March 2020 Why a Luxury Cruise Around Iceland is the Way to Go

Why a Luxury Cruise Around Iceland is the Way to Go

In Grundarfjordur, things get wild. 
In Grundarfjordur, things get wild. 
Photo by Getty Images
You can brave the Ring Road, but the most relaxed route to Iceland’s vast wilderness and port towns is by ship.
Sometime between the sail-away Champagne toast and the Indonesian cultural dance during the staff talent show, our ship entered a fjord and lost Wi-Fi. Connectivity had been strong as we sailed from Reykjavik along Iceland’s east coast tethered to our digital shadows. But near Seydisfjordur, an artsy enclave of 700 souls, green mountains rose up on either side of the ship like ridge-backed dragons, cutting us off from the outside world.

During Windstar Cruises’ seven-day circumnavigation of Iceland, periods of fjord-imposed disconnection generated a stronger connection with everything that wasn’t my phone or computer. I wrote. I blissed out during a deep-tissue massage and energizing facial. I listened to a lecture on Icelandic history. I made up stories about the characters inhabiting the solitary farmhouses clinging to the vertiginous, waterfall-laced ridges as the Star Breeze slipped by.
A calm day at Seydisfjordur.
A calm day at Seydisfjordur.
Photo by Panther Media GMBH/Alamy
From the ship’s robust library, I borrowed a cheesy deep-sea adventure novel about a bloodthirsty megalodon shark, and my wife and I took turns checking out DVDs (her: Changeling; me: Argo) that we watched cozied up in our comfortable suite. From my balcony, I studied the ocean for hours at a time, watching puffins and dolphins dart through the water. And when the captain announced over the loudspeaker one day that we were sailing through a popular whale “highway,” I lined up an armchair in front of the balcony – as an all-suite ship, each cabin has a separate living room, a clutch amenity at sea – and settled in for the cetacean show. With the sliding glass doors open, it was like a floating theater stage, framed in gauzy white curtains instead of red velvet drapes. In place of popcorn: a room-service glacier of Roquefort drenched in honey. I could have stayed there all night – literally. May through August, the sun shines past midnight, long after I fell asleep.

While the Icelandic winter lures tourists for the northern lights, the country shines brightest in summer, when the sun won’t quit and wild berries dimple the volcanic hills. The mild temperatures – 60 degrees is considered a warm day – also make getting soaked while white-water rafting a lot more bearable.
Iceland’s rivers draw rafters from around the world in summer.
Iceland’s rivers draw rafters from around the world in summer.
Photo by Melba Photo Agency/Alamy
"Forward!" our Nepalese guide shouted as our raft careened down a glacier canyon an hour outside Akureyri, the so-called capital of Iceland’s north. He perched on the back of the raft like a reverse hood ornament, guiding our group of six. Just as Iceland comes into its most pleasant time of year, monsoon season begins in Nepal, which creates a migration of pro rafters from the Himalayan nation to Iceland’s white-water outfitters.

There’s a reason outdoor enthusiasts return to Iceland year after year like migrating whales. Kayaking, diving, four-wheeling, horseback riding, hiking across petrified lava fields and through waterfall-lined gorges – you can do it all on this island, and traveling by sea makes the far-reaching adventures far more convenient. Rafting this remote glacier canyon, for example, would involve a nearly five-hour drive from Reykjavik.

“Stooooop!” the guide yelled, and we pulled our paddles out of the milky, mineral-rich water like synchronized oarsmen on a Viking longship. Class II rapids pulled the raft forward like a magnet, propelling us through an hourglass- shaped passageway dramatically framed by encroaching cliffs brushed with neon-green vegetation. I could feel my iPhone in the neoprene death grip of my wet suit, begging for a photo shoot, but I wasn’t thinking about documenting the moment. 
Nord Austur’s yuzu-soy-marinated salmon belly seared on an Icelandic lava stone.
Nord Austur’s yuzu-soy-marinated salmon belly seared on an Icelandic lava stone.
My back muscles were as tense as suspension cables. Icy water smacked me in the face and breached my booties. It was a blast.

Back at the rafting company’s clubhouse, I peeled off my wet suit and entered a typical Icelandic thawing cycle. First I defrosted from the outside in while relaxing in a (very, very) hot tub, then from the inside out with two bowls of clear, sustaining lamb consommé, a national specialty, in the peaceful dining room. During the hour-long drive back to the ship, the rumbling country roads lulled me into a trance. Then it was time to eat again.

