Finally we have arrived in Iceland! The main reason we took this specific cruise was the trip through Iceland. This was one of our bucket list items. Akureyri is our first of three port stops in Iceland. Well our luck finally ran out today with the weather. All those sunny days caught up with us and we left the ship today in 40 degree temperatures with a steady heavy drizzle. We took a third party (i.e. not the cruise line’s) excursion and on the first stop the winds were gusting with the rain coming at us almost horizontally. (Note for tomorrow: jeans don’t dry very quickly when they get wet and it is amazing how cold they can be in 40 degree temperatures when wet.) Welcome to Iceland!
Akureyri is a small town on the north coast of Iceland only 70 miles from the Arctic Circle. We probably crossed the Arctic Circle last night when we were arriving at this port. This town was originally a trading center for the Vikings back in the 800’s and then became known for the fishing in the area. Today tourism is one if its biggest sources of income and people come from all over the world to visit the area. It is known for its geothermal characteristics: volcanoes, fissures, rock formations, hot springs, mud flats and steam vents. It also is a great place to come whale watching and has a 98% success rate in seeing whales every time you go out.
Our excursion took us first to Godafoss Waterfall which is really an amazing waterfall to view. Although it is not as tall as many waterfalls, the volume of water that flows over the top is quite astounding. We next visited a volcanic crater in Stakholstjorn that was filled with water and then went on to Gongustigar where there are a series of rock formations (called Dimmuborgir) that were said to be trolls that were frozen in time. These rock formations were actually formed from hot lava that heated underground water causing fissures to occur in the upper hardened lava crust. When the underground lava flowed elsewhere the lava crust receded leaving these rock outcroppings where the fissures had occurred. There are so many geothermal things to learn in this country. From there we went to Namaskard Pass which has boiling mud pools with steam vents in various areas. This was really an interesting area to walk around. Our final stop on the excursion was a visit to Myvatn Nature Baths which is an outdoor hot springs spa similar to the more famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. Since we were not going to be able to visit the Blue Lagoon we decided to try out this hot springs and rented some swim suits and towels to take a dip. It was extremely relaxing and well worth the extra cost for a nice relaxing soak before we went back to the ship. We really enjoyed this excursion!
This was an excellent introduction to Iceland and even though the weather started off very wet and cold, it improved throughout the day and actually didn’t look too bad later in the afternoon. The Iceland country side was fascinating to view and we learned a lot of interesting information from our guide about Iceland throughout the tour. A great start to our Iceland adventure!
Our second stop to Iceland was Isafjordur which is a very small city of around 16,000 people in the West Fjords of Iceland in the northeast corner of the country. This area of Iceland was very different from what we saw in Akureyri. There is no geothermal activity in this area and it looks more similar to our stop in Flam, Norway although the fjords are not quite as steep and narrow.
Since our excursion we had planned was not until the afternoon, we took the morning exploring the small town. As bad as the weather started off in Akureyi, the weather at this stop was perfect. The sun was shining and the 50 degree weather seemed almost warm when you walked around. The pictures we took at this stop seemed to have such vivid color and the reflections on the water were really amazing. It is really nice to have great weather. We walked through a few shops marveling at how expensive everything was. The bakery shops looked great and although we bypassed them on the first walk through the town, we definitely made a stop by one of them before going to our afternoon excursion. One of the bakery shops had an old delivery truck in front of their shop. We also made a late stop for a beer and coffee which cost us only $17 ($10 beer and a $7 coffee). We finished walking through the town seeing a local fisherman monument and an interesting arch made of whale bones.
After going through the town we walked around the mountainside behind the city and got a close look at some of the high waterfalls trickling down from the mountain top. It was amazing how the water finds a way down the mountain. Sometimes you see a waterfall, other times you see some small creeks flowing through the vegetation and other times you see the water just seeping out of the ground. The town had also made some huge walls to presumably protect the buildings from avalanches or rockslides. These walls were 20-30 feet tall and were really just made of dirt and grass with a layer of loose rocks behind a wire cage. It was a very enjoyable walk along this hill side and afforded us some great views of the town and ship.
In the afternoon we took our planned excursion to Vigur Island. After a 30+ minute boat ride out to the island we were given a tour around this small island. We had taken this tour because we expected to see puffin and arctic terns but we were quickly told that they had migrated off about 3 weeks before we got there. We had also hoped to see some whales and seals but no seals were seen and only one blow from a distant whale could be seen. It was a disappointing trip for the wildlife we had hoped to see but it was a beautiful day and the island was enjoyable. There was an old windmill on that island that had been used to make bread. One interesting thing on the island was the large bales of duck feathers stacked that are used to make various down products (jackets, vests, sleeping bags, etc.). With the large duck population, the collection of feathers is one of the main sources of income on the island.
We sat upstairs as the ship departed hoping to see some whales or other wildlife but only saw one whale on our departure. The views of the fjords on the way out were definitely enjoyable. That evening we went outside to look for the Northern Lights (Midnight Sun) and did see some color in the far distance near where the sun had gone down over two hours earlier. We were told by our guide the next day that some of the color we had seen was due to the Northern Lights but it certainly was not the pictures you see in books and postcards. Unfortunately most evenings we have been sailing in this area have been cloudy and you cannot see the lights unless the skies are very clear. We have experienced some very rough seas at times and we had a couple of large crashes into the water on our way to Isafjordur. We thought at one point that we had hit an iceberg when we felt the first crash. The ship seemed to quickly slow down after this large crash. Our ship has been delayed on a few occasions getting into each port because the captain has had to slow down the speed with the high winds, roughness and large swells. We are off to Reykjavik tomorrow.
