Photos of the Day: Life’s a Beach

It’s been less than a week and I’m already missing the beach.¬† Something about water calms me…it’s like an instant shot of happiness ūüôā¬† Maybe I need to get an “ocean waves” app or something…but then I’m nervous that it will make me want to pee all the time.¬† Hmmm…I guess the next best thing to being there is staring at pictures!!!¬†¬†As I started looking thru my online photo albums, I realized that I’ve been BEYOND BLESSED to visit so many amazing places!¬† And I’d like to share a few of them with you.¬† So, get your pretend swimsuit, a very real cocktail,¬†sunglasses and let’s go!!!

Mimosas on the beach? Yes...please & thank you! (Cancun)

Mimosas on the beach? Yes…please & thank you! (Cancun)

A Hilton Head sunrise...best way to get your day started!

A Hilton Head sunrise…best way to get your day started!

(Santorini) A view of an infinity pool AND the Mediterranean Sea? Heaven!

(Santorini) A view of an infinity pool AND the Mediterranean Sea? Heaven!

The Norwegian fjords! While it was cold enough for Frosty the Snowman when I visited in March, it's absolutely breathtaking during the summer!

The Norwegian fjords! While it was cold enough for Frosty the Snowman when I visited in March, it’s absolutely breathtaking during the summer!

I know this may be a stretch...but I fell in love with this dam in the Scottish Highlands...and this was before I had any Scottish whiskey :) So serene & peaceful!

I know this may be a stretch…but I fell in love with this dam in the Scottish Highlands…and this was before I had any Scottish whiskey ūüôā So serene & peaceful!

The famous Santorini caldera sunset...

The famous Santorini caldera sunset…

The sunset over a lagoon in Cancun

The sunset over a lagoon in Cancun

Beautiful Lake Bled (Slovenia)

Beautiful Lake Bled (Slovenia)

The amazing Amalfi Coast in Positano, Italy!

The amazing Amalfi Coast in Positano, Italy!

The marina in Monte-Carlo

The marina in Monte-Carlo

Waves on rocks in Monte-Carlo

Waves on rocks in Monte-Carlo

Sunset over Chateau de Chillon

Sunset over Chateau de Chillon

Oslo, Norway: Beyond the Heated Sidewalks

I had the good fortune to spend 4 days in Oslo.¬† This city reminds me of Z√ľrich and Geneva in that it doesn’t really have the energy or distinct architecture that London, Paris, Rome or Amsterdam has.¬† And while¬†I found the city to be kind of “blah”, the city sightseeing tour and museums were actually pretty interesting.

A few interesting facts about Oslo:

1.  It was established on 1 January 1838. Founded around 1048 by King Harald III, the city was largely destroyed by fire in 1624. The city was moved during the reign of King Christian IV. It was rebuilt closer to Akershus Castle, and renamed Christiania in his honour (also spelled Kristiania in the late 1800s). In 1925, twenty years after the dissolution of personal union between Norway and Sweden, the city reclaimed its original Norwegian name, Oslo. (source Wikipedia)

2.¬†¬†This city rich.¬† And I am not kidding (a regular pizza & Diet Coke from a chain called Pepe’s Pizza cost me $50 USD!¬† I wanted apply for Norwegian¬†food stamps¬†so I could eat.).¬† In 2009, Oslo was rated as the most expensive city in the world (now it’s¬†second¬†only behind Tokyo).¬† The guide on my tour said that they have a lot of oil (and continue to keep discovering more of it) which allows them to save money since they don’t have to import it from the Middle East.¬† They ration the oil to¬†avoid a shortage in the near future (they feel they have enough to last the city for approximately 75-150 years).

3. The main pedestrian street (Karl Johan Gate) and various sidewalks throughout the city are actually heated (which you can do when you are rich).  The city uses hydro electricity which powers most of everything there.

4.¬† The Vikings didn’t actually wear the hat with pointy horns (you know what I’m referring to).¬† According to the tour guide, this was made up for a play and kind of just stuck.

