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Exile in Geyserville

Despite its forbidding name, travelers find a warm reception—and hot springs—in Iceland

By Kirsten Ferguson

Kirsten Ferguson

As Icelanders like to say, the first Vikings to settle their North Atlantic island found a green, fertile paradise. Grateful to be free from a tyrannical king, the Vikings hoped to keep the verdant land all to themselves, and so gave the place its chilly, forbidding name. Discovering a neighboring island covered in ice, the Vikings tagged the glacier-encrusted land with an equally misleading moniker: Greenland.

That was the story, anyway, told to the handful of tourists on our Iceland Excursions bus as we drove through south- central Iceland recently—the terrain outside our windows obscured by the whiteout of a March snowstorm. “If anyone wants to go back to their hotel, now’s the time,” our twentysomething guide Selma had warned as we departed from Reykjavik while the snowfall intensified. Selma then described each upcoming attraction on our Golden Circle tour—one of the most popular day trips from Reykjavik—before adding a disconcerting, “If we make it there.”

Despite a few white-knuckle moments when our bus slowed to a crawl to inch up steep inclines, it soon became apparent that our guide’s drama might have been a bit overdone. Icelanders don’t make it through their long winter afraid to navigate snowstorms, a fact illustrated by car after car that whizzed past us as we drove along the Ring Road that encircles the country. (Granted, many of the Icelandic vehicles are “super jeep” SUVs with immense, monster-truck-worthy tires.) By the time we hit our first stop—the “flowering town” of Hveragerđi, where much of Iceland’s non-imported produce is grown in greenhouses—we could tell by the tourists milling about that none of the other tour companies had been daunted by the snow either.

“We harvest hot water in Iceland,” Selma said of the natural hot springs that heat the town’s greenhouses and power much of the country—a lesson I learned firsthand by turning on the faucet in the greenhouse bathroom and being nearly scorched by the steaming hot water. At our next stop, we pulled off the side of the road to glimpse an enormous crater formed by a volcanic “explosion” 3,000 years ago. More recently, Icelandic pop-music phenom Bjork—as huge a celebrity in her native land as you would imagine—performed a concert at crater’s bottom. The acoustics were great, it seems.

Kirsten Ferguson

Soon the snow ended and we were afforded our first real view of the Icelandic landscape. Flat treeless plains, dotted by farms and shaggy Icelandic ponies, met up against abrupt clusters of tabletop mountains. In the distance, we caught a glimpse of the glacier that covers much of central Iceland year-round.

When we reached the Geysir, a spouting hot spring that has lent its name to all the other geysers in the world, we were warned not to stray from the paths because steaming “hot pots” cover the area. Geysir doesn’t spurt that often, but we didn’t have to wait long before the nearby Strokkur suddenly churned, formed a water bubble over its crater and then exploded in an impressive 60-foot jet of water. Next we visited the impressive Gullfoss, a massive waterfall. As we climbed down the twisting path to a viewing point over the waterfall’s edge, we passed a woman who had broken her leg on the icy path and was being carried back to the parking area.

The weather soon settled into the pattern that we experienced every day in Iceland: a gloomy morning lifted to reveal a beautiful, clear afternoon. As we headed back toward Reykjavik, striking blue skies reflected brilliantly off the fresh fallen snow, and Iceland finally looked like I had imagined it would. At Thingvellir, a national park and the onetime site of Iceland’s parliament, we hiked through a chasm overlooking a gorgeous valley. From there, we could see a rift in the earth—marked by a deep crack on one side of the valley—where the European and North American plates are slowly spreading apart.

Iceland’s location along this continental rift has made it a hotbed of volcanic activity. Back in Reykjavik, we followed a sign for a “volcano show” to a private studio where Villi Knudsen screens footage he took during past Icelandic eruptions. His film did much to dispel my stereotypical notion of a volcano. It showed fissures that ripped open in the ground and spewed shards of fiery lava for hundreds of feet, and fields of lava that bubbled and churned like some white-hot primordial stew.

We experienced a more pleasant consequence of Iceland’s geothermal activity at the Blue Lagoon, a spa located among the lava fields between Reykjavik and Keflavik airport. After sprinting through chilly outdoor air, we bathed in the lake’s hot, preternaturally blue mineral water. We could see steaming stacks from the nearby geothermal plant, whose effluent we were bathing in. Wooden boxes contained silica mud for bathers to rub on their faces, and rolling mist obscured the view of anyone more than a few feet away. A hailstorm hit while we were roasting in the water, but we didn’t care. In fact, the hail was refreshing.

Reykjavik itself, where we stayed in a guesthouse, felt more like a small town than a capital city. The city’s corrugated tin-and-stucco houses were painted the bright, primary colors of a Stockholm suburb, yet lacked the obsessive orderliness. In Reykjavik, befitting the city’s Arctic outpost feel, there seemed to be far less social pressure to give a shit. Much like the Reykjavik residents—a hip, black-leather-clad bunch—who blithely picked their way through the open construction site on their torn-up main street, we learned that it was best to roll with the punches there. Restaurant staff came when they were good and ready; the shops were shuttered for an entire four days when we visited around Easter.

Of course, the bars weren’t closed for the holiday. “Drink like the Icelanders,” laughed the proprietor of our guesthouse, when we asked why we saw few people on the streets in the morning. Although the Icelanders we met often lived up to their stoic reputation, we found that when we were polite and friendly first, they responded in kind.

“Wait, let me grab my cigarette,” said our bartender at Sirkus, a hip little bar that played tracks by trendy American rock bands like the Strokes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. We wanted her insight into aspects of Icelandic culture that mystified us, and she pulled up a stool, ready to oblige. For one, we had a few misgivings about Icelandic cuisine. In addition to their renowned lamb and fish, the Icelandic menu sported more exotic meats such as guillemot (sea bird) and foal (baby horse). In one cafe, I had been impressed by the immensity of a picked-clean bone on an abandoned tray, only to realize that it was actually a sheep’s skull.

“The thing you need to sense about Icelanders is that we’re all very close to nature,” our bartender replied, in the impeccable English that all Icelanders seemed to possess. “You might say we’re only two generations removed from starving to death. If we have to kill something to eat it, it’s no big deal.”

Getting There

For information on cheap airfare to Iceland, I recommend visiting the Icelandair website (www.icelandair.com) and signing up for their free Lucky Fares and Icelandair Customer clubs. As a member, you receive e-mail updates on discount airfare and travel packages. We booked round-trip tickets on Icelandair from Boston to London for $199 each (not including tax), which included a three-night stopover in Reykjavik. The current lowest published fare, for midweek travel from JFK Airport to Reykjavik in May, is $349. Most tourists visit Iceland in the summer, but the cheaper off-season, when we traveled, runs from October to May.


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