Soaring peaks, hot springs and mind-blowing scenery make a Saga Cruises Iceland cruise an exhilarating adventure, discovers Sally Hales.
It’s no wonder Icelanders show such deep respect for the unknowable mysteries of their landscape. From craggy, moon-like lava flows and bubbling mud pools to vast glaciers and verdant mountains, this island may have a small population but its terrain tells a tale writ large. As we loop around the island on our Saga Cruises Iceland cruise, from hugely popular capital Reykjavík to the less well-known north and east of the island, we are witness to the full majesty of this mesmerising island.
Joining in Reykjavík we spend our first night on board our ship, before joining an excursion to the famous Blue Lagoon. As we exit the city, the roads become eerily quiet, and the sweeping terrain of friable lava rock makes us feel a million miles away from anywhere. It’s no surprise Iceland often stands in for the moon on the big screen.
The lagoon’s setup is a slick and its proximity to Reykjavík means a steady flow of visitors, but it is no less pleasurable for its buzzy atmosphere. Despite mizzling rain, sinking into the beyond-warm waters heavy with soothing minerals to splosh around in search of the complimentary drink and mud pack (served inside the lagoon, so you never have to heave yourself out) is intriguing and indulgent – it really does leave your skin feeling silky.
We stop off en route back to the ship at Krýsuvík for our first glimpse of an active geothermal site, and it becomes clear that unpredictable weather is part of the deal in this stoic land. As we cower in rain macs and admire the otherworldliness of the steaming vents, a seemingly unconcerned wedding party, dressed in full attire, pose for photographs. Skies change their outlook by the moment but, here in Iceland, it’s never a reason to stop as we discover.
On deck is the place to be as we sail out of Reykjavík the same evening because it’s not just tumultuous terrain on offer. The wildlife is unmissable, too. There are two eagle-eyed ORCA experts on board primed to point out the fleeting presence of whales to passengers. This time of year the sun barely sets, so there are long evenings of dramatic dusks to be enjoyed.
Our overnight voyage brings us to Grundarfjörður the next morning. This fishing village on the beautiful western Snæfellsnes peninsula nestles dramatically between the famous Kirkjufell mountain (meaning ‘Church Mountain’) and sea. Low-lying cloud clings to the vertiginous peaks, down the steep sides of which snowmelt waterfalls trickle. The air is crisp but, as we set off on our next excursion, the cloud clears to reveal blue skies that transform the moody mountain range into a swathe of welcoming green.
Saga Cruises offers a wide variety of carefully considered excursions, labelled from easy to moderate to strenuous, as well as suggestions for those new to Iceland and others who want to dig deeper. Our Journey to the Centre of the Earth excursion – a trip 35 metres down into the Vatnshellir Cave, an ancient lava tube – is certainly in the strenuous category. Equipped with helmets and flashlights, we descend the spiral stairs and stumble through a damp, dark underworld that formed some 8,000 years ago as we’re regaled with bizarre tales of troll kings. A Saga cruise really doesn’t have to mean slow and steady.
Back above ground with lungs bursting from the climb the sun is beating down, and our well-timed lunch stop proves to be an almost accidental highlight of the trip. Basking in the sunshine while gazing at quaint grass-roofed cottages in the grounds of a small fishing museum, the world almost seems to stop for a moment. Another quick stop, this time at Kirkjufellsfoss – a large waterfall formation carving prettily through the mountainside – also provides a stunning view of regal Saga Sapphire looking commanding back in the town’s little port.
Setting sail in the early evening with clear skies and gently rippling seas, we watch the town disappear and scan the horizon for whales before dining in flagship restaurant East to West, which specialises in Asian fine dining and making every passenger feel like the guest of honour.
We are heading for the town of Siglufjördður on the north coast – formerly Iceland’s fishing capital and just 25 miles from the Arctic Circle – which is enjoying a renaissance while honouring its past in the form of a fascinating Herring Museum. We have plenty of time to admire the town’s prettiness as Saga Sapphire slowly navigates the narrow fjord. It seems we’re one of, if not the biggest, cruise ship to visit and, as the charismatic Captain Kim makes his delicate manoeuvres into port, many of the guests head to the deck to revel in the excitement.
From Siglufjördður we strike out on the Jewels of the North tour, a whistlestop adventure through north Iceland’s crowning glories, including the bubbling mud pools of Námafjall Hverir and the waterfall of the gods, Goðafoss.
The final stop on our Saga Cruises Iceland cruise, Seyðisfjörður, is a tiny town in the east with just 700 residents. A clutch of colourful, clapperboard buildings filling just a few streets and surrounded by scenic snowy peaks and cascading waterfalls, it’s obvious why creative types are attracted here – it looks like a scene from a wistful watercolour. While other guests climb the mountainside or go in search of panoramic views, we opt for a gentle stroll around the town.
Despite its size, there’s plenty to keep us interested: a charming blue church demands to be snapped, as does a zany painted street, while the little craft shops and art galleries prove to be gems. Seyðisfjörður encompasses the peculiar charms of this land of contrasts: a quirky town nestled beneath a dramatic volcanic mountainscape that feels very far away from everything that is familiar, yet at the same time so welcoming and warm. Iceland is intriguing and mysterious, but it’s also one of the most memorable destinations you will ever be likely to visit.
Saga Cruises are offering a cruise on their brand new ship Spirit of Discovery to Greenland from £5,856pp for 21 nights. Departing on a round-trip from Dover on 16 June 2020, ports of call include Reykjavik and Dublin. Price includes chauffeur service of up to 250 miles, all meals on board, select drinks and all onboard gratuities. For more information call 0800 068 5053 or visit saga.co.uk/cruiseint.