Tales from abroad: Iceland

Runoff from Vatnajökull, a large glacier, slides into the sea. (credit: Patrick Gage Kelley | Contributing Editor) Runoff from Vatnajökull, a large glacier, slides into the sea. (credit: Patrick Gage Kelley | Contributing Editor)

Just a few weeks ago we became friends, and then she exploded. Exploded, like lava and ash forming mountains where mountains once were not. That is Iceland.

Last May, my traveling companion Amy and I journeyed from our homes to Boston, and then across the Atlantic to Iceland. We landed at Keflavík Flugvöller, took a bus to Reykjavík, rented a Ford Explorer, and began our Icelandic road trip. Our goal was to drive the perimeter of the island, covering nearly all 832 miles of the Ring Road, Route 1.

Why an Icelandic road trip, you might ask? Well, that is our travel pattern. Pick a country, explore it in full. Staying solely in Reykjavík surely would have been nice, but scouting the countryside allowed us to see Icelandic cities with populations in the low thousands, reindeer grazing in valleys, sulfur bubbling from the ground because of geothermal activity right below the surface, and the clearest blue ice floating out to sea.

We traveled on our own, reading guidebooks before we went crossing the country at our own whim. We would pull off to the side of the road at any opportunity, for a photograph or just to take a walk and enjoy the early summer sun melting piles of snow up at the 66th degree of latitude. On our third night around the island, we camped at the base of a waterfall; that afternoon, we climbed glaciers.

We drove through the most dynamic landscape we had ever seen. Streams of water from the melting snow and ice crisscrossed the countryside and created waterfalls of all sizes off nearby crevasses. Between the fire underground and the ice crossing over it, what you see one year in Iceland is rescuplted by the next.

Iceland, just recently, solicited my friendship as part of the country’s new marketing campaign, presumably to increase tourism, icelandwantstobeyourfriend.com. Just as it began, it was met with a type of fireworks as Eyjafjallajökull erupted, a volcano atop a glacier which has now been erupting for eight days and has created a new nameless mountain — a mountain that didn’t exist when we were there just under a year ago.

Having canvassed the landscape and driven the oft-formidable Ring Road with its too-frequent one-lane bridges (that is one lane total for people driving in both directions; the warning signs read “Einbreid Brú,” and you learn what that means very quickly) we returned to Reykjavík. We walked the city, ate the food, shopped the galleries, and took part in a club scene that begins after midnight, lasts through the two hours of darkness, and really gets going at 4 a.m., as the sun begins to rise back into the sky.

We stayed at the Blue Lagoon Spa and Resort, geothermally heated by a nearby lava formation; were entertained by an Icelandic metal band (the guitarist was shirtless save for blinking white Christmas lights wrapped around his chest) at Kaffi Hljómalind; and had drinks at Kaffibarinn — all reduced in price due to the recent economic troubles in Iceland.

We enjoyed Iceland and are already quite ready to return. For now, we have to be satisfied with watching videos on the Internet of lava thrust from the ground and sassy updates from the marketers of Iceland as we wait for our next trip to that constantly changing island.