Gilly Pickup joined Saga Sapphire in Iceland ...
It was my first visit to Iceland, land of ethereal light, bizarre lava formations, bubbling hot springs and ghostly glittering glaciers. My first impression was how pure, crisp and fresh the air was - probably particularly noticeable to someone living in London. It’s not only the air that’s clear though, while out and about I discovered that most of the roads are too.
I had joined Saga’s ‘Wild about Iceland’ cruise in Reykjavik, although by then some guests were already on their sixth night. Incidentally the name Reykjavik means ‘bay of smoke’, a name given to the area by Iceland’s first settler in AD874, due to steam rising from the nearby hot springs. Being small, the world’s most northerly capital is a doddle to get around and is jam packed with colourful clapboard houses, arty culture and shops selling Scandinavian sweaters, traditional handmade hats, wooden puffins, curiosities and bread baked by means of geothermal heat which, I was told, also heats 85% of the country’s homes.
Dominating the landscape in and around Reykjavik is Iceland’s tallest church, the white concrete Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja. Some say its look-at-me design was inspired by mountainous columns of basaltic lava, others insist the architect drew inspiration from the Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell national park. Whichever it is, its simple interior contains another eye-catching feature in the shape of its 50 feet tall, 5275-pipe organ.
Next morning, I awoke to find Saga Sapphire had moored in Grundarfjord, an off-the-beaten track fishing village in the fjord of the same name. After breakfast I set off on my chosen excursion, the Highlights of Snaefellsnes tour. Snaefellsnes - ‘Snow Mountain’ - a wild wonderland of geothermal activity has as its backdrop Helgrindur, a majestic mountain range which rather scarily translates as ‘Gates of Hell’. Those who know about such things will be aware that the Snæfellsness peninsula shot to fame thanks to Jules Verne in his sci fi novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Saga had lots of excursions on offer here meaning guests could explore the glacier by snowmobile or snowcat while the more adventurous, equipped with helmet and flashlight, could explore the volcanic caves. Saga’s tours, all designed to access areas that could otherwise pose a challenge for some, are graded ‘easy’, ‘moderate’ and ‘strenuous’ so guests know what they are letting themselves in for before setting out.
This area is also home to Arctic terns – thousands of them. They fly from their breeding grounds to the Antarctic, an annual round trip of over 40,000 miles. The journey means that this bird sees more daylight than any other creature on earth. A word of warning, it’s wise not to get too close to their nesting ground as they are extremely protective of their young and will dive bomb you if they think you might be a threat. I saw it happen – like something from a Hitchcock film!
Speaking of birds, next morning before heading out on a full day excursion around the Siglufjordur region, I was invited to the Bridge to meet Captain Kim Tanner’s gorgeous parrot, 10-month old Perla. She is quite a celebrity among the ship’s guests and makes regular appearances – sitting on the captain’s shoulder of course – to greet passengers. She likes to be the centre of attention and loves nothing more than to meet, and talk to, new people. She belongs to him, not the company, so when he is on leave, she goes home with him.
I learned that Siglufjordur, - Sigló to the locals and Iceland’s northernmost city – under 25 miles from the Arctic Circle, used to be Iceland’s fishing capital. Now a reminder of its glory days is alive and well in the shape of the Herring Era Museum on its picturesque marina. During summer the town, which is ringed by black volcanic beaches, bursts into life with displays of folk dancing, singing and salt fish demonstrations. In winter, it’s popular with skiers. My tour stopped briefly at the volcanic Lake Myvatn where nature baths are naturally heated with mineral rich water. It’s a popular film location too, familiar to fans of Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Force Awakens where the volcanic calderas and bubbling mud pools make an appearance.
Then all too soon, I had arrived at my final port of call, the diminutive eastern town of Seydisfjorour, yes, another tongue twisting name - surrounded by waterfalls and snow capped mountains. It’s a pretty place with quirky cafes and wooden houses painted in a grand tapestry of hues. Rainbow Street and the Blue Church tops the list for most camera-clicking visitors, they’re a superbly photogenic combination while the Avalanche Monument was constructed from the twisted girders of a local factory wrecked in the disaster 50 years ago. In regional mythology the nearby village of Bakkageroi. is home to the island’s largest population of elves or ‘hidden people’. If you decide to hike up to the panoramic lookout of Elf Hill, a word of warning – whatever you do, don’t sit on or move the rocks, they are the elves homes!
Iceland certainly fires the imagination with its gateways to Hell, steaming lava fields, windswept plateaux, dramatic towering sea cliffs and rugged fjords. Just mind out for the elves.
Factfile: Gilly travelled to Iceland as a guest of Saga who offer a range of boutique cruises. Prices included door-to-door transport, all meals on board including 24-hour room service, drinks, insurance, gratuities and internet access. www.saga.co.uk/travel
tel 0800 051 3355. Lovely Saga Sapphire’s final 2019/20 season includes five new voyages.
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Published August 2019
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