As a recent guest on “This Travel Tribe” podcast with Lisa Andrews, she and I discussed my family’s 2016 trip to Iceland (Expert Advice on Exploring Iceland with Your Family). A two-week journey that included several days in Reykjavik, followed by a 10-day circumnavigation of the island nation, I discussed several highlights of our family’s cruise. Whether or not you listen to my ramblings on Iceland on the podcast, here are some of our favorite destinations I mentioned during the interview:
Stykkisholmur, Snaefellnes Peninsula
This western region is nicknamed "Iceland in Miniature" because visitors can see much of the country's geologic wonders in this one spot. Our ship excursion took us to Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, a family-owned museum filled with fishing boats and paraphernalia, and plenty of information on fermented shark meat. If you can stand the smell of it, you can even have a taste. (Um, no thank you.)
Iceland's northernmost town is home to the Herring Era Museum, which details the country’s equivalent of America’s “Gold Rush,” when Icelandic women flocked there to pack fish in what was called the “Atlantic Klondike.” In one of my favorite cruise memories, the museum staff re-enacted the days of the “herring girls,” from around the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s, who sang as they packed barrels of fish.
The country’s second-largest town called Iceland's "Capital of the North," we chose a private, full-day tour from Akureyri (pronounced ah-koo-rare-ee) via Saga Travel. Comprising some 11 hours and eight stops, our whirlwind excursion included stops at Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall; Vatnajökull National Park (and some amazing basal-rock formations I swore to the guide I’d never write about); and Mývatn, the north’s most popular destination that features what I hear are hot springs that rival the famous Blue Lagoon (with far fewer tourists), Mývatn Nature Bath.
This North Iceland town is not only charming but also one of the best spots in the entire country for whale-watching. In addition to taking an amazing cruise-ship excursion to spot humpback whales via rib boat, I was wowed the The Húsavík Whale Museum, one of the best museums in the world I’ve ever visited.
Nothing sums up our day here than the passage I wrote for our Iceland photo album:
That time we went horseback riding in Eastfjords, and I fell off the horse because its saddle was loose (in soft sand; I was fine); Brody (my oldest son) nearly went into anaphylactic shock from being so allergic to Icelandic horses (someone had Benadryl; not his mother); and the farm owner went into great detail about the deliciousness of baby-seal meat. It was more fun than it all sounds!
Set in the eastern part of Iceland, I loved this town, hiking through fog—picking blackberries as we walked through veritable clouds—shopping for quirky folk art and snapping unforgettable photos of my sons walking along the town’s iconic rainbow path.
Driving my family in his superjeep against a stunning backdrop of wintergreen glaciers and black-sand beaches, South East Iceland owner and guide Siggi Litli looks at my son Brody, who sits next to Litli in the passenger seat.
“Do you know who sat there before you?” he asks. “Leonardo DiCaprio.”
“Really?” We all respond in stereo.
Renowned celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz had recently needed shooting locations for an upcoming Vanity Fair shoot with DiCaprio, and Litli was hired as the scout. Translation? Litli is the go-to guy for touring the area (even DiCaprio thinks so). Our full-day tour with him included stops at Vatnajökull National Park, which boasts the third-largest glacier in Europe; Batman Mountain; and a secret waterfall, where Litli and his friends played as children.
Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands)
The Westman Islands are a collection of islands in southern Iceland, and Heimaey or "Home Island" is the only inhabited one of them. A volcano erupted here in 1973, covering some 400 buildings and earning its nickname, the Pompeii of the North. The island has since recovered as a quaint, tourist spot that we really enjoyed. It's stinky, though! Side note: Our cruise in early September meant most of the puffins had left for the season, and we chased them at every destination. Finally, we saw them here, literally on our last day of the cruise.
To Drive or Cruise Iceland? You decide.
I’m fairly sure there’s no “wrong way” to travel around Iceland, although most of my friends who’ve visited have opted to drive the ring road (Rte. 1), either all or part of its 832 miles.
“(We) did the whole trip around the country in nine days (including travel days),” says my friend Carrie Goldin, who visited in 2017. “Our taste of everything Iceland was immersive and complete: food, driving, figuring out how to buy gas (it’s tricky!).”
“Driving was very easy. Getting gas (was) no big deal, but we had a book that we studied up on all that kind of stuff beforehand,” says another friend Marina Beirne, who traveled there in September 2018. “Driving is on the right so no big deal; parking at sites of interest was easy.”
So it seems there’s little hassle or danger in driving yourself around Iceland beyond having to plan, map out and be in charge of driving a rental car in a foreign land.
And that’s where a cruise comes in: little planning and no stress of maintaining an itinerary.
For our trip, we chose a late-August/early-September cruise around the country via Iceland ProCruises’ OCEAN DIAMOND, a 210-passenger ship that can access fjords and bays too shallow for larger ships. To be clear, it was not an ultra-luxurious vessel, but it was functional and offers some connecting rooms, which is ideal for traveling with kids.
The food was passable (the takeaway lunches were awful, if I’m being honest, which I noted in a customer survey) but, again, nothing fancy. It didn’t bother us, though, because cruising meant 10 days of seeing tons of sights with little to no forethought beyond what excursions we’d experience.
That said, the cruise company is based in Switzerland, which means it attracts a large European client base. (Many passengers spoke German, so the staff spoke that and English.) In other words, it’s not a typical American cruise line (with typical American fare). And we were one of only two families onboard, i.e., most passengers were from an older demographic. The downside is that the cruise excursions tailored to older passengers, offering large busses that required a lot of (slow) loading and unloading.
So after the first excursion, we typically chose to book our own online, which the ship’s staff was happy to help with if we had trouble finding tour operators. (We were able to find most via wi-fi a day in advance with rare exception.)
A couple of other cruising perks: 1) The ship marked our crossing of the Arctic Circle—something you can’t do via car—with a celebration of local delicacies like the aforementioned fermented shark. Our older son, Brody, was the only taker. And 2) Guests could sign up to be awakened any time staff spotted the Northern Lights, which we were lucky enough to behold one dark, early morning on the ship’s deck.
Whether you choose cruise, bike or drive (or skateboard à la Walter Mitty) throughout Iceland, there’s really only one answer: Go.
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Read Part 1 of our Iceland trip: Reykjavik.
Check out Iceland guidebooks here.