Monday 13th June 2022, Akureyri
You’ll notice that I haven’t said much so far about the other 500-odd passengers we’re sharing this cruise with. For the most part, we haven’t really engaged with them. There are two old people I’ve been quietly keeping my eye on who are both independently convinced they’re the leading characters on this cruise, and have something to contribute to every event whether the rest of us want to hear it or not. Them aside, it’s a more age-diverse group than I was expecting generally, but still skewing quite old. (And possibly skewing quite German, given the cruise’s choice of secondary language for announcements.)
The other thing worth pointing out is that there aren’t many opportunities when you find yourselves casually chatting to other people - everyone keeps themselves to themselves during mealtimes in particular, partly down to the erratically-enforced Covid restrictions. The idea is that you turn up at the restaurant in a facemask, give your name, wash your hands, and go to the table you're allocated to so that they can maintain distancing and run contact tracing in emergencies - but as the cruise progresses, more and more steps get missed out of that process. (A couple of months ago, Hurtigruten were insisting everyone should wear N95s when moving round the ship: by the start of this cruise it's been knocked down from 'insisting' to 'politely suggesting', and the masked/unmasked passengers are a 50-50 split.)
In this case, though, we end up chatting to a similarly-aged English couple as we disembark at Akureyri, possibly due to the novelty of being able to walk directly off the boat without the aid of tenders. As we walk away from the Fridtjof Nansen, we share our mutual experiences of having our bookings kicked down the line for a couple of years. Eventually we have to part ways, because they're walking into the centre of town, while we're heading off in a different direction to see if a local brewery is open at 9.30 in the morning, which is very much on brand for us.
It's true, Akureyri port is big enough to let our ship pull in completely. Although at that photography exhibition we went to last Thursday, Jessica Auer pointed out that the Fridtjof Nansen is a relatively small ship that would fit into most ports: she suspects that a lot of the time where they’re docking far enough away to require a transfer by tender, Hurtigruten are just doing it to give the passengers a bit of an extra thrill. To be honest, being in Akureyri is a big enough thrill already, because it’s the largest place outside of Reykjavik that we’ll visit, a city with a population of around 19,000. A group of 500 red-jacketed tourists is barely going to register in that, but we’ve got the best part of a day to have a good go at making an impact.
We’ve got the morning to ourselves, so we use it to do some tightly focussed pottering around. We walk out to the Einstök brewery, one of the few Icelandic beers to make any real impression in the UK: we subsequently discover that a) Einstök is merely the craft beer arm of the much larger Viking Brewery, and b) Viking is wholly owned by Coca-Cola, so it’s hardly craft by the usual definition of the term. We also marvel at the city’s two working cinemas (because we’re still a bit miffed that Reykjavik’s best one, Bio Paradis, chose to close for renovations during the month of our visit): have the inevitable gawp at Akureyrarkirkja, the spectacular Lutheran church at the centre: and wrap up with a coffee and bun lunch at Kristjánsbakarí.
In the afternoon we’ve got another one of our excursions, one of the few we've gone for that requires an additional payment on top of our package (Látrabjarg bird cliff was the first one). We’ve managed to wangle it so that all these extra excursions end up being covered by the additional spending money Hurtigruten gave us for not cancelling after the first or second postponement. Result! Aside from a stop en route at Goðafoss (which at any other time in my life would be considered a lot more highly than 'the second best waterfall I've seen this week'), the main focus of this trip is the Mývatn Nature Baths, the fourth location this holiday that’s required me to put on swimming trunks. It’s less obviously touristy than the Blue Lagoon, partly because it’s a long way from the capital, partly because of the wholly natural reek of sulphur coming off the place. It’s still pretty popular, though, and as you’re bathing in the open air pool you can literally see a JCB next door excavating a future extension. It ends up being the most enjoyable bathing experience we have on this trip: the big pool is well laid out with multiple entry points for the tentative bather, and there are smaller side areas like a steam room and a hot tub (the latter running at a feeble 41 degrees: I complain to The BBG that "I’ve pissed hotter," and she goes running off to check on NHS Direct). At the Blue Lagoon, people queue up at the poolside bar to take selfies: here, they do it because they fancy a drink, and that feels more authentic somehow.
The bus gets back to the port at 6.30pm. Everybody dutifully files off it and boards the ship: except for two people who head off in the opposite direction back into town. They did say we had three more hours till we left port, didn’t they? (Spoiler: they did.) We decide to go for dinner in the city rather than on the ship, starting with a beer at the Einstök Brewer's Lounge, a kinda sorta brewery bar that turns out to be, inevitably, just the upstairs room of a Viking brewery bar. The beers are still nice, although the offer of food shipped in from the sports bar next door doesn’t quite cut it, so we head to Hamborgarafabrikkan for burgers and minor panic over how long it takes to get served. The only real drink option is, ironically, pints of Viking lager, and we have to abandon those three-quarters through to rush back to the ship before it pulls out of port. We stay in our cabin for the rest of the day, watching the briefings for the next day on our TV's catch-up service, pausing occasionally to watch the ship slowly pull out of the gigantic fjord we came in through first thing that morning.
