Iceland – land of fire and ice

A version of this article first appeared in the Indian Express Eye Sunday edition of 20th May 2018.

It’s tough to ignore a place that calls itself Iceland and if that part of the world suddenly finds its exchange rates falling, it becomes irresistible. So back in 2012, with a 9-month-old well-traveled baby, we packed our bags to head to the other side of the Arctic Circle.

Much research later, we decided to spend our time in Reykjavik and the southern part of the island (a good 100km below the arctic circle). Iceland is little like any expectations one might have from an island. The whole island feels more like a national park and a petri dish of where the Earth is getting made. There is much volcanic and geological activity happening all over and one gets to see geysirs, lava rocks and glaciers all around. In fact, Iceland should really be two islands by now, only volcanic eruptions fill in the gap enough to “glue” together the plates that tectonic movements pull apart.

ICELAND: Lava fields

We flew into Reykjavik through Helsinki, and decided to explore the country driving ourselves around. The capital city feels more like a pretty and friendly town with little houses, colorful rooftops and a church whose architecture reflects the local geology of volcanic lava formations. With a bit of snow, it is a landscape that shames illustrators of fairy tale stories. The city parties hard at night, and since there are months that the sun never really sets and months that the sun doesn’t really show up, pub hopping till 5 am and candle lit breakfasts are a norm. We did neither with a little bub in tow and drove off to the south coast followed by Golden Circle instead.

The southern coast drive starts off with the incredibly pretty waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, two hours away from Reykjavik. These are gigantic falls with so much water spray that one is guaranteed to get wet. We came prepared with our rain covers from the Niagara trip, and picked up an industrial strength rain suit for the daughter from a charming little shop called 66*N. The old lady there was quite the salesperson and upgraded us from a simple raincoat to what the Icelandic kids normally wear – rain pants with elastic to keep the leg in place, a raincoat that reached the daughter’s knees and rain boots. They all came in very handy in a hike to a cave behind Seljalandsfoss, which offered a rare behind the scenes view of the waterfall.

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From water to ice – we headed to the Vatnajokull National Park. Currently vying for inclusion in the World Heritage Sites, the park is house to glaciers, lakes and lava fields with a geography that changes often. Driving around in the area was gorgeous. Glacial tongues poked out invitingly, tempting us to hike closer.

ICELAND BLOG Hike to the glaciel tongue in Skaftafell National Park
Hike to the glaciel tongue in Skaftafell National Park

Even in the beginning of summer the air was crisp and temperatures ranged around 15 deg C. We even got to see a rare full double rainbow on the drive!

ICELAND: the rare sight of a double rainbow

Finally at Jokullsarlon, we got to see the surreal Iceland I had been expecting all along. Jokullsarlon has glacial lakes and black pebble beaches that are studded with, wait for it, icebergs! Unlike any other island experience in the world, here we were, dressed in 3 layers from top to toe, smothered in sunscreen picking up chunks of ice on the black beach. I had to pinch myself to believe it.

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ICELAND: fjords in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Fjords in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

From Ice to snow – we headed into the glacier itself for a snowmobile ride. Skidoo suited us all up in snowsuits and the 9m old daughter had to wear a suit for a 5 year old, since they’d never had such a young kid on a ride before. Her milk bottle snuggled deep in my snowsuit, the daughter snuggled tight in the baby carrier and myself snuggled nicely behind the travel crazy husband who thought this was a totally normal family adventure to have, off we went to the heart of the white. The glacier had surprisingly soft snow on top. A few snow fights and snow angels later, we headed back the base camp for hot soup and warm beds.

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The next day, a quick stop in Skaftafell to hike around and explore the turf houses that look like they are half underground, we moved onto to Vik. Vik is a remote seafront village that sits in the shadow of an unpronounceable glacier, which covers the Katla volcano. Geographic tongue twisting aside, the place has a beautiful black beach, basalt rock formations with appropriate troll legends to add a bit of cultural magic, and is home to the colorful penguin cousins – the puffin birds. We spotted quite a few nesting in the caves by the beach.

ICELAND: A puffin pair nesting in the cliffs
A puffin pair nesting in the cliffs

The next stop for us was the tourists’ delights of the Golden Circle – Gulfoss falls and the Geysir region. The Gullfoss – a 2-tiered waterfall that is the Hvita River falling 32m down into a gorge, is Europe’s answer to the Niagara Falls. Where it trumps Niagara, is in winter when the whole waterfall is a glistening mass of water frozen in motion.

ICELAND: Gullfoss waterfalls
Gullfoss waterfalls

The Great Geysir is a whole different Icelandic experience and the source of the word geyser itself. Stokkur, obligingly, erupts every 6-10 minutes providing the photo op.

We gave the Thingvellir National Park a miss in favor of a last stop to experience the Blue Lagoon Spa on our way to the airport. The geothermal waters heated to a toasty 38-40C are rich in silica and have therapeutic properties. Healing or not, floating in warm milky blue waters surrounded by ice covered lava fields is the last surreal Icelandic experience we had to have.

This little island has a truly spectacular Earth show where staring into the sky one could end up spotting the Aurora Borealis, on a simple trek one could be treading on ice or lava and on a black sand beach one could be holding chunks of ice. No wonder it is the home of the Huldufolk — elves and fairies who supposedly populate the Icelandic countryside and who are only real to those who truly believe in magic.