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Review of Ponant Icelandic Loop August 22-29, 2019

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This is a review and blog of the Jazzbeaux Iceland cruise and hiking trip from August 19 to 30, 2019.


We flew to Reykjavík on Delta, spent two nights in Reykjavík, boarded Ponant Le Champlain for a 7-day circumnavigation of Iceland [the Icelandic Loop itinerary, August 22 to 29, 2019] with daily hiking excursions by Backroads, then spent one more day in Reykjavík before flying home.


During the trip, Jazzbelle kept detailed notes and I [Jazzbeau] took lots of pictures.  After returning home, I revised the notes to remove names [to protect the guilty, as they say…] and put it in my voice to avoid confusion.  Jazzbelle became ‘DW’ in internet parlance [‘Dear Wife’].


In planning for this trip I used the brand-new Rick Steves Iceland [2019] book, as well as Trip Advisor [www.tripadvisor.com] and, of course, Cruise Critic.


What follows is a day-by-day account of the trip.  But since I assume that most CC readers are most interested in the review of Ponant Le Champlain, I will start with that in the next post.


The same text is also available – with lots of pictures – on my blog for this cruise:  Ponant/Backroads Icelandic Loop 8-2019

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This trip was a first in three ways:  our first trip to Iceland, our first cruise on Ponant, and our first hiking trip with Backroads.  And all three were very successful.


Iceland is everything you have heard about it:  amazing mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and volcanoes; friendly people; a surprisingly warm climate given the location on the Arctic Circle.  You can get the flavor of Iceland in as little as two days [one for Reykjavik, and one for the Golden Circle of Þingvellir, Geyser and Gullfoss waterfall plus the Blue Lagoon] – but if you can go to all four corners of the country you will see a much more varied landscape and lots more of everything.


Ponant is a welcome addition to our list of premium cruise lines.  The ‘explorer class’ ships [Le Lapérouse, Le Champlain, Le Bougainville, Le Dumont-d’Urville, Le Bellot, and Le Jacques Cartier] are drop-dead beautiful from your first glimpse.  The most beautiful profile of any ship I have ever seen.  Very well laid out from stem to stern [the stern platform is used for loading the tenders, which is much nicer and more stable than the typical side-door].  The interior features tasteful luxury at every turn.


Capacity is 184 passengers [we weren’t quite full] with 110 staff and crew, for a ratio of 1.7 [similar to Azamara and Oceania].  The ships are rated at 9,900 tons, giving 53.8 per passenger [better than A and O].  This puts Ponant at the top of the Premium or Entry-Luxury class [with the smallest ships], but not at the level of true Luxury lines like Seabourn, Silversea, or the new Scenic Eclipse.


The cabins are not huge by large luxury ship standards, but are generous by yacht standards [most cabins are 204 sf, suites range from 291 to 484 sf; and all have balconies] and are very well laid out – we didn’t feel cramped, and there were drawers we never used.


Most of the cabins on deck 5 [including ours] are ‘connecting’ to allow conversion to two-bathroom suites – the only downside in the non-suite configuration is that a generous corner banquette is replaced by a chair.  [For our next Ponant cruise we have booked on deck 4 in a similar cabin which will have the banquette.]


The Theater is well designed for lectures and for the small-group entertainment they feature [I think – we didn’t make it to any of the shows with the three dancers and one singer].  There are two lounges, and an outdoor pool.  There was a rumor of a spa and fitness room – but the service is so non-pushy that I never had to say no.  [Like Mark Twain, when I get the urge to exercise I lie down until it passes…]


These ships also have the innovative ‘Blue Eye’ lounge on deck 1 – a multi-sensory underwater experience with windows that show the marine life swimming by and hydrophones that add the sounds from a three-mile radius.  They offered guided tours of the Blue Eye during our cruise, but we didn’t sign up – and the cold waters of Iceland were not the best environment for experiencing this concept.  [We will have to give it a try in New Zealand.]


The Nautilus Restaurant on deck 4 seats all passengers in one seating.  Service is very attentive.  The included wines are good and varied.  The food is imaginative, and might be better appreciated if were a little less so.  The four daily entrée choices always included one fish [almost always a white fish] and one vegetarian dish, but the other two didn’t add the expected variety [for our taste].  We rarely go to the ‘always available’ menu on ships, but tried the rib eye steak [cooked medium rare as ordered but tough], and the hamburger [strange].


There was also the option to dine at the Grill on deck 3, which has a carving station plus a limited menu – it got great reviews from some fellow passengers, but it is outside and it was too cold to consider on our cruise.


Breakfast and lunch were faultless.  Both had a nice buffet layout plus menu offerings, and everything we had was excellent.  Breads and boulangerie were terrific.  Eggs benedict was very good – until I discovered the fantastic French toast.  The luncheon menu offerings were all very good [we didn’t keep notes on what we had, sorry].


I would suggest offering the Grill carving selection on the Restaurant dinner menu[if they can figure out how to ‘plate’ it], adding more shellfish and red meat as entrees, and more Traditional French recipes – the cuisine was heavy on ceviches and carpaccios rather than cream sauces.


But that’s the only criticism I have of Ponant, and it reads more negatively than I felt at the time – I managed to gain 6 pounds despite hiking 6 miles a day, so I must have been eating something!  [Did I mention how good the breads were?]


I also want to praise their generous loyalty program.  You become a Major when you book your second Ponant cruise [that’s right: when you book it, not after you complete it].  That gives you a 50 Euro per person onboard credit, free laundry, and a 5% discount on future bookings.  That’s on top of the regular amenities: open bar and cabin mini-bar, free wi-fi, port charges and taxes.  The only thing that Ponant doesn’t include is gratuities [but on this cruise, Backroads took care of them for us].


