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Credit: Viking Cruises/Shutterstock

Icelandic adventures: Whale watching, pufflings & Scandi chic - a week onboard Viking Jupiter

Author: Vicky Mayer

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Iceland is home to gushing geysers, black volcanoes, bubbling hot pools and the cutest baby pufflings, and, on an action-packed cruise around Iceland on Viking Cruises ship Viking Jupiter, you can see it all.

On a sunny day in August, the view from the beach on the island of Vigur is one of vast blue skies and friendly Eider ducks.

Half an hour by boat from Isafjordur in the west of Iceland, and just 400 metres wide, the island is home to only one family – British polar explorer Felicity Aston and her Icelandic husband Gisli. Together with their four-year-old son, they’re the proud custodians of this tiny kingdom where the ducks roam free and 40,000 puffins set up home in the spring.

The couple welcome visitors, and on a two-hour trip, you can discover how the feathers of the Eider ducks create ‘eiderdown’ – famously the world’s softest and warmest bedding. A single kilogram of eiderdown can sell for £1,500, and in an average year, the couple can gather 50kg. As they say in the States, you do the math…

Felicity and Gisli’s unique story is just one of many I enjoy on an incredible week-long cruise around Iceland aboard Viking Jupiter. The ‘Iceland’s Natural Beauty’ cruise is part of the company’s ‘Welcome Back’ programme of itineraries, and given that my last trip abroad was in September 2019, I could hardly be more excited to be here.

Like many of my fellow cruisers, I’m a first-timer in Iceland, so this port-rich circumnavigation is ideal. Far out in the North Atlantic, on the very edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland often experiences four seasons in a single day, making cross-country travel difficult or even impossible.

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So a cruise around the coast is the smart way to go, offering a chance to see some of the most remote and spectacularly beautiful parts of the country in comfort and safety.

But don’t for a minute think that means a lack of excitement. Over the course of a week I see whales up close on a RIB boat, drive a chunky all-terrain vehicle over the slopes of a black volcano, duck under gushing waterfalls and enjoy pool-hopping in a remote geothermal bath.

Think back to your best geography field trips and this is the feeling you’ll get travelling around Iceland – except that lumpy dorm beds in damp YHAs have been replaced by the Scandi-chic luxury that Viking Cruises does so well.

The itinerary begins in the country’s capital, Reykjavik, and you can take a short bus tour of the city to get your bearings on your day of arrival. Iceland’s volcanic terrain means that much of it is sparsely inhabited, and two-thirds of its 357,000 population live in this compact city with its dazzling mountain backdrop.

Aboard Viking Jupiter, the excitement of our first day at sea is palpable. The ship usually sails with 930 guests, but with Covid restrictions still in place, there are just 600 of us, which means social distancing is easy and we all feel very secure.

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Iceland: In Reykjavik you can take a short bus tour of the city to get your bearings on your day of arrival. Credit: Shutterstock

Viking is taking no chances with Covid, and is the only cruise line with a PCR clinic on every ship. Guests wear masks when walking around the common areas, and everyone’s temperature is taken whenever they enter a restaurant. Even more stringent is the daily saliva test, which involves spitting into a test tube first thing in the morning. Samples are checked at the onboard lab – a great (if slightly fiddly) way of keeping everyone safe and well.

My home for the week is an elegant penthouse veranda stateroom, decorated in cool blues and creams, with a balcony that offers great views of the mist-shrouded ports as they come into view. With some excursions starting at 7.30am, I won’t be spending a lot of time here, but it feels like the ultimate floating crash-pad.

My first excursion is an eight-and-a-half hour ‘Golden Circle’ coach trip. For a cost of $199, this offers Iceland’s greatest hits in a single day – Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart; the Geysir geothermal area, where jets of hot water shoot 30 metres into the air every four minutes; and the mighty Gullfoss waterfall, where getting wet is just part of the fun. And if all that isn’t enough to get us excited, a quick look out of the coach window offers the sight of steam puffing from the nearby hills.

