Until recently, the wonders of Iceland went largely unnoticed. Today, this small North Atlantic island is blossoming into a destination noted for its wealth of natural beauty — explosive geysers, gurgling mud pools, snakelike lava flows, majestic waterfalls, towering glaciers, steaming thermal baths, and magnificent northern lights.
On November 1, 2002, thirty travelers journeyed to Iceland with TravelQuest and Sky & Telescope to explore this exotic land of the Vikings. During the six-day tour, we discovered that it's true — Iceland is an amazing place. And despite clouds that came and went every evening, we saw beautiful auroral displays on each of the four nights we were under dark, rural skies far from Reykjavík.
The Blue Lagoon
After an overnight flight from the United States, there's nothing like a soak in the Blue Lagoon, a mineral-rich pool of hot (40°C, 104°F) water that rejuvenates everyone who takes the plunge. Local patrons swear by its curative powers. The pool is fed by runoff from the nearby Svartsengi power plant, which pumps the geothermally heated water up from below ground. After being used to generate both heat and electricity for nearby Reykjavík, the excess (absolutely clean) water is ejected into the lagoon for the enjoyment of all. The Blue Lagoon opened early just for us, and after a relaxing 45-minute dip followed by breakfast, we set out to explore Reykjavík.
Iceland was first settled in the ninth century by the Norse Viking Ingólfur Arnarson, who built his farm at a place he named Reykjavík ("Smoky Bay") because of the steam he saw rising from the earth. For centuries, the area remained home to only a few farms. In 1703 an official census revealed that a mere 400 inhabitants resided inside the current city limits. Today 170,000 people, more than half the population of Iceland, live in Reykjavík, the country's largest city and the most northern capital in the world.
Reykjavík is dominated by Hallgrimskirkja, a church that took almost 40 years to build. Although its interior is modest, the balcony houses a grand 50-foot-high organ containing 5,275 pipes. Outside the main entrance is a statue of the Viking explorer Leifur Eiriksson — the real discoverer of North America. There is a fine view of the city from atop the church's steeple. The heart of Reykjavík lies between Tjörn ("the pond") and the harbor and includes the Althingi (Parliament) that faces onto Austurvöllur (the old town square), City Hall, the National Gallery, and several fine museums.
Fortunately, the city center is small and everything, including the shopping district, can be easily reached on foot. All of this is a short taxi-ride from our hotel — the Loftleidir. Most of the shops and houses are of recent construction; only a few old wooden structures, now usually covered by corrugated tin, remain. Also present in and around the downtown core are many good restaurants. In fact, no matter where we went in Iceland, we found the food to be uniformly excellent.
Our tour guide (Martina) and driver (Beggi) were marvelous. During the course of the trip Martina plied us with plenty of interesting background information about the country. For example, Iceland was very poor until the Second World War, when the influx of American and British troops caused Reykjavík to suddenly transform from a sleepy little town into a larger city. Martina also tried, with mixed results, to teach us some Icelandic. She explained that it's actually a living language that doesn't allow the influx of foreign words.
So when new words are required, they're formed from what’s available in the old language. For example, the word for computer (tölva) was created by combining two Old Icelandic words: tala (number) and völva (prophet) to produce a word that, when literally translated, means "prophet of numbers."
Reykjavík (and all of Iceland, for that matter) runs on geothermal power. More than 250 geothermal fields are scattered throughout the country, providing hot water and pollution-free power to every city, town, and village. One interesting side effect of having readily available hot water: swimming is a national pastime, and every city, town, and village has a geothermally heated, outdoor public pool.
While nearly half the group strolled Reykjavík during our free day, the rest took the opportunity to explore other parts of the country. Northeastern Iceland is home to Lake Mývatn, a 45-minute flight from Reykjavík and a beautiful year-round sight. The pseudocrater field at the south end of the lake is a national natural monument. The lake itself is quite shallow and is surrounded by a variety of fascinating geological sights.
