Katie Harber, Aurora Expeditions BDM, details her favourite days onboard our Iceland Circumnavigation expedition.
There was a buzz in the air as we gathered in the lobby of the Fosshotel. After a quick head count, we joined our buses and met our local Icelandic guides who would be with us throughout the expedition. Our pre-voyage tour took us to visit some of Reykjavik’s highlights including the futuristic Harpa concert hall, the Perlan Exploratorium for views over the city and fascinating displays of Iceland’s natural history and concluded with a visit to Iceland’s tallest church, Hallgrímskirkja. With a palpable sense of excitement, the bus dropped us back off at the Harpa for a short walk to get our first glimpse of the Greg Mortimer, with its futuristic Ulstein X-BOW® design. Greeted by some of the expedition team, we were then taken to our comfortable cabins and had time to explore the ship’s areas, including the relaxing polar library and panoramic observation lounge before our safety briefing and all important first meal in the ship’s dining room.
Today we explored the Snæsfellsnes Peninsula. After anchoring a short Zodiac ride away from the tiny but beautiful harbour of Stykkishólmur. Today’s excursion started with a visit to the Shark Museum, where we learnt from a very enthusiastic host about the processing and consumption of the local delicacy of Greenland shark, a rare species of shark that live up to 400 years and grow up to 7 metres. The flesh of the shark is toxic, but after being left to ferment and hung out to dry it is ready to eat (although only in small portions). We got to try this delicacy after soaking it in a strong liquor and then following the taste by quickly drinking that same shot. And the taste you ask? Well, I won’t be rushing back to buy any!
We then proceeded to Grundarfjörður to visit some beautiful waterfalls and Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain in Iceland and one of the top 10 most beautiful mountains in the world. Those Game of Thrones fans amongst you will likely recognise it as Arrowhead Mountain. Continuing to our lunch spot of Malarrif, we sat beneath the peak of Snaefell and rugged lava pinnacles along the coastline. We then headed back on our bus to Arnarstapi, where we enjoyed a short walk along a dramatic cliff face with nesting kittiwakes. When back onboard we were invited to a pre-dinner briefing where we met Captain Maxin Makarovsky and the ships officers along with the 20 strong expedition team including naturalists, photographers, kayak guides and Icelandic experts.
Today we docked in Iceland’s westernmost town of Patreksfjörður. With only 700 residents in this small community, this town is steeped in history and dramatic landscapes. We then drove from here to Látrabjarg, Iceland and Europe’s westernmost point and home to one of the highest cliffs in Europe. The cliffs themselves play home to millions of seabirds during the summer months as they flock here to nest and breed. Puffins, harbour seals, kittiwakes, razorbills and black common ravens provided the entertainment whilst a few energetic guests along with Howard, our expedition leader, hiked to the highest part of the cliffs to enjoy spectacular views out to sea, speckled with puffins and gulls. Those that stayed closer to the lighthouse enjoyed the onboard naturalist Jocelyn explaining about some of the local fauna. After a relaxing afternoon onboard, it was time to enjoy a delicious dinner prepared by the excellent chefs onboard and be briefed about what we will encounter tomorrow along with Dani, the biologist and self-certified crazy whale lady, talking us through the Happy Whale citizen science project.
This morning’s wakeup call was 10 minutes early to advise us that there was a pod of five humpback whales feeding on our port side. I quickly rushed to get out of bed and on deck to join Dani and the rest of the guests follow this pod of whales as they happily fed around us for about 30mins what an experience. After a hearty breakfast some of us decided that a long hike was just what we needed. A speedy Zodiac ride ashore later we were venturing off for the climb to the waterfalls overlooking the fjord. This walk, with its scrambling at the top, awarded us with the most beautiful views of the fjord with the Greg Mortimer in the background.
After lunch and as the ship was repositioning, I joined Dasha, the ship’s masseuse for a 30min full body massage. This was incredibly welcome after the morning’s hike and left me feeling far more relaxed and ready to tackle the next port of Hólmavík. We were able to delve into the Icelandic culture and mythology at the Sorcery Museum, learning about all sorts including ‘necropants’ be sure to ask me about this next time you see me! We then headed on a far more leisurely walk up into the hills overlooking the harbour, abundant in orchids, lupins, and wild thyme, where we could see humpback whales spouting in the harbour. In the Zodiac back to the ship, the whales must have been waiting for us. As we exited the harbour a whale started feeding about 20 metres ahead of our us, so we were treated to quite the display. What an incredible experience and one that I will never forget.
