Trip Date 09/11/2019
Posted On 09/12/2019 16:50:10
Destinations | Cruises | Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas | Transatlantic | Crossing the Arctic Circle | Greenland Crossing | Iceland | Sept-Iles | DIY Ports
While on one of our first ever Royal Caribbean cruises in 2017, we were intrigued by a 2018 transatlantic cruise itinerary. We didn't reserve a cabin while on board as the price per day was a bit higher than we typically prefer. The more that we thought about the ports of call, the more interested we became in the unique itinerary. Unfortunately, by the time we got serious about making reservations, the available cabins were very limited and prices had skyrocketed.
Fast forward to late 2017 and during one of our regular searches for potential cruises, we found that the highly coveted itinerary had become available for 2019. Knowing that cabins for the cruise were likely to fill quickly, we immediately called our travel agent and reserved the 16 night Greenland Crossing aboard Serenade of the Seas.
If you are considering transatlantic cruises crossing the Arctic Circle with destinations including Greenland and Iceland, book early! Then, take a look at this post for help with ideas for planning your shore excursions. We'll start with an overview of our itinerary followed by a recap of how we spent our time in each port. Although we did join a few smaller private tours, "DIY Ports of Call" are our favorite and most typical mode of exploring port cities. In addition to basic information for planning, we've also included the total cost of each day ashore for the two of us.
17 Day Cruise ItineraryAs has been common with many of our recent cruises, we experienced an itinerary change between the time that we made our original reservation and our actual travel date. What started as a port day in Stavanger, Norway was changed to Kristiansand, Norway over a year before our sailing date. This change also resulted in a later than originally planned arrival to Lerwick, Shetland Island, Scotland.
Early in the morning of day twelve while aboard the Serenade of the Seas, the decision to stay overnight in Sydney, Nova Scotia due to the expected path of Hurricane Dorian was announced. This last minute change caused our planned day in Halifax, Nova Scotia to be eliminated.
Finally, late in the afternoon of day thirteen of the crossing, Captain Stig made an announcement informing us that additional changes to our itinerary were necessary. Due to the the weather and sea conditions caused by the hurricane, we would dock in Sept-Iles, Quebec, Canada (rather than Sydney) for an overnight stay. Additionally, our arrival into Boston, Massachusetts would be delayed by one day making what was a 16 night crossing into a 17 night cruise!
Here's an overview of the final itinerary for Royal Caribbean's 2019 Greenland Crossing:
- Sunday, August 25: Copenhagen, Denmark (5:00 PM Departure)
- Monday, August 26: Skagen, Denmark (7:00 AM - 5:00 PM)
- Tuesday, August 27: Kristiansand, Norway (7:00 AM - 4:00 PM)
- Wednesday, August 28: Lerwick, Shetland Island, Scotland (10:00 AM - 7:00 PM)
- Friday, August 30: Akureyri, Iceland (8:00 AM - 5:00 PM)
- Saturday, August 31 (2:00 PM arrival) - Sunday, September 1 (5:00 PM departure): Reykjavik, Iceland
- Tuesday, September 3: Cruising Prince Christian Sound
- Wednesday, September 4: Qaqortoq, Greenland (7:00 AM - 8:00 PM)
- Saturday, September 7 (7:00 AM arrival) - Sunday, September 8 (4:00 PM departure): Sept- Iles, Quebec, Canada
- Wednesday, September 11: Boston, Massachusetts (6:00 AM Arrival)
Skagen, DenmarkWe debated between joining a small private tour organized by a member of the Cruise Critic Roll Call leaving from Skagen, Denmark or going out on our own. In the end, renting a car and planning our own itinerary won out as we felt that we could see nearly all that was included in the tour and then some.
We knew that we would miss out on seeing the interior of Voergaard Castle as it was to be closed to all but prearranged group tours during our day in port. By limiting the amount of time at each of our other stops, in our nearly 7 hours we would have time to include additional sites not included in the tour. Although we would not have the benefit of a guide, we were confident that we could research and learn about each of the sites that we wanted to see.
We started off by heading in a southerly direction to see the Sanded Church before driving to Voergaard Castle to explore the castle grounds. After a brief stroll around the nearby town of Saeby plus coffee and a pastry in a restaurant at which every tour to the area appears to stop, we began our drive back toward Skagen.
Before reaching the town, we walked on the Rabjerg Mile, Denmark's largest migrating sand dune. Our next two stops, the Skagen Grey Lighthouse and Grenen, were both near the port city. We rode The Sand Worm out to the northernmost tip of Denmark where people can actually stand with one foot in each of two seas.
