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11 Reasons I Loved The Unique Semester At Sea Program To Experience Iceland

TravelAwaits logo TravelAwaits 6/30/2022 Carol Colborn
Carol Colborn © TravelAwaits Carol Colborn

In 1926, a historic ship, the first of the “University of the Seven Seas,” sailed from New Jersey and visited 90 ports in 7 and a half months. As explained by its then dean: “This is not a mere sightseeing tour but a college year of educational travel … to train students to think in world terms.” Later, it was called the “World Campus Afloat.” Today, it is “Semester at Sea.”

For the last 59 years, the Institute of Shipboard Education has been conducting this world study program. Luckily for my husband and me, they opened it to non-students; it was called the Enrichment Voyage, available in 2- or 4-week segments. It has since been renamed the Lifelong Learning Program, with a minimum of 30 days with 3 to 5 days at a port, not just one. Here’s why we absolutely loved this best way to experience Iceland, and actually, the world.

1. It Was Not Expensive

Groupon junkie that I was, we stumbled upon the ad that offered an interior cabin and all-inclusive amenities for just $1,399 per week for two. The first week included Copenhagen and three ports in Iceland after embarking in Stockholm. On the second week, it was to three ports in the UK, disembarking in Southampton.

The MV Explorer Carol Colborn © Provided by TravelAwaits The MV Explorer Carol Colborn

2. The Facilities Were Entirely Adequate

We didn’t know it was going to be the last voyage of our ship, the MV Explorer. Although not as luxurious as the cruise ships we know, it was entirely adequate for its 700 passengers. We had 10 classrooms, one large seminar/showroom, another large seminar/ballroom, a piano bar, two dining rooms (one for buffet and another with waiter service), a pool and poolside bar, three viewing decks, a wellness center including a gym, spa, sauna, and massage rooms, a library, a computer lab, a good-sized store, and a medical clinic. Even if Wi-Fi facilities were limited, it was also adequate for emails and seminar materials.

3. The Crew Was World-Class

A former Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization once said that Filipino seamen were the “unsung heroes” of an “unsung industry.” The Philippines has more than 500,000 people manning vessels around the world. In fact, 70 percent of our crew of 218 was Filipino, and two of the five on the captain’s senior management team — the purser and the executive chef — were Filipinos, as well as one of the ship’s doctors and all the nurses. I felt well cared for and at home. I beamed ear-to-ear every time I heard one complimented by fellow passengers.

Arriving at Reykjavik Carol Colborn © Provided by TravelAwaits Arriving at Reykjavik Carol Colborn

4. It Was A Complete Icelandic Experience

It took 2 days at sea before we reached Reykjavik from Copenhagen. Lying between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe — 325,000 people inhabit an area of 40,000 square miles of sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, and glacial rivers flowing to the sea. 

Its climate is wonderfully temperate despite being just outside the Arctic Circle because the Gulf Stream warms it. Our cruise took us to Reykjavik in the south, Ísafjörður to the west, and Akureyri in the north.

The Blue Lagoon Carol Colborn © Provided by TravelAwaits The Blue Lagoon Carol Colborn

5. We Got To See A Lot Of Reykjavik

The excursion we chose took us first to Þingvellir National Park, a continuously evolving volcanic area, and Haukadalur, including in the Golden Circle, where geysers and other geothermal features have developed on a rhyolitic dome. Then we proceeded to Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.

The tour also gave us the chance to take a dip at the famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in Grindavík. It formed in 1976 from the wastewater of a geothermal plant, healing powers were discovered in 1981, and the separate public bathing facility was opened in 1992. Our tour ended with photo-ops of the Viking World, the Sun Voyager, the Harpa, the Perlan, and Hallgrímskirkja.

The author in Isafjordur Carol Colborn © Provided by TravelAwaits The author in Isafjordur Carol Colborn

6. We Reached The Small Fishing Village Of Isafjordur

We could never have reached Ísafjörður if we were not on a cruise. I will never forget my time on deck when we arrived; low-lying clouds were hiding some of the hill that lords over the sleepy town, inviting all of us to walk off the ship and be amazed. The village is on a spit of sand on Iceland’s western coast where the waters of two fjords meet.

Fishing is the main industry, and the small town has one of the largest fisheries in Iceland. Despite a small population of 2,600 and isolation from the rest of the country, it has an urban atmosphere with a school of music, a hospital, a cultural center with a library and showrooms, and a distance learning center for the 7,000 residents of the entire Westfjords area.

