[previously: June 5-8]
Thursday 9th June 2022, Reykjavik
After breakfast in Grái Kötturinn – pleasant enough, but it does seem to be coasting on hints dropped in tourist guides that Bjork occasionally eats there – we have a morning to kill. We end up in the Reykjavik Museum Of Photography, and by pure coincidence we stumble into the opening day of a new exhibition. Landvörður (running till September 10th) is mostly made up of Jessica Auer’s photos of park rangers, wardens, and other people maintaining the Icelandic landscape in the wake of its increasing tourist population. The accompanying texts and videos make the general theme more explicit: tourism – and especially cruise tourism – is changing the nature of this country, and not for the better.
It turns out that because it’s the opening day, Auer is actually present in the gallery chatting to visitors, and we’re among the first she’s had. And she asks the inevitable question: oh, you’re from London, so what are you doing in Reykjavik?
”Well,” we answer. “If we pass a Covid test later on today, this evening we’ll be getting on that thing” – and we point at the MASSIVE CRUISE LINER THAT’S LITERALLY VISIBLE THROUGH THE GALLERY WINDOW – “and going on a nine-day cruise around the coast of Iceland.”
This has been on the cards for quite some time now. We started planning in March 2019, while our pals Ricky and Laura were in the latter stages of their round-the-world cruise. Ricky’s magnificent blog emphasised all the downfalls of cruise travel – notably, the advanced age of the vast majority of the passengers, and his concerns about how they disposed of the inevitable corpses that accumulated on a four-month voyage – and though it sounded nightmarish on some levels, on others it seemed like a ridiculous adventure. Which meant that we were in precisely the right headspace to notice a small leaflet that fell out of our Saturday Guardian, advertising a much smaller scale adventure – Hurtigruten’s nine-day cruise Circumnavigating Iceland: The Land Of Elves, Sagas And Volcanoes. And yes, there was one more factor to consider: BrewDog had opened a bar in Reykjavik just six months earlier.
There was a sizable discount for booking early, so we did, and marvelled at the enormous gap of fifteen months that lay between us laying down our deposit and stepping onto the ship, some time in June 2020. You're probably ahead of me by now. At some point in the spring of 2020, as cruise ships were pivoting to become Gigantic Floating Petridishes Of Waterborne Death, Hurtigruten apologetically told us that June 2020 was off, but they'd give us a bit more spending money if we let our booking roll over into June 2021. That seemed like a reasonable deal - it'd all be over by then, surely? Cut to twelve months later, and Hurtigruten are sending us an almost identical letter with all the 2021s replaced by 2022s.
So now it's 39 months since we made the original booking, and we're in an art gallery in central Reykjavik, finally looking at the actual ship we'll be sailing on. Except we're still not sure if we're going to be sailing on it, because Hurtigruten are giving everyone a lateral flow test as part of the check-in process, and if you don't pass it you won't be allowed to board the boat at all. This is nerve-wracking for me, as I've spent the last two days with an industrial case of the sniffles - it's probably because of the two occasions this week when I've been standing outside in the cold wearing nothing but swimming trunks, but you can't actually be sure. It seems ridiculously cruel after such a long wait that the whole holiday could collapse at this point, leaving us without a bed for the night in a foreign city with a metaphorical UNCLEAN sign hanging round our necks. (And because The BBG is even better at inventing worst-case scenarios than I am, she comes up with a doozy - what if only one of us passes the test?)
Check-in is being held at the Fosshotel Reykjavik, so after a slightly tense lunch at Cafe Rosenberg we head over there for what might be the most important test I've taken since my degree exam. We both get a nasal swab, and then are told to wait in a holding area along with other potential passengers, and our results will be sent to us by text message. Twenty minutes later, we both get a text simultaneously. We look at each other. "Wanna go on holiday?" I ask. By a lovely coincidence, the Fosshotel has a magnificent craft beer garden in its basement, and happy hour starts just five minutes after we get our results, so you can probably work out how we celebrate. (Happy hours are a big thing in a country where booze is so ridiculously expensive. The magnificent local listings mag Reykjavik Grapevine has an equally magnificent app you can download called Appy Hour, which will use your GPS location to work which is the nearest bar to you serving cheap beer right now. Reykjavik area only, sorry.)
After discovering that this cruise is finally happening, the rest of the day is a bit of a blur. We get on a bus that takes us up to the Fridtjof Nansen, the ship that’s going to be our home for the next eight nights. We dump our bags in the cabin and take a few minutes to explore the layout of Deck 6, where a lot of stuff will be happening. One of those things is a safety briefing, where some poor sod on the crew gets to demonstrate how to put on the enormous all-body suit to be donned in the event of, well, you know. (To be honest, it’s nice to be in a situation where Covid isn’t the biggest risk to our lives, for a change.) After a decent buffet dinner, the ship pulls out of the harbour accompanied by some of the most cliched songs you can imagine over the PA. (Yes, we get Rod Stewart: we also get Come Sail Away, and not even the good version.) Still, as people who saw Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead a quarter of a century ago, we leap at the chance to use the phrase ‘boat drinks’ and grab a couple of cocktails in the bar as we watch Reykjavik drift off into the distance.