Our last stop in Iceland was Reykjavik which is the capital of the country and contains 330,000 of its 360,000 people. The city doesn’t look that big. We were hoping for some good weather in the morning because rain was forecasted for the afternoon. It was actually partly sunny when we started out and the rain held off until later in the afternoon when we were coming back from our day long excursion. We once again used a third party supplier for an excursion of the famed “Golden Circle” and our guide did a great job of staying ahead of the other cruise excursion crowds (going where we were going) and trying to avoid the rain.
Our long excursion took us first to Thingvellir National Park which has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. This was extremely interesting to walk through and view the huge continental shelf plates that are constantly separating (1/2 inch per year). You can walk through these plates that basically divide North America from Europe. Shifting of these plates has caused massive earthquakes in addition to a great deal of volcanic activity. In this area is Althingi where most of the most significant events affecting Iceland have been celebrated. From 930 to 1798 a general assembly has met here to govern Iceland and establish its laws. The assembly just met on this “sacred” ground and pitched tents to meet. When Iceland gained their independence from Denmark in 1944 there were over 20,000 people celebrating in this area. There were many great views found in this National Park and you could see circular ridges in some of the lave flow in some spots. The rock formations and the lake below were really interesting to look at. We also saw another geothermal power plant not far from here as we went to see Gullfoss waterfall (the Golden Falls). These are the most spectacular falls in Iceland. They are much taller than the falls we saw in Akureyri and the water spray goes 50-100 feet in the air. Our next stop was to view the geysers and hot springs. Geysir is the name of the largest geyser and it only erupts sporadically 2 or 3 times a day with a height of up to 200 feet. We did not see it erupt while we were there but did view its sister geyser, Strokkur, erupt many times. It erupts every 5 to 6 minutes at a height of 60 to 100 feet. Right before it erupts you see a big blue bubble appear that bursts into a geyser. It was really interesting to watch and to try to get that perfect picture of it erupting. Supposedly the word geyser is derived from this Geysir originally found in Iceland.
This basically concluded our excursion and our guide elected to skip a visit to a smaller waterfall (Faxi) and the Skalholt Catedral. Instead he took us into Reykavick and showed us a few key points of the city. We stopped at the Perlan which is an interesting building with an observation deck and restaurant on top. The most interesting thing about the building is it is the city’s primary water storage tank for fresh drinking water. Four large water tanks are the four corners of the building. It is very unique in appearance and function. We also made a stop at Hallgrimskirykja Church which is a large pointed concrete church. It is not very decorative but very unique in its shape. Unfortunately the concrete that it was built with has required significant repair and almost all of the outer concrete walls of the church has had to be repaired over time. Evidently concrete construction has been a problem in Iceland because of the cold temperature causing many cracking and crumbling problems. The church has a huge organ (5,275 pipes) inside and we were able to hear it being played while we were there. It was very impressive. There is also a huge statue of Leif Ericson outside the church that the US provided to Iceland in 1960. That concluded our day long excursion which was really excellent.
One interesting thing to note about Iceland is the lack of an “old city” portion of each town we visited. Every European city we have visited has an old portion of the city where there are these beautiful churches and city halls that were built over 800 years ago. We visited three different Icelandic cities and none of them had any buildings that dated back more than the 1800s. When the Vikings and other Scandinavian countries occupied Iceland they created buildings out of earth. The houses had roofs made out of dirt with grass growing on them. None of these ancient buildings survived and no one ever built the huge buildings you see in almost every other European city. It is an interesting difference to see how people built cities hundreds of years ago.
Another interesting thing about Iceland is the amount of water you see flowing down the mountains. Most of the mountains have snow on them throughout the year and with the snow melting during the summer months along with the large amount of rainfall they get, there are literally thousands of waterfalls throughout Iceland. As these small (but very tall) waterfalls reach the lower areas the water volume gets very large and is used to create a significant amount of hydroelectric power. Almost 70% of Iceland’s power comes from the rivers (similar to Tennessee in the US). The other astounding fact is that the other 30% of the power comes from geothermal sources. This means that Iceland only needs oil and gas for the cars and they really don’t have many of those. They are actually looking for some industries to bring into the country that our power intensive because they have only tapped a small portion of the energy that they could get from these two sources. This is so much different than the US and other European countries that consume oil at such a high rate. No reliance on oil. Wouldn’t that be nice!
We are sorry to be leaving Iceland but really glad we took this cruise to have an opportunity to see this truly unique country. We are sure we will be back again sometime because there are other areas we would like to further investigate. As it turned out, we didn’t leave as quickly as we thought, our 6 PM departure was postponed because of rough seas and high winds. We did not leave the port until late the following morning but we could not get off the ship not knowing when we were really going to leave. This cruise has been interesting with the rough seas and high winds and although the weather has been rough on the ship we have been really lucky with good weather while we have visited each port for the most part. We are now heading to Boston and will make up the lost time by going a little faster.
Greg and Sharon