(2:25 p.m. EDT) My husband and I were setting out to explore pretty little Isafjordur, which like so many other towns on Iceland’s coast has the close-by trifecta of mountains, snow, and waterfalls. But first we had to spit in test tubes.
We had arrived in town onboard Viking's Viking Sky, along with some 760 fellow passengers, everyone onboard vaccinated (crew and guests), the ship operating at about 80 percent capacity (Viking Sky can normally carry 930 passengers). Viking Sky is a perfect venue for exploration, with its streamlined Scandinavian décor and upscale vibe. It’s also a ship where COVID-19 health precautions are taken very seriously.
We have become used to our spitting routine. The first day onboard, we spat when we arrived at our cabin, following instructions to open two plastic sealable bags, each printed with our names and a bar code. We had to spit 2ml into our separate vials, then reseal the tubes in the bags. Our cabin steward took them away. The only rules were no eating, no drinking (not even a wakeup cup of coffee) and no brushing your teeth within a half hour of the spit.
Three days into the trip, that process has become routine. Wake up, spit before 8:30 or so into our tubes, so we have a hand off when the knock on the door comes from housekeeping to collect our samples. It is a weird experience.
What happens to our spit once the vials have been taken away? The tubes are taken to the ship’s own onboard lab for testing – Viking was the first to install full-scale dedicated labs at sea for processing onboard tests as a result of the pandemic.
You’d think the PCR testing might be enough, but Viking is taking no chances when it comes to its health and safety protocols. We are reminded to put our shipboard card up to screens around the vessel that read our face and take our temperature. It’s recommended we do this once a day.
There’s also an occasional question in our Viking Daily or on our Viking Voyager app, just asking how we’re feeling.
With all guests onboard vaccinated, we were not required to take a COVID-19 test before the trip (unvaccinated visitors to Iceland are required to get tested and to quarantine on arrival).
To get into Iceland, we were required to go online to fill out an Icelandic health survey and to download photos of our vaccine cards to get an individual barcode to enter the country. We also had to have our vaccine cards physically with us.
Before we boarded our flight, we were required to show our vaccine cards and printout of the barcode code to the gate agent.
On these one-week Iceland sailings on Viking Sky, the cruise line introduced another level of health precaution in the form of a wearable contact tracing medallion.
You receive your gadget at check-in – which on this itinerary takes place at the landmark glass-side Harpa concert hall on the waterfront in Reykjavik. The white medallion is about the size of a silver dollar. You may wear it on the provided red Viking Cruises lanyard or stick it in your pocket.
It tracks everyone you come into contact with (at least those also wearing a medallion). Staff advised that the device does not store your personal information and does not record where you were when you were in contact with whomever. We were encouraged to keep our medallions on our persons on the ship and on shore, and we would be notified should any contact with someone with a COVID-19 infection occur.
What Viking did not tell us is that the tracing thing occasionally gets excited -- it flashes red lights and sometimes other colors too when someone comes close, and even in the middle of the night when you leave it on your nightstand.
I happened to be at guest services when a disconcerted passenger called to make sure the flashing did not mean she had COVID. She was assured she did not.
In case you need further assurance that you are on a safe ship, consider that Viking ships were built with independent air handling units in all staterooms rather than a shared forced air system. To supplement that, the line has added new air purification technology using UV-C light. You don’t see it, but it’s there.
You probably won’t see the ship’s new cleaning robots doing their thing either, but they are onboard, and there may even be one on display near the gangplank. For safety reasons they are used late at night and not near people, since they also kill germs with ultraviolet rays. A human accompanies the machine as it works -- they don’t roam freely.
Less high tech are all the hand washing stations set up around the ship, with crew making frequent reminders to wash your hands.
The Viking Sky is a spacious ship for 930 passengers, the number it will carry next week when fully booked (the earlier two sailings operated at 50 percent capacity. On our cruise, Viking Sky carried 760, which is 80 percent of normal capacity).
It’s not hard to find your own space onboard, whether it is in a comfy lounger around the indoor pool in the Wintergarden, in the atrium that is set up like a grand living room, or up in the top of the windowed Explorer’s Lounge, where you can study maps as you watch the sea.
We noticed some bar stools onboard were blocked off. Occasionally, you might see a sign on a section of couch indicating not to sit there for social distancing purposes, and some dining tables may have been slightly farther apart. But it was all very discreet.
Viking has beefed up its in-room amenities kit to include new health and safety items. Each passenger gets a package of 10 “Full Ultrasonic” (according to the package) facemasks that are black and look classy, a bunch of handwipes, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Mask wearing is required of everyone onboard all around the ship, except when eating or drinking, or when using the pool or hot tubs. You are required to wear your mask off the ship, too, for boarding tour or city shuttle buses.
The thing is, once you are in a city or town you quickly realize few in Iceland are wearing masks; it’s a country where the large majority of the adult population is vaccinated. In Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, no masks were required at the art museums, nor in the seafood shack on the waterfront where my husband and I ate lobster soup for lunch. No one on the street was wearing a mask.
The same was true in tiny Isafjordur, where we enjoyed mask-free kayaking in the mountain-surrounded fjord, followed by beer at the pier in the only brewery in the region.
By comparison, the mask-wearing restrictions onboard Viking Sky seemed excessive at times. I pitied the band members who had to wear them on stage. The singers at the all-ABBA show were mask-free. Many audience members took theirs off too. It’s hard to sing along to Mamma Mia when wearing a mask.