Our April cruise across the Atlantic Ocean was like a crazy roller-coaster ride.
We rode through unseasonable winter storms as we crossed the Atlantic on a cruise ship that departed from New York harbor.
What a contrast in weather when we reached France after several excursions in the Canadian Maritimes and Ireland: The weather turned mild and sunny. It stayed sunny when we de-boarded the ship in London, and during our ground tour there.
But the sunshine that greeted us in Paris did little to allay the dampened spirits of many Parisians just a few days after Notre Dame cathedral was gutted by fire.
The trip was sponsored by the University of Kansas Alumni “Flying Jayhawks” and a score of other college alumni travel groups. They joined an eclectic group of passengers on the Oceania mid-sized ship, the Marina. The ship’s 1,200 passengers were from 140 countries, 899 of them were from the U.S.
For me, the cruise was also a time to bond with family members. My younger brother, John, and I flew to New York, where we joined older brother Bill and his wife Pat, former Arkansas City residents who now live in Denver, to begin our trip adventure.
New York departure
The Statue of Liberty wept cold tears as we viewed it from our cruise ship departing from New York harbor.
Or so it seemed as my brother, John, and I looked out from the Horizons Deck — a deck enclosed on three sides with floor-to-ceiling picture windows.
The windows were dripping with rain as I took photos of Lady Liberty.
It was a cold, rainy day in Manhattan. As our bus transported us through the city’s narrow streets to the harbor, I scanned a diverse group of pedestrians walking along the sidewalks and crosswalks. They had pulled up their coat collars and opened umbrellas to shelter themselves from the rain.
We didn’t know it then, but the unseasonably cold April weather would dog us for much of our two-week cruise across the Atlantic. In fact, four days after we left New York harbor it started to snow on the open decks of the Marina.
Snow on the cruise ship was a rare event.
From the ship’s coffee shop windows the next morning, I spotted deck hands shoveling up to a foot of snow off the open decks. Many were from Southeast Asia and had never seen snow. During brief work breaks, they took selfies with snow as a backdrop.
The open decks were closed to passengers during most of our voyage.
The weather turned uglier after our first two port stops, at the Canadian Maritime cities of Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. My brothers and sister-in-law and I braved the cold to see these places; we were first-time tourists to the Maritimes.
It stayed cold and wet when we arrived in Ireland, and the winds whipped up driving the rain into our faces. After a day in a town near Cork, we were to stop in Dublin.
But the captain said Dublin port was closed because of gale-force winds. It was the second port stop he canceled; several days earlier we skipped going to Newfoundland.
Toward the end of the cruise, the weather changed to sunny, with temperatures in the 70s at two stops in France. But sad news awaited us a few days before a Paris excursion; Notre Dame Cathedral was nearly destroyed by fire.
We also had good weather in London during our post-cruise excursions there.
Mont St.Michel; Paris
A few days after a fire gutted Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and firefighters continued working to save it, we visited Mont St. Michel in Normandy.
Tenders brought us from the ship to Saint Malo in Brittany. There we boarded a bus for an hour’s drive east to St. Michel across the Normandy border.
Like Notre Dame, Mont St. Michel is an architectural wonder built in medieval times as a place of worship. The structure was built over the course of several centuries and incorporates both Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.
The monastery sits atop a steep cone of granite — 262 feet high — on a small island on the tip of Cotentin Peninsula. Atop the monastery church’s steeple is a golden figure of St. Michael the Archangel, the church’s patron saint. It rises more than 500 feet above ground.
The granite mountain of St. Michel rests on sand banks where the daily tides can change as much as 4 to 6 feet, according to a written description of our excursion. At high tide, the abbey and church often seem to be floating in the sea.
It has a mystical appearance as is seen in photographs taken of it at different times of the day and in different weather and tidal conditions, particularly at sunset or when it is enveloped in fog.
We climbed up a steep path with steps leading to the monastery. One path leads through a village with restaurants and shops, but our guide took us up the back side, which was less crowded with tourists. On the way down, we made our way through a dense crowd of people on a narrow path through the village.
