In June 2015, my then companion Laurent and I decided to cool off in Iceland, the Nordic country-island in northwestern Europe known as the “land of fire and ice.” That’s because of its numerous volcanoes (one just erupted in March 2021 which is still gushing lava) and glaciers.
Iceland is also the land of summer lightness and winter darkness, with almost 24 hours of daylight in June and barely a ray of sunshine in January. Needless to say, summer is the season to go unless you’re chasing the Northern Lights and thrive in sub-zero temperatures. But even in summer, there is still plenty of ice in Iceland. In fact, our plan to drive the circumference of the country was thwarted by closed icy roads to the east so we focused on the south instead … which offers more than enough for a week of tourism.
Surprisingly, we were greeted upon landing by purple lupine flowers and greenery – typical of lower elevation areas at that time of year. We headed straight from Keflavik airport to the nearby, famous Blue Lagoon to refresh in thermal water and make a body facial with mineral-laden silt. The lagoon is entirely heated by geothermal energy. In fact, there is so much natural heating in Iceland from 200 volcanoes, it’s amazing ice exists at all.
Geothermal and hydroelectric energy (70%) enable Iceland to have 99.96% renewable energy. It has over 600 hot springs and hot water is so affordable (and temperatures often so cold) that Icelanders supposedly have a habit of taking long showers.
We were “blown away” by the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at Hellisheiði Power Plant near Reykjavik, which is the largest single-site facility of its kind in the world. Coupled with The Volcano House and Aurora Reykjavik (Northern Lights exhibition) in Reykjavík, these museums set the stage for our voyage into the land of fire and ice.
While part of the European continent, Iceland is not a member of the European Union, hence, it has different currency (króna). After the Seychelles, Iceland is the smallest country by population in the world to have its own currency and monetary policy. It also has one of the most difficult languages, with many words of 10+ letters.
Moreover, Iceland is one of only three countries in the world – along with Japan and Norway – where whales are still hunted in spite of a 1986 ban by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). All have the sovereign right to do commercial whaling within their own waters. Ironically, Iceland and Norway are IWC members (though Iceland supposedly stop hunting whales in 2018). Japan dropped out of it in 2019 to hunt the giant, swimming mammals without hypocrisy.
When Laurent and I were in Iceland, minke and fin whales were still being caught and served in local restaurants. Out of curiosity, I ordered it at a fine Reykjavik restaurant as a local delicacy, thinking it was an Icelandic thing to do and that whales must be culled in the area for ecological balance. While beautifully presented, the red flesh was oily and fishy – a once-in-a-lifetime taste. It was just seared so it wouldn’t become tough.
As funny timing would have it, the next morning we went on a whale watching tour.
“Do not eat whale meat in restaurants while you’re in Iceland,” a crew member said over the ship’s loudspeaker. “They offer it for tourists. It is not part of our cuisine! Eating whale sanctions killing these amazing animals and hurts our ecosystem.”
Gulp. We prided ourselves in supposedly eating like locals. It turns out that was a whale’s tale.
“Wasn’t me,” Laurent joked since I had ordered the dish as a consummate foodie (but of course, he tasted it).
“Stinky minke,” I whispered. “I won’t ever eat whale again. It’s not good anyway.”
But well worth “consuming” in Reykjavik was live music and Hallgrímskirkja church modeled after a basalt column waterfall in the shape of a bell. And about 45 kilometers east of the capital lies the world’s longest standing parliament (930 AD-1881) called Althing, which is really something. It’s in Thingvellir National Park, where North American and Eurasian tectonic plates (ocean-deep masses of solid rock) divide. Because of these two attractions, Thingvellir is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. As a joke, Laurent and I stood on either side of a groove between the plates to bridge our Continental Divide.
These separating tectonic plates are responsible for much of Iceland’s volcanic and geothermal activity. Case in point was the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which disrupted air travel across Europe. About 100 kilometers from Reykjavik is Geysir Hot Spring Area with boiling mud pits and exploding geysers such as Strokkur, which shoots water about 100 feet into the air every few minutes.
Stunning waterfalls form a treasure hunt in Iceland. Examples we admired were Seljalandsfoss, where we walked behind a curtain of water; Skogafoss, which we looked up in awe from the bottom; Gullfoss, which flows into a glacier river; and Svartifoss (black waterfall) amidst basalt columns after which the famous Reykjavik church was built in Skaftafell Nature Reserve.
Moving southeast, we stopped overnight in a village, where the only thing to do was take an ATV quad bike ride over Icelandic “moonscape” (where several SciFi films have been shot such as “Interstellar”). Laurent and I shared a quad and followed our local guide over bumpy terrain with rolling hills. It proved to be death-defying as Laurent, who was driving, nearly flipped us and the quad over the edge of a hill.
“You better let her drive,” our guide nervously laughed as I booted Laurent from the driver’s seat after narrowly escaping potential death.
“Yes,” Laurent sheepishly agreed, conceding defeat and relieved to be alive.
We cooled our heels at our easternmost stop: Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in Vatnajokull Glacier National Park, which contains floating blue and white chunks of ice streaked with ash. We cruised in an amphibious car-boat past icebergs of all shapes and sizes. We also saw black sand beaches and stunning mountains on our way back towards Reykjavik.
Last and best, we went inside the center of a volcano … seriously. Originally set up for the production of a documentary, a ramshackle, makeshift elevator took us down 700 feet into the magma-less chamber of Thrihnukagigur volcano for a newly established tour called Inside the Volcano. We had to trek 3 kilometers across more moonscape to arrive at the crater of the “safely dormant” volcano, which last erupted 4,000 years ago. There we were outfitted in hard hats with head lamps and lowered to the bottom of the multi-colored lava chamber, where we walked around a path of lava rocks. In a word, it was awesome.
Iceland proved to be full of sights and experiences that one could normally only expect “when hell freezes over.” But in the land of fire and ice, even this is possible.