On a recent circumnavigation cruise aboard Viking Cruises’ 930-passenger Viking Sky around Iceland in July, my husband and I spent our time exploring thundering waterfalls, glaciers, bubbling earth, and volcanic landscapes, sights that had us wondering whether we had arrived on another planet.
While some of these same destinations are accessible on or off Iceland’s 828-mile Ring Road that circles much of the island, there are some notable advantages to exploring Iceland by sea. A cruise offers the same views of the shore that the Vikings had, a striking and unparalleled vantage point from which to observe Iceland’s rugged coastline and travel along its stunningly beautiful fjords.
Cruise ships also make itinerary planning a breeze and bring passengers to certain destinations that are unreachable by land; in addition, many of these vessels pack on the luxuries—such as the cushy accommodations, delicious food, included wine pours, and spa with warm hydrotherapy pool and invigorating snow room that we experienced with Viking. And you will still get plenty of time off the ship during a wide variety of shore excursions that bring passengers to Iceland’s famed hot springs, give them the opportunity to ride Icelandic horses, or provide Zodiac inflatable rafts for a more up-close-and-personal look at the unique shoreline. Added bonus: You have a good chance of spotting small minke and humpback whales right from your ship.
While COVID-19 requirements are a moving target, at press time, Iceland’s protocols for U.S. travelers required vaccinated visitors to present a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of departure to Iceland (unvaccinated visitors must be double-tested on arrival with a five-day quarantine in between tests). Cruise lines are requiring all guests and crew to be vaccinated. On our ship, we also underwent daily testing for COVID-19, the spit tests processed in the ship’s full-service lab. But requirements may change, so cruise passengers should familiarize themselves with the latest.
Here are our recommendations for some of the best places to visit on an Iceland cruise, what to see and do in port, and cruise lines that can get you there.
On one-week itineraries with lines such as Viking and Windstar, you will likely visit the pretty little fishing town of Isafjordur, in Iceland’s northwest corner. It’s surrounded by water on three sides and a mountain on the other. If you stick around town, you’ll be rewarded with views of wooden homes and fishing boats in the harbor and have the opportunity to paddle the fjord via kayak for views that include snow-covered peaks. We highly recommended making a stop for a flight at the only brewery in the Westfjords, family-owned Dokkan Brugghús, where they use volcanic purified water to create their pales, lagers, stouts, and IPAs.
If you’re a bird-watcher, your must-do activity in the Westfjords will be spotting Atlantic puffins, which you can view close-up via Zodiac and on small Vigur Island. More than half the Atlantic puffin species breeds in Iceland, and the Westfjords is a prime bird-spotting destination.
Expedition ships operated by companies such as Lindblad Expeditions—National Geographic and luxury line Crystal Cruises, with its 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, go farther afield in Iceland’s mostly wild western region. You may have the opportunity, for instance, to get up close to the large Latrabjarg Cliffs, home to puffins, gannets, guillemots, and numerous other birds.
The Far North
Cruise lines such as Viking, Hurtigruten, Ponant, Silversea, and Norwegian Cruise Line that venture further north in Iceland will likely bring you either to the northern college town of Akureyri or Húsavík, one of Iceland’s oldest settlements—first occupied about 1,200 years ago and a whale-watching capital. From both, you can head off on a shore excursion to see the north’s most striking inland sights: The 100-foot-wide Godafoss (or Waterfall of the Gods) and Lake Mývatn, with such geothermal features as bumbling fumaroles, steam vents, and eye-catching volcanic rock formations.
Your ship may also call at Siglufjordur, Iceland’s northernmost town and considered the island’s herring capital; you can learn all about the fishing industry at the herring museum there. Silversea and Crystal Cruises make this stop with their expedition ships.
The Arctic Circle
If you’re sailing north with Viking and other lines, you’ll likely cross into the Arctic Circle (the theoretical line that circles the globe at about 66.5 degrees north of the equator), an event that can come to pass without passengers even realizing because it occurs at sea—but most lines that cross will provide a certificate signed by the captain of your ship to prove you’ve done it.
Some cruise itineraries, including those offered by Hurtigruten, Ponant, and Crystal, go even further, taking passengers to Grimsey Island, above the Arctic Circle and only accessible by boat. It’s Iceland’s only landmass that touches Arctic territory. On shore you may meet local fishermen and hang out with seabirds on the bluffs—the brag-worthy rare sighting here is a long-tailed duck known as a dovekie or “little auk.”
Iceland has 109 fjords and at the head of an impressive 11-mile waterway in eastern Iceland, past cliffs, snow-capped peaks, small waterfalls, and startlingly green moss-covered hills, is the less-visited Seydisfjordur. It has a population of about 700 and is home to one of the most picturesque villages in Iceland.
Here, perfect wooden homes are designed in Nordic-style and painted in pretty primary and pastel colors—the place has a magical quality and is extremely photogenic. Excursions with Viking bring travelers up into the surrounding mountains to villages where locals will regale visitors with stories about elves.
The Westman Islands
Another ship-exploration bonus offered by lines such as Ponant, Windstar, Hurtigruten, and Seabourn is easy access in the south to Heimaey, the only populated destination in Iceland’s Westman Islands and a small fishing town that lost about 50 percent of its buildings to lava and ash in 1973 when nearby Edfell volcano erupted. (Most residents safely evacuated to the mainland.) From here passengers will also be able to view the Westman Islands’ 5,000-year-old Helgafell volcano. The island of 4,000 people also boasts a summer population of some 8 million puffins. While you’re in the neighborhood, catch views of Surtsey, Iceland’s newest island, which rose from the sea in the 1960s and is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s home to 89 bird species and 335 invertebrates.
Cruises in Iceland typically range from seven days to two weeks, and from budget sailings from as low as $1,406 per person (based on double occupancy), for 10 days on Norwegian Star between Reykjavík and London, to over-the-top luxury and expedition ships roundtrip from Reykjavík, starting at about $5,100 per person—and into five figures for suites.
What passengers will experience during their sailing, as we did during our cruise, is that with so much of Iceland’s history, identity, and culture intrinsically connected to the water, visiting by ship truly adds to the experience.
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