Thursday, July 25, 2013

Celebrity Eclipse Post 1: London & Iceland

For the first time since I began blogging, I didn’t write a single word, let alone post one during our cruise to Iceland and the Norwegian Fjords.  I simply remained in vacation mode the entire time, vowing to catch up after returning.  So, here goes! 

Kensington Palace
Ben and I set up this little group about a year ago on the Celebrity Eclipse, our first time to really sail on a Solstice Class ship, aside from the two-night inaugural of the Reflection last fall.  For our clients who haven’t yet gotten enough of the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Alaska, and river cruising, however, this destination proved a tough sell.  Their loss!  We’re grateful that our friends, the Rainwaters did join us, and we had a fantastic time exploring these still relatively young tourist destinations.
We began with a few days in London to visit some of the places Ben and I missed back in 1973, such as the British Museum and Kensington Palace (Will and Kate's place), as well as hit a few new spots like the London Eye.  All antennae were up for news of the new heir to the throne, but the prince chose to delay his departure until we returned—not that we would have joined the door-watching brigade in front of St. Mary’s.

Our cruise embarked at Southampton, about 80 miles south of London, but the trip down took almost three hours due to traffic, while returning to Heathrow was a breeze at well under two hours.  Regardless, travelers plan ahead! 

In the Blue Lagoon
We left sunny southern England and headed north through the choppy North Atlantic to Reykjavik, Iceland, two-and-a-half days and some 1292 nautical miles later.  The Eclipse was to overnight here, however, giving us more time to explore the area.  Ben and I chose to head to the famed Blue Lagoon that afternoon.  When I was booking our excursions a couple of months before our departure, the Celebrity site didn’t list any Blue Lagoon options, so I booked us independently.  Gray Line offers transfers from the cruise port to the Lagoon, about a 40-minute drive, and it was easy to pre-book our entrance on the Blue Lagoon website.  Only after embarking the ship and checking the excursion list did I see several Lagoon options suddenly available.  Oh, well.  The simple Gray Line transfer was comparable in price to Celebrity’s offering, but by booking the Lagoon on her own we could choose the package we wanted.  It was a fantastic experience!  The air was cold and misty, and the Lagoon hot and steamy—an almost surreal atmosphere.  Almost like dipping in a hot tub at a ski resort, but the silky water has reputed medicinal benefits...though Ben said it didn’t grow any hair.  

Where did the night go?
The next morning, we left on a Celebrity excursion to the so-named Golden Circle, visiting the beautifully cascading Gullfoss Waterfall (translated Golden Waterfall), Geysir (we barely caught the eruption), and Thingvellir National Park—three of the greatest scenic wonders of Iceland.  Thingvellir,  a UNESCO site, is located atop the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and as we strolled along this part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the park we enjoyed great views of the valleys and plains below.  Our guide cleverly added a “Welcome to America,” greeting.  From other vantage points in the tour we could glimpse Vatnajokull, the third largest ice-field in the world.  Iceland is well known for geothermal and volcanic activity, and every eruption and earthquake changes the face of the country. 

After departing Reykajavik, the Celebrity Eclipse made its way further north to Akureyri for the first of two crossings over the Arctic Circle.  Talk about a couple of short nights.  Akureyri is located in northeast Iceland in one of the longest fjords in the country.  Although the Arctic Circle is only about 38 miles north, the climate most years is relatively moderate due to the Gulf Stream.  Last winter was a huge exception with snowfalls lasting until June.  Mountains surround the area offering excellent skiing and hiking, and the town serves as a good base for exploring more waterfalls and volcanic areas. 

Laufas Manor Farm
Our tour took us first to historical Laufas, an ancient manor farm and church dating back to 1865.  A typical turf roof tops each of the farm buildings,
and the small church contains a magnificent pulpit with wood carvings from 1698 indicating support of a somewhat well-to-do-congregation.  It was fascinating to walk through the numerous rooms of the connected buildings and glimpse the lifestyle of the pastor and his family who last lived there.  Next, we traveled to Godafoss—Waterfall of the Gods on the River Skjalfandflijot.  (Can you pronounce that?)  Legend has it that the local chieftain, Thorgeir Thorkelsson, declared here that the Christian religion should prevail and replace the Icelanders’ belief in the old Nordic gods.  However, to hear our guide talk,
the locals still believe in fairies and trolls and legends of old.

Iceland is an interesting country.  It was in the midst of a grand economic boom and at the top of the United Nations’ Human Development Index that tracks quality of life until 2008 when the Icelandic financial crash hit hard and fortunes there and subsequently abroad were lost in a hurry.  We were told it would take years to come before it recuperates, but the locals continue to profess a love affair with the land they inhabit.

One more crossing of the Arctic Circle and we were on our way south to the Faroe Islands.  (No, five years ago I would never have thought I’d be visiting the Faroe Islands!)

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