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!
Although still chilly this morning, it is not the bone-chilling cold of yesterday as we pull into the harbor of Qaqortoq, on the southwestern coast of Greenland. This town is very small, but not as small as Paamiut. Fortunately, the sun is shining, as we have a hike planned along a lake, which lies just outside of town. The walk through town is charming and everyone seems to have flung open their doors to greet us (or maybe just the sunshine). We expected another cold day today, but we were shedding layers before we even started our walk/hike.
We’re pretty much at the far southwestern tip of Greenland, which was originally populated by the Saqqaq people about 4300 years ago. There are some records of habitation dating from the Dorset peoples of NE Canada about 2300 years ago. However, recorded history dates back to the first Norse settlements established in the late 10th Century A.D., especially around the Hvalsey settlement, which is about 19 kilometers (12 miles) to the NE of Qaqortoq. However, for whatever reasons, those settlements died out in the 15th Century, and the current habitation dates only to 1774, when a Danish-Norwegian trader named Anders Olsen established a trading post here, originally called Julianehåb (Juliane’s Hope) after the Danish queen. Fast forward to the present day when we find Greenland a semi-autonomous state, still largely dependent on Denmark for trading and funding. The main industries are fishing and seal-hunting, and Denmark purchases about 60% of the economic output of this isolated town of just of over 3,000 people. Sadly, like in Paamiut, it appears most of the tourist souvenirs appear to be sealskin products. Sad!
With that, we were happy to proceed to our walk in the outskirts of town! The hills ringing the town appear to be a combination of granitic and basaltic stones, on which lichens and mosses appear to be struggling to survive. There are no trees here, but, upon closer inspection, you notice a whole alpine-like ecosystem covering the hills. There are tiny streams everywhere, and furzes and heathers cover the rocky ground, punctuated by tiny wildflowers and wild berries including Icelandic blueberries and cow berries. The hills are open to anyone who desires to gather them and they are all ripening now. Because the day is so still and calm, the lake surface is like a mirror, which makes for some great photography! Jim and I walked about six miles in total along the rocky lakeside path, winding up back in town. We sampled one local beer at the local tavern, and then headed back for the ship.
Once again, we are blessed with a beautiful sail away. It’s even warm enough that Jim strips down a shorts and flip flops, even though we can see little icebergs bobbing in the bay.
But, first, a lovely parting gift from Qaqortoq … as Jim and I were having a cocktail standing at the balcony of our cabin, a juvenile humpback whale surfaced right below us, and spouted off. What a fun send off!
Juvenile Humpback surfacing right under our balcony
Tomorrow, we are looking forward to a day-long transit of Prinz Kristian Sound; a deep fjord system that bisects the lower tip of Greenland from its southernmost Cape Farewell archipelago.
I LOVE Montreal! It has all of the charm of Paris (and the excellent restaurants), with none of the attitude.
Jim and I arrived yesterday afternoon, and as soon as we dropped off our stuff at our hotel (and I changed into my Trump apology T-shirt), we set off to explore. We are staying at the Marriott Springfield Suites in the old quarter, right off one of the main streets, Rue Saint-Paul.
We headed down to the waterfront (to the area called the quays—Pronounced “keys”) to see if we could find out where the cruise ship terminal is located. Mission accomplished, we gazed across the harbor at the site of an early futuristic public housing project, which is still very architecturally striking decades later.
As we walk along the waterfront, I am reminded what a livable city this is (at least in the summer). There is a public bike rental program, and there were numerous cyclists along with the walkers. We also walked over to locate the site of our restaurant for tonight.
Chores accomplished, we headed back up into the heart of the old quarter to one of our favorite streets here; Rue Jacques Cartier. This is a wide pedestrian street/plaza lined with open air cafes and street vendors, which runs from the stately Court of Appeal all the way down to the harbor.
We were fortunate to stumble into a great rooftop bar called la Perché (accessed off an alley behind the restaurant Maggie Oakes). The views were fabulous, and the breeze was heavenly!