Backroads is a top notch hiking [and biking] tour company.  We had 37 in our group [there was a 40-person limit], with four on-board Trip Leaders and six on-shore Support Staff – that’s an amazing ratio!  The passengers covered a wide range of ages and abilities [and foibles], and the leaders were always eager to assist and to modify routes so that every single person got the most out of their trip [even a few that probably shouldn’t have booked such an active trip].  Magdalena [Austrian], Svenja [German], Diego [Paraguay?], and Chema [Spain] blended into a well-oiled team – not an Icelander in the bunch, but they knew the territory and spoke flawless Icelandic [to my gringo ears].  We never felt that there was any more they could do, or that we wished they could do.


However, we also realized that Backroads is focused on exercise.  The leaders were very apologetic about the missed port – not because we missed seeing Heimaey but because we missed our daily exercise!  But frankly, after 5 straight days of hiking [preceded by 2 days of extensive walking in Reykjavík], that Sea Day was a most welcome thing!


The hikes on this trip are rated from Level 1 to 2, and some of them were at the upper limit of our abilities.  The climb to the summit on Heimaey would have been beyond us.  So as we look at other Backroads offerings, we are very careful to examine the daily choices – knowing that we won’t be able to do the more strenuous ones, and therefore considering whether we will feel shortchanged when we choose the easier options.  This is not a criticism of Backroads – a program like this can’t be all things to all people.  They have a very good program, it’s just probably a little too strenuous for us in our 70s.

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Tuesday August 20, 2019 – Reykjavík


Our flight from JFK to Reykjavík took just under 5 hours on Delta.  When we boarded, DW and I had the only two seats in our Comfort+ row (aisle and aisle). At the last minute they put two young children next to me, with their mother several rows behind.  That wasn’t going to work for anybody [!] so I gave my seat to the mother and I moved over to the window next to DW.  We still had an empty in the middle, so it was a nice roomy [and quiet] flight.


Moving through Customs and baggage claim at KEF went smoothly and our driver Sigi was waiting for us.  The ride into the city took 45 minutes and DW dozed for a good bit of it.  [It’s amazing that she can’t sleep on planes, but the minute she gets in a car or bus she’s out like a light.]


One is not overwhelmed by flora in Iceland.  Its beauty lies in its ruggedness.  The architecture out near the airport is simple and utilitarian.  There was a hint of graffiti (certainly more so in the city).  There were also some curious rock formations that looked like cairns as imagined by Giacometti [we later learned that they are indeed sculptures, called “Stone Trolls” or “Silent Sentinels,” by an Icelandic artist].


Arriving at our hotel [Konsulat by Hilton] well before 8 am, our room was not ready but we were invited to have breakfast.  That helped. [This was in addition to the free breakfast we were entitled to the next day – very classy move by Hilton.]


Our room was available before 9:30 so it gave DW a chance for another nap. I caught up with email before we headed out.  We bundled up as temps here were in the 50s and overcast [as opposed 90 as we left NY].


We walked over 5 miles exploring Reykjavík, basically following the Rick Steves Reykjavík Walk.  We started in Ingolfur’s Square, where they have stone pillars that recreate the carved wooden pillars that the first settler of Iceland, Ingolfur Arnason, threw off his ship so that the gods could show him where to settle.  Three years later the slaves he sent to find them ended up in a “smoky bay” [translation of Reykjavík; named for the thermal vapors in the area].


[Also note the Icelandic custom for names.  You have a given name [first name], but instead of a family name you take your father’s name and add –son [or dottir, as the case may be].  So Ingolfur Arnasonwas the son of Arni, and his son was named Thorsteinn Ingolfsson.  This is still used in many Icelandic families, which makes it hard to keep track of who is related to whom [just like in a Russian novel…]


Then we wandered in and out of narrow streets, past colorful houses [painted brightly to cheer the locals in the dreary winter], some with wood siding but many with vertical, corrugated metal to withstand the cold and wind and resist fire.


We descended below street level to visit the digs of The Settlement Exhibition, where they have uncovered the remains of a 10th century longhouse and farmstead.  A couple of doors down the street is the one-story Black House, originally built around 1760 for the textile industry.  Here we saw an extensive photo exhibit depicting life around 1900 including the effects of the dreadful Spanish Influenza.


On we went to City Hall—2 glass buildings surrounded almost entirely by water teeming with ducks [but no Canada geese, thank God].  Its lower lobby had an immense topographic floor map of Iceland that was helpful to visualize our coming itinerary.  [And which, even more amazingly, was gone when we went back a week later.  It was so big and substantial-looking that we were amazed they could store it away as needed.]


Reykjavík is very small for a capital city, and this really comes out in Austurvöllur, Iceland’s Parliament Square.  This is a small square, and on the south side is a small building that houses the AlÞingi, the ‘world’s oldest parliament.’  [Note the odd letter: the Icelandic alphabet has 32, but most of the added ones are pronounced ‘th’ – I can see them now, sitting around the fire during a long medieval winter, thinking “this will really confuse tourists in the 21st century!”]


Next to the parliament building is the small but well cared for Lutheran Cathedral [Dómkirkjan], which would be overwhelmed in size by the newer Hallgrimskirkja church on the hill.


Leaving the old town area, we walked past the Prime Minister’s office [a converted jail, and nowhere near as fancy as the stores around it – there is a new jail, but it houses mostly white collar criminals – we were told that there are no gangs and very little violent crime in Iceland] and up the main shopping street to the big new church on the highest hill in Reykjavík.  


Hallgrimskirkja church was designed in the 1930s to one-up the Catholics, who had just built their Cathedral on the second-highest hill on the other side of town.  From a distance it looks like a sand castle, but up close one sees that it resembles basalt columns, which would relate to the volcanic history of Iceland.  The inside is austere, but was warmed up during our visit by an organist practicing for a concert later that week.


Standing in front of the cathedral is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson, which was donated by the US government to mark the AlÞingi’s 1,000th anniversary in 1930.


Across the street, we wandered through the Einar Jonsson sculpture garden.