Here's another reason why we've been trying to get on this cruise at this particular time three years in a row: as of today, The Belated Birthday Girl and I have spent 21 years doing that thing we do. We are, to be frank, still as surprised by that as you are. It’s been quite the journey from the Borderline club to the Arctic Circle, and hopefully there are many more stops still to come.
Oh, yeah, you heard. Since leaving Reykjavik, the already short nights have been getting shorter and shorter as we get further north: since Sunday, we've been operating in midnight sun mode, with no darkness worth speaking of. Today marks the day that we get the farthest north we're going to go. So after breakfast we head out on the tenders to Grimsey island, population 50 or so, whose only attraction to the casual visitor is that the Arctic Circle passes through it, meaning that you can pass through the Arctic Circle.
Confusingly, there are two places where you can do this, and this is the one part of the cruise where we’ve been dropped off at the port and told ‘follow the path, you’ll work it out for yourselves.' Amusingly, a lot of people ignore that instruction quite quickly because the path drifts away from the coast, where there are lots of fun birds to observe. But by following the path, we eventually hit the island’s hotel, and the signpost behind it marking what they claim is the spot. We’re rewarded with a short ceremony involving climbing some steps and drinking some cod liver oil – curiously, most people go back down the steps the way they came rather than crossing the boundary, imaginary though it is. We take a short cut back to the path and are briefly harassed by Arctic terns, though in retrospect they were just warning shots over the head rather than full on attacks for approaching their nests.
Back on the path, we take the long walk down to the more accurate marker we've been told about - Orbis et Globus, the nine-ton concrete ball that marks the current position of the Circle (and is relocated every so often to mark how the Arctic Circle is moving). We have a few goes at taking a selfie there, like most other people: I politely refuse the help of a passer by, realising too late that I’ve just turned down the offer of a picture by Rune, the ship’s photographer. Despite ending up with a bad case of sunburn, it’s a delightful experience being somewhere where the only sounds you hear are waves and birds, right up to the point where a small private plane suddenly lands on the runway next to the hotel. Back at the harbour (with The BBG getting several more bird photos on the way), we grab waffles for lunch at the gallery cafe before heading back to the ship.
We're at sea for the rest of the day now, and if there's one thing that could be considered as a cock-up on the entire voyage, it's this next bit. As the ship pulls out of the harbour, we get to cross the Arctic Circle one more time, and there's a traditional on-board ceremony that accompanies this involving people getting baptised with ice. The schedule says they'll be doing it five times for each of the decks: this turns out to be a lie. We actually hear the first one taking place, screams and all, but the other four never happen. We're briefly annoyed at missing out on the fun, but that's before we see the whales.
When we hear the baptism ceremony happening, we're just one deck above it, taking part in what's billed as a whale watching session. Yeah, right. I assume this'll be like when I went on a dolphin cruise in Hong Kong in 2001 and saw absolutely nothing. But there's a system in place here: there are dozens of us on deck looking out to sea, and yelling to our resident whale expert Maeva when we think we see something. She looks out in that direction, tells us if we're mistaken or not, and if we're not we all point our cameras that way. But even she's excited at the sheer number of whales we catch in the space of 90 minutes or so. By the end we're all yelling out sightings - "Blow! Breech! Tail!" - like we're auditioning for Moby Dick or something.
We unofficially keep the whale watching through the window during dinner. A quick word about the catering at this point: we have three restaurants on the ship. Aune is the one where they serve breakfast and most of the standard meals - theoretically most of them should be a la carte, but they seem to fall back on buffets a little too much. Fredheim is the more casual street food place, useful because it doesn't shut between lunch and dinner, though we never use it for that purpose. Because it's our anniversary, tonight we have dinner at Lindstrøm, the fancy place that's mostly for the people in the suites, although us plebs can eat there too for a €25 supplement. We wrap up the day by watching ornithologist Sam pull a short lecture out of his arse with zero preparation, getting some interesting info about our next port of call, and finishing up with the inevitable boat drinks.
Another early start, and another death-defying ride in a small rubber Zodiac boat over to Bakkagerði. After Sunday's zig-zaggy journey in blustery weather, this calm straight run is a comparative doddle, and I've even worked out by now how to get the lifejacket on and off more or less unaided.
Bakkagerði is actually a village about seven kilometres away from the harbour by bus, with a population of just over 100. Our local guide is the schoolteacher, whose class currently has half a dozen kids and should have more in a while as she's visibly pregnant. Considering that the village gets a grand total of three paragraphs in our Rough Guide, it's a decent tour. We see Álfaborg, the hill where the queen of the elves lives (there's a lot of that around here, and all the locals remain deadpan when you ask them if they believe it or not): the church with an extraordinary painting by local artist Johannes Kjarval (the man who gave his name to that one bit of the Reykjavik Art Museum that was closed when we visited) which controversially asks the question ‘what if the Sermon on the Mount, but with elves’: the grass covered house that’s on the verge of being converted into a museum, and much much more.