Split two ways, our total cost for the day was $73.86 USD per person including the rental car, fuel, parking and the ride at Grenen as well as our coffee and pastries. The most comparable excursion offered by Royal Caribbean was the 5 hour "Voergaard Castle and Pastry" priced at $89.99 USD per person. The cost included only the Sanded Church, a guided tour of the castle and the stop for pastries plus a drive through Skagen.
Had we joined the 5 hour private group tour, the total cost per person would have been $105.00 USD. While we would have again had the opportunity to tour the inside of the castle, we would have missed out on the town of Saeby, Rabjerg Mile and riding the Sand Worm to see the tip of the country.
Kristiansand, NorwayWe again ventured off on our own in Kristiansand - this time on foot. Our nearly ten miles of walking and hiking first took us from the ship to Fiskebrygga, the fish market. After exploring Christiansholm Fortress, we spent time exploring the streets of the old town known locally as Posebyen.
Spending the remainder of our 5+ hours hiking, we traversed parts of Baneheia and Ravnedalen. Various trails within the parks took us to lakes and viewpoints and allowed us to see the city's beautiful flora. We wrapped up our day with a hike through parts of Odderoya, a recreation area with remnants of its past as a military base.
Had we not made a quick stop at a grocery store to purchase a soft drink, we would have spent nothing other than our time in Kristiansand. The 2 hour Old Town Walking Tour was the most comparable cruise line offered tour. The per person price of $45.75 USD would have given us information on Kristiansand's history plus ensured that we saw specific buildings within Posebyen.
Lerwick, Shetland, ScotlandThe tendering process to get to Victoria Pier in Lerwick was painfully slow and tedious. We were lucky that we had spots reserved on a private tour that waited for us - otherwise we would have missed any tour not scheduled through the cruise line.
In just over 4 hours our Shetland Explorer Tours guide narrated while the driver of our small coach navigated and we rode to and from southern Shetland. Following a brief stop at Fladdabister, we enjoyed beautiful scenery at Sumburgh Head and a light lunch at the nearby Sumburgh Hotel.
After pausing for a brief view from the coach of two Shetland ponies at Bigton Farm near St. Ninian's Isle, we made our way to Scalloway Castle. We had time to see the castle and nearby grounds before returning to our starting point. Following our tour, we spent the remaining hour that we had ashore exploring Lerwick on our own.
We spent $78.00 USD per person for our tour, and although we learned some interesting facts about the island, we spent more time than we prefer on the nearly full coach. While Royal Caribbean did not offer a tour that packed in all that we saw, the two closest offerings were:
- Panoramic Southern Shetland which was priced at $49.75 USD per person for a 2 hour bus tour which included Fladdabister and St. Ninian's Isle; and
- A 3 hour Western Shetland Highlights tour which included a visit to Scalloway Castle as well as a stop at Shetland Jewelry. The $59.99 USD per person price tag did include the nominal entrance fee for Scalloway Museum which was not included in our tour.
Crossing the Arctic CircleLittle did we know that crossing that Arctic Circle was a milestone to be celebrated with a Blue Nose Ceremony. We were initiated by Captain Stig who poured ice and cold water over our head or down our back. After receiving our traditional blue nose, we celebrated with a shot courtesy of Royal Caribbean!
Akureyri, IcelandFor our first ever visit to Iceland we decided to join two smaller group tours offered by Saga Travel. Lake Myvatn from Akureyri Port was a six hour tour in a small coach. At our first and longest stop, Gooafass Waterfall, we had about 45 minutes to explore on our own.
We made stops at Skutustaaagigar Psuedo Craters and Dimmuborgir Lava Fields where our guide led us on walks. Our final stops at both Hverir Geothermal Area and Grjotagja Rift were quick but fascinating. Upon our return to Akureyri, we jumped at the chance to be dropped off in town to quickly explore the port city on own.
The per person price differential between the tour that we chose ($125.76 USD) and the cruise line offered tour ($132.99 USD) was nominal. Although Royal Caribbean's 6 hour Jewels of the North tour did include a meal along with the scenic drive, their group size was significantly larger and fewer stops were made along the way.
Reykjavik, IcelandWe took full advantage of the nearly 1 1/2 days that we were docked in Reykjavik. Although our time between the excursions was very limited, we knew that we had two sea days following the port to catch up on sleep!
The Blue LagoonScott and I started our visit to Iceland with a trip to one of the country's most well known destinations, the Blue Lagoon. During our three hours of relaxation in the warm waters, our entrance fee included a silica mud mask from the Mask Bar and a drink of our choice from the In-Water Bar. We also had the opportunity to try out both the Sauna and Steam Room.
The Royal Caribbean "Relaxing in the Blue Lagoon - Comfort Package" tour was priced at $195.99 USD per person and included transportation plus approximately two hours in the water. By making a direct web booking, we paid $146.39 USD per person. This gave us the flexibility to choose both our departure from and return time back to the port. This allowed us to extend our time in the lagoon, plus we still had enough time for a quick bite to eat and an evening tour.
