Just Back From…Northern Europe on Silver Moon
Decades ago when astronauts were training to walk on the moon, NASA searched for a place on Earth that might most resemble the moon, and they came up with Iceland. Since I learned that odd factoid, Iceland has been on my bucket list. I had heard it was a strange and magical land. Then, a few years ago, I was working on a book that involved Christopher Columbus and managed to talk my way into the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
There an archivist brought out the map that Columbus purportedly drew and used to sail to the New World. Near the top of the map was an island called Frixlandia. A land of ice and snow where people lived underground and ate frozen fish. In geographical terms, Frixlandia is basically Iceland. A place with a long Norse history, complete with sagas and settlements. I was excited that this was where our Northern European cruise on Silversea began and we were ready to explore.
Our cruise? We were sailing aboard Silver Moon on a 12-night Northern Europe voyage that started with Iceland’s Reykjavik and wound up at England’s Southampton. Our stops along the way included Iceland’s Heimaey, part of its Westmann Islands, and Seydisfjordur along with the Scottish Highlands, Belfast, Waterford, Liverpool and Falmouth.
Off we go.
We arrive in Reykjavik with an extra day to explore
My husband, Larry, and I arrived in Reykjavik a day early, thinking we’d get to a hot spring and soak in some of the sights as well. And soak we did. But not as we’d hoped. A torrential rain greeted us along with a personal chill. What if this gray, driving rain was the weather for our entire voyage? But, then, we had come prepared with our share of all-weather gear and not for nothing, it seemed. So we set out.
Perhaps there wouldn’t be a thermal spring visit this round but we had one to look forward to in Seydisfjordur so we decided not to let a little rain hamper our stay.
We put on our gear and off we went. We didn’t get far before we paused at the Sandholt Restaurant near our hotel where the lines were long and people seemed willing to wait even in the rain. So we waited too, and it was well worth it. As an antidote to the cold, rainy day, I wanted soup and it was, in fact, the best soup I’ve ever had. (This is not an exaggeration.) Sweet potato with a hunk of brown bread and slab of butter on the side that seemed to come from the ancient Vikings, or perhaps the gods, themselves. Sufficiently fortified, we set out.
For that first rainy day (and, just to get this out of the way, it was our only rainy day, by the way), we headed to the fascinating Settlement Museum and learned much about the origins of the original inhabitants of Iceland, including the very odd story of Iceland’s first official resident, a Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson. Arnarson was a convicted murderer (though I did not learn this at the museum but rather from Lawrence Millman’s fascinating memoir “Last Places”) who decided to escape and sailed the sea until he came to a big island, at which point he threw his “chair pillars” into the sea. Chair pillars were elaborately carved pieces of Viking furniture and, for some reason, Vikings threw them into the sea when they intended to settle somewhere. Wherever the chair pillars landed, that was where they made their home. But in the case of poor Arnarson he lost his chair pillars for three years but eventually found them and here he dug his underground hovel in the place that would eventually be known as Reykjavik.
First, the story of us
Larry and I met in Richmond, Va., in 1988, but we almost met in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a few years earlier. He left just months after I arrived. And then we could have met in Nicaragua where we’d both gone a year apart after the revolution. We were, it seems, ships passing in the night. But, if you believe in fate, or perhaps destiny, we met at a small local writers’ conference in Richmond (a place neither of us had ever been) where I was teaching a workshop. Larry was registered in another workshop because mine was filled, but at the last moment the director put him in mine. To this day, she doesn’t know why she made that change.
Larry came from North Bay, Canada, where he was running a journalism program. I was teaching in Irvine, Calif., a single parent with an 18-month-old child (not exactly a strong selling point when it comes to romance). One thing led to another. When I moved back to New York, Larry helped me. After months of long-distance dating, I decided to break up. He decided to move to New York to be with me and my daughter (now our daughter), Kate. At the time it was more than I could handle. I said the words I thought might give him pause: “If you move to New York, you’re on your own.”
“See if you can find me a place to live,” he replied.
