Iceland is one of my favorite countries to visit and, over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to go back on five different occasions. Thanks to its proximity to the East Coast of the US and great deals on airfare, I’ve been able to explore most of the island nation with plenty still left to see and do. Until my most recent trip though, there was a section of the country I still hadn’t seen, East Iceland. So, when I saw a unique way to reach this remote part of the country, I couldn’t book the trip fast enough. Earlier this year, my partner and I took a slightly unusual trip. Spurred on by a TV documentary we watched by pure chance, we booked the cruiseferry highlighted on the show unsure of what we had gotten ourselves into. Sailing from Denmark to Iceland, via the Faroe Islands, and back, the week was fun, interesting and certainly an experience I’ll never forget. One of the cruise highlights was the time spent in Iceland, two days when we were able to get out and finally explore this beautiful part of the country.
What is a cruiseferry?
A cruiseferry, including the ship on which I sailed – Norröna – combines features of both a traditional ferry service and a cruise ship. In this case the Norröna, which is operated by the Smyril Line, operates every week between Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and then back again. The schedule is always the same and it provides a very real service, especially to Faroese companies who need to ship goods to and from the islands. But it’s unlike any other ferry I’ve seen, because it’s also a fully functioning cruise ship. Able to accommodate more than 1,400 people, throughout the year tourists board the ship either as a simple conveyance or to enjoy a full week at sea, experiencing the North Atlantic in a very unusual way. This isn’t your typical cruise ship though, not even close. Leave behind those images of waterslides and enrichment activities, and instead replace it with a more bare bones version of the modern leisure cruise.
The Norröna docks in Seyðisfjörður, a small town hidden amongst the rocky fjords of East Iceland. Although Vikings inhabited this fjord during the early settlement era of the 8th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century when a proper town was established. Founded by Norwegian fishermen, the town was originally a whaling hub in addition to normal commercial fishing. Since the closing of those facilities though, Seyðisfjörður has shifted to tourism and, based on my brief time there, is excelling at attracting visitors. After many visits to Iceland, I now understand that tourists typically only visit a few areas of the country, mostly close to Reykjavik. That leaves the rest of the country with a scant few intrepid souls, all there to discover what Iceland really is all about. That’s the true appeal of visiting the country, for the opportunity to be on your own and to enjoy Iceland as it really is. One of my favorite discoveries in Seyðisfjörður happened by accident, although I’ve since learned it’s rather famous – the rainbow road. The brick path was painted down the center of Main Street; a collective effort by residents and businesses in this artsy town. Pride events started here a few years ago as a small celebration amongst friends but this year hundreds are expected to attend. More than being a colorful street, it’s the symbol of community support that really touched me. This is still rare around the world but here in Iceland it’s just everyday life.
Even though we booked the best suite onboard the Norröna, the all-inclusive cruise was not at all expensive, which is honestly one reason we were attracted to it in the first place. One of those inclusions are robust excursions at the ports of call; 8-hour trips to some pretty amazing places. It really is an incredible bonus and in Iceland it meant two, daylong adventures around the region starting not in the East, but in the North of the country. Ironically enough, I had visited the Lake Mývatn region just a year earlier, but I was thrilled for the opportunity to return.
The daylong tour took us to many such important spots around the countryside; formations and geological oddities that aren’t only pretty to look at, but which have had deeper meanings for generations of communities. The Skútustaðagígar Pseudo Craters, Dimmuborgir Lava Formations and Mt. Námafjall were all important highlights, but I found unlikely inspiration at the point where the Eurasian and American continents meet – the rift at Grjótagjá. Best known for the caves with thermal pools inside, I was more attracted to the rift itself, especially with the sun-drenched mountain in the background. The highlight for me though was a return to the relaxing Mývatn Nature Baths.
Iceland is a strange little island, and I’m not talking about their odd love affair with elves. No, it’s strange in any number of ways but one of the best ways is its geothermal resources. Iceland sits over a rift in the continental plates, resulting in a high number of volcanoes and a landscape that can only be called steamy. In addition to providing much of the energy requirements for the country’s citizens, there are some other fun by-products to this geothermal energy, namely the many thermal baths and spas located around the island, including at Lake Myvatn. Like the Blue Lagoon, the basin for this complex of thermal pools is manmade, using water from a nearby borehole. The water has a temperature of around 130 degrees C, before it’s tempered and made suitable for bathers. The water here is very high in sulfur and also a number of other health-promoting minerals. I wasn’t thinking about any of that though when I visited. No, instead I used the all too rare opportunity to relax and just zoned out in the steaming hot waters. Unlike some other baths, due to the relative isolation of Mývatn, there weren’t many other visitors with me that day, creating a nearly private experience. I only spent about an hour there but, believe it or not, it was one of the best hours of my time in Northern Iceland.
Beauty of the East
On the second day of our time in East Iceland, we had the opportunity to explore East Iceland itself, all experiences that were new for me. This day was about enjoying the natural splendor of Iceland, which is very different in the East than in the other parts of the country. Here it’s about tall mountains, expansive icy plains, deep fjords and, of course, plenty of waterfalls almost anywhere you go. We started the day at Hallormsstaður National Forest and a visit with some rangers who explained not only the importance of the park, but what is being done to protect it for future generations. The Vikings destroyed most of Iceland’s natural forests, but efforts in recent years have been made to reestablish these trees and even from my point of view, I’ve seen some real progress in just a few years. From the natural to the cultural, we then visited the nearby Gunnar Gunnarsson house, preserving the life and times of one of Iceland’s most famous authors. Icelanders are readers and a shocking percentage of them have even been published in some form. Since they’re so focused on all things literary, the reverence paid to this famous author only makes sense and, when coupled with a very traditional country lunch, was a perfect afternoon break. The rest of the day was spent at scenic overlooks, admiring waterfalls and fjords and even spending some time in another East Iceland city, Egilsstaðir. For me, it was the ideal introduction to this part of the country and I can now, finally, say that I have circumnavigated Iceland – even if it took 7 years.
Iceland truly has captured my heart over the years and is one of only a couple of countries that I keep revisiting time and time again. There’s a reason for that personal affinity, although I can never exactly explain it. Part of it is the natural splendor of course, but it’s also the kind and warm-hearted people, the experiences available and to recapture that feeling of adventure. Once I leave the city limits of Reykjavik I feel like an intrepid explorer of old, a sensation I love almost above all others and an easy one to relive in the Land of Ice and Fire.