August 20, 2014

Experience Iceland on a Regent cruise

Find hot springs, cool glaciers and Viking history while on
a six-star cruise to this Scandinavian isle

By Karen Northridge

It was June 15. The day's temperature reached 95 degrees in New York City, and everyone moved in slow motion, as if the heat exerted its own gravitational force. Seeking relief, I plunked down on a shady lounge chair on the top deck of the Seven Seas Navigator of Regent Seven Seas, awaiting our departure. It wouldn't be long -- in less than an hour, the ship was scheduled to pull away from the dock to begin a 10-day cruise to Iceland, a land of glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes, Vikings and sagas.

We chose the long way to get there. Rather than a five-hour flight, we opted for six-star sailing with the intention of enjoying the journey as much as the destination. We knew that on the Navigator we would bask in luxury and comfort, and we would reach each port ready for adventure. The itinerary promised an interesting introduction to the eastern seaboard for our teenage son. It would make port calls in Boston, Bar Harbor and Halifax before getting into Viking territory with stops at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and Reykjavik, Iceland.

Our first taste of things to come swept in around 6 p.m. when a late-season nor'easter arrived. Suddenly, all hints of summer's imminent advent vanished. A cold wind chased me from my top-deck perch to a protected spot by the pool as we sailed past the Statue of Liberty. What an appropriate send-off for our journey.

By the time we docked the next morning, the crew had fully prepared the ship for this cool-weather sailing. Wool steamer blankets sat at the foot of each poolside lounge chair. Fleece and umbrellas replaced bikinis and sunscreen in the boutique. Tantalizing scents from the kitchen promised steaming hot clam chowder and lobster on the evening's menu.

Boston, our first stop in the territorial waters of the much-loved lobster, bursts with American history. Like a European city, much of Boston is easily seen on foot. From the North End's cafes to Beacon Hill's elegant brownstones, historic buildings nestle next to modern office towers.

The city enlivens its place in history with walking tours of the Freedom Trail. Paul Revere's home, the Old North Church and 14 other pivotal points of interest are connected by a 2.5-mile, easy-to-follow sidewalk path. We followed the trail under the tutelage of a knowledgeable and irreverent guide. With a knack for force-feeding history to recalcitrant adults, our guide added new spins to tales of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere's life and the many incarnations of the Boston Common. Possibly the most interesting revelation was this tidbit: In the days of our founding fathers, lobster was not deemed suitable for human consumption and instead was fed to livestock.

That night, after a meal fit for kings or livestock, we sailed for Bar Harbor, ME, with the Navigator's foghorn bellowing into the dark. The ship's gentle rocking and our cozy, down duvet-covered beds assured a deep and trouble-free sleep. When morning dawned cool and wet, we prepared for our day ashore with an extra layer of clothes and a hearty breakfast served on time in our room. As we ate, we watched the crew lower two lifeboats that would be used to ferry passengers to the dock, marveling at the apparent ease with which they maneuvered the cumbersome boats from six or more decks up.

Lobster traps and lighthouses, icons of the eastern seaboard, greeted us at Bar Harbor's wharf. Cafes squeeze invitingly between sports outfitters and whale-watching boats along the waterfront. Just two blocks from the harbor, downtown streets are lined with restaurants, shops and galleries featuring works of local artists.

The town, on the east side of Mount Desert Island, is part traditional New England fishing village and part resort escape. Its location between the Gulf of Maine and Acadia National Park once made it a summer playground for the well-heeled, including the Fords, Rockefellers, Carnegies and Vanderbilts. A fire in 1947 destroyed many homes and much of the park's forest.

The summer cottages were never rebuilt, but the forest has regenerated and now Acadia is one of the most visited national parks in the country. There are 120 miles of trails for hiking and 45 miles of former carriage roads for walking, biking and cross-country skiing.

We embarked on a hike with a naturalist guide, Michael Good of Down East Nature Tours, (207) 288-8128. Mike's specialty is native birds. He demonstrated their unique calls, cajoling them to answer so we could spot them. We trod the soft, fragrant path through the forest, across fallen trees and over spills of rocks and boulders deposited by a glacial river that once flowed through the area.

