Trip Log

Iceland Circumnavigation

Jul. 5–Jul. 14, 2019

© Michelle Valberg

Arctic terns and fulmars darted to and fro, feeding their young and competing for food in the swell. Yet most exciting were the stubby-winged puffins who fluttered to their nests, sand eels in their beaks, only to flap back out to sea.

Map

Iceland circumnavigation 2019 trip log map
  • Day 1: Reykjavík
  • Day 2: Rif
  • Day 3: Dynjandi
  • Day 4: Grímsey and Siglufjördur
  • Day 5: Akureyri
  • Day 6: Húsavík
  • Day 7: Seydisfjördur
  • Day 8: Djúpivogur
  • Day 9: Vestmannaeyjar

Day 1 – Friday, July 5

Reykjavík

Coordinates: 64°09'N 21°56'W

Weather: Drizzly, 11°C

Off We Go!

Our journey began in Iceland’s capital and most populous urban centre, Reykjavík. We gathered on the pier just as the Ocean Endeavour, our home for the next ten days, glided into port. After gathering our tags and handing off our luggage we were free to roam the city. Some of us sheltered from the brisk and drizzly weather in restaurants and cafes while others took advantage of the excellent shopping and sightseeing.

We boarded the ship in the early afternoon, taking our time exploring the decks and making ourselves at home before a welcome orientation in the Nautilus Lounge. There we met our Host (and musician) David Newland, Cruise Director Laura Baer, and Expedition Leader Daniel Freeze.

Travellers in wind proof jackets

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

After a briefing on our next day in the small fishing town of Rif, we received our blue Adventure Canada rain and wind-proof jackets and enjoyed a delicious dinner in The Polaris Restaurant. We felt the first tug of the ship pulling out of the harbour, and watched from windows and decks as Reykjavík drifted away and our new adventures began!

Day 2 – Saturday, July 6

Rif

Coordinates: 64°55'N 23°48'W

Weather: Partly cloudy, 8°C

Exploring Rif

Today we embarked on our first trip in the Zodiacs to the town of Rif on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, home to 140 people. We walked a short distance to The Freezer hostel and culture centre where we met its owner Kari Vidarsson, who welcomed our group with a musical performance. We then separated into different groups and began our respective hikes.

Some walked to the Svödufoss (“foss” meaning waterfall) with assistant expedition leader John Blyth. Others observed seabirds along a coastal nature and botany walk with naturalist Trausti Gunnarsson, and still others wandered around at their leisure and listened to more Icelandic music at The Freezer.

Svodufoss waterfall

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

The Svödufoss (“foss” meaning waterfall)

The road between The Freezer and our respective hikes was a battle zone, as Arctic terns swooped and dive-bombed our group to protect their nests in the surrounding grassy fields. We covered our heads and fled!

Arriving back on the Ocean Endeavour just after noon, we enjoyed a buffet lunch, afterwards settling into the ship's Nautilus Lounge to learn about seabirds from Trausti. Afterwards, volcanologist Gunna Lára Pálmadóttir introduced us to the geology of Iceland with her presentation “The Land of Fire and Ice”, but was interrupted by a sighting about off the port side of a pod of blue whales—easily identified by the height of their spray.

Our volcanology education continued after we settled back into the lounge. This was followed by a recap of our day and an introduction to the ship’s crew and staff by our captain Dmytro Ashanin, and a song by our exuberant host. Our day came to an end beneath the bright evening sun at the Látrabjarg bird cliffs, where black guillemots, razorbills, common murres, fulmars, kittiwakes, Atlantic puffins, and many more have their breeding grounds.

Day 3 – Sunday, July 7

Dynjandi

Coordinates: 65°43'N 23°13'W

Weather: Bright and sunny, 10°C

Wild Waterfalls of the Westfjords

We awoke to still waters, a clear blue sky, and not a breath of wind—perfect for a day in the Westfjords! On the starboard side of the Ocean Endeavour was Dynjandi (meaning “thunderous”) waterfall, sparkling in the bright morning. This is considered to be one of the most remarkable falls in Iceland: the cascade flows down a steep cliff face, broken into multiple streams by jutting rock, as if through fingers.

