In search of puffins, Deborah Stone joins a luxury adventure voyage on Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa 2 from Hamburg to Reykjavik
Whales, penguins, polar bears… we all have a wildlife wish list and top of mine for many years have been puffins. They’re elusive little critters, living out in the middle of the Atlantic most of the year, then returning to nests high up in cliffs or out-of-the-way places to breed.
And you don’t get much more out-of-the-way than Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off Iceland. It has just one town, set around a harbour and overlooked by a volcano that last erupted in 1973, sending lava right down to the shops.
Heimaey is known for its puffins. So much so that the town, also called Heimaey, even has puffin street signs, their beaks pointing the way.
So you can imagine my joy, as I sat in the tender boat making the short trip from ship to shore, when I spotted a puffin – flapping away furiously a few feet above the calm, sun-splashed, sea. My eyes followed its almost comical flight and bright orange beak and feet as it skirted around the sheer cliffs then disappeared from sight.
August is prime puffin-spotting time and, although I was travelling in late September, my hopes of more sightings were high. So I jumped off the boat, consulted my tourist office map and set off in search of some more.
I was halfway up the Eldfell volcano when I realised that I’d taken a wrong turn on the one road out of town. Sometimes mistakes can be positive: the cinder paths up
the volcano were not too steep but the views from the top were glorious. I could see from one end of the island to the other as it dipped and soared, a mix of rusty black lava fields – some covered in emerald green moss – with another old volcano cone in the distance.
It was pretty windy at the top, but as I looked out to sea and into the volcano crater (no flames or steam but you wouldn’t want to fall), I spotted another path down that would take me back to the coast and eventually I found a deserted beach strewn with sea-smoothed lava stones on one side of the channel leading into the harbour. On the other side were sheer cliffs the height of a high-rise tower block that I scanned for signs of puffin-life. Nothing. Feeling disappointed but still on high puffin alert, I followed a path back towards the harbour and as I rounded a corner I couldn’t believe my eyes. No, it wasn’t a puffin but an old wooden stave church, a gift to Iceland from Norway.
I’d never seen a puffin before today but I’d also never seen a stave church before, so after a good look around I was euphoric as I returned to the ship for the remainder of our trip to Reykjavik.
We had sailed from Hamburg five days earlier, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa 2 floating serenely down the Elbe River past the new wave-like brick and glass Elbphilharmonie opera house. The Germans hope it will become as iconic as Sydney’s and it’s already a landmark.
It’s unusual to start an ocean cruise from a river port and it was fascinating to be so close to the city as we prepared to sail towards the North Sea for Norway then over the North Atlantic to Iceland.
We’d left behind the 19th-century Gothic warehouses of the Speicherstadt, sitting on wooden piles among a network of canals and now UNESCO-listed, and after the Elbphilharmonie there was a clear view of the old Fish Market – a great place to eat and listen to live music. It’s close to the famous Reeperbahn entertainment district in the St Pauli area, where The Beatles sharpened up their act in the days before Hamburg transformed itself into a trendy tourist destination.
Europa 2 is the youngest of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ four luxury ships and has a contemporary style and smart but relaxed atmosphere. There are no formal nights, no tie required for dinner; but it’s a five-star all-balcony ship with an art collection that features work by Damien Hirst and David Hockney. A piece by Gerhard Richter alone is worth 150,000 euros.
Facilities include state-of-the-art demonstration kitchens for cookery classes and a pool that’s long enough to actually swim in, while the sundeck has a retractable glass roof to create a huge conservatory.
On the way to Heimaey we spent a day at Bergen, best known for its UNESCO-listed Hanseatic warehouse buildings, Bryggen, on one side of the old harbour. But there’s more to Bergen than its Hanseatic connection, especially as many of the warehouse are now souvenir shops and bars. It was Norway’s first capital, with a royal residence, Håkons Hall, built for King Håkon Håkonsson in the 13th century; there are pretty former fishermen’s cottages the other side of the peninsula that forms the harbour and near Lille Lungegårdsvann lake you’ll find Bergen’s impressive art galleries, including many of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s major works.
After Bergen came Heimaey and my puffin/stave church experience but then we set off for Reykjavik, where I was due to jump ship while the rest of the rest of the 500 passengers continued to Greenland and Canada.
I’d had dinner in the main dining room, Weltmeere, and was having coffee, barista-quality and complimentary, at the Pool Bar when I heard excited yells from the deck: “Northern Lights.”
I’ve been on cruises where the whole focus of the trip was to see the Northern Lights but they were nothing like this. The ship was slowly ploughing through an unusually calm sea and there was barely a breath of wind.
Up in the sky it was like a laser show was in full flow: white bands of light shimmying around in the pitch-black sky teasing the growing crowd as the lights appeared to grow then disappear only to resurface elsewhere.
It was a performance that left its audience both ecstatic and overwhelmed, and it’s easy to understand why the Vikings thought the Northern Lights were the work of gods and a bridge to Valhalla.
I still had one morning left to enjoy in Reykjavik before flying home. From the harbour you can take one-hour boat trips to Akurey – also known as Puffin Island – but they only take place between May to August.
I had to content myself with a walking tour of the compact Icelandic capital, where the highlight for me was Hallgrímskirkja Church and its soaring tower. It was completed in 1986 to look like a basalt lava column and inside it is full of light. It’s a genuinely uplifting space.
But none of the astonishing buildings I saw on this trip, from the Elbphilharmonie to Hanseatic warehouses and Reykjavik’s inspiring church, compares with the natural wonders I witnessed: the spellbinding Northern Lights and even more precious to me, the sight of that single puffin, flapping away in the breeze.
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has a Hamburg round trip departing 29 July 2018 for 19 nights, calling at Bergen and Reykjavik, from £8,840pp, two sharing, cruise only (0800 051 3829; hl-cruises.com).