Travelquest: Iceland, a Circumnavigation
By Kay Layton Sisk
Oct 2, 2017
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Iceland, a Circumnavigation with National Geographic/Lindblad

It’s not easy to get to Iceland which might explain why no one did until the 8th century. Even then the Irish monks didn’t really settle it, so it came to the Norse, the Vikings, to make it a permanent home. Therefore, there’s no pre-history to wonder about or dig up. The people who settled had their stories, making Iceland’s people and history as unique as the landscape.

So why did we go there? I’m not sure. Certainly it’s intriguing to sail all around a nation in a week, to explore its many facets and still not see it all, to learn about a country whose citizens still talk about elves and trolls while sharing apace with volcanoes and glaciers and geothermal heating all while sitting atop two tectonic plates gradually pulling their country apart.
On second thought, how could we not go?

National Geographic trips are educational, are billed as expeditions. There were daily lectures, ranging from geology to photography, birds to Iceland’s place in the music world, and Iceland from the point of view of an Icelander. The trips are not fancy, no matter how modern the ship, delicious the food, or wonderful the service. We had had such a fantastic time last summer with National Geographic/Lindblad in the Galapagos that we wanted to go again. Just to some place different. And it is.

Life on a small ship—the Orion holds one hundred passengers and about sixty staff and crew—is different than the behemoths that ply some of the world’s waters. The bridge is always open unless there’s something vital going on. The Captain is accessible and dinner with a member of the National Geographic staff is par for the course.

If legend has it that when God finished creating the world, he took the leftovers and strew them across Big Bend, then I think He took what was left of that and gifted Iceland. Situated in the North Atlantic, one-seventh the size of Texas but with only a combined population of Frisco and McKinney, Iceland is home to sheep and waterfalls, volcanoes and glaciers, fishing and tourism, a land of fire and ice, the midnight sun and then no sun at all.

We landed in Reykjavik very early in the morning, along with plane-loads of our nearest and dearest new best friends. Immigration was speeded by helpful employees who shunted connecting flights and EU passport holders in one direction, then once that cleared, opened all the lanes to the several hundred of us who did not fit either of those categories. Luggage collected, we were taken to a hotel for a few hours then lunch and a city tour before embarking on the Orion.

The statue of Lief Ericsson stands in front of the Cathedral. It is a gift from the United States in 1930, marking 1000 years of the Althing, Iceland's parliament.

There are 5275 pipes in the Cathedral's organ in Reykjavik.

We had our life jacket drill, a welcome aboard, where things are, how things would be done, dinner and to bed behind heavy cabin curtains which blocked the light. I can’t say the sun was up the whole time this first week in July, but it was never truly dark. Twilight reigned from midnight until sunrise at three in the morning.

Dawn found us at our first stop, Flatey. The ‘ey’ on the end of a word means ‘island,’ so Flat Island. Small, flat island with puffins and colorful houses, an old church and graveyard, fish drying on a rack, and a year-round population of five. And wind. Let’s not ever forget the wind. There’s a reason all the photos have us in jackets and toboggans. If the wind hadn’t been blowing, it wouldn’t have been that cold, in the high 40s and low 50s. But, you know, wind.

Flatey was our first wet landing, the reason we’d been told to bring knee-high waterproof boots. From the small Zodiac boats off the stern of the ship, we stepped into ankle-deep cold water and splashed ashore.

The National Geographic Orion as seen from Flatey.

Colorful houses of Flatey

A grave marker showing the patronymic system of naming.

The coastline of Iceland is indented with fjords and we were fortunate on that first night that our small ship could put into one and allow us to visit the multistep waterfalls at Dynjandi. This was also our first encounter with Arctic terns.

Small, with pointed wings and a forked tail, they’re fierce and protective of their babies which they’ve had the temerity to raise on the ground. As far as they’re concerned, you’re going to step on them, so they dive bomb you and the consequences can be messy if not bloody. Hence, we held our walking sticks or umbrellas high so they would target them. Think of a flock of vengeful mockingbirds and you’ll have the picture.

