Aurora Borealis

October/November 2023

When I booked these 2 cruises a year or so ago, the Northern Lights didn’t really enter my mind. I don’t recall Cunard marketing the Norway cruise on the basis of the Lights.

It soon became clear that many of the passengers who boarded Queen Victoria on Friday 27 October were there to see the Lights. One of the speakers that Cunard had lined up was Ian Redpath of the Royal Astronomical Society. He spoke in the Royal Court Theatre on most sea days and he was always on deck 9 on the evenings when there was the chance of a sighting.

We struggled in the early days to pick up sightings with our eyes. Cameras and mobiles were better, but things improved as we moved further and further into the Arctic Circle.

I can’t claim ownership of all these images. Most of them came from Mark’s camera. He’s on the left.

And here’s another photo with Jane, Kim, Me and the two Marks.

And finally we have the end of cruise photo of our dinner table for the Norway cruise. A fun bunch!

Mark 2, Mark 1, Me, Casey, Nadia, Kim, Jane


We arrived here just before 8.00am on Monday 6 November. The Captain had said to us the day before that the forecast was for high winds on Monday and that he would have a tug standing by to help with berthing Queen Victoria.

In fact it turned out to be a fairly calm morning, and when I woke up we were alongside, port side on. I guessed that a tug had not been necessary.

When we went ashore we found the adapted vehicle without too much difficulty. Veronica was the driver. Despite her very English sounding name her command of the English language was minimal. But she was smiley and had a plan for the 2 hour tour.

As we drove through the old town, we found a very clean and tidy place with very little traffic.

We did get stuck behind a “Noddy” train at one point and as the streets were narrow we had to crawl along behind it. Luckily it was aiming for the same attraction as us – Norway’s national monument, Haraldshaugen. It is said to be the site where Harald Hairfair (the first King of Norway) is buried. It was erected in 1872 during the millennium celebrations of Norway’s unification into one kingdom.

The areas around Haugesund were considered by the Vikings to be lands of power. At the time the King lived 5 miles away, in Avaldsnes, known as the homeland of the Vikings.

Veronica then suggested that she drove us up the nearby “mountains” (her word, we would have called them hills). We took a winding road/track through woods and lakes.

The views were fantastic.

And inevitably there was our home in the distance.

QV partially obscured!

Veronica then drove us to a small village, Visnes, once home to a prosperous copper mine. It was one of the most active mines in Norway and one of the biggest in Europe.


Visnes is said to have supplied the copper used to make New York’s Statue of Liberty and a small version sits in the water in the village.

A more dubious claim relates to Norma Jean Mortenson, otherwise Marilyn Monroe. Haugesund claims that her father emigrated from the town to the US, where she was born, but there are doubts that the man was actually her father. But a statue of her sits in the town!

Finally we were taken to Avaldsnes and to the ancient church which was surrounded by graves and headstones.

And then it was back to the ship for one more day at sea before our arrival in Southampton.


Captain Karl Shepherd

Master of Queen Victoria

Today, the 5th November 2023, I had the honour, at the invitation of Captain Karl Shepherd, to sound Queen Victoria’s whistle from the bridge to indicate 12 noon. The Captain then broadcast his daily message to the passengers and crew.

Earlier the Captain had given us a tour and had introduced us to the officers and crew manning the bridge.

Jane was astounded by the amount of navigational equipment!

It was a great occasion for me, because I first sailed on a Cunard ship, the Queen Mary, in 1965. For the last 20 years, after our children grew up, Jane and I have been at sea with Cunard for 675 nights and this was our first invitation to the bridge.

I have to say that I am not the first member of my family to do this. In September of this year, my sister Liz Cracknell was on Queen Victoria for her second Cunard cruise and she was invited to sound the 12 noon whistle. She beat me to it!

