Iceland is one of my favorite places in the world, and over the past 30 years  I have cruised, explored on land, and combined cruises with land tours. Every time I’ve visited I’ve discovered new surprises, from fabulous cosmopolitan bookshops to Michelin-starred restaurants, and from spectacular sea-snow-mountain vistas to lava rock canyons that you travel through on Zodiac-style boats. Waterfalls are plentiful. If Iceland’s been in the headlines of late because of its active Litli-Hrútur eruption (now officially over) there’s so much more to see in this volcanic place.

Reyjavik’s downtown as captured from the top of Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Iceland’s plentiful hot springs beckon you for a soak and its farmlands and heaths, places of fishing and farming, and an interior that is largely uninhabited paint a more complete picture. Akureyri, Iceland’s northernmost metropolis, balances wildness in nature with culture in town.  Heimaey Island is the largest of the Vestmanna Islands, and is considered the Pompeii of Northern Europe because, one bad-weather night in 1973, a night when the fishermen on the island couldn’t go out on their boats to fish, a volcano erupted. Heimaey successfully evacuated all residents safely that night – just because the boats were all in the harbor.  It’s near Surtsey, Iceland’s newer island. Created by a volcano in the 1960s, it’s just one-square-mile island (named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Other places around Iceland’s coast that we loved discovering include Isafjordour and Seydisfjordur.

When to Go: Summer

In Iceland’s Isafjordur, summer has a foot in winter. Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown.

First trip? See These Places:  You’ll board your cruise in Reykjavik but make sure to factor in a couple of extra days to explore the city. It’s easy to book a tour to see the Golden Circle, outside the city, but try to find time to experience Reykjavik. I love to start with a visit at Hallgrimskirkja, its Lutheran cathedral, for both the music (there are concerts, especially in summer), and the views. Take the elevator to almost the top of the steeple (you can go even higher via a couple of sets of stairs) for the views, looking over all of the city and the sea beyond. Take a walking tour. Shop the cosmopolitan boutiques on downtown streets. Have a meal at Apotek, our own favorite restaurant, or at the Michelin-starred Dill, which is known for its traditional Icelandic cuisine with contemporary influences (book before you leave home). You’ve probably heard of the geo-thermal pools (and restaurants and hotels) at Blue Lagoon, out by the airport in Keflavik, and we also loved Sky Lagoon, with a similar social/wellness concept, that’s just outside of downtown Reykjavik, and a bit easier to get to.

Where else do you visit in on around-Iceland cruise? It’s easy to gush about Reykjavik but I love the other ports we’ve traveled to on several voyages, too. In Isafjordur, learn about trolls and go whalewatching. If you’re just poking around the small but picturesque town, visit Saltwerks, which makes sustainable salts via geothermal energy and has its production facility here (you can also buy its fantastic smoked salt at local supermarkets and, more expensively packaged, at the airport). Hike up the ridge that goes from town up the mountain for the most peaceful, placid, special views.

Summer in Iceland’s Akureyri is magical. Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Two (different days on two different voyages) was by no means enough time in Akureyri but it’s a start. On one, I opted for an urban experience. In this pretty city, I adored the botanical garden, just outside of town. I regret that it was a fleeting visit — would have loved to join locals by bringing a blanket, buying a picnic and wine, and simply enjoying the view across the fjord. Next time. As well, don’t miss its cosmopolitan downtown, ringed with art galleries.

On a country visit on the outskirts of Akureyri, the glacier canyon river rafting required a bit of derring-do (particularly for those in our group who ended the adventure by diving into the canyon’s waterway from a peaky rock; so many did it more than once!).

Sailing into Seydisfjordur. Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown

For a place that feels so remote, Seydisfjordur, on Iceland’s east side, has small cosmopolitan pockets that surprised and delighted, both. Skalanes Nature Reserve is a popular tour of the wilderness outside of the village, known for many species of birds. If you love waterfalls, opt for a (pretty intensive) hike up and around the Vestadlur Valley. I lost count after the 10th waterfall, and all offer different perspectives. Seydisfjordur also has a sweet, and small, “town center,” with a couple of restaurants (with outdoor beer gardens, a gracious church, a rainbow-painted roadway, and a couple of high-end craft boutiques.

Quirks: You’ll find the handsome and cosmopolitan Reykjavik (meaning “Bay of Smokes”), the cultural center and capital where tales of trolls and elves exist and persist. You’ll encounter temperatures of 31 in January and 51 in July, not exactly bathing suit weather (although the hot pools and geothermal waters all over Iceland mean you should definitely pack your bathing suit) but not Antarctica either.

Advice: In every port, there are a range of shore excursion options that span nature and culture, so no experience is the same. Equally, touring independently if you prefer, is generally pretty easy. Most people in Iceland speak English. Credit cards are widely accepted.

More Info: Iceland itineraries range from seven day roundtrips from Reykjavik to 18 day voyages that also incorporate northern Europe. Have you traveled to Iceland? Please feel free to share tips and experiences in the comments below.