A day or two later, my upstairs neighbor knocked on my door. She was an itinerant clown and mime, just back from doing street fairs in Eastern Europe. Along the way she’d met a Polish boat mechanic and was in love but needed to learn Polish. She went into a long rambling narrative until she reached the punch line. “Do you know anyone who might want to rent my apartment?” I told her I did. Larry moved in right above me. And the rest they say, is history.
Since getting together, travel has been our glue. It is one of the things we do best. We love long walks, great food, inspiring art, but travel has always been our thing. I’m a novelist and travel writer who cut her teeth on solo travel. I didn’t know what it would be like to now have a companion. But since the beginning the odd thing is that we have always been perfectly in sync. I’m the planner. He’s the navigator. I find the places to stay. He finds those out-of-the-way local restaurants and galleries.
We like to write in the mornings at a nearby café and then we take off. We are great flâneurs, and we can wander for hours. Or sit and do nothing. We are a team and have been so for almost 35 years. Then last year a simple medical procedure derailed him. Traveling, which had been our “glue,” seemed suddenly like a distant dream.
Yet for the better part of a year we had been dreaming of our journey on Silversea. We had spent hours mulling various itineraries. Do we want an expedition or a foodie cruise? We were new to cruise travel, and it seemed like an opportunity we did not want to miss. But we had no idea what I might be like to be at sea for two weeks or more. Would we love it? Would we lose our minds? Larry had once gotten incredibly seasick on a ferry from Palmero to Naples, Italy. What would 12 days at sea look like? And then there were the bigger health concerns. Just days before departure, this became a bit of a cliff hanger. Some days we were leaving. Others we weren’t. Some days I was going alone. But I didn’t want to.
Ultimately because we are travelers and because it has defined us for decades, we chose to take the risks. I got us every possible insurance, including, in the worst-case scenario evacuation insurance. And at last here we were in Reykjavik in the pouring rain, but we’d made it.
We board Silver Moon
After a soggy night, we woke to a day of sunshine and breaking clouds. (Thank you, weather gods.) That afternoon we took a cab in the early afternoon to the dock to meet Silver Moon. I couldn’t help thinking of the odd synchronicity. Astronauts train here to walk on the moon, and we are sailing away on Silver Moon. Perhaps there is something in a name. More on this later. But as the cab pulled up, I was stunned as any 8-year-old might be. Moored before us was our ship – big and beautiful and gleaming. And, may I add, welcoming.
It’s hard to explain how excited I was to board. I was in awe of the crew at their stations, the golden staircase, the butlers awaiting their charges. The moment I walked up the gangway, I was enthralled. Then we made our way to our suite. I had made a printout of the ship’s layout and knew exactly where it was. I had studied its location with a magnifying glass. I wanted it to be, as Goldilocks would say, just right. There were nagging concerns, along with the weather (not an unusual trait for me). What if it’s too small? What if the neighbors are noisy? What if the balcony somehow looks in the “wrong” direction?” As my father, the great philosopher, used to say, “Don’t worry about something until it happens.” As it turned out, clearly I had no reason to worry.
The minute we walked into the light and airy suite with its glass doors and balcony that looked out onto the sea, the writing desk, the king-size bed I would luxuriate in every night, I was in love. It was ample yet cozy. If there were people on either side of us, I never heard them. And I soon learned that there was no wrong direction. Any direction was beautiful.
As Ruth, our butler, helped us settle in, I heard the captain’s soothing voice for the first time, announcing we were hoisting the anchor and would soon set sail. He told us how many knots an hour we’d travel and how many nautical miles we’d cover and how long we’d sail. I was happy to learn the language on board. To say ship, not boat, to say suite, not room. Decks, not floors. To speak about tonnage and knots (I still don’t know how fast a knot is) and to think in terms of nautical miles. We embarked and disembarked. We took tenders to and from ship to shore. The muster crew helped us.
Now we were about to sail. I hung from my balcony, a glass of rosé in my hand that had been thoughtfully provided and chilled to perfection for us, staring at the sea, watching the gulls and terns and other seabirds soar. Suddenly the engines roared, the water churned, and we were off. I was surprised at the smooth forward motion of the ship. I wore a seasickness patch that I ripped off after three days. I stared at the moving sea, the land receding. The voyage had begun.
What’s in a name?
