Intriguing Iceland

Iceland is a thinly-populated island in the North Atlantic that has become famous for hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes. This Nordic island nation has a meager population of 332,000.

We arrived into Reykjavik early in the morning to find a bustling and efficient modern international airport. A six hour flight from Newark took us to this Northern European country with intriguing and picturesque natural landscapes that are breathtaking. The mountains are so plentiful and their enormity is near impossible to capture in photos.  

Before our hotel rooms were ready, we embarked on a city tour, enjoying this detailed and comprehensive introduction to Reykjavik’s past and present. Reykjavik’s renowned charm and bustling life is brought to light while viewing the city’s main attractions by motor coach. 

We visited landmarks such as the Pearl (with breathtaking views of the city and the mountains) and the new Harpa Concert and Conference Hall. We took in views of the Old Town Center, the Hofoi House (where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986), and Hallgrimskirkja church and gained invaluable insight into the Icelandic society and how Reykjavik has developed from a small fishing village into a modern capital that is home to the majority of the country’s population (120,000).

All of the energy and heat used by the citizens of Reykjavik come from geothermal plants and renewable hydropower making it the most sustainable and energy efficient city in the world. This city has also been replacing traditional buses with hydrogen-fueled buses, from which the only emissions are water.

The first evening we indulged at Lebowski Bar for burgers and fries and soccer on enormous screens. Be prepared for enthusiastic and slightly intoxicated patrons cheering loudly.  

Strolling the charming Main Street of Laugavegur, we window shopped until it was time for our Northern Lights tour, which we had learned about earlier in the day by visiting the Northern Lights Center. This ethereal display – the aurora borealis – is beautiful but captured more dramatically by sophisticated cameras with tripods than the naked eye.

What causes these lights to appear? Our sun is 93 million miles away. But its effects extend far beyond its visible surface. Great storms on the sun send gusts of charged solar particles hurtling across space. If Earth is in the path of the particle stream, our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere react. When the charged particles from the sun strike atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, they excite those atoms, causing them to light up. This phenomenon is similar to a neon light.

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s unique natural pool of mineral rich geothermal water, located in the middle of a lava field in the pure, beautiful Icelandic wilderness, is not to be missed and worth the hour drive to reach this unique site. A combination of mineral-rich fresh and sea water of 100-110°F, surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges, it is ideal for wading and soaking in the shallow 3-5 foot waters, (swimming not required), while the air temperature ranges from 25-55°F.

The facility is a modern building with clean changing rooms and showers, skin care facility, restaurant and gift shop. A selection beverages can be purchased in the Lagoon Bar, so there’s no need to leave the water! 

The popular Golden Circle tour showcases some of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions including the country’s best known natural, cultural, and historic sites. We visited Hellisheiði Power Plant at the foot of Mt. Hengill Volcano where the earth’s most brutal forces are harnessed and converted to clean energy for space heating. Over 99% of Iceland is heated by natural hot water. There are even pipes underneath the streets and driveways that melt the snow and ice. Instead of turning down the thermostat, Icelanders open their windows.

We also stopped at an Icelandic horse farm to admire the fascinating creatures that are smaller in stature and demonstrate an interesting gait.  Then, we made our way on to the Gullfoss waterfall, the queen of Iceland’s waterfalls, tumbling down a deep gorge. Next stop was the Geysir geothermal area, home of the famous Strokkur geyser. The Strokkur geyser erupts every 6-10 minutes, making it one of the most active geysers in the world. Take care not to stand down wind or you will get soaked. 

Our final stop of the day was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America meet and one of the world’s oldest parliaments was founded in 930 AD. It was other-worldly walking the fault-lines resulting from earthquakes (Iceland has 400 a day) that have created deep crevices between steep rock walls.

We also opted for the South Shore Adventure tour and experienced the amazing southern portion of Iceland, famous for its black sand coastline and stunning scenery. The first stop of the day was at the gorgeous Seljalandsfoss waterfall. 

Next, we continued on to visit the majestic and much-photographed Skógafoss waterfall. The thundering falls plummet nearly 200 feet over a cliff to the valley floor. Then, we visited the Skogar folk museum to get a taste of how Icelanders lived in centuries past. 

The tour explored as far as Vik, a charming village at the southern tip of Iceland surrounded by beautiful high cliffs. Other highlights of the tour included views of Mýrdalsjökull glacier and the impressive Reynisdrangar rock formations.

On the last day before flying home, I visited Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. Sometimes called “Iceland in miniature,” due to its many different kinds of geology all in one place, you can’t miss this if you want to capture the true spirit and beauty of the island. On the morning of this tour, the weather was less conducive and more typical of Iceland with wind gusts and rains. I was treated to sublime views of fabulous cliffs, seals, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields and lava beaches as well as interesting rock formations.  

Tourism in recent years has surpassed fishing and fish products to become the leading national industry of Iceland. While the people are friendly and accommodations are adequate, don’t expect five-star service. Hollywood has found a home in this country with films featuring Ben Stiller, Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise having been filmed here. The cost of living, in general, is very expensive in Iceland partly because it’s so far from everything. There are also import fees and taxes. Combine that with a relatively small market and you get the idea of why there’s such a mark-up. For example, a gallon of gas is about $8 and a pint of beer is $10. My selfie stick broke and it cost about $34 to replace it when it would only cost less than $5 anywhere else. The average income is about $3000-$3500 per month.  

I was warned not to have high expectations about the food but was pleasantly surprised. Dining options abound along the Main Street of Laugavegur. We tried the only authentic “Ristorante Italia,” which has been in business for 31 years. There are fish and chips restaurants as well as steakhouses. Vegamot was another outstanding option that features burgers, pizzas, pastas, and salads. For fine dining we tempted our taste buds with beef tenderloin and salmon at Kol Restaurant on Skólavörðustíg in downtown Reykjavik. Skólavörðustíg also features art galleries and shops worthy of exploration.  

This awe-inspiring destination can experience all four seasons in a matter of hours so it’s best to layer clothing when heading out for the day. I purchased a waterproof parka as well as thermal underwear and socks prior to making the journey. Other necessities include an umbrella, gloves and hat. Be sure to pack a bathing suit for the Blue Lagoon. Snacks come in handy, too, as the restaurants, like everything else in Iceland, are pricey. For example, a pizza is $30.  

You can use US currency most places but expect change in the local Icelandic Krona. Wi-fi is plentiful and the people are generally friendly and helpful but do not go out of their way to accommodate. Tipping is not obligatory but it seems compulsory to leave some gratuity. Our tour guide told us “it’s too much” when my Dad handed her cash.

Overall Iceland is worthy of the relatively short journey if for nothing more than the sublime topography. It’s almost like visiting another planet. As our cab driver said, “If you like nature, you will love Iceland.”