Cruise traces Vikings' historic journey to North America
September 21, 2008 8:00 AM
Danish Lutheran Church in Nanortalik, Greenland.
An iceberg at Prince Christian Sound, Greenland.
A glacial waterfall with rainbow at Golden Circle, central Iceland, near Reykjavik.
By Robert Croan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Columbus got the credit, but the Vikings actually touched North America 500 years or so before he did. A handful of Irish monks, in fact, may have arrived even earlier.
The route the Vikings likely followed is the focus of an offbeat five-week cruise, "Voyage of the Vikings," that Holland America's Maasdam offers every year.
The 22 ports are interesting and provocative, from Greenland's bleak Inuit outposts to Norway's oil-wealthy shopping streets in Oslo and Stavanger; or in the startling contrast between bustling but peaceful Dublin and the still-seething hostilities between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast.
It also provides a lesson in modern civics to observe Scandinavian social democracy at work and take note of the way the United States is seen in the eyes of Scandinavians and Brits.
For the nature lover, there's the thrill of standing on a mountain road in Iceland, literally touching the North American plate on the left, with rocks on the right defining the start of Europe. For the music lover, there is Oslo's new and ultra-modern opera house, set on a spectacular white marble ramped plaza. For theater-goers there is Dublin's Abbey Theatre (playing Brian Friel's new version of "Three Sisters"), while for the literary-minded, just a few blocks down the road is the Dublin Writers Museum.
And for anyone who still has doubts about the veracity of global warming, there is the sad and scary evidence of icebergs breaking up and glaciers melting in front of our eyes as the Maasdam sails through the beautiful fjords and canyons.
When my partner and I embarked on the Viking Voyages July 5 round trip Boston to Rotterdam, the weather was not particularly cold, even in the north when we touched the Arctic Circle, but it was rainy or overcast. Clear days were the exception.
Our first stop was not a Viking discovery, but a French one: Sydney, Nova Scotia. The town, named for the same Lord Sydney as the one in Oz, is a jumping point for the reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg, 22 miles to the south, where costumed bilingual Canadians re-create life there in 1744. It seemed quaint as we watched them baking bread (they sell rolls made from authentic recipes) and sawing wood, less so when we learned of the bloody, rigorous and highly unsanitary conditions that prevailed. Another worthwhile excursion takes you to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in the upscale resort town of Baddeck.
Among the highlights in Newfoundland was L'Anse aux Meadows. Here, in authentic Viking territory, we first went through desolate fields containing ruins, giving a feel of what the original explorers must have encountered 1,000 years ago. Then, we boarded a school bus to the reconstruction of a Viking village. Their shipbuilding technology was to be expected, and it was interesting to watch their single-needle knitting in progress, but the spacious huts, containing comfortable beds (wood covered by bearskin) came as a surprise.
On the return from Rotterdam, we visited a third Newfoundland city: the bustling provincial capital of St. John's, North America's oldest city. Shop-lined Water Street offered an array of gourmet foods and restaurants, clothing stores and art galleries. An unusual museum called The Rooms detailed the city's history and archaeology, while a jaunt to Signal Hill brought us close to the ruins of the Titanic, as well as the site of Marconi's first successful radio transmission.
Our cruise made two stops in Greenland: Qaqortoq (pronounced KACK-or-tok) going east, and the smaller Nanortalik on the way back. Although Qaqortoq is close to the reputedly well-preserved Norse ruins of Hvalsey (VAL-zey), no excursions were available, but it was quite pleasant to walk through the charming town, where a "stone and man" project has produced magnificent sculptures in the natural granite by Scandinavian artists (Greenland is part of Denmark). The native population produces exquisite carvings in reindeer ivory, which is legal to bring into the United States.
Here, children jump on a narrow wooden platform on the river's edge to move fish to another part, where their friends are poised with baited rods. The local market features beautiful white turnips, a staple of the local diet, eaten raw. Nanortalik, however, was smaller, poorer and less welcoming to outsiders.
It's really true that Greenland is icy while Iceland is green. Iceland has a surprisingly mild climate and, despite a recent economic downturn, a high living standard with admirable social equality and public services. Like all the Scandinavian countries, it's clean, well-run and very expensive for dollar-stretched Americans.
In Isafjordur we were greeted at the port-side Viking Museum by young girls dancing and singing, while inside we were offered fermented shark (an acquired taste) washed down by wonderful aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor. Our second Icelandic city, Akureyri, had free buses that allowed us to see several areas by taking one line after another to and from the town center.
The resort town of Seydisfjordur was like a scene from Hans Christian Andersen, with pastel houses and a technological museum of early 20th-century innovations. On our day in the capital city of Reykjavik, we opted to explore the famous Golden Circle, where we saw glorious mountains and waterfalls, geysers and small volcanic eruptions and learned that one of Iceland's biggest businesses now is Whole Foods.
Norway has become the beacon of Scandinavian prosperity and culture, and a single day in Oslo is far too short to skim the surface. Having visited before, we purchased 24-hour Oslo Passes (adults $40 each), which provide access to public transport and most museums. Starting at the City Hall, we walked to the splendid interactive Nobel Peace Prize Museum, where Al Gore is a hero, George W. Bush is a pariah and Henry Kissinger is frankly described as "one of our mistakes." We took a tram to the opera house and a subway to the Edvard Munch Museum, an awesome tribute to this great Norwegian artist.
Stavanger, Norway's fourth-largest city, has been named -- along with Liverpool, England -- Europe's 2008 capital of culture. Old Stavanger, with its 12th-century cathedral, is adjacent to the sparkling modern section. A worthwhile and unusual sight is the Canning Museum, immortalizing an era when sardines rather than oil were the area's biggest resource.
Then it was on to England. For most people, Liverpool is synonymous with the Beatles, but there is much more. The neo-classical majesty of St. George's Hall, the modernistic Metropolitan Cathedral, the "other" Tate Gallery, spectacular Anthony Gormley sculptures along the beach and the lively Albert Dock complex by the pier were among the attractions we managed in a jam-packed day.
In nearby Wales -- a bus or taxi ride from the port of Milford Haven -- a single afternoon was barely enough time to scale Pembroke Castle, the vast and forbidding Norman fortress that became the birthplace of Henry Tudor, father of the infamous Henry VIII.
The up-to-date metropolises of Cherbourg and Rotterdam also were on our ship's itinerary, as was the tiny Faroe Island capital, Torshavn, and the desolate, yet oddly charming, French Overseas Region of St. Pierre et Miquelon, off the Newfoundland coast.
The latter was a notorious home-away-from-home to Al Capone during Prohibition.
Our last stop before disembarking in Boston was Bar Harbor, Maine, an idyllic resort where -- after our experience with European prices -- everything in the stores seemed to be a bargain.
Prosperity, recession notwithstanding, impressed us in just about every port we visited. We had been awed by the overwhelming beauty of nature in the North, as well as its fragility and the negative effects of human caprice on the environment. And the incongruity was not lost on us, that we had witnessed that inconvenient truth from the eminently convenient distance of daily life on a grand and glorious luxury liner.