Searching for the Vikings

Sunday, August 13 - Day 12: Reykjavik, Iceland

We woke up very early. There’s a good reason for that. Donnie, who loves to plan things, planned for our breakfast. I suspect, but I’m not sure, that she’s planned out the rest of my life. She thought that to save time, since we had to be in the theater at 7:20, she would order room service breakfast to be delivered to our room so we could wash, dress, and perform other morning activities, like self-assessment, while eating in our room. I like to do morning self-assessment. I say to my self “Self, Is this you?” Usually I reply “Self, I don’t know, it’s too early in the morning.” So, she hung the breakfast request card outside our door requesting breakfast between 6:00 and 6:30 AM. Naturally, they delivered it at 5:45 AM. They wanted to make sure it wasn’t delayed. We were still in bed. I had to struggle into a bathrobe to answer the door.  

We were at the theater at 7:20 and there wasn’t, as we expected, a bunch of people sitting around waiting to be called. Instead there was already a line of people heading down to the gangway. Looks like they move really fast on this ship. Given the average chronicity (age) of this group, I wonder how. We walked down the five flights (Donnie hates it when I use the elevator. She claims that the stairs are better for my health. I think elevators are very healthy. My button-pushing finger has never been stronger) and were soon in the bus for our excursion, “The Best of the Golden Circle”.

The Golden Circle is an “Iceland Tourism Board Marketing Department” name for a bunch of sights that are of interest to most of the tourists that come to Iceland. There are lots of companies that do Golden Circle tours, and some people rent a car and drive around doing the tour on their own. This one was “The Best of” because they only went to four places. I guess that the tours that go to the other places are called “The Worst of the Golden Circle”.

The weather wasn’t quite “Gay Pride Parade” weather, but was much better than “Kravitz Curse” weather. It was cool but not cold, mostly cloudy with occasional sun peeking through the clouds. As the bus pulled out, we saw a rainbow, and it was a complete rainbow, you could see both ends reaching the ground. I took it as an omen of a good day.

Our tour guide was an attractive Icelandic young woman named Anna, who poured some Icelandic facts into our heads during the 45 minute drive to the first sight. She told us that Iceland has a population of about 330,000, and that there are more sheep than people. She said that the weather in Iceland is very variable. She told us about the snowfall, and she then explained about the sudden changes in wind. She said it frequently rains sideways. She told us that, especially during the summer, the Icelandic people love the outdoors, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and golf (Golf? Really?) She said Iceland has more golf courses per capita than anywhere else. I guess they have the room for it. She said that many have summer homes that they go to, and she pointed out where they were. They must really hate being in the city, because the summer home locations gave new meaning to the phrase “middle of nowhere”. She also told us that the temperature in the summer averages about 15 degrees celsius, and can get as high as 20. (a balmy 59 degrees fahrenheit to a sweltering 68. Whew!).

She told us that Iceland had lots of trees a long time ago, but the Vikings and the other early settlers cut them down to make ships, houses, fires, popsicle sticks, and toothpicks and they have only started replanting them recently. That, and the fact that they grow slowly due to the almost three minutes of sun per year, means that they are all very small. She said that many of the small shrubs we saw were really trees.

Then she told us an Icelandic joke: “How do you leave an Icelandic forest? You stand up.” That one was a real knee-slapper. Then again, if you are stuck inside your hut in Iceland for several months during the very long winter and it’s ten degrees outside and the wind is blowing at fifty miles per hour and the snow is falling sideways and is already five feet deep, maybe that is a really funny joke. They probably tell it to each other several times at night, which is also really, really long.

The first stop on the tour was a place called Thingvellir National Park. When Anna pronounced Thingvellir, it sounded like one syllable. This place was really astonishing. The most breathtaking sight on the whole tour, maybe the whole cruise. During the geology lecture the other day, we learned about plate tectonics and how Iceland was right on top of the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates and since the plates were separating, Iceland was being pulled apart. We just saw the place where it’s happening, it’s called a Rift. There were these astounding huge rock formations that were basically giant cracks in the Earth. Here we were, walking through giant cracks in the Earth where geology is happening right now. Mind-bending. This place was so special that the early Viking settlers held their outdoor Parliament-like meetings right here.

The sun didn’t quite cooperate for the pictures, but that’s Ok, it has cooperated enough for this weekend. We walked for quite a distance on a gravel path through the rift, took a zillion pictures and then walked back. Anna attempted to herd the Rotterdam passengers back into the bus, and eventually succeeded. We were then off to the next sight.

During the one hour bus ride to the next Golden Circle sight, Anna told us about two of the Icelandic national dishes. One, Plokkfiskur, was basically fish mixed with mashed potatoes. The other, a famous one, was Hakari, fermented, rotten shark. Anna said that they filet the shark, and since this kind of shark is basically full of urea (urine), they bury the shark fillets and cover them with heavy rocks to press out the urine and ammonia. They leave them buried for several weeks until they start to rot, and then uncover them, dry them for several months, and cut them into small cubes which they serve on toothpicks to scare off the tourists. She said that Anthony Bourdain, the chef, writer, and TV personality has said it was the worst thing he ever tried. She said that the taste stays with you for three days. Barbara, the ship’s location guide had mentioned them before and said to avoid any little white cube things on toothpicks offered to you, even if they are labeled “Turnips”.