Our guide noted that Mont St. Michel’s history is rich and complex. The English and French fought over it for several centuries. But after the Hundred Years’ War ended in the mid-1400s, it was in French hands for good.
The Christian story of the mountain begins in 708 when a bishop named Aubert built a sanctuary dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, after the saint appeared to him three times in dreams.
In 966, Benedictine monks arrived on the mountain and the sanctuary became an abbey. The monks launched the construction of a sanctuary comprising two churches. In 1023, construction of a new church began. In 1228, the cloister, the pinnacle of the mountain, was completed.
Over the centuries, many pilgrims including kings have visited Mont St. Michel, our guide said. But during the 15th and 16th centuries, and again after the French Revolution of the late 18th century, French authorities made Mont St. Michel into a prison. Finally, in the mid-1800s, monks returned to the mountain.
Our guide said about 2 million tourists per year visit Mont St. Michel and that a small religious community of 15 to 20 nuns and friars live there.
We saw several monks working a pulley to lift supplies up the mountain during our visit.
In addition to the beauty of Mont St. Michel’s natural setting — and its amazing architecture — the monastery’s durability over many centuries gave me hope for Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
Though the whirlwind bus tour of Paris the next day was not a trip highlight for me — I had visited Paris before — I did sense the sadness of the people there over the potential loss of the cathedral.
But Mont St. Michel has survived a dozen fires and four earthquakes, according to a guidebook I bought. And I’m of the opinion that France’s other medieval treasure, Notre Dame, will be rebuilt and also survive far into the future.
About a half dozen of us KU alums took part of a two-day, post-cruise tour of London.
My relatives and I had an excellent day guide, Marian, whom I had met on another European cruise in 2012. She was a great storyteller with a sense of humor. For me, having her as a guide was like a reunion with a friend. During the previous tour, she had been the alumni groups’ coordinator on the cruise ship.
“I know you,” I said as she waited outside the bus for all her tourists to board. She hid her face and said, jokingly, “I know, I’m trying to forget.”
Of course, London has numerous attractions that can keep tourists busy for a week or more. But it is impossible to do everything in two days. Our main stops were the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and a walk behind Buckingham Palace where we viewed the queen’s soldiers riding on horseback.
The Tower of London was packed with tourists and I spent more than an hour in line to see the crown jewels; even with a moving floor that limited tourists’ time to look at all the treasures, doing that tour was a big time drain. My brothers and sister-in-law did not join me; they looked at ancient military equipment, including knights’ armor, in another building on the huge Tower campus, where executions took place centuries ago.
Kings and queens have been crowned and buried in Westminster Abbey since 1066. William the Conquerer was crowned there, as was Britain’s current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Many Royal weddings have taken place there, also.
Marian noted as we entered the north aisle of the Lady Chapel that, ironically, Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary — divided by the Protestant Reformation — are both buried in close proximity to each other.
At the east end of the north aisle is where an urn thought to contain the remains King Richard III’s 13- and 9-year-old nephews. The princes’ remains were found beneath a staircase in the Tower of London in 1674. Richard III is said to have had the princes killed.
We were not allowed to take photos inside the abbey, but for me, walking through it brings a lot of history alive. In addition to monarchs, it is the burial place of many famous scientists, poets, novelists, musicians, and actors.
My brothers and I finally did get a taste of Ireland — in London. We visited an Irish pub within walking distance of Covent Garden, where we took an hour’s break. Marian pointed it out to us as one of her husband’s favorite pubs.
Highlights of stormy-weather destinations:
Saint John, New Brunswick
A bus from the Saint John, N.B., harbor transported us along the Bay of Fundy to the mouth of the Saint John River. There, we observed a phenomenon called the Reversing Falls Rapids.
The story of that phenomenon goes back 20,000 years, our day guide told us, when the last continental glaciation reached its maximum. Glaciers covered all the Maritimes, changing the landscape as they retreated. They diverted the path of the Saint John River into the bay.