Dynjandi waterfal 1

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Dynjandi (meaning “thunderous”) waterfall.

The Zodiacs landed on the pebble beach, where we had our first "wet landing", meaning we got our rubber boots a bit wet, but we quickly swapped them out for hiking hear. Almost immediately we envied the few of us who had the foresight to bring netted bug hats and insect repellent, but regardless of the buzzing in our ears we enjoyed climbing the rough stone steps alongside the mighty 330-foot cascade. We were lucky to have arrived by ship: although the site is accessible by road, the remoteness of the area meant that we had it almost completely to ourselves!

Between the beach and the falls lie the ancient remains of a farmstead that was active from the Middle Ages until 1951. Immune to the swarming flies—“I’ve been working in the Arctic for most of my life!”—ethnographer Jane Sproull–Thomson could be found sketching the panoramic view and dilapidated shelters, where former huts poked through the tall grass. Meanwhile, a small group of us joined Geneviève Côté on a short kayaking adventure along the shore of the fjord, where we met a curious seal who popped his shiny head out of the water to look at us with his big eyes.

Dynjandi waterfal 2

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Dynjandi waterfall.

We returned to the Ocean Endeavour for a hearty lunch and sat back with some delicious hors d'oeuvres in the Nautilus Lounge for marine biologist Ursula Tscherter's “Mindblowing Minke Whales”. Most impressive of all was her hand-sewn life-size rendition of her favourite marine mammal, for which she recruited two people from the crowd to hold it aloft for us all to see. Next, historian Callum Thomson presented “Viking North Atlantic Empire”, enlightening us on the cultural history of the buildings we had seen.

We were all invited to a Kaapittiaq Coffee Tasting and Icelandic Teatime in the Aurora Lounge, curtesy of Adventure Canada’s League of Adventures program. Those who ventured on deck later in the evening were rewarded with sightings of humpback whales and white-beaked dolphins.

Day 4 – Monday, July 8

Grímsey and Siglufjördur

Coordinates: 66°32'N 18°00'W

Weather: Cloudy, 6°C

Puffin Power

Our day began on the remote isle of Grímsey, located forty kilometres off the coast of Iceland, home to sixty-one humans...and thousands of birds! We had typical Icelandic weather—overcast and a little nippy—as we arrived in the harbour via Zodiac. Almost immediately outside of town along the grassy cliffs was a flurry of wings and bird cries, and we crouched in silence along the bluffs with cameras and binoculars in hand.

Grimsey Zodiac

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Arctic terns and fulmars darted to and fro, feeding their young and competing for food in the swell. Yet most exciting were the stubby-winged puffins who fluttered to their nests, sand eels in their beaks, only to flap back out to sea.

Gunna and Trausti (our celebrity power couple who met aboard last year's Iceland Circumnavigation expedition!) walked alongside us as we peppered them with questions about these enigmatic birds. We learned that puffins spend ten months of the year floating in the open sea, only returning to land each summer to breed. They mate for life—the males arriving first to prepare the nest—and find each other year after year.

Grimsey puffin

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

A short walk from town brought us to a metal sign post that once symbolized the location of the Arctic Circle. Because it is constantly moving, the post is no longer accurate. The current line on Grímsey island is now represented by a large basalt sphere that is found two kilometres north, just visible from where we were standing.

That afternoon in Siglufjördur, we experienced life in another time thanks to a theatrical performance at the Herring Era Museum. Dressed in early-to-mid-twentieth century garb (flannel shirt, bandanna knotted around their brows), the "herring girls" gutted fish and packed them into barrels, bursting into song and a circle dance that included many of us. Setting off into our individual groups, we were taken on a tour of a restored herring oil production facility, and learned about the fascinating boom-and-bust history of herring fishing in Siglufjördur.

