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Some months ago I walked out of the office of The Cruise People, here in Toronto, clutching a copy of the current hurtigruten brochure for Arctic and Antarctic expeditions aboard Fram. After I got home and finished reading, I realized that the last 2010 Arctic voyage ended at Halifax and the first to the Antarctic began from Buenos Aires, But there was nothing about how the ship would get from the former port to the latter. Deadheading, I thought, but to satisfy my curiosity I visited the website hurtigruten.com. It was there that I discovered that Fram would indeed accept passengers on this non-stop 23-day voyage. The voyage could not be booked through a travel agency, but only by direct application to Fram's Chief Purser by e-mail or phone. Fares were remarkably low. For about $116 a day I could have an outside double cabin, and there was no supplement for single occupancy. Inside cabins cost less, mini-suites and suites cost more. The rate included travel, accommodation and three meals per day. Incidentally, when Fram concludes her Antarctic season in March 2011 she will accept passengers from Buenos Aires to Lisbon at the same rate. As I had made 18 hurtigruten voyages along the coast of Norway, the Chief Purser notified me that I could have either a 10 per cent discount or an upgrade to a mini-suite. I chose the latter. And so I boarded Fram at Halifax on October 9, a long 5,750 nautical miles from Buenos Aires. Docked close by was the huge cruise ship Aida Luna which overshadowed Fram considerably. Fram, though, is not exactly a small ship. Completed in 2007 by Fincantieri and carrying an Ice Classification of 1A/1B, she has a gross tonnage of 11,647. Her overall length is 114 metres (375 feet), her beam is 20 metres (66 feet). Her main engine is an MAK 6 M25, developing 7,920kW, giving her a service speed of about 15 knots. She has 136 cabins and suites, giving her a berthed-passenger capacity of 318. She spends summers in the Arctic (Spitsbergen, Iceland, Greenland), winter in the Antarctic and spring in Western Europe. What follows are random notes about the ship and the voyage. Keep in mind that Halifax to Buenos Aires was a one-off experience and what I write may not always be applicable to the ship's published voyages. Shortly after we left Halifax a reception was held for the nine passengers. It was attended by the ship's master, Capt. Rune Andreassen, and other officers. It was an informal occasion and throughout the voyage, almost everything was informal (except for the safety session). Of the nine passengers, two were holdovers from the Reykjavik to Halifax voyage. Of the others, four were American, two German and one Canadian (me). We were all quite compatible. On my voyage, officers and crew, including hotel staff, numbered 62. This included a doctor and nurse. At Buenos Aires more hotel staff and enrichment lecturers were due to board.. It is important to remember that Fram is a purpose-built expedition ship and not a conventional cruise ship. If you are looking for a spa, an art auction, a ship's photographer, an entertainer, a cruise director or gold chain at $1 per inch (or whatever the price is), you have strayed aboard the wrong ship. That said, Fram is not short of amenities. She has a shop that sells mostly high-quality Norwegian knitwear and other items and she does have a bar where prices of drinks are more or less similar to those in cruise ships. She offers enrichment lectures by noted authorities. Fram's senior officers are mostly Norwegian. Waiters, waitresses and cabin attendants are Filipino and Filipina. Whereas on hurtigruten ("express route") voyages in Norway itself the hotel staff are Norwegian and apparently well paid (and the brochure states that tips are not required), it is different in Fram where the suggested gratuity is $8 per person per day. After leaving Halifax, land remained out of sight until we saw the coast of Uruguay the day before the voyage ended. Occasionally birds flew around the ship and from time cargo vessels could be seen on or near the horizon. Otherwise, we had the ocean to ourselves. Anyone who has sailed the Norwegian coastal voyage in the ships from the 1990s and early 2000s will feel quite at home in Fram. Her layout is similar, but her passenger capacity is lower and maybe she is a little more spacious in relation to her passenger capacity. Fram was built to take her place on the Norwegian coastal voyage if required but so far this has not happened. The main lounge on the eight-deck ship is on Deck 7 forward. It has full-length