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Call Jon Fletcher on: (0161) 408-2161, or e-mail: jfletcher@cruiseholidaysuk.co.uk

 

ICELAND THE LAND OF FIRE AND ICE – WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN ICELAND AND WHY A CRUISE IS A GREAT WAY TO EXPLORE IT.

BY JON FLETCHER OF CRUISE HOLIDAYS UK

 

My first taste of Iceland came about when I was offered the opportunity to visit this beautiful country on an educational trip from a tour operator.  It was just an opportunity I could not miss.  I had always wanted to visit Iceland and this was one opportunity I just could not miss.  So I jumped at the chance and I have to admit I fell in love with the country and just as important for me the people.  I found the people to be very friendly, hospitable and they have a great sense of humour that creates the warmest of welcomes for the visitor.  Whatever time of year that you choose to visit this beautiful country there is plenty to see and do. 

 

One of the best ways to explore this beautiful country is on a cruise.  The advantages of this is that you will normally sail around the coast of the country so you will be able to access more of this amazing place than if you were based solely in Reykjavik.  So you will see more of the unspoilt beauty of this country.   Another great reason to see Iceland on a cruise is that it is a more budget friendly way to experience the country.  One of the pitfalls many visitors face and report is the high cost of living and that alcohol in particular is expensive.  So a cruise is often seen as a great way to see this amazing place without breaking the bank on a night out. 

However if you are going to stay in Iceland on a land based holiday a tip I was given is to buy a bottle of your favourite tipple in the Duty Free.  There is a Duty Free in the Arrivals at Keflavik Airport and I found you could get a litre bottle of Reyka vodka (the excellent locally distilled vodka) at a reasonable price.

There is a good selection of hotels in Reykjavik that are of a good standard.  These range from good standard budget friendly hotels like the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina that stands on the harbour and offers a comfortable base to stay in Reykjavik, one of the things I love about the hotel is its quirky nature and its wooden statues dotted around,  through to luxury hotels such as the Radisson Blu 1919 in the heart of the city that has a very good restaurant.

 

 

Reykjavik is a comparatively small and friendly city.  It has a small town feel to it and that is not surprising when you consider that the population of Iceland is smaller than most small towns.  It is an incredibly easy city to explore on foot and there is plenty to see within the city itself.  It is a youthful, vibrant city that is slightly quirky and full of life.   It is a city that does not stand still.  Her old fish packing factories have been turned into trendy hotels, galleries and restaurants.  There are some amazing examples of street art in the form of vibrant murals.  If you are on a cruise with an overnight in Reykjavik, my advice is make some time to stroll around the city and explore the city as well as taking the opportunity to explore it surrounding countryside.

 

 

One of the most striking of the sights in the city is the Hallgrimskirkja is both the Parish church and Iceland’s national cathedral, the Icelandic version of Westminster Abbey.  It was designed in the early 1940s by the architect Guojon Samuelsson and took 41 years to build.  It was eventually consecrated in 1986.  The 74.5 metre tower comprises of a cascade of columns that represents the Icelandic Basalt landscape.  The church provides a spectacular backdrop to the statue of Leif Eriksson.  Leif Eriksson is the Icelandic Viking explorer who is believed to have step foot in North America in the 11th Century. 

Inside the church there is an impressive organ that was built by the famous German Organ builder Johannes Klais. You can also go to the top of tower for a fine view across the city. 

 

One of the most impressive buildings on the waterfront is Harpa.  It is a combination of a concert hall and conference centre.  It is a stunning piece of architecture that was completed in 2011 and like the church it is inspired by the Basalt landscape of Iceland.  It stands on the old Harbour, where every night between 9 October and 10 December a beam of light rises from a stone base shaped like a drum..  The beam of light is a memorial to the assassinated Beatle John Lennon.  Yoko Ono has a very luxurious private suite in the nearby Hilton Hotel that overlooks the memorial. 

 

If you want to take a look into the roots of Viking Iceland then I would recommend a visit to both the Settlement Exhibition to see the remains of one of Iceland’s oldest houses, that dates back to the 10th Century.   You can also visit the Saga museum that is found next to the Maritime Museum is a brilliant waxworks museum depicting prominent characters from Norse and Icelandic history. 

 

 

One of the most popular photo opportunities is the Sun Voyager which is an abstract stainless steel sculpture that is supposed to represent a ship.  It was created to celebrate the City of Reykjavik’s Bicentenary.  Although the ship was originally meant to face west and greet the sunset, today it sits on an artificial headland facing north.

 

If you are interested in the wildlife of Iceland then I would wrap up warm and head for the waterfront where you will find boats that will take you on whale watching trips and puffin watching trips.  I say wrap up warm as the whale watching trips can take you to the edge of the Arctic Circle so as you can imagine it can be very cold, particularly in winter.  The best time to see Whales is the summer months between April and September when over 20 species of whales are likely to be in the waters.