As sea levels rose and the river bed eroded, a series of waterfalls that had existed in the river for thousands of year were drowned. The river bottom drops about 82 feet at one point, she told us. At the bay’s high tide, the river reverses directions.
“The science behind this I don’t understand,” I told my brother Bill, who called it “the physics behind it.” We didn’t discuss it further. But it was interesting to watch the churning water, even though high tide was hours away.
On the way to the scene near the confluence of the two bodies of water, our day guide noted that, on June 24, 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited the site of Saint John and named it for St. John the Baptist, whose feast was that day. It became Canada’s oldest incorporated city in 1785; English loyalists, refugees from the American Revolution, established it as a major settlement.
But the Micmac and Maliseet peoples lived in the region thousands of years before Champlain arrived on the scene.
Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia
Ann, our guide the next day after docking at Halifax, wore a tartan skirt, displaying the pride she held for her native province of Nova Scotia. Its name, she noted, means “New Scotland.”
She told us we were the first tour ship of the season to arrive at Halifax.
Ann accompanied us as the tour bus left the bustling city of Halifax, population 430,000. The bus maneuvered through slick roads, offering us views of soggy countryside, as the cold rain fell.
We headed to a lovely fishing village called Peggy’s Cove, a favorite spot for artists and photographers for generations. It is a quaint fishing village with colorful houses and well-worn fishing boats. Much of the craggy cove’s ground consists of granite-gray and white rocks that were formed from an eruption of molten material from the floor of the ocean millions of years ago.
Anchoring the cove, perched on a rock ledge, is an iconic lighthouse dating back to the late 1800s. A storm destroyed the original wooden structure and it was rebuilt in 1914.
When we arrived at the village, we were pleased to be offered respite from the cold in a restaurant-gift shop. There, we were treated with dessert plates of gingerbread topped with ice cream. We warmed up drinking hot tea or coffee.
Before venturing outside to take pictures of the remarkable landscape and structures, I bought a book in the gift shop by the late artist-sculptor W.E. deGarthe. On one of the early pages of the book, he depicts in a drawing and story, the Micmac people. Two Micmacs glide by canoe along the shores St. Margaret’s Bay. “How they must have enjoyed the singular beauty and peacefulness of this ‘Pearl of the Atlantic,’” he writes.
Born in Finland, deGarthe immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1926, where he lived and worked at Peggy’s Cove for several decades before his death in 1983. He produced many drawings and paintings of the village and fishing scenes.
On our way out of the village before we returned by bus to the ship, we stopped at deGarthe’s famed 32-figure sculpture, a monument to the fishermen carved into a granite wall by deGarthe.
Cork, Ireland, countryside
We set out from the Port of Cobh, outside the city of Cork, on our first and only excursion in Ireland.
My brother Bill and his wife Pat expressed their disappointment that the next day’s planned stop at Dublin had been canceled by the captain because of bad weather. So was I, though I had been to Dublin on two previous occasions.
Our day guide for the Cork excursion was amazingly cheerful despite the cold, wet and windy weather. She noted, however, that today’s frigid weather was colder than it typically gets in winter there.
We passed a dilapidated medieval castle perched at the side of a body of water. It was threatened by overhanging tree limbs from a nearby cliff. Our guide said it was to be restored for 5 million euros by the Wilson family.
As we approached our only stop on the excursion, in the fishing town of Kinsale, uniformed rugby players looked impervious to the cold wind and rain as they sloshed their way across a field.
The bus took us to a hotel at the outskirts of the town, where we enjoyed tea and scones. Though we had the option to spend an hour or so walking into town, I and many others on the tour opted to stay in the hotel to shelter us from the bad weather. I did talk a few photos from a lookout and then got back on the bus that returned us to the ship.
At some point during the excursion, my brother Bill noted that our late mother’s maiden name is Stanton, and that both our maternal grandparents were descendants of emigrants to the U.S. from Ireland. The guide told us that many Stantons today live in Ireland’s County Mayo.
That bit of information about the home county of possible relatives made the excursion worth while for me, despite the bad weather. It was one of those “small world” revelations.