On the first day I went swimming three times and spent 20 minutes on the running machine – well, gently ambling while watching the horizon gently tilting. By day two, however, my pledge to the bathroom scales that I would not indulge in afternoon tea, show restraint with the wonderful dining and certainly avoid the midnight buffet had been thoroughly broken.
As the stunning coast of Iceland appeared there was nothing for it but to accept this was going to a holiday of calories as well as culture, indulgence to match the inspiration and dining decadence to balance the dizzying discoveries.
If you haven’t guessed yet you clearly haven’t been on a Fred. Olsen cruise and certainly haven’t enjoyed one of these maritime marvels on an all-inclusive basis, which means for a ridiculously small amount a good selection of wines, beers, spirits, not to mention soft drinks are just a signature away.
Of course, being on a cruise ship also means if that volcano under the glacier does blow you won’t be stranded at an airport for who knows how long!
Fortunately my dinner with the Captain was early in the cruise so I could still do up my dinner suit trousers. For the other two formal evenings (other nights are smart causal, no jacket required) I just wore a suit with a more generous waistline, should we say.
Everyone loves meeting the captain on a ship. A happy little chap and his sister were very pleased that he had let them sound the fog horn when we had sailed through a bit of North Sea mist earlier that day. Speaking of children, there is a wide age range on this cruise. Yes, lots of people enjoying their pensions but also young families with children, couples of all ages and a substantial number of single travellers.
The first formal dinner was a particular fine affair as it always is dining with Fred as you browse the menu, trying very hard not to order every course, but the portions are kept to a sensible size so you can actually enjoy a five course meal without watching your trouser button fly across the restaurant.
I had opted for this cruise as the only way to arrive at an island is by sea and then go exploring. On dry land, as we headed for the Thingvellir National Park, about 50 kilometres from Reykjavik, the heavens opened and we really got a feeling for the isolation, the exposure and the vagaries of weather in this island that lies just below the Arctic Circle. Yet by lunchtime the sun was shining and we enjoyed the incomparable landscapes of this young island.
Even the classic one day trip from Reykjavik that takes in the “Big Three”: Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss, includes more unique experiences than most entire holidays. At Thingvellir you can walk through a huge volcanic rock outcrop that has split because of its location on the Mid Atlantic Ridge between the American and Eurasian plates that are slowly separating. At Geysir the geothermal activity is evident in huge spurts of water. Fortunately there is nothing dodgy about this geyser apart from its ability to gush into the air just when you lowered your camera. Fortunately if you wait for only a few minutes longer this geothermal pressure cooker doesn’t fail to deliver. Geysers are all named after this big spurting fella in Iceland.
Yet the next stop was without doubt the most spectacular, the Gullfoss or Golden Waterfall, where the Hvita River crashes over two dramatic falls and majestic rapids throwing the spray high into the sky to come back down like rainfall. It then cuts its way through a channel cut through the rocks by millennia of erosion. It is, as one guide commented, a geologist’s Disneyland.
There is also time to explore the city itself surrounded by the sea and the mountains that form such an idyllic setting for what has become one of the world’s hippest cities. Although this was a midweek evening there were still lots of young people milling around and apparently as the light finally fades the places gets lively. But I was happy with exploring the city with a couple of hours of easy evening walking from the painted wooden or corrugated iron buildings, the famous concrete cathedral and the ultra-modern new concert hall, the Harpa.
The next day we headed out to the other must do in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon. It is actually the by-product of a thermal plant where excess boiling water is mixed with sea water to fill pools. When you dip into the six million litres of warmth in the midst of a remarkable lava field that poured onto the earth’s surface 800 years ago the magic is incomparable.
The sail-away party on the decks of the Black Watch from this south western corner of the island made way for a wonderfully light evening, watching the coastline of Iceland passing by, as the ship headed for Akureyri, even closer to the Arctic Circle. The ship also crossed the Arctic Circle where the crew created a fun bit of nautical nonsense with Neptune making the Captain kiss a fish, doused him in ice water and threw him in the pool.
Akureyi is also a great place to get onto a smaller boat to go whale watching. I have spent many an hour looking out to sea and seeing nothing but on this trip I was surprised how many humpback whales came to say hi.
This amazing coastline is rich with seabirds including puffins, a wealth of dolphins and from the shop you even see the occasional hump back whales. When the captain spotted whales he turned the ship around so we could enjoy these majestic mammals and then headed back on. The joy of a smaller Fred Olsen ship is being able to hug the coastline and take this sort of manoeuvre.
After another Icelandic stop on the east coast we headed out to the Faroe Islands. Arriving in the grey morning light the islands appear as a collection of sharp peaks rising out of the Norwegian Sea. The Fred Olsen cruise did not stop at Tórshavn, the capital of the autonomous country that is within the Kingdom of Denmark. Rather we stopped at Runavik on a separate island, very much a place to start trekking or take a drive around the island. These islands are, like Iceland, a dream for nature lovers and also for geologists.
Homeward bound and a last day at sea, more relaxing, then suitcase packing and an end of the wonderful service, endless dining and entertainment balanced with unforgettable seascapes, geological marvels and natural wonders.
On our journey back to Newcastle, news stories started appearing about an eruption starting North of Vatnajokull Glacier which, if it blew, threatened to make the last ash cloud disruption seem like a minor inconvenience for air travellers. So far it has been reasonably well behaved.
Even without such an event the fact that we had no airport queues, delays, arguments over hand luggage, clinking bottles in carrier bags or lugging our suitcases around to contend with reinforced the enormous pleasure of cruising from a UK home port.
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at www.fredolsencruises.com Book online, call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 (Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm; Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sunday, 10am – 4pm), or see an ABTA travel agent.