Back on the Ocean Endeavour we enjoyed a lovely evening listening to Icelandic folk music thanks to performers from the Siglufjördur Folk Music Festival Centre. The musicians played the langspil—a traditional Icelandic stringed instrument—and sang medieval harmonies in solo, duo and choir formation.

Day 5 – Tuesday, July 9

Akureyri

Coordinates: 66°68'N 18°077'W

Weather: Clear skies, some wind, 11°C

Shopping in Akureyri (and in the Viking Age)

It was another beautiful clear-skied and warm day in Iceland as we arrived in the town of Akureyri, situated at the base of Eyjafjördur Fjord, the longest fjord in Iceland at sixty kilometres. This town is the country's second largest urban area, and the metropolitan centre of northern Iceland. A quick bus ride through rolling farmland along a coastal road took us to the unique historical spot of Gásir, once a popular trading spot in the Middle Ages up until the sixteenth century. Our guide, archaeologist Lilja Björk Pélsdittir from the Iceland Institute of Archaeology (and Gunna’s sister-in-law) led us around the site she had helped excavate nearly a decade ago.

Akureyri iceland 1

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

We stood in a semi-circle around the remains of a church as Lilja explained that the old port was constructed by European (likely English and German) traders. They inhabited the area in the summer months as they traded luxury items like pottery, lotions, and lap dogs with local chieftains. The merchants sold their goods in "booths", which were constructed with walls of sod and tent-like roofs—now little more than bumps in the grass. With Lilja's help we picked our way through the tall grass, noticing patterns and identifying lanes and buildings, all the while trying to imagine what the region would have looked like hundreds of years ago.

Akureyri iceland 2

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

The enhancement group headed to Godafoss, or the “waterfall of the gods". The group hiked around the area, viewing the horseshoe-shaped waterfall (which was visually compared by some to Niagara Falls) from multiple perspectives. They next headed to the recreated Laufás Turf houses, where they learned about life on a late nineteenth century vicarage.

Back in Akureyri, there was plenty of time to wander and most enjoyed the botanical gardens, various museums, and especially the cafes and restaurants. Many took advantage of the numerous shops, and as evening pressed on we returned to the Ocean Endeavour for dinner with our new treasures and memories, and settled into the Nautilus Lounge for an Icelandic film, Women at War.

Day 6 – Wednesday, July 10

Húsavík

Coordinates: 66°04'N 17°35'W

Weather: Partly cloudy, some sun, 6°C

A Whale Tail (Tale) in Húsavík

Today was a highlight for many of us, as we visited Húsavík, the unoffocial whale capital of Iceland. Over fifteen different species of whale visit Skjálfandi bay, including minke, humpback, and blue whales. We could barely contain our excitement as we watched from traditional Icelandic oak fishing boats (repurposed for shuttling visitors) and high-speed RIB boats as humpbacks surfaced and fluked. The weather was perfect for whale watching: sunny, warm, and without a breath of wind. Those of us on the smaller, zippy RIB boats were able to visit the nearby aptly-named Puffin Island, where nearly 200,000 puffins breed each summer. Everyone walked away with smiles on their faces!

Husavík whale

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Back on shore we ventured to the Húsavík Whale Museum, situated right in the harbour, which boasted eleven different whale skeletons, including a twenty-three-metre blue whale! Expedition team member and beer enthusiast Clayton Anderson led a pack of thirsty travellers to the Öl Brewery, where many enjoyed a beer or two before heading back to the Ocean Endeavour.

Húsavík was perhaps the first place in Iceland to be settled by a Norse person in the first century. Some say that while the Swedish Viking Gardar Svavarsson was making his way along the coast to determine if the land was an island, he stayed for a winter season in the bay, and when he set sail again a crewman and two slaves stayed behind, becoming the island's first permanent residents.

