With its cool climate and tucked-away location, Iceland isn’t exactly on the milk run. But on board 72-metre Nansen Explorer, guests can discover why the country’s unrivalled natural wonders should be on everyone’s charter wish list...
Kitted up in a dry suit I’m on a kayak, heading towards the spectacular Dynjandi waterfall, a towering geological marvel of 100 metres that is considered one of the most beautiful cascades in Iceland. Ribbons of white water hurtle into the plunge pool below, resembling an enormous bridal veil draping over the cliff face. It’s rightfully referred to as “The Jewel of the Westfjords”.
We’re paddling towards the thundering waterfall as a small flotilla, enabling us to explore the coastline at water level among families of eider and an inquisitive grey seal. But these dry suits aren’t to shield us from kayaking spills, as we soon find out after hopping ashore and walking to the base of Dynjandi. Following the lead of our exceptionally qualified Icelandic EYOS guide Dagný Ívarsdóttir, we enter the plunge pool for a swim alongside the cascading falls. Frolicking in the crystal-clear water and jumping into the pool from a nearby raised verge, the experience is invigorating and wildly liberating, especially when protected in our dry suits from the harsh chill of the Icelandic waters.
The Dynjandi waterfall sits in the inlet of Arnarfjörður, in Iceland’s Westfjords, and looks spectacular as we approach by boat. Visiting on 72-metre Nansen Explorer, we have the bay to ourselves. It is real isolation; one that doesn’t leave you yearning for human interaction or reaching for your smartphone – it’s Arcadia, and the towering peaks that surround us only reinforce that.
But not many yachts could offer such an escape. The unpredictable Icelandic weather can hold even the most capable superyachts hostage, but not Nansen Explorer. Starting her life as a research vessel, the ICE 1A+ vessel is polar alumni and, after a full refit by Nansen Polar Expeditions, she is fully equipped to take on the unforgiving swells of the North Atlantic Ocean without a struggle, which is how we find ourselves here after just one night at sea.
“What’s incredible is that we were in Reykjavik last night,” says Ben Lyons, EYOS’s CEO. “We sailed 165 nautical miles overnight in lumpy seas and the ship has still arrived here on time. It would have taken a more traditional superyacht three days to get up here.” Tucked up in one of Nansen Explorer’s spacious cabins, you could tell that the swells were on the larger side, and I was expecting our journey to be somewhat delayed. I never could have guessed that we travelled that distance without a hitch.
“The polar capabilities of Nansen Explorer really excite me,” adds the vessel’s captain, Sindre Holberg. “Her Ice Class 1A and powerful dual-engine set-up enables us to go where very few others can. With a 24-hour operation and a complete and competent bridge and engine team, we can go further and experience more.”
Experiencing more with an element of surprise is a major part of our Icelandic excursion; and something that EYOS prides itself on. Each evening we are given information about our location and a vague itinerary for the following day, but this is merely a hint of what’s to come, and throughout the trip a series of wonderfully exciting occurrences take place that elevate the experience to unforeseen heights.
We get our first taste of this during our second night on board. As we sit down for our supper of local Icelandic lamb, followed by a chocolate dacquoise cake topped with raspberries and passion fruit made by onboard chef Vide Brandt, our day should really be ending. But EYOS founding partner Tim Soper reveals that there is a final surprise in store and asks us to congregate back on the Zodiacs. We are then suddenly whisked off to the Reykjafjörður hot pool to bathe in the geothermal water, topped off with a glass of Bollinger and Montecristo cigars. It’s what Icelandic people would refer to as Rúsínan Í pylsuendanum, “the raisin at the end of the hot dog” – an unexpectedly great event.
To execute a project like this, it’s not just about picking the right boat. It’s clear that the team have worked wonders in bringing this astonishing vessel to life. As Nansen Polar Expeditions’ founding partner Martin Enckell explains, “Each of the crew has been meticulously hand-picked to deliver the best possible experience,” and it really shows. The team are expedition royalty, with Enckell having worked every season in the Arctic and Antarctica since 1999, and Nansen’s CEO, Audun Lie Dahl, recognised as one of the world’s premier wildlife photographers.
