London to Iceland – 11 Days on the CMV Columbus.
Summertime where we live—Henderson, Nevada, to be specific, with July temperatures over 100 degrees F. for weeks on end—is a good time for travel to cooler climes. This year we’ve opted for a cruise to Iceland, where the daytime high at summer solstice hits 50 degrees. At latitudes reaching the Arctic Circle Iceland has “white nights” wherein the summer sun sets for an hour or so. It is never dark, but since the North Atlantic sky is often cloudy it appears milky “white”.
CMV Columbus docked
in an Icelandic fjord.
Great Britain is the point of origin for many Icelandic cruises: I counted roughly a half dozen embarkations from ports like Liverpool, Hull and London during the last two weeks of June. These popular cruises are often booked up months in advance, so we were lucky to secure a place just a few weeks before the sailing date (June 29) on a Cruise and Maritime Voyages ship out of the Port of London: round-trip for twelve nights with ports of call including the Scottish Highlands, the Orkney and Faroe Islands as well as four stops in Iceland.
Cruise and Maritime Voyages is a British cruise line offering a fleet of relatively older vessels. Ours is the recently refurbished Columbus, a 1400 passenger fourteen decker which has flown several flags under different names during its thirty years on the briny. She is a slightly worn but still dignified lady of the seas, comfortable as a favorite pair of shoes and quite adapted to her price-conscious cliente of middle aged Brits.
The Port of London is an evocative spot from which to begin any sea voyage. Situated twenty miles east of central London in the Thames estuary, the locale of Tilbury and Gravesend recalls memorable moments in British maritime history. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake, at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, sallied forth from here on the Golden Hind to harass Spanish merchant shipping on the southern seas. A decade later and a short distance from here on the French coast at Gravelines, Drake would play a key role in the destruction of the Spanish Armada. In the years just after 1800, the English military and civilian populace erected defenses in the estuary against imminent sea invasion by the French under Napoleon. During World War II the key RAF base at Gravesend attracted heavy bombing by the German Luftwaffe.
The Waterfront Restaurant aboard CMV Columbus.
Gazing out at the widening tidal flow from the upper deck of Columbus at eventide one may recall the words of Joseph Conrad as he begins the fateful African voyage of Marlow in “The Heart of Darkness”:
“The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.”
Thus, Conrad in 1899. But we are leaving London, this “greatest town on earth” on a pleasure voyage not southward towards the ominous jungles of the Congo River but north into the bracing night air of the North Sea, bound for the Scottish port of Invergordon.
Castle Urquhart, on Loch Ness in Scotland.
After a day at sea we arrive in early morning at the Moray Firth port of Invergordon, gateway to the Scottish Highlands. Most popular excursion during our daytime stop is a bus trip to nearby Inverness, capital city of the Highlands. This jaunt includes a boat trip on Loch Ness and a visit to venerable Castle Urquhart. In the cool, breezy weather, everyone seems to enjoy the idea of poking around the ubiquitous woolens shops in search of a sweater or watch cap. Iceland promises to be chilly.
CMV Columbus sets sail for the Faroe Islands, threading its way between the Orkneys and Shetlands out of the North Sea and into the North Atlantic. These two days at sea allow us to explore the amenities of the ship. One has the option of taking all meals at the buffet, where the cuisine is geared to British tastes (full English breakfasts, cream teas, lots of comfort food) or in the Waterfront Restaurant. Most passengers choose the buffet for breakfast and lunch, the Waterfront for a four-course dinner. There the multiple offerings for each course are uniformly good (lots of fresh fish) if not spectacular. We are reminded that the Columbus is not a 4-5-star luxury ship offering gourmet dining but a solid 3-star vessel. Instead of a half dozen extra-charge bistros, it offers two: an Indian restaurant complete with tandoor oven and a chop house called The Grill.
The CMV Columbus pool deck is inviting.
The outdoor pool and deck lounging areas are little used on this cool weather cruise, but the indoor options include a welcoming spa with gymnasium, sauna, steam room and massage. A cozy library area offers shelves of reading material and next door a game room. We reacquaint ourselves with Scrabble, engaging in several intense battles at the board. These sessions tend to whet the appetite for an afternoon tea with scones and clotted cream. The double tiered theatre hosts daily lectures on topics related to the voyage (e.g., Viking history, volcanism, global warming) plus an evening variety show. We regretted that no movies were shown there. Although the cabin TVs did include movie channels, they were often unable to obtain a satellite signal in remote regions of the Atlantic.
Once we’d reached the Faroe Islands, and thereafter the east coast of Iceland, the need for shipboard amusement quickly faded. The Faroes consist of eighteen hilly volcanic islands halfway between Norway and Iceland.
Grass roofs in Tinganes, old town of Torshavn on the Faroe Islands.
They are an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. The name “Faroe” apparently comes from an Old Norse word for “sheep”. Appropriate, since the Faroes are full of sheep to this day, a staple source of wool and food for the country’s residents, who speak their own language plus Danish.
Floral display at Akureyri, Iceland.
Ac harming church
in rural Iceland.
Excursions from the ship include outings to observe the sub-arctic flora and fauna, to wander across the volcanic terrain and to sail into the cliffside bays. We choose to stroll around the tidy capital of Thorshavn pop. 15,000), whose immense pride is the first-class soccer stadium where the national team holds forth in this sports-mad archipelago. The Faroes register 7000 soccer players in a nation of 50,000 inhabitants! Oh well, there isn’t much else by way of public entertainment in this lonely outpost near the Arctic Circle. It’s wonderful to see the scores of youngsters in brightly colored uniforms out kicking the ball with friends and fathers.
The focus of our trip is Iceland itself. We manage to cruise most of the way around the island nation counterclockwise from the eastern port of Sedisfjord, a rather bleak frontier village, around to the lively northern town of Akureyri (amazingly an ice-free port at the Arctic Circle, replete with botanical gardens, courtesy of the Gulfstream). In these locales, as well as a final fjord stop in northwest Iceland, the excursions feature activities like whale and bird watching, an up-close encounter with arctic foxes, boat trips along the green mountain fjords and sightseeing in floral meadows. The weather holds: cool and cloudy with little rain, perfect for long walks along the fjords.
Gap separates Europe & North America tectonic plates near Reykjavik.
Finally, Reykjavik. Our one disappointment about the cruise itinerary is that only one day is given over to Iceland’s capital city and its hinterland. Since we’ve opted for a nine-hour excursion into the nearby mountains to view the famous geysers and waterfall, that leaves almost no time to see Reykjavik itself. A three-hour morning walk through the city center allows for at least a quick look at this sparkling gem of urbanity in a largely rural nation.
The massive Gullfoss (Golden Falls) near Reykjavik.
Two more days at sea brings us to Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands. Our day stop allows for a visit to the Scapa Flow, historic anchorage for the Royal Navy in times of war. Near the Scapa town of Stromness, scuba divers gather to explore several sunken ships of the Imperial German Fleet, vessels which had been denied egress by the British at the onset of World War I then scuttled by the German Command.
Walking distance from Kirkwall, on the north end of Scapa Flow, is a small memorial museum dedicated to the HMS Royal Oak, sunk nearby at anchor by a German submarine in October 1939, with loss of more than 800 British sailors.
To book cruises on CMV ships check the website at: https://us.cruiseandmaritime.com/
CMV Columbus follows Iceland’s coastline.
— Feature story by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine editor; photos by Todd Nemanic; ship photos courtesy of CMV.