Barren beach landscape. (Photo: Fotolia)
The extraordinary landscape runs from lush, green and inviting to barren, black and eerie. (Photo: Fotolia)

Discovering Iceland

You may find yourself planning a second visit before the first one even ends.

Iceland made headlines worldwide—and posed a challenge to spellers everywhere—when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010. It spewed tons of ash into the atmosphere and caused havoc for pilots and nearly 10 million passengers. The event represented a rare moment in the spotlight for this little country, which is about the size of Kentucky and usually goes unnoticed by much of the world. 

Raw nature in extreme sets Iceland apart: this is where you’ll find not only fiery volcanoes but frozen glaciers, ancient lava fields covered in moss and a break in the Earth’s tectonic plates. The extraordinary landscape runs from lush, green and inviting to barren, black and eerie. Stand under gushing waterfalls, smell sulfur around boiling mud pots, or be mesmerized by Northern Lights. All of these experiences will leave you feeling small and insignificant and make you realize you’re totally in the hands of Mother Nature. 

The Icelandic people are a hearty breed who have been isolated for centuries and have roots that date back to the Vikings. Scandinavian descendants mixed with Scottish and Irish and created a population that can withstand cold temperatures and strong food and drink. Overall, they are very liberal minded, though they remain fiercely protective of traditions, like the ones related to the naming of children. (For example, they use the last name to reflect the father or mother and not the historic family lineage.) The literacy rate tops the scale at 100 percent. Thankfully for Americans, most folks speak English, as their own language incorporates long words that are practically impossible for us to pronounce.

Reykjavík, which dates back to the year 874, is Iceland’s only city. Its name  comes from nature: when a Viking chieftain landed, he noticed steam rising from the ground and called the settlement “Smoky Bay,” or Reykjavík. It wasn’t until World War II, when British and American troops realized Iceland’s strategic location and arrived to build airports, that the city finally began to grow.  

Today, approximately two-thirds of the island’s population of 325,000 lives in or near Reykjavík, leaving the countryside sparsely populated. In fact, Iceland has more sheep than people. 

“Reykjavík is incredibly friendly and one hell of a good time,” said a thirty-something member of my tour group. Colorful, small houses dominate the city’s heart. The working harbor, a couple of blocks away, offers the best location for sipping coffee in small cafes, watching boats and the reflections from the stunning Harpa cultural center, which opened in 2011. Artist Olafur Eliasson used geometrically shaped glass panels that reflect changes in light. Icelanders love music and the arts, and the Harpa is home to their Icelandic Symphony and Opera and many rock concerts.

Although small compared with other European capitals, Reykjavík offers a large variety of activities: museums, boat tours, cultural exhibitions, fine dining and a famous nightlife. Everyone uses the immense concrete church, Hallgrímskirkja, at the top of the hill as a downtown compass to navigate the walkable city. Take the elevator to the top for a worthy view. 

To gain an understanding of the country’s history, visit the National Museum of Iceland, which uncovers the past through priceless artifacts and displays. The city evokes a special quirkiness, with places like the Saga Museum, Elf Museum and the bizarre Phallological Museum, a popular attraction with at least one “specimen” for each of 276 Icelandic species.

Save some energy for Reykjavík’s legendary pub crawl, which starts in homes (due to the high cost of alcohol) and hits the streets around midnight. Cruising from bar to bar until the wee hours, Icelanders relish partying and seem to believe in “hidden people” or elves. One has to suppose the boisterous weekend blast keeps the fantasies alive. You’ll find large troll mannequins along the sidewalks—another of the appealing oddities that make Reykjavík lovable. 

The country buzzes with eco-adventurers who challenge the dramatic terrain by hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, mountain climbing, salmon fishing, whale watching and off-road exploring. The dazzling wild landscape attracts nature photographers, who chase the light 24 hours a day in summer and hope for the celestial glow of the aurora borealis in winter. “After visiting 65 other countries,” says travel writer Tom Griffin, “I’d be hard-pressed to find countryside comparable to Iceland. It’s really a marvel, with an ancient language and a young heart, a place still evolving that a traveler, once captivated, clearly remembers long after the visit.”

Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon, lies just outside the capital. This wonder came about by accident in 1976 when a pool of waste water formed at the site of the newly built Svartsengi geothermal power plant. The silica solution slowed the waste drainage, creating a milky blue pool that workers would sneak into from time to time. They claimed the minerals helped their skin. 

By 1981, investigators had documented the water’s healing powers for psoriasis and, in 1992, the Blue Lagoon Company opened a spa-like facility to the public. Output from the power plant renews the entire complex every two days. 

You shower before entering the approximately 100-degree water. Then you apply a mineral mask to your face and let it dry while you wade over to the in-pool bar for a glass of wine or beer. The blissful baby-soft bath tends to eliminate all worldly concerns and begs you to linger. Sure, it’s decadent and it’s crowded, but you absolutely must experience the Blue Lagoon.    

Soaking and swimming are a national pastime. Even the smallest communities have public ­sundlaugs (pools) that are often used like Irish pubs: they’re places to gather, have a pint and converse with neighbors. 

The two main tourist itineraries involve the Golden Circle and the Ring Road. 

The Golden Circle covers the southwest region, and all the sites are within driving distance of Reykjavik. Stop at Pingvellir to see a small bridge over a sand-filled gulf where the two continental tectonic plates are splitting apart. At Geysir, wait for water to swirl up and shoot skyward (yes, that’s where the word “geyser” originated). Then move on to one of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Gulfoss, where a glorious flow cascades downward more than 100 feet. 

At steamy Seltun you can meander over boardwalks for up-close views of boiling mud pots and volcanic vents shimmering in a rainbow of neon colors, like those in Yellowstone National Park. 

Explore geothermal hot springs and steam vents on an all-terrain vehicle. Stop into space-station-like Geothermal Power Plant Earth to gain an understanding of how heat is captured to produce electricity and the water returned unharmed to the sea. More than 85 percent of Iceland’s power comes through geothermal capture of volcanic activity under the ground. 

The coast-hugging Ring Road (aka Highway 1) is an 830-mile, two-lane thoroughfare encircling the country. Most of the attractions are on or close by the road, as much of Iceland’s interior remains a wilderness. Steve Giordano, who traveled the circuitous route with his wife, says, “On our eight-day drive, we averaged only about a hundred miles a day. Still, it took six to eight hours because of all the incredible places to stop and look, maybe hike a ways, and enjoy a picnic lunch.” 

In the southeast, near the bottom of Skaftaell National Park, lies the gorgeous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Here you can watch hundreds of luminous-blue icebergs float around the Vatna Glacier. An amphibious or Zodiac boat ride through the park puts you into the film sets of Lara Croft, Batman Begins and James Bond.  

Head on to Sólheimajökull to tie on crampons and grab an ice axe. Guided glacier walks are available for all levels and leave you with stories you’ll tell back home. Look for streaks in the ash from the famous 2010 eruptions. 

Rugged mountains, deep-cut fjords and wild reindeer characterize the east of Iceland. The largest forest in the country grows here and is unusual, since Iceland’s terrain nurtures few trees.  

Akureyri, the capital of the north, lies in a picturesque fjord and offers the best ski resort in the country. This area boasts heavenly Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, an impressive natural landmark. Nearby sits monster Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall, so thunderously powerful that you can stand on a rocky cliff and feel the earth tremble. On sunny days, double rainbows form above the spray for the perfect photo op. 

The Leirhnúkur lava field resembles the stark landscape of the moon. No wonder Apollo astronauts practiced lunar landings here.  

The west part of Iceland takes you off the Ring Road and weaves in and out of fjords to the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes peninsula—perfect for those who want to venture off the beaten path, perhaps on a mountain bike. 

Vik, the southernmost village, is the country’s wettest spot. Stroll along the coarse, midnight-black volcanic sand beach. In winter, Vik’s black sand magnifies the contrast of fresh white snow.

You’ll fall in love with Iceland’s horses, one of the purest breeds that remain virtually untouched by outside influences. While small, these horses are strong and perfectly evolved to withstand Iceland’s winters. They sport shaggy manes and good tempers and are renowned for having five gaits, including the flying gait. Many tourists arrange a riding session.

