After another rough and stormy day at sea, we made port in Ålesund on the west coast of Norway this morning at dawn. Most of the towns on the west coast of Norway are in protected harbors, usually at the back of a long fjord. In the case of Ålesund, it is on a peninsula and sheltered by a curved bay at the entrance of the Geirangerfjord. The town of Ålesund is probably best known for its amazing collection of Nordic Art Nouveau buildings, all of which were made possible in the downtown core by a huge fire in 1904 which leveled that area.
However, our explorations today will take us away from the town, as we head inland to see some of the natural beauty of this area and experience the famous switchback highway known as the Trollstigen (or Trolls’ ladder). Trolls are a big time part of Norway’s cultural history and identity, and we were regaled with troll legends all along our drive.
Our drive meanders along the Storfjorden, and offers some spectacular views of crystal calm water topped by rising billows of fog. There are scattered farms along the fjord, making the drive very picturesque.
After we turn inland along Hwy. 63 up the Valldolen (Valldol valley), we made a short stop to see one of the many waterfalls in this part of the country. Sadly, I didn’t catch the name of this one, but it made for a pretty hike.
Finally, we started our climb to the famous Trollstigen from the backside. Although the roads getting up here wind us through some lovely forested scenery, they are not nearly so full of switchbacks as the Trollstigen itself. When we reached the summit of the road, we got out at the visitors’ center to hike out to the scenic outlooks over this crazy road. I think all of us heaved a big gulp when we realized we would be driving down that road in a huge touring bus!!! Nonetheless, there were some truly spectacular views!
Driving down the hairpin road, we had to make a sudden stop because we had a “sheepocalypse”! Out tour guide got off the buss to try to herd the sheep off the road. Just when we thought she had succeeded, two of the overgrown lambs decided it was time to nurse, and they tackled the mama sheep. Finally, with order restored, we drove on!
After an entirely forgettable lunch at a roadside restaurant, featuring fish (what else) and festooned with trolls, we drove back to Ålesund. We arrived back too late to do any sightseeing in town, but we did get to drive through and gaze at some of the Art Nouveau buildings before getting back on the ship. Tomorrow, Bergen!
After a fairly rough day at sea yesterday, we have landed in the Faroe Islands. Upon our departure from Iceland, we again crossed the Arctic Circle after we left Akureyri (for which we have received duly signed certificates), and sailed further eastward. Jim and I tried again to see the Northern Lights, but bad weather again prevented us. Current Score: Lights-2; Jim and Stacy-0.
This morning we have docked in glorious sunshine, albeit with a wind blowing about 35 knots.
I have managed to come down with a cold, so I missed this morning’s sightseeing tour. Therefore, most of these pictures are Jim’s. He took a scenic drive which gave him some amazing panoramic views of the harbor, and countryside of Tórshavn.
Jim came back for lunch aboard, and then we took the shuttle into town to walk around. From everything we can see, this is an incredibly prosperous island, one of 14 islands in the Faroe archipelago, which are a dependency of Denmark. The main industry here is said to be fishing, but the town looks too rich for that.
The early history of the Faroe Islands is somewhat unclear. According to Wikipedia, “It is possible that Brendan, an Irish monk, sailed past the islands during his North Atlantic voyage in the 6th century. He saw an ‘Island of Sheep’ and a ‘Paradise of Birds,’ which some say could be the Faroes with its dense bird population and sheep. This does suggest however that other sailors had got there before him, to bring the sheep. Norsemen settled the Faroe Islands in the 9th century or 10th century. The islands were officially converted to Christianity around the year 1000, and became a part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1035. Norwegian rule on the islands continued until 1380, when the islands became part of the dual Denmark–Norway kingdom, under king Olaf II of Denmark.”
Following the 1814 Treaty of Kiel that ended the dual Denmark–Norway kingdom, the Faroe Islands remained under the administration of Denmark as a county. During World War II, after Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, the British invaded and occupied the Faroe Islands until shortly after the end of the war. Following an independence referendum in 1946 (which was unrecognized by Denmark), the Faroe Islands were given extended self-governance with the Danish Realm in 1948 with the signing of the Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands.” Today, they seem to function as a Danish depency with some limited self governance. Speaking of that, this is another place which developed early traditions of democratic governance.
Like Iceland, The Faroe Islands established a parliament called the Tinganes in Tórshavn between 800-900 AD, and like the Althing in Iceland, was open to all men and was a place where laws were made and disputes settled. Although it was disbanded during norse and Danish rule, the important representative Faroese ministers still work in the Tiganes buildings dating back to at least the 1600s.
