21 August, 2023

Iceland's Big Smoke...

Finally, it got close to having to say farewell to the National Geographic Explorer and go our own way. We had been residing in cabin 218 for 26 days, and were now looking forward to 'holding our own hand', so to speak, in Iceland for a couple of weeks. On the last night on board, the Captain told us more about the vessel, and introduced us to crew members, many of who we never see. The Explorer is much older than the NatGeo Resolution that we had enjoyed for Norway and Svalbard, but it was a magnificent expedition ship in excellent condition. It has 81 cabins, holding 148 passengers, and the crew must double that number. The Explorer was first launched in 1982 from a Norwegian shipyard under the name Midnatsol, midnight sun, so it was obviously always intended for polar waters. Somewhere in its life it was renamed Lyngen until acquired by Lindlad/National Geographic in 2008. COVID saw the Explorer at anchor off Frederikshavn, Denmark for quite a while. It's 112m long, can do 15.4 knots and has ice classification 1A, meaning, it seems, its additional strengthening makes it good for up to 0.8m of first year ice. We didn't have any ice to plough through on this trip. The crew on board follows a familiar (to us) pattern (pattern, not rule: there are plenty of exceptions): the captain and officers are invariably European, the seamen are Filipinos as are the hotel staff, although the chef was a Swede and the wellness coordinator was a New Zealander. The Expedition Team are mostly Americans but it has to be said that NatGeo work hard to complement the crew with local naturalists and experts. The Expedition Team are proficient at Zodiac handling and share the tendering operations with the seamen. The actual National Geographic photographers are celebrities, said to be mostly Americans, but we met two who were not. We cannot speak highly enough about anyone on this crew. We have little experience on board non-NatGeo/Lindblad vessels, but cannot imagine better and more friendly service anywhere else. The passengers are 90% American with only a sprinkle of Aussies, Kiwis and Euros. We think greater diversity would improve conversation on board. But it's sad to leave the ship.

The self-deprecating skipper of the NatGeo Explorer, Peik Aalto, tells us more about the ship, and introduces his crew. [1797]

Also on the last night, we enjoyed a video assembled by Alex, one of the ship's photo instructors, containing a selection of images submitted by passengers and crew on the expedition. As usual, this is quite fascinating, to see other people's perceptions of the things we have all seen! To make it doubly interesting, the video had a live violin accompaniment, by Karin, a historian on the Expedition Team. Karin is someone out of left-field, a fascinating member of the crew, certainly unlike the other naturalists on the Team. Her doctorate (Memorial University of Newfoundland) is on nautical folklore and ghost ship legends. Her masters was on Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland. Karin is not your usual expeditioner. She spent her spare time painting water colours on the ship, and greatly enlarged our experience and pleasure on this voyage, topped off by her musicianship! Thank you Karin!

Karin, a very special Canadian member of the Expedition Team, sporting a PhD in mythology and folklore, also proved her musical talent with live performances. [1778]

Alex may be praying, but it's more likely he's preaching some great tips about expedition photography. [1777]

One of the reasons we are attracted to Lindblad/National Geographic expeditions (apart from the small vessels, access to places impossible for bigger ships, getting into museums before they open, luxurious accommodation, great food, off-boat activities, expert naturalists, photo instructors etc etc) is that there is always (almost) a published National Geographic photographer on board. For the first half of the NatGeo Explorer's segment of this trip we had Todd Gipstein, and for the second half, Sisse Brimburg. These fabulous photographers, with totally different approaches to their trade and how they go about mentoring us duffers, added greatly to our enjoyment and learning on the trip, and we are so appreciative that National Geographic continue to include such professionals on the cruises.

For almost a week prior to our arrival, we have been hearing news from the crew that some fissure near Reykjavik was sending strong signals that it was about to erupt. Every day it got worse, until 'yesterday', 10 July 2023, while we were in the Westmann Islands, it blew! It is now known as the Litli-Hrutur eruption [and, we now know, it continued until 06 August]. We had memories of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull which paralysed European air traffic. All of us wondered whether this would affect us, whether it would develop and grow, whether it would interfere with flights home etc. And as the NatGeo Explorer rounded the Grotta Island lighthouse we got our first glimpse of Reykjavik and the eruption itself, in the distance, towards, we could see, the international airport.