Chasing the Northern LightsAlthough the timing of our Iceland visit was outside of the recommended range of dates for viewing the Northern Lights, we took our chances with a tour offered through Reykjavik Sightseeing. Our late night adventure started at 10:00 PM and we didn't return back to the ship until 2:00 AM. In addition to our memories of seeing the lights, we also departed with an awesome photo taken by Gustav, our driver, guide and photographer extraordinaire!
Scott and I paid $85.10 USD per person for the tour which was refundable only if cancelled due to a low probability of seeing the lights. If the tour left as planned but conditions prohibited us from any view of the lights, our only option was to join a second tour at a later date. At the time that we reserved our seats, we agreed that we would just enjoy the hunt, and hope for the best!
The Golden CircleOur second tour with Saga Travel was titled Golden Circle Small Group from Reykjavik Port. All stops made good use of our time and included the opportunity to explore on our own. Our first two sightseeing stops were at Keria, a volcanic crater lake followed by the Gullfoss Waterfall.
In addition to a couple of quick impromptu stops courtesy of our driver/guide, we made two additional stops. Our longest, which included time for lunch, was at the Geysir Hot Spring Area. Besides watching the regular eruptions of Strokkur, some of us hiked to the top of the hill for a birds-eye view of the surroundings. Our final stop before heading back to the port was at Thingvellir National Park where we hiked along the rift between the Eurasian and American continents.
Royal Caribbean offered The Golden Circle with Lunch, an 8 hour tour priced at $171.99 USD per person. Although our tour did not include a meal, there were two places along our route where we could choose to purchase a snack or meal. Also at 8 hours in duration, we made some stops not included in the ship's excursion. Finally, the group size for our tour (which was priced at $92.00 USD per person ) was significantly smaller.
Cruising Greenland's Prince Christian SoundAlthough sunrise was less than spectacular due to the fog and cloud coverage, the scenery during our cruise through Prince Christian Sound definitely made up for it. James Jacob, the Enrichment Speaker onboard during our sailing, narrated a part of the journey which separates the mainland of Greenland from the Cape Farewell Archipelago. The iceberg dotted deep blue waters were surrounded by picturesque mountains, glaciers and fjords. We even caught glimpses of several waterfalls flowing into the ocean!
Qaqortoq, GreenlandAfter multiple port days on group tours, we were looking forward to stepping foot on to Greenland soil and exploring on our own. Tours are very limited in Qaqortoq. We learned that the town has no buses requiring tourists to walk or hike ... or hire a taxi.
Fortunately, at mid-morning when we went ashore, the tender process to get into Qaqortoq required no tickets. The ride was a quick one, and we were ready to hit the ground running. After admiring the colorful hillside houses, we explored the nearby sites including the fish market, churches and the country's oldest fountain.
After finding many of the Stone and Man carvings, we climbed up the hill with hopes of a great view. Unfortunately our timing was off as the clouds blocked the view from above. In fact, there was a time when it almost appeared that our ship had left us behind as it was blocked by fog and clouds! Although we didn't hike all around, we did walk to the bridge to get a view of Lake Tasersuaq before waiting in line for a return tender.
Other than the two candy bars that we purchased with our leftover DKK coins, we spent no money to explore the port city. Most comparable to our day on foot was Royal Caribbean's Qaqortoq Town Walk which included the sites that we saw nearest to the tender pier. The 1 1/2 hour guided walk was priced at $89.99 USD per person and was offered every 30 minutes.
Sept-Iles, Quebec, CanadaWe had rental cars reserved and full days planned for both Sydney and Halifax so, of course, we were sad to have our itinerary change due to the weather. Although we knew nothing at all about Sept-Iles, we were excited to be a part of history. After all, we were on the first ever ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet to dock there. (We were fortunate to be docked while riding out the storm. Several other cruise ships in the nearby vicinity spent one or two days at sea waiting for the storm to pass.)
We did some quick internet research upon our arrival to make a plan for our time ashore. Unfortunately, the boat servicing the island of La Grande Basque was not operating during our stay making what appeared to be the highest rated tourist destination unavailable. After being docked for close to two days there, we agreed that Sept-Iles has a ways to go before being considered the next up and coming cruise port. To be fair, our visit was planned at the last minute - barely 15 hours before our arrival. If the owners and managers of the area tourist attractions had more advance notice, our stay may have been different. As it was, the most talked about destination in the port city was the local Wal*mart!