Once of the most charming features of Iceland is the use of sod-covered homes. Instead of mowing the roof, if the grass gets too long, every once and a while, the Faroese just put a goat on the roof. Jim and I wandered around the harbor and into the old town area for a bit, but then returned to the ship. Regrettably, as this is still a country which hunts whales, and mindful of my friend, Chris’, admonitions; I wasn’t inclined to support the local economy by shopping.
Well, we got skunked last night on our attempt to see the Northern Lights. After dinner, Jim and I raced upstairs to see if we could see the lights. We threw open the drapes in our room to gauge the weather conditions and saw … FOG. Thick and complete fog. Drat.
Nonetheless, we awoke this morning excited for today’s adventures here in the northeastern part of Iceland. As the sun rose this morning, we watched as we sailed into yet another gorgeous Icelandic fjord. This town is quite a bit bigger than Isafjordur, and is in fact, Iceland’s second largest town, Akureyri. We are in the northeast part of the island, and will travel both inland and to another fjord today.
One cute note about Akureyri as we drive out of town. In 2010, after the Icelanders had been dealing with the depressing effects of the economic downturn, the town fathers came up with an idea to have a special day of civic cheer in which they would think of a bunch of ideas to do things just to make people smile for a day. One of their better ideas was replacing the standard red light on a traffic signal with a red heart. It was such a popular idea, that now all the traffic signals in Akureyri sport these cute red lights.
Our travels this morning take us inland to see some incredible waterfalls. In fact, we will travel to one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Godafoss. The name, Godafoss, means “waterfall of the Gods”. Legend has it that Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, one of the Icelandic chieftains, and the equivalent of the speaker of the Icelandic parliament (Althing) decreed in the year 999 or 1000 AD that Iceland should convert to Christianity. Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, who was himself a pagan priest at that time, had debated the switch to Christianity with the other chieftains at the Althing, but the vote was pretty much split down the middle, so he went off to meditate under a fur blanket for a day and night, and when he came back, he pronounced that he had been told to convert Iceland. He did this in spectacular fashion by throwing all his pagan articles of practice (dolls and runes and such) into the huge waterfall, which became known as Godafoss.
We drove for about an hour into the interior of Iceland, and saw some beautiful countryside crisscrossed by streams and rivers running through fields dotted with sheep. We didn’t know it, but this is prime fly fishing area, with many anglers coming to fish for both the large ocean-going trout and salmon.
I kept looking for a mountain range from which a great waterfall could fall, so it was with great surprise that I caught a glimpse of the waterfall almost hidden in a deep gorge.
We hiked along the path and down into the gorge to get these photos. As we hiked back up, we were lucky enough to have a rainbow form in the mist and sunlight atop the waterfall. Wow!
From here, it was on to the seaside town of Húsavík; the self-proclaimed whale-watching capital of Europe. We visited the whale museum (really cool exhibits and skeletons of various whales, except for the horrible smell), and ate lunch at a local restaurant.
Then it was off to get suited up in toe to head waterproof coveralls for our whale watching trip. It was a glorious day for a boat ride, even if a bit cold. However, with the sun beating down, it wasn’t long until we were all thinking of ditching our weatherproof gear. It would have to wait however, as we finally sighted a humpback whale, which we monitored as it grazed and spouted. Chris Brady: I’m waiting for you and Chelsea to identify this guy by his tale flukes!
Double bonus: as I was editing these photos, it became apparent that we had seen not one; but two whales, which could be distinguished by their separate “blows”. I’m guessing from the size and positioning, it was probably a baby swimming alongside mommy. The whales made for a perfect cap to the day!
Then it was time to head back for Akureyri, which we made just in time to cast off lines for our next port, Tórshavn, in the Faroe Islands day after tomorrow.
Overnight we sailed from Reykjavik up to the northwest of Iceland to an area known as the Westfjordlands. We are docked this morning in the town of Isafjordur, which is the administrative capital of this area. Towering mountains ring the glacial bay, and it is just a beautiful vista in all directions!
Jim and I started the day off with a short walk into town, and were immediately charmed by all the old houses immaculately restored in the town center. This is a very sparsely populated areaof Iceland, but its beauty draws visitors from all over Iceland and further afield. Many families still maintain “summer houses” on the grounds of their old family farms, and return annually to visit in the (relatively) warmer months of summer. However, by this time of year, most people have locked up for the winter and returned to the cities.
