Iceland has always fascinated me. The recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano only reinforced my fascination. Whenever I travel between San Francisco and Europe, and after many hours of flying, suddenly the shimmering dots of light from Reykjavik appear as if out of nowhere, in the midst of the all-encompassing darkness. Iceland is here to remind us that Nature still takes charge – the recent volcanic eruption certainly proves this to be true!
A country of fantastic natural beauty and surprises – there’s nothing quite like it anywhere – Iceland’s stark, pristine scenery is shaped by otherworldly landscapes – a tapestry of colorful flower-filled valleys contrasted by desolate lunar deserts pitted with volcanic wonders; its jagged lava fields and monstrous icecaps, its hot springs and geysers, its multitude of clear blue fjords have all carved a bizarre setting not seen anywhere else on earth. Over 200 volcanoes and numerous glaciers form the country’s backdrop, with nearly traveling of the land being lava deserts, glaciers or lakes.
That being said, Iceland is an adventurer’s paradise – whale watching, rock climbing, horse riding, white water rafting and kayaking, glacier hiking, biking, bird-watching and swimming in geothermal heated pools are just some of the activities on offer. Due to its violent volcanic heritage the countryside is gorgeous and interesting from every angle. Cliffs, waterfalls, geysers, mountains, glaciers, fjords, hot water springs, lava beds, rapids, extensive nature preserves and parks – it’s all there!
Reykjavik (meaning “smoky bay” after the steam which rises everywhere from the many hot springs) is the gateway to the country and the only “large” city. The clear air, the bluest sky and the multi-colored buildings are so vivid that they remind me of an impressionist painting. For a city its size (150,000 inhabitants), it’s surprisingly active, with a thriving cultural and social life, including museums, exhibits and festivals throughout the year.
The south of Iceland offers some of the best sights in the country. The Great Geysir, after which all the world’s spouting hot springs are named is found here. The Geysir began erupting in the early 14th century and stopped at the beginning of the 20th Century. Today Strokkur, its little brother, spouts to over 100 ft. every few minutes. Walking around this natural wonder, one really senses the intensity of the forces of nature.
Icelandic waterfalls are legion. Wherever one turns, it seems one is more beautiful than the next. Suffused with beautiful warm lights, the most dramatic of these is the Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall). Here the Hvita River tumbles with tremendous force in double cascades into a deep gorge. When the sun shines, the waterfall’s massive spray forms colorful rainbows in the afternoon light. Here also are two of Iceland’s most active volcanoes- Mt. Hekla and Mt. Katta, and towards the east, one can view large colonies of puffins off the coast.
In the mountainous and uninhabited interior there are barren deserts every bit as beautiful as the central Sahara. And the North Coast has some of the most diverse scenery in Iceland. The magnificent Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, is a stark contrast to the lunar terrain of the area, where Neil Armstrong and his colleagues trained prior to landing on the moon. Boiling mud pools, lava parks with naturally formed sculptures and steaming craters such as the Viti Crater, which erupted in 1984 and is steaming to this day, are found here. In contrast, lovely Lake Myvatn is a birdwatchers paradise, with its multitude of fowls and birds roaming this area.
The North Coast is also home to Iceland’s longest fjord, where on can enjoy boating among the blue-veined lagoons. Whale watching excursions are part and parcel of this area as well. During summer solstice, these northern latitudes boast the extraordinary spectacle of the Midnight Sun, which sinks down to touch the horizon before rising again in breathtaking tones of red and gold. Among the myriad of thermal hot springs, the Blue Lagoon, known for its healing properties, is the ultimate indulgence to the end of an adventure-packed day – to soak up the thermal waters, to relax and re-energize.
This young-at-heart yet ancient land, with its geologically diverse, volcanically active boundaries, offers up possibly one of the most fascinating of world family travel adventures. No words match the pictures – the utterly amazing vivid colors it presents seem taken straight out of a great storybook illustration.