Since it was such a nice day, we headed down the hill to the water to see the Sun Voyager stainless steel sculpture, which is shaped like the skeleton of a Viking ship.


We continued walking along the water to the Harpa Concert Hall.  Its glass paneled exterior catches the light on a sunny day, but it looked rather dull under the clouds and a sprinkling of rain.  [They offer guided tours that include either a mini-concert or a brief singing demonstration to show off the hall’s great acoustics, but they weren’t available on the days we were there.]


We had noticed that the WindstarStar Breezecruise yacht was in, so we walked around the Miðbakki old port area to see it.  [We’ll be on her sister ship Star Legend next fall.]


Back to the Konsulat for more sleep before Happy Hour in the lobby and dinner.  They had told us that the hotel offers happy hour with free drinks and food every evening – but during this first stay there was a large group of Diageo liquor sales reps and they had reserved the bar area for a private function so the hotel hadn’t set anything up for the other customers.  I just wanted a quick glass of wine, but when we asked about the happy hour they immediately started preparing a tray of sushi.  [We don’t like sushi, but after all their trouble we felt compelled to try a little.  It didn’t kill me, but I still don’t care for it.]


The hotel desk got us a reservation at Grillmarkaðurinn restaurant, a rustic cave-like place with really good food.  We shared two of their signature dishes:  a trio of mini-sliders (minke whale, puffin, langoustine), then ‘The Fish Gourmet’ sampler platter with ocean perch with crab, arctic char with pesto, and cod with langoustine.  It was all yummy.

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Wednesday August 21, 2019 – Reykjavík (continued)


We checked out of the Konsulat and Nevin said she would store our bags till we returned.  Off we went to the Volcano House, a mini-museum with specimens of volcanic rock and ash, and two half-hour movies devoted to the devastating volcanic eruptions in 1973 and 2010.  The latter was the one that spewed clouds of ash for weeks all across Europe, disrupting air traffic.  It seems to have put Iceland on the map.  But the 1973 movie was really captivating, as it showed the fiery lava eruption on Heimaey Island that flowed slowly down the crater and into the town, evaporating dozens of houses and threatening to destroy the important harbor.  The harbor turned out to be their salvation, as they were able to borrow huge water pumps [from the US] and cool down the flowing lava until it stopped – just short of the harbor.  [We were expecting to visit Heimaey toward the end of our cruise – but read on…]


We walked along the busy commercial shore till we reached Aurora Reykjavík, which had photos, videos, detailed explanations of Northern Lights.  We met a woman from CA who had just finished trail running [!] in Iceland and was hoping to catch a showing of the lights.  The exhibit explained that this was possible for her, but unlikely – because you need a clear night [we had mostly cloudy weather], to be in a dark area [although they had movies taken in Reykjavík, which isn’t as bright a city as NYC or Vegas…], and to be in the high point of the sunspot cycle [we are in the low point]. We didn’t see them during this entire trip, but maybe she was luckier…


Around the corner was Saga Museum in which one wears a headset and progresses station to station viewing realistic mannequins and life scenes depicting the Iceland’s Viking Settlement Age.


Museums behind us, we walked up the hill to spend prayer time at the [Catholic] Cathedral of Christ the King. [This was the building that got the Lutherans jealous and led to the building of Hallgrimskirkja church – which was designed by the same architect.]  Well maintained and peaceful, but it would never win any awards for interior design or good taste.  [All Masses are in Icelandic, except for one Sunday Mass in Polish.  Poles are the only substantial minority in Iceland, making up 4% of the country’s population – but a much larger percent of the churchgoing population.]


We headed back to the Konsulat, walking down Embassy Row and then through a construction zone.  Iceland suffered greatly during the 2008 financial crisis but now everything is booming – especially deconstruction and (re)construction.  Just within eyeshot tonight DW counted more than two dozen construction cranes.


Upon our return to the Konsulat, Nevin greeted us and said she had called our next hotel [Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Natura] and had us upgraded to the ‘Blue Suite’ with free spa access.  Then she called a taxi and we were off to the Natura, which is situated adjacent to the municipal airport – mercifully, they don’t fly at night.


We dined in the hotel restaurant Satt.  They serve a dinner buffet, and the chef was carving a lovely lamb roast.


DW walked a bit around the grounds.

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Thursday August 22, 2019 – Backroads Dagur Eitt [Day One]


At 9:00 am we convened in the Natura lobby to check in with our Backroads guides (Diego, Magda, Chema, Svenja).  Our luggage was taken to the ship while we all gathered in the theater of the hotel for an introductory briefing before shuttling off to our first excursion to Nesjavellir, an incredible valley that comprises part of the Hengill geothermal area.


On the Geothermal Mud Pot Hike, our leaders explained about the physical happenings around us and how Iceland could supply all of Europe with geothermal energy because of its volcanic underpinnings.


The Nesjavellir Climb gave us great view of Þingvellir Lake.


The difficulty of walking these trails lay in the loose, large gravel underfoot, so I was glad to have my hiking poles.  [DW, like a mountain goat, scampered unencumbered by poles and did just fine.]


Our lunch break was at the Hotel Ion, a buffet including cod, of course.  [I got to try my first Icelandic craft beer.  I ordered an IPA but got an APA – Arctic Pale Ale.  Different, but good.]


Back in our vans and off to Þingvellir[Thingvellir] National Park where we followed the historic site walk [the AlÞingi was established here in AD 930 and continued meeting here until 1798].  We also explored the national park and walked through a chasm where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart – one foot in each continent!  We clocked over 6 miles today.


We were then driven to Hafnarfjörður Harbor to board Ponant Le Champlain.  The ship is lovely, outside and in.  Probably the most beautiful ship I have seen.  And very well planned and executed, with high quality finishes and subtle luxury.  Our cabin was not large [204sf] but very well laid out.


We unpacked our bags and hurried to the talk about life on board.  Next we had the mandatory safety drill before a quick change of clothes for dinner.  We sat with our shuttle mates, Kathy and Rick from FL.


