When we anchored a few hundred meters off the coast of Qaqortoq after two days at sea, we couldn’t see anything. Not even the slightest hint of the settlement with 3200 inhabitants was visible through the thick fog. It wasn’t until the afternoon that the mist started clearing up and a picturesque little town with brightly colored houses was revealed. We got on the tender boat and started exploring.
At the historical center of Qaqortoq, we found the Frelserens Kirke. This church was built in 1832 out of prefabricated walls shipped in from Norway. Just about a century earlier, the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived on Greenland to convert Viking settlers from Catholicism to Protestantism. Sadly, there weren’t any Vikings left on Greenland. Perhaps he should have expected as much, as there hadn’t been any sign from them in over 300 years. With no Danes to convert, Egede decided to convert Inuit inhabitants instead.
From the church, we walked to the Tasersuaq lake. At its shore, we got acquainted with a large family of ducks and uncountable mosquitoes. If you’re sportier than Rik and I, you can set aside five hours of your time and hike around the entire lake. We decided to only walk a small portion of the way around. Afterwards, we strolled through Qaqortoq which turned out to be a very charming village. Its colorful houses, surprising number of wild flowers and tiny brook make it easy to imagine it as the setting for a Astrid Lindgren novel.
If you ever go to Iceland (which you absolutely should), you’re bound to notice: Iceland smells bad. More specifically, the water in Iceland smells like rotten eggs. Why is that?
Geothermally heated water
One of the side effects of the volcanic activity in Iceland (besides the great sights it provides) is that it gives the Icelandic access to an inexhaustible source of warm water. This means that warm water – as well as electricity – is very affordable and environmentally friendly in Iceland. The downside is that it results in water that contains sulfur, which smell likes rotten eggs.
But there is good news too:
It is completely safe
The amount sulfur found in the water is not at all harmful. More importantly, it only affects the warm water; cold Icelandic tap water is actually some of the purest and tastiest you can find anywhere in the world.
Now that you’ve read up on this peculiarity about Icelandic water, you hopefully won’t be surprised by it the way we were. When you go to take your first shower in Iceland you won’t think the plumbing might be mouldy. You’ll know that the cause is entirely harmless and actually one of the great things about Iceland.
Our first port of call was Isafjordur – or Ísafjörður as the Icelandic spell it. The small town in the northwest of Iceland has only about 2’600 inhabitants and is quite close to the arctic circle. We booked a horseback riding tour with Fosshestar and were picked up by one of their guides which happened to be a young girl from Switzerland. I think it is good that we’re not “echte Basler” (real Basileans) because for them it would probably the worst to take a bus for half an hour, fly for 4,5 hours, be on a ship for an entire night only to end up being greeted by a “Zürcher” at the pier of Isafjordur!
We however enjoyed making fun of the Icelandic for thinking they have good chocolate with a fellow countrywoman 😉 After a short ride into the countryside we arrived at the stable and met the Icelandic horses – don’t ever call them ponies around an Icelandic, they don’t like that at all. Icelandic horses are strong and sturdy animals, known for their ability to navigate on difficult terrain and the fact, that they are not only able to walk, trot and gallop but are able to perform two additional gaits. One of them, the “tölt” we got to experience on our tour. It’s similar to a trot but more comfortable because the back of the horse stays more stable. You can check it out in this video.
Meeting the horses
First we got to know Blossi (my horse) and Lokkur (Rik’s horse), cleaned them up and saddled them. We practised riding in one of the stables until we were kind of able to signal the horses where we wanted them to go and how fast – not that they listened to us, but at least they knew what we wanted. Then we embarked on a ride through the beautiful countryside that led us over willows and rocks, through rivers and past the most adorable sheep.
These are Blossi and Lokkur looking glorious after the ride and us, well… not so much:
The bus from the Blue Lagoon dropped us of at Skafabakki Harbour, where the Insignia was already docked. We entered our home for the next 15 days and it felt like a ghost ship – there was no one in sight! Having been on bigger cruise ships we’re used to having to wait in line for a bit to get checked in but this time we just walked straight through, seeing almost ten crew members but not a single guest until we hit the Waves Grill, Oceania’s poolside grill. It’s our favourite venue for lunch and the Grilled Reuben Sandwich is still as good as I remembered from our last cruise. Being a German living in Switzerland I guess I just can’t resist the combination of Sauerkraut and Swiss cheese 😉
We had booked a mid-ship inside stateroom on a low deck because both Rik and I are prone to seasickness and that’s the most stable place on the ship. We were assigned a handicapped cabin which means it’s a lot bigger than a normal inside cabin but the layout is a bit weird. There is no couch and the TV is next to the bed rather than in front of it. Also the TV is tiny – smaller than my computer screen at home – and for some reason it uses only half of that tiny screen to actually show the movie… But we don’t plan on spending much time in the cabin anyways so it doesn’t really matter.
