Iceland:Geological wonder

August 31, 2015

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was talking about Iceland. In 2010, the volcano with the tongue-twister name (Eyjafjallajokull, one of some 130 volcanoes on the island, both active and not) put this country on the world stage when it paralyzed air traffic for several weeks, costing airlines and passengers $1.7 billion in lost revenue.

Prior to that, tourism had tanked when the economy hit rock bottom in 2008. But a government-backed initiative began promoting the little-visited North Atlantic nation as a year-round destination, and tourism now figures as the biggest contributor to the economy, surpassing even fishing -- a first since the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th century. In 2014, tourism was up 100% from 2006.

The secret is out: Iceland is a geological wonder. "Driving through Iceland feels like driving through the Book of Genesis," Andrew Evans, TV host for National Geographic and author of the "Bradt Guide to Iceland," told me.

If you didn't know that Jules Verne set his outlandish "Journey to the Center of the Earth" in Iceland, or if you've been living in a cave unaware that the island's otherworldly landscape has frequently served as a filming location for "Game of Thrones," then you likely will not know that NASA used the lunarlike fields to train their astronauts to land on the moon.  

Such spectacular landscape is a major draw, showcased by the midnight sun during long summer months and, if you're lucky, bathed by the Technicolor magic of the northern lights in the dark winter months.

In young, vibrant Reykjavik, Europe’s smallest capital city, locals and visitors stay out late during the summer to enjoy the midnight sun.
In young, vibrant Reykjavik, Europe’s smallest capital city, locals and visitors stay out late during the summer to enjoy the midnight sun.

It is a countryside on steroids, one that is vast and ever- changing, like your own personal IMAX screen. It is Europe's most sparsely populated country, its inhabitants a fun-loving, quirky and highly literate people, many of whom paradoxically believe in trolls, elves and "hidden people."

The 2015 World Happiness Report, released in April by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked Iceland as the second-happiest place on Earth. (It followed the landlocked nation of Switzerland, where nature also reigns supreme.)

How convenient, then, that all that spellbinding topography crammed into an isolated nation roughly the size of England was a mere five-and-a-half-hour flight on Icelandair from New York.

"It is an exotic destination at a price you can afford in terms of time and money," said Dora Rozet, owner of Nordic Saga.

Her Seattle-based travel agency's website is one-stop shopping for all variations of the Icelandic (and beyond) experience.

To see as much as possible in a nine-day visit and to avoid a no-room-at-the-inn scenario during my July visit (an expanding infrastructure is still challenged during peak months), I booked Nordic Saga's Classic Circle Tour, an escorted bus trip along the fabled Ring Road, which Rozet promised would guarantee an abundance of astonishing nature and dreamlike beauty.

Although a risky marketing tactic, Iceland would do well to employ a satisfaction-guaranteed-or-money-back policy. Surely no visitor with good eyesight or a beating heart could leave without profoundly etched memories. You have only one chance to make a first impression, and mine began with a midnight arrival at the world's northernmost capital city to a brilliant sky bright with pinks and oranges.


An enchanting capital city

Waking up to a young and vibrant city like Reykjavik the next morning leaves one wondering if those alternative-looking hipsters nursing a cup of coffee have made it home yet from the music-fueled club scene for which the small capital city is famous.

Two-thirds of the country's population of 320,000 lives in this southwest corner of the country. Reykjavik's walkable downtown still exudes a small-town vibe, though big-city sophistication is making inroads.

An evolving arts and design scene flourishes in the shadow of Harpa, the dazzling glass-and-steel cultural center that opened in 2011 to international fanfare. The Marriott Edition, the country's first five-star hotel scheduled for completion in 2018, has broken ground nearby in the hopes that "affluent adventurers" will grow in number.

The writer at Haenubrekkufoss in East Iceland, a stop along the 825-mile Ring Road.
The writer at Haenubrekkufoss in East Iceland, a stop along the 825-mile Ring Road.

Until then, they check into the Borg, the old-world Art Deco gem in front of Parliament Square that has just been given a complete renovation and an addition. It's new, elegant restaurant is helmed by Volundur Volundarson, a young, well-known chef whose more casual bistro-bar next door, Nora Magasin, is always abuzz.

Where natural beauty abounds

There's plenty to explore before heading off into the country's dramatically rich interior.

The city's compact waterfront is a colorful mix of lingering small-scale industry and gentrification. Fish-and-chip restaurants and whale- and puffin-watching boats line the waterfront, while the Icelandair Marina Hotel and contemporary condominiums with a view fill out the scene.