Landmannalaugar is a region with one of the largest geothermal fields in Iceland. Getting there is a four-hour drive, in a 4x4 jeep, from Reykjavík. The terrain is volcanic, rugged, and varied. More than 50 percent of Iceland is uninhabited interior, and the Landmannalaugar trip gave those who went a taste of what the region is like. The area contains rambling lava flows, volcanic peaks, glacier-fed streams, and hot springs, all overshadowed by Mount Hekla, which last erupted in February 2000.
Seven members of the group took the trip, stopping for a picnic lunch in a mountain hut heated, of course, by hot water from a nearby stream. Three hearty souls decided to take a dip in the stream and braved the (cold) dash from the hut. While the water was warm, it wasn't very deep — they had to lie on their stomachs and pull themselves around in the stream to stay immersed and warm! The riverbed contained numerous hot spots that were markedly warmer than the rest of bed, and some places had warm water bubbling up from beneath the gravel.
Icelandic horses are small, but sturdy and perfectly suited for the rugged Icelandic terrain. It's said that the Vikings couldn't have settled Iceland without the horses they brought with them. Since it's against the law to import horses, the breeding stock of these island horses remains pure. (And even though they're small, don't ever call them ponies!) Unlike most horses, Icelandic horses have five (not three) gaits: walk, trot, gallop, pace, and the running walk, a pace so smooth and steady that you scarcely notice the horse beneath you.
Seven folks from our tour decided that the half-day horseback-riding adventure, on a trail outside Reykjavík, was the thing to do. The two-hour ride is suitable for everyone (no matter what your level of horse-riding expertise) and provides a different way to view Iceland's countryside. The horses impressed everybody, and they behaved exactly as advertised — sweet, smooth-gaited, and responsive. An added bonus was the terrain — the lava fields through which the riders passed were very otherworldly.
Iceland has made only two contributions to the English language: saga and geyser. In a geothermal field east of Reykjavik lies the origin of the latter word. The original gushing hot spring (the "Great Geysir") used to erupt every few minutes, but it ceased early last century. It was reborn in 1998 after a local earthquake. However, it now erupts only a few times a day at erratic intervals. Fortunately, its nearby, smaller companion (Strokkur, the "Butter Churn") faithfully spouts every six to eight minutes. But the burst happens quickly and the plume lasts for only a few seconds, so you have to be fast with your camera to capture this sight.
On our visit to Geysir, the low clouds and rain, combined with the rising steam, made for a very eerie and alien scene, one suggesting what the primitive Earth might have looked like. Martina led us on a short but interesting walk through the geothermal field — here and there you can get "up close and personal" with various geysers, vents, and hot springs. One of the water-filled springs is actually "cool" — you can stick your hand in the water without being scalded. But there's only one; all the others have water temperatures exceeding 80°C.
The volcanic rock around the vents and geysers is very discolored — bright shades of brown, yellow, and green overlay the otherwise dark, drab lava. The whole area smells slightly of sulfur. Might this be how an alien planet, or a region of Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io, looks? No wonder a group of space artists from the International Association of Astronomical Artists came to Iceland in 1988 seeking inspiration.
Despite the rain, some of us stood for many minutes waiting for Strokkur to erupt, while others wandered through the geothermal field, exploring the region's burbling vents and hot springs coated with wildly colored deposits of minerals and algae. After a fine buffet lunch (and, of course, a visit to the gift shop) we were on our way to Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall.
Gullfoss and Thingvellir
A short drive from Geysir is Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. It's an impressive sight, as water from Hvitá (the White River) drops 32 meters (100 feet) in a double cascade and then flows into a canyon. There are two lookouts; from one you can walk all the way to the edge of the falls (which most of the group did). During the 1920s, international companies wanted to build a hydroelectric plant here. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of a local farmer, helped lead the opposition to the plant and walked to Reykjavík as a protest. She also threatened to throw herself over the falls if the sale went through. Although the government didn't intervene, she lived, and the land eventually became a nature preserve.