You will appreciate that these occasions have arisen because our father was a Cunard Captain back in the sixties and seventies – Captain George E Smith. He was one of only 3 Captains who were Masters of both the original Queen Elizabeth and Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2). He was the second ever Captain of QE2. In addition, during his career with Cunard, he was also Captain of Mauretania, Franconia, Saxonia, Ivernia and Carmania.

Captain George E Smith

With Captain Karl Shepherd, Master of Queen Victoria

My thanks to the Captain’s secretary Crystal for setting up this visit for me, Jane and our companion/carer Kim. Our thanks also to the bridge team and of course to the Master of Queen Victoria, Captain Karl Shepherd our thanks for giving up his valuable time. It was a great pleasure meeting him.

The head too big or the cap too small?


The port

Our visit here didn’t start too well. I had booked adapted taxis at all four Norwegian ports back in September and had confirmed the bookings on line a few days before each visit.

In Narvik on Friday it was very cold (minus 6). Jane was well bundled up and we set off along the pier to the spot where coaches, buses and taxis were assembling. There was no sign of our taxi. After 15 minutes we managed to contact the taxi company to be told that the taxi had gone to the wrong port. Classic.

We went back to the ship for a coffee. Jane and Kim decided to stay aboard. The town was up a steep hill and there were no adapted shuttles (in fact no shuttles at all, it would appear) so pushing Jane up the hill was not an option. We always take a manual wheelchair ashore because of the risk to the electric one from cobblestones and a lack of dropped kerbs.

I decided to venture up to the town. It was a long hard climb. By then it was getting dark (3pm!). I bought a few items from my list and had a look at the Museum which was about to close. The walk back to the ship was easy.

The Narvik Museum
Return to the ship

As we were still within the Arctic Circle, the Aurora was still on the agenda. In Tromso and in Narvik, evening tours in coaches to likely viewing sites were very popular. Our dining companions Casey and Nadia missed dinner on both evenings to search for the Aurora.

The Aurora was elusive. We ventured onto the darkened 9 deck after dinner but there was no sign of the Lights and I gather that the 400 or so passengers who went off for the evening in coaches had no joy either.

The last of the coaches arrived back at the ship at 12.30am and we set sail half an hour later.


The Northern Lights

The dining room was half empty. Hundreds appeared to have chosen the Northern Lights ahead of food. We knew that Casey and Nadia were on an evening tour in search of the Lights. The two Marks were with us. I’ve just found a copy of the photo of them in their masks taken the night before (the Masquerade Ball on Halloween).

But back to Tromso. At about 10.00pm, after dinner, we moved up to 9 deck which was dark. All the ships lights were turned off. The decks were salted and we were all looking to the sky. From time to time Ian Redpath, from the Royal Astrological Society, would tell us where to look and after a time this was spotted

It gets better

There may be more tomorrow. We are still inside the Arctic Circle.



Wednesday 1st November 2023. In the Arctic Circle. We sailed into the port just before 9.00am. It had clearly been snowing and all the hills and mountains surrounding us were covered in snow. No sign of the Northern Lights yet but fingers crossed for later today!

After breakfast, we all made sure that we had layers of sweaters, scarves, hats and coats on and then ventured down the gangway. It was minus 5 degrees!

I had organised an adapted taxi from Tromsotaxis which we couldn’t find initially, but the driver found us. He quickly loaded us up. The vehicle had a lift at the rear to get Jane aboard. He was an excellent driver and again, very careful and courteous.

We were quickly in a tunnel which took us under the fjord for about a mile, and then, ahead of us was the Arctic Cathedral.

It was impressive, but it is not the only Cathedral in Tromso.

This is the other Cathedral

We then travelled in a circle along one side of the fiord where, in the main, it appeared to be a series of residential areas.

He then took us across a modern bridge

to the other side which was less developed.

Suddenly the driver turned right from the main road into what appeared to be the drive of a private house.

He drove a short way down the drive and to our right was a field with reindeer grazing.

