HAIMAEY, Iceland — "Are you ready for an adventure?"
The cheerful guide speaking to us from the front of the 36-foot-long RibSafari boat signals the driver to flip a switch, and the chest-thumping opening notes of Queen's We Will Rock You erupt from speakers all around us.
We have been dressed head-to-toe in bright yellow survival suits and told to hang on tight, and soon we find out why. As we begin to bob our heads to the music, the driver opens up the throttle on two giant, 400-horsepower engines, and we blast out of the Haimaey harbor in a cloud of sea spray.
Moments later we are racing along the soaring lava cliffs that line the volcanic island, banking sharply around rocky outcroppings and darting into deep black sea caves. We stop to admire unusual rock formations that resemble elephants and dinosaurs, and we watch as hundreds of puffins dive into the sea from cliff-side perches.
"It gives you a new perspective on the place," quips Lilija Kubilius, a sprightly, 76-year-old retiree from Philadelphia who is here with her daughter and granddaughter. "You always see more of a country if you can get away from the bus tours and out into the middle of it."
Out into the middle of it, indeed.
Kubilius has arrived in remote Haimaey, just off the coast of mainland Iceland, on Windstar Cruises' Star Pride. It's a small, 212-passenger vessel that is operating an expansive new Iceland itinerary designed to give travelers plenty of such opportunities to dive deep into the suddenly booming destination.
In fact, the ship is making a complete circumnavigation of the country — one of the newest trends in cruising.
Windstar became the first traditional cruise line to operate regular circlings of the Kentucky-size island nation last summer when it deployed one of its six ships to the itinerary, and this summer it has doubled down on the route with a second vessel.
Ranging from seven to eleven nights in length, the voyages offer travelers an easy way to get to some of Iceland's most remote areas and see the full range of its famously striking landscapes, from geothermal fields of geysers and fumaroles to mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls.
"We're getting to see a little bit of everything," notes Star Pride passenger Karen Brower, of Butte, Mont., moments after emerging from a maze of giant, hardened lava formations known as the Catacombs of Hell.
Brower is on an all-day excursion out of the port of Akureyri to the otherworldly Lake Myvatn area, which also is home to the spectacular geothermal fields of Hverir. She and her companions gaze over a Mars-like landscape pocked with bubbling, boiling mud pots, hissing steam vents and sticky red soil. The smell of sulfur oozing from deep within the earth is overwhelming.
"It's really interesting to see the different expressions of the same forces as we have at home," says Brower, who lives just a few hours from the geothermal areas of Yellowstone National Park. "But, unlike home, this is such new land."
Located along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are splitting apart with explosive volcanic force, Iceland is, indeed, one of the newest places on Earth, and it's still growing. During tours of Haimaey, passengers see frozen-in-place lava flows from a 1973 eruption that expanded the island by 20% even as it buried a third of its harbor town. Near Lake Myvatn, rugged lava flows just a few hundred years old reach like fingers into the valleys.
If the stops on the itinerary have a common denominator, it's the emptiness of the landscape. With no more than a few thousand people a piece, the small towns where Star Pride ties up quickly give way to vast expanses of sparsely-populated backcountry.
Still, each of Star Pride's calls bring something a little different. At Isafjordur, on Iceland's fjord-spiked West Coast, some passengers head out kayaking, while others ride a boat to a nearby island to see Eider ducks in their natural environment. In Grundarfjordur, along the remote Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a popular outing is a hike onto the glacier atop nearby Snæfellsjökull volcano — made famous in Jules Verne's 19th century classic Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Upscale but with a laid back atmosphere, Star Pride also has its own water sports platform, which opens for one of the highlights of the trip: A "polar plunge" into the frigid waters just off Grundarfjordur. Even at the height of summer, the water isn't even 50 degrees.
The Iceland itinerary is typical of the unusual offerings available from Windstar, which is a leader in cruises on small vessels that carry just a few hundred passengers. The small size of Star Pride and its sister ships allow them to tuck into tiny harbors and hidden coves that are off limits to bigger vessels, and the line's schedule is full of trips that take advantage of that with stops in remote locales.
With barely 100 cabins spread over three decks, Star Pride feels more like a large yacht than a small cruise ship. Passengers spend much of their time on board in one of just two main public spaces: The forward-facing Yacht Club observation lounge or the aft-facing Compass Rose bar. There's also a single main restaurant, casual buffet eatery, small casino, spa, fitness center, library and shop.
"The size of the ship makes it a very personal experience," says Neal Mayer, of Millsboro, Delaware, a veteran of seven Windstar voyages who says he has no interest in the giant vessels that many lines are building.
Pausing to talk during a Windstar-organized reception at a quirky machinery museum in Seydisfjordur, on Iceland's east coast, Mayer says he's attracted by the camaraderie among passengers that is typical of smaller ships. Like other Windstar vessels, Star Pride draws a sophisticated and lively crowd that likes to be social. Passengers gather around the pool bar at cocktail hour to share stories of the day's adventures, and they crowd into Compass Rose after dinners for dancing.
It’s the perfect ship for exploring an off-the-beaten-path destination such as Iceland, Mayer adds.
“We don’t want big crowds,” he says. “This is just about right.”
If you go ...
Windstar Cruises offers circumnavigations of Iceland each summer on the 212-passenger Star Pride or one of its sister vessels. The seven-night Around Iceland voyages begin and end in Reykjavik and include stops at Heimaey Island, Seydisfjordur, Akureyri, Isafjordur and Grundarfjordur.
Windstar also offers 11-night Lands of the Midnight Sun sailings to Norway, Denmark and Scotland that begin or end in Iceland.