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Iceland in three days and two nights
Iceland in three days and two nights.
I had flown over Iceland countless times in my various trans-Atlantic trips before I realized what I was missing by not stopping to see what was down there. Volcanoes, glaciers, rugged sea coast, fjords, and not many people – there was a sense that you couldn’t go wrong by visiting this Kentucky-sized block of basalt that sits astride the mid-Atlantic ridge just under the Arctic Circle. We settled on three days and two nights in Iceland on the way back from a trip to Scotland in the summer of 2001. Since we were flying Icelandair the stop was conveniently en route as the country’s carrier lands to refuel, unload, and load passengers before going onto final destinations in Europe, the United States, and Canada. I formed my first impressions of Iceland on the approach to Keflavik International Airport where an almost other worldly scene unfolded from my airplane window. Desolate but beautiful – you could have been on another planet. The airport was interesting too with typical northern European contemporary architecture accented by crisp pine beams and paneling that seemed very appropriate for this boreal destination. Keflavik is the only airport in Iceland to accommodate large commercial aircraft. It sits about 25 miles southwest of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, and until 2006, the airport was also shared by NATO forces, largely U.S. Air Force and Navy, whose base was on the other side of the runway.
Day 1: Keflavik > Blue Lagoon > Reykjanes peninsula > Keflavik.
Our first task was to rent a car, and it’s unadvisable to try to see the island any other way. There are no trains, and public transportation is quite expensive, barring limited connections to and from destinations. We picked up our car in the airport parking lot and upon departing I asked the rental car agent where I should park the car when we returned it. He replied, “Oh, anywhere is fine.” My dismay made him grin and he reassured me that he would “find it”. Iceland is that small when it comes to people, and it was clear after a few hours on the island that crowd control is not a concern. After checking into our hotel in Keflavik we headed for some much needed relaxation to loosen the cramps from the air travel and a hike up Scotland’s Ben Nevis the week before. Blue Lagoon answers that call and it’s Iceland’s answer to outdoor pool-side relaxation. Heated by geothermal springs from deep below the earth’s crust, Iceland takes full advantage of riding atop the spreading Mid-Atlantic Ridge. While the entire length of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is almost totally submerged in many places more than two miles deep this giant suture of the earth’s crust breaks the water’s surface in Iceland and the country continues to imperceptibly spread outward. Geologically, the oldest rock on the island is found at the extreme east and west ends of the island. It’s these deep earth dynamics that provide the energy that heats the waters that make the tourists comfortable and happy while they gaze across the bizarre volcanic landscape. We were no different than the others and rushed to take in this gigantic outdoor hot spring that looks like a huge tailing pond from the basalt fields that surround it. It was late evening by the time we left Blue Lagoon but the near arctic position of Iceland allows one to take full advantage of mid summer's long days. We headed down the Reykjanes peninsula towards the Atlantic Ocean. On the way we passed boiling sulfur springs and hot pots, only feet from the road. There were a few cautionary signs but these didn’t stop our curiosity. We pulled over for a peek. Boiling mud and fumaroles dotted the landscape for acres. Apparently this is commonplace in Iceland. After passing more geothermal areas we were soon inundated by nesting terns that dive-bombed our car in an effort to protect their fragile nests. We weren’t anywhere near the nests that I could see but they were aggressive and boldly swooped down upon our vehicle. This was quite a side-show in addition to the roadside mud pots. Finally we came upon the lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic. It was nine pm but it seemed no later than four in afternoon with the amount of light. We finally completed our peninsula drive and arrived back in the hotel by 1030 pm. It was difficult to sleep but the hotel had black shutters to block the midnight light.
Day 2: Keflavik > Geysir > Gullfoss > Reykjavik > Keflavik.
This would be the longest daytrip and the only full day we would spend in-country so we planned to go the distance. We headed towards Geysir, whose namesake attraction is just that - a geyser, also known as Strokkur, that fulminates and burps until, at a pregnant moment, it forms a huge bubble, before exploding into a heated waterspout before the camera-ready tourists. It’s from this town that the term geyser originated in the lexicon of volcanic geology, known as volcanism. Geysir lies about 100 miles or so to the northeast of the Reykjanes, the most populated corner of the island. The drive there is hardly boring and the roads travel past occasional farms, grazing Icelandic ponies, and colored volcanic rocks and mountains. Glimpses in the distance reveal occasional views of the other half of Iceland’s best known geological attributes: huge glaciers, some the size of small states. These gigantic bodies of moving ice seem to colonize anything in Iceland above 4,000 feet and they resemble thick coats of icing on dark layer cakes. From Geysir the road climbs up towards the waters of Gullfoss, a huge series of waterfalls that has carved an abyss in the soft volcanic rock. The view from the overlooks is good enough but you can get closer by following the path down to the foaming water’s edge. With the exception of Dettifoss, Gullfoss is Iceland’s most spectacular falls. Dettifoss has greater volume, the largest in Europe for that category, and its drop is higher as well. Of the two, Gullfoss is easier to get to as Dettifoss is up in the more remote northeast corner of the country. After we visited Gullfoss we drove farther up the road leading to Langjoekull, a huge glacier and Iceland’s second largest. I was curious about these bodies of ice and I wanted to get a better look. I had hiked across small alpine glaciers in Austria, but had never experienced a mass of ice that was the size of a county. Our compact rental car could only go so far on the packed dirt road of route F35 and after maybe 10 kilometers I decided to turn around. From there on this was territory for high clearance and four wheel drives, which are common in Iceland, as many of the roads are packed dirt only. I didn’t want to push my luck. We headed pack towards Reykjavik and planned to see Pingvellir (also transliterated as Thingvellir) along the way. Pingvellir is the birthplace of historical Iceland: in 930 AD the parliament was established here; Christianity was adopted here in 1000 AD; and the Republic of Iceland was also declared here, probably with a bit of symbolism, in 1944, when the island split from Denmark. While Pingvellir is significant in this respect I wanted to glimpse the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, exposed here, much like the San Andreas Fault is in some places in southern California. Here one can theoretically and physically put either foot on one of the two plates, American and Eurasian, which are spreading farther apart and widening the Atlantic Ocean as they’ve been doing for the last 150 million years. It was not to happen, we decided to skip Pingvellir, regrettably, which was slightly off route, and headed into Reykjavik instead. Reykjavik reminded me of a quintessential Scandinavian city. Clean and crisp with houses that looked like they were built from IKEA showrooms, it was sort of a real-life Legoland. The city is walkable and spacious for the small population it supports. Great views of the ocean and mountains can be scene from most points, notably Esja (914 meters), which looms to the city’s northeast. Not to miss is the 244 foot tall Hallgrimskirkja which overlooks the city. The Pond in the central part of the city also has good panoramas. While the city’s population is about 120,000, suburban sprawl has virtually connected Reykjavik to Keflavik, 40 kilometers to the southwest and the build-up is evident from the drive between the two locations.
Day 3: Keflavik >Reykjanes (Hvalsnes) > Blue Lagoon > Keflavik > JFK.
It was our final day in Iceland and our flight to JFK departed in the early afternoon from Keflavik. We headed out to the northwest part of the Reykjanes peninsula. We had no destination, really, just a drive to see more scenery which was always full of surprises and never dull despite the absence of forest, or any type of vegetation, with the exception of grass. Eventually we ended up in Hvalsnes before running into dirt road – something that seemed to happen often in Iceland. On this stretch of road the most impressive scene was the white-washed Lutheran church and cemetery with individual burial plots carefully marked by white picket fences. Scenes like these are made more austere by the grudging landscape which highlighted this isolated town’s church. Hvalsnes could have been a ghost town for all we knew because we saw few, if any, people. We turned back and decided to do one last soak in Blue Lagoon before checking in at Keflavik International Airport. Some last minute shopping in Keflavik and in the airport duty-free and we boarded Icelandair but not before being asked to take a survey from the Iceland Tourist Bureau. It was easy – I gave Iceland great reviews and told the representative I would easily return and spend more time. The travel bureau was aggressively trying to attract more tourists to stop in Iceland and feedback was important. I often wondered why Iceland, until now, was not more of an endpoint as a tourist destination from either Europe or the U.S. The flight from New York was only five hours, from Scotland – only two. At least I had satisfied my curiosity this time and managed to land on the island and spend a few days and it was worth every minute. The only regret was not taking the extra time to visit Pingvellir, but my travel wisdom calls for leaving some ground uncovered so that you have good reason to return.