Being a longtime cruise writer, I have had the privilege of experiencing many of the world’s greatest ports. But not all – never will I see them all. And Iceland has long been on my must-see list.
Just a few weeks ago, that finally happened. My husband, Chet, and I arrived in Reykjavik aboard the cruise ship Emerald Princess on a transatlantic cruise across the North Atlantic from Copenhagen to Ft. Lauderdale.
Our stay in Iceland was simply magical. I was a bit concerned that we were only going to be here for less than a day, but we weren’t disappointed.
We were fortunate to be on a private tour, which enabled us to see a lot more in a short time. Emerald Princess docked about an hour early, at 11 a.m., which gave us a tad more time. We were met at noon by our guides, Bjarni and Linda, in their Super Jeep…a huge vehicle with four-foot tires that are very popular here for exploring the wilderness.
The first magical thing we discovered is that we were out of the city and into the “moorland” within a scant 20 minutes. We were heading to see the Golden Circle … a trio of natural attractions within two hours of Reykjavík. The moorland is gently rolling terrain that is very rocky and covered with small willows, lichen and other low-growing plants. Being autumn, these were of all colors.
The second magical thing was the amazing light. All afternoon it would rain one moment and the sun would shine the next. This created a glowing, soft light that enhanced the landscape and made for gorgeous photos. Of course, this also created amazing rainbows…we saw several, each lovelier than the last.
Then there’s the sparkling clear water in the many pools and streams. It’s clean enough to drink.
Another magical aspect of Iceland is its dynamism…with volcanoes, hot springs, glaciers and earth rifts, you are constantly aware of an environment in flux. Earthquakes happen rather frequently here. This is a part of the Earth that is alive with energy…geothermal energy to be specific, but more on that later.
Our first stop was at Thingvellir (Þingvellir), a national park where two of the Earth’s plates are actually pulling away from each other at the rate of about an inch a year, leaving large gaps and chasms. According to Bjarni, this is one of the only places on Earth where this happens…on most faults, the plates are pushing upon each other.
From the visitors center, you can see the walls of the valley created by this rift. A World Heritage Site, this valley has great significance in the history of Iceland as it’s where the first general assembly, or Alϸingi, was assembled in 930 AD and the islanders convened here yearly for about three weeks to hear the law, settle differences, arrange marriages and conduct trade. It was here that the Icelanders adopted the Christian religion in 1000 AD. Court proceedings continued here until 1798 and the Republic of Iceland was formed here in 1944.
From here we proceeded through more mountainous terrain to Geysir country (the English word “geyser” comes from Icelandic.) We stopped in an area of blowholes, steaming craters and watched as the Strokkur geyser erupts. This is currently the only Icelandic geyser that blows on a regular basis, about every six minutes. However, Bjarni and Linda point out that new hot springs, blowholes and geysers appear after each earthquake!
Not too far from here we made our third stop, and perhaps the most impressive: the Gullfoss waterfall. In a country full of waterfalls, it’s said to be the most beautiful and it’s certainly the most accessible to visitors. Although not as large as Niagara, its many levels are quite spectacular…and this day, we enjoyed a rainbow over it. There are numerous wooden walkways to viewpoints, or you can walk down to near the base.
From there we headed over to see how Reykjavík’s electricity and hot water is produced. They showed us how deep wells are dug into the ground, which produce steam under incredible pressure. This steam is sent to a geothermal energy facility which converts it into electricity and hot water which is pumped to the city. No fossil fuels are used and the process is pollution-free.
There are many hydropower plants in Iceland and seven geothermal energy facilities. After showing us the wells at their source, they took us to the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant, just outside of Reykjavík.
Then we drove back into Reykjavík for a short tour. This is a lovely small city with a big place in history. It was here in 1986 that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the USSR, met in an historic wood building on the waterfront (still preserved) and developed an agreement that would end the Cold War. It’s a nice mix of old and new and easy to walk around. Whale-watching tours depart from its harbor from May through September.
There are many cafes and excellent restaurants. We ate dinner at the Sjávargrillid Seafood Grill, enjoying Arctic char, catfish and lamb. It’s located near the city’s iconic symbol, the Hallgrímskirkja church (95 percent of the people are Lutheran.)
We were back to the cruise ship around 9 p.m., plenty early for the all-aboard of 10:30 p.m. and full of memories of this quirky yet lovely place. One quirk is that everyone’s last name is taken from their father’s (or mother’s) first name: Therefore, my name in Icelandic would be Cynthia Seelysdόttir. Chet’s would be Chester Carlosson.
I’m anxious to return and do still more. I would like to swim in the famous hot springs at the Blue Lagoon (many from the ship did that) and I would love to spend several hours exploring the city on foot. Maybe we would go river-rafting, hiking, horseback riding, whale-watching, take a Jeep trip to the ice cap or go out and shoot more photos in that extraordinary light.
This year, Iceland had 70 ship calls, welcoming 65,000 passengers. Next year, they will be receiving more than 100,000, many of those from Princess ships.
The current advertising slogan for Iceland says “Come and Be Inspired by Iceland” and I can only agree. It is, indeed, inspiring.
Cynthia Boal Janssens is editor and chief blogger at AllThingsCruise.com