We were in Iceland as a stop-over from the US to Europe in 2010. We stayed for 3 days and although I was mesmerized by the landscape and the abundance of volcanic and geothermal activity, we only barely scratched the surface of what Iceland has to offer. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to go back and dig deeper into this fascinating place. Perhaps my new connection to Scandinavia has given me a new appreciation for Nordic regions, but for whatever reason, on this last trip to Iceland, I was completely smitten.
To say that Iceland’s landscape is unique, is an understatement. It’s sort of other-worldly. So-much-so, that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was reportedly inspired by Iceland’s terrain and NASA used it as a training location for Neil Armstrong’s first moon walk. But perhaps moonscapes don’t do proper justice to the exceptional raw beauty and natural wonders that are found here. Black, jagged lava fields are contrasted by mossy hillsides; deep plunging gorges cut through the terrain and snowcapped mountains run off into icy glaciers. The diversity is stunning. I was not only enamored by the natural beauty, but was also blown away by the hospitality of the Icelandic people. They are story-telling folks. Everything from fact to fiction is included and by the end, they’ll have you believing in the legendary trolls & elves that are key figures in many of these narratives. They are known as Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people). Building projects and road work have sometimes been altered or stopped, to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live.
Elf-style house in West Iceland…
The capital city of Reykjavik, is not much a city at all. It’s more of a town, inhabited by half of the country’s population. It’s quintessential Scandinavian…colorful and modern, with just the right touch of old charm and a cozy warmth that is ironically derived from the cold weather.
My first few days involved becoming familiar with the country’s cuisine, being introduced to the exquisite Icelandic horse, and taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon.
My favorite Icelandic food discovery? Skyr (not pictured): Yogurt, made from skimmed milk, but thicker than fatty, Greek yogurt. I am thrilled to have discovered it, as it can be easily found here in Copenhagen. If you like Greek yogurt, look for Skyr and enjoy it, guilt free. Like most yogurt, the flavored variety can be full of sugar. I buy the plain/natural flavor and add muesli and maple syrup – Yum. (I hear that Whole Foods in the US sells it.)
Below is a picture of a sampling of traditional Icelandic shark. As my kids would say…this was not my favorite. Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I had been warned. I have a fairly strong stomach, but the smell alone might make someone gag. The dried stuff, on the other hand, I rather liked. It’s a bit like fish-jerky, if you can imagine – dry and salty. And the custom of smearing it with butter is right up my alley.
The Icelandic horse is endemic to this country. They have short legs (but don’t you dare call them a “pony”) and are a 5-gaited breed, developing supreme agility from the rough, volcanic terrain. While riding, we were shown how to get our horse to tölt…a fiery increase in speed that is very comfortable for the rider. I’ve never been a horse-lover, but I fell in love with these horses. There is something special about them. They are not only beautiful, but strong and graceful and the Icelandic people are so proud of them.
Iceland is a country that is one of the closest to achieving a fully sustainable society. Geothermal heating supplies almost 90% of buildings in Iceland with heat and hot water. Almost 75% of the nation’s electricity is generated by hydro power. The water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world, with much of the water running pretty much straight from glaciers to taps, naturally filtered through lava rock. This is impressive stuff. It seems that every town in Iceland has a public geothermal swimming pool (or several). The most famous thermal spa, is the Blue Lagoon. Everyone I spoke to – travel industry professionals or not – seem to agree that although it may be touristy, a visit to the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon is essential. While you’re there, you may as well give yourself a silica facial.
My second night in Reykjavik, I was picked up in a 4×4 truck, by a guide and one other passenger and embarked on a ‘Lobster and Lights’ tour. We stopped at a deserted black-sand beach and toasted Brennivín (Icelandic schnapps) at sunset. Then we dined on small, delicious lobster at a nearby seaside restaurant and waited for it to get dark. At that point, we set out on a hunt for the Northern Lights. We found a small band of green light and I suddenly realized that I had no idea how to photograph Northern Lights. Somehow, through the blur, you can see a glimpse of what we saw. It’s a pretty magical moment once your eyes adjust to the darkness and you see a flash of color in the black sky.
After getting back to my hotel room at 1AM, I was up for a 7AM breakfast and headed out for a hike to some hot springs, followed by a hike on a glacier. We started at a geothermal area where the earth was bubbling hot (see the 2nd picture below), then walked into a strikingly green valley, following the river down until the water became comfortably warm enough to soak in. After a relaxing dip we drove out to Sólheimajökull glacier, strapped on some crampons, grabbed an ice pick, and went for a walk on the ice. We finished off with a stop at Skógar waterfall. It was a gorgeous day and one I won’t soon forget.
Collecting drinking water from the glacier…
Up next: Þórsmörk to Skógar Trek