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|Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2 2008
The Lands of Fire and Ice - Introduction
It had only been 6 weeks since we disembarked from QE2 following our excellent cruise to the Land of the Midnight Sun, and we were off again on another QE2 cruise. We had been fortunate in arranging to leave luggage on board, and so were able to catch a train to Southampton and then it was just a short taxi ride to the familiar red funnel at the Queen Elizabeth II terminal.
Embarkation was efficient and our luggage was waiting for us. We had sparkling wine, champagne and flowers in the our room. After a quick lunch in the Lido, followed by afternoon tea in the Queen's Room, we were ready for the lifeboat drill and sailaway. Here was our first surprise. Our brochure had indicated that we would travel north, along the east coast of Britain. Instead Captain Perkins took a course to the west. The weather was foul in the north east, so it was a better choice of routing.
This cruise started with 3 days in Iceland, and we had never been there before. Having seen all the bubbling mud and geysers in New Zealand we were looking forward to seeing the same features in Iceland. The rest of the cruise visited Norway. Here all the ports were familiar to us, and we were looking forward to the glorious scenery, waterfalls and fjords, and good weather for photos.
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Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and is the home of about 200,000 people, a significant proportion when the total size of Iceland is only just over 300,000. Compare this with the population of Southampton which is 230,000. In contrast to Southampton town, Iceland is 103,000 sq kms. So we expected to see a lot of countryside and very few people once we left Reykjavik.
We had pre-booked Cunard shore excursions in each of the three ports, in order to see as much as we could of Iceland. In Reykjavik we were doing the Golden Circle tour which would be showing us Iceland's three geological and scenic wonders : Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir.
The tour started with a pleasant drive out of Reykjavik with promises that we would see the city on the way back. All the houses in the town are heated by geothermal water, and we saw large, lagged pipelines. We were warned that our drive would take us on main roads but that some of these were unsealed, and some were narrow. We smiled. It was going to be like travelling in New Zealand.
We started on highway 1, but soon turned off on highway 36 and across the Mosfellsheidi moor. Thingvellir National Park is just 23 kms east of Reykjavik and is Iceland's most important historical site. It was here that the Vikings established the world's first parliament, the Althing, in AD934. The Althing convened annually, and the site where the law-speaker recited the law is marked by a flagpole. The path decends from the bus parking to the flagpole, on the west side of the Oxara river. The site is at a cross roads of paths and includes a huge fish-filled lake. Lake Thingvallavatn is Iceland's largest lake and measures 84 sq kms. Across the water is a farmhouse and a church. The Thingvallakirkja was consecrated in the 11th century and is one of Iceland's oldest. There is a small cemetary behind the church, and the large round Biskupabud to the north of the church. When the Althing was meeting there were many shelters for attendees, and the Biskupabud area belonged to the bishops of Iceland.
The Park has many walking trails, and there are several camping sites some suitable only for hiking. Even in the dull weather and with all the other QE2 tourists shuffling along the paths the area retains its dignity and lonely beauty. There followed a short stop at the Park Service Centre at Leirar, where there were two nice camping grounds and a small cafe/shop.
Our next stop was at Geysir and this area was the main reason we had taken the cruise to Iceland. Surprisingly, entry to the thermal area is free. We were disappointed that the site was so much smaller than the NZ equivalent - Craters of the Moon. It was wet, and wetter for those people who stood too close to the erupting geysirs. The Great Geysir rarely erupts now and we were kept away from it, but Strokkur nearby erupted every few minutes. The first sign of an eruption is when the water swirls and vanishes downwards, before gushing water upwards. It was possible to get very close, and lots of people and their cameras got soaked. There was also a Little Geysir which bubbles and fizzes quietly next to the footpath, and we passed three nice steaming pools which were going to grow up to look like Wai-o-tapu.There was just time to rush to the top of a small hill to take photos and then report for a very early lunch which had been organised for everyone at the Hotel Geysir. Food was simple with a tureen of soup for each table, followed by a large platter of salmon pieces and dishes of vegetables. We all tried to guess what was in the soup and were amazed when we were told that it was asparagus. We didn't wait to try their coffee.
It was still only just noon and we were off again in the coach, going to see the Gullfoss Waterfall. Gullfoss means Golden Waterfall, hence also the name of the excursion as the Golden Circle. We reached the bus parking and were given the choice of two diferent paths to get views of the waterfall. We decided to do both. Gullfoss is Iceland's most famous waterfall and is a double cascade. It drops some 32metres before entering a narrow ravine. Climbing the steps to the plateau at the top of the waterfall also gave us a good view into the distant mountains, and (we presume) the famous Langjokull Glacier. Looking down from the top platform was spectacular, but the real fun was to go down to the lower platform. This was initially an easy slope but towards the end it became a rock scramble which was extra-slippery because of the weather. We moved slowly and carefully because we hadn't brought proper walking boots.
Our next stop was supposed to be at the Kerid little crater, but the parking was too difficult and instead we visited another waterfall: Faxifoss which was reached down a short dirt track marked only with a camping sign. We assumed this would be our final stop, and we were soon back on highway 1 and heading towards Reykjavik. However there is always a stop at a tourist shopping place, and this trip we stopped in Hveragerdi at the Garden of Eden Center which we assumed was modelled on the Eden Project in England. We found it was a long established greenhouse selling tropical plants, alongside a souvenir shop and a large ice cream parlour. We would have preferred to spend more time visiting the main sights.
Our route back to QE2 took us through Reykjavik town. We visited the Pearl, a complex based around the large hot water tanks, and although there was not time to explore the museum there we did get excellent views from the viewing platform. On our way back to QE2 we glimpsed some of the other famous landmarks, including the modern Hallgrimskirkja concrete church and the Hofdi House where the Reagan/Gorbachev meeting on 12 October 1986 was held.
