(Click on a picture at the bottom to pull the full sized gallery up!)
I am often asked, “Where is the best place you’ve ever gone?” I find this question curious in one respect: if they are asking for travel suggestions, what I like might vary quite a bit from what they are looking for. I’m not a big fan of beach vacations – endless days under the hot sun. I like exploring local curiosities, nature, and car trips. So my truest answer is New Zealand. What an astounding place that is – so much beauty of so many types, all so close. But New Zealand is far from where most people who ask me this question live. For most Americans and Europeans there is a very enchanting place much closer to home: Iceland! I might guess that you never thought of going there. It certainly is not a relaxing beach vacation type of place. Well, after perusing my pictures below you may change your mind. Going to Iceland is like going to another planet. Sitting on a fault that separates the European tectonic plate from the North American plate, which are slowly drifting apart, the magma and hot water from below bubble up like a very active Yellowstone Park. Volcanoes form and explode, often from underneath the ice, geysers erupt and bubbling mud pits appear in the middle of nowhere. Located just below the Arctic Circle, the center of the island is largely glacial ice sitting atop a high basalt plateau, while the lowlands by the sea are milder all year-long, tempered by the warmer ocean water. Iceland is a waterfall lovers paradise, from great torrents like Gullfoss that rival Niagra Falls, to smaller types of every possible shape and form. During the summer the water all flows to the surrounding sea, in rivers down the mountain valleys and off the edges of high basalt rocks and in awe-inspiring glaciers, the likes of which most humans will never see. At times, if one were to have told me that I was walking across Jupiter’s moon Io, it wouldn’t have been hard to believe, except that I could breathe.
Being so far north, the summer (for Iceland, let’s say May 15 – August 15) is the only time to go. Not just because of the cold, but also because it’s best to go when it’s the most light. Our trip was at the end of May and it was always light. We had to remind our selves to stop and sleep! Keflavik, where the airport is located, and Reykjavik are both located in southwestern Iceland, also known as the Golden Circle. This area contains enough wonders to suit many people for a vacation. Only 20 minutes from the airport is an outrageously luxurious spa called the Blue Lagoon, which, I think, should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is actually a geothermal power plant in the middle of a black lava field. Which reminds me to warn you: Iceland is the geothermal capital of the world, which is nice as they even use it for keeping ice off their driveways in the winter – but it’s not so great if you don’t care for the smell of sulfur in your shower. Also in this area, you will find Pingvellir National Park where the Viking “parliament” met, Gullfoss the spectacular waterfall I mentioned above, and “Geysir” geyser, the origin of our English word.
If you have a bit more time, taking the Ring Road all around the island makes for a spectacular adventure. On the south side of the Island you will pass through a starkly black lava field that runs about 20 miles before you come upon the awesome Skaftafell National Park. We climbed this up into the snow where we had awesome views of vast glaciers, experience momentary, but fierce, blizzards and could even have seen Eyjafjallojokull, the volcano that blew up the following year, stopped air traffic to Europe, and befuddled the pronounciation skills of journalists worldwide, if we had only been prescient and known to look. Further along the road is a breathtaking lagoon of milky blue water bobbing with icebergs called Jokulsarlon. We were there alone with the birds and seals. I think it is the single most beautiful place I’ve been on the planet.
Then we crossed to the north and the town of Husavik. There we found a charming wood cabin on a fjord off the Arctic Ocean. Getting up in the middle of the night to use to bathroom I saw the most stunning view of the sun, sitting on the horizon, shining on the mountains across the water. This little cabin had me fantisizing about escaping civilization for six months, living there in the darkness of winter and writing a novel; the imagination could run wild there. The town is great for whale watching expeditions and the world’s greatest Penis Museum. You heard me correctly. A bit further west was a very active geothermal area. This was the place where I most felt like I was on Io; very much like some other planet (why haven’t film makers found this?). I almost choked on a wicked 2 meter high vent that was spewing sulfuric acid gas at some super high temperature. The town of Akureyri came next, a very civilized place, surrounded by flat-topped mountains that formed from lava flows under mile high glaciers during the last ice age. Before heading back down to Reykjavik we took an entire day to explore the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, located of the central west coast. Although it was less geologically active, the geography was still breathtaking and utterly peaceful. The pictures at the end below show this better than words alone could.
So, if you are ever at a loss for an interesting and adventurous place to go, please consider Iceland. I promise it will be unforgettable.