West of Geysir and Gullfoss, at the northern end of Lake Thingvallavatn, is Thingvellir, the site of the ancient (outdoor) Icelandic Parliament and now a national park. After we walked through a lava-walled gorge to the Öxará River, Martina recounted its history. In A.D. 930 the two dozen chieftains of the region decided to get together and codify some of their laws. They gathered here because it was easy to reach: a fjord capable of holding many Viking longboats is only a five-hour walk away, there was plenty of grazing land and a thick forest (believe it or not), and the setting was dramatic. This gathering was Iceland's Parliament (Althingi) until Norway annexed the island in 1271, though parliamentary meetings continued to be held here until 1798.
As part of the parliamentary proceedings, every three years one person was elected "law-speaker." It was his job to learn the laws and correctly repeat one-third of them every year. If he forgot a law, it was immediately deemed to be invalid! When the assembly discussed new laws he'd lead the debate and would make the final decision if the assembly didn’t arrive at a consensus. In fact, in A.D. 1000 when the chieftains couldn’t agree on whether Iceland should become Christian, it was the law-speaker who decided to turn the country away from its popular pagan gods.
Kerið and Skálholt
The 3,000-year-old crater Kerið is part of a group of volcanic hills and pseudocraters. It's 55 meters (180 feet) deep with a watery base, though the depth of the "lake" on the crater floor is only a few meters. It's pretty; the moss clinging to its steep sides contrasts beautifully with the red volcanic soil. Led by Martina, most of us walked around the entire crater. The surrounding landscape is filled with scrub and low trees, and the colors are quite subdued. In the distance, numerous snow-capped volcanoes look more like old, worn mountains than slumbering volcanic cones.
Our final destination in the region was the church at Skálholt. It's currently in a rural setting (with only a high school in the vicinity), but early in the 11th century the largest town in Iceland was nearby. Skálholt served as one of two theological centers in Iceland for centuries and was home to one of the country's two bishops (the other lived in northern Iceland). A grand cathedral was built here in the 12th century — the building we see today is the fourth church to be erected on the site. The exterior of the church is plain, but inside is a beautiful mosaic altarpiece made from tiles. In the basement, an underground vault has been turned into a small museum.
Thingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss, Kerið, and Skálholt are all part of the very popular "Golden Circle" tour that everyone who visits Iceland should experience. If you're in the country for only a day or two, you can either rent a car and make the journey yourself or join one of the numerous six- or eight-hour Golden Circle bus tours originating from Reykjavík. By comparison, we spent a leisurely day and a half in the region, giving us plenty of time to thoroughly explore each site.
Iceland's South Shore
In addition to glaciers and volcanoes, Iceland possesses many beautiful waterfalls. During our journey along the south shore of the country, we stopped to admire several of them, including Seljalandsfoss. This thin cascade of water, 40 meters (130 feet) high, has a footpath behind it; if you're willing to get wet you can walk behind the falls and stare out at the world through the ribbon of falling water.
The south shore is a unique region of Iceland. During the last Ice Age the southern edge of the country was bounded by numerous seacliffs. After the ice and the oceans retreated, a swath of fertile land appeared between the cliffs and the sea. These flat plains are now the site of numerous farms but surprisingly few towns or villages.
Our home base for exploring this region was the Hotel Ranga near the village of Hella. Less than a 30-minute drive east of our hotel are the Skógar Folk Museum and the nearby Skógarfoss waterfall. ("Skógar" means forest, but today the region is nearly treeless.) The museum is the "child" of its curator, Thórður Tómasson. He started collecting artifacts in 1933 when he was 14; he now has more than 6,000. He certainly is a character. He welcomed us by playing "Home on the Range" on an old piano, he spun wool, he sang, and he rolled through the museum talking at lightning speed in reasonable English.
The main building includes two fishing boats, fishing gear, household implements for day-to-day living, farm tools, and even stuffed local animals. Outside are several old buildings including the Skal Farmhouse (three linked buildings), first built in 1920 and used for decades before being moved to Skógar.
A few hundred meters from the Museum is the picturesque Skógarfoss waterfall. Supposedly there’s a chest of treasure buried in or near the falls, but sadly we didn't have time to search for it.