It should be pointed out that last night’s cheesy sendoff is a rare down-market lurch on this cruise. Because this is the key thing about Hurtigruten: they don’t do cruises, they do expeditions. So our ship doesn’t have a disco, it has a science centre. This is emphasised during the on-board morning sessions, during which we get a talk about what to expect on our various daily excursions. We’re also kitted out with our Hurtigruten expedition jackets, bright red things with fluorescent yellow hoods that ensure we’ll be visible from a good mile or two away. I’ll come back to that later.
By lunchtime we’ve arrived at our first port of call, Stykkishólmur – a small harbour town with a population of about 1100. Like many of the towns we’re going to visit, it’s actually too small a harbour to cope with our ship, so we’re parked (I believe that’s the correct nautical term) offshore, and travel the rest of the way in little tender boats. The general plan over the next week or so is that we can choose to go on a free tour of the location we’ve just stopped at, or pay a bit extra for a more detailed excursion: but there will also generally be some time for you to explore at your own pace. We’ve had a briefing that morning that told us about a few things to look out for, although it subsequently transpires that there’s at least one mistake in there – so don’t go looking for the Stykkishólmur Volcano Museum, it isn’t there any more. But we do get to see a couple of the local attractions: the Norwegian House (a nicely laid out collection of period furniture, although my favourite bit is the batshit chaos of the attic, used as a dumping ground for anything that doesn’t fit in the rooms), and The Library Of Water, a lovely conceptual art piece by Roni Horn featuring a series of floor-to-ceiling Perspex columns each filled with water from a different Icelandic glacier.
Have you ever seen a piece of art that completely changed the way you looked at life? Well, Library Of Water isn’t one of those, sorry. But it’s during this part of the holiday that I begin to realise that Jessica Auer’s Landvörður might be one. With her photographs and short films still in our memories from twenty-four hours earlier, we’re looking out across Stykkishólmur from our vantage point in the Library, nicely positioned at the top of a hill. Auer talked about people who’d moved to small coastal towns for the peace and tranquillity only for it to be destroyed by cruise traffic: and now here we are, looking out to sea at a liner that’s the biggest thing visible in all directions, which has just dumped 550 people into a town with a population of 1100, very few of whom will probably spend any money because they’ve already paid to have all their meals on the cruise. And you know just how many Hurtigruten passengers are in town, because they’re all wearing those sodding red and yellow jackets. (Okay, 'we're'.) You can see dozens of these little coloured figures in the distance, clambering up hills and strolling along cliff edges, and it reminds me of nothing so much as the last time I played Lemmings.
We join one of the official walking tours of Stykkishólmur, and that uneasy feeling still doesn’t quite go away. Our group of a couple of dozen is led by Gunnar, who used to be the headmaster of the local school: we pass a dozen or so people along the walk, and they all know him and say hello. He’s a massive cheerleader for the town – whenever he describes something about it he always finishes with the catchphrase “…and I love it,” even when he’s talking about the huge numbers of cruise parties and weekenders that infest the place. He’s particularly proud of the uniformity of the architecture: the houses are all built in a very specific early 20th century style, with heavy use of aluminium tin siding, and even the people from Reykjavik who only come up for two days a week are building their new holiday homes in the same style. His theory is that as it’s such a small, tight-knit community, gentrification isn’t a thing they really have there. We finish our tour at Gunnar’s old school, suspiciously arriving just in time to see the school band practicing the national anthem for an upcoming festival.
Our journey back to the ship is a bit choppier than the journey out, but we’re back in good time for the evening. We try out the ship’s sauna – mixed, with everyone wearing towels, and a lovely view out through what are hopefully one-way tinted windows – grab a burger at the ship’s street food restaurant Fredheim, attend a briefing about where we’ll be stopping off tomorrow, and still have time for a cheeky glass of wine in the bar before bed.
I fling open the blackout curtains on our cabin to discover that the tender boats are unloading directly underneath our window. (The BBG keeps calling them ‘tinder boats’, like I can always stop their crew from looking at us by swiping left.) We’re already at our next stop in Patreksfjörður, but before we get off we drop into the lecture hall for what will turn out to be a very useful lecture by the ship’s ornithologist, a cheerful Geordie called Sam. It’s fun seeing how utterly fascinated the non-Brits on the voyage are by his accent. A quick hop onto the tinders, and we’re on shore at Patreksfjörður by around 10:45.