Our first sight of the Iceland capital and also of the country's latest eruption which only began the day before. [1802]

A bit closer this time, smoke billowing from the newly erupting fissure at Litli-Hrutur. Icelandic life goes on absolutely normally around this volcanic action. After all, there is a new eruption in the country every five years. [0847]

The eruption at Litli-Hrutur was live-streamed on Iceland TV. [1895]

And so with the last 6 days circumnavigating Iceland, we finally arrived in the capital Reykjavik. It seems like the entire expedition has been in preparation for this moment! Most visitors start their Iceland holidays in Reykjavik, but we were finishing there. The weather was fine and sunny, about 10oC, but with a fearful north wind blowing. Holding our own hand as we said, we had a day to kill before we could check in to out Reykjavik hotel, so we looked around town and visited the Sky Lagoon, a new (2021) competitor for the famous Blue Lagoon out near the airport, rather more up-market (and expensive) we understand. The main pool water is geothermally heated to 38-40oC. For a little extra, you can take the Seven Step Ritual which includes an ice pool (brrrr!), a sauna with a great view, a salt rub, a rain shower and a steam room. The Sky Lagoon was so pleasant, we went back to it again on another day. On both our visits the weather was sunny so the Lagoon looks great in photographs, and not too crowded (we think they limit numbers), and importantly, somehow protected from the wind. It's a serene place except for certain inconsiderate loud mouthed nationalities.

The Reykjavik Sky Lagoon's crystal clear main pool and 70m long infinity edge looks out to the Greenland Sea. [0407]

The air is cool at the Sky Lagoon, so bobbing down is a way of getting warm. [0422]

The Sky Lagoon's sauna with a panoramic window. [0393]

Nothing more relaxing than a sparkling rose while lounging in the Sky Lagoon's warm water. [0410]

We didn't hang around for long in the 3 degree water of the ice pool! [0420]

From Wikipedia, Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland, in southwestern Iceland, on the southern shore of Faxaflói bay. Its latitude is 64°08' N, making it the world's northernmost capital of a sovereign state. According to legend, the first permanent Norse settlement in Iceland was established at Reykjavík by Ingólfr Arnarson around the year AD 870, as described in the Book of Settlement. The name is of Old Norse origin, derived from the roots reykr ('smoke') and vík ('bay'). Our downtown hotel, the Canopy, was like all the others we have used on this trip (in Norway) - no air-conditioning! Everywhere has heating, nowhere has cooling. To make matters worse, opening windows are tiny, seriously limiting ventilation. We actually asked to change rooms to get away from the afternoon sun (which goes all night). With climate change, we suspect that higher temperatures are going to be an escalating problem for northern European hotels. Other than that, a great hotel with friendly and helpful staff in an excellent location just off Reykjavik's main visitor's street Bankastraeti. The current hotel is a mish-mash of several adjacent buildings including one with heritage values.

Artwork inside the Canopy Hotel. [1897]

The Danish embassy, as seen from the Canopy Hotel. [1894]

It's good to be free agents again. What's not to like aboard a small-sized luxury expedition vessel? Nothing, except that you are not in control of your own days. We do appreciate our new-found freedom. We roamed around the city on foot, and (later) when we picked up a rental car, were able to explore much wider. Our first observation was that the city starts slowly in the morning - nothing much opens before about 10:00am including coffee shops. But we did find one or two open early, and had no trouble getting good barista-made cappucinos and macchiatos. Reykjavik is a cool town, populated and visited by young and trendy people, and very photogenic. It is very LGBTIQ friendly, as symbolised by the permanent rainbow paint along the length of a main city street. It is home to unusual museums, like a Punk Museum and a Penis Museum, neither of which we visited. We mainly walked around to take in the sights and find places to eat and drink. Now we are paying our own way, we discovered how expensive it is here! By way of example, two espresso coffees in Reykjavik cost between AUD 20.00 & 30.00! These were not tourist rip-off prices, but the prices that everyone paid.