To get to our first stop, Skrúdar, we must first drive through a long (5km.) tunnel bored right through the middle of a mountain separating this fjord valley from the next. The tunnel, Vestfjarôagöng, was completed in 1996, and is a crazy feat of engineering. For one thing, there is an intersection midway through the tunnel to access yet another fjord going off at about a 90 degree angle to our direction of travel. Further, the tunnel decreases to a single lane after the intersection, with multiple pull outs along the side. Apparently, the engineers figured that with such sparse traffic, they could save money by only building one lane. However, because the pull outs could not be excavated by the boring machine, they had to be manually excavated by miners, which caused the total cost of that section of the tunnel to exceed the cost of building two lanes. Ruh roh! This may have been the most exciting experience of the day!
Next we came upon Skrúdar, which was built in 1909 by a local pastor, Reverend Sigtryggur Guölaugsson, as a means of teaching local residents about healthful plants and fruits they could add to their diets. It must have worked because he lived to the ripe old age of 97! Truthfully, this is a rather unremarkable botanic garden, even if it is the oldest one in Iceland. Its location at the head of another glacial bay was a beautiful stop, though.
Our next and final stop was in the town of Flateyri. This tiny town lies at the tip of another fjord, and was once the shark fishing center of Iceland. Why, you might ask, fish for shark when there are so many other plentiful and popular fisheries in Iceland?! The answer is that one of the most iconic (and disgusting) national foods is a marinated (read: “rotten”) shark snack called Kæstur hákarl. Jim and I managed to avoid this “delicacy”, but some of the other members of our cruise were not so fortunate.
Therefore, it was with some trepidation that we learned that we were to enjoy a coffee and snack at a tiny cafe in Flateyri. Fortunately, the most challenging menu item was some cold-smoked salmon, which I was able to avoid, but Jim said was quite good. When faced with the cuisine of Iceland, which features other disgusting national traditions such as eating whale, I am grateful to be on a cruise ship where I can easily avoid such “temptations”!
The town of Flateyri has only about 210 people living there today. As we drove into town, which lies on a peninsula, you could see a huge V-shaped berm on the hillside above the town. The reason for this berm is that avalanches are a frequent fact of life everywhere in Iceland where steep volcanic slopes tower above the cities. Sadly, the town of Flayer was devastated as an avalanche in 1996 killed 20 (about 10% of the population) and destroyed most of the homes in the downtown area.
After we ate our snack, we visited the local church, where one of the youngsters in town sang us some traditional Icelandic songs. The group favorite was a lullaby about a mother who throws her baby into a waterfall, and is still sung to Icelandic babies today. On that cheerful note, we boarded the bus and drove back to Isafjordur.
Tonight, we will cross the Arctic Circle on our cruise to our next stop in the northeast of Iceland in another fjord called Akureyri. Our onboard naturalist defines the Arctic Circle as “The southern limit of the area where for one day or more each summer, the sun does not set or rise”, i.e., all land within the Arctic Circle experiences at least one day of midnight sun each year.” Jim and I are very excited as there is a chance we will be able to see the Northern Lights from this vantage point. Stay tuned!
This morning marks the official end of the first part of our cruise. So many of our cruise mates are leaving the ship, and new passengers are coming aboard. It also means we have to change cabins, albeit just to a cabin next door. Suffice it to say it was because we failed to book the second leg of this journey at the same time we booked the first. Enough said.
OK, Peeps! Hold on to your hats because Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule has hijacked the itinerary again today! We left the ship as soon as we docked and made for the Europe Car rental kiosk conveniently located right on the cruise quay. Car keys in hand, we made for the central city, which is walkable from the ship (probably about a mile), but we are on a short schedule today (largely due to Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule setting our itinerary). First stop: old town Reykjavik. We had about an hour and a half in the old town before we had to hit the road for the Blue Lagoon; our prime objective for the day.
But first, a small sampling of Icelandic history and culture!
Iceland was first inhabited by Ingólfar Arneson in 847 AD. Written history generally agrees that the area was first settled by Viking explorers and their slaves in the late 9th century (about 874), although there is archeological evidence that Gaelic monks settled the area at some time earlier in the 9th century. The seaside edges of the country were rapidly developed, mainly by Norwegians, after that.
Interestingly, Iceland was one of the very first countries to establish a representational form of government, known as Icelandic Commonwealth (or Old Commonwealth), and it held its first parliament (called the Althing) in 930. The Althing met annually until about 1262 at Lögberg, which is the site of the Althing in Thingvellir National Park. Today, the Althingi is the seat of Icelandic Parliament in Reyjkavik.
