One Unwelcome Guest Can’t Ruin a Spectacular Cruise!
“My temperature is 36.6???!!!!” I, a Centigrade-ignorant American, thought I was dead when the digital reading on the temperature scanner at the top of Viking Sky’s gangway registered that number. It was my first encounter with the ship’s highly robust and well-researched schedule of safety protocols.
If you followed travel news last week, you know that one guest aboard Viking Sky’s July 10 Iceland navigation tested positive for Covid 19. And I was aboard.
I’m no scientist, but my money is on that unfortunate person having contracted Covid en route to Viking Sky. The infection was identified on the fourth day of the cruise and it’s a widely-accepted fact that it can take almost a week from initial exposure to show a positive test result. And let me just say that it would take one tenacious bulldog of a droplet to even begin to penetrate Viking Sky’s Covid-fighting safety program.
Here are just a few of the ways that the ship—and the line–is keeping guests, crew and communities safe:
–Vaccines: All guests and crew vaccinated—760 passengers and 450 crew on our sailing.
–On Board Lab: An onboard medical testing lab with medical staff analyzing saliva tests from all passengers and crew each day.
–Temperature Checks: Daily temperature checks of all passengers and crew.
–Constant Contact Tracing: A contact tracing gizmo which, should an incident occur, allows Viking to identify, contact and test all who had contact with the infected person.
–Masks: Masks required unless eating, drinking and in the thermal suite. Supplies of masks, liquid hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are provided in each suite.
–Sanitization Stations throughout the Ship: Everywhere.
–Adjusted Capacities/Social Distancing: Adjusted capacities for the thermal suite and fitness center, as well as general congregation (6 persons maximum). At theater shows and lectures, the first few rows are unoccupied to prevent any spittle from reaching the audience.
–Manned Buffet: No self-service here!
–Robots!: At the fitness center, cleaning “robots” with ultraviolet light rods detect bacteria and remain in the infected area until bacteria is removed.
-Commitment!: Iceland lifted its mask mandate on June 25th but Viking enforces it on board and aboard tour buses.
The only thing that would intensify Viking Sky’s commitment to safety would be if they gave Anthony Fauci some navigation lessons and positioned him on the bridge.
During my cruise, I felt safe and secure and, more importantly, enjoyed seven days of extraordinary food and service, explored fascinating sites (though not as many as I would have had we not had that single Covid infection), and, like any cruise, met many wonderful people.
In fact, for me, the only real pain was making sure I spelled the names of the Icelandic towns we visited correctly in my diary below…Seydisfjordur?? Seriously????
DAY 1: EMBARKATION
Travel is back–and if I had any doubt, JFK’s terminal 4 convinces me. It’s positively buzzing, its gates filled with travelers en route to places like Rome, Barcelona, Paris and, for me, Iceland.
Cruising is back, too, and it is a 7-day circumnavigation of Iceland that is taking me to Reykjavik and Viking Cruises’ Viking Sky for my first sailing since the pandemic brought the world, the cruise industry, and all my fun to a screeching halt. My late evening Delta flight is well booked, everyone masked except during dinner and I find myself consuming a 4-cheese ravioli at close to midnight New York time because eating is the only time I may remove my mask during the flight.
We arrive early–at about 8:00 a.m.–and I find KEF much expanded since my last visit in 2008. We’re not at JFK anymore, that’s for sure. Ours is the only flight deplaning and our entry is quick and efficient, most people having at the ready the required passport, vaccination card and a printed version of the barcode provided after online registration at Iceland’s visitor’s portal. I also have my cruise itinerary which serves as my “address” in Iceland and, on my phone, my “VeriFLY” pass, but nobody asks to see either. Baggage claim, however, is a maddening experience with only one bag at a time appearing on the belt. When mine appears, it feels as though I’ve won a prize.
With our early arrival, Viking chooses to take guests not to the ship but to the stunning, colored-glass-fronted Harpa Concert Hall where registration is conducted at cocktail tables situated in the foyer of the venue. A continental breakfast follows before we’re whisked away to Viking Sky which sits against a scenic backdrop of sea, mountain, rustic homes and, increasingly, blue skies.
I must confess here. It is with more than a bit of trepidation that I move closer to my first post-Covid cruise experience but I find it reassuring that although Iceland itself lifted its mask mandate in late June, Viking continues the practice.
I climb the gangway and make my way to Viking Sky’s cabin 5020, a spacious balconied penthouse done, like the rest of the ship, in a clean Scandinavian design with blonde woods, sleek bathroom with glassed in shower and heated floor, mini bar (with a bottle of Drappier champagne), coffee maker and a way cool make-up mirror with cosmetic storage built into the suite’s dresser.
