A Berg in the Hand

In search of a cruise with a bit of bite, Peter Hughes journeys above the Arctic Circle onboard the Seabourn Quest, alongside several thousand migratory birds

Peter Hughes
Country Life – Winter 2018/2019

Vigur Island is a splinter of rock and grass that lies off the north coast of Iceland. In summer, it appears as a bright-green sliver of land between the steely waters of the Greenland Sea and the snow-flecked mountains of the mainland. Two people and 70 sheep live there permanently, but they’re joined by 60,000 puffins, 10,000 Arctic terns and 7,000 eider ducks each May.

The island is tiny – just over a mile long and 1,300ft wide – yet it’s a place so curious that, along with its transitory bird population, it attracts a similar seasonal migration of human visitors. They come mainly to see the eiders: Vigur’s principal natural resource is feathers or, more accurately, down.

It’s a bizarre story. Females grow down on their chests that, conveniently, they pluck themselves to insulate their nests. The island’s owners collect it, clean it and sell it for $3,000 (£2,335) a kilo. They gather up to 60kg (130lb) a year. Considering the stuff is only a little heavier than smoke, that’s a lot.

It was refreshing to find that our much-travelled world can still come up with even some micro-surprises – especially as I was on a cruise. This one, however, was different. The ship, Seabourn Quest, is a hybrid. Part expedition ship, part five-star resort, it’s a bit like finding Claridge’s at Everest base camp. If ‘expedition’ sounds a bit hair shirt, Quest’s shirt is emphatically silky. There are stage shows, concerts and deck parties, as well as lectures on the Vikings and seabirds.

In 15 days, we sailed from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, to Norway’s North Cape and the northernmost point of continental Europe on the island of Magerøya, about 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. From there, we turned south to cruise through the fjords to Denmark and disembarked in Copenhagen.

Travelling in these northern latitudes is different, too. It’s a form of serene retreat, a withdrawal to an ethereal world of permanent daylight, June snow, mountains, tundra and the preoccupations of isolation, of fisher folk and reindeer herders. It’s like seeking sanctuary in the Earth’s attic, away from the squabbles and stress just audible downstairs.

There were 412 of us, mostly Americans and Australians. That’s more than on many dedicated expedition ships, but relatively few in cruising generally. The trip to Vigur Island, for instance, was certainly not impersonal. About 30 of us were landed from Zodiac inflatables to be shown round by the owners’ 22-year-old daughter. It was hardly mass tourism.

The Zodiacs were launched about a mile from Vigur, while the ship carried on up the fjord. It would take us a good hour, bumping about in the Zodiacs to catch up. There were compensations: puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and a humpback whale breaching, repeatedly, just 300ft away, plus there were guillemots, oystercatchers, geese and, on either side, big bare hills in camouflage colours, streaked with snow.

It was a good introduction to the dual personality of Seabourn Quest. The ship is part boulevardier, part outdoorsman: you can be in a dinner jacket eating lobster thermidor one night – there were two formal evenings – and strapping on a life jacket for a Zodiac trip the next morning.

Zodiacs are the basic tools of expedition cruising. Although they look like rubber dinghies, they perform like assault craft. Quest carries nine.

Quest is also reputed to carry $1 million (more than £775,000) worth of caviar, between 40kg and 50kg (88lb-110lb) of which are served on a two-week cruise. Because Seabourn’s fares are lavishly inclusive, you can order it – along with champagne – whenever you have the urge, without paying a penny extra. There are additional charges for shore excursions, wi-fi (depending on the room) and spa treatments, but not for wines, spirits, crew gratuities or meals at any of the four restaurants.

For all the excellence of the food, the debonair light-wood décor, spacious suites – nearly all with balconies – and bathrooms done out in marble, Quest’s single most sybaritic quality is the exceptional level of service. Plus, of course, the adventure.

At Harstad in Norway, I went kayaking. My struggle to fit into a one-piece orange survival suit felt like a cross between bondage and special ops, but it was repaid by a crisp morning on the water beneath hundreds of wheeling Arctic terns, which are notoriously aggressive when nesting. Either we were too early in the season to worry them or they were confused by the sudden appearance of an unfamiliar pod of yellow canoes, but they confined themselves to irritable squealing.

The morning’s real reward was to witness an aerobatic avian dogfight, as a white-tailed sea eagle was ruthlessly mobbed by a pair of Arctic skuas. There was also the thought of the Champagne and caviar awaiting you back on board.