Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice
By Thecla Vis
Senior Vacation Travel Specialist
Why would I want to go to Iceland? This place with a familiar name is often overlooked as a tourist destination; most people know it chiefly as a stopover on the way to somewhere else. Maybe it’s the name – a Land of Ice doesn’t sound particularly inviting. And yet, those who take the time to explore the island’s wonders, a mere five hours from Boston, often return again and again. Just before Christmas I went there for a four-night visit that left me completely hooked.
I was invited by HL Adventures, a luxury tour operator based in Reykjavik, for a jam-packed itinerary designed to show off unique aspects of the country. For an isolated island, it has an amazing amount to offer: over 100 volcanoes, including some active ones, a distinctive ridge line formed by the collision of two tectonic plates (the North American and Eurasian), geysers, geothermal activity so vigorous that it provides indoor heating for the entire population, glaciers, lava fields, and stunning waterfalls… These are just a few of the wondrous features.
My accommodation was at the Hotel Borg in Reykjavik, considered the finest of the many hotels on the island. The view from the front door is of a beautiful snowy park where trees strung with Christmas lights created a truly festive atmosphere. After a short nap to rest from the journey, I was whisked to a heliport not far from the hotel, for a quick aerial orientation, a bird’s eye view of the layout of the city, harbor, coastline peninsulas, coves, straits and islands, as well as the crater of an inactive volcano. While we were flying, the pilot took the opportunity to educate me on the ways people were able to not only cope but actually thrive in the challenging environment. I learned that everywhere, rivers and other bodies of water were clean enough to drink from. I saw the enormous greenhouses naturally heated for providing year-round fresh produce. I saw hot steam rising from every crevice; apparently the ground is hot enough in some places to bake a loaf of bread and this is actually done! The helicopter ride was a wonderful way to gain an overall perspective of this city of 200,000 and the surrounding landscape.
Back on the ground, I was given a walking tour of the picturesque waterfront – fishing boats and barges in the water on one side and a row of old, charming brick buildings on the land side. Dinner that evening was at a restaurant called The Fish Market where we were served a “A Tasting Menu,” a wonderful succession of dishes providing a broad sampling of local traditional fare- all sorts of different seafood, ranging from the familiar (salmon, cod, shrimp) to the strange and unusual (shark, whale), as well as various meats, including goose filet and lamb, all expertly prepared and presented in visually stunning arrangements.
The next day we toured some of the most remarkable scenery I have ever encountered. Vast expanses of black volcanic rock suggest a lunar landscape. Our transportation was a Super Jeep, a fantastic off-road vehicle with heavily treaded 48 inch tires. Giddy with excitement, we made our way to the Golden Circle, a 186 mile-loop with three main stops: Pingvellir, a national park; the Gullfoss waterfall; and the geothermically active valley of Haukadalur, home of the geysers. One, named “Geysir,” appropriately enough, has long been inactive, but “Strokkur” erupts regularly every eight to ten minutes and took me completely by surprise. Soaked with a shower of sulfurous water: what a great Icelandic baptism!
My next stop was the Gulfoss waterfall, an impressive 105 foot, two tiered waterfall, located on the White River (Hvita). With hunger setting in, we went into the nearby lodge for a hearty lamb stew lunch before heading out on our snowmobile escapade. To reach the snowmobile shed, up a steep narrow road, the driver had to partially deflate the tires for improved traction (no problem: a built in compressor was available to re-inflate them when needed). I marveled at the amount of equipment on board which included navigational aids, a snorkel for fording rivers, and impressive communication technology. Although the Jeep is a rugged work horse, the ride is surprisingly comfortable. Once at the shed, I joined a small group and the crew provided us with one piece suits for warmth and protective helmets. After some basic instructions, we sped off to a barren glacier, an otherwordly expanse of snowy white. This was one of the best parts of the trip.
A tour of Iceland is not complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in a lava field southwest of Reykjavik, on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The pool of seawater is naturally heated to 98 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Rich in minerals like sulfur and silica, it has valuable therapeutic properties. Donning my bathing suit, I ventured into the bracingly hot water, and enjoyed the paradoxical sensation of cool snowflakes falling on my face. I made my way to an island where there was a trough of silica-rich mud, famous for its exfoliating, cleansing, aesthetic and rejuvenating benefits. I slathered it all over my face and neck, and felt a soothing, astringent effect as it dried. Ten minutes of this natural facial treatment is said to make one look ten years younger. It certainly left me smooth and glowing – I don’t know about the other!
One of the things I had been most excited about seeing was the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, the spectacular atmospheric light show visible only in the northern latitudes. Unfortunately, owing to a miscommunication (my fault), I missed the tour that was going to an advantageous viewing place! I was terribly disappointed, but can assure you that I’ll go back and try again, because most visitors assure me that this is among their favorite experiences.
The compact, charming downtown with low-lying buildings and attractive colorful rooftops, makes Reykjavik a pleasing place to walk around and shop, visit the parks and museums, and enjoy the clean, fresh ambiance. The many restaurants, bars and clubs – over one hundred – provide an active and stimulating night life. One mustn’t forget the flea market on weekends at the waterfront, where you can purchase vacuum- packed smoked salmon and gravlax to bring home.
The name Iceland sounds like a cold place, but the weather is pleasingly temperate. The winters tend to be milder than New England’s, and the summers cooler. Since Iceland derives much of its energy from geothermal hot springs and burns relatively little fossil fuel, it has some of the cleanest air in the world. The choice of outdoor adventures is endless…hiking, biking, rafting, mountain climbing, salmon fishing, off-road exploring, helicoptering and riding Icelandic horses. Iceland is a wonderful place to visit and tourists are welcomed with open arms. This is one for the bucket list! Never mind the chilly name. Iceland is HOT.
My heartfelt thanks to Margret and everyone at HL Adventures for their warm hospitality and boundless generosity.