It is said that Icelanders don’t talk; they tell each other stories. As they do so, they continue a grand tradition dating back to the extraordinary sagas of the 13th century and even beyond, to fireside gatherings in the roundhouses of the earliest Viking settlers. Such tales once lent a reassuring layer of meaning to the country’s bizarre, spectacular landscapes, and the most extreme natural forces.
Authors, poets, travellers and other, non-native storytellers have swelled their ranks in recent centuries and even today, whenever film and television directors seek to tell their own stories of the fantastical, the elemental and the other-worldly, they invariably come here – so, amongst myriad other star turns, Iceland has portrayed a snow planet in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the world beyond the wall in Game of Thrones and the epitome of wish fulfilment in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. To visit this northern wonderland is to invite a recalibration of one’s own imagination.
A circumnavigation by cruise ship is surely the most comfortable and cost-effective way to do so, for Iceland’s treasures are all accessible from its delightful ports. Only ever a short coach journey away is nature cloaked in its wildest majesty – conical volcanoes ringed with tonsures of cloud, serene blacks and beaches with paddling sheep, mirror-still lakes and fjords, vast fields of ice that charge thunderous waterfalls, and infernal sulphuric plains of searing steam vents and bubbling pools. It all plays a neat temporal trick – Iceland is Europe’s newest landmass in geological terms, yet it is so unspoilt it appears timeless and elemental, offering a privileged glimpse of how the world might have looked when young.
Unforgettable experiences abound, even on the island’s most beaten path – the trinity of magnificent natural phenomena comprising the ‘Golden Circle’. A couple of hours’ drive from Reykjavík across glacier-flattened plains and through fairy-tale mountains is Gulfoss (Golden Falls), one Iceland’s mightiest cataracts, where the Hvítá River plummets 32m over two steps into the heart of a rugged canyon. Next up is UNESCO World Heritage Site Þingvellir (anglicised as Thingvellir), the only place on earth where the boundary of tectonic plates may be observed: North America and Eurasia, drifting apart some 2cm every year. In this auspicious place was built the 10th century Althing meeting hall of Viking chieftains, an institution which lives on today as the Icelandic Parliament, and Þingvellir is also renowned for its ‘hidden folk’, chiefly elves, whose tiny wooden houses grace many a local garden. (A 2007 University of Iceland survey found that 62% of the country’s population consider the existence of such huldufólk a possibility). And at Geysir, the geothermal field whose name would come to define all the world’s spouting springs, you would be extraordinarily lucky to witness one of Great Geysir’s infrequent 50m jets, but the smaller Strokkur geyser gaily spouts 10-20m every few minutes, enrapturing an ever-present circle of spectators.
But leave the weekend breakers behind and you’ll have Iceland’s myriad other wonders almost to yourself. Heimaey, on the little visited Vestmannaejar (Westman) archipelago, for example – the ‘Pompeii of the north’ with russet hills formed by a tremendous volcanic eruption in 1973 that buried half the town but mercifully spared the evacuated population, offers opportunities to wander vertiginous paths amongst puffin colonies and even play golf in a volcano! Surely unique, the Vestmannaeyjar Golf Club is set entirely within an extinct caldera. With swirling wind, over-water tee shots and deep links rough, this course presents both a stern test of golf and the yet greater challenge of keeping your mind on the game when virtually every hole frames a different, yet always staggeringly beautiful vista of rugged cliffs and azure sea.
Then there is Isafjördur, gateway to the Westfjords. Less than 10% of the country’s visitors come here, yet it is perhaps Iceland’s most dramatic region; a peninsula in the shape of an open hand with immense mountains at its palm and mesmerising, tranquil channels flowing between narrow fingers of land that plunge sheer to the water. Nearby Vigur Island is one of Europe’s great birdwatching destinations, noted for terns, guillemots, eider ducks and, of course, those tiny, colourful, characterful puffins.
Elsewhere, Akureyri, capital of the north, invites appreciation of the horseshoe Godafoss falls, picturesque Lake Myvatn, and the ‘dark castles’ of Dimmuborgir – peculiar lava formations reputedly marking the location where Satan landed after being cast out of Heaven. And, set on a bay fed with nutrient rich sediment from two glacial rivers, the delightful port of Húsavík is acclaimed the whale-watching capital of Europe, with some 15 species of marine giant known to frequent its waters. Excursions on RIB boats have a sightings success rate close to 100%.
Every region, every wonder, has its story – the aforementioned Dimmuborgir, for example, is said to be home to all manner of supernatural beings including the 13 mischievous Yule Lads and their mother, the homicidal 800-year-old troll Grýla. Only in Iceland could so dark a Christmas tradition have arisen – an alternative Santa Claus who also monitors children’s behaviour but eats the naughty ones. And Asbyrgi, a 4km-long semi-circular canyon in the basalt rock, was said to have been formed when Odin, king of the Norse gods, was riding his eight-legged stallion, Sleipnir, among the Northern Lights without care one evening and left the mighty imprint of one accidental hoof upon the land.
To inquisitive, adventurous travellers – take any opportunity to immerse yourself in this storied world and write your own memorable chapter. Aegean Odyssey will sail for Iceland in July on her ‘Iceland, Faroes & Shetlands‘ itinerary. This 16-day cruise sails from the port of Tilbury and can also be booked as a 30-day ‘Grand Iceland and Western France‘ cruise.