Jane Archer profiles the Icelandic capital, which is becoming an increasingly popular cruise destination
Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, is fast becoming the go-to port in Northern Europe for an ever-increasing number of cruise ships as companies seek out exciting new places to take the new generation of adventurous cruisers.
For expedition lines such as Hurtigruten, Silversea Expeditions and Aurora Expeditions, it’s a handy turn-around port for Arctic cruises that pair Iceland with Spitsbergen or Greenland, or voyages around Iceland, as the city has excellent air links with the UK and US.
For ‘ordinary’ cruise lines, a few days in Iceland adds an exciting twist to a Norwegian fjords voyage, while Reykjavík itself is perfect for a one or two-day call as there is a great variety of things to see and do nearby, from spouting geysers to riding or caving.
Reykjavík has two cruise docks – Miobakki, which is easy walking distance to the centre, and Skarfabakki, where most ships dock, which is about 10 minutes’ drive outside. The city’s hop-on, hop-off bus stops outside both so exploring alone is easy – especially as the metropolis is more town than city – and more revealing than a coach tour of the highlights.
Cruise Iceland says the number of ships visiting Reykjavík between 2016 and 2018 increased by about 25 per cent to 140, with passengers numbers leaping some 40 per cent to more than 143,000 over the same period. This year there were around 194 ship visits – cruise lines call mainly between May and September – bringing 183,000 passengers.
Among new faces this year, there was Scenic’s expedition yacht Scenic Eclipse, while Ponant’s Le Bellot will be there for the first time in 2000. Carnival Cruise Line makes its Reykjavík (and Iceland) debut in 2021, with a 12-day voyage round-trip from Dover on Carnival Legend.
Geologically the world’s youngest country (although that still means it was formed several millions of years ago), Iceland sits below the Arctic Circle and was rather misnamed because, although it has harsh winters and there is lots of ice, come summer the snow melts from low-lying areas, unveiling green meadows, lava fields and hot springs that are easily explored from Reykjavík.
The Golden Circle is the most popular tour as it gives an insight into three of the country’s geological wonders. Visitors can stand astride the point where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in Thingvellir National Park, watch thousands of gallons of water thunder 32m over the Gullfoss waterfall and marvel as the Strokkur geyser shoots water some 30m into the air every five to eight minutes.
Next up in the popularity stakes is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the midst of a lava field that’s full of warm mineral-rich seawater (and, yes, it really is blue) said to do wonders for your skin. You can cover yourself in mud or algae, sign up for an in-water massage or just laze about in the water.
Whale-watching is another popular pastime. Sightings are never guaranteed, but some 20 species of cetaceans including minke and humpback whales frequent the krill-infested waters around Iceland in the summer so you’d have to be very unlucky not to spot a few.
Those feeling adventurous can go riding on the country’s sturdy Icelandic horses, or hop on a Jeep tour to Mýrdalsjökull glacier and walk on the ice. Good hiking boots are a must and, as this trip is potentially as chilling as it is thrilling, some cruise lines ban jeans and insist participants have warm layered clothes, gloves, hats and scarves.
There are also helicopter rides over the mountains (some touch down on Mount Esja so folk can have an Instagram moment with the colourful rooftops of Reykjavík in the background) and much cheaper simulated flights at the FlyOver Iceland visitor attraction in the city. Other attractions include food tours and 64º Reykjavík Distillery, where alcohol is made from berries, rhubarb, seeds and other produce the owners have foraged.
There are trips to volcanoes – Holland America Line takes passengers to Hengill, an active volcano that provides some of the country’s electricity and hot water – and inside caves. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, which juts out to the southwest of Reykjavík, visitors can hike up the Stóra-Eldborg crater then go inside a lava cave. Safety helmets and flashlights are provided.
None of these excursions is cheap, but clients on a budget can get a taste of what it is all about on a one-hour tour of Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel, 30 minutes’ southeast of Reykjavík
THREE REYKJAVÍK CRUISES
Hurtigruten – MS Fram
June 15, 2020
This cruise, which begins and ends in Reykjavík, takes in all of Iceland’s incredibly geology and geography with expeditions and onboard lectures on science and photography.
CMV – Marco Polo
August 17, 2020
Sail directly to the jaw-dropping geysers and lava fields of Iceland from Hull, with stops in the Faroe Islands, Shetland and Invergordon on the way there and back.
July 4, 2021
A no-fly cruise from Dover with all the big ship amenities you’d expect from Carnival. This new itinerary also calls in at Belfast and the Isle of Skye en route to the main attraction.