A new Whales of Iceland Museum, home to life-size replicas of the 23 whales found in these North Atlantic waters, joins an impressive roster of small, quality museums.

We watched the National Geographic/Lindblad ship pull into port alongside the Hurtigruten Fram. Hurtigruten's ships visit the three islands of Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland and in 2016 will do a complete circumnavigation of Iceland, as does Iceland-based Pro Cruises.

Visitors on a short stay or cruise ship passengers can get an eyeful without venturing too far afield, since this southwestern corner is heavy with some of the island's finest geological curiosities, many of which are linked together along the popular Golden Circle tourist route.  

"Geysir" is an Icelandic word, and the original namesake never makes visitors wait more than 10 minutes. Waterfalls are to Iceland what castles are to Scotland, but you'll always remember your first if it is Gullfoss, which will take your breath away.

It's also an easy day trip to Thrihnukagigur. Opened in 2012, it is the only place in the world where you can descend into the depths of a volcano, in this case, one that is 4,000 years old and blessedly dormant.

Whales and waterfalls

But while Golden Circle pilgrims headed back to city life in Reykjavik and possibly the airport, our bus full of international adventurers struck off into the wilderness for an incomparable trip along the 825-mile Ring Road.

Usually never more than one lane in each direction and almost always empty of vehicles, the well-paved artery took us through a countryside that is both raw and serene: rolling fields of blue-purple lupins, moss-covered lava fields and geothermal pools. (For a traditional soak, most head to the world-famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik's airport, which is the most visited site in the country.) The Ring Road also takes in glacier-capped mountains and the iceberg-chocked Jokulsarion Glacier Lagoon.

We turned off the main road in search of black lava beaches and a small community of puffins, followed the indentations of the stunning East Fjords and visited more thundering waterfalls than most people see in a lifetime. (We stopped counting at 300, though some were but a mere trickle of glacial melt.)

Husavil, a charming coastal village, is often referred to as the whale-watching capital of Europe. And, yes, we saw whales aplenty.

Fresh food and puffin spotting

It doesn't take long to realize that Iceland is famous for its horses. They are small ("but they are big in our mind," our guide, Halla, said half-jokingly) and sure-footed with wild manes, direct descendants of the stock the Vikings brought to the island 1,000 years ago. They are commonly spotted in the vast, grass-covered fields (which they share with some of the island's 500,000 sheep), and riding them for a few hours or a few days is a popular activity and an excellent way to experience the breadth of the open, tree-free countryside. Only 1% of the country is covered with trees, and they are quite short and scrubby, Halla told us.

"If you get lost in the woods, just stand up and look around!" she advised.

The Icelandic horse was brought to the island by the Vikings, who settled the country in the ninth and 10th centuries (since then, no other breed has been introduced to Iceland, making it one of the purest breeds in the world).
The Icelandic horse was brought to the island by the Vikings, who settled the country in the ninth and 10th centuries (since then, no other breed has been introduced to Iceland, making it one of the purest breeds in the world).

Americans account for Iceland's largest numbers of visitors, followed by Germans, British and French. Icelandair currently offers service from more than a dozen North American gateways. (Reykjavik is seven hours from Seattle, and five-and-a-half hours from New York). A complimentary stopover for up to seven nights is an irresistible temptation for those traveling on to any of Icelandair's 25 destinations in Europe.

To keep up with the growing demand, several hotels have opened in the last few years, with more in the pipeline. We never stayed more than a single night in small hotels along the Ring Road that ranged from basic and nice to newly built and Scandinavian chic, a number of them owned by Icelandair.

Food was always fresh and tasty, and having a taste for lamb and cod fish was an added benefit. There was fermented shark to be tasted, and whale and puffin occasionally make an appearance on menus, though we respectfully declined.

And about those puffins -- the live ones. We had spotted a number of them when the Ring Road followed the coastline. But when our tour ended in Reykjavik, 12 of us arranged a last-minute private Puffin Watch to a cluster of islands just outside the city. It was yet another breathtaking highlight of our Icelandic adventure.

But for sheer puffin overload, Andrew Evans recommended the barely inhabited West Fjords. It was home, he wrote me in an email, to one of the world's largest puffin colonies. And as if that weren't enough, he added, "The West Fjords is Iceland at its most raw, the youngest corner of the country, recently released from the last ice age, high with cliffs and silent fjords."

I think I see Iceland again in my future.