He said the reindeer grazed in that field until the middle of the day and wandered off up the hill in the afternoon. It was clearly a regular stop on his Tromso tours.

Queen Victoria hidden amongst the trees

By the time he had returned us to the ship it was lunchtime.

Of course for many the reason for joining this cruise was the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. As I write, some people are leaving the ship to go on tours that might give them a better chance of seeing the Lights. It appears to be a cloudless sky which is a good sign. The locals think the chances are good (but they would say that wouldn’t they?).

We are going to dinner on 3 deck in the main dining room at the aft end of the ship at 8.15pm tonight and taking our warm kit with us. If it is announced that the Lights are in the sky we will rush up six decks in the lift to the open 9 deck where the ships lights will be dimmed. Fingers crossed.


Norway here we come.

We left Southampton on time on Friday evening and eventually turned to the east and aimed towards the North Sea.

All our table companions turned up on Friday. Casey and Nadia from just north of Miami, Florida and Mark x 2 – from Southampton! So it’s a table of 7.

It soon became apparent that coincidences would be rife. Mark 1, from Chessel Bay revealed that his former father in law was Ken Bennett, a Southampton character, who would have been well known to many of you. Ken lived along the road from us in Chilworth.

By the way, I’ve lived in Southampton all my life and have never before heard of Chessel Bay. Have you? When I was a boy, our family GP practiced in Chessel Avenue, Bitterne. But a bay in a river? That’s new to me! But I have found it on Google maps.

Mark 2 revealed that he had worked for IBM in Hursley for 17 years. The park in which IBM operates is no more than 2 miles from our home and I drive past the park every time I go to Winchester.

On Tuesday evening at a World Club party, I found myself talking to a distinguished English gentleman with a very attractive Chinese wife. I didn’t get their names but they told me that they now lived in Winchester, having until recently lived in Kingsway, Chandlers Ford. Kingsway is 50 yards from our house!

The first of the 2 sea days was rough but not as bad as the weather in Biscay the previous week. We had 2 days relaxing and then we arrived at our first Norwegian port on this voyage – Alesund.

You can see Alesund, south of Kristiansand and Molde but north of Bergen and Haugesund (which is our last port before our return home)

Alesund in the early morning as we arrived

For the four Norwegian ports, I had given up on Cunard tours and shuttles and in September I emailed taxi firms in all the ports. There were plenty of adapted vehicles. The firm that I eventually used in Alesund have 6 large Mercedes Sprinter adapted vehicles with lift and room for more than one wheelchair and 6-8 seats for the able bodied.

Our driver, of Eritrean heritage, arrived in the adapted vehicle as arranged at 10.30am. He was a lovely man. Courteous and a careful driver. We sorted out an itinerary and he wanted first of all to show us one of the handful of houses that had survived the fire back in 1904.

In many towns in Norway in the late 1800’s nearly all the houses were wooden. In Alesund in January 1904 a fire started in a factory when a cow apparently kicked over a torch! It was a very windy night and flames spread rapidly wiping out the 1,000+ houses in the town leaving 10,000 people homeless. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, who often vacationed in the town, led a swift rebuilding programme, combining German art nouveau with Viking flourishes.

Alesund sits on 3 islands between 2 fjords

He took us up to the Aksla viewpoint which gave us magnificent views in all directions. Queen Victoria was on her berth.

These photos look north, south, east and west from the viewpoint
This island is known as Viking Island

Our driver then took us to the Sunmore museum, an open air exhibition of Viking boats and homes.

It was a fun day and after our return to the ship I ventured out on foot to find a few items that I was in trouble about as I’d failed to pack them. I took some more photos on my travels. The buildings in Alesund are very attractive.

We have a day at sea on Tuesday with, apparently, some Halloween celebrations.

As I write the Captain has announced that we are now within the Arctic Circle. He also said that he will be leaving the ship in Tromso tomorrow for a months leave. The new Captain is apparently already aboard. We look forward to meeting him.