Today we were on a full day excursion leaving from Akureyri where we had travelled to overnight. The tour began at the botanical gardens of Akryueri where hardy arctic flowers blossom under shady trees as you meander along the gentle winding paths. Next was a visit to Goðafoss, the waterfalls of the Gods. It is said that the likeness of one of Iceland’s gods, Odin, is found in the rocks. After our visit to the waterfall, we headed to Mývatn with its beautiful pseudo craters that formal natural thermal baths for a relaxing dip. Supposedly looking 20 years younger…we headed to Dimmuborgir, a place with incredible rock formations made by lava and water mixing during a volcanic eruption. The other explanation that I much prefer for these rocks was that trolls were caught out in the sunlight after a party and turned to stone! After coming back on board, we were treated to a delicious BBQ on deck. As we sat eating looking out to the mirror like waters they were broken by white-sided Atlantic dolphins playing and humpback and minke whales rising out of the water. A magical end to a magnificent day.
At the most northern point in Iceland and just inside the Arctic circle you will find Grimsey Island. The small island is a haven for all types of birds, with more puffins than I have ever seen toing and froing from their nests as they stock up on fish. Also present were gulls, kittiwakes, and arctic terns to name a few. A few of us took the 7km round trip hike to the orb which marked the Arctic Circle. Here, high up on the cliffs surrounded by sheep and birds, we could see the Zodiacs and kayaks below viewing the magnificent cliffs. They looked so small! As we got back onto the ship, we were invited to take part in the polar plunge. ‘This is it’ I thought and braced myself as I got into my swimmers and robe and down to the mudroom. Joined by around 20 or so fellow hardy expeditioners we psyched ourselves up to take the plunge. Thankfully we were told that unfortunately the swell had become too great, and we would have to take the plunge another day, you can imagine my devastation! I wasn’t wasting getting into my costume so into the hot tub I went to enjoy the views of Grimsey Island as we sailed past. We are now entering whale waters, so after a quick change I headed up to the observation lounge along with a hot chocolate to view the leaping dolphins and whales.
After docking alongside, some guests decided to take a wander into the town. Others like myself took the Zodiac ride past the fish farm to a shallow cove. We then began a 7km round trip hike to view some waterfalls. We meandered along the path, trying the wild blueberries and local Icelandic berries, admiring wild horses and sheep as we made our way along the river, stopping at some beautiful vantage points over the waterfalls. Some of us may have stopped a bit too long admiring the views so had to turn round before we ran out of time! After a scrummy lunch onboard of freshly made pasta, we then had some free time to walk around the charming town. Known for its street art and colourful pavements this town provided a wealth of entertainment. As we walked off the ship, we were greeted by the sounds of someone playing the fiddle on top of an abandoned ships bridge, whilst we stopped to look in the local shops selling local crafts and goodies. Once back onboard I headed to the bar for a pre-dinner drink only to realise the ship had stopped moving – this can only mean one thing. Take two for the polar plunge!! The tannoy announcement invited us to take part in the plunge and for the second time I donned my costume and robe and down to the mudroom I went. Joined by around 25 other expeditioners we each took in turns to plunge into the 11-degree waters, cheered on by the expedition team and fellow guests as well as a few curious gulls. All who completed the plunge were rewarded with a shot of warming whiskey and commemorative t-shirt on the way back up. Feeling particularly pleased with myself I headed to dinner and for the days evening briefing. Here we were told that due to a storm in the South of Iceland, there would be a slight change to the itinerary, but this is where the expedition team came to life and using their local knowledge, managed to create an alternative for us.
Overall, a fantastic trip filled with history, trolls, waterfalls, whales and puffins alongside 119 other guests who became a family onboard. I have never sailed on a ship that felt more friendly and inviting than the Greg Mortimer and this I think is thanks to our Australian heritage. Everyone onboard was ready for adventure and that is exactly what was delivered on this expedition.