If you can fall in love with an inanimate object, the way a child does for a favorite toy, then I fell in love with Silver Moon. Maybe it was the name. It evoked memories, including my father once playing his jazzy rendition of “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Or the astronaut lore. At any rate it didn’t take long for us to feel at home.
It didn’t take us long to discover S.A.L.T. Bar (part of Silversea’s Sea and Land Taste program), next to S.A.L.T. Kitchen. It’s a classic, old-fashioned dark-wood bar, bedecked with well-illuminated liquor bottles, and the staff, David, the bartender, and Rudy, the server, were fantastic. It was a dark, moody place that suited me. And a good place to schmooze with fellow passengers, including many old salts when it came to cruising. But it was my cocktail that won me over. Continuing the lunar theme, how could I not order Selene, the Moon?
I have no idea what was in that cocktail, except that it had a giant moon on the top that first sat quietly, then shook and finally erupted into a thin plume of smoke. I know people have totemic animals, but if I were to have a totemic cocktail, it would be Selene, the Moon.
Afterward, we ambled over to S.A.L.T. Kitchen where we ordered (as we would for many nights) from the “terrain menu.” One of the things that drew me to this particular cruise was S.A.L.T. Although I can’t call myself an official foodie, food and wine are definitely something Larry and I enjoy. One of the real draws of Silver Moon (and also Silver Nova, Silver Dawn and, soon, Silver Ray) is the food experience. In this case, S.A.L.T. Kitchen offers two menus – the “Voyage” menu, which remains the same through the journey and whose menu reflects the region in which we’re traveling, and the “Terrain” menu, which changes daily and offers dishes of the port we’re visiting that day.
Beyond the kitchen there is S.A.L.T. Lab, where you can take some fun cooking classes and, befitting the theme, cook dishes that are part of the fabric of wherever you are cruising, and finally S.A.L.T. Experiences, excursions where you get to enjoy local cuisine with chefs and their restaurants on land. And, of course, the S.A.L.T. Bar, which offers curated drinks.
I chose baked salmon, and Larry went with the Islandic lamb stew. At times we sampled the Voyage menu, and, of course, the other wonderful restaurants on board, I loved the Terrain menu. It gave me a taste of things to come.
A word about sleep
After dinner we stumbled back to our cabin which I approached with a small sense of existential dread, as I do most nights. Basically I don’t sleep. I try to practice good sleep hygiene. I lower the lights, read, put in earplugs. Then it’s lights out and I’m as fitful as a cat. Perhaps I’m just in endless dolphin sleep – a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. At any rate, sleep does not come naturally to me.
Friends will often write me in the morning, “Hey so cool that you’re texting at 4 a.m.” But that first night as the ship swayed gently, I crawled into the softest, whitest, cleanest bed I can remember sleeping in since that ryokan in Kyoto in 1993. I yawned. The bed was like having my very own cloud that I sank into, a cradle that gently rocked me. I settled in and that’s the last thing I remember until I saw the thin line of light framing our blackout curtains.
Love me, tender
We woke to a steely gray morning. The sun peered through the cloud cover, the storm that greeted us when we arrived in Reykjavik now heading out to sea. We were already anchored off Heimaey Island and ready for our first excursion. But before we could even get to the island, we had to board the “tender” that would take us to shore. I had never met a “tender” before, so this was as new to me as cruising was new to me. For some reason, I thought that the ship would somehow dock close to shore (and often it does) but on this itinerary we visited some really out-of-the-way ports that didn’t have large docks. The tenders are, essentially, covered lifeboats with excellent crew that shuttled us back and forth.
As we made our way to Deck 3 where we would disembark, it became obvious that the tender was, shall I say delicately, not so tender. Or at least the seas were. As we were caught in the roiling water, Silver Moon would rise up and the tender would drop down. Or vice versa. It seemed impossible to gauge and, to be honest, the first time I had to do this, I was terrified. Though Larry and I are able bodied, this looked challenging to me.
That’s where the crew came in. I watched as they grabbed each passenger by the arm, pulled us on board and handed us over to the next crew member who was waiting to receive us. There were four of them and one of me. I must have looked frightened because one of them said, “Don’t look down. Look straight ahead,” and that’s what I did as I was more or less flown into the ship. It was, in fact, an effortless glide, and I watched them do it time after time, day after day, never missing a beat. A perfect relay team.
