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Following In The Footsteps Of The Vikings On The Veendam


by Georgina Cruz

Though my ancestors hail from Spain, I’ve always thought that I must also have some Viking blood in me: I so love to sail and explore. So when I heard about an annual cruise from Holland America Line called "The Voyage of the Vikings," I did not hesitate!

My husband Humberto and I called our travel agent and booked an ocean-view cabin on this 35-day voyage on the Veendam roundtrip from Boston—it is also available in a 17- and an 18-day segment— because it has as its centerpieces visits to Iceland and Greenland as well as other areas traveled by the Vikings.

We had visited Iceland only once and had really loved it, particularly the otherworldly Blue Lagoon with its mineral-rich volcanic hot springs, and we had never been to Greenland (it was on our bucket list!) so the itinerary was irresistible.

Here are just some among the many, many highlights of the voyage:

Reykjavik, Iceland: Vikings came to Iceland more than a millennium ago and apparently liked it as they established a permanent settlement in what today is the capital city of Reykjavik, where about 192,000 of the island’s 320,000 residents live. Our voyage provided two days here and we were glad: its attractions include volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, geysers, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, Icelandic horses, the nearly 24 hours per day of sunlight in summer, and sites associated with Bobby Fischer, the U.S. chess grandmaster, who won the world chess championship against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972 during arguably the most famous chess world championship match (Fischer later returned and lived in Iceland from 2005 till his death in 2008). On our custom tour from Icelandic Taxi Tours (icelandictaxitours.com) we took in the (formerly) Hotel Loftleidir, now the Icelandair Reykjavik Natura Hotel, where Fischer and Spassky stayed during the 1972 championship – the hotel’s geothermal pool gained worldwide fame when Fischer demanded that nobody else use the pool while he was in it. Fischer’s suite in the hotel was #470. The ground floor of the hotel has exhibits related to the championship match including a chess board signed by both grandmasters. For chess aficionados, additional Fischer sites in Iceland include his grave at the Laugadaeler Churchyard, 50 miles southeast of Reykjavik.

Iceland is known for its myths and legends—locals believe in little people to the extent that construction projects are halted to make sure that the proposed sites are not inhabited by elves. Other endearing Iceland peculiarities include that Reykjavik’s most popular restaurant is a hot dog stand, the Baejarins Beztu Pilsur, where since 1937 locals and visitors stand in line—sometimes for longer than an hour—to get their hot dog! Its celebrity customers have included Bill Clinton and Charlie Sheen.

A small city, Reykjavik is easy to explore on foot, and we did. One of the companies that offers excellent guided walking tours that can be arranged independently is I Heart Reykjavik (iheartreykjavik.com). A good touring starting point is the landmark church of Hallgrimskirkja—built on a hill, it dominates the landscape at 240 feet high. An elevator takes to the top of its tower for panoramic views of the city and surroundings. Another point of interest is the Harpa Concert Hall, a dramatic glass structure by the sea between the old port of Reykjavik and the Atlantic Ocean that sets the scene for cultural events. Among the museums that merit a visit are the Reykjavik Art Museum and the Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum in the Harbour House on the waterfront; the Saga Museum with Viking exhibits in the city center, and the National Museum by the University of Iceland campus with exhibitions on the history of Iceland.

A top attraction is the Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com), a spa and hot springs on a lava field located about 40 minutes from Reykjavik and 15 minutes from the international airport. This otherworldly lagoon with its milky-blue, mineral- and silica-rich thermal waters is famous not only for its beauty but also for being beneficial to the skin. The temperature of the water can reach 100 degrees in parts of the lagoon and is a bit cooler in other parts. Iceland has strict hygienic guidelines so visitors must shower without bathing suits on before and after entering the lagoon. An Exclusive Lounge (additional fee of 300 euros for three hours for one or two persons) features such conveniences as a lounge with fireplace, private changing room with shower, entrance into the lagoon, robes, towels, flip-flops, light refreshments and spa kit including lotion, algae face mask and other products. It was pure bliss! The Blue Lagoon is offered as an optional excursion by Holland America; we went independently, taking the Gray Line Iceland tour and booking the Exclusive Lounge ahead of arrival.

Qaqortoq, Prins Christian Sund and Nanortalik, Greenland: The largest town in Southern Greenland (3,229 residents), Qaqortoq provides a visual feast of colorful houses, icebergs in the bay and whales that can often be seen frolicking in the fjord. Oaqortoq is best seen on foot: We took strolls that revealed a variety of Nordic sculptures carved on the rock face around the town by Aka Goegh and other Nordic artists in the 1990s. Some sculptures we loved depicted Inuit faces, others had fish and whales. Several are just steps from the tender pier. One tip: Bring bug spray as there are lots of mosquitoes here and on Nanortalik. Popular pastimes include kayaking and hiking.

When it comes to Prins Christian Sund, a complex network of fjords and narrow channels that cover 280 miles in Southern Greenland, we were lucky to enjoy scenic cruising with sunny, blue skies, both going to and returning from Iceland to Greenland. It was a wonderland of snow-capped mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and icebergs, some with sun-bathing seals onboard. We cruised past tiny villages like Aappilattoq (talk about "faraway places with the strange sounding names!"). Whales were sighted at the entrance and exit of the Sund coming from Greenland to Iceland and vice versa.

