Cruising Iceland Aboard Windstar
Our 7-day itinerary departed the old harbor in Reykjavik, circumventing beautiful Iceland counter-clockwise. The all-suite Windstar Pride, just recently refurbished and stretched, offered a very comfortable enclave at sea during our journey. I can’t imagine what the mega-ships do when they disembark 3,000 guests in Iceland’s small towns; cruising on a smaller ship like Windstar was a far more personalized experience.
Onboard we enjoyed the fine dining and very fine and service. After all, Windstar is the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation. The officers and key personnel on this small ship of just over 200 guests were very personable and ever-present with guests, while the housekeeping and dining staff were always attentive and service-oriented. One highlight was the entertainment one evening by the crew onboard.
In addition to the main dining room, which never disappointed, additional dining venues include The Verandah for breakfasts and lunch and the new outdoor Star Grill, featuring the grilling cuisine of Steve Raichlen. In the evening The Verandah became a sea and turf restaurant, Candles, and the new Cuadro 44 from Michelin-starred chef Anthony Sasso, Spanish culinary fare, was a hit all around.
Everything in Iceland can be considered pricey, and that certainly applied to the cost of shore excursions, which ranged on average from $150 per person to $400 per person.
One of many wonderful things about travel is the discoveries made and the stories shared. On our Windstar cruise around Iceland, the port of call that initially seemed less interesting, Heimaey, turned out to be anything but. One of 18 islands part of Vestmannaeuyjar, just off the south coast of Iceland, the main island of Heimaey has a storied past and several worthwhile engagements.
Most interesting, besides the stunning scenery, is the “Pompei of the North” museum, which serves up an excellent exhibit of the 1973 volcanic eruption that buried part of the town, along with an educational display of one of the other newly created islands, Surtsey, now a natural reserve.
And did you have any clue that n the 17th century there was quite an incident when Algerian pirates raided Iceland and then Heimaey, pillaging and murdering residents, capturing a number to enslave back home. (It seems there was an effort to buy back the captured residents, but of those that survived the journey, many chose not to return! Life in Algeria in those days as a slave seemed more comfortable.)
Surprising, too, was coming upon an 18-hole golf course on this small island! Of note is the Puffin Rescue Center and Beluga whale display. Finally, Heimaey is a good venue for viewing puffins, and we enjoyed watching these cute birds fly about, though we had better and closer sightings elsewhere.
We arrived just following the annual music festival, which hosts some 20,000 participants who camp or find accommodations in the town.
Seydisfjordur is a small town of about 685 residents at the end of a beautiful fjord, which was a herring center. Many of Iceland’s towns are fishing centers. It’s colorful wooden houses were shipped as kits from Norway in the 19th century, given the dearth of lumber. The town is featured in the Netflix series “Trapped.”
Seydisfjordur offers some great hiking. On our Chasing Wateralls excursions we enjoyed a two-mile hike in Vestadur Valley, a protected nature preserve; we traipsed from one waterfall to the next, following along a lovely stream, while occasional birds and sheep greeted our intrusion. We also visited Thorarinsstadir, site of a small ancient Christian church from the early 11th century where graves were found, and Skalanes Nature Reserve, where there’s a science station which hosts various types of scientists each year doing a variety of research. We delighted in our better puffin sightings here, along with other sea birds that nest in the cliffs facing the ocean.
The town was in the process of building retaining walls to protect against avalanches, and during the digging unearthed some ancient Viking ruins, including a Viking longship and skeletons. Now the race is on between unearthing these archaeological treasures and providing the community with the protection they need.
Seydisfjordur is a popular artist’s colony, too. All of Iceland was also celebrating Pride Week, with tee shirts and street painting celebrating the country’s inclusiveness of all people.
Aukureyri is Iceland’s second largest city, with a population of around 18,000, is the capital of the north and is based at the end of one of the island’s longest fjords of 37 miles. The city center is quite lovely, with more modern apartment blocks extending the city’s reach. It’s also just over 60 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Our excursion covered the highlights of northern Iceland, including Lake Myvatn; the beautiful Godafoss waterfall; the geothermal field of Namaskard, with its bubbling mud pots and fumaroles; and the dramatic lava landscape at Dimmuborgir with its interesting formations and lava arches.
I was eager to visit the Westfjords, known as a home to trolls, and off the usual beaten track in iceland. Isafjordur is the largest town here, with some 2,600 residents and home to the Swamp Soccer European championships!
Unfortunately we hit bad weather here; otherwise we had delightful weather till then. Windstar offers ATV tours in a few ports of call, including here, while other options included kayaking, whale watching by RIB boat, visiting Dyjandi, a series of seven waterfalls, and the non-profit Arctic Fox Center.
Unfortunately, the inclement weather, with 40 knot winds, precluded our visit to the final port at Grundarfjordur on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, which was a disappointment, as this is the jumping off point to explore the Berserk Lava Fields and Kirkjufell, one of Iceland’s most beautiful mountains.
While Iceland’s stunning landscapes are the calling card for visiting Iceland, it’s also meeting local guides and hearing their stories that enriched our experience so much. Cruising Iceland has become very popular – this year some 70 cruise ships are calling on Iceland’s ports, while next year over 100 are already scheduled to do so. We can help guide your choice and assist with local arrangements.