Travel With Diplomatic Connections


Finding Bliss on the Island of Fire and Ice
By Monica Frim
Photography by John Frim and Monica Frim

Touching the Arctic Circle and splayed over two constantly shifting continental plates, Iceland is a land of magic and extremes. Glaciers and volcanic springs exist side by side, waterfalls roar over a wrinkled landscape of gnarled rocks covered in fluorescent green moss, geysers explode skyward while mud pools seethe and bubble as if the ground itself were on fire.

It should not come as a surprise that in terms of tourism, this beautiful cold speck of land in the North Atlantic Ocean is now one of the hottest vacation destinations in the world. Visitors are swarming to the island, sidling so close to the natural attractions as to feel the spray of the waterfalls and geysers, hiking along the wave pounded black sand beaches with their lava stacks and basalt caves or clamoring among glaciers, mountains and volcanic fields that give way to hot springs and simple outdoor pleasures. Others opt for city attractions where museums, galleries, concert halls, shops and all-night bars vie with historical buildings in quaint neighborhoods riddled with parks and colorful timber houses.

So it is that Reykjavik, Iceland’s cosmopolitan capital, has managed to retain an aura of small town friendliness and charm that belies its role as an energetic and modern metropolis. Contemporary buildings incorporate time-honored elements from Iceland’s unique landscape into avant-garde designs that champion both architecture and nature.

The city’s most identifiable landmark, Halgrímskirkja, is an ultramodern church that externally mimics the basalt columns that dot the landscape, yet pays homage to tradition with its vaulted ceiling, conventional nave and gothic window. Likewise Harpa, the concert hall and convention center, synthesizes art and nature with overtones of icebergs and northern lights in its multifaceted glass design.

Even a lowly water tower takes on new life as a rotating restaurant under a futuristic glass dome surrounded by six hot water storage tanks. Known as The Pearl, the facility also offers a 360-degree viewing platform, exhibition space, shops and a café known for its delicious ice cream.

Similarly, Nordic House, the Scandinavian culture center designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, also marries modernism with organic elements. Its blue ceramic rooftop recalls the shape of the nearby mountains. Cookbook author and Icelandic television personality Sveinn Kjartansson runs its Alto Bistro Restaurant and serves up delightful repasts made from Iceland’s freshest local ingredients.

The rampant growth in tourism is straining the infrastructure as Iceland struggles to cope. Last year, almost 1,800,000 people visited the country whose resident population numbers only slightly above 300,000 people, with more than a third of the inhabitants residing in the capital city of Reykjavik. The government is now heavily engaged in building new facilities (hotels, offices and shopping centers) and enacting laws to protect the fragile ecosystems and natural surroundings. While Reykjavik teems with construction cranes, the countryside is under threat of being trampled to death by tourists. Salvation can come only with new rules that forbid free-camping or roaming over rare lichens and mosses that have taken hundreds of years to grow. While the legendary elves and trolls that hide beneath this fairytale landscape are mere figments of an imagination stimulated by a wind-blasted lunar terrain, they metaphorically aid in the protection of the environment through their reputed respect for nature and nostalgia. Locals and tourists alike would be wise to respect them.

Iceland is one of the safest and friendliest countries in the world. As such, visitors should have no qualms about renting a car (the best way to see the island) and striking out on their own. Everyone speaks English and if your car should break down, be assured that someone will stop to help.

Most of Iceland’s largest and most beautiful waterfalls are along or close to the Ring Road, an 800-mile highway formally known as Route 1 that circles the island, although calling this road a highway is something of a misnomer. It’s a two-lane road that dwindles to a single lane over bridges. If the road is closed due to an accident or inclement weather, people simply stay put until the road opens again. As the country’s only interconnecting artery, you’re at its mercy. In good weather you could do a marathon drive around the island in a single day, but taking anything less than a week to drive it would be an injustice. This is a case where the journey is the destination so be prepared at all times to stop for photos. Keep a lookout for reindeer, sheep and small, furry Icelandic horses (it’s an insult to call them ponies). A variety of birds from puffins, plovers, ptarmigan, snipes to eiders round out the fauna, especially around the cliffs and coastal headlands.

