On July 16 we sailed down the Eyjafjordur fjord to Akureyri in the north central part of Iceland. Founded in the 9th Century, this is the second largest city in Iceland but still a small town by American standards with some 30,000 people (we think). Akureyri is pronounced ack-you-RAY-ree. .Just before leaving home we learned that we know someone who lives here during the summer: Rosemary Shaw, who is Rita Reimer’s sister. Rita told us she was drawn here as a bridge player & we were told on the ship that Iceland has some of the best bridge players anywhere. Unfortunately we did not have a chance to meet up with Rosemary because we had signed up for a land excursion that took up our entire time in port, so we had no opportunity to visit the town. It looked nice from the ship though. Particularly noticeable on the skyline is the cathedral, with a distinctive modern style.
We were half an hour later than advertised in docking at Akureyri, and our departure turned out to be a little earlier. This put a squeeze on our land tour, which was expected to fill all the time available. Then it turned out that our group of 14 had 1 too many to fit in the large 4 wheel drive vehicle used for the tour (it might have fit 14 with some being children or very skinny people, but not our group of older folks). So one couple had to forgo the trip. It was also pretty foggy in the morning, so the trip started out pretty poorly. Luckily the weather got much better as we neared noon.
Our guide/driver Giesli had the sensible approach of driving to the furthest sights first, then working our way back, to avoid as much as possible the big bus tours from the ships (there were two in town). Giesli spoke perfect English with a strong British accent and we assumed at first he was British, but it turned out he was a native Icelander. Icelanders learn several foreign languages from an early age & these days English is almost always the first.
So we started out by driving for about 2 hours, over the mountain passes that see deep snow in winter past sheep, horses & cattle grazing in the fields. Icelanders often leave their horses out to fend for themselves in winter because the Icelandic breed is particularly tough. But sheep left outside will often suffocate in the deep snow, so they are brought indoors in winter. But in summer the sheep are allowed to roam free and are gathered back again in the fall. On our way we passed Lake Myvatn (which means “midge”), which we would see again later.
Our first destination was Dettifoss (pronounced like “dental floss”), the largest waterfall in Europe measured by water flow. But first we travelled down a gravel road downriver to see a smaller (but arguably more beautiful) waterfall called Hafragilsfoss. This was a short walk over stark volcanic terrain & the waterfall was in an impressive canyon.
We drove over to Dettifoss, which was a half mile walk each way from the parking lot over a terrain of large boulders & rocks. It was huge & very powerful. I walked down the steep steps to get a closer view & Giesli came down too, probably to make sure the old guy in the red hat could make it back up. While down there he also took my picture in front of the falls. Mary stayed on top.
Hverir is.s a field of steam vents and boiling mud pots. Iceland was formed mostly by volcanoes & there is still a great deal of heat and pressure under the ground. Some of it is released through these formations. You can see this stuff at Yellowstone National Park & really that is more interesting than here, but these were pretty good ones (much better than what we saw on the island of St. Lucia in March). The distant mountain background gave it a beautiful setting.
Iceland uses this thermal heat as its primary power supply. The bulk of Iceland’s power comes from thermal and hydro sources. Some of the thermal power plants are pretty impressive sights in themselves.
The North American and European tectonic plates meet in the middle of Iceland. That means that, geologically rather than politically, Iceland is half in North America & half in Europe. These two plates are moving apart (very slowly) which causes a rift between them. We visited a spot where the two plates meet. The land rises on each side and there is a deep but narrow gorge marking the rift between them.
We visited an unusual lava formation called Dimmulborgir (“Dark Castles‘). It was explained to us that the lava had formed a lake here. After it began hardening in places the edge broke open and the lava that was still liquid flowed away, leaving the parts that had already cooled & hardened as freestanding sculptural formations. There are peaks & valleys, tunnels & caves, and all of it is very rough and dark.
As I mentioned, Iceland was mostly formed by volcanoes & most of its mountains were once volcanoes. Some do not look like volcanoes because they are wide and flat. We were told that this was the result of a volcano erupting under a glacier so that the lava could not build up in the air but instead flowed to the side. Another unusual volcanic feature we saw was a group of pseudo craters. These look like very small volcanoes, with the ground raised and broken at the top, but in fact (we were told) these were caused by hot lava flowing onto thick ice. Iceland is apparently the only place on Earth where these occur (some have been found on Mars). Unfortunately it was starting to get late so we didn’t stop & it was hard to get photos from a moving vehicle. But below is a picture of what I think is a pseudo crater (complete with reflections from the car window).
