On September 7, 2019, 10 ladies flew over the Atlantic Ocean to see what they could see. In Iceland.
Never has a country been more aptly named than Iceland, the land of fire and ice. Both extremes were beautifully evident at every location we traveled. It is a land of extremes and of contradictions. The heated lagoons, and steam vents, bespoke the volcanic turmoil just below the surface and yet the highlands wore scarves of ice and the glaciers melted and moved more slowly than a human eye could detect.
Our first stop was the bridge spanning two continents: North America and Europe.
Though the location was daunting, we didn’t dawdle, because we were in a hurry to get to our next destination: Iceland’s legendary Blue Lagoon.
In the sprawling locker room, we exchanged our traveling togs for bathing suits, struggled to operate the security system for our lockers — it worked with our computer-chipped wristbands — and took the mandatory showers.
Downstairs, we located the door to the steaming water, hung our towels on pegs, and waded into the eerie, pale blue water.
Quickly we made our way to the bar where we all ordered prosecco as our complimentary cocktail. Then we walk-swam to the observation window to pose for a picture.
Next we paddled to a bar of a different kind for a generous (and free) dollop of silica-based face mask. Giggling, we slathered our cheeks, necks, and chests with the cream.
As we explored the lagoon — hooting and hollering — I joked with a lifeguard. “It’s pretty cool you get paid to watch people be silly all day.”
He informed me that was the nature of his second job as well. By night he was a bouncer at a bar.
Giddy more from new experience and fatigue than the prosecco, one gal considered fake-drowning so the young man would rescue her. So many of the Icelandic men — ladies, too — were very tall. And blonde. The majority of folks we encountered spoke very good English.
After our hour in the Blue Lagoon, we dressed and relocated to the colorful town of Reykjavik, population almost 130,000.
After parking, we walked to various points of interest. First a bakery where I devoured a puff pastry, almond-scented, hazelnut-topped confection I will never forget.
Then a church, spectacular inside and out
Next we explored the city’s colorful streets:
We also tasted some Icelandic street food. This is no ordinary hot dog. Crafted from beef, pork, and lamb in natural casing, it was served with sautéed onions and crispy onions and topped with a zesty remoulade sauce. It was way different than an American hot dog. The snap when you bit into it? Wow!
Before leaving Reykvajic, we sampled some local soups, including lobster and traditional “meat soup.” When one gal’s vegetarian soup arrived, it was so beautiful, I envied her.
Afterward, we drove to our elegantly-designed but compact Vacation-Rental-By-Owner house. As we carried in our bags,
I wondered how 10 women would fair with only two bathrooms, but it was fine. Really.
Most of us slept in slender twin beds outfitted simply with a pillow and a fluffy white duvet. Not once did I suffer sleep problems like I do at home. My roommate and I credited this fact to fatigue and good mattresses.
On day two, we drove to a nearby fish-and-chips stand. The chips — little wedges deliciously crisp — were the best I’ve ever tasted, and the fish was delicious as well.
Next we visited the spectacular Skogafoss Waterfall. “Foss” means “waterfall” in Icelandic.
The noise was nearly deafening as the water crashed over the cliff into a pool below. From there, an almost-sedate stream chattered over shiny black stones toward us. We wondered how the pool could seem so small and the stream almost tame. Surely that pool is exceedingly deep.
We then took the Drangurinn Cave tour with a young, tall, and bearded man who possessed a hilarious and infectious laugh.
In the hillsides around his property, he showed us smallish caves where livestock had been kept for centuries.
At one cliff, he paused to describe how he and his sister, as children — with their pet kitten — reinacted the famous scene from Disney’s Lion King where Rafiki holds up baby Simba and bellows out his name.
The tour wrapped up inside his largest cave. Our guide’s lady-love — a tiny gal from Finland, if memory serves — produced thermoses of coffee and hot water for tea, as well as delicate crescent-shaped cookies. While we nibbled and sipped, “Cave Man,” as I called him, shared his views on American politics. He did not lack passion.
At his recommendation we stopped at the local folk museum. As he predicted, the museum was teeming with fascinating artifacts. What our group enjoyed the most were the traditional Icelandic homes which had been rebuilt on the museum grounds.
We then visited yet another waterfall, Seljalandsfoss. Here, several gals hiked the path to stand behind the impressive falls. Not liking the looks of the steep, muddy path, I flopped on soft grass a distance away with two other ladies to wait for our friends to return, mist-dampened and exhilarated. Here’s the view from behind the falls.
Before driving home, there was one more cave to check out. Some ladies scrambled up to a second level cave where centuries ago, Irish monks carved a cross deep in the rock wall.
Back at the house, some of us ventured into the spacious hot tub with cold local beers.
As the steaming water splashed over the edge, we were alternately festive and introspective.
“Iceland’s contradictions continued with the adjustments that a small, previously rather isolated population was in the transitional stage of making. Less than 12 years ago the one major Islandic airport was owned by the US military, when it was transferred to the Icelanders it was at a pivotal time, economically on the ropes, Iceland began a major push to increase tourism. Now with a population between 300,000 and 400,000, Iceland receives over 2 million tourists in a season shortened by darkness and ice during the winter monthst. The increased tourism creates abundant opportunity along with a major workload on relatively few native Icelanders who are working diligently on infrastructure.”
Due to distance, Day 3 was a long one.
Our first stop was a stunning black sand beach with “sea stacks,” rock formations emerging from the ocean. Karen warned us numerous times to not go near the water. At the Reynisfjara black sand beach, “sneaker waves” are notorious for sweeping unsuspecting tourists out to sea.
