The Great Pyramids of Giza. The Sphinx. Karnak Temple. Mention Egypt and these are the boldface names that immediately come to mind. And while these iconic sites are must-see stops on any Egyptian voyage, there are other extraordinary, lesser-known treasures not to be missed.
We docked in Helsinki early in the morning. It was raining and the sky was gray, but we knew it was a matter of time. The weather forecast predicted sun a little later, and, indeed, the sky cleared up, helping us enjoy a fabulous day. Guests were divided into two groups. One group visited the second oldest city in Finland, Porvoo. The other visited the open-air museum located on the island of Seurasaari. The good thing about doing activities outside the city of Helsinki is that we were able to cross the entire city by bus. We had the chance to see firsthand all the most relevant monuments and buildings, such as the library and the train station. We took advantage of the afternoon to explore on our own. After dinner in the evening, a small group took a tour of the port and admired the icebreaker fleet docked nearby.
We spent half the day at sea as we made the long crossing from Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia. We passed the island of Saaremaa and the low Estonian coast. During the morning, Stephen Fisher gave an extensive overview of the military operations in the Baltic in World War II. Some of these were quite surprising – the awkward involvement of the Finnish leadership with Hitler’s regime, for instance, a careful balancing act between two aggressive superpowers which managed to secure Finnish independence. National Geographic photographer Sisse Grimberg followed with a fine exposition of her National Geographic assignment, portraying the history and practice of the Hanseatic League. It was very topical, as the cities we are visiting were at one time or another part of that intricate network of enterprising merchants. As always, Sisse’s images were highly personal, finding a view of practices that have survived through the ages and creating a direct link to the past. Then: Tallinn. On a gloriously clear and sunny day, the city presented itself from the sea with perky spires and medieval towers with bright red tile roofs – and with a whole lot of very recent architecture, testimony of the brilliant revival of Estonia from the drab Soviet occupation. National Geographic Explorer guests came prepared – not just by Stephen Fisher, but also after viewing The Singing Revolution , a moving documentary on the Estonian struggle for independence in the 1980s and 1990s. A long and winding walk through the old city brought historical and contemporary energies together. The upper city, Toompea, the seat of Estonia’s government, is a quiet and dignified maze of spruced up official buildings. The not-so-old Russian Orthodox cathedral towers over some of it, a token of older attempts to dominate Estonian culture. The ancient Maria Church is much more genuinely ‘Estonian’ in that respect. The gravestones are in German, and the walls are covered with elaborate coats of arms of the old German nobility, which ruled these lands for hundreds of years. We took a breather on the terrace that overlooks the lower city, once the domain for those busy merchants. We enjoyed a long stroll down Pikk Jalg, where nifty painters of cityscapes peddle their canvases, and headed into the bustling centre. ‘Spruced up’ is not saying enough. Since independence, Estonia has flourished, and everything here is testimony to that. Colourfully plastered gables offer ample indication that this is a very old city. We had a cup of coffee in an ancient merchant’s house that dates to the 14th century. On the same street: two old Guild Houses. This particular hall is the seat of the Tallinn Philharmonic. Boys and girls went in an out in what looked like school uniforms – but then again, not. They told me it was because they are involved in their end of term school presentations. One boy reluctantly told me he was to recite a poem later that evening. The others were to dance and sing. Like many 13-year-olds, they dreaded what was to come. After the tour ended, guests and staff had plenty of time to walk around this great old city and have a beer or two. Still, the day was not over. On the back deck of National Geographic Explorer , two Estonian musicians, masters of the ancient harpa, performed a highly unusual mix of traditional music and contemporary sounds with some of the most hilarious commentary we have ever witnessed, including songs about loneliness and cross-country skiing, for a start. All guests joined in a marvelous “flat-footed waltz.” Then it was time to cast off and sail to Helsinki.
Early in the morning we started our activities by visiting Punta Cormorant. We had a wet landing on a green-sand beach formed by olivine crystals. Walking an easy trail we reached a brackish lagoon, where we found Galapagos flamingos. The last part of the trail was a white-sand beach crowded with green marine turtle nests. Spending the whole day at Floreana, we had all kinds of fun. Snorkeling at Champion Islet brought us close to playful sea lions and colorful fish. In the afternoon, we paid a relaxed visit to Post Office Bay. This historical site features a wooden barrel that served as an informal postal service, the first in Ecuador. For centuries, this barrel was visited by pirates and other seafarers who left letters to be founded by other people and taken back home. Our guests continued the tradition by leaving postcards and picking up postcards to be delivered when they get back home.
Glacier Bay National Park is the ancestral homeland of the Huna Tlingit clans. Covering over three million acres of land, this striking environment lends itself well to discussions about primary succession, a characteristic of temperate rainforests and glaciation. National Geographic Venture started its day with hikes and photography instruction around Bartlett Cove. The ship’s naturalists discussed various aspects of primary succession and temperate rainforests while finding baneberry, fiddleheads, and morel mushrooms. The hikes ended with observing the preserved skeleton of a whale named Snow, a humpback whale killed by a ship strike in 2001. Once all crew and guests were on board, the ship ventured farther into Glacier Bay National Park. Along the way, we observed incredible sightings of humpback whales, Steller sea lions, sea otters, tufted puffins, bald eagles, and a variety of other animals. Farther north, we passed by Gloomy Knob where guests and staff spotted mountain goats whose white fur contrasted well with the dark rocky habitat. Finally, guests and staff celebrated the end of another magical day in Southeast Alaska with cocktail hour while viewing Margerie Glacier calving. The incredible landscape of Southeast Alaska, and particularly Glacier Bay, is an awe-inspiring world that lends itself to exploration and conservation.
Floreana Island was the first to be inhabited. Apart from its human history, its wildlife is also spectacular. As the sun rose, we were also getting ready for a very special outing, kayaking in the Post Office Bay area. Temperatures were perfect and the activity could not have been better. As we were exploring by kayak the calm waters in this area, a few sea lions joined us, following us as we go. Soon after, a little group of flamingos joined the area, landing on a sand bank just by where we were. Definitely the best way to start your day, if you like a little exercise early morning. The rest of us opted for a shorter version and went straight to the famous Post Office barrel used as an informal postal service for centuries. The rest of the morning offered an incredibly diverse snorkel or a guided glass-bottom Zodiac outing for non-snorkelers. Later in the afternoon, after a well-deserved rest, we landed on a popular green sand beach at Cormorant Point. From here, we walked down the trail that took us closer to this popular nesting site for flamingos. There are very few of these birds living in the archipelago and today we observed at least 40 of them.