As you can imagine, we came across a wide variety of flowers on this excursion, many of them tiny plants eking out a living in the rocky volcanic soil. As usual, I haven’t a clue what they are called but I found them interesting.
So we passed Lake Mytavn a final time (its a big lake) & headed for the ship. There was one more feature on our itinerary, a waterfall called Godafoss. It is famous more for its history than its beauty (nowhere near as big as Dettifoss). It seems that when Iceland adopted Christianity, the local leader (law reader, Giesli called him) took all the wooden idols of the old Norse gods & threw them over this falls. Thus the name, which means Falls of the Gods. Anyway, it was getting late and all the passengers on the tour were beginning to get a little antsy about making it back to the ship before the gangway was pulled in. So we declined Giesli’s offer to stop at Godafoss and contented ourselves with seeing it as we drove past.
The drive back to the ship took us past several stunning mountain views, and then gave us a different perspective on Akureyri from across the fjord.
Well, we made it back to the ship with a whole 15 minutes to spare before the “all aboard” deadline. It turned out there were other excursions later than we were, but we were glad to be safely back. We sailed out through the fjord on a beautiful evening that set off the mountainous scenery dramatically. And later that night we crossed the Arctic Circle for the second and last time.
We had a fairly rough crossing from Greenland to Iceland. Although there was nothing to see, at 9:30 PM on July 20 we passed within 35 miles of where the Bismarck sank the HMS Hood, the pride of the British fleet, in 1941. It went down in 3 minutes with all hands in these cold & gray waters. This was pretty shocking to the British because the German fleet was thought to be no match for the British (and really it wasn’t) but the Bismarck was a pretty formidable ship. It was sunk in turn not too much later (which was the subject of a movie around 1960) pretty much ending the German naval threat on the surface.
On a brighter note, the late morning of July 21 found us sailing through Isafjardurdjur, the fjord at the end of which is Isafjordur, the town that was our objective for the day. The fjord was very long with high cliffs on the sides, the lower part of which were deep green and the upper part obscured by long narrow clouds. Very spooky but also very beautiful. I really don’t think the pictures convey what it was like.
Mary had an aunt named Isa, but this town was not named after her. As we understand it, “isa” means ice in Icelandic, so this means Icy Fjord. We didn’t see any ice, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a lot in the winter. It is very difficult to convey how the Icelanders pronounce these names because they tend to slur the syllables together, as if you said it with your hand over your mouth. But that difficulty aside, it seems that this is pronounced ISS-a-fyawrd-er, with the first syllable sounding like the last two letters of “this.”
The main story here is the fjord, as Isafjordur seemed to us like a pretty ordinary little town in a spectacular setting. It is located in the northwest part of Iceland, an area mostly separated by water from the rest of the country that looks on a map like a ragged extension from the upper left corner of the island. We were supposed to be docked here, but a ship from the AIDA line snuck in ahead of us and was given our berth, so we had to tender ashore. Which we did & walked around the town.
We visited the town library (of course), “Bokasafn” in Icelandic, which takes up most of a 90 year old building that is the cultural center. Until 1989 it had been a hospital. Out front was an interesting sculpture of fishermen and inside, in addition to books, was a room of old hospital equipment and a collection of vintage Icelandic dresses along with some lovely old carved furniture.
Next to the cultural center was the church, which some think looks like a concertina. We didn’t see the inside, but outside its not very attractive.
We had read that Isafjordur has a whalebone arch. We had seen one in the Falklands that was quite nice so we wanted to see the arch here. It was not easy (for us) to find. We walked past a wooded park across from the culture center and up a hill then toward the water, but no arch. This took us through an interesting neighborhood, but no arch. So we gave up and came back down the hill. We walked into the park and there it was, not far from the entrance. We were glad to find it, but it was a little disappointing, with just two whalebones painted white to look like they could have been wooden. The one in the Falklands is much better.
There were many colorful flowers in Isafjordur, some wild & some not so much, but all worth noticing. As usual, I’m afraid I don’t know their names.
Many of the houses in Iceland have corrugated metal siding & sometimes roofs. We were told that these provide good insulation, but I expect in a warmer climate they would make the heat in a house much worse. The day in Isafjordur began with fog & chill but most of the time we were ashore it was warm & sunny. In fact, throughout our 3 day visit to the north side of Iceland the temperatures were in the high 60’s to high 70’s during the day, which the Icelanders called a heat wave, even in July. We noticed that the vintage houses in Isafjordur appear to have their year of construction posted on the side. Near the tender port we came upon what looked like white seal skins drying on a rack.