After our aperitif, we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. Our reservations this evening are at Gibby’s, a local white-tablecloth gem of a place specializing in steak and fresh seafood. When Jim and I were here before, we celebrated my birthday with Beautiful Nova Scotia lobsters, and we were eager to repeat the experience. Our memories did not disappoint, and the ambience of this place is really great since it is located in an ancient stone building, which was originally part of the harbor fortifications.
Replete and happy, we headed back to the room. Along the way we stumbled on a huge public light and music show down by the harbor and we detoured to see it. Wow!
This morning, we awoke to rainy skies, about 6 hours ahead of time. No matter, we waterproofed ourselves and headed out. Even though our hotel includes breakfast, I was craving a decent latte, and we found another great restaurant called Great Eggspectations. We also walked about some more and detoured by the Place de Arms to look on the stately Notre Dame Cathedral.
Then it was time to head to the ship, the Regent Navigator. As I write this, I am sitting here with a glass of champange looking city-ward from the ship. Sail with us as the Gringos make port tomorrow in old Quebec!
This morning we beat feet to the south, with an ultimate destination of the K Club in Kildare, just south of Dublin. However, our first stop for the day in just outside of Drogheda, to see the Unesco World Heritage Site of Newgrange–the location of a trio of immense Neolithic passage tombs. This historical site is known as Brú na Bóinne in the local Gaelic, and is located back in the Irish Republic along the Boyne River in County Meath. It is comprised of three different historical ruins, which are called Knowth, Dowth, and Newgrange.
Newgrange is the oldest site and was constructed about in about 3200 B.C. (5200 years ago). The Knowth and Dowth sites are a little newer, but all of them were constructed before the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and before Stonehenge in England. The passage tombs are large domed circular structures with an earthen roof built over internal stones lined up to create a passage to an internal chamber in which the cremated remains of ancestors could be laid until sunlight from the winter solstice crept down the 21 yard passage and lighted stone bowls in which the cremated remains were kept. In this way, the Neolithic people believed the souls of the dead were transported to the afterlife. Around the outside of each tomb is a collar of “kerb stones”, which are decorated with patterned carvings. Even now, over 5,000 years later, the sun still reaches the inner chamber at dawn on the winter solstice, and over 30,000 people sign up for a lottery each year which determines the lucky few able to witness this phenomenon in person. It being Ireland, though, and her highly fickle weather; even if you win the lottery, you might not see the sun that day!
All of the sites are accessed from the Visitors’ Center via small busses, but you have to buy a ticket to each site. Since access is controlled, you are given a timed ticket to access each site. Sadly, the tickets for Newgrange were sold out until 1:00 this afternoon (it was only about 10:00 when we arrived), so we elected to go to the Knowth site instead. But first, we learned more about these Neolithic people in the Visitors’ Center, which has exhibits based on their food, dress, and village structures, as well as two replica inner chambers: the one at Newgrange, and the entrance to Knowth.
As we went out to the Knowth site, we were fortunate to meet up with a docent who was just beginning a lecture about the Knowth site. As I mentioned earlier, it was built later than Newgrange, having been constructed between about 2500-2000 B.C., so it is still older than The Great Pyramid at Giza. However, unlike the Newgrange site, this passage tomb was constructed with an east and west entrance which allowed the sun to enter on the equinoxes in spring and summer. Sadly, because the Knowth site was later used for settlement through the Middle Ages, and the later inhabitants constructed a hill fort and subterranean structures which may have been used as passages or for storage, the two passages no longer align for sunlight to enter on the equinoxes.
The Knowth passage tomb site is the largest of the three tombs, and is surrounded by 17 satellite tombs. It also has the largest collection of kerb stones encircling it, although some are missing and others damaged. However, outside the eastern entrance is a timber circle (think Stonehenge in wood), which is believed to have been constructed in the late Neolithic or early Iron Age (starting bout 2200-2000 B.C.), and the central tomb was believed to have already been in disuse by that time. As mentioned above, the site was abandoned and repurposed for human habitation beginning in the late Iron Age/early Christian period.