Evidence of Viking Sky’s Covid protocols are everywhere. A package of paper masks, two bottles of hand sanitizer and sanitizing towelettes sit on the coffee table alongside the daily program which advises that masks are to be worn everywhere except while eating and drinking. I vow at that moment to eat and drink a lot during this cruise.
Also on the coffee table is Viking’s contact tracing gizmo, a white plastic disk suspended from a red logoed lanyard, that is to be worn or carried at all times. In the event of a Covid case, the information recorded on the disk will allow Viking to alert those who were in contact with the infected person. A very useful tool, sure, but I’m suddenly delighted that I removed that black sequin tank top from my luggage at the last minute since the white plastic disk and red lanyard would hardly have complemented it.
The final item on the coffee table is a plastic tube in what look likes an evidence bag. This stoppered tube is Viking’s major line of defense against Covid. Each day before eating, drinking (even water) or brushing my teeth, I am to spit into the tube, recap it and leave it for my cabin steward to collect and deliver to Viking’s on-board lab for testing.
With no boat drill scheduled this afternoon–instead, I watch a required safety video on my in-cabin TV–I head to Explorer’s Lounge for a glass of champagne and chat, unmasked but several feet apart, with a lovely couple from Virginia. Dinner at The Restaurant follows, my main course a luscious and briny linguine vongole and a heavenly dessert of skyr (Iceland’s version of yogurt) brulee.
It is, despite the “new normal,” beginning to feel like a cruise.
DAY 2: REYKJAVIK
Oh! These bed linens! The day begins with a desire to remain cocooned in this tangle of a cloud-like comforter atop the silkiest bedsheets I’ve ever felt, but we’ve overnighted in Reykjavik and today we’ll have until 6:00 p.m. to explore Iceland’s capitol, its only “city” with the rest of the country made up of towns and villages.
I spit into my test tube and dress for Snapshots of Reykjavik, an included tour that takes us by motor coach to some of Reykjavik’s highlights, including the site of Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1986 nuclear arms reduction talks, the modern stepped-concrete façade of Hallgrimskirkja Church, Arbaer Open Air Museum, the hilltop glass-domed Perlan Museum which houses a nature exhibition and indoor ice cave and other city highlights. Our tour guide is exceptional, giving us a glimpse into Icelandic life and habits, its flora and fauna and even its successful battle against Covid 19. The tour, however, takes place entirely aboard the coach with no stops or photo ops along the way so, at its conclusion, I choose to remain in Reykjavik to stroll the lovely streets and browse some of the quirky shops that sell Icelandic goods like their iconic sweaters and bags made of fish skin, exceptionally lightweight yet sturdy leather.
Viking has arranged shuttle buses from the ship to Harpa concert hall every half hour and I arrive back at the ship just in time for my reservation at Viking Sky’s thermal suite.
Unlike many ships, use of the thermal suite comes at no charge. A serene space filled with a powerful thalassotherapy pool, hot tub, heated loungers, steam room and cold room (which, until Covid, had been the Snow Grotto, a space filled with snow, flakes falling from the ceiling), the thermal suite is a popular spot for afternoon relaxation. Covid restrictions, however, now require reservations be made for its use, with capacity limited to 6 guests, one hour each (the same is true of the ship’s fitness center). Reservations should be made at least the day before and may be made for the duration of the cruise. Lockers, operated with a guest’s suite key, hold a bathrobe and towel for use during each visit.
After a chilly day in Reykjavik, the hot waters and powerful jets of the Thalassotherapy pool provide a welcome sensation and I remain floating for a full half of my allotted time. The steam room follows (maximum capacity two guests sharing the same cabin) and for a moment I’m reminded of the New York City heat wave I left behind. Sweat dripping, pores open, I cross the floor to the cold room and chill out. Literally.
The evening beckons and with renewed Thermal Suite-inspired energy, I shower, dress and return to the Explorer’s Lounge where Paolo, a talented singer/guitarist performs acoustic versions of popular 70’s/80’s songs. Unlike last night, the Explorer’s Lounge is filled. With no seating available at the bar (some stools “X”ed out in a nod to social distancing), I claim a table yet last night’s bartender spots me–remembering my name–and delivers the Cosmopolitan that 24 hours ago I mentioned that I planned to order this evening.
Tonight’s dinner is at The Chef’s Table (reservations required), a specialty dining venue with alternating set menus throughout the cruise. This evening the featured menu is Lotus, a taste of Asia, with each course accompanied by a different complimentary wine. Chef’s Table guests may choose to upgrade their wine selection for a $25 fee or, if they have Viking’s Silver Spirits Beverage Package as I do, the upgrade is included.
