Iceland is rugged, wild, and unlike any other place on Earth. In fact, it feels like another world.
An island that was formed where two tectonic plates meet, Iceland is extremely volcanically active. The entire island is a bedrock of lava. Fields and fields of cooled lava covered in ancient moss.
And, since it sits where two tectonic plates are pulling apart from one another, it is literally growing every day.
Strolling through snowy fields, between boiling mud pits and steaming sulfur vents, it’s easy to understand why Iceland has been dubbed "the Land of Fire and Ice”. When you’re not witnessing miles and miles of cooled lava fields, bursting geysers, or hot springs boiling up from below, you’re skirting between glaciers and mountains of ice layered with black ash and dotted with waterfalls that seem to gush forth from cracks and crevices in the imposing vertical cliffs.
Hot, boiling water erupts from below while icy water winds its way down through lava fissures from melting glaciers and snow-capped rugged mountains.
The weather can be as harsh and mysterious as the landscape; one can expect to experience pelting rains, snow, severe gusting winds, and sub-zero temperatures much of the year. Icelanders have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” It changes constantly and quickly.
We were extremely lucky, though (as we kept being reminded); despite days with temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we enjoyed beautiful, blue skies for almost the entire time we were there.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
We knew when we chose to visit in November that we were in for some potentially severe weather, but we were chasing the Northern Lights and chose the season accordingly. Fortunately, we weren’t disappointed.
While we witnessed the Northern Lights for two or three nights in a row, on the last of those nights we were gifted with quite a show, as brilliant greens, blues, pinks and purples danced and moved across the dark sky. It was breathtaking and far exceeded anything we ever expected to see. It truly is indescribable.
In addition to the dripping colors of the enchanting night sky, we found magic everywhere around and below us; hiking a glacier, exploring our way through a lava tube, descending into a sub-glacial ice cave, and even on the sea while whale watching.
But it all started with a visit to the Blue Lagoon.
THE BLUE LAGOON
After an early morning (6:00 a.m.) arrival at the airport in Reykjavik, knowing we wouldn’t be able to check into our hotel rooms for several hours, we shuttled directly from the airport (with baggage in tow) and were the first ones to arrive at the world-famous Blue Lagoon.
While we had been warned that the Blue Lagoon was a busy tourist trap better off avoided, being among the early few in the geothermal bath turned out to be a special treat. We had the lagoon largely to ourselves and, slipping into the warm mineral-laden waters under a dark night sky, we were treated to a gradual sunrise which created a moody, otherworldly scene. We all agreed it was the perfect start to the trip and a great way to transition from air travel to “feet on the ground” in wintery Iceland.
There are two swim-up “bars” at the Blue Lagoon: a mask bar offering four different skincare masks (the silica mud mask is included, with an additional three other optional masks to choose from: algae, mineral, and a lava scrub); and a swim-up juice (and, if preferred alcohol) bar. With one drink included with the entrance fee, I opted for a delicious green smoothie; a perfect breakfast after our long, 6.5 hour, overnight flight.
We got there at the perfect time because, admittedly, within a couple of hours the lagoon started to get busy and we were all ready to move on.
They’ve thought of everything at the Blue Lagoon; including locker rooms for men and women equipped with showers (supplied with shampoo, conditioner, and bath gel), hair dryers, and even bathing suit dryers (harnessed with a technology that almost fully dries your suit in a matter of seconds). In addition, you’re given a waterproof silicone “computer-chipped” wristband which allows you to order additional drinks and facial masks without needing to bring a wallet or credit card into the water.
Afterward, we all felt fresh and ready for our next adventure. Luckily, I thought ahead and made reservations for us to enjoy brunch at the Lava Restaurant located right there within the Blue Lagoon. Built into a centuries-old lava wall on two sides, and glass on the other two sides, the scenery was as spectacular as the food. Our first meal in Iceland didn’t disappoint, and I had what would turn out to be the first of many cod dishes I would enjoy on the island. I’ve never been much of a fan of Cod, but that was before tasting the Cod in Iceland. Whatever they do with it, it’s fresh and amazing. Comforting and delicious.
