Just shy of the Arctic Circle, a cruise to mainland Iceland puts some of the planet's most dramatic landscapes and amazing wildlife encounters all within reach. And these days, Iceland cruises are more popular than ever with lines like Viking, Holland America (HAL) and Norwegian (NCL) all plying the waters of the island nation.
Iceland's natural spectacle includes gorgeous fjords, immense glaciers, black beaches, hot springs and long Midnight Sun days in the summer. Whales are present in spades offshore in the summer months and huge colonies of shorebirds call Iceland home. Keep in mind that Iceland isn't a polar bear or penguin-viewing destination. In fact, the Arctic fox is the only native mammal to the island and puffins are the most famous bird. And while Iceland is definitely a chilly to cold destination, you should prepare for more rain than snow.
To help inspire you to put Iceland on your bucket list, check check out the 10 coolest things you can expect on an Iceland cruise.
Iceland's waters are seasonal homes to about a dozen whale species. It’s most common to spot small Minke whales and humpbacks. Blue whales, the largest mammal, are occasionally spotted to the north of the island. You're also likely spot white-beaked dolphins.
You’ll find whale watching tours in Reykjavik, as well as in most of the ports of call you’ll visit -- with sightings particularly frequent in northern Iceland.
Cruisers can keep their binoculars focused on cliffs on the Westfjords coastline, or book a bird-focused shore excursion to Vigur Island: human population 10, bird population vast. In addition to puffins, the island is home to elder ducks and black guillemots. Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, is another prime birdwatching site.
Adventurous hikers on Iceland cruises can get closer to Fagradalsfjall, where Iceland’s Coast Guard monitors safety. Excursions from Reykjavik and other ports afford less-stressful closeup views of other geothermal features like steam vents, fumaroles, and bubbling mud pots.
For those who enjoy active vacations, Iceland cruises always have plenty to do. For instance, on a Viking Cruise in Iceland, shore excursions might include riding Icelandic horses across a lava field, exploring rugged landscapes by ATV, mountain hikes, or journeys 100 feet down in a carved-out ice tunnel and paddling a kayak in a quiet fjord. Of course, the aforementioned Falgradalsfjall volcano also figures high on many cruisers day-hike itineraries. Additionally, expedition lines such as Lindblad boost the adrenaline factor, with Zodiac options as well.
Your cruise will bring you to Iceland's charming fishing towns and villages at the head of the fjords. We particularly love Seydisfjordur, population about 700, which has to be the prettiest village in Iceland with its colorful, Nordic wooden homes and mountain-backed setting.
While no one knows for sure, most estimate Iceland to have over 10,000 volcanoes of varying sizes. They are carved by volcanos and glaciers and are fed by glacial waters -- some even come with local legends that are centuries old. Among those easily accessible on Iceland cruise shore excursions are Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods), about a half-hour drive from the port town of Akureyri in north Iceland.
Godafoss is 39 feet tall and nearly 100 feet wide. According to Icelandic Saga, a local chieftain threw his statues of pagan gods into the waterfall in the year 1,000, after deciding Icelanders should become Christians. The more visited Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) near Reykjavik, dramatically drops into a narrow river gorge. The tall Skogafoss waterfall in south Iceland made an appearance in HBO’s Game of Thrones (as dragons flew overhead in Season 8).
A dip in a geothermal hot spring is a highlight of any Iceland cruise. The nation's springs are rich in minerals and said to bring health benefits – such as improving circulation and relieving skin conditions and muscle aches. The most famous hot springs are the manmade Blue Lagoon, easily accessible from Reykjavik. New on the scene, and even closer to the city (a short cab ride away), is the natural Sky Lagoon. Cruises serve up experiences farther afield such as the saltwater Geosea baths in Husavik on the northern coast and the floating pools known as the Vok Baths on Lake Urriðavatn in eastern Iceland.
For further bragging rights, if you book a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavik, or a tour to the geothermal areas and towering lava castles and caves outside of Akureyri, you may visit where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet -- stretch and you can have your feet on two continents.
Iceland is perhaps most famous for its views of the Northern Lights. Every year, thousands flock here in the cool fall and winter months to observe the spectacle. There is no guarantee that you'll see them when you come -- their appearance depends on a variety of solar and celestial factors -- but Iceland's dark seasons make it more likely that you'll catch them on your Iceland cruise.