Nanortalik, on an island in Southern Greenland of the same name, has a small community with brightly colored buildings. They offered tickets to a cultural show with traditional costumes and to a coffee and local pastries experience for us.

Geiranger, Alesund and Bergen: A Norwegian interlude, in addition to scenic cruising in beautiful Geirangerfjord with its Seven Sisters Waterfall, mountains and glaciers, it included the village of Geiranger itself, the pretty town of Alesund and the picturesque city of Bergen. From Geiranger we opted for a shipboard tour to the Herdal Mountain Farm on a plateau 1,650-feet above sea level that had no road connection until 1960. The main products of the farm are white and brown goat cheese—delicious!—and we befriended a goat or two. On the return to the ship, we enjoyed panoramic views of the Seven Sisters Waterfall and the Veendam at anchor in the fjord. In Alesund, we joined a walking tour along picturesque winding streets to see the Art Nouveau buildings with their spires and turrets that were constructed after a devastating fire in 1904. We took in the breathtaking views of the city and surroundings from the Fjellstua Viewpoint (418 steps lead up to it or you can drive to it) and visited the open-air Sunnmore Folk Museum with a large collection of boats and houses, as well as the beautiful Lighthouse in Giske. The island of Giske with its fishing villages and beaches is linked to Alesund via sub-sea tunnels. It was the home of some of Norway's most powerful families, including the Viking Rollo, who conquered Normandy and was an ancestor of William the Conqueror. In Bergen, Norway's second largest city after Oslo, we toured Bryggen, a former Hanseatic trading post and now a UNESCO World Heritage site with the old Hanseatic Wharf and picturesque wooden buildings, narrow alleyways, cobbled streets and the world-famous Fish Market. We took the funicular to the top of Mount Floien for spectacular views of the city from 1,200 feet and spent time in the Aquarium, a great family attraction with 60 fish tanks, penguins, seals, sea lions, crocodiles and more.

Dublin, Ireland: Just one day doesn’t do justice to the Irish capital, but there’s a lot one can cover in a short period of time. During our visit, my husband and I got tickets to the hop-on/hop-off tourist bus from Dublin Sightseeing, both to orient ourselves and to get around to the major attractions conveniently. The tour takes about an hour and 45 minutes (often more, depending on traffic) and makes 23 stops including such must-sees as Dublin Castle, built in the 13th century on the site of a Viking settlement; the Guinness Storehouse, where visitors learn about the world-famous beer and can sample a free pint in the Gravity Bar with 360-degree views of the city; the Ha'penny Bridge, one of the city's picturesque bridges on the River Liffey; the Dublin Zoo, with many rare and exotic animals including giraffes, zebras, scimitar oryx, tigers and a herd of Asian elephants in various habitats; and Trinity College, where the famous Book of Kells, arguably one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels, is on exhibit. Along the way, the guide points out landmarks and sites where famous Dubliners lived and worked including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Another stop is St. Patrick’s Cathedral, dating from the 13th century, where one of the famous deans was Jonathan Swift, who is buried in the grounds. A second route takes 35 minutes and includes a stop where you can take a Dublin Bay cruise. We managed to squeeze in a stroll on Grafton Street near Trinity College, one of Dublin's pedestrian streets with boutiques, cafes, flower market and street entertainers.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: During our first visit several years ago, we'd taken in the Rijksmuseum, with Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “The Night Watch” and other works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time we had two days in the Dutch capital and we devoted one to the Van Gogh Museum to admire works by the beloved artist including "Sunflowers," "Vincent's Bedroom at Arles" (a painting he liked so much that he made two copies of it) and self-portraits. On our second day, we took the ship's tour to Edam for the traditional cheese market held on Wednesdays in the summer, making also a stop at the village of Zaanse Schans with its picturesque windmills. There we also watched a traditional clog maker at work.

Throughout all this, our base of operations, the 57,092-ton, 1,350-passenger Veendam, was definitely no ancient Viking longboat but a modern, gracious, mid-size liner by today’s standards. She is decorated with art, antiques and fresh flowers and filled with amenities including a formal dining room with gourmet fare and alternative restaurants, swimming pools, hot tubs, bars and lounges, casino, library, spa and gymnasium. She is easy to get your bearings in: most indoor public rooms are on two decks: Promenade and Upper Promenade.

Staterooms—many with verandas—are comfortable homes at sea. We opted for an ocean-view cabin on Main Deck and climbed one deck up to Lower Promenade Deck to use the wraparound promenade for walking and relaxing on lounge chairs (we thought of this deck as “our veranda” and thus saved on the higher veranda cabins’ fees on this extended voyage). Standard stateroom amenities include the comfy pillow-top “Mariner” bed and plush bedding, flat screen television, telephone, private bath, fine toiletries, hair dryer and plenty of closet space. The Vikings would definitely have been green with envy!

Info: hollandamerica.com

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