When I was in 7th grade, our social studies teacher, Mrs. Weller, assigned each student in the class a country in the Western hemisphere. Naturally, most of my classmates had Latin American countries, but my assigned country was Iceland. We each had to research our country (remember the CIA World Factbook?), and we did various in-class activities like lining up in order of GDP per capita (Iceland was something of an outlier). The project culminated in a proposal for a business located in our assigned country. It had to make sense in the context of our country, and I think we had to research the local infrastructure and figure out how we were going to get our company off the ground. I recall a lot of ice cream shops in Central America, but I decided to found a whale and bird watching boat tour company. Ever since that middle school project, I had wanted to visit Iceland, though that ambition faded into the background as the years went by.
Ten years ago, my friend Dustin introduced me to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, of which I’ve been a casual fan ever since. I saw Árstíðir’s viral video of their singing the 13th-century Icelandic hymn “Heyr himna smiður” in a German train station, and I quite like their music too. In grad school, I’m sure I had to read at least one syntax paper by an Icelandic linguist, but I remember basically nothing about it. And a year or so ago I heard Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s choral composition “Heyr þu oss himnum a” on Minnesota Public Radio and thought it was gorgeous. But I wasn’t expecting to visit Iceland anytime soon until, earlier this year, my parents invited my brother and me to go with them in August.
The trip was planned before the Delta variant surge, and I’m not sure I would recommend international travel right now. But we went on our vacation, and we were fortunate, and the trip was amazing.
We flew out of Minneapolis on a Wednesday evening and landed at Keflavík International Airport at 6:30am on Thursday, flying in over the lacy Icelandic coastline. We took a bus to a bus terminal in Reykjavík, where we met Valur, a friend of a friend and one of the former proprietors of the guesthouse where we would be staying (my parents had stayed there on a previous trip to Iceland). Valur was renting us his car, since rental cars proved to be a very hot commodity in Iceland this summer. We made the short drive to the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse, in the valley called Mosfellsdalur.
After a nap and a light lunch, we drove to Þingvellir National Park, on the lake Þingvallavatn (vatn = lake). The park lies in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of 2.5cm a year. There is a fault or ridge called Almannagjá (also described as a canyon or ravine) that actually makes it feel like the earth is cleft here.
Icelandic law proclaims Þingvellir “a protected national shrine of all Icelanders,” as it was here that the Alþingi, Iceland’s ancient parliament (and indeed the name of its current parliament), met.
We walked down and across the meadow through which streams of the Öxará river snaked, toward the 19th-century church Þingvallakirkja and the nearby farmhouse, two of whose five gables constitute the summer residence of the Prime Minister. Both buildings are white with green trim.
We wandered among some further pools with clear blue water and then headed back up toward the Lögberg, or Law Rock, now marked with an Icelandic flag. This was where the Alþingi met and where the Lawspeaker recited the law from memory, one third of it each summer.
We continued along the path past the Drekkingarhylur, or Drowning Pool, where over the centuries 18 women were drowned for various crimes. Further on, we climbed up to see Öxarárfoss, a waterfall where the Öxará river flows over the Almannagjá.
From Þingvellir, we drove to Laugarvatn, a little town on the eponymous lake. We were going to have dinner at Lindin, a restaurant there, but we arrived early, so we walked from the lakeside restaurant’s deck toward the water. Here we stumbled upon Vígðalaug, the Blessed Pool, a hot spring-fed pool used for baptisms when Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000 (people didn’t want to be baptized in cold water!). The six bier stones (Líkasteinar) nearby are associated with the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason, and his sons, who were beheaded when Lutheranism was being imposed by Denmark and whose bodies were washed in the pool.
Although the sun was shining, it certainly wasn’t hot, so I was surprised to see a windsurfer on the lake, as well as some swimmers farther off. But then I dipped my hand in the water on the beach and realized it was warm; Laugarvatn has hot springs.
Our first dinner in Iceland, and every subsequent meal we ate a restaurant, was delicious. Fish and lamb dishes (including fish and meat soup) dominate menus, and potatoes abound too.
The next morning, we went on a short walk from the guesthouse, greeting the sheep and horses on our way out. (Driving around Iceland, you see many, many horses and sheep, though the latter are usually only in trios or small groups, never flocks, as they roam free in the summer. Cows are rarer but do appear on occasion.) We walked over to Mosfellskirkja, the local church. As we were leaving, a raven was perched on its roof cawing.
We drove past Þingvallavatn again and on to the Geysir complex, which is well-outfitted for the plentiful tourists like us. We ate excellent sandwiches and cake in the cafeteria and then crossed the road to see the geothermal sights. A thin stream trickled along the path, with periodic signs indicating that the water’s temperature was between 80° and 100° Celsius. Plumes of steam emanated from mudpots, some of which were actually bubbling like cauldrons over the fire.
We reached Strokkur, a geyser that’s currently like the Old Faithful of Iceland because it erupts, fountaining water and steam, every 6-8 minutes or so (at least while we were there). Tourists lined up along a rope barrier, phones held at the ready for the next blast. At least once we saw Strokkur erupt twice in quick succession, with the second eruption like an extra hiccup.
