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Is this the world's most dramatic cruise destination?

A huge roar erupted as I entered the dining room. Passengers were rushing to the starboard windows to see whales – lots of them. To scenes of mild hysteria on board the animals arced gracefully out of the water. Fine blowhole sprays peppered the water’s surface. Finally, a huge tail was flourished aloft, waving us farewell as we sailed out of Eyjafjördur, Iceland’s longest fjord, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

My four days in Iceland saw me puffin-watching in Reykjavik, standing astride the Grjótagjá Rift (with one foot in North America, the other in Europe) and jumping out of my skin every time a geyser spontaneously erupted.

The Grjxf3;tagjxe1; Rift in Iceland
The Grjótagjá Rift in Iceland Credit: AP

We had arrived in Iceland aboard P&O Cruises’ Azura via Stornoway and Belfast, where I had enjoyed a fascinating tour of the First World War battleship HMS Caroline, which opened to visitors in June 2016, and visited the Titanic Experience. Iceland, however, was the main draw for me – and I was not disappointed.

The Golden Circle tour I took from Reykjavik, our first port of call, showed off the Icelandic landscape in all its glory. Craggy lava fields and ice-dappled mountains provided a splendid backdrop to tapestries of purple lupins and billowing fumaroles. The air was as clear as the roads – 85 per cent of the nation’s houses are heated with geothermal energy, according to our guide.

I witnessed the raw power of mighty Gullfoss – the Golden Waterfall – before strolling through the rift in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Unesco World Heritage listed Thingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates have pulled apart. Iceland’s first parliament was formed here more than 1,000 years ago. 

We followed our noses to Geysir’s rotten-egg-smelling sulphur springs and bubbling mud pools, and Strokkur Geyser, which ejected a 75ft column of boiling water intermittently. The earth’s crust here is as delicate as an eggshell.

Thingvellar National Park
Thingvellar National Park Credit: AP

That evening, it was eggs again – quails’ eggs served with tartare of cured Scandinavian salmon at a food and wine pairing dinner hosted by television presenter Olly Smith in the ship’s smart Glass House restaurant. His enthusiasm for the wines – from Canada, Portugal, Australia and the US – was as lively as the wonderful Peller ice-wine, made from grapes frozen on the vine.

Afterwards, we danced off the calories in the Asian-inspired Malabar bar to an excellent live band, while some passengers opted for ballroom dancing in the glitzy atrium.

Snowcapped mountains in Reykjavik
Snowcapped mountains in Reykjavik Credit: boyloso - Fotolia

On my second day in Reykjavik I boarded a hop-on hop-off bus for a guided tour of this surprisingly modern city, rather than taking the ship’s free shuttle into town. 

In hindsight, the Segway and tuk-tuk city tours would have been fun. I marvelled at the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja church, designed in the shape of a basalt lava flow, and enjoyed a delicious seafood crêpe in a lively café.

Reykjavik was as small as the tiny Atlantic puffins I spotted during a chilly bird-watching trip booked at the quay. Wings flapping 400 times a minute, they were easy to spot among the guillemots and Arctic terns.

A flock of puffins in Iceland
A flock of puffins in Iceland Credit: AP

The following morning, as we cruised towards Isafjördur in the Westfjords peninsula, early risers were in for a treat as ice-capped mountains plunged spectacularly into a glassy sea. Delight soon turned to dismay after we moored and had to wait an hour for a tender to go ashore: some ports were too small to accommodate the 3,100-passenger Azura. 

However, a big ship has many advantages, including spacious cabins (mine came with queen-size bed, balcony and lounge area with sofa), three pools, large gym and spa and seven excellent restaurants, including two outstanding celebrity-chef options.

By day, the speciality dining restaurant Epicurean offered master pâtissier Eric Lanlard’s twist on afternoon tea (£28): smoked duck breast in a dark chocolate macaroon; lemon-scented scones, and tiny cones topped with Persian candyfloss.

Master pxe2;tissier Eric Lanlardx2019;s twist on afternoon tea
Master pâtissier Eric Lanlard’s twist on afternoon tea

At night, Epicurean dished up Michelin-inspired food – and oodles of surprises. A “lipstick” I was given between courses hid a fruit-jelly palate cleanser inside. Waistcoat-suited waiters presented dishes with theatre and panache. Zingy crêpes suzette were flambéed at the table; Dover sole was filleted with surgeon-like precision. At £30, the cover charge was a steal.

A few nights later, we dined at Atul Kochhar’s Sindhu restaurant, where the magic continued. Hot water poured over a tiny napkin made it grow tall and my taste buds were thrown into disarray with roasted rabbit tikka, lavender chicken korma and a memorable five-spiced chocolate pudding served with blood-orange sorbet. 

Atul Kochlar's Sindhu restaurant
Atul Kochlar's Sindhu restaurant

Food in the main restaurants was excellent but less exotic – Azura is largely an all-British ship.

Our final Icelandic port was Akureyri, in the north, where our opera-singing tour guide entertained us with Viking myths and legends. We drank in the beauty of Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods), the tranquillity of Lake Mývatn, the colours of the Grjótagjá geothermal cave pool and the sculpture-like rock formations of the Dimmuborgir lava fields.

On our way home to Southampton we would call at sleepy Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, with its winding streets, whisky shops and stunning stained-glass-windowed town hall, followed by Kirkwall, on Orkney with excursions to Balfour Castle (exclusive access) for afternoon tea and to Neolithic sites including the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae village.

Sunset at Lake Myvatn
Sunset at Lake Myvatn Credit: AP

As Iceland receded, and darkness fell for the first time in a week, I knew we were on our way home.  

Essentials

P&O Cruises offers a 14-night Ireland, Iceland and Scotland cruise round-trip from Southampton on board Azura, departing June 30, 2017. From £1,699pp (0843 373 0111; pocruises.com). 

Original author: Kathryn

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