search of the northern lights, you won’t be disappointed!

Sailing to Cuba – Q & A With Jen the Travel Agent!

With a number of cruise lines about to start Cuban sailings, I figured it’d be about time to do a little Q & A with my wife, Jen. Last June, she sailed the Fathom Adonia on a 7 day cruise that stopped in 3 Cuban ports, so I thought it’d be good to pry some of that knowledge and experience out of her before those other lines set sail!

I’ll also add a shameless plug here: If you’re interested in sailing to Cuba and are looking to work with a travel agent to do it right, contact us, we can help! Now, on to the Q & A!

Q: What were the people like, and were they welcoming of American visitors?

A: Most of the people we talked to were excited to see Americans and wanted to talk to us as much as we wanted to talk to them. 

Q: Which port in Cuba was your favorite, and why?

A: Havana.  The people were so nice, the architecture was beautiful and there was much to see and do.  Seeing the old cars driving around was so neat and everyone we encountered was happy to talk to us and answer questions. 

Q: How does Cuba compare to other Caribbean ports?

A: For Americans, there isn’t the opportunity for water sports or adventurous excursions like in other Caribbean ports.  All of the tours were focused around educating us about Cuban history, people, leadership, etc. 

Q: Any negative interactions with anyone while in port?

A: In Santiago de Cuba, there was a lot of aggressive panhandling that became a little overwhelming for some people.  That was the only port that we encountered that in though.

Q: Was any additional documentation required before sailing, things like a Cuban Visa?

A: Yes. Cuba does require a Visa for entry, and in my case Fathom took care of that, with the cost being covered in the cruise fare. Be sure you know how this works with your chosen cruise line, whether they obtain it for you, and if the $75 charge is built in to your fare, or if you have to pay extra. When you start considering a Cuban cruise, this should be on your list of things to ask the cruise line or your travel agent.

Q: In port, how (if at all) did debark and embark differ from other ports? Did they stamp your passport?

A: They only stamped our passports on the first day, but we had to show it and our Visa every time we got on or off the ship.  Each time we got off we had to go through security and have our bags x-rayed.

Q: Did you prepare for this trip by researching Cuba at all?

A: Definitely, if you don’t know what you are in for, you could end up being very disappointed.  Visiting Cuba is not like visiting anywhere else and while you are able to explore on your own now, there are regulations around this and you will want to be prepared for the record keeping you will need to do.  For Americans, it is not a place where you can go to just hang out on the beach and enjoy the sites. 

Q: What tips do you have for each port?

A: Havana is safe to walk around and explore on your own and I encourage you to talk to the locals, most will be thrilled to share.  Cienfuegos is a little more laid back while Santiago de Cuba is much busier and while I never felt unsafe, there was certainly much more panhandling than in either of the other ports.

Q: Did you have to exchange money prior to leaving, or did they take US dollars?

A: You cannot get Cuban currency in the US, so it must be converted when you get there.  There is a 10% fee to convert USD, so I actually got some Euros to exchange.  As it turns out, with the exchange rate, I ended up getting exactly what I would have if I had just exchanged USD.  There are 2 types of Cuban currency, the CUC and the CUP, which is the Cuban peso and only used by locals.  You want to make sure that you get all of your change in CUCs as CUPs are nearly worthless.  You can tip in USD, but the locals have to pay the penalty when converting as well, so better to just plan ahead and get plenty of CUCs.

Q: Any other general tips you’d like to share for those looking to sail to Cuba?

A: There are many more options for cruises going to Cuba now than when I went, so I would definitely do research to figure out which on fits best with what you are looking to accomplish.  And obviously, contact a Travel Advisor, there are still many nuances when traveling to Cuba that makes having a professional in your corner invaluable.

That’s all for now, enjoy a few shots from her trip!

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