A cruise is surely the ultimate antidote to stress. Of course, you can get cruises that are all action with new destinations every day and adventurous forays on to dry land. Or you can, as I am in this case, have days at sea where the gentle movement of the ship lulls you into a state of tranquillity.
My current cruise is on board Fred Olsen’s Boudicca and I’m on my way to Iceland and then Greenland. So, leaving from Dover, it takes us three sea days to get there and we’re due to arrive in Reykjavik early tomorrow morning. In the meantime, it is tempting to do what I never have time to do at home – lie around in the sunshine and read a book! In fact, I did this all of yesterday afternoon but otherwise, it’s been busy.
Fred Olsen doesn’t want anyone getting bored on sea days so there is quite a timetable scheduled. We start (I’m travelling with the Major who doesn’t like to be too idle for too long) with walking a mile (five times round Deck 7). I do a yoga class while the Major hits the gym and then I do a tap-dancing class with one of the dancers from the entertainment crew. This would be difficult enough for those of us with zero experience and the wrong shoes but today (just to make matters a little more interesting) the sea has developed quite a swell so there are probably a few more steps than there should be.
There are lectures – about the destinations, the wildlife, the culture and, most interestingly, the KGB given by a former British diplomat. There is a choir, an art class, crafts, cards and concerts, quizzes, cocktail parties and games, dancing and shows. There’s a spa, a pool where you can swim against a current (seven times more strenuous than exercising on the land, they say) and, of course, the gym and lots of exercise classes. In theory, you should go back fitter than when you embarked. The truth is, though, an average cruise sees an average weight gain of seven pounds and that’s because there is so much food.
Aside from normal meals, there’s morning coffee and afternoon tea (and we’re not just talking hot drinks here) and just in case that’s not enough you can have a formal high tea, a cheese and wine evening, a martini tasting (seven of those to sample) and there’s a late-night supper club featuring a special every time – German sausages, anyone?
However, it is rather pleasant to stand and stare – or at least sit and stare out to sea in my favourite spot on the ship, the Observatory Lounge on the top deck. We haven’t seen any land for a couple of days now, we’ve travelled over 1000 miles and I’m approaching some kind of hypnotic trance watching waves and the sea birds skimming them. I’m sure this must be lowering my blood pressure.
But not for long. Tomorrow it’s Reykjavik and I seem to remember I’m hiking across a glacier…
After three days at sea, Fred Olsen’s Boudicca has arrived in Iceland and stepping off the ship is a bit like stepping into a geography textbook. Iceland has everything – glaciers, volcanoes, drifting tectonic plates, geysers, ice floes and a lot of thermal activity. It’s this thermal activity that supplies hot water direct to homes and swimming pools in Reykjavik. And one of its glaciers supplies the purest drinking water literally on tap all over the capital. It is this glacier that is the focus of my first day here.
In 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, it closed most of Europe’s skies. In Iceland, though, there was little disruption (their airport never closed!) but it did result in exposing the Langjokull glacier so that they could map it, work out where the dangerous crevasses were and then – and what an idea this was – make a tunnel that would reach 45m below the surface and create a cave of ice.
To get there, you need a vehicle equipped to drive over snow and ice, so we find ourselves in a giant 4×4 with tyres that reach almost to shoulder height. The tyres can be inflated and deflated at the touch of a button on the very complicated dashboard. We stop off just before hitting the ice to be equipped with overshoes and waterproofs – it “rains” we’re told once we’re inside the ice cave.
Langjokull is the second biggest glacier in Europe and measures 70x25km. We drive over a white desert into white cloud, the two merging until you can’t discern where one ends and the other begins. Thank goodness the driver has a special glacier app to find his way! Suddenly, we’re outside a utilitarian looking tunnel that burrows down into the ice and introduced to our guide, Iris, who leads us into the heart of her gigantic ice cube.
This glacier is 3000 years old and the ice is 600m at its deepest though we’re only going 45m below the surface. Iris points out the dark line of volcanic ash that marks 2010 and a second lighter line, the result of a lesser eruption the following year. The two lines are around 3ft apart, representing the snowfall that falls in a year and gradually is compressed and turns into glacial ice. You can see the process happening around you with the ‘younger’ ice still with air bubbles that are gradually forced out as it becomes denser over time. There are ponds, rivulets, crevasses – and a chapel for weddings. There’s a special party place too – apparently Dolly Parton played here once (must have been a very small party).