Only in the morning is Rainbow Street in Reykjavik completely deserted. Real name Skólavörðustígur Street, but a permanent reminder of the city's gay friendliness.[1957]

On a hill in Reykjavik is the Perlan Museum, and outside it is this discomforting statue of four dancing musicians (1970) by Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir. [4001]On a hill in Reykjavik is the Perlan Museum, and outside it is this discomforting statue of four dancing musicians (1970) by Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir. [4001]

Hothouse in central Reykjavik to encourage some colorful flora protected from the incessant wind. [0379]

Market stall in the traffic free zone in Reykjavik's CBD. [1826]

A Black Headed Gull at home in Tjornin Lake in downtown Reykjavik. These gulls, which lose their brown hoods in winter, are common in Eurasia but not in North America. [1838]

Bring out some food and the birds will arrive on Tjornin Lake . [1846]

Rather luckily, these are just polar bear toys. Real bears are native to Iceland and few ever arrive there. [1870]

Outdoor and adventure shops are everywhere in Reykjavik. [1898]

The Laundromat Cafe, a great place to do your washing as well have a drink or a meal. [1899]

Getting around Rykjavik by electric scooter is very popular. Hopp seem to have a stranglehold on the rental market, with costs running about $0.40/minute. [1939]

Some highlights of Reykjavik are shown in our photos, but one of particular interest was the geothermally heated natural beach Nautholsvik almost in downtown Reykjavik. We only discovered this place by looking at a map! Here, swimmers can choose between warm, tepid and bloody cold water. People braved all of these levels. Signage implies that the city is more concerned with patrons drowning in the sea than in getting boiled alive. It was cold and windy and uninviting on the day of our visit, so little competition for space, but we have seen photographs of this beach very crowded in brilliant sunshine.

The geothermal water at Nautholsvik drains into a dammed off lagoon and then into the sea. The erupting fissure can be seen back left, and the more luxurious Sky Lagoon, back right.[1910]

Stunning art in front of a stunning building! Elin Hansdottir's 2022 Aeolian Harp at the Harpa Concert Hall. [1854]

Jon Gunnar Arnason's 1986 Sun Voyager is not meant to be a Viking ship as is commonly thought (there are plenty of them around Iceland) but is 'a dreamboat and an ode to the sun'. [1868]

A famous, thus popular, hot-dog stand in Reykjavik, but we found that the quality did not match the hype. [1853]

Reykjavik city angle. [1869]

We don't know the story behind this impressive mural on the side of an inner-city Reykjavik building. [1884]

Nightclub and cafe in Reykjavik downtown. [1885]

All types of leggings available here in Bankastraeti. [1946]

Wall art on the MJUK Iceland fashion-house. [1893]

Reykjavik City Hall seen across Tjornin Lake. [1901]

Adonis statue in Hallargarauinn. [1904]

Dominating the downtown skyline and on top of a city hill is the awe-inspiring (and decidely non-traditional design) 74m tall spire of Hallgrimskirka, a Lutheran church (1986). This is the building you look for to get your bearing when walking around Reykjavik. An Icelandic local emphasised to us that the Hallgrimskirka is 'merely' a parish church and not the city's cathedral, and we discern that the distinction between Catholicism and Lutheranism is not a trivial one in this country. We learned that Christianity was established in Iceland around 1000AD. From 1550 - 1857, the Reformation meant that Lutheranism replaced & banned Catholicism, but in 1857 it was allowed back as some lesser religion, not so viewed by some people. The 'real' cathedral, it seems, is elsewhere in town, a rather more modest, but still impressive, building.

The truly stunning spire of the 1986 Lutheran Church in Reykjavik. [0147]

We came to a scheduled practice session at the Hallgrimskirka church, but the organist did not show up! [1890]

The Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavik was consecrated in 1926. [1879]

Close approach to the Grotta Point lighthouse is forbidden in summer months to not distrurb the nexting birds, especially arctic terns. [1929]

As seen from Grotta Point, the fissure eruption known as Litli-Hrutur. [1928]

Reykjavik and the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland.

Not mentioned previously in this blog is the business of woolen sweaters or jumpers. It seems that everywhere we have been in the Arctic or near-Arctic has a thriving industry using local wool and regionally distinct patterns on woolen clothing, mostly sweaters. Luckily, we did not have enough room in our baggage for any shopping, but some passengers on the NatGeo Explorer could not resist buying at least one and sometimes several of these characteristic designs. We saw beautifully patterned and always luxurious (and expensive) jumpers on sale in Norway, Ireland (Aran), Scotland (Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney), Faroe and Iceland. Andy, the Expedition Leader arranged a group photo to showcase many of the woolen purchases.

Parade of woollen jumpers bought during the voyage. Four Expedition Team members managed to find their way into this group, so they are pretty keen shoppers! [0043]

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