And so the meal begins!
I am presented with a Goan Potato Chop, a delicious, semolina-crusted potato ball filled with vegetables and cheese, resting in a puddle of creamed sambal spinach. A crisp-textured, soft-shell crab in a slightly spicy chili sauce follows and I wonder if I should cancel my main course and, instead, order another of this heavenly dish but I resist. Our palates are cleansed with an icy granita of lychee & guava, cranberry juice and lychee liquor before tender Thai-spiced rack of lamb is presented alongside purple eggplant and baby corn. Yuzu cheesecake topped with a green tea tuile and sake-marinated plum completes the meal which is so delightfully wine drenched that I find myself tipsy enough to return to my suite to fall into those heavenly sheets before 10:00 p.m.
DAY 3: ISAFJORDUR
My iPhone tells me it’s 7:30 a.m. so I rise, shower, prepare my test tube and head towards World Café’s breakfast buffet. The halls are empty and I’m baffled to find no staff at World Café’s entrance, taking my temperature and requesting I wash or sanitize my hands. Something’s up, but I’m unaware of what it could be until I step into the elevator and its digital clock informs me that it’s actually 3:57 a.m. Oops!
I’m in Iceland and the sun is shining, giving no clue as to the ungodly hour. And I’m in the fjord of Isafjord which may be glorious but it’s playing absolute havoc with technology. The internet is down and live TV isn’t working. Most important, it’s seriously messing with my iPhone’s clock.
Miraculously, I’m able to get back to sleep when I return to my room and wake in time for breakfast before heading out to the boat to Vigur Island, the shore excursion I’ve selected for the day. A half hour later, we disembark onto this wonder of nature inhabited by a young couple and their 4-year-old son. A paradise of puffins, black guillemot and other bird species, the lush grounds are also home to hundreds of eider ducks whose down is harvested by the family and sold to a German company that produces lavish–and extravagantly expensive–comforters and outerwear. “Eider is the warmest substance on earth,” our tour guide Felicity Aston explains during our visit to the room where the down is separated from the twigs and other debris that accumulates when eider ducks shed the down to cushion their eggs. She hands out a ball of the stuff and my chilly hands warm immediately. A funny and informative tour guide, Felicity herself is a marvel—a British polar explorer who, in 2012, became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica!
We roam the paths of the property, finding nests dotting the fields and puffins posing proudly atop rocky ledges. Black guillemot struggle to fly in the winds and we are given sticks to hold high as we roam to avoid any dive-bombing birds who suspect that we are there to interfere with their nests. Felicity guides us to the property’s coffee house where we are treated to a slice of homemade Happy Marriage cake, a buttery, crumbly Icelandic confection rich with sweet rhubarb jam from the island’s garden, before having free time to explore the historical guest house before boarding our boat and sailing back to Viking Sky.
After last night’s wine-drenched feast at The Chef’s Tale, I choose The Restaurant tonight, Viking Sky’s Main Dining Room. Reservations are a good idea for The Restaurant but tonight I am whisked immediately to a table without them.
Like the rest of Viking Sky, the Restaurant reflects a Scandinavian design, clean, sleek and done in restful shades of blue and beige. Tables for two through six are available with, in these days of Covid, six people being the largest group permitted.
I select a briny cod cake as appetizer followed by an entree of broiled haddock with lemon-dressed greens and boiled potatoes, washed down with a lovely dry Riesling. Dessert is a toss-up: creme brulee or a rich dome of chocolate mousse? I choose the former and am rewarded with a creamy, vanilla-scented custard topped with a crackle of melted sugar.
Until now, evening entertainment was centered around lectures presented by experts in the fields of Icelandic geology and history, but tonight we break that pattern with The Abba Songbook, a musical performance that features dancers and singers backed by Viking Sky’s–masked–show band.
I return to my suite about 11:00 p.m.–the sun is still up–and fall asleep with Abba’s “Waterloo” drifting melodically through my mind.
DAY 4: AKUREYRI
Ladies and gentlemen, we have Wifi and the time on my iPhone is correct!
We’ve arrived in Akureyri, Iceland’s “Capitol of the North,” and despite the town being set at the foot of towering mountains, its position at the end of Eyajfordur seems to make all the difference, technology wise.
I check my email and discover a message from Delta Airlines stating that a negative Covid test will be required for all passengers–even vaccinated ones–to travel home and I panic. Many of the towns and villages on our itinerary are tiny ones and I seriously doubt I’ll find a Covid testing truck at the base of a waterfall or volcano. But Viking comes to the rescue. I’m assured that we’ll be provided with the required documentation prior to our departure. I’m so happy I could…spit.