5.¬† Norwegians love al fresco dining…even in the winter.¬† I was surprised to find that most restaurants had their outdoor seating sections open while there was still snow on the ground!¬† And it was packed.¬† Most restaurants provide blankets or furs to snuggle up in while you dine.¬† We actually tried this one afternoon and while the air was brisk, it was actually pretty nice.

Nobel Peace Center (Oslo, Norway)

Nobel Peace Center

The Nobel Peace Center was opened in 2005 and is absolutely fascinating…and very humbling.¬† As I¬†viewed the exhibits, I realized the strength and courage these¬†people had to face opposition and fight for something they believe in.¬† I was humbled to remember that I take for granted the fact that¬†I can voice my opinion, own a home and have my own career.

The Nobel Peace Prize was established by Alfred Nobel (who was Swedish) in his will.  He gave no reason for this but some feel it was to assuage his guilt over being the inventor of dynamite.  The Nobel Peace Center is divided into 3 main areas (1. Main Exhibits; 2. Current Nobel Peace Prize Winners; 3.  Former Nobel Peace Prize winners) with various other small areas.

Afghanistan Exhibit

The current exhibit is on Afghanistan and contains the soul-searing photos from Lynsey Addario and Tim Hetherington and short films by 3 brave teenage girls in Kabul (which you can view on the website).

“The British war photographer Tim Hetherington‚Äôs photo series Infidel provides a rare portrait of masculinity, camaraderie and vulnerability among American infantry soldiers. For nine months in 2007 Hetherington lived side by side soldiers at a base in the remote Korengal valley. Tim Hetherington was killed during a grenade attack in Libya in April 2011.” (quoted from The Nobel Peace Center website)

 

Notice the dog above has a collar made of bullets.¬† There was also a short documentary film being shown of the soldiers in daily life.¬† I’m not usually an emotional person but that film brought me to tears.¬† It’s hard to understand what war is like if you have never served in the military.¬† That glimpse into their lives broke my heart.¬† The toughness they exude in the still photos (with all the tattoos and the obvious hazing) was countered by the fear during gunfire and the tears for fallen comrades.¬† I highly recommend you check it out.

“The American photographer Lynsey Addario‚Äôs photo series Veiled Rebellion¬†is an intimate and personal portrait of women‚Äôs lives in a patriarchal society. Addario has photographed women in Afghanistan for 11 years.” (quoted from The Nobel Peace Center website)

Her photos captured everyday living (from the birth of a child to the autopsy of someone who recently died).  There were scenes of happiness from a typical wedding and the sadness of living in poverty.  But there was a theme of hope.  You could see the women getting stronger and happier as the years went on and they gained more freedoms.

“Anders S√łmme¬†Hammer and Christoffer¬†N√¶ss work with three girls in Kabul who want to change their society. Using hand-held cameras, the girls document their lives in the Kabul Cards video documentaries.” (quote from The Nobel Peace Center)

These videos were so touching.  There were several videos of the 3 girls doing every day activities (shopping, trying on make-up, interviewing other teens).  It really gives you insight into the culture and mindset in Kabul.

SHEROES

From there, you can walk upstairs to the SHEROES¬†Nobel Peace Prize laureate exhibition 2011.¬† The exhibition¬†provides you with the biographies of¬†the¬†3 brave heroines and laureates: ¬†Ellen Johnson Sirleaf¬†and Leymah¬†Gbowee¬†from Liberia and Tawakkol¬†Karman¬†from Yemen.¬† I saw Leymah¬†Gbowee¬†on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart a few months ago and was absolutely mesmerized by her.¬† She is smart, funny and completely engaging.¬† And, she was able to convey the enormous effort it took to gain women certain freedoms in Liberia.¬† The one thought that kept running through my mind was that these 3 women were courageous and not easily intimidated by more powerful men.¬† That takes a lot of faith and strength.¬†¬†It’s amazing how you can be inspired by the contributions of others.

Past Nobel Peace Prize Winners

I have to say, I was so excited to see this room.¬† It is so cool…dark with ambient lighting.¬† Very peaceful.¬† As you can see in the picture at the left, each Nobel Peace Laureate is featured on a small tablet with their name, year of being the recipient (and reason why) and their speech.¬† I did find it interesting that Yasser¬†Arafat received a Nobel Peace Prize but Ghandi didn’t.¬† Really?¬† But my favorites are Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.¬† Amazing!

