An expedition cruise in Iceland with Lindblad

Iceland is full of anomalies, even when you're careful to sidestep the "fire and ice" cliche. For instance: it's midnight and bright as day, midsummer but cold enough to be swaddled in layers of thermals and fleeces, and I'm standing on the island of Grimsey off the north coast looking at what could be the highest Hills Hoist in the world, by latitude at least, its pegged clothes flapping in a stiff Arctic breeze. 

It's just another after-dinner excursion on this 10-day Lindblad Expeditions cruise aboard the MS National Geographic Explorer.

Expedition cruises don't play by the rules that apply to regular cruises. For one thing, their schedules are determined by the weather and wildlife sightings, not port schedules and ground operators. 

Then there's the way we get from ship to shore. Being a small ship, accommodating only 148 passengers, the Explorer can glide into shallow fiords and bring us alongside small docks serving isolated fishing communities. 

More often, however, we arrive at stony beaches – accompanied by naturalists and National Geographic photographers, not tour guides – by Zodiac, stepping into shin-deep water in our gumboots before changing into walking shoes for short hikes to glacier-fed waterfalls or the ruins of long-gone Viking settlements.

Sometimes cruising by Zodiac is an end in itself. On the morning of day four we use them to explore the Langanes Peninsula in Iceland's remote north-east for a couple of hours, puttering into sea-filled lava tubes, birdwatching North Atlantic puffins and peering at kelp writhing in ice-clear water. 

On the way back to the Explorer, we're intercepted by the ship's hotel manager, Anders, in a Zodiac of his own. Wearing a horned Viking helmet and a wig of woollen plaits, he pours us warming mugs of hot chocolate laced with peppermint schnapps, a reminder that creature comforts are never far away on a Lindblad expedition.

That night, there's a reminder of a different kind: one of the best things about expedition cruising in this part of the world, in summer, is the almost 24-hour daylight that makes after-dinner excursions possible.

While we're dining on lobster bisque and grilled Arctic char, the ship drops anchor off Grimsey, Iceland's northernmost island. Twenty-odd nautical miles from the mainland, it's not much to look at: a chunk of green only 5.3 square kilometres in area, rising only 105 metres above sea level and home to only 155 hardy folk who survive by fishing, farming and collecting seabird eggs. 

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But it does have one claim to fame: Grimsey Island is the only place in Iceland where you can stand in the Arctic, the rest of the country lying south of the Arctic Circle. 

With no other ships in sight, we zip ashore in the Zodiacs and step onto a concrete dock at Grimsey's tiny port. 

It's a wild part of a wild country. As we stroll along a narrow road in the 10pm sunshine, Arctic terns defending their nests dive-bomb the unwary, long grass conceals the edges of death-fall sea cliffs, that Hills Hoist swings around madly and the modest Arctic Circle signpost, our destination, reminds us just how far we all are from home by showing the distances to various cities (Sydney is a whopping 16,317 kilometres away). 

Suddenly a tractor comes barrelling down a service road, driven by a teenaged boy and his sister or sweetheart. They're the first and last people we see.

Stepping off the road to let them pass, I glance over the adjacent cliff edge and see thousands of puffins nesting on rocky ledges, not two metres from my feet. 

I crouch down, camera in hand, using the long grass as a hide, but soon give up on photography to just look at these "penguins of the north" with their harlequin beaks and their ungainly takeoffs and landings. Far below, a black sand beach is shushed by gentle waves rolling in from an endless steel-grey sea. 

Before the last Zodiac back to the ship at midnight, there's time for a brief souvenir stop at the island's only gift shop, a tiny room bursting with hand-knitted socks and Icelandic sweaters. 

Then I'm speeding back to the Explorer, licking sea spray from my lips and feeling wind-chilled to the bone, content in the knowledge that within minutes I'll be in my comfortable cabin where the housekeeping staff will have drawn the blackout blinds, turned down the bed and left a chocolate on my pillow, and where I'll fall asleep to the rumble of the ship's engines taking us to tomorrow's adventure. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/iceland

inspiredbyiceland.com

FLY

Finnair flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Reykjavik via Asian cities such as Singapore and Tokyo, and Helsinki. See finnair.com/au/gb/

CRUISE

Lindblad Expeditions' 10-day Circumnavigation of Iceland cruises run in June and July and start at an all-inclusive $12,840 per person. See au.expeditions.com

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.

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