I have always dreamed of going to Iceland. Sweeping landscapes, unique geological features and and interesting culture make Iceland a place like no other. Over the past two weeks, I was able to visit this uniquely beautiful place on a Holland America Line Northern Isles voyage. What I discovered was that the culture, people and history of Iceland are just as unique as the landscape.
Nowhere else on the planet will you find the ancestors of settled vikings thousands of years ago, who consider fermented shark, dried fish jerky and smoked sheep’s head as delicacies. Who believe in elves and trolls and have a language that remains unchanged over thousands of years. Who don’t have surnames because the population is so small, and instead, use a traditional Nordic naming system where the last name is created from their parent’s first name with -dóttir (-daughter) or -son added. And most impressively, where crime is virtually nonexistent and where over 85% of energy is created from renewable resources, making it one of the most efficient countries in the world. Iceland is a country living in the future, with strong roots in it’s past.
Akureryi – Akureryi is Iceland’s second largest urban area, with a population of just over 18,000 inhabitants. It is situated in the North, at the base of Eyjafjörður Fjord, and is surrounded by towering mountains, including Mt. Kista at 4,747 feet. The streets are clean and quiet, local buses are free and the people are relaxed and slow-moving. This was our first stop in Iceland, so we were anxious, excited, and uncertain of what to expect. We headed to the tourist information center, which was very close to the cruise ship terminal, to grasp an idea of what the city, and country, had to offer.
My attention was quickly diverted to an “extreme” whale watching tour–something I have always wanted to do. We made our way to Ambassador Whale Watching, a local business offering small 12 person tour boats, promising an up-close encounter with humpback whales. The woman at the counter informed us that there were two spots to whale watch in Iceland–in Akureryi and Reykjavik. She described that although Reykjavik was the more popular location for tourists, Akureryi was a higher quality experience, because there are far fewer boats coming in and out of the harbor, disturbing and scaring off the whales. We took her advice and booked the “extreme” experience, which runs at about 150,000 Icelandic Krone (150 USD) per person.
Saying the experience was worth the money would be a huge understatement. This tour was easily one of the best experiences of my life thus far. We were dressed in warm gear, boarded the boat and after a 30 minute trip out, were rewarded with the some of the most intimate marine wildlife viewing a human can experience. The whales were no farther than 15 feet away, diving and breathing alongside our small boat. We likely saw about 20 different whales, but each several times, totaling an estimated 50-60 viewings. The guide was familiar with the area and each whale, and gave us detailed information about their lives, habitat and history. I highly recommend this whale watching experience by Ambassador on your Iceland vacation!!
Besides this adventure, there are several land-based sights to see including the Botanical Gardens, home to hundreds of beautiful local trees, plants and flowers, the Church of Akureryi (Akureyrarkirkja), featuring a large pipe organ and stained-glass windows, and, if you have the time, a visit to the vast array of bird species on the Isle of Grímsey.
Ísafjörður– Our second stop was in the small town of Ísafjörður, home to a mere 2,500 people. What this town lacks in population, it makes up for in dramatic landscapes and sheer beauty. Today, we decided to be a bit adventurous and rent kayaks from a local tour agency – Kayak Center Iceland. For 100,000 Icelandic Krone (100 USD) each, we were able to rent sea kayaks for the entire day. Sea kayaks are characteristically long and fast, with a rutter in the back to control direction. Once we were outfitted with wet suits and thermal layers, we set out to kayak around the nearby fjords.
For the next two hours, we kayaked alongside towering mountains, volcanic craters and our very own ship! One quite nerve-racking aspect of the journey was the huge population of jellyfish we were constantly surrounded by. We had to be sure that we didn’t flick giant man-of-war jellies into our boat or onto our heads with our oars.
Other than that, kayaking was a fun and memorable part of our Icelandic vacation!
There are several other sights to see in Ísafjörður, including the Arctic Fox Center, where you can learn about Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal, and several local hikes and museums.