The day’s second stop was Fjadrargljufur Canyon where a Justin Bieber video was shot.
After that we ate lunch, oddly, in a gas station. The buffet included leg of lamb, arctic char, and scalloped potatoes, all delicious.
Our next destination was a favorite of the group: Jokulsarlon Glacier and Diamond Beach.
In the parking lot, whipping winds blew against our cars so others and I wiggled into extra layers of clothing, including water and windproof pants before exiting the vehicles.
The glacier and its countless “offspring” were breathtaking. They were the same color as the Blue Lagoon — blue KoolAid in a glass of melted ice. A seal — or were there multiples? — frolicked in the frigid bay and river that flowed to the sea.
Nearby, on the soft black (volcanic) sand, we marveled at the gorgeous hunks of ice dotting the beach: diamonds.
Now chilled to our cores, we tucked back in to our cars to head back to Hella, our temporary town.
That night we dined at the gourmet — but not overly dressy — restaurant at Hotel Ranga.
No one ordered puffin, a local delicacy, but I did eat reindeer carpaccio. Sliced paper-thin, sprinkled with Parmesan and drizzled with truffle oil, it was very good.
So was my wild mushroom soup and asparagus appetizer which featured crisp Parma ham and a poached egg.
It is an energetic and almost savage land with strong winds and unexpected waves, pristine waters filtered through volcanic porous soils and waterfalls everywhere; our favorite word was “Wow”! There are unique breeds of horses, chickens, and goats that are exclusive to Iceland with windswept grassland farms all along the coast we traveled. The fields were dotted with sheep and more horses than we could imagine being useful, other than to make the landscape interesting, or as beloved pets since they are no longer a food source.
The next day’s adventure required another early departure and four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The 2+-hour drive included sections of road that were so rough, we felt as if we sat inside a dryer drum.
At Landmannalauger, half the group hiked the legendary ridge of constantly shifting black volcanic gravel with a steep slope right and left.
The rest of us explored the valley below. The ground beneath our feet was littered with a vast array of interesting stones and the area reeked of sulfur due to the many geothermal steam jets inside the rocks. More than once, we spied little pools of boiling water. The picture below was taken by a charming young Italian, traveling by himself.
The next day, to afford us a break from the cars, we stayed close to our lodging location. We only ventured out once to visit a wool shop where some of us purchased Icelandic sweaters and salts.
On Friday, we visited the Snaefellsnes peninsula to take in several attractions: A black church, basalt columns, and a sea cliff with waterfalls.
Along the way we stopped for lunch at the charming inn-cum-restaurant, Hotel Langaholt. Since their only server called off that morning, the very hospitable owner-chef set our table, took our orders, and served our food.
Some of us enjoyed the traditional fish stew and rye bread (which takes 12 hours to make!).
My friend Dana and I split the catch-of-the-day. Even halved, our cod with roasted vegetables, crispy onions, brown gravy, and dill was more than sufficient. We agreed it was the best cod we’ve ever tasted.
After lunch we drove a primitive volcanic-gravel road over a glacier. Thankfully we didn’t encounter anyone coming from the opposite direction.
That evening we enjoyed dinner at an adorable restaurant located on the water.
The first order of the evening was quenching our considerable thirst with glasses of First Lady IPA from an Icleandic brewery run by women. Soon after, firm and crispy rolls were served with creamy butter piped onto smooth black stones.
Several of us ordered the 5-course meal:
- Scallop appetizer
- Fish soup
- Blueberry sorbet in sparkling water (to cleanse the palate)
- Beef tenderloin with roasted vegetables and au gratin potatoes
- A trio of house-made ice cream: vanilla, strawberry, and licorice
Others enjoyed beautiful seafood offerings including a smoked trout appetizer served in a sealed jar. When the lid was lifted, delicate wisps of smoke wafted out. My nibble tasted as beautiful as it looked.
For most of us Day 7 was spent quietly at the house.
Two ladies, however, opted for a grand adventure: snorkeling above the tectonic plates where North America meets Europe.
Though the water was a brisk 38 degrees, in dry suits, they felt cozy.
Horseback riding was on the afternoon’s schedule in order to experience the iconic Iceland horses up close.
Alas, the rain fell in diagonal sheets at both our reserved afternoon times. Thankfully, one lady in our group captured this video of the horses who lived behind our rental home. And this great shot. We captioned the picture: “Having a Hella good time in Iceland.”
That night as we packed for the next day’s departure, we agreed that though we’d enjoyed an extraordinary week, most of us longed for home.
After supper, I scrabbled up the long driveway to capture our final sunset in Iceland. The hues did not disappoint.
Later, when we were all in bed asleep, a shout rang out: “If you want to see the Northern Lights, wake up now!”
Out we shot onto the deck, in jammies with blankets wrapped hastily around our shoulders. The legendary lights were lime-sherbet geysers in the sky. Up until now, they had been elusive. Gratefully we agreed, “better late than never.”
We were lucky to see an introduction to the Aurora Borealis season; vague flickerings of color on the northern horizon hinted at the spectacular nights to come in the winter season.
Shall I compare Iceland to Scotland?
To me, the sights we saw in Iceland this year seemed more spectacular than those I visited in Scotland. However, Iceland required considerably more time in the car between attractions.
I also felt that with a few exceptions — noted above — the Icelandic people were not as welcoming as the people of Scotland. To me the country outside of Reykjavik seemed populated by individuals and single families. There were few villages, and towns were fewer still. The schools we encountered could be counted on one hand. The lack of pubs saddened me. Do these sturdy people do life all alone?
This may require more “research.”
Where to next, Captain Karen?
For more “lessons from a life half lived,” click here.