Cruising around Iceland

Cruising around Iceland

The puffin is a symbol of Iceland and a favorite of birdwatching tourists. Ottar Sveinsson photo

Ocean Diamond passengers board
Zodiacs for an excursion to tiny
Flatey Island. Ottar Sveinsson photo

Muscular, thick-set Icelandic horses (don't call them ponies) are a gentle breed symbolic of Iceland. Jackie Scheckler Finch photo


Iceland ProCruises’ Ocean Diamond in Isafjordur. Ottar Sveinsson photo

Cruising Around Iceland

Nature fans wake up to a different port every day on a new cruise that circles this isolated nation at the top of the world

By Randy Mink
Located just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland in recent years has become a hot travel destination, and now there’s a cruise that ties it all together into one neat package.

The nine-night, circumnavigation itinerary, offered by Iceland ProCruises’ 224-passenger Ocean Diamond, combines comfortable shipboard accommodations with soft-adventure excursions in ports of call.

On our June 2015 sailing from Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, most days were spent on bus excursions into the interior. Shore options also featured activities like hiking, bicycling, kayaking, golf, sea angling and horseback riding. The weather was largely rain-free, with temperatures mainly in the high 40s and low 50s.

Just poking around the little harbor towns—in most you can easily walk from one end to the other—was a highlight of the trip for me. Wandering at will, I enjoyed looking at fishing boats, watching people tending their yards, popping into shops and reading restaurant menus (grilled whale, anyone?).

A 1913 lighthouse is part of the walking tour on Flatey Island, inhabited by a handful of vacation-home folks who like the solitude. Ottar Sveinsson photo

I peeked into churches, visited cemeteries and just wondered what it would be like to live on an isolated island where it’s light all day in summer—and totally dark in the middle of winter. (To get a good night’s sleep in the Land of the Midnight Sun, I rolled down the shades in my cabin in addition to closing the curtains.)

Zodiacs take cruise passengers on bird-watching forays along the cliffs rimming the harbor on the island of Heimaey. Randy Mink photo

In some ports, the Ocean Diamond’s fleet of Zodiac landing craft took us bird-watching along the coast, to cliffs populated by kittiwakes, cormorants, gannets and Iceland’s iconic Atlantic puffins.

Several shore excursions included hiking through meadows and scaling steep crags. Randy Mink photo

On a hiking excursion outside of Seydsifjordur, we spent the morning trekking through a valley dotted with sheep and threaded with babbling brooks. We hopped over streams, sank in squishy fields and scaled steep crags like mountain goats, encountering waterfalls of varying intensity, from trickling to thundering. Our guide pointed out reindeer across the fjord.

In Seydisfjordur (pop. 650) I discovered art galleries and handicraft shops in vintage timber buildings, the photogenic Blue Church and quaint houses in a variety of hues, from bright red to deep blue. It was Thursday, so cars, motorcycles and camper-vans were lined up to board the weekly summer ferry to the Faroe Islands and Denmark. Just blocks from the harbor, I walked up to pastures where four Icelandic horses were grazing next to a stream flowing down the mountainside. Two of the gentle, stocky steeds came over to the fence and let me pet them.

One of my favorite ports of call was Akureyri in Northern Iceland because, after an all-day excursion to the Lake Myvatn area and its geothermal features, we got to stay there overnight, giving us more time to get a feel for Icelandic life and make use of the never-ending daylight. With a population of 18,000, it is the largest town outside of greater Reykjavik, where most of the island’s 329,100 people live. Akureyri’s main retail street offered Ocean Diamond passengers their best chance for souvenir shopping.

Passengers enjoy the scenery and brisk air on the Sun Deck of Iceland ProCruises’ Ocean Diamond. Randy Mink photo

The Lake Myvatn excursion exposed us to an otherworldly land of steaming fumeroles, simmering mud pots, volcanic craters and weird lava formations. After lunch, we had some time to relax in the soothing mineral waters at Myvatn Nature Bath, typical of hot springs swimming pools throughout Iceland, often called the land of Fire and Ice.

Tour guide on a cruise through the icebergs of Jokusarlon Lagoon shows his passengers a 1,000-year-old piece of ice. Ottar Sveinsson photo

Ice and snow enthusiasts also got their fill on this circumnavigation. As part of a five-hour tour from Stykkisholmur, a 40-passenger snowcat took us to the top of Snaefellsjökull Glacier, where we had 45 minutes to revel in the snowfields atop an extinct volcano with a mystical quality—it was featured in the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. A few days later we found ourselves gaping at big chunks of bluish glacial ice from an amphibious vehicle cruising Jokusarlon Lagoon in Skaftafell National Park.

Amphibious vehicles take tourists through the chunks of bluish glacial ice at Jokusarlon Lagoon in Skaftafell National Park. Ottar Sveinsson photo

Though I had been on 30-plus ocean and river cruises, this was my first expedition-style voyage, and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at the amenities, quality of food and level of service. The passenger-to-crew ratio, when the ship sails full, is 2-1. The crew comes from all over the world and passengers are mostly Germans and Americans.

One of the cruise’s culinary highlights was a gala dessert buffet with after-dinner drinks. Ottar Sveinsson photo

A loop around Iceland may be a far cry from a beaches-and-palms circuit, but for those who seek new horizons, relish crisp weather and outdoor activities, and welcome the chance to learn about little-known cultures, it’s your kind of trip.

In 2016 the Ocean Diamond offers seven Iceland circumnavigation departures between May 24 and Aug. 24. Fares start at $2,650 per person, double occupancy, including Zodiac outings; other excursions are extra.

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