But Arctic terns have to work fast because as soon as the fledglings are 3-4 weeks old, the family starts the journey south. Way south. To the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. That’s 44,000 miles round-trip each year. You have to admire that, even as you duck your head and make sure your neck is covered!

The waterfalls of Dynjandi

Do you have an eiderdown pillow? Ever wonder where it came from? We visited Vigur Island on the northwest coast the next morning and learned from a family who settled there in the 1880s about the industry. They also graze sheep, but ship them to the mainland in the summer so they may concentrate on the eider ducks, their nests and babies.

Unprocessed eiderdown

Saving ourselves from the Arctic terns by holding our flags overhead.

Puffins at Vigur

By now, you should have figured out that Iceland and nesting birds are practically synonymous. Gulls, terns, gannets, petrels, auks, skuas and of course the elusive puffin. I say that, not because we didn’t see any, but because it was difficult to get that ultimate puffin photo.

The afternoon found us at Isafjorthur, a town once given over to fishing, but now, with the decline in fish population, remaking itself with tourism. We had options of expeditions here and chose to trek to a waterfall and then visit the local Arctic Fox Centre. The foxes, Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal, are not endangered. The two brothers in residence act as ambassadors for the species. They were always ready for a close-up.

An Arctic fox

I wasn’t so sure about the next morning’s outing, a visit to a herring museum with the availability of herring sampling (smoked, marinated, cinnamon). Not exactly my cup of tea, so to speak, but we were docked at the picturesque town of Siglufjorthur and the walk was easy and made for photos.

Church at Siglufjorthur

We were all fascinated by the lively colors of this house.

And, hands down, the herring museum has to rank as my favorite part of the trip. It was just fun.

In 1903, the Norwegians arrived with new net technology and huge catches of herring. Salting stations arose around the area, with Siglufjorthur earning the nickname of the Klondike of the Atlantic for its summer industry when the population of the town would swell with workers. The “herring girls,” as they were called, would come from all over Iceland and many a family profited from their work. It was hard and the hours were long. The industry, with its barrels of salted herring and factories for herring meal and oil, lasted into the 1960s until the population of herring declined from overfishing. Iceland’s economic growth and eventual independence from Denmark can all be traced back to the herring industry.

Our visit to the museum started with an outdoor theatrical performance in Icelandic. We got the idea that the girls were waking up, the herring fishermen were coming in and it was time to get to work. Nothing explains it better than photos.

Herring ready to be prepared

The call goes out that the herring are in!

A close look will show that the head comes off and the insides come out in one smooth cut.

It's hard work being a herring girl and so refreshment is needed.

Herring girls were paid per barrel of salted herring, so when it was ready to be moved a penny was put in her boot. To note: men in the herring factories were paid by the hour.

People weren't the only ones interested in the days' catch.

Three meals could be cooked over one burner in the herring girls' kitchen. Why don't we have this now?

A herring girl fashioned from driftwood

In the afternoon, we journeyed to the north coast city of Akureyri, Iceland’s second city. We toured the botanical gardens, one of the world’s most northern. It was a calming afternoon after the excitement of the herring!

We would spend the night docked here with the option to go ashore for dinner, but I don’t think anyone did. Why? When all the fun is onboard?

Three flags outside our cabin window on the Akureyri dock.

Poppies in the botanical garden

The poppies were a photographer's feast.

I wanted this gentleman to get out of the way of my shot, but when he did, I didn't like it. So, he's back.

Romance novelist Kay Layton Sisk first put TravelQuest together in 2003 when a group of friends journeyed to Alaska. Today she tells her own travel tales. You may reach her through her website, or kaylaytonsiskauthor on FaceBook.

Actic Fox Centre:

Herring Era Museum:

Arctic terns: