Europe expert, Tracy Stevens, goes it alone in Iceland and comes face to face with a Viking, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ over the Northern Lights, finds unexpected delight in a phone book, and strikes a pose on a glacier.
Iceland is beautiful beyond words. There are boiling seas crashing on black sand beaches, geometrically improbable columns of basalt, pristine white glaciers that seem to rise up out of nowhere to frame glistening lakes, and endless lava fields fringed with vivid green moss. It’s magical and mythical and, thanks to its impressive geological activity, totally alive 24/7.
Like lava for chocolate cake
In the days ahead, I discover that within an hour north or south of Reykjavik, I can snowmobile, dog sled, descend into a volcano, watch whales, and drink cocoa by candlelight in a mile-long lava cave (that looks weirdly chocolatey inside). I can ride Icelandic horses, see the largest waterfall in Europe, take a dip in a secret hot spring, mark time by the blow of a giant geyser, and eat some very odd food.
Each morning, we set out in our super jeep—an SUV with giant monster truck tires in the company of my strapping Viking guide who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Icelandic. I learn countless facts geothermal, cultural, historical and random. My favorite? The Icelandic phone book lists everyone by first name then last name and, in the case of duplicates, by profession. Consequently, there is an astonishing number of Aron Olafsons. Several claim to be in the sheep business.
And there’s the big show. Every night, from October to April, the hunt for the Northern Lights is on. Outside of the capital, Iceland doesn’t have a lot of light pollution so it’s possible to see the spectral and astonishing Aurora Borealis from almost everywhere. All you need are clear skies, lots of charged particles and a view to the north. This is one of the greatest spectacles on earth.
Grace on the glaciers
Back in the daylight, I come face to face with my lifelong nemesis: ice. I’ll juggle snakes and knives rather than walk on ice. But the long suffering Oskar (Viking guide and saint) fits me with crampons, a harness, orange waterproof pants, and an ice axe. It’s a bold fashion statement and, as we begin climbing, it’s perfectly obvious that I’ll die in that outfit on the Sólheimajökul glacier, my slick waterproofs propelling me downhill into the meltwater below.
Oskar shows me how to dig in my crampons and get traction on the aquamarine ice and, before long, I’m an old pro, peering over the edge of crevasses and standing on what feels like the top of the world. The views from here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But there doesn’t seem to be a single bad view in this whole country. This utterly alien icy landscape is as warm and welcoming as any I’ve known.
I think everyone should go to Iceland at least once. There aren’t many places left where you can find solitude and unspoiled natural beauty in utter safety.
Iceland Travel Facts
Length of trip: from 4 to 12 days
Great for: Families, soft adventurers, experience junkies
Type of travel: Easy with a huge variety of activities and landscapes within a couple hours
Getting there: Cheap flights on WOW airlines, free stopovers en-route to Europe on IcelandAir
Accommodation: Comfortable 4*
Favorite hotels: Alda in Reykjavik – great location and hipster vibe; Hotel Ranga in Southern Iceland – amazing food and gigantic telescopes under very dark skies; Hotel Budir in Snaefellsness – remote with epic scenery, quirky charm and a dog named Igor
When to go: Year round from winter’s Aurora Borealis to summer’s midnight sun
Highlights: Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, horse riding on mossy lava fields, the ridiculously photogenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula, glacier hiking, drysuit snorkeling between the Eurasian and North American continents, Northern Lights, comical puffins from April to September
Go native: Try Björk (the liquer, not the singer), skyr (Icelandic yogurt), Sigur Rós (Iceland’s best musical export), 66 North (outfitters, keeping Iceland warm since 1926)
Must haves: Lots of layers and a great guide