In the short time that the city had to prepare for our arrival, buses and drivers were coordinated to make the complimentary shuttle service for cruise ship passengers available. While also serving the town's few museums/tourist attractions, the shuttle bus stops are geared toward transporting cruisers to shopping and cafes.
The locals could not have been nicer, and seemed happy to have us visit. Even though their staffing was limited, we were impressed with our tour of the Old Fur Trading Post known as Vieux-Poste de Sept-Iles (near shuttle stop 2). Les Jardins de l'Anse Garden, on the map near shuttle stop 3, left us less than impressed as it appeared to be only used for test driving the ATVs for sale nearby. Since we are not shoppers and were uninterested in dining on shore, our 4 1/2 hours ashore was more than enough.
Although riding the complete shuttle circuit and walking on our own didn't have a cost, we did pay about $10.00 USD per person for entrance to the Trading Post. Royal Caribbean was able to put together two last minute excursions, each priced at $89.00 USD. Both included transportation on a school bus to two museums (including Vieux-Poste de Sept-Iles) plus photo stops along the way.
Tips on Planning Independent Shore ExcursionsAlthough typically more expensive, there are advantages to joining the excursions offered through a cruise line's Shore Excursions Desk. The biggest benefits are often the automatic refund should an itinerary change be necessary and the guarantee that the ship will wait for you should your tour be delayed for any reason. In our early years of cruising, we always booked through the cruise line. That changed in 2001, after going out on our own in Athens, Greece. Of the entire cruise itinerary, I still remember our day in Athens more vividly that any of the others. Since then, we typically either tour ports completely on our own (our favorite) or organize or join smaller private tours.
If you are considering planning your own excursions, here's a few suggestions:
- Be prepared for the time commitment! While you can often save money, truly customize your visit and likely see and do more on your own, it does take time to research your options.
- Read comments and reviews from previous travelers on Cruise Critic, Trip Advisor, travel blogs, etc. to get ideas and ratings (we generally will not reserve with a company unless it has a lot of very positive comments).
- Check Cruise Critic and Facebook Groups for others in search of people to join a group that they are forming or who are also in search of private tours.
- When coordinating a group or joining others that you haven't previously traveled with,
weigh the risks and rewards such as:
- no-shows or last minute cancellations can change the per-person price;
- personal interests might impact the timing of your day ashore (shoppers vs. sightseers vs. history buffs, etc.); and
- even differing physical abilities or walking preferences may hinder your original plan.
- Make contact with more than one tour provider so that you can compare prices and options.
Ask lots of questions including:
- whether or not they have a guarantee to get you back on time;
- what is included and excluded in the quoted price;
- is a deposit required;
- do they accept credit cards;
- what currencies do they accept for cash payments;
- is tipping drivers and guides common; and
- any other questions that you can think of!
- Become familiar with the cancellation policies and don't reserve unless you are comfortable
and happy with the tour provider's policy. (Many companies will refund all money already paid
the cruise ship not make it to the port for any reason. Others require advance notice within a
time period for all or partial refunds which can be impossible when weather impacts a cruise
- If you are contemplating car rental to get around during a port visit, make sure to know and
plan for the following:
- pick-up and drop-off locations (some rental agencies provide round-trip transportation from the port, but make sure to include plenty of time if relying on this option);
- operating hours of the agency that you plan to use;
- insurance requirements and costs (Your personal auto policy may cover car rentals in some locations. Become familiar with the benefits associated with your credit cards as some include various levels of car rental insurance. There are, however, destinations which require renters to purchase some level of insurance.);
- costs for traveling in a car such as fuel, parking, toll or ferry charges, etc.;
- alternative driving routes (an offline map such as MAPS.ME can prove to be invaluable when needing to make last minute changes to your route);
- additional time due to traffic jams, road conditions, special events, mechanical issues, etc.;
- any other possibilities that you can think of!
- When planning for a tender port, allow plenty of time for getting to shore. Remember, in most cases travelers on ship excursions have priority which can significantly impact the time you will get to shore. (Before our arrival to Lerwick, we lined up over 30 minutes before tender ticket distribution and ended up with tickets for group 9. Due to longer than normal delays, at over one hour late we were embarrassingly the last to make it to the bus for the private group that we had joined. Surprisingly they were nice enough to wait for us since we had made advance payment, however in our experience this is not the norm.)
- Finally, don't leave your ship without either bringing or taking a photo of the daily planner which includes your ship's agent in the port city, helpful contact information and all aboard time!
Northern Atlantic Ocean Ports of CallFor more information on each of our days in port, check back in the coming weeks. We'll have a post dedicated to each port of call which will include details on planning our excursions, detailed itineraries and, of course, more photos from each port of call.
Transatlantic CruisesWhat are your favorite ports of call to visit while sailing on a transatlantic crossing and why do you favor them over all of the others?
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