Patreksfjörður is an even smaller harbour town than yesterday’s, with a population of around 700 and only two streets really worth speaking of. By coincidence, we’ve arrived on the day of the fisherman’s festival (or, as they awkwardly referred to it in this morning’s on-board announcement, ‘seamen day’). The impression we were given in last night's briefing is that the town is going to be a hive of frenzied activity, but I suspect that’s more likely to be the case in the afternoon – during the morning we’re there, virtually everyone else we see on the streets is wearing a Hurtigruten jacket. But it’s nice to pick up the subtle signs of what’ll be happening later: the town will split into red and blue teams for a gigantic tug-of-war competition, and you gradually realise that the buildings on the west side of town are all flying red flags and bunting, which suddenly turns to blue flags and bunting as you head eastwards.
Because we have plans for the afternoon, we grab a welcoming soup lunch from the Stúkuhúsið restaurant, which works perfectly apart from ten minutes of panic at the end when it looks like a wi-fi problem will prevent us from paying by card. This is probably a good time to mention something about this holiday that is a first for both of us: we have literally no cash with us. Nothing. You realise after a while that handling foreign money is one of the things that really makes you feel like you’re in another country, but everyone kept telling us that Iceland is totally cashless, so we chose to believe them. And it turns out that’s completely true, apart from this one little scare. Still, the wi-fi problem is eventually solved, and hopefully it wasn’t caused by me using it to download the new Soil & "Pimp" Sessions album onto my phone over lunch.
The delay means we're the last ones on the bus for our afternoon excursion. For the next six hours we’re travelling to the Látrabjarg bird cliffs and back, with over half of that time spent on the bus while guides Carl and Ursula tell us facts about the route in both English and German. Thanks to the simultaneous-ish translation, we now have a couple of new German words: pipipause for toilet stop, and wanderstöcke for walking poles. The cliffs themselves are loaded with kittiwakes, redwings and various other birds we’ve been primed for by Sam: the downside is the 450m drop, meaning you can’t really take pictures of them unless you get dangerously close to the cliff edge. We’re not really up for that, so are content with a walk along the safest bits of the cliff and then back, with The BBG getting a couple of cracking shots towards the end of a redwing and – achievement unlocked! - a single puffin, which you don’t see many of in these parts.
We get the last shuttle back to the ship at 7.15pm, so it’s been a longish day. After dinner – and the disappointment that the main Aune restaurant’s serving yet another buffet, despite the suggestion at the start of the cruise that it’d be largely a la carte – we have another two lectures to attend. Expedition leader Erin gives us some vaguer-than-usual hints about what's happening tomorrow, but the real fun comes with the talk from ship’s photographer Rune. We get an informative and entertaining presentation about how we can all take better photos, which happily assumes most of us are using either compact digitals or phones rather than decent equipment. His best advice is not to care how you look when you’re taking a shot – if people ask what you’re doing, just say you’re a photographer and you can get away with anything. Well, we’ll see about that.
Don’t look at that picture! Spoilers! Oh well, sorry about that. This is the route for the Circumnavigating Iceland cruise, and you’ll notice that there’s a mysteriously blank area in between Patreksfjörður and our next scheduled stop. That’s because today has been declared an Exploration Day, where the plan is to sail through some fjords and observe their majesty from the comfort of the ship... with one exception. Which is why at 9am, with breakfast still being digested, we’re being directed into tiny Zodiac boats – motorised rubber dinghies that hold twelve passengers and two crew – and going out for a half hour trip to see the Jökulfirðir fjords at closer quarters. That whole not-being-able-to-swim thing that took the shine off my visit to a four-foot-deep outdoor pool last week? It’s more of an issue now, but by holding on to the rail next to the boat’s controls we make it through unscathed.
We’re among the first of the groups to go out on the Zodiacs, and with over 500 passengers to get through (minus the scaredycats who have even less trust in the tiny lifejackets than we do) it takes till well after lunchtime to get everyone temporarily off the ship and on again, at which point we can gather on the main deck to start the afternoon's exploration session. At least, that's the plan - but we've been warned that the weather may conspire against our plans at various points, and this turns out to be the biggest disruption we encounter on the entire trip. For the most part the science crew are on deck helping us look out for any interesting wildlife on the Hornstrandir cliffs (including Sam on bird duty), but the increasing wind and bursts of rain make it impossible to see anything very much. The BBG and I decide to retreat into decadence: sure, we can't do any birdwatching on the deck, but we can go for a soak in the hot tubs on that same deck, followed by another sauna session, followed by poolside drinks accompanied by some harðfiskur dried fish that's being handed out as a free nibble.
The bird viewing session is postponed for a bit, and then eventually dropped. Still, we can get to see some interesting stuff while comfortably behind the ship's windows. And we get to wind down with drinks and a lecture from the ship's geographer Owen: it starts out as a talk on Icelandic folklore with examples, but by the end he's relaxed into telling the story of what attracted him to leave England for Iceland (volcanoes and glaciers, basically). As we finish off our beers at quarter to eleven and head back to our cabin, we notice that we're virtually the last ones out of the bar. Again. Honestly, what's the point of having twenty-four hours of daylight if you're not going to use it?