For decades, Iceland was seen as a sleepy tourist destination that appealed mainly to adventure-minded travellers who explored the country by land. But the country’s rugged coastline, improved flight access, and quick reopening to tourists post-COVID-19 lockdowns, has turned Iceland into one of the hottest cruise markets in the world.
Once the exclusive retreat of young adventurers in hiking gear, the land of sparkling glaciers, active volcanos, and hot geysers is fast becoming one of the world’s most sought-after places to visit by cruise ship. In fact, more than 50 cruises will depart Iceland during the summer of 2022 for a variety of intriguing itineraries, including week-long circumnavigations of the island, and longer voyages that sail to windswept places like the Faroe and Shetland islands on the way to England and Norway.
Resting upon the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a set of two tectonic plates that separate North America and Europe, Iceland is a land of vibrant contrasts. Ice-blue glaciers grace its volcanic mountain ranges; geysers shoot steams of hot water into the cool air; and pristine landscapes adorn its 4,800 km (3,000 miles) of rugged coastline. And for a good part of the year, there’s the added alure of aurora- filled skies at night, which many people claim are best viewed from the lunar-like landscape of Iceland.
My wife Gail and I first encountered Iceland’s magical beauty during a stop-over in 2013 on a flight back home to Toronto from London. One of the first things that struck us as we flew over the island was that it was oddly green in contrast to its name – a result of the Gulf Stream current which ensures a mild climate for what is one of the northernmost inhabited places on the planet.
The Gulf Stream makes Iceland’s sea surface temperatures about 6°C (10°F) warmer than nearby Greenland, and the milder climate means much of Iceland is green throughout the summer, even though 11 per cent of that country is covered with permanent ice cap. In contrast, more than 80 per cent of Greenland is covered by ice. So why the confusing names? According to lore, the first Viking explorers wanted to prevent too many of their fellow Norwegians from settling in Iceland, so they named the two countries in a manner that made Greenland sound a lot more appealing than Iceland.
Today, the only real city in Iceland is Reykjavik, which is located on the country’s southwest coast at a latitude of 64°08′ N — making it the world’s northern-most capital. It’s a relatively small city that is easy to get around in by foot, and serves as the island’s cultural, entertainment, and architectural centre. The city also boasts some great places to eat, including one of our favourites, a family run restaurant called Café Loki which specializes in classic Icelandic food.
Reykjavik is also the starting point for tours to several nearby attractions, including the geothermal heated seawater of the Blue Lagoon, which was named one of 25 wonders of the world by National Geographic. Another tour option is the Golden Circle tour which took Gail and I to three of the island’s most iconic attractions — the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and the Pingvellir National Park.
The Park sits on a section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where it cuts across land before disappearing again into the ocean. The ridge is a volcanic seam that belches up magma, creating new crust and pushing its two tectonic plates apart at a rate of about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) per year. The whole area is littered with ravines, ripped open by centuries of earthquakes, and it is the only place in the world where this rift is above sea-level. Pingvellir is where visitors can clearly see the edges of both plates right at the surface, and where they can place one foot on the North American plate and the other on the Eurasian plate, as we did.
Iceland itself is a side effect of many centuries of aggressive volcanic activity, and is basically one huge volcano with a crack going down the middle of it. Most of the island’s volcanic activity has provided benefits to society such as geothermal heating of houses. But there can be exceptions, such as the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which halted air traffic across Europe for days. Based on the geological history of the region, and studies of somewhat similar eruptions elsewhere in Iceland, another significant eruption from a different fissure in the Reykjanes Peninsula is a distinct possibility.
After a day touring the natural wonders within a few hours of Reykjavik, we knew we would have to return one day and travel further afield to see more of Iceland’s majestic landscape. And while it has taken longer than we had hoped, we are finally returning to Iceland next year, where we will be taking a cruise around the island to visit some ports and villages that are difficult to reach by land.
Our cruise on the Silver Whisper of Silversea Cruises will depart Reykjavik in mid-July for a 12-day voyage around Iceland, and then cross the Atlantic to the Danish Islands of Faroe, the Scottish Shetland and Orkney islands, Edinburgh, Newcastle, and London.
The ship’s first call will be at Patreksfjordur, which sits on a large peninsula in northwestern Iceland in a scenic area called the Westfjords. The tiny fishing village has just 700 inhabitants, and is surrounded by inlets, windswept beaches, and flat-top mountains where puffins nest on nearby Altarage cliff.
Next, we will sail further east to Akureyri, which is just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. Known as the ‘Capital of North Iceland,’ Akureyri is the gateway to the Godafoss Waterfalls, where the Skjálfandafljót river unleashes a colossal torrent of water over charcoal-black rocks below.
The ship will then visit Husavik, a pretty town with tiny red houses, wooden warehouses and small fishing boats framed by majestic mount Húsavíkurfjall. Known as the European capital of whale watching, the town features a whale museum, restaurants that serve up local specialities such as reindeer burger and plokkfiskur — a buttery mash of local fish – and horseback rides into the surrounding countryside to Lake Botnsvatn.
Before leaving Iceland, our ship will sail to Seydisfjordur on the island’s east coast, which lies at the head of its namesake fjord. The picturesque town is known for its rural lifestyle, pretty waterfalls, and old wooden buildings, including a pastel-blue church with a rainbow road leading to its door. The snow-capped Bjólfur mountain provides enchanting views across the steep banks of the fjord to the town below, and the Skalanes Nature reserve with 47 species of birds which is just 17 km (10.6 miles) east of town. Seydisfjordur is also home to a unique sculpture by German artist Lukas Kuhne called ‘Tvisongur,’ that works as a natural sound amplifier.
From Seydisfjordur our ship will sail across the North Atlantic where it will spend a day in each of Runavik in the Faroe Islands, Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands before visiting Edinburgh in Scotland, and Newcastle in England on the way to our final port in Greenwich, London. It sounds like a fascinating voyage, and one that will take us to what is possibly the hottest cruise destination in the world, and to some of the remotest ports of call in Iceland and Europe.
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