Falls, Faroes and fjords – just the title conjures up so many images, and a quick look at the atlas told me that it was likely to be a very exciting cruise indeed – with perhaps a bit of bumpy weather on the way. Well, one prediction was right – it was a very exciting cruise. As for the weather, the seas were, for the most part, totally benign with what nautical types call ‘light airs’ – which means not enough puff to ruffle your hair – hardly what we associate with the rugged North!
We sailed from a very sunny Dover and spent a couple of relaxing days and re acquainting ourselves with Fred Olsen’s MS Braemar – a small and comfortable ship with a great crew and a great following, returning feels like booking back into your favourite country hotel – but one which, Tardis like, whisks you off to places new, and so it was.
The Faroe Islands are, as our Faroese guide said, ‘In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere’ and the weather was typically Faroese – wet and windy. However it did not deter us one bit as we all had our ‘sensible walking shoes’ as detailed in our shore tour guides – and we are British after all, so a bit of rain and a squall wasn’t going to deter us! Sailing into Torshavn gave us glimpses into these wild and beautiful islands situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, approximately halfway between Norway and Iceland. With a history as rugged as the mountains that dwarf the tiny turf roofed houses, the Faroese economy relies unsurprisingly on fishing and that is reflected in the numbers of boats big and small – and the amazing seabirds wheeling and cawing in the wind, the bird watchers were thrilled and able to name each and every one, the rest of us just enjoyed their company.
Torshavn, the capital, is charming and a great place to explore, even in the rain and in fact, post explore, we had a snug time settled in a warm cafe, with the obligatory rug to throw over us in case it got really cold, inhaling the smell of warm baked bread and fresh coffee and watching the Faroese world go by. Lots of purposeful chaps in oilskins and fit, lean families with a bikes and walking boots – the diet of fish is obviously a healthy one.
Next port of call Reykjavik – blue skies tempted us off the ship as soon as the gangplank was down and we spent the morning enjoying this exciting and beautiful city. Icelanders are not early risers apparently as most of the shops were shut until at least 10am but we found it rather exciting to be there as it woke up and were rewarded by the quiet streets. The Harpa Concert & Conference Centre, blocks of reflecting glass cubes, was an example of how a really well designed building works on a number of levels. It houses the concert hall, two restaurants, tourist facilities and some great shops – and lots of people wandering around with cameras and dazed expressions as they gaze at the stunning interior. There also seems to be a penchant for racing up the staircases, must be an Icelandic thing!
The Blue Lagoon beckoned and so off we went over the lunar landscape to splash about in the warm, geothermally heated waters – with optional mud packs dispensed form buckets dotted about and a general air of restrained jollity. The dirth of people at the swim up bar was probably more about the prices than any sense of sobriety but it was a great experience and a ‘bucket list’ ticked.
Back on board and off to Isjafjordur, further north and with a real feeling of being a long way from home. We took a trip to the Hesteyri, about an hour’s small boat ride – and even more isolated. Hesteyri was once inhabited by a few hardy souls, but conditions were so tough that it was abandoned and is now a nature reserve – and totally captivating. The island was covered in wild geranium, angelica and wonderful orchids of every hue. We had a guided walk with Iris, whose husband’s family own the handful of houses there and who stay there just for a few weeks every year, it was astonishing and wild and beautiful and I am so grateful to have experienced it.
More excitement with geysers and waterfalls from Akureyri and then farewell to Iceland and hello Norway but not before a little diversion…
Another joy of small ship cruising is that, as happened to us, the Captain can suddenly say ‘Well, we have calm seas and time so tonight we will cross the Arctic Circle and see the island of Grimsey home to 100 people and one million seabirds – it’s not on the programme, but we will do it’ And so we did, clustered on deck drinking hot soup and watching the incredible light – day light at past 11pm – with seas as glassy as a mill pond and the odd passing whale making an appearance, memorable indeed!
The contrast between these isolated places, and life on board was marked – the joys of cruising in a small ship allow you to visit smaller communities and also to dock in the heart of places you visit rather than being moored in the middle of a container terminal or indeed moored at sea and having to take tender boats to see your destinations– this gives you a real feel of being in touch with where you are and even for those people who stayed on board, the snow-capped peaks, pretty towns and rugged terrain would leave an impression.
This cruise was also special in one particular and unique respect– for the first time ever all four ships in the Fred Olsen fleet were getting together in one port – to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fred Olsen who, with his three brothers, bought their first ship in 1848. Great excitement as the ships met up and we sailed in file, with Braemar leading, into Bergen. A sunny, sunny day in the rain capital of Norway was a blessing and inter ship rivalry commenced with tug of war competitions and treasure hunts, visits to our friends in the other ships and, for me, a spectacular helicopter ride over the four ships, up into the mountains and over the beautiful city of Bergen. As we sailed out in line abreast later in the evening people stopped on the bridges to wave as the ships formed a star formation and a fire ship sprayed diamonds of water in tribute. This was a spectacular climax to a spectacular trip but with more Norwegian ports to come we enjoyed the delights of Stavanger and Eidfjord before sailing home to Dover with a camera full of pictures and a head full of memories.
Cruising allows you to visit so many places without the need to fly, drive, pack and unpack and with the added delight of wonderful food, wonderful service and a crew that really do exceed expectations. The experts who put these cruises together do a huge amount of research so that shore tours and visits give you options from highly active, kayaking and trekking, to more sedentary trips, the choice is yours and as ever you can join in the on board activities or shut the world out on deck with a book. I, like many other people, joined the queue at the future tours desk, French Rivers for me next year – new brochures out, new places to see and our favourite ship to take us there.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Words and photographs by Angela Cave