Eventually, we made it to the capital town of Reykjavik, where the majority of people (240,000 of the 391,000 total population) who live on the island are housed.
Reykjavik has a unique charm, with restaurants, pubs, and shops concentrated in a few blocks (within about a 5-mile radius), making it easy to explore on foot.
After checking into our hotel, that’s exactly what we did; we all headed off in different directions, going wherever we wanted to go to enjoy our free time. We didn’t really have to be anywhere as a group until the next day, when we met up again for a “foodie” tour of the city.
Our guide for the foodie tour, Thor (of course!), took us to five places; each unique and perfectly delicious. We enjoyed some traditional Icelandic foods including arctic char, lamb, fish stew with rye bread (yum), and, believe it or not, hot dogs. Who knew Iceland is famous for its hot dogs?! I certainly didn’t. What’s unique about Iceland’s hot dogs is that they are made from lamb instead of pork. Interestingly, their busiest food venue in all of Iceland is a particular hot dog stand in Reykjavik, where they serve an average of 3,000 hot dogs a day and, on their busiest day, well over 11,000.
After our food tour, we were satiated and tired, and headed to bed to prepare for the next day’s adventure; we would be meeting our guide, Arni, who would take us around Iceland’s Ring Road over the next six days.
Iceland’s famous “Ring Road” is an 820-mile loop around the island that encompasses all the “must-see” sights: cascading waterfalls, lava caves, ice caves, glaciers, geysers and hot springs, black-sand beaches, and more. In the end, we got a fully immersive experience of Iceland and left feeling like we left no stone unturned (until we return in the green Summer months because, as one guide told us, “You really haven’t seen Iceland until you’ve been here in both seasons").
While we saw so many beautiful things on our journey around the Ring Road that it would take too long to mention them all, there were some experiences that particularly stood out.
We hiked into a lava cave. It’s a fascinating perspective exploring the after-effects of lava flow from the inside.
According to the National Park Service, lava caves are created when “the surface of a lava stream cools and hardens into a crust. Although the outer crust is hard, the lava inside is still molten and continues to flow downhill. Once the molten lava has passed through, it leaves an empty tunnel called a lava cave or, more commonly, a lava tube.”
Not unlike lava caves, ice caves are formed by the melting of a glacier, leaving crystal blue ice tunnels which are illuminated by sunlight streaming in through the entrances and through the ice. The ice caves are constantly changing and shifting, and must be rediscovered for exploration each new season. Once an entry point is discovered at the beginning of the season, it can take 15 men up to two weeks to properly (and safely) prepare the ice cave for visitors.
As we worked our way towards the ice cave, we were warned to stay on the designated footpath to avoid “finding” another hole “the hard way”. Before entering the cave, we were fitted with micro-crampons (small spikes attached to a rubber sock, slipped over the bottoms of our hiking boots, to help grip the ice as we walked), and helmets (to protect our heads should we slip and fall or, simply, walk into a low-hanging ice ceiling).
HIKING A GLACIER
Having been to Antarctica where I had the opportunity to hike glaciers, nothing prepared me for the uniqueness of glaciers in Iceland. Unlike the pure white glaciers found in Antarctica, glaciers in Iceland are striated with lines of black ash and fine granite dust, creating what some of us jokingly compared to Stracciatella ice cream. Lava and ash are found in and throughout everything in Iceland, including the snow and ice.
This glacier (Solhelmajokull) was solid and slippery, unlike the powdery snow-covered glaciers I experienced in Antarctica. Here, we were outfitted with actual crampons (which were fitted and clamped onto our boots), ice picks for stability while hiking and climbing, and helmets. Even properly geared up, the experience was a little harrowing. Sometimes using a rope for leverage to help hoist ourselves up to the next icy “step”, the potential for risk was obvious, but we enjoyed an awareness that we were in good hands with competent guides. We were instructed, once again, to walk in single-file lines and not veer off lest we find an unexpected crevasse in the ice.
