Tracing Viking Routes
Explorer reader Sandra Elliot recounts a recent cruise holiday to the land of the Norsemen.
“People on the edges are more creative and resourceful than those in the middle. Their survival requires it,” said Colleen Batey, member of the Seabourn Ventures Team. Her words filled me with wonder. I met Colleen on the Seabourn Quest, a 458-passenger cruise ship, as we sailed the south coast of England. I’d always been intrigued by the Vikings, how they’d enter a village and take it over, the way they went berserk in combat, and their skill in melting precious artifacts into coins. They knew how to get what they wanted. What could we learn from them?
Dover’s white cliffs gleamed in afternoon light as we set sail on a twenty-three-day adventure, following routes the Norsemen used from the 800s to the early 1400s. In an era when many still believed the world was flat, the Vikings pillaged the British Isles and western France, and started settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and North America.
Overcast shades of apricot, blue, and gray often filled the sky as the ship sailed from port to port. Near Staffa Island, guests donned warm coats and boarded zodiacs to Fingal’s Cave, known for its distinctive hexagonal columns and weird echoes that inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s famous Fingal’s Cave Overture. Most passengers had never been in the little black rubber boats, but they loved the early-morning adventure. I’m allergic to cold. Even with a Seabourn outfit, I wouldn’t have survived the Arctic outdoors. “There are many ways to enjoy adventures,” the hotel director assured. We proceeded to Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, where the sea had uncovered an iron-age village with a Viking longhouse. That warmish afternoon, we toured the area. Like the original, the reproduction of an ancient sod house was set on a verdant knoll covered in bright yellow wild flowers, overlooking a sandy beach a stream — a magnificent place.
On the island of Heimaey, Iceland, passengers visited an early Viking settlement amidst a vast natural amphitheater shared with a fine golf course. “Touching original Viking stones filled me with wonder,” a passenger said. “Then, I looked around and realized there was much still to be uncovered.”
Over the past decade Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, has become a thriving metropolis with a beautiful
port, sleek hotels, enticing cafes, and boutiques with designer clothes. Builders constructing a new
hotel had to modify their plans when they discovered original Viking structures. That settlement became “Reykjavik 871 plus/minus 2 (years)”, a museum with a longhouse and other remnants. Iceland’s history is recounted at the Saga Museum.
The evening of our sojourn to Isafjordur, Iceland, we had a Viking-inspired dinner, based on the food of Norway. Cod, salmon, and other seafood were served in a variety of ways. “Our menus are a balance
of the exotic and the acceptable, with locally sourced food whenever possible,” the chef said. Like most of the Seabourn cuisine, that meal was outstanding.
On a bright sunny day, we cruised Prince Christian Sound, a Greenland fiord with glaciers and icebergs, some as big as Crystal ships. Lunch and drinks were served on the back deck, where we watched a glacier calve and listened to it crackle. Guests on zodiacs had close-up views of the pale blue ice above the water and eau-denil-coloured water around submerged parts.
The Vikings inhabited North America for 70 years and Greenland for nearly 500. There they had large farms on fertile plains until the climate deteriorated. When the weather grew too cold and the seas too stormy, they left. At the charmingly colourful Inuit town of Nanortalik, Greenland, we strolled through an open-air village of preserved buildings with explanations written in Inuit, Danish, and English. The Inuit people were welcoming, and sang to us. Some demonstrated their kayaking skills, flipping and righting their boats in quick rotations.
Northern Lights came as an added bonus. For several nights, they teased us with hints of green and gold. Then, late one night, the sky came alive in breath-taking green.
“Many people choose Seabourn venture cruises to explore,” the hotel director said. “The experiences we offer are different from any other line. Adventure makes learning tangible and fun. Not everyone is
interested in Vikings. Some enjoy animals, glaciers, or just being at sea.”
By the end of the voyage, guests’ understanding of Vikings had changed. As skilled metallurgists, the Vikings designed and built ships with nails and metal oar casings. As rule-abiding citizens, in 915, they established an Icelandic open-air parliament where women and men were equal. The seafarers from Norway and Denmark were not only energetic warriors, they gave the world important innovations in sailing, ship construction, weaponry, and government. No longer mere North Atlantic renegades, the Norsemen were indeed viewed as resourceful in their quests.