Iceland is a Drama Queen.
But she is easy to reach. Non-stop flights from Portland to Reykjavik, Iceland, are only 7 1/2 hours. As our Iceland Air jet passed over Hudson Bay, we gazed in awe at the arctic wasteland and the vast surreal snowy mosaic of ice below. We dozed fitfully in the endless daylight of our red-eye flight. Eventually, clouds broke beneath to reveal Greenland’s fearsomely rugged east coast and the countless icebergs it spawns into the North Atlantic.
Upon arrival, we loaded our gear into our rented Hyundai i30. I got lost in the first roundabout, so with my husband, Kyle Miller, navigating and me driving, we headed with the other hordes of tourists toward the capital, Reykjavik.
Two-thirds of Iceland’s population lives in or near Reykjavik, many of them in utilitarian four to five-story apartment blocks. Instead of checking out the famed Reykjavik nightlife, we drove out into the countryside to our Air BnB cabin. Our idea of nightlife is a night hike through vast fields of two-foot-high blue and white lupine on the hills overlooking the city in 24-hour daylight.
We have heard rumors that it is possible to have sunny weather while visiting Iceland. We cannot substantiate that rumor — other than on our ninth day.
We can, however, say we experienced nearly all the unpredictable vagaries of Iceland’s dramatic weather which changes faster than a teenage girl’s crushes. Normal summer temperatures are in the 50’s, commonly with a misty rain. We had plenty of normal, along with the delight of a fierce snowstorm on July 1. We did not encounter Iceland’s dreaded car door wrecking winds, so our weather wasn’t too bad.
Having decided ahead of time that a happy camper in Iceland is someone who is not camping, we were gratified to find that delightful Air BnB cottages are plentiful. Many of our finds were cute wooden structures with no insulation. However, all were heated by the abundant geothermal hot water and therefore toasty warm.
Often our host simply left the door unlocked for us. At our only actual bed and breakfast, a German fellow, Sebastian, communicated in his broken English that one of the things he enjoyed about Iceland was the feeling of safety from crime. Most Icelandic people speak English to some extent and willingly answer questions, but we found them to be reticent people who do not seek out conversations with tourists.
Air BnB’s usually do not provide food, but a couple of ours did, giving us an opportunity to try Icelandic food. We were bemused by a carton labeled “yogurt” that was flavored but unsweetened, and runny enough to drink. But skyr, Iceland’s unique whipped whey, is more like a firm Greek yogurt. When served fish for breakfast, I had seconds of the pickled herring.
Kyle and I don’t particularly enjoy restaurants. Warned in advance that a bowl of soup is $15 and a hamburger can cost $20, I packed a large tub full of meals that I had prepared and dried in advance — very much like I do for backpacking trips.
For us, it not only made the trip less stressful but also substantially cheaper. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist purchasing a pail of geyser bread. Geyser bread is a sweet, dense brown rye bread that is baked in covered pails for 24 hours in a 160-degree volcanic steam vent. It is imperative that the vent be located where tourists can’t find the pail and take off the lid. In addition, while on the Arctic coast, we ate whales. They tasted exactly like Stauffer’s whale-shaped cheese crackers.
We knew we were jet-lagged our first night when we crawled into bed at 9 p.m. Nevertheless, we were shocked when we awoke 14 hours later at 11 a.m. (4 a.m. Pacific time). We had to scramble to eat breakfast, pack, and be out the door by checkout time. (Don’t tell our host Björgvin we were a little late.)
Fortunately, we had planned an easy day of drifting along with the tour buses on the highly touted “Golden Circle” highway. Ironically, Geysir, the geyser after which all the other geysers in the world are named, no longer spouts, but another geyser nearby regularly entertained us all. Besides, fellow tourists are nearly as fun to watch as geysers.
Next came dramatic Gullfoss (foss means waterfall). The vast waterfall, more powerful than Niagara Falls pours down into a cleft in the rocks. Most of the Golden circle, although pretty, is not particularly impressive. Gullfoss is.
The next day, in between numerous waterfall hikes, we toured the notable Skógar Folk Museum. Iceland was settled around 1,000 A.D. One ornate alter cloth had been made in the 1600s by a woman who promised God she would make an altar cloth if she could escape her enslavement by Algerian pirates and return to Iceland. Rugged Icelandic settlers commonly built homes partially dug into a hillside with driftwood frames covered with large flat rocks and topped with turf. Each room was a separate building, especially the kitchen (for fear of fires). For cooking, they used anything burnable: driftwood, dried dung, seaweed, and bones. Most rooms have no heat other than that put out by their oil lamps. For warmth, their sleeping room was often built above a head-ducking low, undoubtedly aromatic, cave-like stable.
That evening, our Air BnB was built partially into a hillside.
Our hope of enjoying oodles of dramatic hiking in Iceland was aided and abetted by Iceland’s extensive network of well-marked trails. The town of Vik boasts a phenomenal hike along sea cliffs with views of unique stegosaurus-like sea stacks. As heavy fog swirled around us, we could clearly see that the views would have been magnificent.
After the golden triangle, the road that rings Iceland still draws plenty of tourists to Vatnajökull National Park where a vast ice cap feeds multiple enormous glaciers. Until the 1970s, southeast Iceland had no roads through their vast barren flood plains. The problem is that volcanos erupt under the ice cap. The resulting floods burst out from under the ice and decimate everything in their path –including roads and bridges. Many, if not most, bridges in Iceland are one lane, even on Iceland’s primary “Ring Road”. Twisted bridge girders are an impressive sight.
In Skaftefell National Park, after viewing the obligatory lovely waterfall, we escaped most of the tourists by hiking further in for hours.
We were so grateful each time the clouds broke and revealed magnificent snowy mountains. Even when the weather clouded back in, the glaciers were extraordinary.
Back on the Ring Road, we were sucked into the tourist stream to Jökulsárlon where Europe’s largest glacier calves icebergs into the turquoise lake. Across the road, a glittering black sands beach is littered with both clear and delicately disintegrating bits of the glacier. As a bonus, dozens of playful seals kept us entertained.
We parted ways with the tour buses and ventured off the Ring Road into the East Fjords. With few guardrails, no shoulders, and the sea far below, these roads are not for the faint of heart. Despite this, the dramatic beauty of the fjords lured us on even though at times we were not certain a road would be there as we crested blind hills.
Taking a break, we stopped for a solitary hike through a vast array of wildflowers and deep mosses up along a startlingly clear stream. Curious to see what kind of pine is being grown in Iceland’s numerous fledgling tree planting projects, I reached for the needles.
Whoosh! A completely camouflaged ptarmigan exploded off her nest of eggs speckled with her exact pattern.
Although nearly every town has a beautiful little Lutheran church, very few appear to be active. There were no Sunday services in Seydisfjördur, so Sunday morning, we rested and admired the fresh snow and waterfall across the fjord from our Air BnB.
A small family of ducks paddled by; the parents dove, but the duckling dawdled before diving. Too late! A seagull swooped down and snatched it for breakfast.
Iceland is a beautiful but sometimes brutal land, a Drama Queen.