We were not overwhelmed by the culinary talents of the chef or the quality of the entrees.  The ribeye steaks were tough!  [I get fatty for this cut, but above all ribeyes are supposed to be tender…] Vegetarian salad was a small head of lettuce with a couple of slices of tomato and cucumber with a drizzle of balsamic.


We slept well.  Exhaustion!

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Friday August 23, 2019 – Ísafjördur (Backroads Day 2)


DW grabbed a light breakfast in the dining room and I got a continental ‘late riser’ brekkie in the lounge before taking in the Backroads talks at 9:00. Chema and Diego talked about the day.

The Captain announced a sighting of whales and dolphins, so many passengers tried to get a peak.  We saw only the latter but some friends saw a whale from their balcony.


After a buffet lunch, we met on the dock at 12:30 and boarded vans to take us to our first hiking trail of the day.  The Valagil WaterfallHike took us past a mirror lake reflecting the ice shields [they look like small glaciers but don’t move] on mountains in the distance.


We walked through mud and meadow, over small streams, on gravel till we reached a wooden bridge.  Only five at a time could fit in the best vantage point to see and photograph Valagil Waterfall.  Reversing the route returned us to the waiting vans and a selection of snacks and hot teas.  [Backroads is very good at keeping you hydrated and energized.]


On we drove to the Buna Waterfall.  We then hiked back to the dock in the bustling fishing town of Ísafjördur, the ‘capital’ of the West Fjords.  Although isolated by mountains and fjords from the rest of Iceland, it is known for its rather cosmopolitan and urban atmosphere, flourishing cultural life and rich heritage of music and visual arts.  We hiked 7 miles today!  Had light rain for a short time, with temps in the 50s.


This town was almost destroyed in 1995 by a massive avalanche.  Forty lives were lost, many houses destroyed…  Icelandic ingenuity and lots of funding have now safeguarded the population and new homes with the construction of a massive avalanche wall, snow guard fences and deterrent earth mounds.


Back on board, Backroads hosted a gathering in the Panoramic Lounge for cocktails and yummy hors d’oeuvres.  Chema, one of our guides, invited us to go down to the Theater as the Captain was going to discuss the weather report for the rest of the trip.  Treacherous wind and rain and swells were in the forecast, and he and his crew would decide if the itinerary needed to be adjusted.


The first Captain’s Gala dinner followed.  Almost everyone dressed smartly, but there were no tuxes or haute couture gowns.  There were two five-course tasting menus to choose from [classic and vegetarian].  Our entrée was bar (a white fish) [‘they’ had carrots – so glad I’m not a vegetarian!] Dessert was good.  The company was enjoyable as we dined with Diane and Harry from San Antonio.

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Saturday August 24, 2019 – GrímseyIsland (Backroads Day 3)


A couple of things about Iceland!  Did you know about the cod wars with Great Britain in the mid-20th century?  The English started poaching [no pun intended, although we do love poached salmon...] the Icelandic fishing territory and fishing vessels came close to violent confrontations.  The US intervened and persuaded England to retreat so there would not be an international incident.  Now Iceland has a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone.


We already mentioned the world’s first parliament [Þingvellir] – and the first woman President in the world was in Iceland in the 1960s.


Today’s destination was Grímsey Island, the northernmost point in Iceland where the Arctic Circle cuts across the top.  It has a population of 35 (swelling to 100 in the summer).  Many species of aquatic birds come to nest in the spring and summer.  Puffins stay at sea all winter [young puffins stay out for years, until they are ready to breed] and then come back to the same spot on the cliff walls to reconnect with their mate and raise new chicks.  They can live to up to 30 years.


Unfortunately, the puffins had already left on their migration south when we arrived.  But our local guide, Hetla, had a surprise for us. She walked us to her neighbor’s house to see a puffin chick [or ‘puffling’] which had been rescued when it failed to set off with the flock.  Dubbed Loaky, he will be tagged and set free next summer, but they don’t know what he will do when he gets old enough to breed since he has bonded with the neighbor: will he come back to the house and his ‘daddy,’ or join the other puffins on the cliff walls?


A recent phenomenon is the death of many arctic terns.  A scientific crew will come this week to start taking samples from the bird corpses scattered on the treeless fields to find out what is happening.


Grímsey Island is shaped like a wedge, with 400-foot cliffs along the eastern side sloping down to sea level on the south and west where the only down is located.  The only height above the grass line is a fat, wooly sheep or two [or twenty].


Off and hiking.  We all put on every available layer of clothing, hat, scarf, gloves.  [Well, stupid me left his gloves in the cabin, but my loving wife shared hers.  Luckily once we got going the wind died down and the exertion warmed me up.]  It was in the 40s and the wind was brutal.


We stopped at the monument for the old Arctic Circle monument [did you know it moves? – the Arctic Circle, not this monument – it will eventually be in the sea north of the island, until the earth’s axis starts to shift back*] and continued along the cliffs of Básavik to the northern tip of Grímsey [Fótur Point], where a huge concrete ball with a hole in it [for the Arctic Circle to pass through] marks the present location.  [This new Arctic Circle monument will – at least in theory – be moved to match the progress of the Arctic Circle itself.]  The descent to it and the climb back up were our biggest challenges.


The plan had been to hike around the high eastern cliff tops – but it was so foggy that there was nothing to see and it was still cold and windy over there, so most people [including us] headed back to the town.  After a total of 5.5 miles, we were back at our tender port where Chema treated us to hot cocoa.  Truly welcome!


Back to Le Champlain where crew members were fishing off the back and catching dinner, Atlantic wolffish.  We continued inside for ‘chocolate tea,’ i.e., tea or juice with chocolate goodies.  [Each day had such a tea, with a different theme.]


Then a well deserved nap followed.


