Iceland: a journey that touches the soul

  • Written by Deborah Stone

iceland“You’re going where?” my friends incredulously asked, when I told them I was headed to Iceland for a week.

“Why, Iceland, of all places?” they countered. I explained to them that opportunity had knocked at my door in the form of an invitation to join a trip for writers to this unique destination and curiosity had propelled me to accept. I admit I first quickly ran to check my atlas to see where Iceland was, as I had only a vague notion of its location - somewhere northeast of Canada?

Actually, to be specific, Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, between Greenland and Scandinavia, resting at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Roughly the size of Virginia with less than 300,000 people, it is Europe’s least populated country, yet it is quickly becoming one of the continent’s hottest destinations.

Prior to my trip, I had imagined Iceland as a desolate, cold and forbidding place, only fit for hearty Norsemen and their fish. How quickly my perceptions changed after a week of experiencing first-hand this exotic country of extreme contrasts.

To begin with, its name is really a misnomer because it is nowhere as cold as it implies. The average temperature in Iceland in January is the same as that of New York City in winter due to the Gulf Stream, which helps to moderate the country’s climate. In summer, the temps range in the comfortable 60 degree to 70 degree range.

Why the old Norsemen who first came to Iceland gave such a harsh name to this green country is a mystery. Legend has it that the first Viking to discover the island wanted to preserve it for himself, so he named the green country “Iceland” and the icy country “Greenland” in hopes that future settlers would continue to head further north and leave his island alone.

What surprised me about this magical place was its dramatic landscapes and natural phenomena, all forged by the forces of fire and ice. The country sits atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hot spots and about eleven percent of it is covered by glaciers.

The scenery is wild, pristine and colorful with geological formations that make one forget that he/she is still on planet Earth.

I knew I was somewhere very different when I arrived, via Icelandair (only a five and a half hour nonstop flight from Minneapolis), at Keflavik International Airport outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Rugged and moss-grown lava fields greeted me as we drove toward the city and for miles all I could view were large black chunks of volcanic rock.

The city of Reykjavik (known as “smoky bay” for the steam that comes from the hot springs that surround the area) is the cultural and entertainment mecca of the country; a hip, happening place with a pulsating nightlife, a dynamic fashion scene and renowned restaurants. It is also a charming and lively seaport with ships dotting its coastline, houses of candy colored roofs hugging the shores and expansive views of Mount Esja in the distance.

Our group stayed at the 4-star Nordica Hotel, the largest hotel in the country with 282 rooms, a spa to die for and numerous conference facilities. Its design was minimalist and emphasized clean and sleek lines, ala Scandinavian style.

We lunched further away from Reykjavik in the small town of Stokkseyri at a little lobster shack called Fjorubordid, which was set on a black volcanic beach. The place had the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth steamed and seasoned Icelandic lobster, which looked like langoustines, but were much sweeter and more delicate. It was my initiation into the proliferation of exquisitely prepared fresh seafood I would encounter throughout the duration of my stay.

That evening, we headed for the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous sights, about an hour outside Reykjavik. Set amid black lava fields and next to the geothermal power station that supplies the country’s central heating (a pollution free energy source, I might add), the Blue Lagoon is a mystical spot that provides visitors with an out-of-this-world experience.

Picture swirling steam rising over a lake of gently simmering sky blue colored water against a craters-of-the-moon backdrop. Now picture soaking in this natural geothermal spa that remains a constant 100 to 110 degrees year round and the concept of ultimate relaxation is complete. Of interest to note is that experts claim the spring’s combination of mineral salts, blue-green algae and silica mud are not only therapeutic for the body, but have healing powers for various conditions of the skin, particularly psoriasis.

As we headed back to our hotel, I had no concept of time until I glanced at my watch and saw that it was nearing 11 p.m. In the land of the midnight sun, the sky was still fairly light and I realized I had untapped energy reserves despite the fact I had not been to bed for 24 hours and was suffering a bout of jet lag.