The kerb stones have really simple, but pretty carvings on them, and are more varied than those at Newgrange. Interestingly, one of the most common patterns is that of a spiral, which we have seen in other cultures (notably the Incan and Mayan), as well as some other cultures where it depicts the Earth Mother, and fertility or the circle of Life. One other interesting fact about these stones is that they were originally installed with the carving facing inward, in a style known as “hidden art”. Upon closer inspection, we could also see numerous “sand martins” (we call them bank sparrows in America), who had built nests in the grass edge right above the kerb stones.
We also climbed to the top of the tomb, from which you could see all over the Boyne Valley. You could also see the Newgrange site in the distance, as well as the ruins of Mellifont Abbey, which was established by the Cistercians. Weren’t they just the busy little religious order?!!!!
We then decided to beat feet directly to the K Club in Kildare, as our lodgings have been upgraded, so we will be staying in the mansion known as Straffan House, located on the property. Sadly, we will also be bidding farewell to Dermott, but after nearly two weeks with all of us, I imagine he’ll be glad to sleep in his own bed and reacquaint himself with his wife!
We were treated like royalty upon arrival and driven to the remote property where Straffan House is located. The house is the private resident of Sir Smurfit, and was designed to look like the original Straffan House, which became the Kildare Hotel, now known as the K Club. The Smurfits were among the original founders of the K Club, and now own it outright. The new Straffan House is now available for lease to large groups at an astronomical cost, but I guess when it wasn’t rented (or being used by the Smurfit family), it serves as a kind of overflow accommodations.This is what greeted us as we arrived.
I had stayed at the K Club about 10 years ago on a business trip to meet with my company’s London and Irish insurance brokers, and I had treasured my memories of this grand old place. As you can see, Straffan House is a complete luxury showcase, complete with its own butler (named Patrick), movie theatre, gym, spa and pool, and golf carts provided for getting around the property. However, this is when reality set in.
I will preface these comments by saying that I am about to whine about what are clearly “FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS”, and I recognize that (and gave some thought to not mentioning any of this, but decided to leave you readers with an accurate account of our good stroke of fortune turned bad). After Patrick showed us to our rooms, we noticed that the rooms themselves, although nice, were certainly nothing to write home about, and ours was about as modest as my nephew’s room back home. More importantly, some of the rooms had no ensuite bathroom, and none of the bedrooms had air-conditioning. The whole house was about as hot as a sauna when we arrived, and although the pool room and gym downstairs apparently had air conditioning; since it was not working, those amenities were unusable. We had been told that whatever we wished in terms of food or drink could be provided at the house by merely letting Patrick know. The problem was that management had not authorized Patrick to do this and had not provisioned the house. Since the main hotel property is about 7-9 minutes away by car (and about 10 minutes directly across one of the golf courses by golf cart), that left us having to drive the carts to get anything we wanted or waiting forever for someone to come from the main hotel to drive us.
Since Jim and I wanted a cocktail after we settled in to celebrate the last night of the trip, we took 1 of the carts over to the main hotel. While that we cool (and we even saw a bunny playing on the greens), when we were ready to back to house to join our group for dinner, we got trapped at the main hotel by a huge thunderstorm deluge, and then had to wait some time to get back to Straffan House, and the vans had to make two trips to ferry us all to dinner.
The crowning blow came the next morning, though. After arising early (after having sweated my way through the night because of no air conditioning and humidity outside) so we could eat breakfast and then leave for the airport, the chef who was supposed to show up and bring provisions and cook breakfast never arrived. Calls by Patrick to the main hotel didn’t produce any results, so Patrick found us a couple of tubs of yogurt and some fruit (probably his), and we had to leave. The conclusion was inescapable: we would have been better off staying in the main hotel.
While this was a less than stellar end to a great trip, Jim and I will still look back on our trip to Ireland as a wonderful exposure to a great company, and especially, its warm and welcoming people. Stay tuned, as our next adventure (starting in August) all take us through the Canadian Maritime provinces and on to, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Thanks for reading along!