You can go whale-watching right out of Reyjkavík’s harbor, but Húsavík, 45 minutes’ drive from Akureyri, is Iceland’s premier whale-watching destination. A variety of whales feast on the algae booms bursting at the confluence of two river estuaries. Minke, humpback and even the blue whale have been spotted. Birders gather in the summer to see thousands of puffins, gannets and other Arctic seabirds. 

Not surprisingly, seafood dominates Iceland’s menus. Shellfish, cod and haddock abound, and lobster is popular, but some of the country’s legendary cuisine seems downright strange. I was told I must sample sheep’s head, Icelandic tripe sausage and hákarl (fermented shark meat); I didn’t. Hákarl comes from the flesh of the Greenland shark, which is poisonous if eaten fresh. Who thought to bury it in sand for months, then exhume it and chop it into strips, hang it out to dry and finally dice and serve?

Reykjavík foodies enjoy gourmet dining and Lava, the restaurant at the Blue Lagoon, is outstanding. During the day, visitors eat in spa robes, but things get fancier at night. The head chef was named the 2014 Nordic Chef of the Year by the Nordic Chefs Association. He prepared a sensational four-course tasting menu that included a spicy shrimp appetizer, followed by a melt-in-your-mouth scallop that was swimming in a foamy sauce. The entrée was tender rack of lamb, and dessert featured cranberries and organic dark chocolate, marzipan, lemon, hazelnuts and meringue.

Another volcano became active near Bardarbunga in August 2014, so you’d be wise to check on natural phenomena before visiting. But for aviation enthusiasts, the chance to soar less than a half-mile above brilliant plumes of an eruption might be the best reason to go. 

The allure of Iceland’s strange, serene and extreme land grows with every day you spend here. I hadn’t even finished my trip before I started thinking about going back. 

Florida-based Debi Lander wrote about India for our December 2014/January 2015 issue.

Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS (C): No five-star hotels, but four-star business types are plentiful in Reykjavík: Hilton, Icelandair, Radisson. Outside the capital, lodging tends toward basic and utilitarian. Choose Icelandair Hotels when in doubt. Hotel Kea is recommended in Akureyri; opt for cabins and guesthouses along the Ring Road.

DINING (B): If you like fish, you’ll be happy. Be prepared for some strange offerings such as puffin, shark and minke whale. Lamb is also popular. Every town has a great bakery. Two major beers are produced: Viking and Gull. Reyjkavik’s famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins beztu pylsur, always has a long queue. 

ACTIVITIES (A): Iceland shines with a vast array of adventures centered on natural wonders within three national parks and 80 nature preserves. Scenic delights include waterfalls, glaciers, geysers and volcanoes. Hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, horseback riding, ATV and snowmobile excursions and touring are the main activities. Many people enjoy birding and whale watching, especially in summer. Golfing is popular with the locals when the weather permits. Photography opportunities attract many professionals.  

Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: Iceland is an independent island nation between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, only four degrees south of the Arctic Circle. It is about the size of Kentucky and, with a population of only about 325,000, ranks as Europe’s most sparsely populated country.  

CLIMATE: Iceland’s weather is volatile and includes lots of rain. Peak tourist season runs from June to mid-August, with temperatures in the mid 60–70s (Fahrenheit) and nearly 24 hours of daylight. (The sun never fully sets in June; winter is the opposite, with only about four hours of daylight each day in late December.) May through July are the driest months. Temperatures are more moderate than you might expect, as the Gulf Stream warms Iceland. Winter temperatures typically range from 12 to 32 degrees. Ice perennially covers only 10 percent of the country.  

LANGUAGE: Icelanders speak Icelandic, which is descended from Old Norse. Most also speak English. 

MONEY: Currency is the Icelandic krona. Credit cards are widely accepted. Iceland is pricey, ­espe- cially in summer. Service charges usually include gratuities. 

GETTING THERE: Commercial flights land at Keflavík International Airport, a 50-minute drive from Reykjavík. Flights from New York City take five hours. Two 10,000-foot runways are used almost exclusively for international flights. Reykjavík Airport mostly serves commercial flights within Iceland and to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, small international charters, ferry flights over the Atlantic and private flights. Two of its three asphalt runways (5,141 and 4,035 feet) are active year-round.

Editor's Note: The author paid most of the expenses for the trip described in this article but received discounts on lodging and the international portion of her airfare.