Icelandair offers free stopovers in Iceland for those traveling between North America and Europe. If you have only a day or two to visit, you’re selling yourself short, though not too short for a jaunt through Reykjavik, and a dip in the fabled Blue Lagoon. Add another day or two for a tour of the Golden Circle, Iceland’s most popular tour that takes in the waterfall of Gullfoss, the Geysir geothermal area and the historic rift valley of Thingvellir where Iceland’s first parliament took place more than a thousand years ago.

The thing about Iceland is you really won´t know what you´re getting until you´re there. The only predictable thing is the country´s unpredictability—at least as far as weather. And so even the best made plans can go awry.

We had booked a tour of the Golden Circle along with snorkeling in the Silfra fissure, a tectonic rift between the American and Eurasian continental plates that’s filled with crystal clear glacial meltwater. It’s the only place on earth where you can snorkel between two tectonic plates. I could barely contain my excitement at the thought of snorkeling a few miles short of the Arctic Circle where the water maintains a constant temperature of 35°F year-round and visibility extends to an amazing 300 feet, thanks to the filtering effect of the lava rocks.

The day started with a pleasant drive, slightly overcast but with an occasional burst of sunshine. Soon the sky closed over the sun and flattened the lumpy green fields with a pewter fog. October’s wiles brought drizzles that turned to ice pellets then snow. An hour into the drive, our driver stopped, then reversed direction as the road ahead was closed due to a traffic accident farther up. Our only way forward was backward—to Reykjavik from where we could take another road to our first stop in Thingvellir. This road too became unnavigable due to ice. So back again to Reykjavik and a switch to a heavier vehicle that could safely handle the icy road. But would we still be able to snorkel? Oh yes, our driver assured the 12 members of our group: the weather doesn’t affect the water.

Perhaps not, but nightfall did. By the time we donned drysuits over something called a teddy bear suit (a down-filled jumpsuit like a baby’s onesie) and entered the long and narrow canyon, it was dusk. It was pitch black when we emerged from the water, numb-faced from the cold and dumb struck by the sheer craziness of having snorkeled for over an hour in the dark. Nevertheless, it had been an easy float, aided by a gentle current that safely carried even the weakest swimmers down the channel. Amazingly, you could still see the jagged rocks and sandy bottom in the clear obsidian waters despite the cloudy night sky—like watching a black and white movie. But in my imagination I saw myself swimming in high definition blues and greens of daylight under a brilliant sun! Did I feel cheated? You bet! The day’s mishaps had caused us to miss Gullfoss and the geysers too, although we did manage a short stop in Thingvellir. On the plus side, we had squeezed four seasons into a single day.

For the next week we drove a rental car, following the ring road around the island and stopping according to our whims and the vagaries of the landscape. Throughout the island waterfalls tumbled in various shapes and configurations, each with its own quirks and vantages. In the south we stood under a promontory behind the falls at Seljalandsfoss, above the falls at Skógafoss, and followed the clifftop walk to the falls at Dettifoss in the north. In the northwest, a double rainbow loomed over the horse-shoe-shaped Goafoss, while, on the Snæfellsness Peninsula in the west, Kirkjufellsfoss, set against the backdrop of the conical Kirkjufell Mountain, could best be described as cute. Supposedly it’s the most photographed waterfall in Iceland. By the end of our trip we had seen waterfalls from above, below, behind and full frontal. Short of going over the falls, I couldn’t imagine a more intimate encounter.

Iceland has such a diversity of natural attractions, that one wonders how they all fit on the island. Everywhere you look there is a stunning landmark, shaped either by the ubiquitous winds or tectonic activity. As cliffs and mountains rise on the interior side of the ring road, the fierce North Atlantic Ocean pummels the coast. Here and there tiny white farmhouses with bright red metal roofs nestle at the base of the mountains, many with their own waterfalls streaming right into their farmyards.

Iceland is full of nature’s sculptures—from glacial ice to basaltic columns to mossy outcrops that look like deep-pile blankets atop an underground community of legendary trolls.