Leaving the protection of the forest canopy, we took a short drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain. At an altitude of 1,532 feet, it is the highest point on the North Atlantic coast. It's possible, we were told, to see vistas 100 miles away. On this day, however, fog reduced the visibility to less than 20 feet, creating an eerie disorientation when I peered over the cliff's edge. As I walked along a trail with a chilly drizzle sneaking down my collar, it wasn't long before I was convinced it was time to return to town to spend some time and money in the shops and galleries.

The next day's destination was Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax's busy harbor -- the second largest natural harbor in the world -- knows both fame and infamy. Renown arrived in 1912 with the courageous efforts launched from Halifax when the Titanic struck an iceberg 400 miles off Newfoundland's shore and sank. As for infamy, among the 100-plus shipwrecks at the bottom of Halifax Harbor are remains from the 1917 collision of two cargo ships, one carrying a full load of explosives bound for France. The result of this tragedy, the Halifax Explosion, destroyed much of the city and killed more than 2,000 people.

Both shipwrecks are vividly portrayed in exhibits at the city's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where the seafaring history and traditions of Halifax also can be explored. The museum is within a short and pleasant stroll along the waterfront boardwalk from the cruise ship pier.

Before visiting the museum, we began our day with a kayaking expedition near the fishing village of Lower Prospect. Led by guides from E.C.O. (East Coast Outfitters), our group set out across still water in colorful, sleek kayaks. Fog clung to the water's surface, obscuring distances and imposing a serene silence. Intrepid souls all of us, several were experienced paddlers, and some were not-so-experienced but soon mastered the rudimentary skills. One guide playfully dragged a sheet of kelp from the sea, revealing starfish and sea urchins clinging to it.

Within an hour, the early morning fog was gone, and with it the shy quiet of strangers. Now feeling gregarious and confident, we slid effortlessly among the sheltered coves and inlets, hearing the crashing waves of the open ocean on the other side of the breakwater. Back on shore, the guides surprised our small group with a feast of fresh steamed mussels and a chance to relish the setting a little longer.

After three successive days in as many ports, I was ready for a day at sea and a chance to enjoy the ship's facilities. Workouts in the fitness center, massage and salon appointments, casino action, fine art auctions and afternoon tea were among options. There was also time to learn more about our remaining port calls: L'Anse aux Meadows and Reykjavik. We had all the necessary resources: the ship's library, an Internet center and guest lecturers. And then there was our tour director, Katja Bross, whose love of travel is infectious.

When we rolled out of bed early on the morning of our arrival at L'Anse aux Meadows, the ship was listing heavily to port, forced by strong winds. From the balcony, I watched sheets of water crash across the bow and drench the crew as they prepared to drop anchor. The harbor is less welcoming than most, littered with rocky outcroppings of shale that send plumes of seawater skyward. We had reached the northern tip of Newfoundland, its place in history guaranteed since the 1960 discovery of a Viking outpost dated to A.D. 1000.

Feeling the cold winds and looking out on this remote, isolated land gives one a sense of the danger and adventure those explorers faced. Suddenly every image I've ever had of the Vikings rang true. This is a harsh place, with an inhospitable climate. And yet the Vikings used it as a welcome base camp, to rest and recover as they sought timber and other goods to take back to Greenland.

Once on shore, our first stop was Norstead, a re-creation of the Viking encampment. Visitors follow a boardwalk to seven sites that replicate life in 1002. Costumed guides with names like Kol-the-Good-Looking narrate and demonstrate their tasks. There is the smithy where a blacksmith makes nails, and a shipbuilder in the boat shed working on a full-scale replica of Leif Ericson's boat. We sampled pancakes in the cooking shed and tried ax throwing, which both my husband and son managed successfully, while my attempt bounced off the wall and came dangerously close to slicing off the instructor's toes.

Being a little lax on my history of the Vikings, I was surprised to see a Christian church. Under Norway's King Olaf, Leif Ericson converted from the Viking's pagan ways and demanded that all those accompanying him did so as well. Smirks and winks from the bearded Viking who explained this left room for doubt that all converts were devout.