Today is glorious–warm and sunny. I wear a t-shirt and light jacket and head to the tour bus that will deliver me to Panoramic Akureyri, an included excursion. It seems fitting that on this gorgeous day, we visit the town’s Botanical Gardens, a stunning collection of native and other flora located, amazingly, just 100 km from the Arctic Circle.
The names of the flowers are unfamiliar but it doesn’t matter, as I’m surrounded by paths of vivid patches of color, towering trees and rock gardens. The blue poppies and a flower with giant, floppy orange petals are my favorites but the botanically-obsessed among us are oohing and ahhing over every single one.
After another stop at the foot of a mountain for a view of the town and Viking Sky in the distance, I head back to the ship with plans to catch the shuttle into town. Oooops! I miss the shuttle by moments and, instead of waiting 30 minutes for the next, take the 10-minute walk into the charming town center where I browse the shops and cafes, spending much of the time exploring the local bookstore which offers a large selection of English language titles, many by Icelandic authors like Arnaldur Indridason, Halldor Laxness and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. I pick up Ashes to Dust by Sigurdardottir for the flight home.
Explorer’s Lounge has certainly become my pre-dinner haunt and tonight again it is filled. The draw isn’t only the delicious cocktails, fun bartenders and the spectacular view from the floor to ceiling windows, but Paolo, Viking Sky’s talented singer/guitarist who performs favorites familiar to any baby boomer. Paolo has attracted quite a following on this sailing and tonight he has the crowd completely engaged, all of us singing along to oldies like My Girl, Country Roads and American Pie.
This evening I dine casually at the World Café buffet which, to be honest, offers many of the same dishes served at The Restaurant…and, in fact, more, including a wide selection of delectable sushi glittering like jewels from their display case. That’s what I’ll do: I’ll keep it light tonight with a main course of seaweed and sushi so I won’t feel too guilty if I indulge in one of World Café’s ten flavors of gelato for dessert…coconut and coffee, please!
What’s this? I check my daily program and see that Paolo is doing a show at Torshavn, an intimate club-like venue on deck 2 so instead of checking out that evening’s production show, I head to Torshavn for Paolo’s set and find it differs completely from his earlier one at Explorer’s Lounge. The guy has an endless repertoire!
At 11:30, the sun is still visible when I return to my suite so, before falling asleep, I take a moment to thank God—and Viking—for the impenetrable black out curtains that cover the windows to my veranda.
DAY 5: SEYDISFJORDUR
I am on my veranda and the beauty of Seydisfjordur is staggering: Snow-topped mountains, verdant rolling hills scattered with flowing waterfalls and little groups of colorful wooden houses. As sundrenched as Akureyri was yesterday, today threatens rain and wind and the chill cuts through my bathrobe.
A leisurely breakfast at World Cafe begins what should be a relaxing morning and afternoon with my Vok Baths shore excursion not departing until 7:00 p.m. this evening. I settle into a deck chair and sit, mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape.
My solitude is suddenly shattered by an eye-opening announcement: All guests are to remain on board until further notice. We have one case of Covid on board. The person has been identified and isolated and that contact tracing gizmo has allowed Viking Sky to track down all those who may have been in contact with him or her.
Viking Sky’s safety protocols have proven their worth.
Within minutes, tour buses return to Viking Sky and those who’d walked independently into town were also asked to return, at least one of them identified by the fact that she was wearing her contact tracing device around her neck.
The atmosphere on board is not one of panic. Most of us choose to remain in public spaces while we await the results of discussions between Viking and the local authorities: Breakfast service continues, we’re invited to a lecture in the Theater, and the crew continue their responsibilities.
Finally, the captain informs us that discussions with the local authorities were not successful. The tiny town will not permit Viking Sky’s guests ashore and the decision is made to sail on to our next port. A second announcement by the ship’s cruise director assures automatic reimbursement of all tours today and advises that a revamped daily schedule is being prepared.
I’m totally bummed to miss my evening excursion to Vok Baths but I completely understand the town’s position.
Under gloomy skies I return to my suite to do what anyone does on a gray and rainy day: Laundry, at the self-service laundry just steps from my suite, followed by an afternoon nap.
After dinner, I decide to forego music in favor of a little culture: A lecture on the Volcanism of Iceland by Dr. Tony Waltham, an expert geologist who brings to life the marvels of recent eruptions, including the 1973 event of Heimaey, a town we’ll visit on Friday…we hope. His presentation is fascinating, informative and sprinkled with enough humor to double as superb entertainment!
