I had never intended to take a trip to Iceland. I had heard almost nothing about Iceland and the name just brought up images of snow and ice. But a friend invited me to come and tour it with her, and we set our sites on a week long adventure. Little did I know it was to turn out to be one of the most exciting adventures of my life.
Iceland is scarcely populated and simply laid out. In the Southeast corner is the main city Reykjavik. It is a mid-sized city with a population of about 250,000. To see a video of Reykjavik Click Here The rest of Iceland, a huge island bigger than the Netherlands, has a population of about 100,000. Getting around is easy. Once you leave the area of Reykjavik you simply follow the one ring road around the perimeter of the island. It is open year round, although parts of it are unpaved. The ring road will take you almost anywhere you want to go in the country, you never have to leave it. After about 1700 Km (Slightly more than 1000 miles) you end up back in Reykjavik.
After arriving at the Keflavik Airport just outside of Reykjavik, we picked up a rental car and headed to the Blue Lagoon. Blue Lagoon is an artificial thermal bath with water which comes from the run-off of the neighboring power plant. I found it to be not too special. The idea of bathing in waste water from a power plant made me uneasy. Although the Blue Lagoon is quite famous, and I was quite curious to visit, it was my only disappointment of Iceland. To see a video of the Blue Lagoon Click Here. To see the website of the hotel where we stayed Click Here. However, the landscape from Keflavik to the Blue Lagoon was special. It looked quite lunar, with dark lava flow pocked with small craters. We were not to see a similar site for the remainder of the trip.
On the next day we headed a short distance north to Geysir. This is a small town with several active Geysirs, one of which is called Geysir and another Strokkur. Both Geysirs performed nicely for us on our visit. It was the first active Geysir I had ever seen and I was very impressed. Imagine standing 3 meters (9 feet) from the center of a pot which, every 5 minutes, explodes a fountain of scalding hot water 7-10 meters (20-30 feet) into the air. I watched it breathlessly, in the rain, for nearly an hour. To see a video of Strokkur erupting Click Here
After Geysir, we drove to the nearby Gullfoss, a very beautiful water fall, something like a small Niagara Falls. Beautiful, as are most waterfalls, but not unique.To see a video of Gulfoss Click Here Leaving Gullfoss we began the journey on the ring road traveling in a counterclockwise direction to the East. Our destination for the first evening was the VATNAJÖKULL-GLACIER, the largest glacier in Europe. The journey to the glacier was very exciting. The ring road in the southern and eastern part of the island is very close to the coast. So, to the right of the car one sees the ocean most of the time. This view is beautiful but changes very little. However, the landscape that the road traverses and the view to the left of the road changes constantly and dramatically.
Soon after leaving the area near Reykjavik, to the left of the car we saw a steep mountain range. In the distance we could see a waterfall plummeting from the top of the mountain range directly down to sea-level. As we approached, we could see that the base of the waterfall was very close to the road we were on, so we drove in to investigate.
We parked the car and found we were on a grassy knoll and we could stand just a few meters in front of the raging waterfall, which was perhaps 50 meters high. I have never stood so close to such a high waterfall before. Then we noticed the trail leading behind the water fall. Two minutes later we were getting wet and looking at rainbows from behind the waterfall. The feeling of being so near to the crushing power of the water was awesome. To see a video of the waterfall Click Here
Continuing on the journey we saw other waterfalls to the left of the car and amazing rock formations to the right in the sea. At one point we drove through a flat black lava dessert. Slowly the scene to the left changed from that of a rocky mountain range to a white icy glacier. At the foot of the glacier stood our next hotel. We were now at the most southeastern point of the island.
From the hotel, we organized a snowmobile tour on the glacier. Continuing further on the ring-road from the hotel to the place we were to meet our guide, we passed the Iceberg Lagoon. The Iceberg Lagoon is simply water that is melting from the glacier and is running off to the ocean, carrying with it big chunks of ice which have broken off from the glacier. The icebergs have floated a part of the way to the ocean and seem to be stuck in their path. As a result the lagoon is littered with huge translucent sparkling blue diamonds of ice. At the shore of the lagoon we stood perhaps five meters (15 feet) from the closest iceberg.
We were hungry, but there were to be no restaurants along the way. The place we were to meet our guide was the little village where he owned a farm. We stopped in front of a hotel and asked if there was a restaurant in the village. We were told that the hotel was closed due to renovations, and there were no restaurants but that they would be happy to make us a fish dinner! We found ourselves siting in a stranger's living room listing to the sound of sizzling fish coming from the kitchen. We feasted on a meal of delicious trout and vegetables. Soon our host told us that she had phoned our guide and that he was waiting for us in front of the hotel.