The tour ends with the bad news – and this is the hard truth of global warming – this 3000-year-old glacier will disappear totally during the next century. Long before that it will have shrunk to the extent that Reykjavik will lose its water supply. The glacial water will melt into the sea and the fish, overwhelmed by the fresh water, will disappear, too.
Iceland is endlessly fascinating. There are black lava fields and geothermal lakes (100C). Grey mud pools bubble and splash in a lunar landscape dotted with volcanic cones. The earth hisses, rumbles, groans – our planet at its most primitive, explosive and violent. There are extraordinary sights: the geological fault known as Almannagja where the American and Eurasian continents are pulling apart from each other and you can stand with a foot in each (see the photo on the left of the Major astride the continents!); the original Geysir (after which all others are named) spouting into the sky surrounded by bubbling mud.
The next day we are in Isafjordur following this magical coastline of sparkling sea and the high green mountainsides that sweep smoothly down to its shores. It’s no surprise this is the land of saga – it is the stuff of legend itself. And extraordinary wildlife. We see Arctic terms, fulmars, puffins and eider. And in the fjord, three humpbacks appear. What more could we ask?
Greenland surely has some of the most serene views on the planet. It has taken around 24 hours since leaving Iceland to get here and we start in one of the country’s most beautiful spots, Prins Christiansund spending a whole day doing ‘scenic cruising’. This is a brilliant concept and one perfectly suited to this magnificent landscape. So, ours is a wonderfully slow and stately progress through breathtaking scenery – ice and rock, snow and glacier. There is an occasional iceberg, and in places, summer sun has melted the snow on the glaciers to reveal the blue ice beneath. It’s bare, elemental and beautiful. How anyone ever thought to live here is, though, another matter.
We don’t find that out for a while, though, as in this part of Greenland, it’s too inhospitable for anyone to live, let alone graze any animals, and it’s not till we get to Nanortalik on the comparatively habitable shores of southern Greenland that we see our first settlement.
Nanortalik has a special spot in the Major’s heart. He was here in 1991 when he led an expedition to the ice cap where they lived in tents for five weeks. I take his picture outside the hut he stayed his first night – personally, I’m very glad to be on board the Boudicca. Little, he says, has changed in over 25 years. Nanortalik is a small settlement and its name means ‘the place where the polar bears go’ but that seems to be happening increasingly rarely – another result of global warming – and this year none have been seen.
We visit the open-air museum, listen to the choir singing in the wooden church and, most spectacularly, see the locals dressed traditionally in skins taking out their kayaks. This is, of course, where these boats originated and in Greenlandic they are ‘qajaqs’. There is also the larger umiaq, often described as the women’s boat, in which the families and their supplies and belongings would take longer journeys. One of the locals demonstrates the Arctic Roll. No, in this instance it’s not a frozen dessert, it’s a technique for staying with your boat in the treacherous local waters. The boatman tips himself sideways into the freezing water, rolls the kayak over him and pops up on the other side as buoyant as a cork.
The next day we are in Narsarsuaq, Erik the Red country. Erik (named red after the colour of his beard) was on the run for murder when he arrived in Greenland and laid claim in 982. He returned three years later with more settlers and a very successful sheep farming and fishing community was set up. The settlements in this part of Greenland became very wealthy, particularly with their trade in skins and walrus ivory that was used all over Europe to carve jewellery and trinkets. It was Erik’s son, Leif Eriksson, who was the first European to reach America.
Erik’s little village, Qagssiarsuk, has found remains of his original buildings and has recreated three of them. The tiny church has enough room for about three people to stand in – Erik’s wife introduced Christianity to Greenland, though Erik himself never converted. There is a grand long house with a turf roof and a tiny winter house, covered in turf and flowers where a family would overwinter for around five months. A tiny narrow tunnel is the entrance and the window – now glass – would have been a piece of seal membrane with a small hole so they could see if there was a seal in the water worth hunting.
It is a remarkably beautiful place and a wild one – eagles swoop low above our heads. As we head back across the fjord to the ship we pass hundreds of icebergs. Some of them have flipped over and are bright blue in the sunshine. One has sidled right up to the ship and is nudging the bow. Then, a huge tail flips just ahead of our mooring and an Orca makes his way back towards the sea.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.