The Breeze calls at a different port almost every day on its circuit and leaves plenty of time for passengers to meet locals and taste regional specialties. In Seydisfjordur, where the ship overnights, the Italian expat chef at Nord Austur carves freshly caught fish into exquisite sushi. On Heimaey Island, you can sip sparkling Sultuslakur rhubarb cider and tangy halibut soup with fresh green apples and chewy dates at Slippurinn, a foraging-focused restaurant within walking distance of the cruise pier. Near the town square in Grundarfjordur, the Coca-Cola-branded Meistarinn hot-dog cart dispenses famous, fully dressed franks, but the mega-flaky Icelandic cod fish-and-chips, followed by a hot chocolate at a nearby café, is the better move.

On board, the food and service also surpass expectations. By my second dinner in Amphora, the ship’s white-clothed fine-dining restaurant, the staff remembered my pinot noir preference (Oregonian, not French) – a benefit of the tight 1-to-1.5 staff-to-guest ratio. The person who served you dinner in Amphora might reappear in the lounge and find you thirsty just as the lights go down for the aforementioned talent show.

To be perfectly honest, I would have preferred to skip the variety act. It was a two-entrée night (crisp veal schnitzel and seared soy-lime tuna) at Amphora, following a long day on foot in the northwest port of Isafjordur, where we learned about native foods at Westfjords Heritage Museum and stocked up on their modern equivalents (salty licorice, milk biscuits, outstanding Noi Sirius chocolate bars) at the neighborhood market. I could have turned in after dinner, but no, my wife insisted, let’s go see the show.
Prized position: Much of Iceland’s coastline is only accessible by ship.
Prized position: Much of Iceland’s coastline is only accessible by ship.
As a small ship, the Breeze does nightlife low key and well mannered: live piano, cocktails, and, once per cruise, a staff talent show. The acts ranged from the gorgeously costumed Indonesian dance to the kind of acoustic Jason Mraz duet you might encounter at a suburban coffee shop. Then an executive sous chef took the stage, clearly uncomfortable. He started and stopped twice, interrupted by audio feedback. The mic screeched. He looked like he would have much rather been prepping onions.

But then, when the opening chords to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” swelled in the lounge, the chef unloaded. “I found a loooove ...” he crooned, and every idle side conversation and tinkle of glassware ceased. Distracted heads whipped back toward the stage.

When you hear the phrase “talent show,” you think amateur talented, not cut-a-record-tomorrow-talented. The chef loosed a spell on the room that night. When he hit the bridge, people whooped and screamed, like they were at a concert. I’m pretty sure my wife cried. He sang with such intensity, I had to wonder if he was missing someone back home during his long weeks at sea. Another moment to slow down and appreciate what’s right in front of you.

Four Great Iceland Cruises

Fresh off a renovation that will add 50 new suites, two restaurants, and an expanded spa, Windstar Cruises’ 212-passenger Star Pride will take over the Breeze’s seven-day circumnavigations of Iceland, round-trip from Reykjavik. The ship is small enough to call at misty fjord towns, including an overnight in Seydisfjordur, where cruisers can hike to waterfalls and shop at art galleries. Departures: Multiple dates, July 25 through August 29, 2021.

Stepping across the Arctic Circle on Grimsey Island is a highlight of Hurtigruten’s 11-day journey around Iceland on the 318-passenger Fram, round-trip from Reykjavik. Activities focus on exploration, adventure, and environmental education, with onboard lectures complementing excursions such as whale-watching and clifftop hikes. Departures: July 25 and August 4.

Dressed in soothing neutrals with splashes of soft blue, each stateroom on Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Champlain comes with a private balcony – the ideal perch to take in Iceland’s western and northern coasts on an eight-day cruise. The six-port itinerary makes the round-trip-from-Reykjavik route appealing to those seeking a more leisurely schedule. Departures: Multiple dates, July 13 through August 23.

Azamara’s one-off Iceland cruise runs round-trip from Southampton instead of Reykjavik. Over 16 days, the 702-passenger Pursuit traverses the North Atlantic in style (for extra pampering, book a Club Spa Suite), calling at Akureyri, Seydisfjordur, and two other Icelandic ports, as well as Belfast and Liverpool (for England’s Lake District). Departure: August 6, 2020.

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