 

The Viking Ship Museum

This small museum¬†houses 3 unearthed Viking Ships and I found the history fascinating.¬† I didn’t realize that the Viking burial ceremony was similar to the Egyptians.¬† Their belief was that the dead needed food and drink (2 oxen were killed and dough was supplied), weapons, animals, clothes and their ships (basically everything they owned) in the afterlife.¬† Horses and dogs (even a peacock) were killed and buried with the dead (including bridle mounts).¬† I’m not sure if the dead had access to Cuisinart products to cook up the meat and bake the dough.

There were also tapestries (which I was not allowed to take pictures of) that had scenes of Viking life and burial.  It looked very similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics!  Another detail I was unaware of is that the Vikings owned slaves (but not from Africa).

All of this information was obtained when 2 Viking Ships were excavated.¬† The Oseberg¬†burial mound, which contained¬†numerous grave goods¬†and two female human skeletons (two women…one, aged 60‚Äď70, suffered badly from arthritis and other maladies; the second was aged 25‚Äď30. It is not clear which one was the more important in life or whether one was sacrificed to accompany¬†the other in death). The ship’s interment into its burial mound dates from 834, but parts of the ship date from around 800, and the ship itself is thought to be older.¬† It was excavated by Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig¬†and Swedish archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson in 1904-1905. This ship is widely celebrated and has been called one of the finest finds to have survived the Viking Age (source Wikipedia).

 

Then there is the Gokstad ship.  Shortly after the 1880 New Year the sons of the owner of Gokstad Farm, having heard of the legends surrounding the site, uncovered the bow of a boat and its painter while digging in the still frozen ground (source Wikipedia).

Holmenkollen Ski Jump

You can’t go to Oslo in the winter without checking out the Holmenkollen Ski Jump.¬† It just so happens that the FIS World Cup occurred the weekend I was there.¬† The ski jump is 60 meters/197 feet high!

This is a popular place for not only ski jumping but regular skiing as well.¬† I decided to try the ski jump simulator and after 4 terrifying minutes, realized that I would never try it in real life.¬† I’ve never been one to be afraid of heights and love rollercoasters but this was where I drew the line.¬† Imagine looking down 197 feet (and I don’t even know how they get to the top of the jump).¬† The amazing thing is that you speed down the course then fly off the end (as the jump) and stay airborne for a while before trying to land on skis.¬† I would be dead with 2 broken legs.

  

Vigeland Sculpture Park

Vigeland¬†Sculpture Park covers 80 acres and features 212 bronze and granite sculptures all designed by Gustav Vigeland.¬† 58 of the park’s sculptures reside¬†along the Bridge, a 100 metre (328¬†ft) long, 15 metre (49¬†ft) wide connection between the Main Gate and the Fountain. All are clad in bronze and contribute to the Human Condition theme of the park. ¬†Here visitors will find one of the park’s more popular statues, Angry Boy (Sinnataggen). Visitors could enjoy the sculptures while most of the park was still under construction. At the end of the bridge lies the Children‚Äôs Playground, a collaboration of eight bronze statues, all in the likenesses of children at play.

The Fountain (Fontenen) was fabricated from bronze and adorned with 60 individual bronze reliefs. Portraying children and skeletons in the arms of giant trees, the Fountain suggests that from death comes new life. On the ground surrounding the Fountain lies an 1800 square meter mosaic laid in black and white granite. It took Vigeland a great deal of time to establish the monument: from 1906 to 1947.

The Main Gate to Vigeland Sculpture Park is forged of granite and wrought iron and serve as an entrance to Frogner Park itself (source Wikipedia).

The Monolith Plateau is a platform made of steps that houses the Monolith totem itself. 36 figure groups reside¬†on the elevation bringing with them the ‚Äúcircle of life‚ÄĚ message. Access to the Plateau is made via eight figural¬†gates forged in wrought iron. The gates were designed between 1933 and 1937 and erected shortly after Vigeland died in 1943 (source Wikipedia).