 

During the winter months one of the most popular activities is to search for the Aurora Borealis, better known as the Northern Lights.  The Aurora happens when electrically charged particles hit the upper atmosphere.  The Aurora Reykjavik information centre will be able to help you with forecasts about the likelihood of appearances.  You need to also remember that to see the Northern Lights you will need clear skies and  little or no light pollution so it is best to head out into the countryside or head for the coast. 

 

 

You cannot come to Iceland and not explore the unspoilt countryside of Iceland and one of the best ways to explore it easily is to follow the route of the Golden Circle.  This can either be done on a coach excursion or you can hire a car and follow the 300km at your leisure.  One of the first places you will visit on the tour is the Pingvellir National Park.  It is a Unesco World Heritage site where you will see a canyon that was caused by the drifting of the North American and Eurasian Tectonic plates moving apart.  It is also the site of the oldest parliament in the world the Icelandic Viking parliament called the Alpingi.  When you visit this site at sunrise, as I did, you get a very mystical experience and you will not be surprised to hear that it is said to be one of the places that inspired Game of Thrones.  From personal experience, I can well believe it and it is easy to visualise the Viking chieftains meeting there.  Your next stop is likely to be the Gulfoss Falls. Gulfoss means Golden Waterfalls.  As you walk along the path to the falls you will encounter the roaring sound of the falls before you see the spectacular view of the 32 metre high double waterfall.  One of the reasons for this is that unlike most waterfalls, which you view from below, these falls you actually view from above.   Your final stop on this tour is likely to be Geysir in the Haukadalur valley.  Here you will find in a small area right by the roadside a host of hot springs, mud pools and spectacular geysers like Strokkur that erupts every 5 to 10 minutes and is pretty spectacular.  Across the road is the car park and gift shop.  This is a good place to try one of my favourite Icelandic delicacies Smoked lamb. 

 

 

Another popular attraction close to Reykjavik is the Blue Lagoon  geo thermal spring spa complex.  If you try this spa independently it can work out quite costly but having said that it is an experience well worth trying.  The basic admission will allow you access to the outdoor thermal pools.  Which are warm and relaxing and every so often you will find little mud pockets where you can treat yourself to a free mud face mask.  You can also enjoy a drink while you bathe.  But remember drinks here like elsewhere in Iceland are an expensive luxury.  If you want a similar experience without the frills there are alternatives such as the Secret Lagoon that can be visited as part of a Golden Circle tour or why not do as the locals do and visit one of the public swimming pools that are a fraction of the cost.

 

If you are on a cruise to or around Iceland, the chances are that you will have a port of call in Akureyri.  The town is officially the second city of Iceland and often called the capital of the North.  It is a charming town and for its size there is plenty to keep the visitor interested.  Right in the centre of the town is the beautiful Church of Akureyri.  It was built in the 1940s and is in many ways similar in style to the church in Reykjavik.  It is well worth going into the church to see the beautiful stained glass.  There are three museums within walking distance of the church.  These are the Akureyru Museum that houses exhibits from the Viking era, Medieval era and modern times.  Also there is the Art Museum and Nonni’s House.  This is one of the oldest buildings in the town and was the childhood home of Nonni who was a famous Icelandic author and is now a museum to him. 

 

About 30 minutes from the town are the turf homes of Laufas and this gives you an insight into how the local people lived in ancient times.  If you are a lover of Christmas you should not miss the Christmas House.  Where you can be Christmassy all year round and buy your Christmas decorations.  It is also home to the biggest Advent calendar in the world.

 

Within walking distance of the town is the famous and unique Arctic Botanical Gardens.   It is the most northerly Botanical Garden in the world.   It has bothy local flora and examples from around the world.

 

A popular excursion for many people is the Nature Baths at Myvatn.  Similar in style to the Blue Lagoon it is cheaper but be warned you do need to take your own towel.  The pools are rich in minerals  and is said to be beneficial for people with respiratory and skin problems. 

 

Just as the south of Iceland has the Golden circle the north of Iceland has the Jewels of the North, and one of the most popular and fastest selling tours is the Northern Jewels.  So if you want to explore the Jewels of the North you should pre-book the tour.  Highlights of the Tour include The Godafoss or waterfalls of the Gods that is just as powerful and spectacular as the Gulfoss.  The Skutustadir pseudo craters  are the result of explosions when the lava  flowed over the cool wetlands  around Lake Mytvan.  They are pretty amazing and make a great photo opportunity. Dimmuborgir or the Dark City  is a dramatic lava landscape that is reminiscent of  a flattened city.  Local legend has it that it is home to the Yule Lads, the Icelandic equivalent of Santa Claus and his elves.

 

 

For me Iceland is one of those places that should not be missed.  It charms, it stuns, it amazes and surprises you at every turn.   You will fall in love with the people who have a charm and slightly anarchic take on life.  For me one of the best ways to see this amazing country is to see it on a cruise around the country. 

 

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