Guest contributors John and Sandra Nowlan describe their
recent visit to Iceland where they discovered much more than fire and ice.
A friend has called Iceland, “Geography on steroids.” After four days of touring inside a volcano, swimming in naturally heated mineral baths, walking between tectonic plates and exploring deep within a glacier, we have to agree.
The mystique of Iceland even begins before arrival in the capital city of Reykjavik. Just before takeoff, the interior lighting on our Icelandair flight suddenly took on the pulsating, colorful hues of the majestic Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Along with excellent service, Icelandair (with 17 North American gateways) was a delightful introduction to “The Land of Fire and Ice.”
Iceland has a population of just over 300,000 and the remote vastness of the land is evident during the ride from the airport. We passed mile upon mile of rugged, treeless, moss covered lava deposits from thousands of years of volcanic activity.
Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world with a population of just 200,000 is dominated by two buildings – the tall Hallgrimskirkja Church, with a design inspired by basalt lava columns so common throughout the country, and The Pearl, a large dome built over a series of huge, hot water storage tanks.
The streets in the harborfront city are clean, the people are friendly (English is spoken almost everywhere) and the restaurants are outstanding. Thanks to constant geothermal activity, clean energy is abundant throughout Iceland and more than 90% of homes and buildings in the capital are heated with renewable energy. With nearby glaciers feeding numerous rivers and streams, hydro power is also common and inexpensive. Tap water, non-chlorinated, can be enjoyed all over the city and in every town.
Our introduction to the outstanding cuisine in this island nation came in the evening at the Matur Og Drykkur restaurant (Food and Drink, in Icelandic). The specialties, as in much of Iceland, were very fresh fish (cod, halibut and Arctic char) and local lamb. Our appetizer was unique – trout smoked in sheep dung (much taster than it sounds).
The next morning we headed north towards West Iceland, a large snout-like peninsula that juts 45 miles into the North Atlantic. We stopped for lunch at a five-star TripAdvisor restaurant, Bjargarsteinn Mathus, in a marvelous harbor setting facing Mount Kirkujell. In addition to wonderful fish soup, deep fried seaweed and crispy dried cod we were introduced to Iceland’s signature drink, Brennivin, vodka schnapps flavored with caraway seeds.
But the highlight (or perhaps, lowlight) was a taste of the national Icelandic dish, Hakari, or “Treated Shark.” Pieces of Greenland shark are buried for 6-8 weeks to remove toxins, then the fermented product is hung to dry for several more weeks before it’s chopped up and ready for consumption. Most visitors find the smell and taste disgusting but, in the spirit of adventure, we tried it without any ill effects.
Adventure was also on our agenda for the afternoon with a Seatours boat tour from the little town of Stykkisholmur. The captain took us very close to high-sided volcanic islands covered with thousands of nesting birds, mainly kittiwakes. The highlight was when a net was lowered to the bottom and pulled along, capturing dozens of scallops, sea urchins and starfish. The small scallop muscle was scooped out and offered to guests. Delicious!
Our last full day in Iceland was jammed with four unique attractions that make a visit so worthwhile. First was the Deildartunguhver Thermal Spring, the highest flow hot spring in Europe. Set along a small hill, the spring produces 50 gallons a second of 212 degree F. water. It’s then piped as far as 40 miles to provide hot water and heating to homes in two communities.
Iceland’s newest major attraction is the world’s largest man-made ice cave and tunnel. Carved deep into the Langjokull Glacier, the second largest in Europe, the cave extends for 500 yards in a circular route well below the surface of the glacier. Crampons are worn in the constant 32F. temperature. There’s even a wedding chapel and an unexpected large crevasse to cross.
The cave is reached after a long, picturesque climb up the glacier in converted eight-wheeled NATO rocket launchers. Now open for just a year, the engineering and lighting effects in the tunnel are remarkable. As one TripAdvisor guest noted, “I never thought I’d love being inside an ice cube.”
On the way back to Reykjavik we stopped to admire the unusual Hraunfossar Waterfall. It stretches for 900 yards along a volcanic cliff with the water surging from the lava rather than from the top of the estuary.
In the evening (this far north, the sun didn’t set until after 11 pm) we had time to visit Thingvellir National Park, site of the original Icelandic Parliament in 930 AD and now a World Heritage Site. Most remarkable is the geology. This area marks a clear divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and we were able to walk between the two continental plates where fissures had taken place. Even today, North America and Europe are separating by about 2 cm a year and this area is clear evidence of the constant earth movement.
On the way to the airport and our return Icelandair flight, we stopped at one of Iceland’s premier attractions, The Blue Lagoon. The blue-tinged water in this huge, steaming man-made pool set in a lava wilderness, is first a superheated mix of sea and fresh water forced through lava from more than a mile below the surface where it picks up silica and minerals. It then passes through a nearby turbine for electricity and ends up in the Blue Lagoon at a constant 100 F. The silica and minerals are considered therapeutic.
The Blue Lagoon set-up is very modern and efficient with changing rooms, lockers and showers plus an excellent restaurant called Lava. Guests can enjoy five star cuisine (our fish and lamb were among the best we’ve ever enjoyed) while in their bathrobes.
Iceland, with its unique volcanic vistas and unmatched natural beauty, has been a popular fantasy and sci-fi filming location since the 1920s. But the popularity of Game of Thrones with its wild and mystical Icelandic backdrops offers visitors another reason to visit this land of ice, snow, pastoral scenes and peaceful people. Little wonder it’s a “hot” destination for North Americans.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Disclosure: The Nowlans visit to Iceland was sponsored in part by Icelandair.
**All photo credits: John and Sandra Nowlan
IF YOU GO
Google Map of Iceland
Previously on More Time to Travel: Iceland awaits the over-50 traveler