Out on deck after the lecture, I find the frigid, windy weather of today has given way to gentle breezes and a much warmer temperature.
Will we be permitted to disembark in Djupivogur tomorrow? The captain, in his latest update, believes we will although discussions with local officials continue. It is expected that all tours will be rescheduled with new times announced tomorrow after 9:00 a.m. That’s a relief. That 8:10 departure time for my Djupivogur tour was just a tad early for me.
DAY 6: DJUPIVOGUR
Blue skies! Bright sunshine!
It’s like Djupivogur is compensating for yesterday. Best of all, it has been confirmed that all shore excursions today are on!
My Nature Walk and Black Beach tour departs at 10:30 a.m. and we tender over to meet our charming guide who leads us through endless fields of Alaskan Lupines, buttercups and cotton flowers with snow-capped mountains in the distance and Viking Sky anchored in the harbor. Along the way, he points out other vegetation and local birds and answers questions about life in this beautiful little town with a population of about 450 people, most of which are closely or distantly related. “If you’re looking for a husband or wife,” he cautions, “leave”.
This walk in the sunshine feels wonderful after yesterday’s sedentary gloom and the group is nearly upon the black sand beach—the tour’s highlight–when a car is speeding towards us. The driver summons our guide and after a conversation in Icelandic, the car drives off and the news is delivered: We are to return to the ship.
It appears Iceland’s Coast Guard is not in agreement with the country’s public health authority which cleared Viking Sky for shore excursions and all passengers will need to return to the ship immediately.
But not us. Not yet. We are so close to the black sand beach that our phenomenal tour guide leads us there despite the directive. I tip him generously for giving me the opportunity to see the black glistening sand that originated as cooled and solidified lava—not to mention providing a short rest break—with snacks and rhubarb juice—on the way back to the tender.
Back on board, speculation abounds. Will we be forced to surrender to the Coast Guard’s directive and return to Reykjavik with the ship in quarantine until disembarkation? Yes, we were concerned…but the overwhelming feeling was one of relief that the day’s bad news was not a second Covid case!
DAY 6: DAY AT SEA
There’s nothing I like more than a day at sea…unless it means we won’t be calling at Heimaey, the Icelandic island that was nearly destroyed by the 1973 volcanic eruption of Eldfell. The lava destroyed half the town and its encroaching flow threatened to destroy its harbor which was only saved by townspeople spraying the lava with cold seawater. I was so looking forward to sailing into that harbor and seeing the lava that those townspeople beat back!
It was beginning to look as though the next time I’d leave the ship would be when I boarded the coach to the airport in Reykjavik. And, silently, I worried how this would impact the remainder of Viking Sky’s Iceland sailings this summer, as well as those of Viking Jupiter, a second Viking ship sailing the land of fire and ice.
Turns out that while I was worrying, Viking was taking action.
On Friday, Viking’s Chief Health Officer, Vice Admiral Raquel C. Bono, MD, flew to Iceland to meet with Iceland officials and assure protocols were in sync. After discussions, it was agreed by both parties that Viking’s robust protocols complement those in place in Iceland.
We would miss Heimaey, but future Viking guests wouldn’t.
On this day when I should be marveling at the volcanic history of Heimaey, I would instead spend the day on board, dining lavishly, sipping champagne, enjoying Paolo’s performances, sleeping within the lush bed linen and gazing out to sea for the first time in 16 months.
I could deal with that.
DAY 7: REYKJAVIK
The final day of any cruise is a laid back and casual one. This morning, anchored off Reykjavik, is no exception. I decide to pack but, before I do that, I head to the on-board internet center and spend time—a lot of time—coaxing out the boarding pass I’ll need for tomorrow’s flight and trying repeatedly to convince DeltaFlyReady to accept the digital photo of the negative test result that Viking provided–twelfth time was the charm.
This final day is also an opportunity to chat with on board friends, “friend” each other on Facebook, laugh and reminisce about this very strange week which, for all of us, was our introduction to post-Covid cruising.
And we realize, over a lobster roll lunch at The Pool Grill, that despite the missed ports, the turned-back coaches, and the highly unfortunate instance of an on board Covid case, we had a blast.
Sometime midafternoon, our conversation is interrupted. An announcement is made that guests have been cleared to go ashore in Reykjavik!
I considered going out. I really did. But then I remembered I was going to Manfredi’s, Viking Sky’s amazing Italian restaurant that evening. And while I love Reykjavik, I suddenly realized that I love Manfredi’s Bistecca Fiorentina, done perfectly medium rare, even more.
Cover Photo: Viking Sky at Isafjordur, Iceland, credit Judi Cuervo
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—————— Photo collection, credit Judi Cuervo