But this is only a taste of what’s in store. Iceland is one of the world’s wildest places – a land of active volcanoes, plunging waterfalls, scalding thermal springs and abundant wildlife. Spending a week here is an amazing experience, especially if you live in a crowded country like the UK.

Sailing overnight, we dock next at Isafjordur, a lively commercial sea port. The winters here are fearsome and often the locals are snowed in, but today the sun is beaming down and it’s the perfect weather for a whale-watching adventure.

We all laugh as we’re bundled into warm onesies, but out on the open sea, they come into their own. Speeding across the waves in a RIB boat is exhilarating enough, but nothing can beat the sheer joy of seeing whales in the wild. As tell-tale vapours emerge from the deep, the humpbacks line up and we’re treated to an aquatic spectacle, complete with flashing tails and mighty fins. It’s just wonderful.

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Iceland: nothing can beat the sheer joy of seeing whales in the wild.

Every day brings more adventures, and I’m wowed by our trip to Vok Baths – a new development situated on Lake Urridavatn in the east of the country. Here you can spend hours drifting between the hot pools, drink in hand, then braving the cold in the lake. It’s my first taste of geothermal bathing and I’m hooked.

Equally fun is a walk around the nearby settlement of Djupivogur. Our jovial guide, Gauti, is a long-term inhabitant of this bustling fishing port, and he regales us with tales of his children, who never saw keys until they left for university in Reykjavik (everyone here leaves their houses and cars open).

We’re all delighted by these lovely stories of a life we’ll never live, and even when Gauti pours scorn on tales of Iceland’s elves and ‘hidden people’, such is the charm of the place that I can see we’re all thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe there is something in it.’

Back onboard each day we gather for cocktails in the Explorers’ Lounge, the perfect place to swap impressions of wonderful wild Iceland and our funny and charming guides.

Built in 2019, Viking Jupiter still feels new, and like all her sister ships she is incredibly easy to navigate. Her four eateries – Italian Manfredi’s, the signature Restaurant, stylish Chef’s Table and fun and varied World Café – offer superb meals at no extra cost, which means you can eat wherever the fancy takes you.

Manfredi’s scores highly with me, thanks to its juicy steaks (marinated overnight to make them extra succulent), and I love the daily five-course tasting menu with paired wines at The Chef’s Table, too.

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Viking Jupiter: Manfredi’s scores highly with me, thanks to its juicy steaks. Credit: Viking Cruises

I can also recommend an hour or so before dinner at the ship’s LivNordic spa, where you’ll enjoy complimentary use of the hydrotherapy pool, steam room and sauna. After a day of seeing the sights, just lying back in the pool as it bubbles up is totally addictive.

Our final stop takes us to the Westman Islands in the south of the country. Heimaey is the only populated island in this area, and it’s famous for the volcanic eruption of Eldfell mountain in January 1973. Everyone was evacuated to Reykjavik in an orderly fashion, including the residents of an old people’s home, and nobody died.

But the old folk arrived without their false teeth, so someone had to be sent back to fetch them. When he returned there was mayhem, because he’d put them all in one bag so no one knew whose were whose. It’s stories like this that make Iceland and its people so entertaining.

They are also incredibly nature-loving. When we arrive for our all-terrain-vehicle volcano drive, our guide asks if we’d like to see a puffling she’d found that day on the road. This – as you may have guessed – is a baby puffin, and given that 3 million puffins nest in the Westman Islands over the summer, their welfare is a matter of great importance.

Small, fluffy and even cuter than the adults – though lacking that characteristic yellow and orange beak – the babies are attracted by the bright lights of human homes and often get lost. So, says our guide, the local children are taught from a young age how to catch them safely and return them to the hills.

A trip to Iceland is full of heart-melting moments like that. Heart-stirring sights, too – and with its epic landscapes, incredible wildlife and charming locals, it’s a destination you can’t help falling in love with.

Get on board

12-night ‘Iceland’s Majestic Landscapes’ cruise aboard Viking Jupiter, from Bergen to Reykjavik via Flam, Alesund, Geiranger, Faroe Islands, Seydisfjordur, Akureyri and Isafjordur, departing 16 July 2023, from £4,790.

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