We toddled down late to dinner in the Nautilus restaurant and eventually Kathy and Rick joined us.  It was the best supper onboard to date.  I had carpaccio/arugula, wolffish, and macaron with fresh raspberries and lychees, and DW had an arugula salad, scallops with celery puree, tenderloin of veal, and chocolate mint cake.


So far lunch has been the better meal with wonderful cheeses, cold cuts, breads and butter.


We received two sets of certificates for crossing the Arctic Circle – one from the ship [as we had sailed through it] and one from our local guide [as we walked through it and stood with one leg on each side].  This goes with our Equator-spanning and Greenwich Prime Meridian-spanning pictures.  We only need the International Date Line and the Antarctic Circle to complete the set!




*I was taught that the Arctic Circle is fixed at 66° 33′ 39″ latitude, which is where the old monument is situated. But apparently they have changed the definition to match the point at which the earth’s tilt causes total darkness in winter.


According to wikipedia:

The position of the Arctic Circle is not fixed and currently runs 66° 33′ 47.9″ north of the Equator.  Its latitude depends on the Earth’s axial tilt, which fluctuates within a margin of more than 2 degrees over a 41,000-year period, due to tidal forces resulting from the orbit of the Moon.  Consequently, the Arctic Circle is currently drifting northwards at a speed of about 15 m (49 ft) per year.


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Sunday August 25, 2019 – Akureyri (Backroads Day 4)


We went with the early risers today, meaning we had to be off the ship before 8 am in Akureyri.  This is Iceland’s second largest urban area with almost 19,000 inhabitants [a far cry from Grímsey].  It has been nicknamed the ‘Capital of the North.’


Thirty one of us piled into a full size bus which drove an hour and a quarter [through a 7 km tunnel – Iceland’s newest] to Lake Myvatn which sits along the gap of North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  The area is very active geothermally.


We climbed the Hverfjall Crater, which was formed by a volcanic eruption 2300 years ago.  Huffing and puffing [not to be confused with puffling, which was the term for chick who failed to launch on Grímsey], we made it up the steep incline to the crater’s edge and then on to the highest point along the rim before retracing out steps.  [We could have gone all the way around, but the wind was fierce and I was afraid that DW would be blown off – Packing memo: next time bring lead weights for pockets…]  In additional to seeing the caldera close-up, we had great views of the entire Lake Myvatn area.


Diego rewarded us with herbal tea and chocolate treats when we reached the bus.  We all opted not to take the bus but instead to do the optional hike through fields of rough-formed lava and tiny wildflowers and trees taking in the mountains and occasional snowfields surrounding us.


Our next destination was Grjotagja lava cave [site of a romantic retreat in Game of Thrones] where we descended rocky footing to a steaming pool. This used to be a popular spot for thermal bathing, but recent geothermal activity has rendered the springs too hot for soaking.


The bus then took us to a delicious lunch of Arctic char and chicken [with the best brownies!] at Fosshotel Myvatn.


Re-energized, we drove on to Godafoss, a truly beautiful waterfall with aqua glacial water.  Just below the major cataract is a smaller one, called Geitafoss.


We returned to Akureyri in time for final boarding at 3:15.


4:00 found the two of us in the main lounge having buttered crepes with caramel sauce.


Then I went to the Backroads beer and schnapps tasting.


We dined in Nautilus with Kathy and Rick.  Our notes for this dinner are sketchy, but we know that DW enjoyed a Caesar salad [this was consistently excellent throughout the cruise] and molten lava cake with caramel.

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Monday August 26, 2019 – Seyðisfjörður (Backroads Day 5)


After our usual 9:00 pre-hiking talk in the lounge, DW went to the Theater for a presentation on The Incredible Vikings by the ship’s lecturer, Jean Louis Joret.


Early lunch and we both tried flounder.  Nice and moist.


At 12:45, we met our Fire group on the pier and had a short guided tour of Seyðisfjörður town by a local resident, Olamya.  The two groups parted company at the Avalanche Memorial sculpture at the foot of Mount Bjolfur [named for the town’s very first settler].  Some of the houses we passed sported art work, even a little risqué [no pictures – this is a family-friendly blog!]


We were offered two choices for this hike:  the upper route climbed partway up Mt. Bjolfur and then came down at the head of the fjord to meet the other group.  The lower route took an easier path along the other side of the fjord and then doubled back.


Most of the trekkers chose to go the lower route, which took us through conifers, over some rocks and streams, and past waterfalls.  It was a lovely hike matched by our best day weather-wise so far.  Maybe high 60s and sunny!  We kept peeling off layers of clothes.


Back in town we reconvened at a local coffee house where Chema bought each of us soda or cappuccino…  We declined and walked down the rainbow path on the main street of Seyðisfjörður to the ‘famous Blue Church’ (Lutheran, of course).  By the time we returned to our ship, we had walked 6 miles.


‘US’ teawas the listing for this day—apple crumb tart.  Delicious!  Napping, too.


The seas were getting rougher so Captain Boucher held another meeting to tell us that he had decided to reverse course, meaning we would have a sea day on Tuesday as we made our way counterclockwise [with the wind] back to the Reykjavík area.


We succeeded in weaving our way to the dining room.  And sat at a table with Terry and Loretta from LA.  Eventually Kathy and Rick found us.  I had spinach ravioli with ricotta in consommé [the vegetarian entrée, ordered as an appetizer], filet mignon [a proper entrée], and a quad of ice creams and sorbets.  DW had Caesar salad, a strange hamburger and good fries, followed by a chocolate tart.  Yum!


Boy, did we rock and roll all night with the weather!  [But it would have been much worse if we had proceeded on in the planned clockwise route!]

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Tuesday August 27, 2019 – Unexpected Sea Day (Backroads Day 6)


[Because of the itinerary change we missed the planned stop at Heimaey Island, with a hike to the 1973 lava field and an optional climb to the top of the Eldfell crater.  I don’t think we missed much new, because we had climbed the Hverfjall crater and we had seen the documentary about the 1973 eruption at the Volcano Museum in Reykjavík. Ironically, after initially looking for cruise itineraries with no sea days we have now come to cherish them – especially after hiking 5-6 miles a day!]