The history of Iceland is well known today because it was one of the first countries to record its country’s history in written books known as the Icelandic Sagas.
In 1262, following a period of internal strife known as the “Age of the Sturlungs”, which weakened Iceland, it became subjugated to Norway. In that year, it was brought under Norwegian Crown, under the “Old Covenant”. In 1319, Norway and Sweden United, and then in Denmark subjugated both in 1376. IN 1397, the Kalmar Union was formed under the leadership of Queen Margret of Denmark, and all four countries were united until 1523. Following that, Iceland fell under Danish rule, which remained the case for several centuries.
During this time, Iceland suffered as one of poorest countries in Europe, and frequent pandemics killed off large percentages of its population. Perhaps the worst natural calamity occurred in 1783, when the Lakagígar volcano erupted, which thoroughly disrupted life in Iceland and killed off virtually all agriculture. One in three Icelanders died as a result of this eruption and the poisonous air afterwards. The volcano is also credited with completely disrupting natural weather cycles and causing a cold period, further limiting crop production for several years. In the 19th century, 20% of the population emigrates to Canada to escape the cold which caused devastating crop losses.
Finally, in 1918, Iceland entered into a 25 year agreement with Denmark which recognizes Iceland as a sovereign state in personal union with Denmark, but it was disrupted by the outbreak of WWII.
In WWII, Iceland assumed control over its foreign affairs, and was “neutral” after Nazis invaded Denmark. In 1940, was occupied by British troops; after 1941, occupied by U.S. troops. In 1943 when the Danish Icelandic Union Agreement expired, there was a vote on future relations with Denmark, and the people voted to become an independent nation, which happened in 1944.
In 1994, Iceland joined the European Economic Area, but maintains its own currency; the Icelandic Kronúr. In 2001, the banks of Iceland were deregulated, and Iceland became (temporarily) one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Iceland moved towards an economy based on investment banking and financial services. However, the economic crash of 2008 caused the failure of all three major Icelandic banks, and economic depression and political unrest followed. Today, the economy is stabilizing and growing, although there was another temporary setback when the prime minister was forced to resign following the disclosure of his and his family’s offshore economic holdings following the publication of the “Panama Papers” a couple of years ago. Today, Iceland appears to be a very prosperous country once again, and construction cranes dot the skyline.
We drove into old town Reykjavik along the lovely seaside promenade, and past several interesting buildings and sculptures, and parked our car near the Settlers museum, in the beautiful embassy area. Jim and I wandered around in this area for about an hour and a half. I would have really liked to have had time to tour the settlement museum, but it was not open before we had to hit the road to drive to the Blue Lagoon, which is about 35 km from Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon has become such a popular destination that you must go online first to order your tickets which assures you a set entry time. To give you an idea how hard it is to get the tickets, I ordered ours online about six weeks before we would be arriving here, and the only options for entry times were at 8 a.m. or 12 p.m. Since the ship was not scheduled to land in Reykjavik until 8, we had to settle for the 12:00 tickets, which totally messed up our day from a logistical standpoint. However, it was still a great day.
The drive to the area where the Blue Lagoon is located is takes you through some amazing topography which looks like it is a recently exploded volcanic eruption. In this area of Iceland, you do not see the remaining icecaps, but today, there is a cold wind blowing across this bleak terrain. The Blue Lagoon is south and west of Reykjavik, and is very near the international airport. Actually, if you had a car and about two hours before you had to be at the airport, you could do this site as a detour on your way to your flight or immediately after you landed, assuming you had the forethought to order your tickets enough in advance.
Upon arrival, you are given a locker bracelet, which also operates as your charging device while in the baths. There is an extra charge for towels, robes and any other services. In short, this has got to be the best tourist trap in existence, since you are totally at the mercy of the site operator. Jim and I quickly changed and made our way out to the lagoon. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, except to say that we really appreciated the 90 degree waters after crossing the very cold deck from the changing rooms.
While you can spend all day at the Lagoon, and there are rooms for massages and facials, a couple of steam rooms, a restaurant and the like, Our Lady was a demanding mistress today, so we set off in the complete opposite direction up to the northeast of Reykjavik. Our ultimate destination was Thingvellir National Park, which offers two important features in addition to being just a lovely park for hiking and camping.
