Smaller than Kentucky with less than 318,000 people, Iceland sits just south of the Arctic Circle between Greenland and the United Kingdom. It’s covered with mountains, volcanoes and every form of water you can imagine - expansive glaciers, floating icebergs, roaring waterfalls, soaring geysers and thermal water. Imagine, swimming pools and the capital city of Reykjavik are totally warmed by thermal heat.
Old wooden buildings and an older harbor make Reykjavik quaint. It serves as a starting point for the natural wonders of the rest of the country - like the inimitable Blue Lagoon near the airport.
Mountains loom behind this enormous “hot tub.” It sits on a lava field and combines geothermal and cold water. Going from the changing rooms to the water is a chilly trip. I jump in and let the warm water cover my body. Ahhh! So relaxing, I don’t want to leave.
But I do, and travel southeast about 90 miles on The Ring Road to Seljalandsfoss, a narrow waterfall that plummets 200 feet into a field. Though breathtaking, I soon learn that waterfalls in Iceland are more commonplace than road signs.
Myrdalsjokull Glacier, the place to go snowmobiling, is farther south. I don a one-piece suit, boots, a stretch thing to cover my head and part of my face and a round helmet. Our large group looks like a huge convoy forging across the glacier. It is bumpy, noisy, wet and fun.
Vatnajokull National Park is farther north on The Ring Road. The park covers 10 percent of the island (4,633 square miles). Giant waterfalls, Europe’s largest glacier, blue-tinted icebergs and long canyons grace its surface. Hikers and ice-climbers fill the visitor’s center.
I opt for a bumpy ride to the foot of Vatnajokull Glacier. Endless blue-tinted sheets of white edge down the mountain toward the water. They break into chunks and float away.
The nearby iceberg-filled lagoon, Jokulsarlon, offers fun, amphibious vehicle rides. I get close to these giant chunks. Ninety percent of icebergs sit underwater. What surfaces is either white, blue or black. Our guide grabs a piece. It is amazingly crystal clear.
After that, I am ready to go to Hofn. It’s “the Lobster capital of Europe,” These just-caught, lip-smacking creatures at the rustic Pakku Restaurant are small but succulent. I practically lick my plate.
It’s back to The Ring Road to continue north and east. On sunny days, sheep graze alongside it. Fjords sparkle like sapphires. On other days, clouds hang heavy on top of the mountains like whipped cream. Sometimes wind and fog make the towering mountains or the barren, lunar landscape look downright eerie.
On one of those days, we drive a 19-mile dirt road to Dettifoss. The wind is so strong, it’s difficult to open the car door. Europe’s most voluminous waterfall roars down 148 feet into the river. I skip the steep rocky path to the bottom because there is a good overview from the parking lot. But no matter where I stand, the mist hits my face.
A more accessible waterfall, Godafoss, lies just off the paved highway. Some call it the “waterfall of the gods.” Right here over 1,000 years ago, Norse gods were discarded and Christianity became Iceland’s official religion. These days, tourists come to gawk at the 98-foot-wide horse-shoe shaped falls as they tumble 39 feet.
A natural stop afterward is nearby Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest town with a whopping 17,000 people. Towering Akureyrarkirkja Cathedral is the attraction. But the two trolls in front of a souvenir shop get much attention. Tourists stand in line for a photo op.
Having reached northern Iceland, I find it barren and frequently inclement. Roads are messy and often puddle-ridden. The car is caked with mud on arrival at Stykkisholmur, a fairytale-like hamlet with colorful houses and a small harbor. Most interesting is Eldfjallasafn, the volcano museum. Because I keep seeing pink ash clouds from the spewing Bardar-bunga Volcano, this museum fascinates me.
Wind, rain, fog and cold - expect that in Iceland. But in all my travels, I have never seen such beauty in a barren landscape - and so many variations of hot and frozen water. www.visiticeland.com