Cruising the North Atlantic to Iceland, The Faroes and The Westman Islands
THERE are many cruise line operators who have the Northern Isles, Faroe Islands and Iceland among their must-see destinations,. We were fortunate to get the chance hop aboard the German-registered Deutschland when she docked overnight in Shetland, to catch the last leg of a much longer itinerary that had earlier in its passage taken in various UK ports and would later set us back ashore on our home soil in the Firth of Forth.
Iceland is the most other-worldly place…and moving in more ways than one.
After our cruise ship had docked at Reykjavik, and we were ashore and well outside the city, it felt as if we might have landed on the moon.
Crossing a moss-smothered plateau peppered with misshapen dollops of once-molten lava, great gaping chasms appear, caused by shifting tectonic plates on the earth’s crust, and sending jagged peaks shooting skyward.
As the gorge at Thingvellir opens up before us, we discover that some of the fissures which scar the landscape here continue to ease apart at the rate of two centimetres a year.
Our guide, warning visitors to tread carefully, told how a Canadian tourist stepped too close to the edge of one of the narrower cavities, and, losing her balance, dropped feet-first inside.
“Thank goodness,” she recalled, “the woman was blessed with big bosoms which prevented her from disappearing into the bowels of the earth.
“Some boy scouts were nearby and managed to free her with much muscle power and ingenuity.”
Those of us at least who just didn’t measure up chest-wise, heeded her advice and stayed well clear of the edge of the abyss, and thought it might be clever to wear a backpack next time, just in case.
There’s movement of another kind just a short drive further on, past surreal-like fields of wild purple lupins. You hear about hot springs and bubbling sulphur pools but nothing prepares you for the sight of the real thing. They spurt and splutter, occasionally taking onlookers completely by surprise when they send hissing shafts of boiling water shooting hundreds of feet into the air from the deepest, hottest core of the Earth’s internal inferno.
At a spot fiittingly called Geysir we marvel at the burbling blow hole which lets rip. Edgily, folk look around to get their bearings just in case a quick exit is required.
Locals, have used their ingenuity to harness Mother Nature’s idiosyncrasies, tapping hot steam into their glasshouses. At Hveragerdi – the “garden of hot springs” – bemused visitors find fresh carrots and tomatoes gift-wrapped for sale amongst the tourist souvenirs.
Next day our excursion takes us to yet another unworldly place, Vestmannaeyjar or The Westman Islands, where we learn how a third of the fishing port on the biggest island in the archipelago, Heimaey, was wiped out in the space of hours in the middle of the night back in January 1973.
As five thousand souls lay asleep in their beds, the dormant volcano on which they had built their homes burst into furious life. In the space of twelve hours, the entire population was evacuated by fishing boat and small craft.
Within six months, as the lava cooled and the threat of further eruptions subsided, they were rebuilding their lives and their homes on this odd little spot on the planet.
They beckoned in the unsettling way that a fairground freak show might. We were compelled to go for a closer look but felt uneasily nervous in the process.
Fishing is everything to the hardy inhabitants.
For centuries, generations have learned the art of survival and today, young lads still swing by rope from foothold to foothold high above sheer cliffs where Guillemots and Fulmars nest, continuing the custom of collecting eggs for breakfast.
“They taste very good and are incidentally, very good for your sex life,” proclaimed Ruth, our guide, with a teasing smile.
The Faroe Islands were our next destination, and beaming a welcome on the quayside was Zakarias Wang, confessing right from the start that he’d never done this before but had agreed to step in at the last moment to help out his daughter, a professional tour guide, as she had become too unwell to fulfil her duties that day.
We warm to him straight away and are smitten by his honest-as-the-day-was-born character. We later discover he is a veritable fount of knowledge on all things Faroese and an author who is a leading authority on the subject and held in high regard by the fellow countrymen and women.
As he introduces himself, he thanks us for bringing good weather.
“It is the hottest day of the year so far – thirteen degrees” – he says, provoking laughter.
On a coach tour of his homeland, he covers all of the angles – and much more – doing the best he can to keep us informed and entertained, and enthusing over everything the eye can see. While presenting a well-informed commentary as we drive through startlingly beautiful landscapes, past hillsides and shorelines dotted with homesteads all with grass-topped roofs, he searches for more thoughts to keep us fully informed, he tells us: “The fields are mainly for cultivation of grass for the sheeps,” sounding too serious by far. “For the humans, we grow the potatoes and the rhubarbs!
“Be warned if you are planning a bathing occasion, it is not good to come here. Not even in July!”
We manage to grab a few minutes with the man who has won our hearts and he is pleased to learn that Brenda and I are from Scotland, telling us with great delight that he starts his day, every day as soon as he is awake, by tuning in to BBC Radio Scotland.
When I get back at the end of the trip, I contact a journalist friend who is part of the early morning BBC news team in Glasgow, to let him know about this wonderful man who is a regular listener way up north in the Faroe Islands, and two days later, when he is presenting the news, he makes a point of giving Mr Wang a namecheck, hopefully to take him completely by surprise and let him know we’re happy to have him aboard.
Back onboard ship, conversation at the restaurant tables invariably revolves around the Faroese diet as we ponder yet another feast.
No Fulmar eggs or sheeps on the menu tonight.