So back on the ship we made our way out the way we had come, through the fjord looking a little more bright & colorful in the late afternoon sun. We left around 7:30 PM, but in the North that is still late afternoon, as there were about 3 hours left until sunset. Isafjordur was the most northerly stop on this trip & there were only about 5 hours of night. Fortunately we have pretty good curtains to block out the sun.
So that was Isafjordur. At 10:22 PM we crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time (we were given a certificate to make it official). And once again there were towel animals to end the day.
After a fairly rough crossing we reached Greenland on Saturday, July 19. While at sea on the way we spotted some whales not too far from the ship. They were hard to photograph because they surfaced only briefly. I’m not sure what kind of whale they were, but from the dorsal fin I would guess Orca. Not a very good picture, since I had to zoom out to telephoto & then enlarge it, but its the only picture of whales I have so far (hope springs eternal) so I am posting it anyway.. Other whales were spotted at other times by the officers on the bridge but we didn’t see them.
Greenland is the largest island in the world (I mentioned before that Australia doesn’t count as an island because it is a continent). It was first settled by Europeans in the late 10th Century Eric the Red. The name derived from the color of his beard, not his politics or his baseball loyalties. A thousand years later a baseball player named Eric Davis, who was one of the best players of his era until he got hurt, was sometimes called Eric the Red because he played for the Cincinnati Reds. But I digress.
Eric was born in Norway, but his family moved to Iceland so his father could evade family vengeance for his murdering a man. True to the family tradition, Eric was eventually exiled from Iceland for several years for killing several men (he was said to have a bad temper). He sailed west with a group of people & settled at the south end of the island. He decided to call it Greenland, according to the Icelandic Sagas, because he thought it would entice others to move there. Thus, Greenland was the subject of perhaps the world’s first real estate scam.
The Norse lasted in Greenland for a few hundred years, but it was never easy to farm (mostly ice rather than green). We were told that Greenland has no trees, & we certainly didn’t see any there. Apparently it is not known what became of the last Norse Greenlanders, but they had disappeared completely by about the 15th Century. Today Greenland is an internally autonomous territory of Denmark.
Nanortalik (na NOR ta lick) was founded by Europeans at the end of the 18th Century but today it is pretty much all Inuit people. It has a long history of whaling but today its few hundred citizens seem to concentrate on fishing and a little bit of tourism (we were told that about 6 cruise ships visit here each year). When several hundred passengers come ashore from a cruise ship the population increases many times over. It is a very colorful town of brightly painted buildings in a bleak but beautiful setting.
We came ashore from the ship in tender boats through a harbor full of icebergs. Very cool (not to mention cold). And remember, this is the middle of summer! Imagine what their winters must be like. I don’t think I would like living here.
We were given a brief & superficial orientation by a couple of crew members then walked around the town a bit. It was still pretty early in the morning. The terrain is very rocky with large expanses of yellow flowers that looked like mats.
We walked past the docks, which had piles of ship containers. All of the food & supplies come here by ship & prices are, therefore, pretty high. We discovered that Greenland also has its own flag.
Nanortalik means “place where polar bears go,” & we are told that polar bears do float in around here on ice floes in the Spring, but we didn’t see any this time of year. The city coat of arms, appropriately, consists of 3 polar bears. The Kommune (like a city hall) had an unusual sculpture in front that I think represents a whale’s head.
When cruise ships come to town the locals (Nanotorlikans?) put on a show. We attended this folk dancing & choir singing performance at the town cultural center. The dancing style was taught to the Eskimos here by Dutch & Scottish whalers and they have developed it into their own style. It involves a lot of stomping and dancing in circles and was perfromed by teenage kids to the accompaniment of an electric organ played by an older man. One of the girls was dressed in the full traditional Inuit dress; we saw some just like it in the museum later.
Next was supposed to be a choir singing religious & secular songs in Inuit language & style of 4 part harmony. But they told us most of the choir were on holiday so there were only 5 people there to do the singing. They sang, in beautiful a capella 4 part harmony, several songs I didn’t recognize and finished with Amazing Grace in Inuit language. The older lady who sang soprano had a particularly powerful voice.
This was also billed as a “Kaffe-mik” (coffee party), in which Greenlanders invite another family into their home for cakes & coffee on special occasions. The “famous Greenlandic cake” turned out to be more like raisin bread than anything else. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t seem special either.