We climbed further up toward other pools. This area feels a lot like parts of Yellowstone, with pools of clear water, blue at their deepest points and rust and white around their lichenous edges. The ground underwater seems to open up into caverns. There was one milky blue steaming pot, though. Up the slope, Alaskan lupines (not a native plant) lined the path, and there were a few purple flowers still in bloom.
We walked downhill to reach Geysir, the original geyser, whose pool has a larger surface area than Strokkur’s. Geysir was steaming, but nowadays it’s dormant, so no eruption. The landscape of this whole geothermal area is a little bit unearthly, especially with white steam drifting eerily out of holes in the ground. It’s beautiful and fascinating.
Next, we drove to Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, on the Hvítá (White River). From the parking lot, we got our first glimpse of a glacier in the distance. It’s hard for me to identify which one because Iceland has a number of huge glaciers which have named offshoots. We took the path toward the waterfall. It was a sunny day again, the blue sky strewn with fluffy clouds, and in the distance, we could see a patch of rainbow. Then we drew closer and saw the massive waterfall in its deep canyon. The rainbows were spectacular. A gravel path led alongside the canyon toward the upper falls, and part of it was dampened by the heavy mist sprayed up by the huge lower falls.
From Gullfoss, we drove to Eyrarbakki, a fishing village on the southern coast of Iceland, where we had an early dinner at Rauða Húsið (The Red House–most of the restaurants we ate in looked like houses from the outside, in fact). The restaurant specializes in humar, translated as lobster, but more precisely the Norway lobster (or langoustine). We almost all had the “uplifted” lobster tails, where they prise the meat out of the shell and serve it on top.
After dinner, we checked out the “beach,” which was not very beachy, but we saw some washed-up seaweed and a small black crab (dead) on the asphalt.
The next day was Saturday, and we spent it driving to and around the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. We took the tunnel under the Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) and the bridge over Borgarfjörður, in the mist. We headed first for Stykkishólmur to eat lunch at Narfeyrarstofa, a restaurant which serves local seafood including scallops and blue mussels. It was here that we first encountered Iceland’s unexpected enthusiasm for Doritos; my brother’s fish and chips breading included finely crushed Doritos.
After lunch, we walked around the Stykkishólmur harbor and along the causeway to the basalt island Súgandisey. We climbed a steep staircase to the grassy top of the island, where there was an old windlass (I think) once used for hauling kerosene up for the lighthouse. From Súgandisey, we could take in the views of Breiðafjörður and its islands. We could also walk up to the short red lighthouse.
From Stykkishólmur, we followed the road along the Snæfellsnes coast, passing through tiny towns. We stopped to see Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, near the town of Grundarfjörður. Kirkjufell is a dramatic, horizontally striated mountain that juts up at the edge of the sea (apparently it was a filming location for Game of Thrones).
Further down the highway, we got out to look at Snæfellsjökull (jökull = glacier), the volcano and glacier at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. There was a flock of elegant Arctic terns flying and screeching on the side of the road. I think I can guess why their name in Icelandic is kría.
Apparently some people consider Snæfellsjökull one of the world’s spiritual or energy centers. I can’t really speak to that, but our guide on our inland trip a couple of days later told us she feels a very strange energy there.
We curved around the tip of the peninsula and began heading south and southeast. I was paging through the Lonely Planet guidebook, and I noticed the entry on Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach with rock formations just 2km off the road we were on. I asked if we could go there, and we did! The road toward the coast wasn’t really wide enough for two cars, but at the end of it was a packed parking lot, tour busses, and bathrooms. It was a short walk past a lava field, a blue pool, and a rock arch, with views of Snæfellsjökull to the north, to the stony beach strewn with rusted debris from the 1948 wreck of a British fishing trawler. The guidebook stated that the rock formations here included an elf church and a Kerling, or troll woman, but I never figured out where the elf church was. Djúpalónssandur was pebblier than I expected for a black “sand” beach, but it was picturesque, and it was fun watching the small waves crash on the smoothed rocks that reached the shore.
Our next stop was Hellnar, on the coast, where there was a hillside café serving cake, among other things. We walked downhill and clambered across rounded stones in shades from pale gray to black toward the Baðstofa sea cave. The cliffs on either side of the open-topped chamber featured incredible rock formations made up of layers or plates of gray stone in different thicknesses that collectively swooped and curved like ocean waves. The sea cave was filled with nesting seagulls and rang with their cries. There was water at the bottom of it, and a hole in the ceiling opened onto the sky and let in the light. It was an amazing spot.
We started up the trail that led from Hellnar to Arnarstapi, the next coastal fishing village. The path led through another lava field; all the Icelandic lava fields we saw consisted of a rubble of dark rocks covered with gray-green moss. There were views of Snæfellsjökull and the knob-topped mountain Stapafell, as well as of sea cliffs and rocky islands dotted with birds. On one of these, my brother and I spotted two birds whose black backs and white stomachs immediately made me think of penguins, but of course they couldn’t be penguins. We thought they were puffins, but on our last day in Iceland, we saw actual puffins, and these birds had looked much larger. Now I wonder if they might’ve been lesser auks, also known as razorbills. In Arnarstapi, we saw the statue of Barður the troll (who was actually half human, one quarter giant, and one quarter troll), who has his own saga.
Continued in Part II!