From Volcanoes To Glaciers, Wonders At Every Turn On Cruise Around Island Nation
Posted: Monday, February 1, 2016 2:04 pm | Updated: 2:10 pm, Mon Feb 1, 2016.
On Heimaey, an island fishing community just off the mainland, our tour bus parked at the foot of the very volcano that in 1973 had erupted and gobbled up half the town. We followed our guide to the top of the volcanic cone, plodding along the gravelly trail of reddish-orange and black lava rocks. At the summit I slipped my hand into a vent and felt the heat. Half-joking that this still active volcano would blow again and ruin our vacation, I was reassured that today’s seismographic monitoring equipment is more sophisticated than it was 42 years ago. Still, the underground warmth made me a bit nervous.
Volcanoes and geysers, glaciers and icebergs...Iceland, as the cliché has it, is the Land of Fire and Ice, a sparsely populated place where travelers encounter nature at its extremes. One day we were posing for pictures in a glistening snowfield, another day marveling at bubbling mud pots or soaking in a thermal pool. There’s a lot going on around this island just below the Arctic Circle -- a pristine paradise for outdoor lovers looking for something off the beaten path. Raw and relatively untouched, cool, clime Iceland in recent years has become a hot spot starting to emerge on everybody’s radar. And now there’s a summer cruise that ties it all together in one neat package.
The new nine-night, circumnavigation itinerary offered by Iceland ProCruises combines comfortable shipboard accommodations with soft-adventure shore excursions. Every day the 224-passenger Ocean Diamond calls at a different town as it circles the island…towns with strange names like Stykkisholmur, Akureyri and Seydisfjordur. From the pier we boarded buses for half- and all-day tours inland or scrambled onto one of the ship’s inflatable Zodiac landing craft for bird-watching along the coast. And there were some serious bird-watchers. One British passenger went wild photographing kittiwakes, gannets and cormorants, not to mention the popular Atlantic puffin, a symbol of Iceland.
On our June sailing from Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, most travelers were Germans and Americans. Well-traveled and mostly over 60, they had been on Galapagos, Australia/New Zealand and other exotic-destination cruises, making Iceland another feather in their cap. It was a polite, cultured crowd happy being surrounded by nature and content with the quiet atmosphere onboard. Many passengers remarked about the convenience of exploring the whole country -- roughly the size of Kentucky -- while sleeping in the same bed every night.
Besides passive sightseeing, we had chances to physically challenge ourselves. Shore options featured activities like bicycling, kayaking, golf, sea angling and horseback riding. Temperatures were mainly in the high 40s and low 50s, with most days rain-free.
Cruising off the coast of Iceland, you can always see snow-capped mountains. And I mean always, for land is never out of sight, even at 3 in the morning. This is, after all, the Land of the Midnight Sun.
From little Stykkisholmur (pop. 1,200), our first port of call, we took a five-hour shore excursion highlighted by Snaefellsjokull Glacier, part of a rugged mountain range on western Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula. After a 40-passenger Snowcat delivered us to the top of the glacier, we had 45 minutes to revel in the snow.
The trip to the glacier gave us a good idea of Iceland’s austere landscapes, often compared to the moon. Barren lava fields, strewn with moss- and lichen-covered rocks and threaded with streams, are broken up by patches of brown or green grass populated by sheep. From the bus you’ll see birch, willow or mountain ash trees here and there, but Iceland is practically treeless.
The scenery was similar the next day on an excursion from Isafjordur (pop. 2,600), capital of the Westfjords region. A fjord-indented peninsula resembling a lobster, this is the most isolated part of Iceland because it’s not on the Ring Road that loops around the island. For a while it seemed like a journey to nowhere as our bus followed a black gravel road with steep drops, hairpin turns and no towns or farms in sight. Our ultimate destination was Dynjandi Falls, where we hiked along cascades that tumbled to the fjord. The tour also stopped at the Jon Siggurdson Memorial Museum, where we learned about an important figure in the Icelandic independence movement. (Iceland was a colony of Norway or Denmark from 1262-1944.) The site includes a replica sod house and an 1886 church.