Our next stop on the tour was the geothermal hot spring area called Geysir. Funny thing, it’s got some geysers. There’s a good reason for that. The name Geysir is Icelandic and the English word geyser is taken from that. There were several steaming hot water holes, fumaroles, I think they’re called, but they weren’t geysers, which occasionally shoot water and steam high into the air. There was one real geyser which did that approximately every seven minutes, so we watched two eruptions. Anna said that the original one, the one named Geysir, stopped working about a year ago, so fortunately there was a stand-in.

I should mention that all except the last of the four Golden Circle sights we saw today had very large parking lots, filled with dozens of tour buses and hundreds of tourists. They all had souvenir shops, packed with souvenir-hungry tourists. Some had snack bars or cafeterias. These places are extraordinarily popular. To give you an idea, there are two Holland America ships docked in Reykjavik today: the M.S. Rotterdam, and the M.S. Koenigsdam, which is a much larger ship. In the Golden Circle parking lots, there were many, many tour buses, parked so close together that it was hard to get between them. Each one usually had a paper sign in the front window describing the tour company, the tour, and a bus number. Ours indicated it was sponsored by Holland America, was for the “Best of the Golden Circle” tour, and we were in bus 5. So imagine our amazement when we saw the sign for the Holland America, “Best of the Golden Circle” bus number 28. And that was just the Holland America excursion buses.

Anna worked hard gathering all the stragglers back into the bus at each stop. She had a tight schedule because the ship is leaving Reykjavik at 5:00 and the “all aboard” is 4:30. She is supposed to get us back at 3:30. I think they give themselves a little safety time, in case of a problem, like stubborn stragglers or serious souvenir hunters. So I think she was frustrated by the stragglers who sauntered back to the bus 10 or 15 minutes after the announced meeting time.

The next stop was only about a five minute drive from Geysir. It was the Guilfoss, which means “Golden Waterfall”. We were supposed to have lunch there before walking down the path to the falls. This one was exceedingly crowded. The parking lot was full of buses and cars and vans and several hundred tourists, maybe several thousand. Anna walked us through the crowded souvenir shop into the crowded cafeteria and we sat down at closely-packed crowded tables marked “Holland America Rotterdam Bus 5”, where we were served water, rolls, tomato soup, and after a long delay, some salmon. I don’t like salmon, unless we’re talking about smoked salmon. I love that. So I left the table hungry. This was the “included two course lunch” mentioned in the excursion description. I did taste a little of Donnie’s salmon, and it was pretty good, for salmon. She liked it. The tomato soup was good too. The water was excellent.

We waited for Anna to gather us together and we walked the path down to the falls. We have seen a lot of waterfalls, in a lot of places, so it’s not easy to impress us, but this one was pretty impressive. The sun was out even. It’s difficult to write a lot about waterfalls. I’ll try. Gravity, Hydrodynamics, Friction, Evaporation, Acoustics, Potential energy, Thermodynamics. How was that? For brevity’s sake, I won’t get down to the Quantum Mechanics level.

Most people were back on the bus in time, except for one woman who thought that the departure time was ten minutes after one, when Anna had announced ten minutes to one, several times. A mere twenty minute discrepancy.

The last stop on the tour, after an hour and a half bus ride, was a Geothermal Power plant. This one only had a few buses in the parking lot, but it did have a sort of souvenir shop in the lobby. It was an ultramodern building, and big pipes stretched out from it along the ground in every direction. These pipes, we were told by one of the staff, pump hot fluid, heated by the local volcano, from way below the surface, which is then used to heat water which then turns to steam which then drives generators, and then the hot water and electricity are sent to Reykjavik where they are used to light lights and heat homes and do whatever people want to do with hot water. The hot fluid is then pumped back into the ground. We went up to the balconies on the outside of the third floor through the doors bearing the sign “Emergency Exit”, which the staff person told us to ignore, to see the big pumps behind the building. There was another room with the generators. Donnie and I skipped the video presentation. We were only given half an hour at the Geothermal Power Plant, but you really didn’t even need that much time to see it.

So, back to the bus and after another half-hour ride, we said goodbye to Anna and the bus driver, whose name I couldn’t quite get, and we were back on the ship at 4:00, hungry and very, very tired, both from the walking and from the lack of sleep. It’s a little after 6:00 as I write this, and my lovely, tired wife is fast asleep.

The “Best of the Golden Circle” excursion was very worthwhile. Thingvellir was indescribable, even though I tried above to describe it, but I think the second best thing, after Thingvellir, was the Icelandic countryside with craggy mountains, gentle hills, many unearthly lava fields, and moss covered rocks. Today there were even nice white puffy clouds in the mountains. Due to the paucity of trees, it was somewhat barren looking in places, but still very beautiful. I, to my surprise, really like Iceland and Reykjavik. Too bad about the winter or I would even consider living there. The good news is that this cruise is going to three more ports in Iceland. There will still be plenty of chances to have rotten shark.

We had an early dinner, around 7:00, which since it was later than 5:30 meant that the Lido buffet was starting to close, even though it’s supposed to stay open until 8:00. We have discovered that the buffet closes very early most nights, and rarely has more than a few people at dinner time. We suspect, once again, that everybody eats in the dining room at 5:30, goes to the 8:00 show, and then to bed. We didn’t go to a show tonight, firstly because we are tired from not enough sleep, and secondly, and perhaps more significantly, there is no show tonight.

There are now two Sea Days ahead of us before we get to Norway, so we will have time to rest and recover and drink more Gin and Tonics and Mojitos.

Click HERE to see more of the best pictures.