We climbed into the four wheel drive truck and introduced ourselves to Bjarney from this company Click Here. He was a shy, reserved man of about 45 who spoke very little English. Bjarni drove us up the mountain, talking occasionally with his wife on his GSM and telling us about the VATNAJÖKULL-GLACIER. After about one hour we high in the mountains at his tourist lodge. He gave us ski suits, gloves, boots and helmets. After very brief instructions, Bjarni started up two snow mobiles, put us on one and led the way with the other. He yelled at us that if we lose sight of him, to simply stop and wait for him to return. Otherwise, we risked driving off the edge of the glacier.
We began our journey up the mountain. Soon we were in a cloud and everything became white. My vision began to play tricks on me. I could no longer distinguish distance and size. I could not even tell the difference between the ground and the sky. I was simply following a spot ahead which was Bjarni. If the spot became bigger, I slowed. If it became smaller, I sped up. Finally we reached the top, but the cloud was unrelenting. We were near the edge but we could not see it. We went back. I wasn't disappointed because I don't know what I missed, but the snowmobile ride on the largest glacier in Europe is something I am glad I did not miss.
We continued on our way and spent the night in Hofn. The next destination was Myvatn, a lakeside village in the north of the island. The scenery from Hofn to Myvatn was again dramatic. As we left Hofn we were very close to the towering mountains to the left of the car. But to the right of the car, instead of the ocean we were used to seeing, we saw lovely Fjords.
Slowly our road headed inland and we found ourselves first in a long green valley and then soon the road climbed into a beautiful mountainous area. When we reached the top of the mountain it was flat and covered with snow. We drove for hours with the snow on either side of the very clear road, until we decended again into the flat dry lands. The change was remarkable.
We reached the village of Myvatn in the evening and found a charming simple hotel. Quite near the hotel were the pseudo-craters extending into the lake. These look like small volcanoes but are actually where bubbles of gas have risen through the earth and left crater-like mounds perhaps 10 meters ( 30 feet) high. We took a walk and explored one or two craters while our hosts were cooking our dinner at the hotel.
After returning to the hotel, they prepared a hot tub for us. We were able to sit in the hot water in the back of the hotel from about 11pm until 1 am. We talked while we listened to the arctic evening. Although it was only May the sky never got completely dark. We could still see due to the dim evening sunlight.
The next day we explored the area around the Myvatn. It was warm (17 C or 65 Farenheit). First we took a hike through a forest near the lake. We climbed to a point with a beautiful view of the scenery. Afterwards we tried to climb to the top of a real volcanic crater, but found the going to steep for us and the trail not well developed. We reached halfway and turned back. Later, we hiked through interesting rock formations, and found a natural hot-bath, which due to recent activity was now much too hot to bathe in.
We left in the evening for Akureyri, just a few hours drive from Myvatn. Akureyri, a port town, is the second largest city of Iceland. It is small and charming, but not too remarkable. Just as we were finishing eating dinner the restaurant was invaded by around 100 young people dressed in costumes ranging from Gypsies to Tele-tubies. We were told by some of the costumed diners that this is the way they celebrate their high-school graduation. They would go out in the town and bars all night long, and in the morning they would go to the houses of some of their teachers and wake them up with their singing.
The next day we drove back to Reykjavik from Akureyri. (To see a video of this trip Click Here )and prepared for our final excursion, a ferry ride to Westman Islands, a small group of islands which lie just to the south of Iceland. The Westman Islands are famous for three things: They are the home of the Puffin, the small bird with the colorful beak that Iceland is famous for. They are the home of Keiko, the world's most famous whale from the movie Free Willy. Finally, they are the scene of a very recent volcanic eruption directly next to the main town of Heimey. Although the lava swallowed up part of the town and partly closed the harbor, only one person died in the eruption.
We took two tours during our visit, a land tour and a boat tour. The land tour took us to the crater of the volcano, which was still slightly steaming. After the crater, our next stop was to see the puffins. Our very embarrassed guide could find only one lonely puffin for us to look at, and all ten of us on the tour happily took our photos of that poor puffin.To see a video of a Puffin Click Here The boat tour was much more exciting. First we cruised near the various islands and inspected the native wildlife, mostly birds, which inhabited them. Then suddenly, the captain informed us that he had been in touch with research boats which were following a herd of whales and we off in hot pursuit. Within minutes we saw 2 or 3 herds, each with about five or six whales which were porposing through the ocean. Mostly we could see their arched backs with the black fin pointing up. I was able to see one broad tail. It was the first time I had ever seen free whales. The sight was breathtaking.
I think, like me, few people consider a holiday in Iceland. However, it is perhaps one of Europe's best kept secrets. Perhaps we were lucky, but May seemed to be an ideal time to visit.There were very few tourists, and generally, very few people on the road in the cities or even in the hotels. At one point, in the north of Iceland, we stopped our car right in the middle of the ring road and had a picnic on a pleasant river bank. We sat there for nearly an hour and no other car drove by. The weather was quite pleasant, ranging between 12-18 degrees Centigrade and we had only one day of rain. Iceland is still undeveloped and unspoiled. Its raw beauty beckons the even the most seasoned traveler who thinks he has seen it all. To see a quick video overview of Iceland Click Here