REYKJAVIK, Iceland — As I prepared to board Silversea Cruise Lines' small luxury ship, the Silver Cloud, I couldn't help thinking that a less foreboding embarkation site might be advisable. In order to get to the ship's check-in, I had to pass a small park with a memorial dedicated to all the Icelandic boats — large and small — that had met a doomed fate in the raging waters of the North Atlantic.
It was not the most encouraging sight for one embarking on a 10-day cruise through those same waters.
Still, my excitement at once again cruising on one of my favorite lines, and on an itinerary — Iceland and Greenland — vastly different from the usual steel band and rum-punch ports of call, trumped any trepidation I might have.
Once aboard and settled in my spacious stateroom, all thoughts of the crowded conditions in this part of Davy Jones' Locker vanished. Like many seasoned travelers, I am a devotee of small ship cruising, and the Silver Cloud, which accommodates only 296 passengers, fits that category perfectly.
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Silver Cloud, along with her sister ship, Silver Wind, is the smallest of the line's five ships, and therefore able to get into places that can't accommodate larger vessels. This proved just the ticket for navigating tricky waters (icebergs are common even in summer in the North Atlantic) and anchoring in smaller ports.
As I got to know my fellow passengers better, I discovered that most of them — Silversea frequent cruisers and those who were on their first voyage with the line — had chosen this trip specifically for the itinerary. It soon became apparent why.
Lands of 'Fire and Ice'
Iceland is an epic land — think Game of Thrones epic (many of the exterior shots for the series were filmed here). Its tumultuous geology and geography, where the ferocious powers of nature rampage unchecked, have given the land its wild, unscripted landscape.
Dazzling white glaciers contrast with black sand beaches; rugged lava fields co-exist with lush green valleys. There are very few trees, but an abundance of wildflowers and vegetation. If the chilling splendor of the Vatnajökull Glacier is the yin, the sizzling volcanoes that pepper the island are the yang.
One of them, Bardarbunga, started rumbling while I was there, but its temper tantrum proved minor compared to that of Eyjafjallajökull, which blew its top in 2010. Ash from the cloud of gases it spewed forced cancellation of thousands of flights for weeks after the eruption. This is an island that packs a mighty wallop, and on occasion, it feels the need to remind us.
Still, it has its gentler side. A tourist video informed me that the most amazing thing about Iceland is not the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon or that it is the most literate nation on Earth, but that nearly half its population believes in elves.
Reykjavik, situated on a bay under the watchful eye of Mt. Esja, is the world's northernmost capital of a sovereign nation. An easily walkable city where book stores, craft shops and seafood restaurants are housed in colorful cottages, it has a vibrant culture and striking architecture.
Two of the most remarkable buildings are Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland's largest church, and Harpa, its iconic concert hall. The church, which took 38 years to complete, is designed to resemble the basalt lava flow of the island's landscape. The Harpa, overlooking the harbor, has spectacular geometric shaped glass panels of varying colors.
While I knew I would like Iceland, I was surprised at how enchanted I was with Greenland. At 836,109 square miles, it's the largest island in the world, excluding the continents of Antarctica and Australia, and with just over 55,000 people, the most sparsely populated country on earth.
Most of the interior is covered in ice, but the coastal villages the Silver Cloud visits — Nanortalik, Qaqortoq and Nuuk — are a delight.
Nanortalik ("place of polar bears"), Greenland's southernmost town, is a mosaic of deep fjords and high, rugged mountains. It has a picturesque harbor, an interesting church reminiscent of those found in Scandinavia (not surprising since Greenland is a territory of Denmark), and fields of wildflowers, lichens and mosses.
Qaqortoq is a fishing village where houses painted in vivid shades of blue, red, yellow and green dot the cliffs above the harbor. The fountain in the main square is the oldest in Greenland, and there is a unique sculpture park, Stone and Man, an open-air exhibition where many of the 40 contemporary art works are carved into the rock of cliff faces.
Nuuk, the capital, is the largest city in Greenland (although large is a relative term). There was a settlement of Paleo-Eskimo people here as far back as 2200 B.C. Viking explorers arrived in the 10th century, and the Inuits came shortly thereafter. The history, archaeology and art of all three groups are on view in the Greenland National Museum, which contains the Qilakitsoq mummies.
Perhaps nowhere in Greenland is as scenic as Prince Christian Sound. On the full-day passage through the Sound, Silver Cloud passengers marveled at translucent waters studded with icebergs, and some of the world's largest glaciers, which can travel as fast as 30 miles in a day.
All aboard for luxury
Still, as exciting as a destination may be, it's the thrill of being on the ship that attracts many repeat cruisers, and repeat cruisers Silversea has in abundance. One gentleman I met told me it was his 17th sailing with the line, and added that before the cruise ended, he would be signing up for number 18.
"Where will you go?" I asked, wondering if there could possibly be any place he hadn't been.
"It doesn't matter," he replied. "I just love sailing with these folks."
What is it about Silversea that inspires such loyalty?
For starters, it might be, as suggested earlier, the size of the ships. Unlike the mega-ships, which can accommodate up to 5,000 passengers, Silversea's ships have an intimacy that is pleasing to many cruisers. With just eight decks, it was easy to find my way around the Silver Cloud.
Some spots became focal points for shipboard life. The seventh-floor library appealed to serious types, who liked to start their morning with the newspaper or the daily crossword puzzles and trivia quizzes. The party crowd quickly found the sixth-floor Venetian Lounge, site of the evening entertainment. Nearly everyone gravitated to the eighth-floor Panorama Lounge, which from early morning coffee to late evening cocktails, was the place to go for the best viewing.
Another plus is that for such a small ship, the Silver Cloud has a surprising number of dining options. In addition to the main dining room, passengers can have their meals in the casual La Terrazza Restaurant or the more formal Le Champagne where the menu was created by Relais and Chateaux Grand Chefs.
The Pool Bar & Grill is usually reserved for milder climes, but ours was a hardy group of seafarers, and nearly every evening, passengers with blankets draped around their shoulders, chose to dine al fresco.
The Silver Cloud offered a variety of activities — from early morning sunrise walks with the personal trainer to afternoon tea to a nightly show featuring the Artists of Silversea.
There were coffee chats and champagne tastings; supervised bridge lessons and unsupervised shuffleboard games. You can be as active (Pathway to Pilates or golf putting, anyone?) or as inactive (fully stocked library) as you want.
In the long run, every passenger leaves with his/her own special memory. Mine came on a clear night where the stars hung in the sky like icy points of light. The filmy haze that drifted across that sky may or may not have been the Aurora Borealis paying an early visit (I chose to believe it was).
What was undeniable, however, was the sharp outline of the Seven Sisters and the Big Dipper, so close I felt I could reach out and touch them.