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.
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!
Yes, that’s the view that greeted us when we threw open the shades this morning as we sailed into the glacial bay in which the harbor of Paamiut is located. We appear to have lost our sunshine in Nuuk, and it’s a foggy, overcast morning here in Paamiut. Whereas Nuuk is the major city in Greenland, Paamiut is tiny; consisting of only about 1,500 inhabitants. In fact, there are only about 50 vehicles here!
We bundled up well, because it’s only 38 degrees outside, and there’s a light wind blowing, which intensifies the cold. Then we took the tender into the town for a short walking tour to get to know Paamiut. This tiny town was established in 1742, as a trading post by a Danish trader named Jacob Severin. The town was originally named Frederikshåb (Frederick’s Hope) after Crown Prince Frederick (later King Frederick V) of Norway. The town prospered mostly on fur and whale products. In the 1950s, it boomed following the cod fishing boom, and in the 1960s, the town was consolidated and a number of larger apartment blocks were built to lure people living around the town to come into the center to help in the cod fishing industry. However, when the cod fishery almost died out in the early 1990s, so did the town.
We were met at the docks by a local guide. She walked us around, and proudly pointed out all the buildings of importance in the town. One thing you notice right away is how many schools and activity centers there are for the youth. Our assumption is that they must be pretty heavily subsidized by the Danish government because there just isn’t that much industry of any kind here, and tourism is merely an afterthought. However, like in Nuut, all the buildings are painted bright cheery colors.
There is one building, in particular, of which the villagers are really proud. It is the local church, Fredenskirche, built in 1909 in the Norwegian Hansel and Gretel style. Looking at it, you could see where model for gingerbread houses comes from! The graveyard in the churchyard and a monument across the street memorialize fishermen lost at sea. There is also a replica of a traditional Greenlandic sod house. Also, exactly one supermarket, one grocery store, a café, one gift shop, and a couple of bars. Residents all seem to carry cell phones, but the ship has had no Internet since yesterday (sporadically), and there is nowhere in town to get WiFi. Having concluded our tour, we were happy to head back to the ship and thaw. Hopefully, there will be more warmth and sun tomorrow as we head south about 150 miles to Qaqortoq.
Today we are visiting the French territory of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. This territory is a small archipelago of islands laying about 12 miles to the south of Newfoundland in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River. Over the centuries, it has passed back and forth in ownership between England and France. However, for the last two centuries, it has been held by France, and the islanders consider themselves resolutely French. Indeed, when given the chance to become fully integrated with France, become a self-governing state within the French Community, or stay a territory of France; the islanders voted overwhelmingly to stay a territory.
I confess that having seen the island of Saint-Pierre, I am wondering why anyone would fight for ownership of this territory. Jim and I walked from the ship’s berth into the town and wandered around for about and hour. Fishing was the lure that originally led to the establishment of this colony, and remains the main industry today. However, the decline in cod stocks has seriously damaged this industry. The island had a brief shining moment in the 20th Century, when in the wake of Prohibition, Al Capone established a smuggling outpost here. In fact, so much liquor was smuggled through the island during Prohibition that at one point, the town was completely awash in wooden liquor cases, and one resident built a home out of them called the Cutty Sark house. The repeal of Prohibition hurled the town into recession, and it looks like it has barely recovered since then.
In the downtown area, we could see pictures of the place in winter, and it looks like an Inuit village in the Arctic. Definitely, not very inviting! Perhaps to stave off the depression those winter months must bring, many of the homes in town are painted lovely pastel colors. Today, the total population of Saint-Pierre hovers at about 5,500, and the tiny island of Iles aux Marins (Sailors’ Island) which lies just a few hundred yards off the port of Saint-Pierre is abandoned, with the sailors’ ghostly homes a reminder of years gone past.
Jim and I had been booked on an excursion to the island, but since the main activity was just wandering among the abandoned buildings, which would could see quite well from the ship’s deck, we opted to go back to the ship and take in the view from our balcony instead. Tonight we enjoyed a lovely view of the sun setting on Iles aux Marins as we sailed to our next port of call, St. John’s Newfoundland.
Yesterday was a much-appreciated day at sea, although we pretty much missed the entire eclipse.
Today, we had a change of schedule. We were originally scheduled to land at Prince Edward Island in the town of Charlottesville; home of the much-beloved Anne of Green Gables. I had really looked forward to mentally re-living those stories as we had AGG-centric tours scheduled. However, we can’t really complain about the rationale for the change. Apparently, it was necessitated by a new shipping law intended to protect the extremely endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. Scientists predict the remaining worldwide population of North Atlantic Right Whales may number as few as 400, and all previous conservation attempts to reverse their declining numbers have been unsuccessful. Therefore, as of August 11, 2017, all shipping traffic within a large area of the ocean around Prince Edward Island was ordered to reduce speeds to 10 MPH in order to minimize the danger of ship strikes to the whales. This change meant we were not able to get to PEI in time for our visit there, and still make the rest of the stops on our itinerary, so we diverted to Corner Brook on the west coast of Newfoundland instead.
There is a lot of cool stuff to know about Newfoundland. For one thing, the geology is so old, it predates the Rocky Mountains by hundreds of millions of years. It was originally inhabited over 9,000 years ago, and was discovered by Leif Eriksson about 1,000 AD. It was the first discovery of the North American territory by Europeans, and predated Columbus’ “discovery” by over 400 years. The whole of Greenland and Labrador was extensively explored and charted by Captain James Cook from 1763-1767. The island was settled by many different European settlers, but they all had one thing in common; they were drawn here by the incredibly rich fishing grounds in the Great Banks which are made possible by the Labrador current running down from Artic Canada and Greenland down the Labrador coast on the NE Canadian mainland and around most of the island of Newfoundland.