Reykjavík – Our final stop in Iceland was a two day stay in the capital and largest city, Reykjavík. With just over 122,000 residents, Reykjavík is Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental hub, and the place that most tourists visit when they head to this region of the world. This city is the main access point for Iceland’s Golden Circle, which covers 300 km of stunning landscapes and natural phenomenons. Our plan was to visit most of the sights along the Golden Circle, so we rented a car for our two day stay.
Our first stop day one was Þingvellir National Park, which is situated on the boundary where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Many tourists come to simply visit the area, but our plan was to snorkel in between the plates, in the Silfra valley. The water in the Silfra valley is derived from Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökull, which is over 50 km from the site. The melted glacier ice must pass through volcanic rock, which takes between 30 and 100 years, filtering it and making it some of the purist drinking water in the world! You can be sure that taking a sip was one of the first things we did!
Our tour was through DIVE.IS and included full outfitting (thermals, dry suit and snorkeling gear), 45 minutes snorkeling through the various parts of Silfra, and refreshing snacks and cocoa once the tour had concluded. It was my first time snorkeling in cold water, so I was a bit hesitant on what exactly to expect. Putting on the dry suit was quite an entertaining challenge, as was getting into the 3°C water!
Thankfully, only our faces and hands were exposed to the near-freezing temperatures. It was quite unbearable to put my face into the water for the first few minutes, but after a few minutes, my face had become numb to the cold, and I was able to enjoy the clearest waters I have ever been in, with visibility of up to 260 feet! There was no marine life to view, but plenty of stunning plant-covered rock formations. Snorkeling the Silfra was an exceptional once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am beyond happy I partook in. However, I won’t be missing the freezing temperatures!
Our next stop was the Haukadalur valley area, which is home to many geological features including mud pools and the natural geysir of Stokkur, which erupts 15-20 meters every 6-10 minutes. Stokkur is one of the only consistent and frequent natural geysirs in the world, so it’s popularity has turned the area into a tourist central, with shops, restaurants and walking paths. We cracked open some traditional Icelandic beer – fermented whale testicle flavored (ew!) – and watched the geysir explode time and time again.
Next up, we visited Gullfoss “Golden Falls,” a 32 meter waterfall in the canyon of the Hvítá river. One impressive feature that appears in the sun is a beautiful rainbow, with the base of one side plummeting deep into the falls.
Our final stop of the Golden Circle was the famous Blue Lagoon, a popular geothermal spa fed by a nearby power plant. We booked tickets for 10pm in an attempt to avoid the busy tourist hours. The air was icy as we walked to the lagoon from the car, but once we stepped foot in the calm blue waters, a feeling of warmth and relief overcame us! The lagoon waters are rich in minerals such as silica and sulfur, which made my skin feel incredible! To top it off, several workers wander around the lagoon offering free silicone face masks which crust over your face then wipe off easily with a dip in the water. The lagoon also offers several swim up bars and many avenues and pools to explore. After spending two hours in the relaxing waters, we packed up our things and headed back to the cruise ship for the night.
The next day in Reykjavik, we spent exploring the main city. Our first stop was the Harpa, a modern concert and music hall with a stunning architectural build. After a few photos and a look around, we parked the car and walked several blocks to Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja, featuring an organ and stained-glass windows. We stopped off for some food at a rooftop cafe, then made our final stop at the Futuristic Perlan, an old water tank that has been converted into a museum, with a revolving restaurant perched on top. After two days in Reykjavik, we saw as much as we possibly could!
Iceland is hands-down one of the most breathtaking places I have been, and arguably one of the most beautiful in the world! It’s stunning landscapes, unique geological features and wonderful people make it an excellent travel spot. In my short stay, I have made some of the most incredible memories that will last a lifetime. I look forward to the day I can return to this beautiful island in the middle of the Atlantic.
Have fun! And don’t forget to follow my page and subscribe to my YouTube channel for video updates on my travels around the world! ❤ Jess