Story by major rogers
I have found that the way to fill the adventurous part of my spirit is through travel. Solo travel, to a place that is foreign to most, where I’m on my own. For me, the country I hunted was Iceland. It was an experience that mused my lust for life.
There are two ways to see Iceland properly. One week or two. Two weeks allows you to tour the island in its entirety. There are countless waterfalls, volcanoes (active and asleep) and hauntingly beautiful beaches you can drive up or hike to. You can circle the island in roughly 18 hours, but you cannot go many miles forward without finding a trail that will take you to something marvelous. You can rent mini-RVs that have the most basic of amenities that allow you to travel with a home. Otherwise, there are hotels, or “guest houses,” which are like small, intimate dwellings (10 rooms or less), or cottage-style rooms to rent along the way.
I did one week. And if you Google the top 10 things to experience in Iceland, I bet I hit nine of them. The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik (Rey-ya-vik), and between it and the bedroom towns surrounding it, 200,000 people make up two-thirds of the total island population of 300,000. The town proper is charming, artful, smart and filled with culinary genius and experiences. It is built along the harbor, and you can easily walk to most destinations, including the American Bar, which has done a fine job of replicating our upper-end sports bar and restaurant with some of the best ribs I’ve ever had. The bar makes you feel a little closer to home, while so far away from it. The action takes place along seven blocks and the nearby off-shooting streets. You can eat three times a day over a week’s span and still not exhaust your varied dining opportunities. It’s tough to find a bad restaurant in this country because they aren’t cooking for the tourists; they cook for each other, and we benefit.
Five and a half hours along the southeast coast of the island are a couple of “must-see spots.” The Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach are exactly as titled. The lagoon, listed as Iceland’s deepest lake, was formed by the receding glacier Vatnajokull, which is one of the largest in Europe and makes up the backdrop. Within the waters are icebergs of varying size that quietly float across the lake like wandering phantoms, eventually drifting into the nearby Atlantic Ocean. The location has appeared in a couple of Bond films (View to a Kill, Die Another Day) and Batman Begins, to mention a few. The rock, mountain and iced landscape, combined by the availability of solitude and gentle beauty, makes the drive worth it. Iceberg boat tours are available, to float among the beasts.
Once the icebergs float free to sea, remnants, through ice crumbs, wash back on shore on the famed Diamond Beach. Here, various cuts and sizes of glacial ice litter the dark sands. They hold assorted colors. Some appear blue (an indicator of low oxygenated ice), plus white ice, crystal clear ice and even black ice, a result of transparency into the black sand it sits on, or dusky with ancient volcano ash. Pick one up, touch your tongue to it and taste the elements.
On the way back toward Reykjavik, you will have countless options and directions off the beaten path for unbridled adventure and discovery. This is especially true if you rent an off-road-capable car or SUV. For a trip with time constraints, best to stick with the more popular stops. Two of the island’s best-known waterfalls and a one-of-a-kind black sand beach lie a couple hours drive southeast of Reykjavik.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach was once voted in the Top 10 most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world by National Geographic Magazine. This area holds towering basalt pillar walls. Basalts are formed by quick-cooling lava, the result is vertical rows of black rocks that actually take on a hexagonal shape. Ultimately, they crumble and create the black sand. There are drastic rock formations of sea stacks that continue out into the water. The beach is so beautiful and dark; there is a mystic beauty that overtakes you as you take this in, as the waves hit the shore.
The waterfalls you’ll want to see are Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, which are about 15 minutes apart, both just off the Iceland 1 Highway. Skógafoss is a favorite of the island, as you can walk up to and behind the falling water via a natural hollow. At sunset, you can get great pictures as the water changes color to yellow, gold and red from the backside view.
The Skógafoss Waterfall is tall (65 yards) and wide (30 yards). Here you have the opportunity to get up close, or on top of the large volume of cascading water. There are paths up to the foot of it, or a staired path that will take you to the top for a puffin’s eye view of the countryside, the spillway and the sea. Iceland is filled with waterfall sightseeing opportunities. These are two of the popular ones, but there are countless less-discovered locations all over the island for those who enjoy hiking.
Two must-dos to the south of Reykjavik lie within an hour of the capital. The first is the Blue Lagoon. Here, semi-man-made large lagoon-sized pools fill among the dark volcanic rock walls that form the perimeter. The water ranges from about 100-104 Fahrenheit. Its color is a milky baby blue. To be in its mineral-rich waters is like swimming in the waters of Valhalla itself. While there, try one of several healing options of mud masks, or visit the swim-up bar. There is a spa and small resort with rooms on the property, or make it a day trip location. You can dine in the world-class Lava Restaurant and experience local flavors, fresh from land and sea. You can even dine in your resort-provided robe and slippers up until 4 p.m.
Twenty minutes south of the lagoon are the pathways to see the active volcano Fagradalsfjall. The lava flow is within a 30-minute hike from the parking area. When dubbed “safe,” opportunities arise to take a two-hour hike to actually see the volcano in action. There is typically more than one active volcano on the island; they are the mothers of the land. Other less-known locations can be researched and hiked to. The terrain around this volcano, especially during sunset, which takes place at 12:30 a.m. in the summer, is as Martian as it gets. Sand, dirt, gnarled rocks, no vegetation. It really allows you to experience something as unworldly, at least unworldly as we can get while on our own.
About an hour drive to the east of Reykjavik is a destination that Trip Advisor lists as the fourth-greatest experience in the world. Here in Thingvellir National Park lies Silfra. This area is where the Eurasia and North American tectonic plates meet. Even more impressive is the fact that you can snorkel between the plates in the lake. For the snorkel experience, you will don a dry suit; under it, you will wear a quilted onesie bodysuit, thick socks and thermals. The outfit keeps you surprisingly comfortable and dry, especially since you are maneuvering in water that hovers just above freezing. The scuba certified can experience it as well in rented diving equipment. The experience has you snorkeling in the canyons of some of the planet’s purest water, which filters through volcanic rock and into underground springs that feed the lake, water so clear and pure, you are encouraged to drink from it as you swim. The beauty hinges on being indescribable, with different colored hues of blue, depending on the depth as you swim, from a few feet up to 138 feet, where you can clearly see bottom. This is one of those things you experience, and emerge from, feeling very alive and looking at the beauty of the world in a fresh way.
I set out for adventure, making the island my big game hunt, and I feel I bagged a winner. The scenery I took in fed my spirit in a way that I have never experienced. Iceland feels like it is a world away, yet it is made accessible to any of us who wish to experience it. Everything mentioned can be done year-round.
For being so far north, the island, which is in the currents of the Gulf Stream, does not get unmanageably cold in the winter (average 32 F), which is good to know if you’re looking for a place to hunt the Northern Lights. Regardless of your reason for a visit, you will be rewarded for your efforts. Travel heightens the senses, food tastes better, colors stand out, smells permeate and register with the mind as something never experienced. In the end, Hemingway sums it up quite well with these closing words: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”