On the south coast, the tongue-twisting Breiamerkurjökull Glacier breaks into chunks of glittering ice that turn into luminous blue icebergs in the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon before they drift out to sea. Not all make it to the ocean—some come to rest on the pebbly black glacial beach, forming capricious statuettes that stand like glassy museum pieces in an outdoor gallery. At low tide you can walk right up and touch the stranded bergs or take an inflatable zodiac to get close to the ones afloat in the lagoon. Thousands of bergs crackle and tinkle, bobbing like buoys in the waves, some keeling over with a thud, others resting on shore in various stages of flux. We spent half a day watching, waiting, touching and capering among the shoreline shards, always mindful that icebergs are as unpredictable as the sea that carried them ashore. If we could choose only one thing to see in Iceland, the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon with its glistening ice sculptures, strewn like diamonds, wins hands down!

There’s not much to do in the sparsely inhabited east but drive and take in the scenery: a deeply indented coastline of fjords, mountains, hardy Icelandic horses, sheep and the only place in Iceland where reindeer roam in the wild. The silence in this corner of the country is sublime.

In terms of vegetation, Iceland is barren and practically treeless. The sparse forest of Hallormsstaur, Iceland’s largest, in the east is easily missed if you blink as you drive by. The standing joke is if you do find yourself lost in the forest, stand up.

But continue driving north and the landscape comes alive as it simmers and heaves with thermal activity. Just south of the Ring Road at Hverir the ginger-colored ground seethes and rumbles as fumaroles shoot clouds of white sulfurous steam into the air, and blue and grey mud pools bubble like cauldrons of witches’ brew along the footpaths. You can feel the planet’s power hanging in the acrid air, cautionary and portending.

Nearby, the thermal, mineral- and silicate-laden waters at the Myvatn Nature Baths draw on nature’s geothermal gifts to give bathers a healthful and soothing experience but on a smaller scale than that of the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. Many people actually prefer the simplicity of the baths at Myvatn to the more touristy Blue Lagoon.

Lake Myvatn itself is peppered with islets and lava pillars. Other natural formations—from dramatic basalt sculptures to pseudo craters that look like giant moss-covered bubbles—dot the surrounding landscape. The pseudo craters are not really craters but giant depressions created by lava flowing over wet ground. Also the result of volcanic eruptions, the sculptural lava spires and caves at Dimmuborgir (the name means dark castles), are among the most rugged and beautiful in the country. Several colour-coded paths wind throughout the park. One of the most dramatic routes is a mile-long path that leads to a spectacular domed cave, known as Kirkjan (church).

Gateway to this volcanic area is Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland and the capital of the north. The city nestles alongside a scenic fjord and boasts shops and restaurants to rival the ones in Reykjavik. But its best drawing feature is arguably the aurora borealis. If you haven’t seen the northern lights elsewhere, you’re practically guaranteed a glimpse outside this city, providing it’s a crisp and clear night.

Many people dismiss the weak grey streaks in the night sky as wispy clouds and don’t give them another thought. But keep watching and they just might increase in intensity. In any case it’s worth aiming your camera at the “clouds” and holding the exposure for 15 or 20 seconds. The naked eye may see only white, but if the resulting image looks green, you’ve captured a weak performance on camera.

From Akureyri the ring road leads straight down and back to Reykjavik but it’s worth leaving the road and heading west to the esoteric Snæfellsness Peninsula. Along the coast, waves smash against volcanic rocks and shape them into outcrops, arches and blowholes. Beautiful yellow bays and beaches stretch in contrast to the black beaches found in the rest of the country. In fact the entire peninsula glows gold and green, its lava fields covered in the fairy moss and amber grasses that, according to Icelandic folklore, shelter the fairies and trolls. Supposedly, the two volcanoes of Stapafell and Snæfellsnessjökull exude a powerful energy that makes them two of the most mystical places in Iceland and, possibly, the world. Jules Verne must have felt their energy. He used Snæfellsnessjökull as the setting for his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.

For travelers who feel they have been everywhere and seen it all, this frigid isle at the top of the world offers refreshing superlatives that outshine anything else on this planet. But I’d be willing to bet that somewhere, millions of miles away, a distant planet looks just like Iceland.

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