Rain gushed from the heavens. Ferocious winds ripped the car door from my hand. It was frigid. The only sight was a wall of gray/white. Welcome to Iceland. I was devastated. We left warm and sunny Provence for this? The warning of a friend haunted me. “Why would you want to go to Iceland? They trained for the moon landing in Iceland. It rains all the time.”There was no turning back. Husband Vino Roberto (VR) and I set off in our rental car for a seven day venture, driving Iceland’s Ring Road, a 1,600 kilometer (992 miles) circuit around the island. When the fog began to lift, depression intensified. Flat, brown, barren landscape. No trees. No buildings. Ugly!Fortunately things did improve, but Iceland is not for sissies. The country has some breathtaking scenery, but much of Iceland is desolate, vast tracts of varying shades of brown and black. No vegetation. Sparse civilization. The weather…not much sun, at least in September. Of the country’s 320,000 citizens, more than half live in Reykjavik, the capital.“Iceland weather is very unpredictable,” a local said. Another quipped, “We don’t have bad weather. You just have to dress for it. In one day, we have four seasons in Iceland. ”That proved to be true. Often the sun would sneak through the dense cloud cover, usually only briefly, casting its intense rays on all below for what seemed a miraculous transformation. Mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, lakes, mud pots —we marveled at all. Iceland is overloaded with amazing natural wonders.“Most travelers come to Iceland for nature, for the landscape,” we were told. And, adventure. In Iceland, you can hike across glaciers or to the top of a volcano, descend into a volcano, explore caves, drive All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles, snorkel, scuba dive, surf, ski, ride horses… Our adventure was limited to horseback riding, an ATV tour, whale watching, fishing, and soaking in the legendary Blue Lagoon.The most spectacular sight during our tour was the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We were lucky. The luminous blue waters with their great chunks of ice glistened in sunshine. It was beyond beautiful. We walked around the shores, awe struck by the scene, as were many film makers. The lagoon has been a set in many movies. From the lagoon we followed a stream where all sizes of iceberg bits floated on to the sea, many then tossed back onto the black sand beach by the waves.The sun stayed away during most of our visit to the Skatafell National Park, a wilderness area of flora and fauna at the base of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside the poles. Numerous glaciers flow from the ice hulk and there are active volcanoes underneath. Most visitors opt for a trip to glacial heights where they can drive snowmobiles or hike across the glacier with a guide. Instead we hiked to Sksftafellsjokull as suggested by my Lonely Planet guide book, a one-hour trek to the dirty, gritty glacier face. Even though it was hardly a thing of beauty, its monstrous size was an overwhelming sight. A flash downpour drenched us as we hiked, but within a few minutes, the sun popped out.Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an 18,000 kilometer long rift between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates. It is the youngest country in Europe, formed 17 to 20 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions along the joint of the North American and Eurasian plates. Molten rock continues to rise from within forcing the plates apart. We saw the result at Thingvellir National Park, walking along the path through Almannagja near where the plates tear farther away from each other at the rate of 1 to 18 mm per year. The path between two great walls of rock is dramatic, however it is not actually between the two continental plates.Geysers and waterfalls abound in Iceland. The country’s most famous geyser is Geysir which gave its name to geysers throughout the world. Unfortunately it became clogged when tourists threw rocks into it back in the 1950s so it remains quiet. But just next door is Stokkur, a most reliable geyser that delights the camera crowd with eruptions every five to 10 minutes. The bizarre landscape around the geyser is fun to explore: pools of bubbling mud, steam surging from the earth.Gullfoss, Dettifoss, Goöafoss — three major waterfalls we visited along our journey. I failed to get a good photo. These are powerful falls producing powerful sprays. The skies were dark when we visited. At mighty Dettifoss which has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe, a dangerous gale-like wind added challenge. VR had to hold on to me lest the wicked wind blow me into the furious water as I tried to take a picture.
Visiting these falls is not for the faint of heart. There are no guard rails, no secure viewing platforms at most. Hike to the site, usually down slippery steps, across rocky terrain. At Goöafoss you have to jump from rock to rock to cross a pool before reaching the edge of the falls. It was too much for one woman who froze in the middle, afraid to move in any direction. Her husband finally coaxed her back to solid ground.Volcanoes – active, extinct, dormant. Iceland has all. Several active volcanoes are beneath glaciers causing dramatic eruptions when molten lava and ice interact. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull caused serious flooding, as well as world disruption thanks to its ash that grounded Europe’s airplanes. During our September visit Bardarbunga was erupting, but in a remote, uninhabited area. For $1,500 you could take an airplane ride above the fiery cauldron.
The volcano continues to erupt, but Icelanders seem to take it all in stride. However John Stevenson, a volcano researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek last week (Oct.15) that the lava and sulfur fumes “have been reaching unhealthy levels in large parts of the country. The area affected depends on the wind direction but includes Reykjavik. It has been causing painful eyes and throats, led to cancelation of sporting events, and asthmatics are encouraged to stay indoors.” Glad we visited in September.
While much of our drive was through bleak, bare terrain, even it had its charms – a strange, mysterious, eerie beauty. In the mountainous interior region of the north where there are no towns, no farms, no houses, suddenly we’d spot a lonely sheep. We drove through many a fishing village, but there were no weather beaten boats tended by wrinkled fishermen. The boats appeared freshly painted, often in vivid colors. The villages are pristine.Yes, parts of Iceland do seem lunar like. And, rain is frequent. Nonetheless the Land of Fire and Ice is incredibly intriguing — and well worth a visit.More on Iceland coming in Incredible Iceland Part II – horses, fish, food, adventure. Don’t miss it. If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. And, try Today’s Taste recipe, Almond Pear Clafouti, also upper right. You won’t be disappointed..Travel Tips: Iceland is expensive, very expensive. A simple meal in an average restaurant can easily cost $35 and up. A beer: $8. A glass of wine: $11 (This put a crimp on VR’s drinking habit.) I had hoped to buy an Icelandic sweater, but prices start at about $150. A nice one: $200. No sweater for me. I complained about the high prices to a shop owner. “When we go to the states, we shop like mad. Everything is so cheap.”A 7-night, 8-day Ring Road Highlights self-drive trip from Iceland Travel costs from €868 (about $1041) which includes the rental car, accommodations and breakfasts. http://www.icelandtravel.com Gasoline is expensive,$7.74 per gallon. Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel And me on Twitter: @larkleah