The first leg return

We had all enjoyed the first week. It was unusual for us to visit only one port but the tour on the second day in Lisbon was exceptional. Those who frequent Queen Mary 2 and her transatlantic voyages are, of course, used to spending 6 or 7 days at sea visiting no ports at all.

Jane, Kim and I love sea days. There are always plenty of things to do. After a leisurely breakfast the Wordle, Sudoku, crosswords and books come out and then it’s time for coffee. The Commodore Club on 9 deck is the favourite for us these days.

Commodore Club

It has fabulous views looking forward and because it is high up on deck 10 in the forward part of the ship new passengers find it difficult to locate. That keeps it peaceful and relaxed. Some never find it!

Thursday evening was our last dinner before our table companions departed.

Clockwise from the bottom left – Me, Ray and Margaret from Bagshot, James from Paris, Anthony from Northampton and his daughter Liz from Chester, Kim and Jane

And the next day, Friday 27 October, the vast majority of passengers departed and about 100 of us doing the back to back adventure remained. Some went into Southampton, shopping, but we stayed on the ship. By lunchtime the new contingent had started to board for the Norway cruise and the excitement began to build up again.


Queluz Palace

The Palace was built in the 18th century for the Kings children, but when the main Royal Palace in Lisbon was destroyed in 1794, the King and the senior royals moved to Queluz.

We had a complete tour of the main palace. It was magnificent, as was Pedro’s guiding and commentary. Sonia had presumably heard it before because she remained in the vehicle!

These are some of the rooms we were led through

The Throne Room
Pedro thought this was not a piano. It looked like one to us!
The ballroom

After a full tour we were ready for the magnificent gardens

By the time we were outside it was raining heavily and we had to give the beautiful gardens a miss.

It was time to return to the ship. The traffic was heavy and by the time we arrived by the berth we had been out for 5 hours.

It had been an excellent tour and we were clearly lucky to get it. It became clear that the tour had been offered to us at the last minute because of a cancellation. Thank you Cunard!


Day 2 in Lisbon

Two days before we left home on 20 October, a lady from Cunard rang and asked if we wanted to take up the offer of a 5 hour tour for the 3 of us in an adapted vehicle on the 2nd day in Lisbon. It was to start at 8.30am. I told her I knew nothing about it, that it had never been mentioned before, but that we might be interested if it started an hour later. The price seemed reasonable for a 5 hour tour with an English speaking guide.

Agreement was reached on the deal and this Wednesday we were ashore by 9.30am and there, awaiting us, was a large smart wheelchair adapted vehicle with a side lift. We were introduced to Sonia who was to be the driver and Pedro the guide.

The tour that had been planned was first a drive up the coast to Cascais, then across to the Queluz Palace, a tour of the Palace and its grounds and then back to the ship.

Pedro was fantastic. He was fanatical about accessibility and his knowledge of the history of the region, of Portugal and of the World was amazing. And he was able to explain it to us beautifully.

But before I tell you more of the day, let me reminisce. Back in 1967, my father arranged for me to go on a 2 week Cunard cruise on RMS Carmania after graduation. If there were unsold cabins then dependant children were allowed to travel for £2 a day. I was still a dependant child. I see that I talked about this in the blog on 27 January 2022. But I didn’t tell you about Cascais, the place that we were to visit on this tour with Sonia and Pedro.

Back in 1967 after the ship had berthed in Lisbon, a crowd of us decided to catch a train to the beach resort of Cascais. We had a great time on the beach and in the sea on what was a very hot day.

RMS Carmania

It’s amazing how a place can change in 50+ years. From being a charming small beach resort there is now a massive town and a very small beach. Sadly it was raining this time, but Pedro took me to look at the beach.

There were just two boys braving the rain and a group playing volleyball. Perhaps I won’t be hurrying back there. We had a coffee and then we were off to the Palace.

I will report on the Palace visit shortly.