Adventures in Iceland

Even photo letter artists need a vacation every now and again.  So, with a big birthday on the horizon and a weeklong spring break from my lacrosse team on the calendar, I wrangled up two friends and booked a trip to Iceland.

Iceland, you might ask?  Yes, Iceland!

At just under 40,000 sq. mi., Iceland is roughly the size of Ohio, and would register as only the 36th largest U.S. state.  And, with only about 320,000 inhabitants, the entire country’s population would count as the U.S.’s 57th largest city, in between Santa Ana, CA and Corpus Christi, TX.

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So, why go to Iceland?  It’s cold there!.  Um, yes.  But, here are a few reasons:

1.      I had the time and money, which as best I can tell, may well be the only necessary rationale for any adventure.  (Note: Discount airlines like WOW Airlines have made travel to/from Iceland much less expensive, but be prepared for add-on fees for everything from checking a bag to having some water in-flight AND it is not cheap eat, drink, and lodge in Iceland.)
2.      I don’t hate the term “bucket list” but I don’t use it often.  That said, I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and the timing worked out so that our visit could coincide with the tail-end of their annual performance.
3.      It just sounded cool.

So, what’s it like?

It’s like landing on the moon!  On one side, you have burned out fields of black rock, remnants of repeated volcanic eruptions and lava flows.  And on the other side, you have the glaciers – jokull, in Icelandic – incredible mountains of ice and snow, which climb assertively to the sky and then descend gracefully to the sea.

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There are stunning views in every direction, cascading waterfalls visible from the Ring Road which circumnavigates the country, and geothermal hot springs around just about every turn.

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For the outdoor enthusiast, Iceland offers a veritable cornucopia of activities, from hiking and camping to ice climbing and ice caving, glacier walking, snowmobiling, birding, dog sledding, whale watching, and even surfing.  Yes, surfing!  Just be sure to wear a very thick wetsuit.

Here are a couple of other things we learned about Iceland in our travels:
1.      No Vikings actually live in Iceland any more.  They did – more aptly, they settled the country and pillaged its resources – but not since about the 10th century.  Bummer!
2.      The language is impossible.  Don’t even bother.  Consonants and vowels are smashed up against one another in unpredictable patterns, and a few letters are even welded together at irregular intervals making them impossible to decipher or replicate.  Everyone speaks English.  Be grateful!
3.      Pre-book everything you can.  We naively assumed we would be able to show up and have our pick of the litter with regard to activities and sites.  However, we were turned away – literally turned away – from more than one expedition as well as the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s marquee attractions (picture a meditative spa in the midfield of Las Vegas’ strip), because we hadn’t reserved our spots online in advance.
4.      Don’t be afraid to eat at a gas station.  Overall Icelandic cuisine is adequate, though not exceptional.  But, one of the best meals we found was a leg of lamb at a gas station near Skaftafell in Vatnajokull National Park.  You can’t miss the gas station – it’s literally the only one within 50km of the park.   And, you can’t miss the leg of lamb either – it’s roughly the size of a Thor’s hammer.

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5.      It’s big.  My co-pilot for the trip repeated this phrase over and over and over again.  But, it’s not the size that gets you; it’s the scale.  And, there is nobody and nothing there.  You will drive for tens of kilometers without seeing a single sign of civilization – we often stayed in “towns” along the southern coast which consisted of 3-4 buildings.  We could go hours without seeing another human being.  It was wonderful!

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6.      It goes up.  And, then up some more.  Glaciers climb to incredible heights at astounding rates; when hiking, the first few clicks (trekking vernacular for kilometers) are nearly always straight up.
7.      All of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources.  About 30% come from geothermal and about 70% comes from hydroelectric.  Spend anytime rooting around the country’s innumerable waterfalls  and you will see just how and why this is.
8.      The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, don’t just appear at night.  They dance.  Literally!  On a clear night, these flashes of solar wind will  span the entire sky and will jump and jive, shake and shimmy, wiggle and wag  to the beat of their own celestial soundtrack.  It’s truly a magical sight.

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9.      It’s cold.  Damn cold.  We spent an afternoon riding snowmobiles on top of a glacier – it was awesome! We took a super Jeep up a mountain which no mortal car could traverse, and then transferred to a refurbished army transport (essentially a snow tank) to climb a mountain of ice which would have made even the sturdiest Sherpa blush with acrophobia. – and the temperature dipped to a cool -9 Celsius.  For those scoring at home, that’s abut 16 Fahrenheit.  In other words, it’s cold.  Damn cold.

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We spent eight days in Iceland, starting in Reykjavik and heading west along the southern coast of the Ring Road and back, but still felt like there was much more to see and do.   So, I think a trip back might well be in order, probably in the summer time when country is covered in lush greens and camping options are more readily available.

Before that, though, I’d like to go salmon fishing in Alaska, hunting down my family’s roots in Belarus, and exploring the biblical holy land Israel.

Tell me, what’s on your “pail catalog??”  Add your comments below.

* Special thanks to Unlocking Kiki for her great blog and many, many wonderful trip suggestions.