It was really rough getting ready for and walking to breakfast.  DW sat at a table with a couple of Brits before going to our Backroads 9:30 meeting on tomorrow’s agenda.


DW went to the documentary Chasing Ice (James Balog, photographer) before lunch.  I watched Joret’s first Iceland talk [of 4] on TV – he was OK, but I decided not to watch the others.


The afternoon entertainment was a screening of the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – not a very good film, but apparently it was shot in Iceland.  [We skipped it.]


After lunch with a couple from Fort Lauderdale, we took full advantage of our day at sea—lazing, reading, dozing.


The seas began to calm down as Le Champlain headed due south along the western coast of Iceland [and the wind at our back].


The Captain’s Farewell was held in the Theater with entertainment, champagne and hors d’oeuvres.  DW chatted with a couple currently from Sydney but originally from South Africa.


The second gala dinner followed around 7:30 with no sign of the Captain joining us – we all hoped he was on the bridge with a steady hand on the controls!  The ‘classic’ tasting menu started out with a crab amuse bouche, followed by scallop ceviche, then shrimp, then tenderloin of lamb.  It was topped off with a rich chocolate confection with whipped cream.  It was the first night that the four of us did not close the DR.


We parted company with Kathy and Rick and tried to catch the end of the show.  [We had missed all the entertainment so far, thanks to the great table conversations.]  It turned out to be the piano soloist, playing very somber music – so we went back to our cabin to catch up on email etc.


On a light note, every day Backroads gave us a snapshot of the upcoming day’s activities and at the top it would say Day One, Day Two, etc. [in Icelandic].  Today’s was Day Six or ‘Dagur Sex.’  We had a lot of fun with that, especially quizzing the guides as to why there was no late-night ‘action.’  Maybe it was because none of us had remembered to bring our daggers…

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Wednesday August 28, 2019 – Hveragerdi (Backroads Day 7)


Dagur Sjo (Day 7 – no more jokes about the heading…) and we were in our final port – where we had begun this cruise, Hafnarfjörður.  Rough seas were behind us but we had an early start to our day as we had to meet our Backroads guides out on the pier at 8:30.  In the rain!


And it rained the whole time we were out.  An hour’s drive (the last part being over extremely rough terrain) brought us to Hveragerdi.  The hike started with a very steep descent atop large, rough, loose gravel.  [DW even took one walking stick for that part, but then she had to carry it the rest of the way – and confirmed that the hassle isn’t worth the benefit for her.] The hike took us to a place where a hot geothermal river mixes with a cold glacier river – a favorite place for Icelanders to bathe because you can vary the water temp just by moving up- or down-stream a little.


We were offered the opportunity to bathe in the hot springs, but quite a few of us opted out.  There was no dry, sheltered place to change clothes or to store them while soaking in the warm water.  Despite rain gear we all got fairly wet [either the rain seeped in, or perspiration soaked you from inside].


We did get to see waterfalls, steam vents, mud pots, hot springs and plenty of sheep.  There was evidence of the presence of Icelandic horses on our trail – but none in the fields.  [This confirms that there are no wild horses in Iceland.]


In a little under 5 miles, we made it to the vans, which could shuttle us to lunch or we could continue hiking there.  Enough is enough!  We decided that we were not in the ‘wuss van’ but in the one with the highest IQs!


A hot buffet lunch awaited us at Skyrgerdin starting with a hot, flavorful soup.  Salad and vegetables, potatoes and chicken in a sauce were yummy and filling.  And an iced, almond layer cake mit schlag filled us to bursting.


We were back on our ship a little after two, thanks to Magdalena’s skillful driving.


The two of us assessed the water damage to our belongings and began hanging them around the cabin.  [The shower stall has a clothes line and a great ventilation system so that everything dried very quickly.  This was great for DIY laundry – even though as Ponant ‘Majors’ we were entitled to free laundry throughout the cruise.]


DW took a break up in the 6th floor forward lounge for awhile.  No one else was there.  And then she had a coffee-flavored mini cream puff (today’stea).


At 6:00 we all gathered in the main lounge on Deck 3 for our Backroads farewell cocktail party.  Delicious canapés were circulated and wine and champagne were available.  Also mixed drinks at the bar.  [I ordered a Hendricks G&T but had to stop the bartender when she started to pour in Royal Club tonic – see the extensive thread on Cruise Critic about this awful stuff: https://boards.cruisecritic.com/topic/2447579-the-recurring-tonic-question-anyone-on-journey-now/  Thankfully I had noticed one can of Schweppes tonic in our cabin mini-bar, so I ran back and got that to save the drink. The Hendricks ‘call’ cost 11 Euros – that seems excessive since a ‘well brand’ G&T would have been free.]


Backroads had arranged local entertainment at their party.  A young Icelandic singer, Hanna Mia, spoke to us about Iceland, answered our questions and sang three songs.  Two were folksongs in Icelandic and the third was in English and was made popular by a young group called Of Monsters and Men who are known in the US.  She told us she had tried to find the happiest Icelandic folk songs she could, but all of them are sad!


After the party we walked by the Theater to catch the end of the movie The Vikings – just as Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas were clashing swords over Janet Leigh.  They were ‘chewing the scenery’ as always…


[We received the semi-final statement from Ponant in our cabin, showing a 100 Euro credit that we hadn’t expected – another benefit of our ‘honorary’ Major status.  That took the sting out of the 11 Euro charge for my Hendricks G+T, but left little time to spend the rest as the shop had closed when we docked.]  So I bought a bottle of Barolo at dinner and shared it with our tablemates, Kathy and Rick, and new acquaintances, Harriet and Tom from Orange Beach, AL.  That left 4 Euros, which I donated to the crew fund [gratuities are included by Backroads except for their tour leaders, but more is always welcome.]


