Cruise to Iceland

By Penny Burnfield 


Minerva cruise.  2006         Norway and Iceland

We decided to do something a bit different this time, so we embarked from Dover, which meant a two and half hour drive from Stockbridge.  We travelled with a company called Swan Hellenic on a smallish cruise ship called Minerva 2.  It had fewer facilities than our P&O cruise, but was friendlier.


Our first day was spent sailing up the North Sea, and finding our way around the ship.  Most of the passengers were British, but there was a group of about 40 people from the US – from an organization called the ‘Elder Hostel Group’ (which sounded to us like an organization for elderly down-and outs).  But I think they are similar to our ‘University of the Third Age’ – dedicated to lifelong learning.


Our first two stops were in Norway.  First to Stavanger, an oil-boom city in a beautiful setting on islands and fjords.  In the morning we went on a small local boat up a dramatic fjord between towering cliff - awe-inspiring and wonderfully peaceful.  Nearer the town there were small holiday cottages on the banks, a delightful place for a quiet holiday.


After lunch we joined a trip to a reconstructed iron-age farm.  A long, low building made of stone and timber, with a turf roof.  It gave us a good insight into how people lived there two thousand years ago.  The house felt quite warm and cosy, but they were wild and dangerous times.


Next day we stopped at Bergen, long established as a major trading port.  Again it was set in a beautiful location, and we went on a funicular railway to the hills above the city to see the views.  Then to see a ‘Stave Church’ a tiny traditional Norwegian church built, very decoratively, entirely out of wood.  Then back to the city for a walk through the Old Town of picturesque timber houses and winding streets.  It is a wonder that any of this remains – the town has caught fire many times in its history.


We then sailed west through a ghostly seascape of oil-rigs to make landfall at the Faeroe Islands.  A wild and isolated place of mountainous scraps of land surrounded by stormy seas.  The people are rugged and independent – they are administered by Denmark, but speak a language more related to Icelandic.  There is not much to see, apart from the dramatic scenery.  We went on a trip to see the ‘cathedral’, but in truth it was barely larger than a small church and has never been finished so it is without a roof!


Later we went on a walk round the main town, Torshavn, to discover something of the history of the islands, which have survived largely on fishing and whaling over the years.  The parliament and the prime minister’s residence were just large houses, but perhaps a little grander than the rest.  I don’t think I would like to live there myself – the whole place had a rather scruffy and depressed air to it, but the locals are devoted to their islands, of course.


We spent the next day at sea, heading for Iceland.  This particular cruise line prides itself on the educational content of its trips.  We had five distinguished lecturers on board!  These comprised a retired museum director, a professor of geology, a diplomat, a senior churchman and a wildlife expert.  Between them they told us about volcanoes, the Vikings and their ‘Sagas’, the literature of Norway and Iceland, more recent history and the plants and seabirds.  Without exception they were enthralling and entertaining speakers and the talks (up to three a day!) were very well attended.  It wasn’t at all heavy and added a lot to our understanding and enjoyment of the holiday.


Eventually we reached the north coast of Iceland.  We all expected it to be cold and windswept, and we had been instructed to bring not only warm jackets, but hats, gloves and scarves as well.  To our surprise we found an attractive town, Akureyri, and a warm summer day with the temperature in the mid 20’s.  It was a holiday weekend and there was a festive air, with a lot of visitors from other parts of Iceland for an outdoor music festival.  We visited an attractive modern church (which had been designed specially to display some old stained glass from England!) and we did some shopping.


During the day we went on a coach trip to see some of the volcanic sights inland.  Lava fields, bubbling mud-pools, steaming vents, extinct volcanic cones, ‘pseudo volcanoes’ (fossilized mud vents) and a dramatic waterfall.  We found this weird landscape quite fascinating.


Next day we stopped at Isafjordur, a fishing settlement on the north-west corner of Iceland.  A very isolated community, it must be difficult living there in the winter with the darkness and harsh weather.  Our trip on this occasion was to nearby Vigur Island, where there is just one farm and a handful of inhabitants.  The island was teeming with birdlife, thousands of Puffins, which live in burrows in the cliffs, Artic Terns (they fly at you if they feel threatened) and all sorts of gulls, ducks and geese.  Most notable are the Eider Ducks which produce the wonderfully soft feathers used for the old eider down quilts.  To encourage them to nest on his island, the farmer had built special niches in his stone walls. The people collect the feathers from the nests when the young birds are fully grown and then the down goes through a very laborious series of processes to clean it.  No wonder it is so expensive! 


This day it did rain and was rather cold, so we enjoyed coffee and traditional cakes in the farmhouse after our tour.


Next we headed for the capital, Reykjavik, arriving there around mid-day.  A friend of our is half Icelandic, and she had given us the phone number of her cousin who lives there.  Luckily the cousin, Maja and her husband Nonni were free that day, and they took us on an extensive city tour.  To thank them we offered to take them out for a meal, and we ended up in one of the best restaurants in town, eating superb food in a lovely old house.  It was a memorable evening.