Husavík

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Our hiking group went to the Ásbyrgi Canyon, which is part of the Vatnajökull National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to Norse mythology, the canyon was formed by the hoof print of Slippy (Sleipnir), Odin's eight-legged horse, but geologists have a different theory. They say the straight-walled rock formation was the result of extreme glacial flooding that occurred after a nearby volcano erupted beneath a glacier. Whatever you believe, the hike along the canyon edge was a wondrous sight to behold, and Trausti Gunnarsson and Gunna Lára Pálmadóttir were there to enlighten us on the different types of plant and animal life.

In our daily recap, we also learned that the Super Jeep group had an amazing time exploring the geological nature of the north Icelandic region by off-road trucks. They went off the beaten path, seeing steaming fumaroles (hot mud pools) and learning about the area’s geothermal activity. Our day came to an end with Gunna’s “Icelandic Music and Folklore” in the Nautilus Lounge.

Day 7 – Thursday, July 11

Seydisfjördur

Coordinates: 65°26'N 14°00'W

Weather: Low-lying clouds with the sun poking through in the afternoon, 12°C

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Today we found ourselves in Seydisfjördur, one of Iceland's most picturesque towns. Located on the east coast in a fjord of the same name and surrounded by waterfalls and rolling green foothills, Seydisfjördur is like being in a fairy tale. The town is well known for its arts and culture scene, as well as the "rainbow walk”—the first stop for many of us. We popped into the quaint gift shops along the multi-coloured brick lane and visited the robin-blue church where Gunna Lára Pálmadóttir could be found taking advantage of the acoustics with her ukulele and angelic voice.

Seydisfjordur

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Seydisfjördur

We parted into smaller groups, some boarding buses with unusually large tires. We soon found out why as we drove east along the fjord on a narrow dirt track that bounced through the valleys and hills. We stopped briefly at Pórarinsstadir, the site of the remains of an eleventh century Viking church and graveyard, one of the oldest structures in Iceland.

We eventually came to the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, a natural area of 12,500 acres that is independently owned and operated by a local family. We arrived at the restored guesthouse and set out on a walk along a path that cut through a meadow of vibrant purple Alaskan lupines towards a bird cliff where we spotted kittiwakes, fulmars, and thousands of Arctic terns nesting in the crags.

Seydisfjordur sound sculpture

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

A cavernous “sound sculpture”

For those who preferred to stay closer to Seydisfjördur there were a few hikes available including a casual photography walk with photographer Jessie Brinkman Evans, and a “Long Hike To Nowhere” with journalist Jimmy Thomson (they ended up discovering waterfalls and an excellent view of town). Just a short jaunt out of town and past the Búdará Búdarárfoss (falls) was a cavernous “sound sculpture,” where David Newland spent the day with his guitar—and Gunna made a guest appearance.

Our exciting day continued as we returned to the Ocean Endeavour with a chilly polar dip in five-degree Celsius water, BBQ dinner on the back deck, and the much-awaited Adventurers & Explorers costume party!

Day 8 – Friday, July 12

Djúpivogur

Coordinates: 64°65'N 14°28'W

Weather: Drizzly with dark clouds, 9°C

The Glacier Cometh

The blustery weather didn't stop us from enjoying our excursion today! The rain that had battered us in the Zodiac ride to shore in Djúpivogur abated to a light drizzle as we approached the Fjallsárlón lagoon, a periglacial lake at the edge of the Vatnajökull glacier (the largest ice cap in Europe!). Located approximately two hours inland from the town of Djúpivogur, the sight of the pool took our breath away, and more than one of us stood at the edge of the water in awe, taking in the scene.

The vatnajokull glacier 1

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

The Vatnajökull glacier (the largest ice cap in Europe!)