The next day our group took a short flight to the northeast part of the country to the town of Akureyri (the second largest city in Iceland). Located at the head of an eyjafjordur, a fjord, and opening out towards the Arctic Ocean, Akureyri made a spectacular first impression from the air with its snow-capped mountains and sparkling, azure colored water. Icelandic nature is at its boldest in this region, from its glaciers and spectacular waterfalls to spouting springs of geysers, seething hot springs, boiling mud pots, bizarre lava formations and deep fissures in the earth’s surface.

Our home for the next few days was Husavik, a peaceful fishing village that is also known as the whale watching capital of Europe. Our host for the area was gregarious Haraldur (Halli) Lindal Petursson, General Manager of the Marketing Council of Husavik, who personally guided our group around the town and showed us all there was to do in this fascinating place.

The amount of activities available in Husavik, and for that matter, throughout Iceland during the late spring and summer months are numerous and include horseback riding on Icelandic horses (known for their sure-footedness, strength and impish appearance), kayaking, hiking, bird watching (colonies of puffins and seabirds make their home here), jeep tours in the mountains, deep sea fishing and of course, whale watching. Our group was fortunate to join North Sailing Company on one of its excursions into Skjalfandi Bay, where we were able to spot minke whales and playful white beaked dolphins in their natural habitat.

As I sat on the boat, in the middle of a glorious sunny day, with majestic mountains in the distance and a dazzling expanse of water as far as the eye could see, I imagined that this is what heaven would be like - pristine, unspoiled and utterly calm.

In the days that followed, we toured the Husavik Museum, a compilation of several small museums that included folk and maritime collections, photos and paintings, natural history artifacts and the district’s archives, as well as the Husavik Whale Center, the only museum of its kind in Iceland, dedicated to the education and preservation of the country’s marine wildlife. Director and founder Asjborn Byogvinsson has received international recognition and awards for his work in helping to change the attitude towards whales and conservation as a whole in Iceland.

The duration of our visit to this region was spent in and around Lake Myvatn and the Krafla Mountains, hiking around spaceship-like pseudo-craters, visiting the bizarre towering lava formations at Dimmuborgir (“dark castles” supposedly formed by trolls who held a party one night and forgot about the time, only to have the sun shine on them and turn them into rocks the next morning!), gazing at sizzling, sulphurous mud pots at Hoverer, walking across terrain used by U.S. astronauts to train for their missions on the moon, taking in the wonders of Godafoss, the waterfall of the ancient Viking gods, and marveling at a land painted in all colors of the rainbow.

I stood in awe of nature’s power and its primeval forces which have clearly been locked in a battle for centuries.

Woven into my journey through Iceland were Icelandic sagas - stories and myths that told the history of this fascinating country and its people, dating back to the ninth century when settlers from Norway first set foot on the land. Icelanders still speak Islensku (Icelandic), the ancient language of the Vikings, yet are also fluent in English, Danish and at least one other European language.

I found the people to be independent, resilient and very practical, as well as incredibly hospitable and welcoming to visitors. There is a simplicity to their lifestyles that I found enviable.

Another interesting point to note is that Iceland is the cleanest country in the world with virtually no pollution or crime, a fact almost unheard of in today’s society. The downside to this Eden is the high cost of living, which is similar to that found in Scandinavian countries.

Tourists may experience sticker shock initially unless they are prepared for the prices, particularly for food, clothing, gas and other necessities.

Lodging, however, is comparable to the rates found in major cities in the U.S. (Recently, the krona, the Icelandic monetary unit had an exchange rate of 74k = $1).

My week’s stay in this captivating country opened my eyes to a destination I would have never considered visiting due to my erroneous preconceptions. I am thankful that I had the chance to explore this last great wilderness, filled with its raw, unique blend of natural beauty, and allow it to leave its indelible mark on my soul.

I am itching to return to this wondrous place, and perhaps this time, I’ll make a point of visiting in winter to espy the land dressed in white, and maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll catch sight of the dancing aurora borealis! For now, takk and bless bless (“thanks” and “goodbye”).

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