From rainbow islands to the mists of East Iceland
Catching a ferry to Iceland isn’t like catching a ferry to anywhere else in the world. From check-in until disembarkation, the combination of vehicles, people and scenery give you the sense of entering another world, with a bunch of natural born explorers….
We feel like the odd ones out..
We are the odd ones out at the ferry port in Hirtshals. Not because we have bikes on the roof and kids in the back, although not many cars have these particular accessories. It’s because of what we don’t have; no spare tyre, no fuel filled jerry cans, no expedition grade roof rack, armoured crates, food cache or reserve. As we queue for Norrona, the Smyril Line ferry, we are requested to join the expedition vehicles in line 8. In this line, the extreme machine rules.
Like human explorers preparing for a trip to Iceland, they come in many shapes and sizes. There are the old warhorses; battered jeeps that have obviously been round the block (of ice?) before. There are the boys toys with wheels taller than our kids. There are the shiny Jeeps and other trendy 4×4’s that will probably never leave the hotel forecourt but make you look like an adventurer to the folks back at home. Then there are a breed of vehicles that I can’t even classify because I don’t know what they are. But they resemble a cross between a BBC Outside Broadcast truck for ‘Volcano Live,’ and prison transport.
Smyril Line: a traditional way to travel
People have been travelling to Iceland by boat long before cheap flights flew people to Reykjavik for stag nights. It’s impressive that the Faroese Smyril Line can produce enough crew from a population of around 50,000 to run a passenger and cargo ship transporting up to 1400 people at a time from Denmark to Iceland, all year round. But then everyone in the Faroes has the sea in their veins, “We are good at oceans because we have been surrounded by them for many generations. We grew up with the singing of the sea,” says the tourist officer from the island of Sandoy who gives us an on board talk about the islands. When I ask his name he introduces himself as ‘Frittur,’ explaining there is no point trying to spell it as there are at least three letters in the name that don’t exist in the English language.
The captain of Norrona, Petur Av Vollanum, also grew up and lives on the Faroe Islands. His month long shift is at an end and soon another captain will take the helm. He gives us a tour of the bridge and explains the challenge of navigating the ship to its first port of call in Torshaven, the Faroese capital, “The harbour is crowded and small.” But despite this, the ship sails in almost all weathers at all time of the year, “Wind is the only problem. We are not going to set out in rough ten metre waves.” And if the ship is at sea, when extreme winds occur, it either has to wait or go to another port. “Unfortunately in Iceland there are no alternative ports.”
A splash of colour in the North Atlantic
The Faroe Islands, lying alone in the North Atlantic ocean, are a sharp intake of breath. As we approach they are all mist, greenery and dark rock and it’s a fierce windy welcome approaching the shelter of harbour. At Torshavn the crowd of passengers on deck push against the wind to view the green grass roof of the parliament building as the boat swings around. “If you go to Sweden all the houses are yellow.” Frittur told us in his talk. “If you go to Denmark all the houses are red. You go to the Faroes and it’s a rainbow.” And it is.
There’s a lot going on here as the capital prepares for Ólavsøka, the annual Olavs festival. It’s one of the biggest festivals in the islands held every July 29th, where locals from all eighteen islands descend upon the capital, many in traditional national costume for sporting events, to process through the streets and open the parliament. As we watch from the ship, people in blue and white are climbing the yellow masts of a schooner, while nearby four kayakers cling to the side of the harbour walls to avoid getting swept under the boat or out to sea. Gulls bombard the promenade, and in the distance a big wheel towers above the brightly coloured houses.
And onto East Iceland
But the Faroe islands aren’t our destination; not for a month, although tonight as we continue onto East Iceland we will dine on board on some of its finest ingredients. The kids have spent most of the journey in the cafeteria taking advantage of a full board buffet ticket by constantly refilling with fizzy drinks. I’m not sure they’d be so keen if some of the more traditional Faroese dishes Frittur mentioned like blubber, dried fish, whale meat and dried mutton were eat as much as you like! Half an hour after we dock, Norrona swings back out from the rainbow of houses to the charcoal sweep of the Atlantic, next stop Iceland.
We approach Seydisfjordur in East Iceland in the early morning light. It isn’t a prism of colour like the Faroe Islands, but it does have a dark power of its own. A green rolling vista stretches for miles as the ship approaches the town that lies towards the end of the brooding fjord, with just the odd building puncturing the wilderness. As we eventually dock at the town Seydisfjordur rubs its eyes but can’t quite wake up. We are bombarded by leaflets by a few people hired to publicise the whale watching companies, but beyond them, in this sleeping maritime place lie only drawn curtains, post-dawn drizzle and round the clock waterfalls. We disembark and crawl along a mountainous road in the car in a thick fog, trying to ignore the deep drops either side.
The extreme machines blast past; no doubt on their way to steeper, more serious adventure. Soon we will dump the car in Eglisstadir to head off on the bikes to find out more about what this misty and mystical land has in store for us.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. All experiences, views and opinions are however, as ever, our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.