     

Notice how the lake is half frozen!

This dog is carrying his own leash. I have to figure out how to get my dog to do this.

Other sites around Oslo

National Theater

 

Aker Brygg

Oslo fjord

City Hall

Hopefully this gives you a pretty good overview of Oslo.

Looking for a hotel in Oslo?  Check out my review of the Thon Hotel Astoria here.

Nikki’s Nest: Thon Hotel Astoria (Oslo, Norway)

image sourced from Thon Hotel Astoria website.

Thon¬†Hotels is one of Norway’s largest hotel chains with hotels in Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Holland.¬† They have 4 types of hotels; City (typically in¬†the city center), Conference (professional conference hotels geared towards business travellers), Budget (simple accommodations) and Resort (suburban accommodations).¬† I spent 1 night at the Thon¬†Hotel Astoria located at¬†Dronningensgate¬†21 in Oslo, Norway.¬† The Thon Hotel Astoria is in their “budget” class of hotels and is centrally located close to the main pedestrian street (Karl Johan), the Oslo S Station, and many restaurants and boutiques and sights.

Promotions

Oslo is expensive.  Seriously.  A small pizza for 1 person averages $40 USD.  With that in mind, taking advantage of promotions is critical.  Thon offers promotions at most of its hotels.  By booking at least 7 days in advance (via their website), you can save money on your stay.  My stay cost 653 Kronor/night (which was approximately $117 USD).

Rooms & Suites

There are 3 types of rooms available:  Standard Single, Standard Double and Standard Triple/Family.  As stated above, this is a budget class hotel which means there are no frills.  I stayed in the Standard Single which had a twin-sized bed, an older tv and a small shower.  While the room is small, it was comfortable enough.

 

The Fitness Center

None

The Spa

None

Dining

Breakfast (the only meal served at the hotel) is included in the cost of the room.  As I left prior to breakfast being served, I cannot review the taste or quality.

Internet

Free wireless internet service is available.  You must get the code from the front desk so I suggest asking for it upon check-in to save yourself a trip downstairs.

Activities

None

Overall

I found this hotel to be comfortable and a great value.  The rooms were clean and cheap.  The only negative was the long line at check-in.  This has been a big complaint from other reviewers.  The lobby is small and there is typically only 1 person working the front desk which makes the check-in process longer than necessary.

I also stayed at the Radisson Blu¬†Scandinavia in Oslo for 1 night (which is considerably more expensive as I paid 1525 Kronor/$284 USD) and¬†I found the Thon¬†Hotel Astoria to be better.¬† While I¬†can’t give this hotel the rating of a Fabulous 4,¬† I would definitely stay there again in the future.¬† Looking for things to do in Oslo?¬† Check out my city review here and my Norway in¬†a Nutshell review here (if you are looking to visit the fjords).

Nikki’s Rating: 3 “Eh, it’ll do”

Rating Scale 1-5 (1 = GET OUT NOW; 2 = Seriously?; 3 = Eh, it’ll do; 4 = Fabulous; 5 =¬†Absolutely Wonderful)

The “Norway in a Nutshell” Experience

‚ÄúGod dag‚ÄĚ from Norway! A couple of months ago,¬†I saw a picture of a Norwegian¬†fjord on Pinterest.¬† It was so breathtaking that¬†I promised myself that one day¬†I would¬†visit.¬† I was blessed to have a business trip here so I added a couple of days to experience as much as I could of this country.¬† Getting to the fjords isn’t as easy you think.¬† You need to take a series of trains, buses and ferries.¬† After a lot of research, I found that the easiest way is to take the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour.

This tour is a series of pretty well-organized connections from Oslo to Bergen (and back) via rail, bus and ferry.¬† Along the way, you will take a train halfway across a mountain, then¬†ride the Flamsbana¬†train down to the Sognefjord for a ferry ride thru 2 off-shoot fjords (Aurlandsfjord and N√¶r√łyfjord). There are also other city & fjord combinations (for more information, check out Fjord Tours). You can buy your ticket directly from Fjord Tours or at¬†the train¬†stations.¬† One of the great things about this tour is that if one segment is delayed, your next segment will wait as they are all connected.¬† Since we are short on time, we decided to do the roundtrip tour from Oslo to Bergen‚Ķwhich was 22 hours long! During the summer, you have more options for a shorter tour.