Godafoss, The Waterfall of the Gods Carol Colborn © Provided by TravelAwaits Godafoss, The Waterfall of the Gods Carol Colborn

7. We Experienced The Northern Capital Of Iceland, Akureyri

From there we proceeded to northern Iceland and its second-largest urban area and northern capital Akureyri. With a population of about 18,000, it’s also an important port and fishing center. The bus tour took us to one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls, the Goðafoss, “Waterfall of the Gods.” Located in the Mývatn district of north-central Iceland, the Skjálfandafljót River falls from a height of 12 meters over a width of 30 meters.

Back in the city, we had to climb 55 steps to reach the Cathedral of Akureyri up on a hill. It has a large 3,200-pipe organ and a ship suspended from the ceiling, part of an old Nordic tradition to protect loved ones at sea. Later we enjoyed simply walking down the main street and meeting statuary folkloric “trolls.”

8. The Educational Programs At Sea Were Fantastic

It was like being back at school but in splendid classrooms. They were always filled to capacity; students go to regular classes; the older adults chose what they wanted to do. Before reaching Iceland, we spent the 2 days in seminars learning about the Vikings, the origins of the country and its people, and the current economy and development. 

The seminar leaders were those who also taught the students and usually had PhDs in their fields of expertise. Workshops, on the other hand, are about arts and crafts: writing, book club, dance, yoga, tai chi, etc. Those who did not want these offerings were free to organize their own games.

Up and around a windmill park (Middelgrunden). Just outside Copenhagen. View. Denmark © Provided by TravelAwaits Up and around a windmill park (Middelgrunden). Just outside Copenhagen. View. Denmark

9. The Special Sightings Were Really Special

The crew was also very good at notifying us about special sightings. Right at the beginning, we had a spectacular introduction to the 16-kilometer-long Oresund Bridge between Stockholm and Copenhagen. And for the first time, I got to see offshore wind farms like the Middelgrunden with 20 turbines 3.5 kilometers off Copenhagen (now closed). 

There were also many birds and whales. But I loved most the island of Surtsey just before we reached Iceland. Formed in a volcanic eruption 426 feet below sea level in November 1963 and continuing for 7 months afterward, it is now just half its peak size of 1 square mile because of wind and wave erosion. 

There was a noticeable difference among the seas we sailed. The Baltic Sea, Denmark Strait, Irish Sea, and the English Channel quietly defined the countries they surrounded. The North, Norwegian, and North Atlantic Seas are much bigger and often rougher seas. Around Iceland we experienced 2 to 4-meter swells, giving some of us a level of seasickness. And those huge seas are a large source of the world’s petroleum. A highlight for me was seeing a huge oil rig and platform, a lone industrial structure thrust in the middle of the big, blue sea.

10. We Had Engaging Special Activities

There were special activities like the tour of the bridge (the navigation center of the ship) and demonstrations of the intricate maneuvering for each docking and leaving of a port. And just like on the regular cruises, I loved dressing up for the Captain’s Dinner. We enjoyed “Two’s Company,” a variety show by a Scot and I laughed long, loud, and often at a comedy show about Icelandic history. There was even a magic act, an Irish duo, and a “New Year in June Party.”

But the best one was when we all gathered in the Gazers’ Lounge with large floor-to-ceiling windows to celebrate crossing the Arctic Circle after leaving Akureyri. At precisely the right time, the captain announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, look to the left of you.” We all looked. Then he said, “Look to the right of you.” We all looked. Finally, he said, “There is really nothing.” And the room erupted into shrieks and laughter. Soon we all drank and danced the night away!

The author at Godafoss Carol Colborn © Provided by TravelAwaits The author at Godafoss Carol Colborn

11. It Is An Inspiration For Another Retirement Lifestyle

The cruise left me even more captivated by Iceland. But more importantly, it led me to one of the six spectacular retirement lifestyles I wrote about. It is one where, even as we get older, we can continue to call on many ports around the world in style, comfort, and convenience while learning about the places and people we visit every day of the year.

We were so pleased with what we had just experienced that my husband and I gladly signed a petition to find a new sponsor and academic partner to continue both the Semester at Sea and the Lifelong Learning Programs. And thankfully, they did; and I predict, they will continue to do so.

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