It was exciting, a little nerve-wracking (as it tends to be when you do something totally outside of your comfort zone, with a group of people for whom you feel responsible), and exhilarating; especially once we made it to the top and could look around, realizing we were standing on top of an ancient glacier.
While this adventure might sound a little scary, we had outstanding guides who made us feel empowered and safe (as long as we listened and did what they said). Our lead guide is also a high school teacher who didn’t hesitate to get strict if he felt we were getting distracted and needed to be “reigned in.”
Speaking of Icelanders, our initial impression was that they were quiet, stoic, and expressionless. And for the most part, this was true. Icelanders clearly understand this about themselves, for we found magnets and coasters illustrating the many emotions (happy, sad, angry, etc.) of Icelanders with the exact same, un-changing & stoic, facial expression.
However, as with anything in life, there are always exceptions. When we met our guide for the week, Arni, he turned on its head any assumptions we might have made about who Icelanders are and what they are like. While some may seem cold and expressionless on the outside, clearly they are deep, warm-hearted people. We absolutely fell in love with Arni, and will never be able to think about our Icelandic experience without remembering him. He made an indelible impression on all of our hearts and minds. Big love to Arni, our rock ’n’ roll Icelandic elf!
No trip to Iceland is complete without a whale-watching adventure. On our last full day, this time in North Iceland at a small village called Hauganes, we hopped on an old wooden boat and ventured into the North Atlantic Ocean. Geared up in several layers (including a waterproof outer shell), we braced ourselves against a cold, windy November morning on the water with high hopes of seeing something that would make it all worthwhile.
While nobody could offer us any guarantees, we were blessed (within minutes of our departure) with a visit by around 20 Humpback whales who came to greet us. We also saw Harbor Porpoises and White-Sided Dolphins.
As we enjoyed the provided hot chocolate, coffee, and fresh-baked cinnamon buns, we made our way back to the port and all acknowledged it was another exhilarating moment which made all the efforts to get there worthwhile. Just when we thought Iceland couldn’t get any more interesting, we witnessed another natural wonder to blow our minds.
Once again, Iceland proved itself unlike any other place on Earth.
Several times we questioned why anyone would voluntarily choose to live in such a harsh environment (much less be one of the original ancient settlers), while simultaneously agreeing that it’s a place everyone should experience in their lifetime.
It is believed that the first people in Iceland were Irish monks who settled there looking for solitude; a solitude which they enjoyed until the Vikings came and, either, killed or chased them away (in, or around, the year 871 A.D.)
The Icelandic way of life can be brutal and difficult. the environment is too hostile for most wildlife and plants. Except for the few evergreen trees that were imported from Alaska by Iceland’s Parks Service and planted in a handful of small “forests” that sprinkle the island, the only other naturally occurring trees we saw were the occasional leafless Birch (which fit perfectly into the hauntingly beautiful surroundings).
The architecture of Iceland is, with a few exceptions, extremely minimalistic; Scandinavian simplicity in its most basic form. Think ‘square building with severely sloping roofs to shed the snow load’.
The insides of most buildings are as simple and inconspicuous as the outsides; minimal furnishings and small spaces that are focused on the most basic of comforts and functionality.
Icelanders themselves are hardy, stoic, practical, and matter-of-fact. They are used to dealing with the harshest of environments and the constant threat of earthquakes and volcanoes.
Iceland is a small and sparsely populated island. At less than 40,000 square miles, it is similar in size to Hungary or Portugal, or the US states of Kentucky and Virginia.
And, yet, this is one of those times when clearly size doesn’t matter. Because, even though it’s a small island, it’s quite literally bubbling and bursting with intensity, both above and below the surface.
While we were there, earthquakes rattled and volcanoes threatened. And, yet, seemingly unfazed Icelanders went about their daily lives, with little concern. This is, simply, a part of everyday life for them. After all, they live on a cold crust above molten lava. The earth is constantly shifting beneath their feet. As far as science has progressed, still, nobody knows when or where the next volcano will erupt.
I’ve traveled quite extensively in my life, but nothing compares to Iceland. Wild. Rugged. Fiery. Frozen. Intense. It is definitely a place that deserves a spot on your bucket list.
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