An ad­ven­ture cruise around Ice­land of­fers a new take on the pop­u­lar is­land

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - PURSUITS - The writer was a guest of Ad­ven­ture Canada. It did not re­view or ap­prove the story be­fore pub­li­ca­tion.

Cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the shores of the At­lantic is­land of­fers you views and ex­pe­ri­ences that are missed by land-based trav­ellers, Emma Yard­ley writes

If you’ve ever won­dered where Mar­garet At­wood would go to buy a rain pon­cho sport­ing a pic­ture of an ex­plod­ing vol­cano, here’s your an­swer: Sey­ois­fjorour. This tiny fish­ing com­mu­nity in the dra­matic East Fjords of Ice­land is one of the stops aboard Ad­ven­ture Canada’s Ocean En­deav­our, a 137-me­tre po­lar-ex­pe­di­tion ves­sel on which At­wood is va­ca­tion­ing with fam­ily.

The lit­er­ary leg­end tells me she’s been trekking with this ad­ven­ture-cruise com­pany based in Mis­sis­sauga reg­u­larly for nearly two decades, which leads to a chat about what makes cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing Ice­land – a tour new to Ad­ven­ture Canada’s lineup this year – so spe­cial.

“[Ice­land knows] they’ve got some­thing,” At­wood says. “What they have is glaciers, vol­ca­noes and Ice­landers, and they make the most of that.”

Not smit­ten with just the rain cape, At­wood also scooped up some rein­deer­bone but­tons as gifts, plus handcrafted sea­weed jew­elry by folk artist Kristin Tho­runn Hel­gadot­tir. “She made this beau­ti­ful thing out of noth­ing, things that other peo­ple would just not no­tice.”

And as I’d learned ear­lier on the 10-day ex­cur­sion, much about this coun­try can only be no­ticed from the deck of a cruise ship.

The most com­mon way to see Ice­land is driv­ing the Ring Road, a 1,332-kilo­me­tre route en­cir­cling the coun­try – but it doesn’t go ev­ery­where. Driv­ers would miss the East Fjords and West Fjords, as well as the spec­tac­u­lar Snae­fell­snes penin­sula just north of Reyk­javik. There’s also the mat­ter of go­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with ever-in­creas­ing crowds at pop­u­lar tourism stops, and scrap­ping over lim­ited ac­com­mo­da­tion along the way.

In 2017, the num­ber of overnight vis­i­tors to Ice­land (pop­u­la­tion 338,000) hit a record-break­ing 2.2 mil­lion, a 24.2-per­cent in­crease over the pre­vi­ous year – and, so far, the stats for 2018 look to push those num­bers even higher.

But this ag­ile, 198-pas­sen­ger ship takes the road less trav­elled, be­cause we’re not on a road at all – our ac­cess points come through dock­side moor­ing and a fleet of zo­di­acs that ferry pas­sen­gers to se­cluded fjords and fish­ing towns, al­low­ing us to side­step the hordes and avoid the worry about over­booked rooms.

“We’re get­ting ac­cess to a lot of places that you wouldn’t be able to get to via the road sys­tems,” says Matthew James Swan, Ad­ven­ture Canada’s di­rec­tor of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment and an ex­pe­di­tion leader. “We’re off ex­plor­ing full days, en­joy­ing the des­ti­na­tion and then we come back to our float­ing ho­tel … there’s no time be- hind a wheel.”

Early on in the jour­ney, a ship­wide an­nounce­ment rouses me from a jet-lag-in­duced nap: “Good af­ter­noon, ev­ery­one. We just wanted to let you know that hump­backs have been spot­ted off the port side of the ship.” I throw open my cabin cur­tains and am greeted by the crest­ing dor­sal fins of seven hump­back whales, no more than 15 me­tres from my bed.

Each day, we land in a dif­fer­ent port and get to choose from a va­ri­ety of planned ac­tiv­i­ties, such as an out­door play at the herring mu­seum, a zo­diac tour of puf­fin breed­ing grounds with the on­board or­nithol­o­gist, or an in­ter­pre­tive climb up an ac­tive vol­cano with a guest vol­can­ist.

I put my name down for a four-hour hike that takes us up be­hind the colour­ful fish­ing vil­lage of Siglufjorour, where Swan guides us along the lush, 17-kilo­me­tre fjord.

“You can re­ally bring a des­ti­na­tion to life when you get a full un­der­stand­ing of your sur­round­ings, and we feel [it] stim­u­lat­ing all of the senses – sound, sight, taste, smell,” Swan says.

Breath­ing deep, I’m hit with the lush, sickly sweet smell of thou­sands of bloom­ing pur­ple lupines that car­pet the steep, glacier-formed moun­tains curl­ing down to the sea.

I traipse be­hind a small flock of bleat­ing, long-coated sheep up a well-marked trail, lead­ing from one glis­ten­ing wa­ter­fall to the next, my path only tem­po­rar­ily blocked by a mat­ing pair of black-tailed god­wits twit­ter­ing loudly at me, con­fused by this rare hu­man in­tru­sion.

The en­coun­ters with Ice­landic wilder­ness aren’t re­stricted to the main­land. The Ocean En­deav­our also drops an­chor off Grim­sey, an iso­lated, 5.3-square-km is­land strad­dling the Arc­tic Cir­cle that’s usu­ally only ac­ces­si­ble sev­eral times weekly via ferry or plane.

Even Sva­nur Gisli Thorkels­son, an on­board guide who’s been lead­ing groups around Ice­land for 32 years, is im­pressed with this rare stop, 41 kilo­me­tres off Ice­land’s north­ern coast: “I might never have got­ten there un­less I was here with the boat. Def­i­nitely a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.”

Grim­sey is home to only 30 wind-worn Ice­landers year-round, but greets tens of thou­sands of puffins and other nest­ing Arc­tic birds each sum­mer. Kit­ted out in wa­ter­proof gear (there’s al­ways a fine mist in the air), I tuck down in a grassy fold near the edge of a 110-me­tre cliff and watch dozens of At­lantic puffins re­turn to their bur­rows, beaks filled with sand eels for their chicks. I’m so close I can hear their strong, stubby wings beat­ing against the North At­lantic wind.

But it’s not all birds and cliffs; the is­land’s tiny café also stocks an im­pres­sive sup­ply of tra­di­tional Ice­landic-wool sweaters and hats, hand­knit­ted by lo­cal women.

So while At­wood has her rain pon­cho from the trip, in the end I’ve gained a new woolly pom­pon toque – and a deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion for life and land­scapes on Ice­land’s dra­matic coast.

Ad­ven­ture Canada’s cruise around Ice­land takes you to places driv­ing the coun­try’s ring road never could, in­clud­ing Grim­sey Is­land, where you can spot thou­sands of nest­ing Arc­tic birds.

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