Nanortalik has an “open air museum,” which consists of a building with some displays and several buildings dating from the 1830’s & 40’s, some of which also contain exhibits. There are supposed to be artifacts from the original Icelandic Viking settlers of Greenland, but the labels in the museum were all in Inuit which, I am sure you will be surprised to learn, we cannot read. In the museum we saw, among other interesting looking items, some small carvings, about 6” that look like whale bone or ivory, and some expressionist looking masks.
I mentioned that Inuit seems to be the local language, with little English spoken. Below are some examples from street signs. So you can see why it would be difficult to find your way around without a map. Fortunately we had one.
We walked around the “open air museum,” looking at the old buildings (all pretty similar with walls of granite stones) & climbed the steep steps to a watch tower located there. This provided an expansive view of the town around it.
In an old cooper’s house were exhibits about kayaks & umiaks, boats covered in seal skin that were used for whaling by the Eskimos (today, Inuit). They don’t hunt whales any more & kayaks haven’t been used for hunting since the 1980’s. Today they use regular boats. But the exhibit included a couple of umiaks & old kayaks.
Prominent in town is the church, built in a distinctive style. It is over 100 years old. It was locked when we were there but I took a picture through the window.
There was a lot of fauna in the area, even though it looked like it would be inhospitable to plants. Most of the flowers were pretty small but colorful (like the houses).
Last but not least before leaving town, here are a few random scenes that didn’t fit anywhere else. Among other things, there were more huge ravens here & very craggy peaks I understand were carved by glaciers.
So we left this colorful & friendly remote town & tendered back to the ship. From there the icebergs in the harbor could be seen clearly & we saw a few more as we sailed carefully away for a two day sail to Iceland. I like icebergs, so I will share a few with you.
Finally, a couple of towel animals to tide you over until we reach Iceland.
Red Bay, Labrador
The next morning, July 16, found us in Red Bay, a city of a couple of hundred that makes Corner Brook seem like a metropolis. This was a tender port, so the ship anchored outside the harbor & we were transported in by tender boats, which are some of the orange boats hanging along the side of the ship. You have already seen that some of those boats are hanging above our cabin, so on this day we were awakened about 6:00 by the dulcet sounds of the boat being cranked over the side of the ship on chains & ropes. So we got up, had breakfast & boarded a tender for the town.
In the 16th Century Basque sailors came to these waters to hunt whales. They spent about 40 years in this lucrative enterprise before their ships were impressed into the Spanish Armada. They seem never to have resumed this hunt, perhaps because most of their boats were destroyed by the English or perhaps because they had thinned out the whale population too much. Anyway, in the 1970’s archaeologists discovered that there was a Basque whaling station on Saddle Island across the harbor from Red Bay that had been forgotten for centuries. Since then a number of the building foundations have been found there along with a cemetery. One theory is that the town got its name from all the whale blood spilled in this harbor.
So our first stop was the local museum. There we saw a 400 year old whaling boat, which the Basques called a chalupa, that scientists recovered here. This is the oldest known boat of this type. Next to it is a mandible bone of a bowhead whale that is not much shorter than the boat. It takes some courage to go after a whale that size in a boat this small. On the wall was the skeleton of the fin of a Right Whale hanging next to a model of a Basque fisherman so you can see its size.
Our museum tickets included a ferry ride to Saddle Island, so that is where we went next. The “ferry” was really a small boat seating only 10, so we had to wait in line a while before crossing. The coast is very rocky & the water is very clear so you could see the rocks & plants under the water. There was a guy by the dock dressed as a Basque, looking a little strange but providing a pretty good explanation of the area.
Both sides of the harbor are full of large granite boulders & outcroppings and many fields of beautiful wildflowers of various colors, so this is a good place to show some of that.
Here are some closer views of wildflowers. I don’t know all their names, but they were very small & colorful. You may have seen some of these in the previous episode, but what the heck: they are still pretty. First some fields of flowers, then some portraits.
Once we docked on Saddle Island, only a few minutes in the boat but a long time waiting in line for it, we followed a path all the way across to the other side. Various archaeological finds were marked by signs, but you really couldn’t see anything there. At the end was the Basque cemetery, but the only thing to distinguish it from the rest of the landscape was the small rocks in short rows rather than distributed randomly. We were told that scientists had found about 140 bodies in unmarked graves here. It was unremarkable and we didn’t even take any pictures.
About halfway across the island archaeologists found a Basque boat under the water. They photographed it & covered it up again for safekeeping, so you can’t see it. But on almost the same spot is the rusting wreck of a boat that went down in the 1960’s (I think), some 500 years later. That one is quite prominent & visible from the town as well as the island.