inward-sloping windows on three sides and also overhead windows. The chairs are comfortable, the bar is handy, there is a piano and dance floor, and there are two telescopes to magnify the scenery. The lounge also has a library with books mostly in English and German that describe the Arctic and Antarctic regions as well as a limited selection of fiction. For my part, I took along a dozen books that I had been promising myself to read for many years (decades, in some cases)--and finally I did. Also on Deck 7 was a well-equipped fitness room that contained exercise cycles of various kinds, treadmills, weights and devices whose purpose I could not discern. There was also a table-tennis table. Just aft of the gym were two outdoor Jacuzzis which were heated up and ready to use almost every day. One deck above were the men's and women's saunas and they too were fully operative throughout the voyage. Still on the topic of fitness, Fram does not have a wrap-around deck for jogging or walking but a fair amount can be achieved on decks 5 and 7. The open decks are made of steel which is covered by a patterned rubber or rubber-like substance, maybe almost half-an-inch thick, which makes jogging a little more pleasant. There were many deck chairs, all of them of the sit-up rather than stretch-out variety. Some were wooden but most were of lightweight tubular metal with horizontal blue vinyl straps, similar to those what were common in cruise ships about 25 years ago. Before I boarded I wondered where the handful of passengers would eat. Officers' mess? Crew mess? It was neither. Everyone--officers, crew and passengers--ate in the main dining room aft on Deck 4. Also, everyone had the full run of the ship, including the main lounge, lobby, arcade and bistro. The dress code was casual for everyone from the master down. Two waiters had been assigned to the passengers and they were invariably dressed in t-shirts--which did not lessen their efficiency at all. The dining room, like the main lounge, had large windows on three sides. It also had something I have not seen elsewhere--an open deck directly aft of the dining room, running the width of the ship and maybe about six feet deep. At a guess, I would say that this deck allows passengers to dash out and photograph scenic areas then return to their tables before their food grows cold. Speaking of tables, there were two principal kinds, rectangular ones for four, round ones for six. There was exactly one table for two. Each pair of rectangular tables was separated from its close neighbour by a small glass partition. I had a table all to myself although my fellow passengers entreated me to join them. Actually I did join them on about seven or eight occasions when dinner consisted of a barbecue held on Deck 7. A barbecue is a pleasant way of eating, especially when there are no mosquitoes to spoil the occasion. Food was self-service, buffet style, for all three meals but our two waiters brought orange juice and coffee to the passenger tables and cleared away the dishes. The food was good and there was always a choice of items. For example, at breakfast there were always two or three kinds of rolls, two or three varieties of bread and four kinds of pastries, four or more kinds of cheese, eggs (boiled, fried, omelettes), and several kinds of cold fish and meat. Everything was attractively laid out. Many of the dishes were typically Norwegian, but there were also dishes that were prepared to appeal to Filipino tastes--and passengers were welcome to try them. I certainly enjoyed my meals but it is possible that on regular voyages dinner may possibly be a little more sophisticated. As a passing comment, plates were about seven inches in diameter and twelve inches in diameter. You simply chose the plate you wanted and selected the food you liked. Almost invariably the young Filipina stewardesses, most of them quite small in build, chose the 12-inch plate, heaped it to capacity and polished off the contents in short order. Still on the topic of food, passengers found a ready supply of coffee, tea and cookies at the bistro, Deck 4 forward, throughout the day. An alcove near the bistro held an assortment of board games such as jig-saw puzzles, dominoes, Scrabble, Monopoly and Othello. Close to the bistro was the Internet cafe, which charged about $10 per hour or half hour--I have forgotten which. Several passengers brought along their laptops, as did some of the crew. Just forward of the bistro were two lecture halls. On Fram's Arctic and Antarctic voyages, illustrated lectures are a principal feature of each expedition.