For our visit today, we are visiting the town of Corner Brook, which is located at the far eastern end of a deep bay lined with islands. In fact, Captain Cook named it the Bay of Islands; a name he liked so much that he reused it when he discovered New Zealand. Because the excursion staff was scrambling to come up with suitable outings for our nearly 500 guests in a small town which not part of our original itinerary, many of these last minute options involved bus trips for between 2 and 8 hours on school busses. Instead, Jim and I decided to explore some of the scenic walks in town.
We started off by hiking up a steep hill overlooking the town to visit the monument to Captain James Cook. The walk was quite a bit more rigorous than Jim or I had planned, but we were rewarded by some great views over the town and the bay. The other good outcome of the hike was that we met a really nice couple from Cambridge in England (Chris and Heather) and they hiked with us.
Then we were able to catch one of our tour busses back to the ship. I must say, the tourist bureau of Corner Brook was scrambling to give Saguenay a run for their money in the competition to be the “nicest port in Canada” (yes, that IS a thing here)! Everyone we met was exceptionally nice, with the prevailing language being English, spoken with what sounded like a kind of a rounded Irish accent.
Since I had been having trouble to get the photos for the blog to upload on the ship, we found a really nice coffee shop and café right next to the ship called Harbor Grounds, and I parked myself at one of their tables for most of the afternoon to upload photos and get a couple of blog posts published using their really good WiFi. After having a yummy raspberry lemonade, Jim ditched me to go out and enjoy laying by the pool on deck.
Having accomplished my mission, I dropped my computer back on the ship and caught the shuttle back to town so I could explore the highly touted walking path running through the center of town. It runs right next to a brook and originates at a large pond called Glynmill Pond. In all the reviews I had about it, they all mentioned bird life at the pond and featured pictures of swans. That was enough for me, so off I went. The walk was really great and shaded by forest. As you can see, the pond is really lovely and the big building at the end of the lake is the Glynmill Hotel, a local gem of a hotel, and still lovely. The swans were just the icing on the cake!
Tomorrow, we actually sail into France for a day (at least the French territory of Saint-Pierre et Michelon, which is a small archipelago of islands to the south of Newfoundland, and which is the last remaining French Territory in North America. Au revoir until tomorrow!
During last night’s sail, we took a detour off the St. Lawrence seaway into the Saguenay Fjord; a deep glacial fjord which has an intriguing mix of very rich cold tidal water flowing in from the Labrador current running through the St. Lawrence estuary, overlaid with a much thinner layer of fresh river water running into the fjord down the Saguenay River from Lac St. Jean. Since the fjord is open to the ocean, it has very abundant sea life, and whales follow that sea life up the fjord most of the way to Saguenay. Notably, the fjord is home to a small population of Beluga whales, which have probably populated the fjord since the last ice age. Sadly, this particular population is highly endangered, with only about 1,000 of them remaining. For this reason, the entire fjord area and some of the St. Lawrence estuary beyond has been named as a national marine park (with attendant restrictions on human interaction with the whales) in order to protect them. Overlaying the marine park is a national land park, stretching several miles inland from the shores of the fjord. This map generally shows the area we have entered.
Our activity du jour consists of a hike up into the national park in order to better see the fjord. However, since that didn’t happen until later this afternoon, Jim and I had time to walk into town and wander around. One thing you notice immediately is how many greeters are on hand to welcome you to the Saguenay region. All the greeters are volunteers, and there are about 50 of them that spring into action every time a cruise ship comes into town. As we later learned from our guide, tourism is now the number one industry here, although historically, the town was originally a huge logging and lumber/paper/pulp processing area. More recently (and still), the town is also home to a large aluminum smelting operation, which is crazy when you consider that bauxite does not naturally occur here, thus requiring it to be shipped in constantly. This enterprise only makes sense financially because of the abundance of cheap Canadian power, which is made possible by the numerous dams creating hydropower.
The guide was quick to tell us that the Saguenay region sees tourists for all four seasons, which seems hard to believe, given how remote it is (about 3 hours by car from Québec in the best of conditions), and that the town regularly gets 9 meters of snow, while the surrounding hills routinely get 30 meters! Apparently, ice fishing is also a big winter sport, but with temperatures that get down to minus 40 degrees every winter, the prospective charm of this is lost on us.
Jim and I wandered around town, and visited a local craft market. Then we hiked up to the upper elevations of the town to get the best views of the fjord, and returned to the ship through the lovely seaside park. There were numerous cafés with outside seating, but all I could think of was the snow accumulations soon to come.
We boarded school busses for our tour out to the Fjord du Saguenay National Park. There, a park ranger met us, and led us on a hike up a very rustic path, climbing about 200 meters up to a lookout overlooking Cape Trinity inlet. The Park is home to abundant wildlife, including moose, beavers, marmots, foxes, snowshoe hares, lynx, grey wolves and black bears. However, we saw none of them, but enjoyed a very fragrant hike through the woods nonetheless!
Upon our descent, it was time to beat feet back to the ship, because tonight was “Block Party” night aboard. This means that everyone gathers in the hallways outside their bedrooms to meet their neighbors, while the ship staff passed wine and appetizers. It was really nice meeting our cabin mates, and we learned that several of them are also from Southern California.
Then Jim and I went up to the top bow of the ship to watch the sunset cruise out the fjord. I was fortunate to catch a carved statue of the Virgin Mary high atop the entrance to Cape Trinity just as we lost the light. We ended the day with a lively dinner with a British couple we met earlier on the hike, Rob and Sarah, which made for a really special cap to a super day.