All over the island were sea urchin shells. The birds catch them and bring them here to eat, then leave the shells. Some still had spines on the shell and some had completely worn away until they looked like christmas ornaments with one side bashed in. Back in Red Bay we saw a family of Inukshuks (“in the image of man” in Inuit) lined up in front of a house. The Inuit have made these for centuries as directional beacons.
So we left Red Bay heading north. But that evening the Captain announced over the ship speakers that there was too much ice in the harbor at Cartwright for us to go ashore in tenders. Thus, we headed for Greenland instead, giving us two sea days before reaching Nanortalik. There were some rough seas on this trip, but at least the first evening out of Red Bay we saw our first iceberg! We would see many more by the time we reached Greenland.
Corner Brook, Newfoundland
After two days at sea we docked at Corner Brook, a town of something over 20,000, early in the morning of July 15. We had been told the high temperature would by 60 and it would be drizzly, but it turned out to be a beautiful day with highs in the 80’s & lots of sun. It would not be the last time the weather turned out better than predicted on the ship. We were told that Newfoundland is the second largest island in the world (Australia doesn’t count because it is a continent rather than an island). And we learned that Newfoundland is pronounced with emphasis on the last syllable, like “understand.” So “understand Newfoundland” should sound like a rhyme. Newfoundland & Labrador form a single province of Canada. They did not become part of Canada until 1949, on a close vote at that, in part we were told because some were worried that if they didn’t join Canada they would end up part of the United States. Corner Brook was behind a hill from where we docked so I don’t have a picture of that, but here is the bay on which it sits.
Instead of exploring Corner Brook we took an excursion to Gros Morne National Park. It turned out to include a 1.5 hour bus ride each way along with a lot of time on the bus moving around the park. This part of Newfoundland is quite beautiful though, a haven for fishermen on its rivers & a center for logging. At the dock is the pulp wood plant, once the largest in the world. Pressure from environmentally conscious customers, particularly Germany, has forced the plant to clean up its act so that today what is coming out of the smokestack is almost all steam. On the dock we met a “Newfie,” the friendly local dog variety, one of whom we were told won the Westminster Dog Show a few years ago.
Our first stop in the park was at an overlook of a vast tundra full of wildflowers beyond which could be seen some impressive cliffs. We were told that under these cliffs is the largest inland fjord in the world, but we couldn’t see the actual water. I wonder what “inland fjord” means; I would have called a body of water surrounded by land a lake. Maybe its the cliffs that make it a fjord, or maybe it is determined by how it was made. The features of this huge park were mostly formed by glaciers & plate tectonics, I think.
The field around the platform was full of colorful wildflowers. Hard to photograph because we couldn’t leave the platform to get close to the flowers, which were quite small, but here are a few.
The trees around here were mostly scrubby firs, with a lot of dead & dying wood.
Our next stop was at a lighthouse on Lobster Bay. It is a small lighthouse in a beautiful spot next to a large expanse of water surrounded by mountains. Outside the lighthouse was a pole from which nautical signal flags were hung. There was a board with a key to the flags, which spelled out Veendam. So that was either cool or a bit creepy since they knew we were coming. Several large ravens were sitting on the tower of the lighthouse.
Here again there were fields of colorful mixed wildflowers, leading all the way down to the water.
We stopped for lunch in a little town not far away. Unfortunately we could not have mooseburgers (we ate next door), but there was a nice view of the lighthouse from our restaurant.
After lunch we stopped at the visitor center, where we watched a video about the park. From its deck was a nice view of Gros Morne Mountain. “Gros Morne” means “big hill,” & it sure is that. We were told that the tops of some of these flat topped mountains were once the bottom of the ocean, but were thrown up by moving continental plates to their current height. Apparently scientists have come here to study what the ancient sea bottom was like. Our guide said that Gros Morne has the world’s largest concentration of moose, but this is the only place where I saw one. The moose are a traffic problem in this area; crashing into a moose is much more likely to kill you than hitting a deer (as often happens in our area of Virginia). Our guide told us he doesn’t drive in the country at night because of the moose danger.
Our last stop was at a scenic overlook of a lake. The only building was a gift shop, but there were lots of flowers & a beautiful view over the lake, which had a small fishing village on one shore.
So then we began the long bus ride back to the ship. On the way as the sun began throwing shadows we passed another lovely bay. We drove through Corner Brook before reaching the dock, but there wasn’t much to see, although there was a Walmart so you knew you were in civilization. Then the ship pulled out and we headed north.