One of the youngest landmasses on Earth, Iceland formed when volcanoes rose from the ocean floor where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. Located 915 miles from Norway, it drew early explorers, such as Vikings, from as early as the 800s. Today’s explorers are tourists, and what they find is still awe-inspiring.
Standing-room only in the two-level Vista Lounge on Holland America’s Zuiderdam told the tale: An Iceland expert and long-time resident was about to tell the 1,900 guests, including us, what to expect, and not one of us wanted to miss a nugget of info.
As slides popped on the screen showing otherworldly terrain of black lava rock grown over with thick moss layers, Jon Vidar Sigurdsson recalled the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Its volcanic ash cloud canceled two-thirds of European air travel for six days. Volcanoes, he said, are a way of life here. So are the northern lights, white nights, glaciers, geysers, waterfalls and icebergs, the latter responsible for “Ice Land’s” naming by the Viking Flóki, according to legend.
Iceland Is Green; Greenland is Icy
Zuiderdam’s travelers do Iceland in style, departing Copenhagen, Denmark, for the 18-night crossing to New York. This sailing is a trans-Atlantic like no other, with three days in Greenland and four in Iceland. The names are misleading, of course, as Iceland’s green and Greenland’s icy.
Nearly 50 excursions in Iceland promise something for everyone. Excitement was palpable even among the dedicated cruisers—1,400 were Holland America repeaters. Said one guest: “I do a lot of research, and I did not read anything that prepared me for what I saw.”
Akureyri, often referred to as the Capital of the North, is the first port of call. The world’s northern-most botanical gardens and Europe’s northern-most 18-hole golf course exist here. And more than 120 cruise ships bringing 110,000 visitors now call here.
Whale watching in rustic Húsavík is just one of the shore excursions. Decades ago, two forward-thinking brothers began taking tourists to see the gentle giants, earning the town the moniker Iceland’s Whale Capital. Slow cruising Skjálfandi Bay was thrilling despite rain and spotting only one whale, a massive humpback that did surface six times.
The tour continued to Goðafoss waterfall, one of Iceland’s most spectacular. Though not the tallest, at 40 feet high and 98 feet wide, its name—Waterfall of the Gods—has historical significance. In 1000, after elected “lawspeaker” Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði chose Christianity as Iceland’s official religion, he tossed all his statues of Norse gods into the waterfall.
Lake Mývatn’s mineral-rich thermal baths were an attraction for some, but perhaps the most exotic excursion was a 20-minute scenic flight across the Arctic Circle to Grímsey Island, population 67. All cruisers received a certificate citing when Zuiderdam crossed the Arctic Circle.
Ísafjörður is a colorful fishing town in northwest Iceland’s scenic Westfjords region. Tours include a 30-minute boat ride to Vigur Island, known for the local puffins in season, but we opted for a bus tour, which took us through the town’s deftly engineered, five-and-a-half-mile T-bone tunnel. As we neared its exit, our 18-year-old guide couldn’t contain his enthusiasm: “I think you’ll like this view.” We emerged into pure, unadulterated nature at its finest: picture-perfect blue sky, an emerald valley, a swath of fjord and gorgeous blue water.
Dynjandi, meaning Thundering One, with its seven waterfalls cascading 328 feet like a bridal veil, was our next destination. Coming and going, we saw incredible vistas from a winding, switchback, hairpin dirt road: fjords, mountains, valleys, farms, sheep and Icelandic horses. At times, it seemed more imagination than reality.
“The view, the nature, it still stuns me,” the guide admitted. “To make a great day for people all over the world is not a job, that’s a privilege.” The excursion ended in his tidy hometown, the fishing village of Suðureyri, population 250. Leading us to the fish-processing plant, he waved to both his grandparents.
Reykjavík is the capital and was a highlight for many aboard. Eighteen excursions are offered, many repeated for both days of our overnight stay. We quickly signed up for swimming at the Blue Lagoon, so popular that three excursions are available, one a night outing. Using 2 million-plus gallons of warm water runoff, a mix of fresh water and seawater from a geothermal power plant, it’s a 93,646-square-foot complex of pools built in a lava field. Lockers, a spa, swim-up bar, restaurant, gift shop and overnight accommodations are also featured. Touristy? Yes. Memorable? Definitely.
The next day, the hop-on/hop-off bus helped us quickly get our bearings in Reykjavík, as did the tourism center inside the modern City Hall on Lake Tjörnin, which features a small island filled with swans and geese. The top of Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church at 244 feet, is a great vantage point.
Going 'Round the Bend
The popular Golden Circle Tour—taking its name from Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall—also stops at the predictable Geysir, which inspired a fun video. But we were most impressed by Þingvellir National Park (photo below), the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates’ meeting point, which reveals the power of the geothermal landscape—literally. Visitors can actually walk along the craggy split with rugged outcroppings rising high on both sides. It’s Geology 101 up close.
It’s also familiar territory for onboard lecturer Sigurdsson, who’s also a geologist. “I find people are thrilled. They have high expectations that are usually met and beyond,” he said of Iceland. “What they see is much more dramatic. Many state they want to go back and experience more. The landscape is fascinating. They experience scenic nature, waterfalls, beautiful lakes, and they’re thrilled. It’s a small island [population 344,000], but it has quite a versatile landscape and culture.”
For those who want to return to traverse the iconic, 827-mile Ring Road encircling Iceland, Sigurdsson suggested they allow a week to 10 days. “I do a lot of hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing. I drive out every week. I’ve always lived in Iceland. Working on volcanoes and glaciers is mainly a hobby.”
He noted that Iceland’s geothermal blessing has resulted in eco-friendly, economical energy, but prices for other things such as housing, food and entertainment are high.
So why is Iceland so “hot” right now? Sigurdsson attributed many flights at good prices. “It was an explosion,” he said of the rise in arrivals. Last summer, Iceland had regular direct flights from more than 80 cities—57 from Europe and 27 from America, including five daily from New York. In 2018, that will be close to 100. Inspiredbyiceland.com lists 26 carriers that service the island.
“It may be remote, but it’s a nature destination.” He advised, like many of his ancestors were, to “Be an explorer. Go there. Enjoy it.”
Planning Your Trip: Holland America visits both Iceland and Greenland in July and August 2018. For information, go online to hollandamerica.com. For destination information, log on to inspiredbyiceland.com. To book your own cruise using exclusive AAA member benefits, visit your AAA Travel agent or AAA.com/travel.
Husband/wife team KATHY M. NEWBERN and J.S. FLETCHER are freelance writers and photographers based in Raleigh, N.C. This article appears in the Jan./Feb. 2018 issue of Home & Away Magazine. All rights reserved. For reprints, email firstname.lastname@example.org.