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Elemental Iceland

Iceland is a country defined by the forces of nature. 

Geographically and geologically speaking, Iceland is a volcanic island in the North Atlantic that sits about 900 miles west of Norway and 750 miles east of Greenland. It lies on the 66th parallel, which places it high in the Northern Hemisphere, like the uppermost regions of Alaska, the Yukon, Norway and Finland. 

Warmed by the Gulf Stream coming across the Atlantic and cooled by frigid currents from the Arctic to the north, Iceland has a mercurial climate. It is home to 30 active volcanoes, vast glacial fields, an unrelenting coastline, numerous thermal pools and 370,000 Icelanders whose culture has been defined for centuries by self-reliance. 

My wife, Kim, and I traveled there in November with Collette in hopes of seeing the northern lights. The northern lights are another force of nature that draw travelers to Iceland, but seeing them is not a given. A trip to Iceland promises encounters with volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, icebergs and the cool capital city of Reykjavik, but it doesn’t promise an encounter with the northern lights. As the planet’s foremost heavenly phenomena, the northern lights come and go as they please.

Reykjavik and the Golden Circle

After flying overnight for six hours from Chicago, we were met at Keflavik International Airport by our tour director, Kristin Bogadottir, and traveled to the City Center Hotel in Reykjavik. A city of about 240,000, including suburbs, Reykjavik is home to almost 60% of the country’s population. We took a walking tour that afternoon and visited sites like Iceland’s Parliament building, the towering Hallgrimsskirkja Lutheran church that sits above the city and charming streets filled with holiday shoppers.

Our group of 33 wasted no time in our search for the northern lights. Following a welcome dinner at Hofnin, a charming harborside restaurant, we boarded a cruise vessel and headed out into Faxafloi Bay. We stayed out for an hour and a half — most of us outdoors on the top deck — without any luck. As it turned out, our evenings in Iceland were cold but not brutal. A cup of hot chocolate made them pleasant.

Iceland’s Golden Circle was a stellar place to visit on our first full day. During the trip, the days were long because we usually went out after dinner in search of the northern lights. As Collette points out in its description of this tour, this is a trip for active people who enjoy walking and who can withstand a couple of hours outside in inclement weather.

The Golden Circle refers to three specific sites: Thingvellir National Park, where clans met to unite the country in A.D. 930; the Geysir Geothermal Area, where thermal pools erupt sporadically to become noisy geysers; and Gullfoss, a spectacular waterfall.

We walked some distance through Thingvellir across Iceland’s mid-Atlantic ridge. Geologists identify this ridge as the juncture of two tectonic plates that divide North America and Europe. This national park stands where visitors can see the mid-Atlantic ridge stretching for miles. Clans whose roots were from lands that became Norway and Sweden assembled there in the 10th century to begin a democratic government. 

We hiked in snow through the Geysir pools site and were nearby when one erupted, spewing boiling spray into the air. We had lunch there in a large cafeteria filled with fellow travelers. Cuisine in Iceland features primarily cod and lamb that are both prepared in many ways. Pork is offered to a lesser degree, and some other types of fish are featured as well. 

I made the mistake of paying for bottled water only once. Water in Iceland is an infinite resource. It flows so pure from the mountains that Icelanders tap into natural water for all their needs. The faucets in our hotel rooms flowed with cold, natural water, and we filled our bottles with it daily. Likewise, the thermal water heated by volcanoes provides all the hot water the country needs. The hot water in our showers came directly from natural sources. 

We ended our Golden Circle journey at Gullfoss. It was a lengthy walk to see this monumental waterfall from several vantage points. Purists maintain there are two waterfalls there where the Hvita River plunges twice and changes direction, creating a bilevel spectacle in the Gullfossgjufur canyon.

Black Sand and Powerful Surf

We arrived that evening in Vik, a seaside community at Iceland’s southern tip that became home for three days. We stayed in the Hotel Katla, a property ideally suited for exploring the region’s black sand beaches, mountains and glaciers. Bogadottir was indomitable as a seeker of the northern lights, and we drove out after dinner to a barren vantage point on a clear night. After two hours of searching the horizon for a sign of them, we headed back.

In six days of travel with Bogadottir, she raised her voice once, as we approached our first stop the following day.