We all enjoyed our dinners.  I had beef cannelloni with red sauce, Caesar salad, chicken fricassee, and DIY peach melba[the featured peach dessert with raspberry sorbet on the side].  DW had octopus carpaccio, grilled vegetables, flounder and chocolate fondant.


We packed our bags and put them in the corridor for pickup.  [They weren’t due until 6 am, so for the first time in our cruising history we were early!]

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Thursday August 29, 2019 – Reykjavík (last time)


We disembarked from Le Champlain before 8:30 am and boarded the Backroads bus to the BSI bus station, where we hailed a cab that delivered us back to the Konsulat [where we had ‘second breakfast’ – getting ready for our trip to Hobbiton in New Zealand next year!]


The desk clerk said that the room they had designated for us was not ready yet but there was one with a slanted ceiling.  We looked and took!  DW just had to be extremely careful getting in and out of bed not to bump her noggin!


We bundled up and walked to the Miðbakki old port – no cruise yacht in port today, but we had the opportunity to read the large historical signs.  There were probably more than 20.  They were interesting but oddly were not arranged in chronological order.  We toddled on and revisited the Volcano House where we looked more closely at the items exhibited and we asked questions of the very knowledgeable young clerk [all geology Master’s candidates].  We continued on to City Hall to check out their big topo map to see exactly where we had been hiking the past week.  Surprise! It was gone.  The space was now taken over by rows of chairs for a private function.  So we walked near the City Hall lake and strolled through the sculpture garden next to a church that was hosting a lunchtime concert.


Back to the Konsulat to get ready for the Food and Saga Gourmet Tour https://www.seasontours.is/food-and-saga


Tyffi picked us up around 1 pm and drove us around for almost 3 hours, visiting out-of-the-way but very interesting sights in Reykjavík and suburbs. He pointed out the many churches, some fairly new and sporting avant garde architecture, but said no one went to services.  However, Christ the King Catholic Cathedral has about 15,000 faithful congregants – mostly Poles who have relocated to Iceland for employment.


Tyffi first took us down to the commercial waterfront and pointed out the boats in dry dock, the whale watchers, fishing vessels, warehouses… He continued to the point, where the Viking Mound [a manmade grassy knoll] stood topped off by a small cod drying shack.  We climbed to the top battling strong winds and light rain.  Photo op!  Beautiful views of Engey Island in Reykjavik Harbor and back to Reykjavik itself.  [It was at this point that he said he would take lots of pictures and forward them to us. Made it a whole lot easier for me, especially since I had left my camera in the hotel room!]


He drove us to the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, a ritzy suburb of Reykjavik with a small geothermal plant and a natural warm water pool where cyclists or hikers could soak their feet.  [The geothermal plants supply cheap electricity, heat and hot water to all the residents.  And it is now under consideration to try to build an underwater conduit to supply Scotland with electricity.]  At the tip of the peninsula we saw Grótta Lighthouse.


He took us to Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach, which has a sauna, hot tubs of various temperatures, and a sheltered sandy beach that is heated by a geothermal bubble pipe.  People were immersed in the warm water, and occasionally a few would get up and hurry down to take a dip in the bay.  [Icelanders are very big on these communal bathing spots. They can buy annual memberships.  It is a great source of socialization which is quite necessary in the very dark winter months.  Unlike Sweden, Iceland has a low suicide rate.]


Next stop was Bessastađir, which was one of Snorri Sturluson’s farms and later a royal stronghold.  It is now the residence of the President of Iceland.  We were able to walk up to the church, and right behind it the President’s house.  There was no fence, no armed guard.  Just an empty police car!  [Proving the stories we heard about Iceland’s very low crime rate.]


On we went and stopped at an electrified fence to pet two Icelandic horses.  [There are 80,000 on the island.]  They are used for companionship, riding, mowing the lawn, food, getting home from drinking parties [you can’t drive drunk, but you can ride drunk…]


Leaving the countryside, we entered a more densely populated area with stores, and Tyffi pulled stopped at a fish market.  The three of us went inside and agreed on four different kinds of fish to buy.  [We passed on the fermented shark…]


Our last stop before dinner was a lovely lake surrounded by a walking path and lush with trees.  One would think it might be Ireland rather than Iceland.


Tyffi drove us past the Hafnarfjörður harbor [with one last view of Le Champlain] to his house in a nearby suburb. It had clean lines, was uncluttered and very bright.


He started our gourmet feast with schnapps with caraway.  Then out came a couple of beers for me to sample along with a platter of hors d’oeuvres.  These ranged from lox to caviar to salmon smoked over sheep dung [a delicacy we had seen but not tried earlier – it tasted better than it sounds].  There was pickled herring, smoked whale, blue cheese, blood pudding, liver pudding, smoked lamb.


As we nibbled away, Tyffi was busy preparing our dinner.  He had owned a restaurant for 12 years.  He knew his way around a kitchen and his professional stove.


For dinner, he presented each of us with a large square dinner plate filled with cod tongue covered with curried onions, sole topped with tiny shrimp, tusk on a bed of Kimchi-flavored Icelandic cabbage, pink trout with creamed spinach, and a swirl of truffled mashed potatoes.


We thought we were done, but then he served the meat course!  Rack of Icelandic lamb, braised oxtail, and mushroom gravy. There was a large oval casserole of fresh broccoli, white potatoes, sweets and carrots.


Of course, there was dessert!  The famous Icelandic skyr.  It is a fresh sour milk cheese similar in consistency to Greek yogurt but with a milder flavor.  We each received two little pots of it—one flavored with fresh rhubarb and the other with a rich dark chocolate base layer.  We should have walked home!


But Tyffi drove us—past his local communal pool where he is a member and then past the ‘elf hill.’  The Icelandic people claim they really don’t believe in these creatures, but when a construction project near one of these ‘elf hills’ ran into trouble, they detoured the road around the hill to avoid any more issues.  [We don’t believe in them, but you can’t be too careful…”]


We were dropped off near the Konsulat before 6 pm.  We walked by the famous BBP Hot Dog stand that Bill Clinton made famous.  [Their dogs are 80% lamb.  We wish we had known that sooner.  But it wasn’t an option at this point: with all Tyffi fed us, “we’ll never eat again!”]