Vík and Vicinity
A 20-minute drive from the museum at Skógar brought us to Vík, Iceland's most southerly village and one of the few in the south shore region that’s actually on the ocean. The villagers don’t fish because there’s no harbor nearby; in fact there are only two harbors along the south coast.
We arrived in the early afternoon and drove up to the town church for a dramatic view of the region and the nearby sea stacks of Reynisdrangur. These five standing stones located just offshore are said to be two frozen trolls (a man and a woman) and their three-masted ship. According to legend, the trolls were out fishing late one night, got caught by sunlight, and were turned into rock.
After lunch and a little shopping at the local Vík Wool Factory Outlet store, we headed for a nearby black-sand volcanic beach. The beach is very close to the sea stacks and
thanks to low light levels, crashing waves, and black sand, the entire site has a dark, dramatic appearance. Frozen lava rises out of the water in the form of six-sided basalt columns, created when basalt cools very slowly. Off in the distance are the headlands, the southernmost portion of Iceland. They, too, were being pounded by surf and wreathed in spray.
After leaving the beach we stopped near a tongue of the Mýrdalsjökulll glacier. A 15-minute walk from the parking lot brought us right to the edge of the (not-so-pristine) ice pack. Glaciers across Iceland are currently in retreat, since there isn't enough snowfall to replace the ice lost through melting.
Our last stop of the day was the Saga Museum, where Arthur, another colorful curator, met us. His presentation style and demeanor reminded many of a Shakespearian actor. He gave us a 30-minute introduction to sagas in general and the famous Njál’s Saga in particular. (In Iceland, a saga is an oral novel created by an unknown author or authors and
transcribed to a written version on sheep or cow skin in the 13th or 14th century. It describes action that took place between A.D. 930 and 1050 — the Saga Age.) Njál’s Saga is the most beloved and best known of all the Icelandic sagas; some Icelanders can repeat the entire tale from memory.
Last Sights of Iceland
Our final day in Iceland dawned bright and sunny (of course). We retraced our steps by heading west along Route 1 (the main ring road of Iceland), stopping briefly in the village of Hveragerði. Because of its location on a geothermal field, Hveragerði has become the country's "greenhouse capital" — 25 percent of all the greenhouses in Iceland are located here.
Continuing west, we passed through the suburbs of Reykjavík and headed southwest into the Reykjanes Peninsula toward the Blue Lagoon. Here, a few tour members decided to forgo lunch to have another dip in the lagoon, while the rest of us enjoyed one more fine Icelandic meal. Later, we visited another geothermal field, but the moment we stepped off the bus, we knew this one was different. The stench of sulfur from the hot, bubbling pots of sulfur-laden water was overpowering. The rising steam and discolored rocks presented us with one more otherworldly Icelandic scene.
Finally, less than three hours before our flights were set to begin departing from nearby Keflavík, we found ourselves at the edge of Iceland on the tip of the Reykjanes peninsula. Standing in sunshine atop a black-rock escarpment, we could see the Atlantic furiously crashing against the cliffs below as the wind howled off the ocean — a beautiful sight and a fitting end to our time in Iceland.
Aurora Over Iceland
We journeyed to Iceland for two reasons: the scenery and the northern lights. We saw plenty of both.
We spent six nights in the country, four under dark skies outside Reykjavík (two at Efri Bru and two at the Hotel Ranga). Despite the clouds and rain that dogged us during the day, the heavens cleared for at least part of each evening, giving us a chance to enjoy the marvelous spectacle of dancing lights that are the aurora borealis.
Below are samples of some of the aurora photographs taken by various group members. Most images were acquired at Efri Bru on November 3rd and 4th — the displays on these nights were often very intense and lively.
As is always the case, the camera captured both more and less than we could see with our eyes. Colors often appear enhanced in the images, but capturing on film the delicate and fast-moving rays and curtains proved impossible.
There were times when the aurora could be seen shimmering and pulsing behind the clouds. Occasionally a break in the cloud deck gave us a hint as to what was happening overhead.
Martina mentioned that, in her experience, the aurora really popped out between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. She wasn't wrong. And even if a great display wasn't visible, a faint auroral glow often blanketed the sky.