When I boarded Fram in Halifax I thought the ship looked clean and well cared for, just the way she should be. In spite of that an immense amount of work was carried out between Halifax and Buenos Aires. On the outside decks, wooden rails were scraped, sanded and varnished. Paint was applied liberally to outdoor areas on decks 5, 7 and 8. Internally, carpets were vacuum cleaned, followed by the application of liquid cleaner. Signs that read "wet carpet" proliferated, and corridors and stairways were taped off until the carpeting dried. Chairs were turned over, cushions shaken then vacuum cleaned. Cabins were thoroughly inspected; mattresses were turned over, woodwork was dusted, windows were cleaned inside and out and bathrooms were scrubbed down. Overhead panels in some corridors were removed, leaving the wiring exposed so that repairs could be made. The more obscure areas of the ship were not immune. Early in the voyage, the Filipino/Filipina staff occupied the port side of the dining room, but when that area was cleaned and carpeting was still wet, they migrated to the starboard side, where the passengers ate. Sometimes they shared the same table as me. They were pleasant and polite but there was not much communication between them and the passengers. In the evenings, the hotel staff and passengers participated in Fram's version of the Olympic Games, held in the forward lounge. Events included table tennis, foosball (if I have the name correct), target shooting (outdoors with air guns) and karaoke. There were six teams and someone had entered my name as part of the dining room team. I did not participate or even attend any events but I now possess a certificate, signed by the captain, attesting that I was a member of the second-place team. The crew took part in the so-called Olympics with great enthusiasm. Later in the voyage a Hallowe’en costume party was held and it too was a great success from all reports. I wonder, is Hallowe’en really observed in the Philippines? A visit to the bridge was arranged for the passengers one morning and Capt. Andreassen patiently answered questions, most of which I suspect he had answered many times in the past. Before taking over Fram he had spent more than 20 years in the ships of the Norwegian coastal voyage. Bridge visits for passengers are held on most voyages but visits to the engine room are not. However, on my voyage the passengers had a lengthy tour of the engine room conducted by the First Engineer. I have no particular technical knowledge, but the engine room was clean, brightly lit and noisy. When it was over, the participants assembled in a hallway, far from the engine room, where the First Engineer answered their questions. On our way to the engine room, we walked through Fram's cargo area where the Polarcirkel boats were stored. There are used for Arctic and Antarctic landings where no docking facilities exist. The Polarcirkel boats are a much improved version of the Zodiacs invented by Jacques Cousteau. I think I mentioned earlier that I occupied a mini-suite. It was on Deck 5, port side. At a guess, I would say it measured around 200 square feet, bathroom included. A stewardess performed the usual duties that one would expect on a cruise ship. Like all suites and mini-suites in the ship, it was named for a crew member of the original Fram a century ago. My suite, nicely carpeted, had a comfortable bed (queen size?) that could not be split into two individual beds, a two-person sofa, a coffee table, a safe, a writing table with a large mirror, a chair, and shelf space. One shelf contained tea- and coffee-making supplies. There was a large window that opened onto the open section of Deck 5. The bathroom was quite small but it contained all the necessities and was well lit. Like the ships on the Norwegian coastal voyage, the bathroom had a heated floor. The shower was glass enclosed. I took a look in a regular cabin and noticed that the shower had a curtain rather than a glass door. Storage was sufficient for me but I wonder if it would be enough if two people occupied the suite. There was a modern flat-screen television but we were too far from land to receive news programmes. Movies included Rocky IV, Rocky V and The Da Vinci Code. Having read The Da Vinci Code some years ago and been numbed by its banality, I was not tempted to watch the movie. Like most passenger ships, Fram had artwork in the cabins and in public rooms. The prints in the cabin left me baffled. They were by a Greenland artist. Maybe they meant something to art-conscious Greenlanders but I was not the only passenger who was at a loss. The larger works were easier to relate to but their identification labels were at waist level rather than at eye level. And so the voyage continued. For much of the time, the ship sailed between 10 and 12 knots, occasionally exceeding 12 knots slightly and sometimes dropping to about 9.7 or 9.8 knots. The ship uses a light fuel which is possibly now mandatory in remote regions such as the Antarctic. The sea was comparatively calm for almost the whole voyage. Only for the first few days was there even a hint of rough seas, and it was an almost imperceptible hint. Days with sunshine far outnumbered days without sunshine. On the evening prior to our arrival at Buenos Aires, we picked up a pilot off Montevideo. The following morning, 31 October, we were due to dock at Buenos Aires at eight o'clock. However, strong winds prevented Fram and other ships from entering the harbour. We finally docked at the container terminal at six in the evening. I stayed aboard until the next morning, then took a taxi to the airport where I began the long flight back to Toronto. I am glad I made the voyage, but possibly I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a few days shorter. But that's a personal opinion.
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