I crashed early, because we had to get up early to pack and head for KEF.

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Friday August 30, 2019 – Flyin’ Home


After a very early breakfast, we gathered our belongings and the front desk clerk called a taxi.  Traffic was heavy, but the woman driver drove like DW and got us to the airport with time to spare.


Security was tight!  We were grilled by a local Delta employee about where we had gone, with whom, the size of the ship, the activities onboard, the food we ate…  D’s carryon was opened and examined.  Other passengers were taken aside and frisked and their luggage was gone through at great length.


All of the checking caused a delay taking off but we were only about 15 minutes late arriving at JFK where our local limo driver awaited our return.

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Wow, I just realized that we saw your ship on August 14th, docked in Hafnarfjordur! We were spending the day there after ending our Silver Cloud cruise, circumnavigation of Iceland as well.


That would have been the voyage prior to yours, I guess? Agree - what a beautiful ship. Here is a picture to make you miss it even more. 😄



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Poking through my files, I found the full menu for our Food and Saga Gourmet Tour with Chef Tyffi https://www.seasontours.is/food-and-saga


Food and Saga Gourmet Tour

Chef Tyffi Tyffason

29 August 2019







Liver sausage, Blood pudding, Sheep Head pate, Smoked lamb on flatbread, Gravlax, Caviar, Dung smoked trout and mink whale, two types of pickled herring-onion-vinegar and five-spice, Stóri Dimon white mold cheese   


Curried Cod tongue muscle, Sole in breadcrumbs, Panfryed Tusk, Arctic char and Icelandic shrimps with Kimchee white cabbage, Creamed spinach and truffle potato mousse 


Rack of lamb and Oxtails with mixed vegetables and wild mushroom gravy


Skyr cake sitting on a French chocolate cake, and rhubarb skyr mousse 


Icelandic fresh cold tap water, selection of beers and Portuguese white wine

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WOW!  Such a thorough review.  If you don't mind I have a few questions about Ponant specifically.  We are Grand Admiral status, but our cruise docs do not reflect the additional 150pp Euro OBC.  Is this awarded and confirmed once on board or should I ask my TA?  I'm assuming your status included additional OBC.  Also, we are on Level 4, but Grand Admiral status allows for a complementary upgrade if space is available.  Do you know if this upgrade is awarded upon embarkation and check in?


Thanks for all of your postings.  They are the most informative reviews I have read on CC!

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30 minutes ago, mediaprohi said:

WOW!  Such a thorough review.  If you don't mind I have a few questions about Ponant specifically.  We are Grand Admiral status, but our cruise docs do not reflect the additional 150pp Euro OBC.  Is this awarded and confirmed once on board or should I ask my TA?  I'm assuming your status included additional OBC.  Also, we are on Level 4, but Grand Admiral status allows for a complementary upgrade if space is available.  Do you know if this upgrade is awarded upon embarkation and check in?


Thanks for all of your postings.  They are the most informative reviews I have read on CC!


I'm blushing!  But thank you.


As to the loyalty status OBC:  our situation was complicated.  Since we booked this cruise as part of a Backroads partial charter group, we never received any documentation from Ponant – that's why the Major status was a surprise.  [We did have a cruise booked with Ponant in 2020, but we thought it would count as cruise #1 because cruises booked through third parties like Backroads or Tauck usually don't count – maybe the fact that we have a pre-cruise extension on that 2020 cruise – booked through Ponant – makes that cruise count as two bookings?]  Anyway, it was only when I checked our account near the end of the cruise that I discovered the OBC.  


Our cruise docs for the 2020 cruise don't reflect any loyalty status – I'm not even sure where that would go on those docs.


Majors aren't eligible for upgrades.  But thanks for raising this point, as it reminds me that when we book our 3rd Ponant cruise we should also book our 4th at the same time – to get the Admiral OBC and upgrade eligibility on both!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thank you for your beautiful review! I'm wondering about embarkation. Our docs for our LE DUMONT-D'URVILLE January 23, 2020 cruise say boarding is 4:00 to 5:00 with a 6:00pm departure. What time did you arrive? Thoughts about trying to board a bit earlier?

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45 minutes ago, SGilly said:

Thank you for your beautiful review! I'm wondering about embarkation. Our docs for our LE DUMONT-D'URVILLE January 23, 2020 cruise say boarding is 4:00 to 5:00 with a 6:00pm departure. What time did you arrive? Thoughts about trying to board a bit earlier?


I can't tell you because we were with Backroads all day and they brought us to the ship as a group.  Our second Ponant cruise (coming in March 2020) we will be on a Ponant pre-cruise extension so they will also bring us to the ship as a group.  Please do a review after your January 2020 cruise – and explain the embarkation procedure!

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I promise to leave a review, although it won't be anywhere as detailed and wonderful as yours!


Will you be spending any time in Auckland? If you're a foodie, I have a great restaurant experience (it only has 6 seats) that I recommend-we were there in October. It's called Pasture. Expensive-but worth it! 

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Might be able to help with the embarkation question since I did it a month ago in Montevideo for an Antartica cruise.


Our times had been 4 to 5 pm and when I showed up at 4 pm there was already a bit of a line ahead of me. But from what I gathered it might be possible to arrive half an hour earlier, not like showing up a couple of hours before. 

The process was super easy, telling name and room number, a quick check if my bag had a label, going trough immigration and then leaving the bags before boarding a bus for a super quick bus ride.


A handhake with the captain later, they simply swapped my passport for the room key, a quick picture stop and of I was shown to my room - probably 5 minutes in total? Luggage showed up 30 minutes later, and we had a life on board welcome at 5.30 pm

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