Once we were all on board, off we went, the sea breeze on our faces, Heimaey Island ahead.
One of the things that excited me the most about this voyage was its diversity – the idea of sailing from Iceland all the way to England, 10 ports in 12 days, two countries (Iceland and the U.K.). Heimaey Island was our first stop and also our first S.A.L.T. Experience. But I was nervous (again). I had been warned that fog might keep us away. It can be an issue for Heimaey. But once more the weather gods were on our side.
We had spent weeks studying the various excursions and options, and I have to say, although this one on Heimaey was definitely a splurge, it was also the one we were the most excited about. A foraging expedition with Gísli Matt (chef and owner of the famed Slippurinn Restaurant).
Matt met us with a van, and we drove to a rocky coastline with tidal pools and a lot of seaweed, which is what we had come to forage. He talked to us about how he cooked with, and before long, we were gathering oyster seaweed and dulse (also known as nori in Japanese dishes), sea lettuce that was very tasty – even as we sampled it on the shore – and sugar kelp and sea truffles which, per Matt, tastes like truffles. Apparently there are seaweed specialists who do nothing but study different kinds of seaweed.
From the coast, we paused for some soup (lots of soup in Iceland) on a high cliff overlooking the cliffs where puffins were roosting (I believe this was my husband’s favorite moment of the entire cruise – and there were many favorite moments). Then we drove on to the lava fields where we gathered various herbs, including Arctic thyme.
Matt shared with us the story of the devastating earthquake of January 23, 1973, a night in which a storm battered the coast, keeping fisherman at home, and then a volcano erupted. Those fishing boats were able to evacuate everyone on the island because they just happened to be in port that night and, luckily so everyone was able to escape. There were no fatalities but the island was devastated. Before the eruption Matt told us how his grandmother used to bake what they called lava bread on the cone of the volcano. And after the eruption they heated their houses with hot lava rocks. It was in these lava fields that we were gathering the herbs that Matt uses every day in his restaurant.
After our foraging and gathering, we went to Slippurinn, where we had an incredible lunch that included such remarkable dishes as fresh sea urchin with horseradish and birch-smoked fresh scallops. There were also amazing cocktails, including something mixed with a caraway liquor affectionately referred to as “black death.” I chose something tamer, made with spruce-infused gin. Slippurinn, beyond being a world-class restaurant, is also a family affair. In fact, Matt’s sister designed it.
After lunch we staggered back to the tenders, but not without a visit to the two beluga whales on display in the local aquarium. Like us they are also only visitors. Soon they will be released back to the sea.
Evenings on Silver Moon
Somehow despite our eight-course lunch and accompanying cocktails, we were hungry again at dinner time. We had managed to score a reservation at Kaiseki, the Japanese restaurant on board. I had heard amazing things about it, and they proved true. What I ordered and still can taste, is the incredible wagyu beef dish that was as tender and savory as any I can recall.
After dinner we went to the theater, where we were, of course, handed a glass of Champagne, and the show began. It is hard to explain the surprise and joy I felt when J.P., our cruise director, and Adam, our assistant cruise director, who usually sported their official sea officer uniforms, were suddenly belting out Broadway tunes, ending with J.P. doing the most perfect rendition of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof I’ve seen since Zero Mostel.
Missing the boat, alas
One of the excursions I was most looking forward to was to the Vok Nature Baths at our third port of call, Seydisfjordur. That was partly because we’d had to skip the thermal baths in Reykjavik because of the rain. This was to be our big chance. Despite my excitement, I had somehow managed to misread our excursion ticket that said we departed at 2:15 p.m., and being new to cruise travel (and, I’ll admit, not one to read the fine print very well), I assumed that meant 2:15 p.m. from Silver Moon. It was only when we arrived at the dock and I saw the bus pull away that I realized my error. We had to be on the 1:45 p.m. tender to make the departure from the dock.
