BY MARTHA JEONG
Iceland may not be on the top of your list of countries to visit; it sounds like an unlikely vacation destination, stirring images of a cold, inhospitable land full of…ice and…more ice? On the contrary, Iceland has moderately mild winters (due to the forgiving Gulf Stream) and snow is not as common of an occurrence, especially in the capital region, as one might think. Although the peak of the tourist season is from May to August, when visitors can experience the magic of the midnight sun, budget travelers can take advantage of the off season when prices dip, the Northern Lights start to show their colors, and temperatures remain relatively temperate.
My three-day adventure to Iceland over Thanksgiving was one of the most memorable trips of my life. Even though I had researched, planned and read so much about the country prior to my departure, none of the literature or pictures could adequately capture what I experienced while visiting. Never have I been so in awe of the earth. At times places in Iceland seemed not of this earth at all, as if my short five-hour flight from Boston had landed me on some distant planet.
On our first morning arriving into Reykjavik, we booked an afternoon tour with a local excursion company through our hotel, then enjoyed breakfast and a short nap before being picked up by our guide. Titled the “Gullfoss and Geyser Express,” it was one of several enticing guided tours that make vacationing in Iceland simple and stress-free. Our first stop was Pingvellir, Iceland’s first national park, a large lava field situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the European and North American plates divide. It was nothing like I had ever seen before and being able to walk around the site was inspiring. Throughout the tour, our guide would drop us off at one point and let us walk around and enjoy the sights on our own. We made another stop at the powerful and majestic Gullfoss waterfall where we enjoyed a cup of coffee at the café before pressing onto the geothermal area, where we waited patiently with cameras in hand to catch the perfect moment as geysers erupted hot spring water into the air like gurgly earthly belches from bubbling craters in the land. There is only one Icelandic word used in the English language: geyser, which means “to gush” and we had seen the original geyser. It was evening by the time the tour ended and we finished off the day with a hearty seafood meal and local beer at the locally acclaimed Vio Tjornina by the lake. We watched our neighbors order traditional Icelandic delicacies such as reindeer, shark and ray, and opted for somewhat less adventuresome scallop and cod specialties.
On our second day in Iceland after spending the morning exploring downtown Reykjavik, we were inspired by the landscapes of the day before which danced in our heads, and we decided to go out and do some exploring of our own. We rented a car and took a road trip around the ring road of southern Iceland. I watched as fields of black lava flowed continuously, mingling with glacier melt waters streaming from endless mountains dropping waterfalls next to endless oceans. Wild Icelandic horses, with their furry manes of hair whipping in the wind, dotted the never-ending landscape. The sense of space in Iceland was so vast and incredible I could not stop staring out the window of the car. Although our final destination for the day, which we raced to see during our precious hours of daylight, was the famous black sand beach of Vik, all of the unnamed and unmapped scenery on our drive was equally as stunning. Armed with a Hertz map, a handful of granola bars, bottles of pristine Icelandic water and a bag of Icelandic chips, we drove a scenic 3.5 hours and arrived just in time to see the sun drop over the idyllic town of Vik. The pure black sand, the jutting rock formations from the sea, and the picturesque little red and white church perched like a seagull above the town were more than I had hoped for.
A trip to Iceland could not be complete without a stop at the infamous Blue Lagoon. We stopped in as soon as it opened on our way to the airport, which was a good idea because by the time we were leaving tourists were streaming in to soak in the warm geothermal spring water. The mineral rich water, which averages 104 degrees Fahrenheit, is rumored to have medicinal properties. The silica, algae, and minerals form natural sediment on the bottom and give the lagoon its magical milky blue color. The sun rising from the mountainous backdrop, the thick steam rising from the blue water, and the thought you’re wading in a bathing suit in Iceland make the entire experience very supernatural. You can walk around the lagoon, take spoonfuls of the white silica mud and massage your face, and “sunbathe” on the silica formations which let you swim up and rest. One of the highlights to the trip to the Blue Lagoon was actually a little trail surrounding the hot springs, a gorgeous and refreshing complement to the soothing mineral soak.
Everyone we met in Iceland was extremely hospitable, from the checkout lady at the convenience store who helped us pick out her favorite childhood Icelandic snacks and chocolate, to the hotdog vendor who sprinkled our Icelandic pylsas with fried crispy onions and told us we could come get seconds at 4 in the morning because he would still be working, and of course the concierge desk of our hotel who was infinitely patient with all of our last minute changes and my neurotic desire to make the most of our short stay in this beautiful country.
I was also amazed with how pristine everything was, from the natural waters to the spotless streets of the city and even the immaculate restrooms in the rest stops on our way to Vik. The water in Iceland is so clean that you can safely drink from any source, through the tap or in collected pools. Icelandic people proudly claim the clean unpolluted water is one of the reasons their life expectancy is consistently among the highest in the world. After returning from Iceland, images of this utopian like country remained in my mind and I missed the furry Viking horses who stood like teddy bears on the sloping ice fields, the highly fashionable and welcoming Icelanders, the sun setting on the beautiful black beach, the delicious and uniquely Icelandic skyr yogurt I found waiting for me at my breakfast table every morning, and I even oddly missed the smell of the high sulfur content hot water, which made it seem like you were making an egg salad in the bathroom every time you took a shower. Iceland was adventurous, relaxing, beautiful, welcoming and I hope to be back again someday soon.
Practical Information: Cheap package flight and hotel deals can be found via Icelandair; their year long Midweek Madness deal gets you a nonstop flight from Boston (leaving Sunday, Monday or Tuesday) to Reykjavik and puts you up for 3 days and 2 nights at a hotel, plus breakfast and roundtrip hotel transfers starting at $399 a person (based on double occupancy). Flights and hotels were still available at these prices for Intersession dates at press time. For more information, visit www.icelandair.com.