We’re treated to another culinary delight from chef Brandt as we pull into our next landing – eggs Benedict with salmon on freshly baked sourdough covered in a golden hollandaise sauce – the perfect way to set up for another full day of activities. We’re in the atmospheric abandoned village of Hesteyri in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve; a mark in Icelandic history with abandoned buildings and a rusting whaling station. This silent, forsaken settlement is highly evocative and fascinating to witness; it’s also the setting for the famed unsettling Icelandic novel I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and it’s easy to see why. Sombre clouds hang heavy over the hills above as we hike around the village, providing the perfect backdrop – pathetic fallacy like no other as we explore the green knolls along the coast.
So far, each of our landings has been significant to Iceland and its history – this is an incredible way to explore a country and understand its culture. Of course, Iceland’s wildlife plays a major role in this as we discover during our afternoon tour of Vigur, a small private island and one of the original settlements of Iceland. Vigur is also home to 7,000 breeding eider ducks, whose soft down is harvested. Just three tonnes of eider down is collected globally per year, which is enough for just 3,000 double duvets, making this an important location for these native birds. Arctic terns, fulmars and black guillemots also flock to the island, and remnants of puffin burrows are stippled along the island’s shoreline. It’s an astounding display of nature that has been preserved and protected by its inhabitants.
Upon leaving Vigur island and hopping back on board the Zodiacs, reported sightings of humpback whales reach us from the Nansen Explorer. Heading up the fjord between the gargantuan mountains, plumes of vapour from beneath the surface of the water tease us with the whales’ location, until one breaches the surface with its flukes. An hour of tail slapping, “spyhopping” (a whale version of treading water with its head above the surface), full breaches and fin waving leaves guests and crew astonished. Inches from the Zodiac our vast new companion is giving us the performance of a lifetime, in an emotional encounter that even our guides have never experienced before.
Pulses racing and pumped full of adrenaline, our debrief back in the saloon is filled with excitement – cameras and iPhones being passed around the group sharing different perspectives of this mind-blowing encounter. It’s an emotional overload and that’s when it strikes – this sensation is the crux of the Nansen Explorer.
Throughout our expedition, weather conditions have been perfect – brisk, yet pleasingly mild and fresh with little wind or rain. Early sea fog frames each morning, but the sight is more mystical than misty, adding to the magic of the dramatic scenery that surrounds the boat each morning. The millpond-like conditions in the fjord system have enabled us to take advantage of the Nansen Explorer’s kayaks and SUPs throughout our stay. We’ve immersed ourselves in the inky volcanic shoreline to experience the vibrancy of the wildlife tucked within it.
But up close and personal is just one angle, and having set out to show us the whole picture, EYOS wants to give us a completely different perspective. We wait as the sound of rotor blades grows louder and a helicopter approaches the ship for us to explore the fjords from the air. In an incredible display of skill, veteran Icelandic helicopter pilot Jón Spaði whips us up alongside the coastline, skimming over waterfalls and up over cliff faces, presenting us with the rippling terrain of Hvalfjörður. After just a few minutes in the air, we grasp the sheer scale and drama of the Icelandic landscape and follow the waterfalls from source to sea. Finally, we turn and head for the Nansen Explorer, which sits alone in the Hvalfjörður fjord, a reminder of how secluded we’ve been over the past few days, intertwined with the unspoiled landscape.
The objective was to experience and explore Iceland, and right now, after four days, I feel fully immersed in its culture, its nature and its landscape. Iceland is more than 1,500 nautical miles from the Mediterranean and a world away from the manicured beach clubs, shiny white boats and five-star hotels that line its shores, but the experience here has been like jumping feet first into the Dynjandi waterfall – wild and exhilarating.
Nansen Explorer is available for charter with EYOS, eyos.com.BOOK THE EXPERIENCE