I was miserable. I cried. I tried to find a taxi. I did find one who said he could be there in three hours. Yet Larry and I decided to make the most of our time in Seydisfjordur. I did a little digging into a guidebook and learned that Seydisfjordur is a bit of an artist’s haven and was worth a look around. First we visited a the Blue Church, a small (Lutheran) church that was beautiful (and painted a soft, sky blue) and where I found some peace. Then we wandered into the quaint center of town where we browsed craft shops and stopped in at a café, serving, what else, soup and sandwiches.
At the café where we sat outdoors, I was struck the number of Finns, Norwegians and Swedes sipping coffee. Many wore biker jackets and many had their Harleys with them. It was then that I realized that the ferry from Norway sails to Seydisfjordur and all these Scandinavians and Germans took the ferry and landed here. It was an interesting mix of locals and Europeans.
We had such a good time, watching the ferry from Europe, loading and unloading, that we lost track of the time and had to race back to the tender. We managed to hop on the last one and sail home.
For a cruise virgin, an entire day at sea seemed intimidating. It wasn’t
Full disclosure. I was dreading, a whole day at sea. What would we do? Sit on deck in lounge chairs? Sip tequila? What does one do at sea? The expression “at sea” had always meant adrift, a bit lost. But as we settled into our “do nothing” day, I suddenly understood. I’d forgotten the pleasure of doing nothing. There was no excursion to go on, no fear you’ve made the wrong decision and someone is having a better nature walk or architectural tour or culinary experience than you. That you are missing the town you will probably only see once in your life.
Instead, I found myself watching the seabirds that followed the ship. I went to the Arts Café and had high tea. High tea! I had never appreciated the purpose of high tea until I enjoyed it on Silver Moon. A nice swim in the pool as the water sloshed as if I were swimming in the sea, fluffy towels, a glass of something wonderful. We got to speak with our fellow cruisers and made some interesting connections. Even in our own lives, we rarely stop. Well, in this case we were hardly stopped but there was that steady forward moving toward Scotland, the beautiful of the rolling sea.
Scottish Highlands and beyond
After a delightful visit and lunch at a seafood shack in Oban we boarded the bus for a four-hour excursion along the Scottish Highlands. The Highlands were gorgeous as I knew they would be but alas the long ride proved a test for my vestibular/gastric system. (I think it is useful to note that even codfish, when being transported. get seasick as do horses.)
After the Highlands I altered my strategy. In Dunmore East, Ireland, I took the shuttlebus into Waterford and went on my own mini walk/excursion. Then I returned to the quaint fishing village of Dunmore, where I enjoyed a delicious salad in a local park and hung out, laughing as a dog stole a picnicker’s shoe. The shoe was later returned. In Fishguard, Wales, I joined a short excursion to a castle with our delightful guide.
One thing I learned about cruising: Although it seems as though, and can be, a relaxing way to travel, there are also a million things to do, places to go and see. I tried to keep my FOMO (“fear of missing out”) in check, but I wanted to do everything. I learned that, for myself, doing shorter excursions and having more time exploring or honestly just puttering around was the best way for me to travel. Or as a friend put it to me succinctly, I’ve come to think of cruising as the travel equivalent of eating tapas. Lots of tastings and things to be tried. Maybe you have to return another time for the three-course meal.
That chocolate extravaganza
I knew it was coming. but I wasn’t sure what to expect the night the Dolce Vita Lounge was to be turned into a fantasy land of chocolate. Nothing could have prepared me for the chocolate fountain and the chocolate martinis and the towers of macarons and cakes and cookies and, well, just chocolate. J.P. read aloud to us the amount of butter, sugar, chocolate and flour that was used, but I was too distracted to focus as I was wandering through the Willie Wonka wonderland of sugar sculptures and illuminated cake stands with all the beauty of a supernova photographed by the James Webb telescope.
Ferry cross the Mersey
I stood on my balcony in Liverpool, looking out across the Mersey River. I was feeling a little blue. Larry had disembarked in Belfast because he had to return for work. I was a bit sad, a bit nostalgic. Suddenly the words to the old song, “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” began playing in my head. Although I was thrilled to be in Liverpool, having not only lived through but also fully participated in Beatlemania in my youth, it is staring out at the Mersey that surprised me. I never took the words of that song literally. I always thought it was some kind of an allegory until I gazed out. There is a ferry that goes back and forth across the Mersey. That’s what the whole song is about. His love is on the other side. The song took on a new resonance.
