Lois Alter Mark | Special to USA TODAY 10Best
When travelers talk about visiting Iceland, they invariably mention Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon and The Golden Circle, a 190-mile driving loop which covers three natural attractions: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss Waterfall.
Although those are all must-visits, there’s so much more to experience in Iceland – and the best way to cover it in a short period of time is on a cruise ship. In fact, Iceland has been such a beloved stop on their itineraries for the past few years that Viking Cruises has introduced their first circumnavigation of the island.
“Iceland’s Natural Beauty,” an 8-day cruise that sails round-trip from Reykjavik, gives you an up-close-and-personal look at some of the country’s most remote and beautiful coastal villages.
“This stunning island of fire and ice inspired the original Vikings when they charted new territory, so it’s especially fitting as a key destination in our ‘Welcome Back’ collection,” says Torstein Hagen, Viking Cruises Founder and Chairman.
“Iceland is well suited to visiting on a cruise,” agrees Michael Scott, natural history writer and Viking guest speaker, “because most of the inhabited part of the country is accessible from a ship. Although the 828-mile Ring Road (Route 1) is a classic road trip around the island, it involves a lot of driving in unpredictable conditions, it can be quite tiring and it requires a minimum of 10 days.
“Renting a car in Iceland is expensive, and camper vans and 4WD vehicles that can take you into the interior are even more expensive. Eating out in Iceland is expensive too. A cruise can be a good value while letting you take in the stunning natural scenery from your lounge chair as you travel around.”
It’s not uncommon to randomly get a peek of marine life from your stateroom veranda, and there’s nothing like a whale sighting to get guests out of their seats and rushing to the deck. The opportunity to see them from the ship makes it easier to forego a whale watching excursion, so you can delve deeper into Iceland itself.
“We were enjoying dinner in the World Café one night when we saw big, bushy blows from at least seven humpback whales, undisturbed in their own natural element,” remembers Scott. “It was a magical sight.”
Although the ship is so luxurious that it can be tempting to just stay put and soak in the mesmerizing natural beauty all around you, make sure to book at least one shore excursion in each port to get a real feel for these unique towns.
Here are some highlights.
Take advantage of the fact that you’re here overnight and don’t have to find a hotel. Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital, and you should spend your first day exploring the city, including the Kjarvalsstaðir Art Museum, Hallgrímskirkja Church and the all-glass Harpa concert hall. Be sure to stop for a hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a tiny stand boasting long lines day and night since former US President Bill Clinton visited in 2004.
Day two is your time to visit Blue Lagoon or the Golden Circle, both easy drives from the city. If you prefer, you can ride an Icelandic horse over lava fields, check out a volcano or descend almost 100 feet below the surface through a carved-out ice tunnel to explore the heart of a glacier.
Waking up in the Westfjords peninsula, one of Iceland’s most remote and beautiful areas, your first thought will be, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Reykjavik anymore.”
Take a guided tour of Bolungarvík, an historic fishing village, or explore the area via ATV or kayak. You can visit Dynjandi Waterfall, the largest of its kind in the Westfjords, or spend time at a local turf farm to see how locals once lived in this isolated countryside.
A real highlight of the “Iceland’s Natural Beauty” itinerary is standing on the deck at 4:30 a.m. as the ship makes its dramatic entrance into Akureyri and you find yourself surrounded by breathtaking scenery on all sides. “It is an amazing experience that is exclusive to cruising and is something even locals won’t have experienced in the same way,” says Scott. “Sure, you can book ‘scenic cruises’ but they’re on smallish boats and the experience is quite different from sweeping in on the grandeur of a stately cruise ship, seeing some of the hillsides almost eye to eye.”
Once in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, opt for a dip in Húsavík’s GeoSea (set amid the tranquility of the Icelandic fjords), explore the Botanical Garden (where 2,000 species of flowers grow close to the Arctic Circle) or travel through the Vaglaskógur forest – one of Iceland’s rare woodlands – to visit Godafoss Falls, known as the “Waterfall of the Gods.”
One of Iceland’s most picturesque towns, Seydisfjördur is an Instagrammer’s paradise. Boasting a flourishing arts scene, the town is known for its colorful wooden homes and is a lovely place to take a leisurely stroll.
You can also take a walk in the footsteps of the elves, journeying through the fairy tale-like lands where Icelandic folklore was born to Álfhóll (Elf Hill), home to Iceland’s huldufólk elves, known as “hidden people.” Or simply unwind in the hot, healing waters of Lake Urridavatn during a rejuvenating visit to the Vök Baths.
A trading center since the 16th century, Djúpivogur is a town very rarely visited by cruise ships. It has embraced the emerging “Cittaslow” (Slow City) global trend, which promotes sustainable living to improve the quality of life for its residents.
It’s also the starting point for an excursion to the Fjallsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, where you can take a zodiac ride to the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe. You’ll enjoy unparalleled views and possibly a taste of history, as your guide hands you a small piece of ice that originally formed 500 years ago at the top of the mountain and lets you take a bite.
The only populated island in the Westman Islands, Heimaey is all about puffins. Each summer, millions of puffins pay a visit and countless other species migrate here to feed and breed, and you can see them in their natural habitat or at the Sea Life Trust Puffin Rescue Centre.
You can also spend a few hours exploring Heimaey’s rugged coastline from a rigid inflatable boat (RIB), which will take you past the lava fields that formed after Eldfell’s infamous volcanic eruption in 1973, and into Klettshellir, a stunning natural cave famed for its excellent acoustics.