Schedule
8:11 = Train leaves Oslo S train station
12:53 = Arrive in Myrdal
13:02 = Flamsbana train departs Myrdal
14:00 = Arrive in Flåm
15:10¬†=¬†Boat/Ferry departs Fl√•m¬†(cruise the Aurlandsfjord¬†and N√¶r√łyfjord)
17:00 = Arrive in Gudvangen
17:25 = Bus departs Gudvangen
18:20 = Bus arrives in Voss
19:20 = Train departs Voss
20:34 = Train arrives in Bergen
22:58 = Night Train departs Bergen
6:26 = Arrive in Oslo

How was the Sognefjord created?

“The process began during the ice age about 3 million years ago.¬† A glacier about 6,500 feet thick slid downhill an inch an hour following a former river valley on its way to the sea.¬† Rocks embedded in the glacier gouged out a steep, U-shaped valley, displacing enough rock material to form a mountain 13 miles high.¬† When the climate warmed, the ice age came to an end.¬† The melted glaciers retreated and the sea level rose nearly 300 feet flooding the valley now known as the Sognefjord.¬† The fjord is more than a mile deep, flanked by 3,000-foot mountains (for a total relief of 9,300 feet).” [quote from Rick Steves’ Scandinavia]

Oslo – Myrdal Train

Rick Steves’ Scandinavia describes this as “the most spectacular train ride in Northern Europe.”¬† You are climbing over Norway’s “mountainous spine” where the scenery gets more dramatic the higher you go.¬† Honestly, I didn’t find it all that spectacular.¬† Of course, I fell asleep about an hour into the ride so take it for what it’s worth.¬† It may actually be spectacular in the summer when the land isn’t barren.¬† For a beautiful train ride through a winter wonderland, you should check out Interlaken, Switzerland.

Flamsbana Train

Now this train ride had beautiful scenery.  Waterfalls frozen mid-stream, bubbling creeks, snow-capped mountains and rustic little towns.

    

Flåm

This small town is really catered to tourists.  During the winter, most of the restaurants are closed (we were able to find 1 that was open for lunch).  The souvenir shop was open from 1-3pm.

  

Fjord Cruise

This is the real star of the entire tour!¬† The cruise takes you through Aurlandsfjord¬†and N√¶r√łyfjord (which is the narrowest fjord).¬† While it was very windy and cold, you easily are caught up in the beauty and serenity of the area.

   

Gudvangen

Rick Steves’ says it best, “Gudvangen is little more than a boat dock with a giant kiosk.”¬† Seriously…there is nothing more than that (other than a bridge and a bus stop).

  

Voss

This is a plain town that has a beautiful church and a lovely lake.¬† There isn’t much to do other than walk around while waiting for the next train out.

  

Bergen

I really can’t review¬†this city.¬† We arrived at night while it was raining and just found a restaurant for a quick bite to eat.¬† It is a bigger city and recommended as a stop-over by Rick Steves.

Overall

The Norway in a Nutshell tour was fine.  I wish there were an easier way to reach the fjords because, for me, that was truly the highlight of the trip.  Other than the Flamsbana train ride and the fjord cruise, I could have been okay with not doing the rest of the tour.  However, during the summer, it is probably very good as the land will be lush and the days longer.

The night train back to Oslo was great though.¬† We upgraded to a sleeper car (totally worth the extra 850 Kronor!).¬† I was so well-rested upon arrival that I didn’t even bother with a nap today.¬† This tour is a bit expensive (2240 Kronor = approximately¬†390 USD¬†(without the sleeper car)) but you do have a fully packed day.¬† While this is officially a “tour”, there is no actual guide.¬† You receive your tickets and a schedule.¬† I highly recommend bringing along a guidebook (Rick Steves’ Scandinavia has an excellent step-by-step guide of this tour which helps you to understand what you are seeing and what to expect next).

Looking for a hotel in Oslo?  Check out my review of the Thon Hotel Astoria here.