Magical expedition cruise circumnavigates Iceland

The Land of Fire and Ice is no place for sissies. Life on this frozen rugged island in the middle of an ocean has not be easy with volcanoes, glaciers, deforestation, months of 24-hour daylight followed by months of endless night.

But Icelanders are friendly and proud to share the treasures of their country. My Ocean Diamond 10-day circumnavigation cruise around Iceland, starting and ending in Reykjavik, was the perfect way to see this incredible country.

Iceland itself is spectacular. About the size of Kentucky, Iceland is a country like no other: 15 active volcanoes, 10,000 thundering waterfalls, 800 hot springs, immense lava fields, glaciers covering 11.5 percent of the country. Then there are the whales, puffins, fuzzy Icelandic horses, erupting geysers, postcard-pretty fjords, Northern Lights and Midnight Sun.

Iceland expedition, Ocean Diamond expedition cruise ship, photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

I thought the 24-hour daylight in Iceland summer would be a bit unnerving. It wasn’t. Ocean Diamond cabins have heavy window shades for sleeping. “We are used to it,” guide Magnus explained. “It’s the way our life has always been. We don’t rely on dark to make us sleepy. We sleep when we are tired.”

Then he added with a wink, gesturing to his eyelids, “We are born with shutters. We just close them and go to sleep.”

Iceland is star of cruise

Instead of a cruise director, the Ocean Diamond has a specialized Icelandic Expedition Team to lead tours and present programs about this amazing country. On my cruise, about 60 percent of the passengers were German. The rest were mostly American, British, Scandinavian and Canadian.

Iceland is the star of this cruise and every day was an adventure. One morning, I walked on a glacier. I’ve seen many glaciers in my travels but I’d never set foot on one.  The glacier we visited is one of the most famous sites in Iceland primarily because it was featured in the novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne in which the entrance to the mysterious interior of our planet is located on Snaefellsjökull.

“The glacier is considered one of the energy centers of the world,” said expedition team member Birgir.  This remote part of Iceland has long been associated with supernatural forces and mystery.

Our bumpy ride on a snow cat to the 4,800-foot-top of the glacier was exhilarating and eye popping.  On clear days, the shores of Greenland can be glimpsed beyond the North Atlantic Ocean. Looking around, it was hard to tell where the blue of the sky met with the blue of the ocean or whether the white puffs in the sky were clouds or snow.

Amphibian ride on lagoon

Iceland expedition, Jo?kulsa?rlon Glacier Lagoon, photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Iceland expedition, Going ashore for a hike, photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Another day we took a jaunt aboard amphibian vessels on Breiðamerkurjökull glacier lagoon. The lagoon was formed a mere 70 years or so ago as the glacier began to melt and retreat. As chunks of ice broke off the glacier – known as calving – a lagoon was formed.  It was like floating through a ghostly art gallery created by Mother Nature. The icebergs are luminous, some are white, some with streaks of black, some transparent and some a glowing blue color. No two shapes and colors are alike.

Along with telling about the icebergs, our guide took a large block of ice and broke it into smaller pieces. We were then invited to taste the 1,000-year-old ice. It is mind boggling to think about what the world must have looked like and how people lived 1,000 years ago when the ice that was melting in my mouth was being created. Very humbling experience, too.

Although I heard the warning many times since I arrived in Iceland, I didn’t mind hearing again that it is very important to be careful around Iceland’s natural wonders. Common sense prevails and wandering off from a guide or stepping on unfamiliar terrain – whether dirt or ice – is not recommended. People, animals and equipment have been swallowed up by glaciers, snow mountains and harmless looking crevices in the ice.

Sometimes equipment and frozen animals have resurfaced years later. As our guide said, “There’s a saying here in Iceland – ‘Whatever the ice takes, it always gives back.’”

Entering Svinafellojokull is a powerful reminder of possible dangers. A simple plaque commemorates two young Germans who ventured onto Svinafellojokull on Jan. 8, 2007. They were never seen again.

Iceland expedition, Snaefellsjo?kull glacier, photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Another blissful day, we soaked in a glorious warm lagoon at Myvatn Nature Bath. Historic relics and folk tales have recalled that the early Vikings valued the springs. The geothermal water is drawn from the depths of the earth and contains a unique blend of minerals, silicates and geothermal microorganisms. The water is free of pollutants and chemicals and is said to be good for the skin and health.

1973 volcano eruption on Heimaey

On our last full day aboard the Ocean Diamond, our ship stopped in the Westmann Islands at Heimaey. Nicknamed “The Pompeii of the North,” Heimaey can be reached only by boat or plane.

Shortly after midnight on Jan. 23, 1973, residents of Heimaey were awakened by the blare of fire engine horns. Looking outside, they were horrified to see bright red lava exploding into the night sky and a wall of fire spewing from a fissure snaking across the island.  Taking only what they could carry, residents made a dash for the harbor. Within five hours, the boat evacuation was complete.

The eruption lasted until July 3, 1973. Two hundred million tons of ash and lava rained down in the days following the eruption. Half of the town was crushed. One third of all the buildings on Heimaey – 400 homes and businesses – were destroyed.

Iceland expedition, The 1973 Heimaey volcano covered up houses and businesses. photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

A few residents decided to live elsewhere but the majority rebuilt their houses closer to the island’s only town. The population decreased from 5,600 to 4,300. The eruption increased the size of Heimaey from 4.3 square miles to 5.19 square miles.

As the Diamond Queen cruised away from Heimaey, we saw a towering bank of ash sloping down to the sea. A jagged 656-foot volcanic cone towered over the city as an ash-covered reminder of 1973. Purple lupines have begun blooming on the blackened slopes as Mother Nature continues to heal. And the volcano still rumbles away.

Cover photo: Iceland, Goðafoss waterfall of the gods, photo Jackie Sheckler Finch

Ed. Note: See Expedition Ships and Sailings here, noted by (E) —

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