Not far from Norstead is a national historic site where the remnants of eight Norse buildings provide proof of the Vikings' 11th-century arrival. Take the path from the visitors center to see the low-lying, sod-covered structures. The largest dwellings once housed 30 or more Norsemen at a time.

Instilled with the spirit of these adventurers and inspired by the landscape, we finished our tour and took off to explore some of the many trails and paths. We hiked across undulating hills, through thick, hip-high brush, over boulder fields and eventually back to the dock. Fortunately, our destination and resting place for the night was as luxurious as the Viking camp was rustic. We happily settled in for three days at sea with no port calls and no land between us and Iceland.

Iceland is a place of contrasts, where active volcanoes still add new territory and glaciers cover 11 percent of the land. It's a place where people enjoy rugged outdoor activities and legendary clubs and city nightlife. Geographically isolated, Iceland's language and culture have remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. Icelanders trace their heritage 22 generations, to either the early Celts or the Norse. The sagas, handed down with the family names, have helped preserve the traits of their forebears: thirst for adventure, feats of strength and willpower.

Reykjavik, Iceland's capital and largest city, calls itself a cosmopolitan village. Restaurants, clubs, museums, office towers and galleries provide a sophisticated, urban chic. With its strikingly sleek, modern architecture, it epitomizes Scandinavian design.

The safe and pedestrian-friendly downtown is great for exploring the cafes, bookstores and boutiques along its main streets. From almost any street corner downtown there are views. Look in one direction to see the sea. Turn, and there's nearby Mount Esja. Turn yet again to see the stunning Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. Brightly colored houses, public parks and welcoming plazas invite you to linger.

The name Reykjavik means "steamy bay" and refers to the city's natural geothermal springs and pools. More than 80 percent of homes in Iceland use clean, geothermal energy for heat. They say that Icelanders' secret to naturally robust health is their regimen of swimming and relaxing in the hot thermal springs while breathing the cold, fresh air. A bit skeptical but curious, we visited the Blue Lagoon, the most famous of the thermal spas. The facilities include a cafe, gift shop, changing rooms and showers. Local custom requires everyone to shower before putting on a swimsuit and entering the lagoon, so, fresh from a nice, hot shower, I made the icy dash from the locker room into the lagoon.

Ahhhh. What luxury! What relaxation! The super-heated water, dense with natural minerals and silica, does seem to have magical powers. Soon I noticed that fellow soakers had covered their faces with white silica mud -- a natural mask that performs miracles for the skin. (Too late I learned that what is great for the skin is not so good for the hair. The minerals refresh skin but temporarily give hair a strawlike texture.)

We'd seen the city and spas, but we still needed to see glaciers, waterfalls and more of the countryside before our time in Iceland ended. We gathered on the dock to meet the guide who would take us to Solheimajokull Glacier in southern Iceland. It was a cold, dreary morning with a hint of drizzle, but it was the best weather we encountered all day. Our guide, Fridjon Thorleifsson, reminded us of a popular local saying: "There is no bad weather, just poorly dressed people."

The two-hour drive revealed a rural side of Iceland we hadn't yet seen. Native Icelandic horses gathered and pranced on gently sloping fields of brilliant green with dramatic, volcanic mountains rising behind them. Occasionally we glimpsed sod-covered homes and barns built into the side of a mountain. Fridjon shared his knowledge of Iceland's history and geology. But, the real lessons began on the glacier as we strapped on our crampons, grabbed our ice picks and began our hike. Great fissures ran through the glacier, some so deep they appeared bottomless. Others announced their presence with the sound of wind and rushing water caught in a deep vortex.

We hiked through a steadily increasing rain and heavy fog for several hours, and stopped only to check our Global Positioning System or carve a mark to help us find our way back. Our destination was a three-sided ice bowl, ideal for beginning climbers. As my husband and son strapped on the harnesses that would allow them to be secured by a rope at the top, Fridjon insisted that climbing was not dependent on upper body strength.

This time, shivering, wet to the bone and smiling numbly, I was content to watch. Next time I'm in Iceland, I'll try it, too.

Information: For itineraries on Regent's six-star ships, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2006 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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