After Isafjordur, the Ocean Diamond sailed into the Arctic Ocean and spent the next three days on the northern coast of Iceland. In Siglufjordur, once the center of Iceland’s herring industry, I hopped on a Zodiac for bird-watching. Some passengers went to the Herring Era Museum. Everyone had time to explore the town of 1,190.
Just poking around these little harbor towns was a cherished memory of the trip. I enjoyed people-watching, popping into shops and reading restaurant menus (grilled whale, anyone?). Peeking into backyards, I wondered what it would be like to live on an island at the top of the world. (Iceland’s nearest neighbor is Greenland, 180 miles away.)
On the tours and on my own I learned so much about Iceland. The ship’s library had some great coffee table books, and my Lonely Planet book on Iceland was a constant companion. Our cultural immersion was further enhanced by the six-member expedition staff -- half of them, curiously, opera singers by trade. Expedition leader Orvar Mar occasionally would belt out a few notes during his port talks. Twice he and two women colleagues performed in concert, all in Icelandic, in the Main Lounge.
An overnight stop in Akureyri gave us 24 hours to get a feel for Icelandic life and make use of the never-ending light. With 18,000 residents, it is the largest town outside of the Reykjavik area. Akureyri’s main retail street offered Ocean Diamond passengers their best chance for souvenir shopping. Popular items are Icelandic woolen knitwear, Viking-themed gifts and stuffed-animal puffins. Some of us found our way to the northernmost botanical garden in the world, which specializes in alpine and arctic flora.
From Akureyri the all-day Lake Myvatn excursion exposed us to an otherworldly landscape of steaming fumeroles, mud pots, volcanic craters and weird lava formations. After lunch, we had time to relax at Myvatn Nature Bath, typical of hot springs swimming pools in Iceland.
Following the long day, it was good to get back to the Ocean Diamond. Though I had been on nearly 40 ocean and river cruises, this was my first expedition-style voyage, and I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by the amenities and service. Though it’s been around since 1986 under various names, the Ocean Diamond, renovated in 2012, truly was in ship shape and even had touches of elegance. All three lounges, for example, were graced with a baby grand piano.
The dining room produced many “wow” moments, and I was never disappointed. The most festive evening focused on a dessert spread in the reception lobby, a photo-worthy event with artistic creations from the Guatemalan pastry chef along with liqueurs and specialty coffees.
Day 5 started with a Zodiac trip to tiny Flatey Island, inhabited these days by just a few vacation-home folks who like the solitude. Worn grass paths took us to the 1913 lighthouse, a 1929 school and 1960s church. Getting close to puffins on the clifftop was a high point, but wildlife viewing that afternoon was even more exciting as we cruised Skjalfandi Bay, the “Whale Capital of Iceland.” With cameras and binoculars in hand, passengers would shift to the other side of the deck whenever a blue or humpback sighting was broadcast over the loud speaker.
In Seydisfjordur (pop. 650) I had a whole afternoon to explore. Just blocks from the harbor, I walked up to pastures where four Icelandic horses (don’t call them ponies) were grazing contentedly next to a stream flowing down the mountainside. Two of the stocky steeds (as symbolic of Iceland as puffins) came over to the fence and let me pet them.
The next day’s showstopper was floating among the magnificent icebergs at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. From amphibious boats we got up-close to the luminous blue chunks that had broken free from the glacier and were being carried by the current to the river’s mouth and into the Atlantic. The glacier, covering much of southeast Iceland, is part of Vatnajokull National Park, Europe’s largest national park.
Heimaey, in the Westman Islands off the south coast, fittingly was our last stop in this geologically young nation. The new Eldheimar Museum, built around a house excavated from mounds of pumice, tells the dramatic story of the 1973 volcanic eruption and how residents were evacuated by sea.
Leaving behind the velvety green cliffs of Heimaey, the Ocean Diamond made its way back to Reykjavik, having gone full circle around a country we felt lucky to have discovered. Cruising, many of us agreed, is the way to go. It’s Iceland made easy.
In 2016 the Ocean Diamond will offer 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. For details, log on to icelandprocruises.com.
Reykjavik is a five-hour flight from New York on Icelandair, which also offers service from Anchorage, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Orlando, Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C., plus five Canadian cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax and Edmonton.