Geologically speaking, nature did a good thing for the planet fifteen million years ago by giving us the volcanic island of Iceland. Of course, it took humans a long time to discover it. It wasn’t until the 9th century CE that a fugitive from Norway named Ingólfur Arnarson approached the island by boat. Throwing two carved logs overboard, he declared that wherever the gods decreed they would touch land he would settle. That spot became known as Reykjavik (Smokey Bay) due to the steam rising from its fissures and thermal pools. Today, it is that steam that heats the water that supplies the bathroom shower and fills the kitchen sink. Its faint odor of sulfur betrays its source.
There is a lot of water in Iceland, and much of it is hot. A highlight of our short visit was a day spent at the Blue Lagoon.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere on a lava plain, the lagoon is a large, thermal pool of bluish water that has been developed into a delightful attraction about forty-five minutes by bus from Reykjavik. The company that runs it uses smart technology and high standards of excellence to provide an unforgettable experience. At reception, Kay and I were issued submersible plastic bracelets with computer chips that we used in lieu of a credit card for anything we wished to buy. The chip also locked and unlocked the lockers where we stored our clothes and valuables. Since I had neglected to pack a bathing suit, I was even able to rent one for a nominal fee.
Kay and I spent an hour in the lagoon, seeking out the warmest spots. The month of March is still winter in Iceland, and the air was bitingly cold, but once in the water we were delightfully warm and shrouded in steam. In spite of the large number of bathers, our surroundings never felt crowded.
We had reserved a table for lunch in the Lava Restaurant and were surprised at its high level of cuisine and service. Our starter of steamed plaice, salsify, and langoustine sauce was a top chef’s creation and a match for the catfish, broccoli, and barley in mushroom sauce that followed. The only compliment we needed was some fine white wine, and that was available, too. For those of you who love fish Iceland is a real find. During our short four-day stopover, in addition to catfish, we dined on cod, salmon, and ling (a cod-like fish).
The high quality of the restaurant food was only one of several surprises in this surprising country. The brightly painted walls and roofs of the city’s old center make the neighborhood fun to explore. Many of the buildings that house shops and apartments are sided with corrugated metal. We wouldn’t have thought this to be an attractive material, but in Iceland, it is. Another “first” in our experience is that people purchase almost everything using credit cards. Whether paying for a candy bar or a taxi ride we did it with plastic. It felt funny to be waking around without any cash in our wallets, but we really had no need for any.
More than for any other reason, people come to Iceland for its unusual scenic beauty and outdoor life. Organized tours of hiking, biking, horseback riding, and diving (even in winter in dry suits), are plentiful. Kay and I had signed up for a midnight excursion to see the Northern Lights, but didn’t keep the date. Kay’s cough and the lateness of the hour discouraged us.
Other than luxuriating in the Blue Lagoon, our foray into nature was a daylong road trip in a rented car through part of southeast Iceland. Most of our drive was along Highway 1, mostly single-lane without much traffic. Near the beginning, we drove among some snowy mountains that would have made good photos if I could have stopped the car. Later, we drove for a long way across a flat plain with the mountains never out of sight but a good way off. This is agricultural land. We passed greenhouses where Icelanders grow tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits, even bananas. Otherwise there were no crops to be seen; it is still winter there after all. We did see sheep and many small, long-haired horses. It is traditional in Iceland to breed them. We saw them pressed together in groups, maybe to keep warm. Iceland’s scenery can change dramatically. This sparsely settled island has an austere beauty, never more so than when we would see a single lonely house or farmstead off in the distance.
Our day’s drive to the village of Vik Myrdal and back took us past Seljalandsfoss, a giant waterfall more than one hundred meters tall. We were able to park quite close to it and join other tourists and amateur photographers to admire the cascading water. Had we been better equipped with boots and waterproof clothing, we could have climbed up and stood behind the falling water. As it was, we played it safe and stayed dry. I have to stress that for us Iceland was a stopover on our way to the States, and we hadn’t wanted to bring heavy and specialized clothing that we would be stuck traveling with for the next three months.
At Dyrbolaey, on the seacoast, we stood on cliff’s edge high above swirling water that washed the black sand below. Beyond eroded cliff faces, were mountains. Off shore were some needle-like rock formations shaped by the water’s incessant movement. Climbing a short trail to a promontory I looked west along a long cliff that sheltered thousands of birds.
Promotional materials describe Vik Myrdal as “picturesque.” Although it does have a pretty red-and-white church perched on a hilltop, to us the village’s collection of scattered buildings looked forlorn against the winter landscape. It was very quiet.
A short commercial street has a restaurant serving light meals and drinks. We spent a few minutes there over coffee after I had climbed a black sand dune and walked on the beach to take some photos. The freezing wind was terrific so I didn’t linger.
Our Icelandic adventure was short and intense. It was Kay’s turn to feel ill, so at one point we sought out a doctor at a medical clinic in one of the five towns that make up the Reykjavik metropolitan area. Kay also contracted an eye infection like the one I had in Israel.
I can’t end this account without mentioning our wonderful accommodations because if and when you go to Iceland, the Reykjavik4You Apartments are where to stay. They are perfectly located in the city center and owned and operated by a single family that besides providing booking services and travel advice shared a great deal of personal information about life in their country. They always seemed to have time to talk to us in their comfortable office on the floor below the apartment we occupied.
Kay and I didn’t have any particular expectations for Iceland. We chose to stop there out of curiosity. What we found was a civilized population of friendly and helpful people almost all of who speak English. The atmosphere in the city center is as cosmopolitan as we would wish, and the hinterland of the island has many areas to explore. We look forward to returning for a longer stay during a future summer. Perhaps some of you would like to join us. If you do plan to visit the country, do contact us for some useful travel tips.