“I am warning all of you to be careful on this beach,” she said. “The Icelandic government has instructed tour guides to offer a stern warning before bringing visitors to Reynisfjara. Do not turn your back to the ocean. Do not go anywhere near the surf. This is the North Atlantic, and you will not be able to save yourself if you are swept into it. No one else will be able to save you either.”

Our group spent half an hour marveling at the towering basalt cliffs, black sand and powerful surf at this beach. It would be a shame if it were closed to travelers, but that has been discussed. One week earlier, a young girl lost her life there when a rogue wave swept her and two others into the ocean. We took Bogadottir’s warning seriously.

Later, we made our way to Dyrholaey, a volcanic peninsula overlooking the North Atlantic. This southern coastline is characterized by ancient stone formations that have been battered by tides for centuries. Icelandic folklore deems some of them trolls that turned to stone when sunlight caught them outside their caves.

Skogar Museum preserves the turf-covered homes of Icelandic farmers from the late 1800s. Many were torn down years ago because they were considered inferior to newer homes, but this museum was able to save several and bring them to one location. The museum includes a schoolhouse, a church and a collection of agrarian lifestyle items from that period.

The Skogafoss waterfall is among Iceland’s tallest, measuring almost 200 feet high and about 90 feet wide. A stairway has been erected for those willing to make the climb to the top. It’s a physical endeavor, but the vistas from above of surrounding mountains are stunning. A viewing area at the bottom is an easy walk, but ice was forming when we arrived, so visitors to Iceland’s waterfalls should be careful as winter approaches.

‘You are Icelanders now’

Our trip the following day to Jokulsarlon, Iceland’s glacial lagoon, was a two-hour drive, so we started early. “You are Icelanders now,” Bogadottir said. “You leave in the dark and return in the dark like we do in winter.”

We drove for an hour or so through miles of blackish, lunarlike lava fields. These charred, jagged stretches seemed endless on both sides of the road. Bogadottir said they dated to the 1700s when Lakagigar erupted. 

As daylight appeared, we began seeing mountains and glacial fields in the distance. I spotted maybe half a dozen waterfalls dropping off those cliffsides into small farms. In this rural stretch of Iceland, farmers have pastures blessed with alpine waterfalls to provide water for their horses and crops.

At Jokulsarlon, we dressed our warmest of the week. The glacier there stretched for miles up into the distant mountains and dropped countless icebergs into the river it created. We watched as small icebergs drifted by us toward the sea. Larger ones, some the size of houses, sat motionless in the lagoon.

“A glacier is just snow that never melts,” Bogadottir said. “There is snow up there 1,000 years old, and that’s where these icebergs originate.”

 We walked over to small icebergs lodged on the beach. Most were bluish and somewhat opaque; many had geometric, almost crystallike compositions. Some were beautiful. They were inanimate but seemed to have a lifelike quality about them.

We traveled to the largest national park in all of Europe, Vatnajokull, and hiked up to a vantage point for viewing Europe’s largest glacier. These rivers of ice inhabit mountain passes. Over thousands of years, they re-create their landscapes just as volcanoes do. It’s hard to imagine a landscape more realigned over centuries than Iceland’s.

Iconic Moment

On our last full day, we returned to Reykjavik, and drove on portions of the Ring Road, a highway that encircles the country. Bogadottir surprised us with wonderful Icelandic crepes at a service station along the way.

We had two big items on our schedule that day: We would go to have COVID-19 tests at the city’s municipal building, and we would head to the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most popular stops.

COVID-19 tests are currently required for boarding flights home, and Collette schedules their groups to do it upon their return to Reykjavik. The process was well organized. We downloaded the necessary forms to our phones, stood in line for maybe 30 minutes, were tested with swabs and got our results via email within hours.

The Blue Lagoon is an internationally known spa facility outside Reykjavik that has been developed in a lava field using technology. Its milky-blue waters remain at 102 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. We brought a change of clothes and a swimsuit and were each assigned a locker. After a shower, we entered the huge pool area, where hundreds of people were relaxing. 

Collette had scheduled an iconic Icelandic moment for our final stop. We used our free drink tickets at the walk-up bar in the Blue Lagoon and spent the afternoon recounting an incredible week in a remarkable country.

For more information on this trip with Collette:

Jim Edwards