According to our trusty guides the glacier was calving only two days ago, depositing even more icebergs than usual. The frozen field of ice and snow contained blocks both small and massive; the ice-blue of the newer bergs contrasted with the larger chunks, some streaked smokey-black. We learned that these layers were formed by long-ago volcanic eruptions that spewed ash on the glacier, which was then covered by snow and compressed over time until another emission created a new layer. "It reminds me of liquorice ice cream," said one person from our group. This pattern was similar to the creation of the basalt cliffs we have encountered on our trip around Iceland so far.

The vatnajokull glacier 2

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

The Vatnajökull glacier

We had plenty of time to stroll along the beach, listening to volcanologist Gunna Lára Pálmadóttir speak about the eruption process of volcanoes and glacier formation, while others took to the Zodiacs that were on site to cruise even closer to the icebergs.

After a lunch of hot soup and sandwiches, we hopped on our respective buses back to the coast, passing Jökulsárlón, another glacier lake, where we witnessed the smaller pieces of ice floating down the river. As we neared the coast we also spotted a pod of seals along the sandy bank! The evening was particularly festive with three birthdays on board the Ocean Endeavour, and staff sang and clapped at each of their tables in the Polaris Restaurant. Happy Birthday Kathryn Moffat, Lynne Stirling, and Penni-Sue Smith!

After dinner we gathered in the Nautilus Lounge for a charity auction, the proceeds from which went to the Seydisfjördur-based LungA music and arts festival and not-for-profit conservation organization Fuglavernd.

Day 9 – Saturday, July 13

Vestmannaeyjar

Coordinates: 63°44'N 20°26'W

Weather: Cloudy, 11°C

Pompeii of the North

We arrived today to Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off Iceland’s south coast. After a late breakfast (and a much needed sleep-in) we gathered in the Nautilus Lounge for an enlightening panel discussion led by journalist Jimmy Thomson on climate change, energy, and the future of Iceland with our Icelandic friends Baldur Thorvaldsson, Gunna Lára Pálmadóttir, and Trausti Gunnarsson. As the Ocean Endeavour entered into the Heimaey harbour, we took to the railings to watch the scenery pass by. Our talented captain successfully manoeuvred the ship into port—the nautical equivalent of a three-point turn.

The narrowness of the harbour is a result of a catastrophic eruption from nearby volcano, Eldfell, which spewed lava into the town in 1973 without warning. The harbour was saved, but the small fishing town remains changed forever.

Vestmannaeyjar

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

As we docked, some of us hopped on buses for a tour of the island and its history. Meanwhile, some of us joined Jimmy for a hike to the Eldfell volcano itself. They sat in hot vents in the rock fissure and watched as the fog parted, revealing a stunning view of the town and harbour.

We then visited the Eldheimar volcano museum, which was built arund a house in its original location that was excavated forty years after being buried in volcanic ash. This was followed by a Zodiac cruise along the island’s coastline, where we spotted razorbills, common murres, kittiwakes, fulmars, and puffins on the high cliff walls, in the air, and on the water.

Travellers iceland circumnavigation group shot

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Before dinner we gathered in the Nautilus Lounge for an emotional farewell, where our captain Dmytro Ashanin brought out the crew, hotel, and administrative staff so we could thank them for their hard work and hospitality with raised glasses. Staff members took to the microphone to thank the room for such a wonderful trip, and there were some tears as expedition leader Dan Freeze read a touching passage about letting our hearts be battered by experience, and the value of giving pieces away to each other. Following dinner we enjoyed a variety show where some of us showcased our various talents—from ukulele playing to spoken word poetry—to a room of new friends.

We were terribly sad to part ways in the morning, but as host David Newland so eloquently said, “It has been a pleasure learning how to live together, wherever we are, with eyes wide open.”

About the Author

Amy van den Berg

Amy van den Berg

Writer

About the Author:

Amy is a writer from Oakville, Ontario. She loves to travel and explore new places.

She has an undergrad in international development and a master's degree in journalism, and has lived in Banff, Alberta, and Newcastle, Australia (despite being an awful skiier and surfer).

You can find her published work in The Walrus, Broadview magazine, and This Magazine.