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How to explore Iceland's north coast by sea

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 14/09/2018 Cynthia Drescher

a sandy beach next to a body of water © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited It’s the middle of summer but the temperature registers just 10 degrees. It’s a sunny, blue-sky day but there’s only one other person outside on deck. Braced against the railing with both camera and jacket hood up, Karl stares straight ahead and says to me, or perhaps to the sea: “It’s so incredible to see this.”

Where is “this,” exactly? We are onboard the M/S Panorama, a Greek-registered, three-masted sailing ship of 24 cabins that’s midway through a week’s voyage with Intrepid Travel. We’re cruising from Reykjavik to Akureyri with stops in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Westfjords, and here marks what’s literally the high point of the itinerary: rounding the Hornbjarg Cliffs, a range along the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve coastline that draws the edges of the most remote reaches of Iceland’s north. A couple of miles more and we’d cross the Arctic Circle.

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Karl is one of our Intrepid Travel trip leaders and his name is not, in fact, Karl. Knowing that the English, Australians, Europeans and Americans on board are incapable of the diphthongs and aspirated consonants in his given Icelandic name, “Karl” takes pity on us with this nickname. Our other leader, Jura, hails from Lithuania and moved to Iceland to study the language. She delights in triggering brain somersaults from us with place name pronunciations —“Djúpalónssandur!” “Ísafjarðardjúp!” “Skútustaðahreppur!” — and she issues us little challenges, like learning another way to say “hello” other than simply “hallo.” (“Er eldgos?”/“Is there an eruption?” is a good phrase to have in your back pocket.)

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This isn’t my first visit to Iceland but it’s my first to see it from the sea. The ultra-budget flight deals have been too good to pass up in years past, and a few friends and I had driven hire cars (which cost more than the plane tickets) around the South Coast and the Golden Circle. On those trips we jostled for the best photo spots and sneakily angled or cropped our photos to edit out the scores of others attempting the same, and too frequently dined on £3.50 petrol station hot dogs topped with remoulade and crispy onions.

This approach may sound familiar to other tourists to Iceland but where I’m at now, sailing far from the Iceland that has been popularised by Instagram, yields scenery that’s far more worthy of a million “likes”.

Karl and I are soon joined at the rail by more of the ship’s 40 passengers: it’s cocktail hour and they’ve been inside at the bar, toasting our voyage and this extraordinary opportunity to visit, in comfort and under sail for only a week, the far-flung and least visited (though arguably most beautiful) destinations in Iceland.

a body of water with a mountain in the background: Iceland-by-drone.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Iceland-by-drone.jpg You see, the land routes around the Westfjords are challenging at best and inexistent at worst — the 40-year-old car ferry Baldur, which crosses from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to the Westfjords and thus shortens the drive by half, broke down for weeks last year. However, on Panorama, we have it almost too easy. Days are open for adventure – such as spotting hundreds of puffins and seals at the Látrabjarg cliffs, running barefoot in the surf on the pristine, golden-red sands of Rauðisandur beach, and knocking back Brennivín schnapps with creatives who uprooted their urban lives to open a co-working art café ( and revitalised an industrial fishing community. At night sleep comes quickly with the surprisingly gentle rocking of the North Atlantic.

From Reykjavik we sailed overnight to Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, home to Kirkjufell, the country’s most-photographed mountain, and the Arnarstapi hiking trail across volcanic rifts and basalt cliffs. Over the week’s voyage we also call at Patreksfjörður, Ísafjörður and Þingeyri in the Westfjords before ending at Siglufjörður and Akureyri on the northern coast.

a boat is docked next to a body of water: Iceland-sunset.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Iceland-sunset.jpg High-volume cruise ports these are not; other than the busy harbours of Reykjavik and Akureyri, which both see cruise ship traffic in the summer, our quay neighbours in the Westfjords are limited to local kayaks and small fleets of brightly painted fishing ships named after Vikings. Despite it being the busiest week of Iceland’s peak season, the Westfjords car parks at tourist sites are small and mostly empty — if there is a car park at all.

The end of the voyage brings us down the Eyjafjörður, Iceland’s longest fjord, to Akureyri, and we’re back out on deck casually watching whales spout and breach when Karl and Jura teach us another Icelandic term: “Íslandsvinir”. The word literally translates to “friend of Iceland”, and it’s used to describe travellers who visit the country more than once. With just this voyage we qualify as Íslandsvinir (the plural), however. Both by sailing Iceland and by visiting the Westfjords, we’ve accomplished what others may take several visits to do, or never do at all. And through it all, Karl’s statement of awe becomes a refrain in my thoughts: “It’s so incredible to see this.”

Details: Iceland

Intrepid offers two seven-night “Cruising Iceland” itineraries sailing on the Panorama in 2019 — “The Icelandic” in June and September, from £2,165pp, and the “Westman Islands to Westfjords” tour in July and August, from £2,935pp.

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