Jane Archer profiles the Icelandic capital, which is becoming an increasingly popular cruise destination
Iceland’s capital is fast becoming the go-to port in Northern Europe for an ever-increasing number of cruise ships as lines seek out exciting new destinations.
For expedition lines it’s a handy turn-around port for Arctic cruises that pair Iceland with Spitsbergen or Greenland, or voyages around Iceland, as the city has excellent air links with the UK and US.
For “ordinary” cruise lines, a few days in Iceland adds an exciting twist to a Norwegian fjords voyage, while Reykjavík itself is perfect for a one- or two-day call as there is a great variety of things to see and do nearby.
Most ships dock at Skarfabakki, about a ten-minute drive from the centre. The city’s hop-on, hop-off bus stops right outside so exploring alone is easy – especially as the metropolis is more town than city.
Cruise Iceland says the number of ships visiting Reykjavík rose
25 per cent and passenger numbers 40 per cent between 2016 and 2018. Last year saw around 194 ship visits – cruise lines call mainly between May and September – bringing 183,000 passengers.
Scenic’s expedition yacht Scenic Eclipse was one of the new faces for 2019, while this year Ponant’s Le Bellot will arrive for the first time. Carnival Cruise Line makes its Reykjavík (and Iceland) debut in 2021, with a 12-day voyage round-trip from Dover on Carnival Legend.
Geologically the world’s youngest country, Iceland sits below the Arctic Circle and was rather misnamed because, although it has harsh winters and there is lots of ice, come summer the snow melts from low-lying areas, unveiling green meadows, lava fields and hot springs.
The Golden Circle is the most popular tour as it gives an insight into three geological wonders. Visitors can stand astride the point where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in Thingvellir National Park, watch thousands of gallons of water thunder 32m over the Gullfoss waterfall and marvel as the Strokkur geyser shoots water 30m into the air every five to eight minutes.
Next up in the popularity stakes is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the midst of a lava field that’s full of warm mineral-rich seawater said to do wonders for your skin.
Whale-watching is another popular pastime. Some 20 species of cetaceans including minke and humpback whales frequent the krill-infested waters around Iceland in the summer, so you’d have to be very unlucky not to spot a few.
Those feeling adventurous can go riding on sturdy Icelandic horses, or hop on a Jeep tour to Mýrdalsjökull glacier and walk on the ice. Good hiking boots are a must and, as this trip is potentially as chilling as it is thrilling, some cruise lines ban jeans and insist participants have warm layered clothes, gloves, hats and scarves.
There are also helicopter rides over the mountains (some touch down on Mount Esja for photos) and much cheaper simulated flights at the FlyOver Iceland visitor attraction in the city. Other attractions include food tours and the 64º Reykjavík Distillery, where alcohol is made from berries, rhubarb, seeds and other produce the owners have foraged.
There are trips to volcanoes and inside caves. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, which juts out to the southwest of Reykjavík, visitors can hike up the Stóra-Eldborg crater then go inside a lava cave. None of these excursions are cheap, but clients on a budget can get a taste of what it is all about on a one-hour tour of Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel, 30 minutes’ southeast of Reykjavík.