It's a village that's obviously very keen to expand, with lots of construction work filling in the gaps in some of the amenities (for example, a new swimming pool's on the way). As if to indicate full gentrification, they had a new brewery taproom open just a few weeks ago, featuring a range of beers named after the 'hidden folk'. Sadly, because it's only open in the evenings, we miss out on our one chance to spend some money here - the only one of our stops where we haven't been able to contribute to the local economy. I mean, yes, we do pay a visit to the local eiderdown outlet, but for the love of God look at those prices.
The bus drops us back at the harbour, which has another bird cliff attached. It's worth plotting the trajectory of our puffin experiences at this point. On Saturday we were ecstatic to see one solitary bird at Látrabjarg: by Tuesday we were surprised to see dozens of them in Grimsey: and today there are hundreds of them virtually running up to your camera to pose for you, and it has to be said we're all getting a little bit jaded. Still, we have loads of puffin photos now, and you may see more of them eventually.
As for the rest of the day, it's all spent back on board the ship. The pool bar offers us the chance to sample Icelandic chocolate doughnuts, which are apparently a thing. Owen gives a talk on Iceland’s long history of volcanic activity, in preparation for tomorrow’s excursion. We go up on deck in the evening for what's claimed to be a session of cloud monitoring: but there are a total of five people up there, all walking round waiting for something to happen and not talking to each other, and eventually we all give up. Mind you, the lack of cloudwatching action may have something to do with the murky fog that comes in late in the afternoon. It gives a surreal edge to our hot tub session on deck, where you can’t tell which wave sounds are from the infinity pool and which are from the sea. We follow that up with a similarly odd session in the sauna, which for a change is moderately busy and full of people of both sexes ignoring the no nudity rule. Especially a pair of guys who are virtually teabagging the hot coals. This happens exactly one week after we saw two guys playing bouzouki tunes on their foreskins, so it could have been worse.
The last full day of the cruise is so full, we'll need to break it down into timeslots.
9.00am – a presentation on how tomorrow's disembarkation is going to work, particularly in light of a complication that I won't tell you about until part 4. 9.30am – our last stint of on-deck nature watching, though there isn't much to see. 10.00am – to the pool bar (though the pool's currently drained) for champagne and Icelandic roe. I manage to tip most of the latter inside the sleeve of my Hurtigruten jacket while attempting to eat it, which leads me to suspect that I may not be cut out for this lifestyle.
10.30am – Ursula hosts a lecture on the Icelandic language, not so much to help us on land (everyone speaks English anyway), but more as a fun look at the quirks of pronunciation and naming. For example, after the Yanks came over for WW2, there was a glut of children born whose patronymic name was effectively SomeSoldier'sson. 11.15am – everyone heads out on deck to watch our approach into the island harbour of Heimaey, population 4000 and change. It’s been sold to us as the aquatic equivalent of landing at Hong Kong airport in the early 90s, but navigating in between fjords rather than skyscrapers. The level of drama's been oversold, but it’s a fine piece of steering by the crew, led by a tiny tugboat. 12.00pm – very fast lunch of gnocchi, as we've got to get off the ship straight after that.
12.45pm: we're taking a boat tour round Heimaey with local guide B, who has lots of cheeky anecdotes involving birdshit, as there’s a lot of that around. She’s also good at pointing out the challenges of living in such an isolated community, particularly one that had a massive volcanic eruption in 1973 – one that was so massive that it literally changed the shape of the harbour. This is the point where you start noticing the huge lava formations you can see everywhere: it puts minor hassles like 'you have to go to Reykjavik for surgery' into perspective when people start referring to Heimaey as 'Iceland's Pompeii'. The excursion’s been sold as a circumnavigation (it's our last paid one), but it’s more a trip around two thirds of the coastline and back again, so it doesn’t matter which side of the boat you sit on.
2.45pm: it’s our own time from here on in till the boat leaves at 7.30pm, so we cram in a few things. We start at the post office, where we spend an obscene amount of money on stamps for our postcards. (Our friends will contact us a couple of weeks later to let us know that we're the first people to send them postcards in three years, which somehow makes it feel worth it.) We visit the Eldheimar Museum, which tells the story of the 1973 eruption: its various interactive gimmicks sometimes get in the way of the story, which is actually best told by the preserved ruin of a house that took the full whack. We walk back towards the harbour through the lava fields, which gives another perspective on that story. And we wrap up our time on Heimaey with a couple of beers (and the writing of 22 postcards) at the taproom of The Brothers Brewery, which means that The BBG can clock up another notch on this year's project.
7.00pm: we're back on board for dinner, which is a celebratory seafood buffet to mark our last night at sea, and rather terrific – we end up spending two hours over it, including a few glasses of wine. 9.00pm: off to the bar for a farewell glass of fizz with the captain, accompanied by a splendid video of the trip that Rune’s put together. (I've been shooting bits of video with a view to making something similar myself, and he's set the bar annoyingly high.) All this booze plays havoc with our attempts to finish off the day by packing our cases, but we somehow manage it anyway.