Reykjavik itself would be little more than a small town anywhere else, but then the population of the whole of Iceland is only about 300,000.  (There are also 100, 000 traditional Icelandic ponies – originally introduced by Viking settlers.) Reykjavik is an attractive place with plenty of open spaces and no high-rise buildings. We noticed many modern sculptures in public places and the arts and crafts are generally very popular there.  At the highest point of the city there is a building called The Pearl (after its domed glass roof), with a good view over the surrounding countryside.  The ice-cream was excellent!


The following day we had booked ourselves on a nine-hour round trip to see more of the natural sights.  More of the lava-fields, volcanic craters and waterfalls.  Two things really stood out.  The original ‘Geyser’ has now stopped working, but there is an adjoining one called ‘Strokkur’ which is said to be only slightly smaller (though not a big as ‘Old Faithful’ in Yellowstone Park).  The area is scattered with pools of boiling water, which look quite sinister and the geyser itself comes from the largest of the pools.  It bubbles away, and then, about every six minutes, the water rises up like a balloon, and then erupts high above your head for several seconds.  It is difficult to photograph – you have to stand there for several minutes with your finger on the button and concentrate!


The other place which caught our imagination was a stop at the site of the ‘Thingvellir’ the site of an ancient meeting place or parliament which started over a thousand years ago.  Whilst this was historically interesting, it was also notable for being sited on the edge of the rift-valley which passes up through the middle of Iceland.  So there were strange cliffs and gullies in the ground where it is continually being split apart. 


Iceland sits astride the north end of the ‘Mid-Atlantic Ridge’ – a split in the ocean floor where Europe and Africa are moving apart from America, very slowly, but fast enough to give rise to instability in the earth’s crust.  It is possible to stand with one foot in America (or at least on the ‘American Plate’) and one foot in Europe!  At Thingvellir you can see this in action – a flat bottomed valley, about half a mile wide, the ground cracked, fissured and contorted, with rows of volcanic hills on either side.  Luckily for the Icelanders, their unique position does not give rise to explosive eruptions.


The next day we were to see the consequences of the volcanoes for ourselves.  We visited Heimaey, an island off the south coast.  It’s only a little place, with one small town, but it has a splendid natural harbour which is the focus of the important fishing fleet in that area.  In the middle of the island is a small volcano which was thought to be extinct, but one night about thirty years ago the islanders were woken by a ribbon of fire to one side of the town.  They had evacuated the entire population to the mainland by the morning.  A fissure about a mile long had opened up and over the next six months it spewed out fire, lava and copious amounts of ash.  By the time it stopped, lava had engulfed about a third of the houses and another third was covered in a heavy blanket of ash.  Only one person died.  Volunteers worked hard to remove the ash as it fell - the sheer weight of it caused buildings to collapse. 


The lava flow threatened to cut off the only entrance to the harbour, and this would have been a disaster for the whole Icelandic fishing fleet, but by some miracle the flow stopped just in the right place, and the harbour is now even better protected than before.  Touchingly, an international team of young people arrived to help clear away the ash, and they removed several feet of the stuff from the graveyard by hand.  A new volcano was formed, but it is now quiet – we were able to stand in the middle of it. The town and its industry have revived, but many of the people never returned to the island.


Leaving Heimaey we cruised south a little way to see the new island of Surtsey which erupted from the ocean bed only a few years ago.  Between the two is a whole row of small craggy islands, clearly the remains of previous eruptions.  The whole area is located over the crack in the ocean floor.  Surtsey itself is the focus of scientific investigation, and you cannot land on it.  They are studying how plants and animals naturally colonise a new, pristine piece of land.  We sailed right round it. Those parts of the island which consist mainly of ash are being rapidly eroded back into the ocean by the wind and rain.  Eventually it will be another little crag in the row of islands.


Our final stop was at the Orkney Islands, just off the north coast of Scotland.  Or it should have been, but we arrived there in a force 8 gale, and were not allowed to disembark.  It was very frustrating, as we had been looking forward to seeing the sights.  Not geology in this case, but a very ancient stone circle and the remains of 5,000 year old houses.  But it couldn’t be helped and we contented ourselves with looking at the natural harbour of Scapa Flow, surrounded by a ring of islands.  The captured German battle fleet scuttled itself here in 1918.


It was an unfortunate end to the trip, but in fact we had been very lucky up till then.  One day we will go back to the Orkneys.  We returned to Dover through the North Sea, passing many gas and oil-rigs, which loom up spookily in the dark


Apart from this last, unavoidable, problem it was an excellent trip.  We liked the people, the ship and the organization.  We would like to do a similar trip again.  But sadly the Swan cruise company was taken over a few years ago by the much large Carnival group.  They consider they can make more money out of young people, with nightclubs and casinos, instead of old folks like us, who prefer lectures and early nights!!!  I guess they are probably right.  But some of the people on our trip had been travelling with Swan for many years and were distressed at the news.  There is some possibility that it may continue in some way, we will have to wait and see.


When we arrived at Dover there was a major security scare going on at all the airports.  We were glad we only had a car journey home.  We hope the Elder Hostel group managed to get back across the Atlantic without too much trouble.