We got up early on day two to catch a bus to another Icelandic classic: the Blue Lagoon. It’s a geothermal spa that received it’s name because of the bright blue colour of the water. It is man-made but the water naturally maintains 37 to 39 °C because it runs close to lava in the ground before being fed into the pool. When you get close to the areas of the pool where the water gets injected you feel that it is actually way hotter, but it cools down because the air temperature is much lower.
At the lagoon we were able to store our luggage before getting changed and washing ourselves, which gets taken very seriously in Iceland, and spending about an hour in the pool which was very relaxing. The water is rich in minerals such as silica and sulfur and it’s believed that it has “healing powers” – but then again more than half of all Icelanders believe in invisible elves so I’m not sure if you can trust them. What I can attest to is that they are not lying when they tell you the water will make your hair hard to manage. Even though I followed the instructions and put tons of conditioner in my hair it felt – and looked – like straw for a few days.
Turns out all you have to do to become Icelandic is to attend a comedy show in the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. Now I know how to behave like a local: be rude, love the smell and wash!
If you’ve never been to Iceland this might seem strange to you, but it was actually pretty good advice for our first few days on the island.
1. We learned that the icelandic people have a very northern charm – they aren’t exactly talkative. So don’t expect the receptionist at the hotel or your taxi driver to say anything to you that’s not strictly necessary for getting the job done. Don’t take it personally!
2. Iceland stinks – literally, not figuratively. Every time we took a shower the entire bathroom suddenly started smelling like rotten egg. At first we thought there was a problem with the shower but when we smelled the same at the geyser area and the Blue Lagoon we looked it up and found out that it’s the smell of sulfur, caused by the volcanic activity in Iceland. There is no avoiding it so you just have to get used to it!
3. When you go to a public bath or as we did to the Blue Lagoon you are expected to wash properly before entering the pool – naked that is, leaving on your bathing suit is not allowed. Do it and you will be rewarded with a great bathing experience!
These were just three of 12 lessons the show thought us while also being quite entertaining. We would recommend it to everyone who likes some lighthearted comedy and wants to learn something about Iceland.
On our first day in Iceland we went for a classic tourist attraction: the Golden Circle. The tour consists of several stops at iconic Icelandic sights of which the Thingvellir National Park, the Geyser Hot Spring area and Gullfoss waterfall are the most famous and impressive. Unfortunately there were tons of people at all these stops which spoiled the experience a bit. We later heard it’s better to go later in the day so that’s what we would do if we came to Iceland again. Here are a few impressions of these beautiful natural wonders:
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park was my favourite stop of the entire tour. Not only is it a really pretty place it’s also loaded with Icelandic history. The Vikings came to Iceland in 871 (or did they?) and as population grew there was a need for a general assembly to settle some affairs – for example passing laws. The Thingvellir area was easily accessible from the most populated regions of that time and offered some great acoustics so that’s where the Vikings decided to hold their parliament.
Fun fact: This is also where they some scenes for Game of Thrones, for example the battle between Brienne and the Hound.
At midday we stopped at a geothermal area that featured several geysers, among them the one in the picture, the Strokkur geysr, which erupts every ten minutes into a fountain of 15 to 20 meters. In between it sometimes does so called “fake eruptions” that are less high, so stay around for a bit as to not miss the real thing!
The eruptions are caused by water seeping down onto rock heated by magma. The water gets turned into steam but it can’t immediately rise, as steam usually does, because there is more water from above that keeps it down – until there is just too much energy and the steam breaks out. Or something like that, check out How stuff works for a way better explanation.
And finally what looks like it could be in New Zealand: the Gullfoss waterfall. Around 140 cubic meters of water fall down every second – in two steps of 11 and 21 meters – into seemingly nowhere. On the picture you can’t see it very well but there was constantly a rainbow in front of it that made it look quite magical. I’m not sure if the Niagara Falls will be able to top that.
Crossing the Atlantic by ship – twice
For the first time ever my boyfriend Rik and I will be travelling for almost two month this summer. As you can see on the map above we’ll fly to Iceland first and spend a few days in the capital Reykjavik. There we will board the cruise ship Oceania Insignia which will take us to Greenland and Canada before disembarking in New York.
As I dislike driving and Rik does not have a license we’ll be using the train to get to Niagara Falls (Ontario), Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Québec. From there we’ll fly back to New York and after a week we’ll join the last true ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2 to cross the Atlantic.