“Hello, squawk, hello”
The unmistakable voice of Perla the parrot came over the ship’s loudspeakers. Perla’s owner, Captain Kim Tanner, is Master of the cruise ship Saga Sapphire. When not standing on his shoulder greeting passengers, Perla’s home is the bridge. Popular with both guests and crew, she loves being the centre of attention.
My destination on Saga Sapphire was Iceland. It covers 40,000 square miles yet has a population of just 360,000, of which two-thirds live in and around the capital, Reykjavik. No surprise, therefore, that Iceland consists largely of wide open spaces and empty roads.
Iceland straddles two tectonic plates, the Eurasian plate and the North American plate, and is one of the few places above sea-level where they can be observed. The plates are slowly separating and it is this activity which causes much of the volcanic activity for which the island is famous; the landscape is characterised by lava, sandstone, mountains and glaciers.
In tourism terms, Iceland is a hot destination. Visitor numbers are growing rapidly and the area around Harpa, the striking glass concert hall in the capital, resembled a building site as new hotels were being constructed. Despite the developments, however, Reykjavik is easily explored on foot.
There are delightful places waiting to be discovered and some old buildings with unique and personal designs. Dominating the city is Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran parish church and the largest in the country. It is also one of Iceland’s tallest buildings. Designed by Guojon Samuelsson in 1937 and built between 1945 and 1986, the concrete edifice may not be to everyone’s taste but the building certainly has a striking appearance. In front of the church is a statue of Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover America, some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus.
Heading clockwise around the island, the next port of call was Grundarfjordur in Snaefellsnes. Situated on a peninsular on the western side of the island, it is home to a number of visitor attractions, amongst them the caves that inspired Jules Vernes novel ‘Journey to the centre of the earth’. As the weather brightened I arrived at Arnarstapi and enjoyed a picturesque coastal walk from the statue of the giant Bardur to the small harbour. Once an important trading post, in the summer sunshine it looked more like a Cornish fishing village.
The area is also home to vast numbers of Arctic Terns. They have the world’s longest migration, spending the summer in the Arctic region then heading to the other end of the world to enjoy another summer in the Antarctic. It’s a round trip of some forty thousand miles. The birds build their nests on the ground but visitors need to be wary of getting too close. As I approached one it gave a warning sound then took off and flew close over my head. They regularly attack anyone who accidentally gets too close to their nests.
Heading further round the island I reached the northern port of Siglufjordur, a small fishing village with a population of around one thousand, although in the herring boom around which the town was built, the population peaked at three times that number.
Many buildings in Iceland are heated using the island’s natural geo-thermal properties and it was from here that my journey took me inland to Namaskard where mud pools bubbled and steam escaped from the rocks around the area. A nearby lake was so hot that it was impossible to bathe in.
Another area created by the volcanic activity is Dimmuborgir. The tall, black, strangely shaped volcanic rocks have led to the area becoming known as the ‘black castles’. Formed just over two thousand years ago, lava flowing down from a nearby volcano covered a lake and swamp area. The water boiled and the rising steam formed pillars of lava, many several feet thick. As the lava continued to flow downhill, the crust collapsed, leaving just the pillars of solidified lava. The whole area has an ‘out-of-this-world’ appearance and has been used by numerous movie-makers as well as NASA, who tested vehicles for exploring the surfaces of other planets.
My final port of call was the eastern town of Seydisfjordur, a town surrounded by sea and mountains and with a population of under one thousand. The pretty blue church is a central attraction, as is the preserved home of Asgeir Emilson, a local folk artist, and other unusually decorated buildings. In the summer there is an active crafts scene and a nine hole golf course, and for hikers there are plenty of mountainous challenges.
There are so many reasons to visit Iceland. It’s a unique place with amazing landscapes, friendly people and lots of surprises.
Mike Pickup travelled as a guest of Saga Holidays who offer a wide range of boutique cruises; prices included door-to-door transport, drinks, insurance, gratuities and internet access. Visit travel.saga.co.uk or call 0800 051 3355.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Cruises.