its forbidding name, travelers find a warm reception—and hot
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.