The Travelling Professor

Why Cruise to Iceland?

January 18, 2016 By Dr. Lew Deitch

The very name Iceland is so forbidding that many people ask, “Why would I want to visit Iceland?” That is a fair question, so I will attempt to convince those who read this article that Iceland is well worth visiting, and there are a several cruise options that include this mid Atlantic island nation. For starters …

Each year ships are repositioned between Europe and Canada, leaving from a European port in September to arrive in Montréal to begin the fall color cruises, and they generally stop in Reykjavik while en route across the Atlantic.

There are mid summer cruises to Iceland that visit several ports, usually leaving from the United Kingdom, primarily on the smaller five-star ships of such lines as Silversea.

Explorer type cruises are offered by a select number of cruise lines offer in depth viewing of Iceland and often including Greenland.

Typical Icelandic countrysideTypical Icelandic countryside

Iceland is a sizable island nation, approximately the size of Tasmania or the island of Eire (Ireland both Northern and the Republic of). Iceland’s population is around 400,000 with the majority living in the capital city of Reykjavik. Most of the country remains essentially a wild landscape of glacial icecaps, extensive lava fields and active volcanoes, somewhat a hostile landscape, but one of astounding raw beauty.

Looking out over ReykjavikLooking out over Reykjavik

Iceland is the product of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a fracture in the earth’s crust where the North American and Eurasian plates are pulling apart. This tearing of the earth’s fragile crust allows magma to boil to the surface, erupting through long fissures and volcanic vents, pouring out many square miles of lava at a time. And on rare occasions, the eruptions can be catastrophic.

Do you remember a few years ago when air travel between North America and Europe was interrupted for days because of volcanic ash from Eyfjallajökull volcano? In the distant past, one eruption sent plumes of poisonous gas over Europe, killing hundreds of thousands. Contrast this to Iceland’s far northern location where glacial ice still covers vast tracts of land, even burying some volcanic cones.

Iceland is unique in that it can have a volcanic eruption under a thick glacier, causing instantaneous melting and flash flooding by a mix of volcanic matter and water in a hot, thick lahar that buries everything in its path. Also add to this the fact that rain and snow melt sink into the porous rock, flashing to steam and shooting back in the form of geysers and hot springs. Iceland generates much of its power from geothermal sources. Reykjavik is heated in winter by volcanic steam piped to every building and home in the city.

A geothermal steam power plant generating electricity for ReykjavikA geothermal steam power plant generating electricity for Reykjavik

The great spectacles to see in Iceland are numerous. One of the easiest ways to enjoy the country is to have it included as the main focus of a cruise itinerary, or at the very least by visiting its capital city of Reykjavik as part of a Transatlantic crossing. Here are just a few of the major must see highlights:

  • Golden Circle Route – For those limited to one day, this route out of Reykjavik shows you a variety of volcanic and geothermal features along with Iceland’s greatest waterfall (Gulfoss).
  • Gullfoss – An incredibly large and powerful waterfall of spectacular beauty almost on the scale of Niagara Falls.
  • Godafoss – The second largest waterfall in Iceland is located in the far north of the country, accessible from Akureyri.
  • Jokulsarlon Lagoon – Located on the southeast coast, this massive lagoon is filled with all sizes of icebergs, making it an ethereal spectacle.
    Skogafoss – Along the south coast road, this is Iceland’s second most beautiful waterfall.
  • Thingvellir National Park – A gigantic rift in the earth’s crust along the Mid Atlantic Ridge is both a scenic wonder and an historic site where Iceland’s first Viking parliament met more than 1,000 years ago.
  • Reykjavik – A coach tour of the capital and only major city of Iceland has many monumental sights, including Hallsgrimskirkja (massive cathedral) and the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall. And just on the edge of the city is the Blue Lagoon, the world’s largest geothermal outdoor baths.
  • Strokkur Geyser – The most active of Iceland’s many geysers, tis one erupts every few minutes with a plume of super heated steam.
  • Hekla Volcano – A bit hard to reach, this is the country’s most notorious volcanoe that is capable of a major eruption with little to no advanced warning.
  • Dyrholaey – This is a massive beach composed of volcanic debris that separates an interior lagoon from the open ocean. Located on the south coast near the village of Vik, it presents an unearthly landscape.

Gulfoss - Iceland's thundering waterfallGullfoss – Iceland’s thundering waterfall

Thingvellir - A great surface rift that is part of the Mid Atlantic RidgeThingvellir – A great surface rift that is part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge

I could continue listing natural wonders, but I believe I have made my point. Iceland is truly a land of fire and ice, one that is mesmerizing beyond your expectations. This is also a land with an ancient culture. The first Viking settlers arrived in 874, but Celtic monks are believed to have arrived in 770, but were gone before the Vikings came.

As the country evolved, local chieftains began to squabble and this led to civil war. Iceland merged with Norway, and later was drawn into the Kalmar Union with Sweden and Denmark. Ultimately it was left it quasi-independent, but tied to Denmark until 1944. Today it is totally democratic with one of the smallest parliaments in Europe.

The Viking spirit is still evident in the rugged individualism of the Icelandic people. It was from Iceland that the explorer Leif Erickson set out to establish a foothold in Greenland in 986. Here we come up against a period of early global warming. Erickson’s motivation was to look for more arable land, which Greenland did offer at that time, whereas it is too cold today for farming. This shows that periods of warming and cooling have occurred in the distant past, but of course our modern ability to pour greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is exacerbating the problem today.

So why visit Iceland by ship? This is a spectacular land filled with geologic wonders and inhabited by a friendly Scandinavian people who will make you feel welcome. Flying into Iceland, staying in hotels and driving 1,000 miles to circle the island can be exhausting. On a more extensive cruise, you can spend time visiting the major sights out of each port while traversing the distances while you relax on board. It is a no-loose cruise opportunity, and if Greenland is added to the itinerary then so much the better.

The volatility of the Icelandic landscapeThe volatility of the Icelandic landscape