Meanwhile, it was a gorgeous day in late summer and I chose do my own excursion – a visit to the Beatles Museum first. As a teenager who had just gotten her driver’s license, I used to drive around my suburban Illinois town, windows open, the radio blaring at me and whomever was with me, singing, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” It was a walk down memory lane, and I learned more about their lives – how both Paul McCartney and John Lennon had lost their mothers when they were young. Then I just wandered around Liverpool until I settled into a pub. I’m hardly a daytime drinker but apparently 4 p.m. on a Friday in Liverpool is happy hour. The place was hopping. Mainly men but a few women too, all chugging beers. I grabbed a Guinness and then settled into a table. The Guinness was rich and creamy and although my taste normally goes to dry wine, I loved it. I also suddenly understood the pleasures of daytime drinking.
I was enjoying myself, scribbling notes in my journal when two blokes plunked themselves down next to me. As they were chatting away, perhaps talking about a football match or a love triangle, I found myself staring at them. Clearly they thought I was eavesdropping because they paused and gave me a bit of a stare. “Oh, don’t worry, fellows,” I told them, “I can’t understand a word you are saying.”
We all had a good laugh. I finished my beer and went on my merry way.
From sea to shining sea
My journey was coming to an end. That night as we began our final lap up the English Channel to Falmouth and then on to Southampton where we would disembark, I stood once more on my balcony, the sea splashing on me, a sea bird following the ship, and I took a quick inventory. On this journey I had sailed through the Atlantic, the Norwegian Sea, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea and now the English Channel. I had crossed more seas than I’d ever dreamed of. I had seen places I’d only imagined.
England’s Falmouth was our last port. I was signed up for a long excursion but then decided to do it on my own. It was a beautiful sunny day and the town itself was very inviting. Basically the main street is a long pedestrian mall, filled with shops that sell soap, crafts and gin. As I ambled, I saw a woman leaning out of her window. She had a trash bag in her hand and kept muttering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. ” A dying seagull had landed in her window box and gently she tried to remove it, apologizing as she did. Then, gazing down at the small gathering crowd who watched, “I’m sorry,” she said again to the universe.
I sat by the water’s edge at a picnic table, scribbling in my journal reflections from our voyage, catching up on all I’d seen and done until I decided it was time for lunch. I’m sure there were healthy options in Falmouth (indeed there was a long line in front of a Middle Eastern restaurant), but here I was in the U.K. and I’d never tried fish and chips. I wandered up and down the main street until I came to a fish and chips place called Harbour Lights that claimed to have “the best fish and chips ever.” There was another long line (always a good indicator for me) so I waited.
Following the lead of an old seaman in front of me, I ordered the lobster and fries and wandered over to the picnic tables on the dock where I ate, literally, one of the best meals ever.
At one point I gazed down at my phone and suddenly heard people shouting around me. “Watch out,” a voice called. “Heads up!” I looked up just in time as a seagull was about to steal my lunch. “Did he get any?” I asked one of the men who’d rescued my meal.
“Oh no,” the man replied. “They just knock it off the table and know you won’t eat it. Then they dive in.” Smart birds, I thought.
I made my way back in time for the last tender. On the way I stopped at the local museum to buy some gifts. There was a little line and the sales person was chatting some people up so I politely mentioned that I was on a ship and we were about to sail. And the sales person asked me where we’d sailed from and I said, “Iceland,” and everyone in the shop turned and looked at me. “Iceland?” they said, as stunned as if I’d said I’d just come from the moon. Which I suppose I had. Yes, I told them. We did all this, 2,011 nautical miles! And it was beautiful.
The end…for now
Truthfully, leaving Silver Moon was leaving a piece of my heart. Before we departed for Reykjavik, I wasn’t sure I would like cruise travel. I was afraid I would feel trapped or bored. What I experienced was the opposite. I was excited for each day. And everything was new. A whole world opened up.
I’d go again anytime. For now I had to say good-bye, but for the past two weeks Silver Moon had been my cradle, my mother. My friend.