It was still wet and we were glad that we had not decided to explore Reykjavik independently, although the day had been very tiring and the lunch was poor. It was also Sunday, and the shops were mostly closed. We found that it was also the weekend of a special festival, so the shops would be closed on Monday too.
From Reykjavik QE2 was heading to the north west corner of Iceland. The original itinerary was for anchoring at Grundarfjordur, but Captain Perkins had decided it was too difficult and narrow there, and instead we went to Isafjordur. It is quite a large town, with 3,000 residents and has been a trading centre for 450 years. It is a major fishing centre. QE2 was at anchor, and so we had to catch a tender ashore. We had expected a long wait because the organised tours always get priority, but when we passed the area where tender tickets were issued there was no-one waiting. We picked up tickets, ran down past our cabin to collect coats and cameras, were the last to board a waiting tender and soon ashore.
We decided to explore the small town independently. We were told that the Westfjords Heritage Museum contained the oldest house in Iceland, built in 1734. The houses were mostly constructed by foreign traders in the late 18th century. We found 4 buildings. The main building, Turnhus was originally a warehouse. To the right was Tjoruhus, which had been converted into a cafe. Then there were two other small houses, private residences. Although small, the museum held a lot of information about the history of the local fishing industry. The museum also housed a collection of accordians. While exploring we heard music. QE2 Tour Bus 4 had arrived and was being welcomed by a group of local girls dressed in national costume and dancing in the courtyard. Then everyone came into the museum, where samples of local sun-dried salted fish and fermented (putrified) shark were for tasting, washed down by samples of the local firewater. We tasted the fish, but avoided the firewater.
The rest of the town of Isafjordur beckoned. As well as wandering around the streets and admiring the wooden 19th century houses, we visited the Old Hospital. It is now a cultural centre and contains a library, archives and art gallery. It was also a pretty building to walk around, and it was open in spite of being a holiday whereas most of the shops were firmly closed. OUtside there was a large monument to local Mariners. Then we went into the modern town church, and were charmed by the swarm of hundreds of metal birds which were the background to the altar.
Our hope had been to be back on QE2 in time for afternoon tea. We were wrong. We were lucky with our timing for tenders and managed to just catch the end of lunch in the Lido at 1430.
Next day we arrived at Akureyri. Another morning, another anchorage, and another part of Iceland. Akureyri is the second largest town in Iceland, with 17,500 inhabitants, and is on the north coast. The main symbol of the town is the modern church which stands on a hill in the centre. It has beautiful stained glass windows, and the one directly behind the altar is special because part of the window comes from the famous old cathedral at Coventry. It was removed in 1939 and eventually reached Iceland in 1943, when it was installed. Matching glass was added to make the window the right size, and later four extra complete windows were made in the same style.
A short walk from the church we reached the Botanic Garden images 4426 and 4432 which was founded by women in 1911. It was said to contain most of the Icelandic flora, but we found many British trees and flowers were flourishing.
Continuing away from town we passed the house of Fridbjorn Steinsson, which is believed to have been built in 1856. Fridbjorn Steinsson was a bookbinder and bookseller and was a member of the Municipal Council for a great many years. The Independent Order of Good Templars in Iceland was established at his home and in 1961 the I.O.G.T. bought the house for the purpose of establishing a memorial museum. That work is not yet completed. Further along the road we reached a small church, originally built in Svalbard to the east of Akureyri and transported to the site, and behind it the Folk Museum. The building is modern and the collection illustrates the cultural history of the town from medieval times through exhibits of traditional art and crafts, photographs, tools and implements from farms, domestic articles and fishing equipment. We bought a ticket which included entrance to Nonni's House which was next door. The house was small and dark, but interesting. It was built in 1850. Nonni is the name of Revd Jon Sveinsson, who was born in Iceland in 1857 and spent from 1865 to 1870 living in the house. After many years studying in Europe he became a Jesuit priest. For almost 30 years he was a teacher in Denmark. Only when he retired from teaching due to illness in 1912 did he start to write the famous books for children, which were popular and translated into many languages. He died in Germany in 1944. Instead of retracing our steps, we noticed a footpath and climbed up to the cemetary and then followed signs to the Nonni stone. We did not know what to expect, and found it was a large flat stone on which Nonni is said to have sat when in 1870, as a young man of only 12 years old, he was pondering whether to leave Iceland. He had the offer of an education in France.
We scrambled down to the waterfront and were tempted by an ice cream shop. According to our guide book, Brynja was a legendary sweet shop which is famous across Iceland for the best ice cream in the country. It also was famous with wasps so we didn't linger with our purchases. Returning towards the town centre we passed the theatre and the Akureyri Hotel, before rejoining the main shopping area. There was time to look at typical souvenirs, but it all seemed very expensive, even the postcards.
From Iceland there was one day at sea, heading due east, to reach Norway and the fjords. For two consecutive nights we lost an hour as we changed the ship's clock to match local times. In June Pete had given a talk in the Chart Room about Linux: A real alternative to Windows. It had been popular and he volunteered to do another sesssion on this cruise. The talk was scheduled in the Yacht Club, which was bigger and meant that a PowerPoint presentation could be shown directly on a screen. The only problem was that the timing coincided with the Wine Tasting session for selected Cunard World Club members. Not only did we miss the free drinks, but many of our friends preferred to try the wines to attending a technical lecture. Pauline had also offered to give a talk about Writing and Publishing Memoirs, and her talk was scheduled immediately after Pete's. We had a busy, sober afternoon and both had a good audience.
Dress code for a day at sea is formal, and in the evening we had the Cunard World Club cocktails before joining our hosted table where more wine flowed. If we had also been to the tutored wine tasting then we would be heading for a liver transplant !