We were pleased to see the topography changed gradually to a more grassy and agricultural landscape, dotted with sheep and the famous Icelandic horses as we drove to the north. One thing Jim and I decided today is that we are only seeing a fraction of the beauty Iceland has to offer with our three planned stops here, and we will have to return in the near future to explore more thoroughly!
The first thing which drew us to Thingvellir park is that this is one of the few places on earth where you can actually see tectonic plates grinding together. In this case, it is a rift valley where the plates are ripping apart, actually pushing western Iceland towards Greenland at a rate of a few centimeters a year. As you arrive in the park, you walk down a crazy stone path that literally dives between these plates, and the park service obviously has some challenges just keeping a working pathway with all the geologic activity!
The other cool thing is that this is the site of where all 36 of the island’s Viking chieftains held their first Althing (general Assembly) in 930 AD. This annual parliament was held here for centuries, and attended by all of the 60,000 citizens of Iceland to declare laws and settle disputes. In the year 1,000, it was the place where Iceland decided to eschew pagan beliefs and adopt Christianity (albeit under threat of invasion from Norway). There is still a Lutheran church onsite with a pulpit which dates back to 1683.
Sadly, that was all we had time to explore, and so we made a mad dash back to Reykjavik to begin part 2 of the cruise. We’re looking forward to meeting some new shipmates, but we are left with a huge list of things to explore just in the Reykjavik area alone: The “golden circle” drive to Gullfoss waterfall and Geyser national park, Sellfoss waterfall, glacier tracking, the Inside the Volcano tour, a drive to Kirkjubaejarklaustur to see the basaltic columns, a sail down to Jökulsárlón lagoon where the icebergs rest, and Látrabjarg bird cliffs! Whew! Maybe we’d better make it two weeks!
Jim and I arose with the dawn on this, our last day in Greenland. And what a grand day it was! We bundled up to survive the cold wind off the glaciers, and rushed up on deck. At 7 this morning, we began our 7 hour passage through Prinz Kristian Sund (Prince Christian Sound), named for the late Prince, and later King of Denmark.
As Wikipedia says: “The Prince Christian Sound connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. It is around 100 km (60 miles) long and it is narrow, sometimes only 500 m (1500 ft) wide. There is only one settlement along this sound, Aappilattoq.
The long fjord system is mostly surrounded by steep mountains reaching over 1200 m height. Many glaciers going straight into its waters calving icebergs.”
Once again, we have been blessed with a glorious day for this passage. In fact, until last night, we were not even sure we were going to be able to do this part of our trip, as all the calving glaciers can create so much sea ice and glaciers that the passage can become unsafe, which happened to another ship just three weeks ago. While there is a possibility of seeing marine life, and animals on the surrounding slopes, the real show of the day is the topography itself. The steep walls of the main fjords and those that branch off from them are crowned with numerous glaciers, both hanging, and some reaching the sea. The water itself is a mix of saltwater overlaid with fresh water laying on top from the melting glaciers. Jim and I watched awestruck as we glided through this incredible fjord.
Jim and I have been fortunate enough to see both the Alaskan glaciers in the Bay of Glaciers and the Patagonian glaciers in Chile and Argentina. However, this is really a contender for the most awe-inspiring glacier cruise! To cap matters, the whole 100 kilometer channel is incredibly remote, with much of the passage blocked by ice most of the year. The only settlement of any size is the tiny town of Aappilattoq, which we passed about two hours into the transit. Waving goodbye to Aappilattoq, we allowed ourselves to go downstairs for breakfast. It was such a beautiful day, we actually ate outside with a prime view of the glaciers behind us.
In addition to the incredible views of the glaciers, there were also countless icebergs, and a constant wash of “sea brash” (the smaller iceberg pieces that litter the surface of the water. At one point, we all became very excited because we thought we saw a large seal sunning itself on an iceberg. However, it was just a bit of dirty ice caused by the terminal moraine at as the iceberg relentlessly ground itself down to the water and calved from its glacier. Darn! However, in my opinion, by far and away the best feature we saw was a glimpse into the massive Greenland ice sheet.
Finally, about 1:30, we exited fjord, and sailed out into the Irminger Sea. Our naturalist aboard, Dr. Michael Scott, had told us that this stretch to Iceland is some of the best whale watching area in the world, so we didn’t want to miss a minute. Jim and I took a break about 1:45 for a belated lunch. While we were eating on the stern veranda, sure enough, at least 25 whales passed by, spouting off like a calliope, but no photos as they were too far away (and my camera equipment was having a well-deserved nap).