The Sylvia Earle in Hólmavík.
Catch coastal vignettes and meet local creatives in the Arctic Circle.
Our trek to the official Arctic Circle marker on Iceland’s tiny Grímsey Island began uneventfully. But then, midway through, I looked up from the trail to find myself surrounded by grazing sheep, hundreds of flying Atlantic puffins, dramatic cliffs, and the sparkling ocean – all in one frame-worthy moment. A few minutes later, three Icelandic horses appeared in the distance, their emo bangs flopping in the chilly wind. Iceland, I quickly realized, is always putting on a show.
“Iceland is colder, wetter, and windier than you’d expect. Bring layers, good socks, waterproof shoes, and a warm hat (or two). Don’t forget your bathing suit for hot-springs dips.” – Maureen “Mo” Smith
An Icelandic horse in its element.
It was my first visit to the island nation – a long-awaited chance to photograph the country’s dramatic landscapes, feel the spray of larger-than-life waterfalls, and spot those iconic horses. On a ten-night circumnavigation of the country, Aurora Expeditions’ 132-passenger Sylvia Earle docked in rarely visited ports, which we often had entirely to ourselves. Beginning in Reykjavík, the ship followed a clockwise route to hit Kirkjufellsfoss on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the Westfjords in the northwest, and small coastal towns such as Seydisfjördur in the east. In some ports, we boarded a coach, heading inland to cozy villages or adventures on land. Everywhere, papery Icelandic poppies lined sidewalks and paths, blooming from cracks in the asphalt.
Nature’s splatter paint on guillemot eggshells.
Stops in uncrowded far-north ports brought the chance to meet cool locals. In Hjalteyri, along one of Iceland’s longest fjords, Strýtan DiveCenter owner Erlendur Bogason displayed shells, coral, and Royal Navy ceramics that his team had recovered on dives in Eyjafjördur, as well as teardrop-shaped guillemot eggshells he’d recently gathered. Adjacent to the dive shop, tanner Lene Zachariassen spun sustainable yarn from natural fibers such as arctic fox hair in a former herring-processing factory. And The Old Bookstore in Flateyri was a thoughtfully curated shop (stationery, pens, ribbons, books, and small home goods) in a Westfjords town of around 267 people, run by fourth-generation owner Eythór Jóvinsson – a reminder that there are creative people bringing beauty to the world even in the most far-flung places.
Atlantic puffins, also known as the clowns of the sea.
Downtime at sea passed quickly in the ship’s glass-walled library, where I researched the flora and fauna we’d seen along the way (and edited hundreds of puffin photos, naturally). The Sylvia Earle hosts a citizen-science program, which invites travelers to collect data on seabird, whale, and phytoplankton sightings. The majority-female team of ecologists, naturalists, and marine biologists led excursions and hosted lectures on subjects from birdlife to the Icelandic language, which were a hit with my cohort of well-traveled passengers. Since I sailed during the midnight-sun season, I was out on the balcony of my spacious cabin catching good light for photos late into the night.
On our final day, as we cruised back to Reykjavík, the intercom rang out with news of a possible whale sighting, bringing most passengers to the deck. We waited and watched. A whale tail here, a whale tail there, and then, suddenly, a young humpback breached. Iceland couldn’t let us leave without one last display.