by Neil McQuillian, The Telegraph, July 27, 2018
My sleep cracked open. It was the ship’s intercom that did it − activating with its static tap-pop noise. I wriggled deeper into my duvet as a voice, apologetically low, said: “Sorry to wake you, ladies and gentlemen…”
A pause. “I thought I should let you know…” A cough.
At this point I recognised the voice of Sven-Olof Lindblad, owner of adventure-cruise company Lindblad Expeditions. When I’d gone off to bed at 3am I’d left Lindblad with a party of local musicians who had also joined the cruise. The group included members of acclaimed Icelandic band múm.
The intercom crackled white noise. Then, right on cue, the big reveal: “A humpback whale is breaching in front of the ship. You may like to come and see.”
May like? Throwing off the duvet I slipped commando into my clothes and headed out into the cold. Insofar as Iceland has a “night” in July, this was the middle of it. But I hadn’t known true darkness since arriving five days earlier. I fumbled my way to the bow and gazed into a soothing vista of inky water, gunmetal-grey cloud and steep-sided fjords melding into mist. The light looked tired, as if it wanted to go to sleep, but couldn’t.
Then, a hundred metres or so away, the whale blew. The landscape appeared to freeze around its plume and, with an unforgettable flick of its blue-grey tail, the whale breached.
Cruising from the capital, Reykjavík, to Iceland’s northernmost peninsula, Hornstrandir, just south of the Arctic Circle, we had enjoyed some fine sights already – from the Golden Circle, which we toured on one of the Reykjavík-based days before setting sail, to the previous afternoon’s exploration of Flatey, a seasonally inhabited island where I had watched puffins and Arctic terns. But I’d never heard a whale blow, and the “wows!” and “woahs!” of fellow passengers, as we poured ourselves coffee after the sighting, told me all I needed to know.
Intrepid and informed, passengers on board National Geographic Explorer were a far cry from those I had expected to encounter. One evening, before casting anchor, we had dinner on Viðey island near Reykjavík. As the nail-free construction of a historic building was explained to us by a guide, one couple peered intently into the rafters, arms folded as if challenged, like they may just have to go straight home and recreate it (only better).
I later learnt that Jack and Fran – who have been travelling with Lindblad since the 70s – built New Jersey’s first solar house in 1978, using 5,000 Budweiser cans. There were other devotees on this trip, although not every Lindblad expedition has Sven − the son of Lars-Eric Lindblad, who took the first non-scientific parties to Antarctica and the Galápagos in 1966 and 1967 respectively − as its leader. (“The man was a genius,” Sven would tell me later). This was the first time he had invited a cast of locals, from academics to musicians, to join the cruise, and he wasn’t going to miss out.
This “Iceland Hangout”, as they called it, has evolved into the 11-day Circumnavigation of Iceland itinerary, which also features the presence of specially invited Icelandic guests representing facets of the nation’s civic and cultural life, plus musicians from Reykjavík’s famed music scene, performing on board and ashore.
Lindblad partners with The National Geographic Society for all its small-ship expeditions. As you may expect, Explorer bristles with tech, from hydrophones to HD cameras. On-board photography experts help you squeeze every last exquisite pixel from your DSLR, while bow cameras and video-microphones pick up every last detail of the voyage. On Explorer, the company’s commitment to exploration is highlighted by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which reaches depths of up to 660ft and transmits images back to the ship for your cocktail-in-hand viewing pleasure. It’s not impossible that you will witness something entirely new to science.
Expert photographers helped us as we groped after Iceland’s ethereal light; historians and naturalists of all stripes were always at hand. Not only did the ship share National Geographic’s name, but being on board felt like walking through the pages of one of its magazines. Just as the ROV expanded my sense of what lay beneath us, having the locals on board, always ready for a chat (Lindblad: “They are essentially artists-in-residence. Go up and talk to them...”) helped me get a grip on the country.
The Icelandic guests were invited as much for their conversational skills as for their learning. A fair portion of chats took place at mealtimes – where I found the food to be a cut above the usual expedition-cruise sustenance – or in the main lounge amid sophisticated orange-brown decor − same colour as the US$7 pints of Grolsch.
For all the scientific aspects of the cruise, there was no compromise on comfort. I soon grew accustomed to the little luxuries on board such as toilet-roll ends folded into triangles and chocolates on pillows at the nightly turn-down. The 148-passenger ship carries kayaks and a fleet of zodiacs.
One morning, we were invited to a talk about Iceland’s infamous banking collapses, given by four local women with very different takes on the subject. During one early evening presentation over beers and nibbles, resident geologist, Grace, presented a slide show of unabashed science-class geekiness. “I bet all of you are thinking, ‘What’s that interesting feature?’” she said, as an impenetrable diagram appeared on the screen. “It’s a...” – and here she slid in some explanatory text – “…feeder dyke!” She said this like a TV-show host announcing the main prize.
On Flatey Island I explored alone. I came across a row of fish drying on wooden stakes; I bought jam from the roadside, throwing coins into an honesty box; I watched puffins bob through the sky like boats cresting waves and Arctic terns wheel in arcs against the wind. Entering a tiny church, I found a historian – a Lindblad plant – waiting to explain the building’s enigmatic ceiling, with its net-wielding puffin catcher. I learnt how a Spaniard, Baltasar Samper, painted the ceiling in return for lodging on the island, and how the dark figure in one corner, bearing shield and sword, represented pre-Christian times.
Yet Lindblad’s experts also knew when to shut up. Björk has spoken of the “sacredness” of her homeland’s landscape, and on the final day, just south of the Arctic Circle, we visited a waterfall – Fjallfoss. As I gazed at it I experienced quiet, profound rhapsodies. Judging by the silence around me, so did everybody else.
An 11-day Circumnavigation of Iceland cruise with National Geographic costs from £7,800pp, including flights. The round trip from Reykjavík departs on July 15 and 24 and August 2 and 11, 2019. Sven-Olof Lindblad will be on the inaugural voyage of Lindblad-National Geographic’s new ship Venture in December, as she sails the coast of California (0800 440 2549; expeditions.com).