Iceland: Beyond Reykjavik
By Greg Roensch
Iceland, often referred to as the “The Land of Fire and Ice,” is an otherworldly place of volcanoes (fire), glaciers (ice), geothermal geysers, tectonic ridges, basalt columns, fjords, waterfalls, black-sand beaches, ice-floe-filled lagoons, and a myriad of other natural wonders.
In fact, some of the terrain is so “otherworldly” it once served as training ground for Apollo astronauts preparing to walk on the moon.
Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital. The city (and its surrounding area) is home to about 120,000 of the country’s total population of approximately 330,000 people. At a latitude of 64°08′ N, Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital of an independent country.
It’s a lively city where you can enjoy music at the modern Harpa concert hall, dine in any number of fine restaurants, shop for wool sweaters and tourist trinkets on Laugavegur street, and explore a variety of museums, including the Iceland Phallological Museum, a space dedicated exclusively to the male reproductive organ.
While there’s plenty to see and do in Reykjavik, most travelers come to Iceland to explore the abundance of natural beauty spread across the country. Here are some highlights from my recent three-week visit.
Three Easy Day Trips from Reykjavik
Golden Circle – Many tour companies offer day trips to the “Golden Circle,” an easy loop from Reykjavik to sites spread across southwestern Iceland. The three main tourist destinations on the tour are Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the valley of Haukadalur, an area known for its geothermal activity.
Our first stop on the “Golden Circle” tour with Iceland Horizon was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an area of geological and historical significance.
Thingvellir served as the setting for the Icelandic Parliament (or Althing) from AD 930 to 1798.
Oozing history from every cranny, Thingvellir is also notable for being the meeting point for the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Next, we drove to Haukadalur valley to visit Strokkur geyser, which thrills spectators every five to ten minutes with its mighty geothermal blast. If you have a few spare minutes (and if
the weather is cooperative), I recommend scrambling to the top of the hill above the geyser. From this vantage point, you’ll get an excellent view of the geyser as well as of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Our last stop on the “Golden Circle” was Gullfoss (or “Golden Falls”) waterfall. Iceland boasts many magnificent waterfalls and this is one of the best.
Langjökull Glacier and Ice Cave Tour – Langjökull glacier is another popular trip from the capital. On the day of my tour with Extreme Iceland , the weather was perfect (nothing but clear skies and sunshine) when we rolled out of the main bus terminal in Reykjavik.
After roughly three hours on the bus, we made a pit stop for lunch and then loaded into a monster truck for the remainder of our journey up and onto Langjökull, one of the world’s largest glaciers.
If there’s one thing you learn quickly when traveling in Iceland, it’s that the weather can change on a dime and without warning.
So, as we drove further onto the glacier, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when our sunshiny spring day morphed into an all-out blizzard faster than you can say “whiteout.”
When we eventually arrived at the opening of the ice cave, we strapped crampons onto our boots and followed our informative guide on an hour-long tour through a manmade system of ice tunnels that made it seem like we were wandering deep below the surface of an ice-covered planet.
Tours to the “Golden Circle” and Langjökull glacier take most of your day, but you don’t have to journey far from the city to feel like you’ve been transported to another planet. Just a twenty-minute ride by ferry, Videy Island offers a wonderful respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The tranquil island is a place where you can take leisurely walks while looking out over the water at the Reykjavik skyline in one direction and the surrounding mountains in another.
If you’re into bird-watching, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see (and hear) the aerial comings and goings of our feathered friends on Videy. The island is home to some interesting ancient archaeological remains as well as a series of Richard Serra sculptures.
You can also check out the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy. Installed by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon, the tower’s base is a white stone “wishing well” with the words “Imagine Peace” inscribed in 24 languages.
Each year, from October 9 (Lennon’s birthday) to December 8 (the day he was murdered), the tower emits a powerful beam of light generated by geothermal energy.
The Imagine Peace Tower is also lit during the first week of Spring, between Winter Solstice and New Year’s Day, and on Yoko Ono’s birthday (February 18).
You can reach the following destinations by taking very long day trips from Reykjavik; however, I recommend renting a car and staying longer to appreciate more fully what each of these amazing places has to offer.
Westman Islands – From Reykjavik, drive southeast on Iceland’s ring road for about two hours to the town of Landeyjahöfn, where you can catch a 35-minute ferry to Heimaey, an island of approximately 4,500 people.
The largest and most populated island in the Westman Islands archipelago, Heimaey achieved international fame when Eldfell volcano erupted without warning in the early morning hours of January 23, 1973.
As Eldfell spewed its fire, ash, and lava, Heimaey’s inhabitants evacuated the island on fishing boats and other vessels.
400 Buildings Destroyed
As it turned out, the volcanic activity would continue for another seven months, destroying approximately 400 structures and threatening to close off the harbor. People manned firehoses to slow and eventually stop the advancing lava flow with cooling blasts of sea water.
Today, Heimaey is a popular tourist destination, with stunning coastal views, black-lava-rock beaches, puffin breeding grounds, and more. Visit the Eldheimar museum if you’re interested in learning about the eruption. And if you’re looking for an excellent vegetarian or gluten-free meal, be sure to stop by GOTT restaurant in the center of town.
From Vik to Jökulsárlón – The town of Vik (about a 2.5-hour drive from Reykjavik) serves as a good hub for exploring the south. Some of the sites we visited near Vik included Reynisfjara black-pebble beach, which features a stretch of basalt columns looking like a setting straight out of Game of Thrones. Other nearby sites worth checking out include Seljalandsfoss, yet another of Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls, and Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
We also used Vik as our base for driving to Jökulsárlón. One glance at this ice-floe-filled lagoon is enough to make you realize why this is one of Iceland’s most popular destinations.
If it’s crowded near the main parking lot (which it probably will be), take a walk along the shore to get away from the tourist horde. You’ll see plenty of seals and sea birds along the way as you look out at ice slowing inching its way from the lagoon to the ocean.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula – Driving along Iceland’s west coast takes you to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (about two hours from Reykjavik). This is a place of amazing scenery everywhere you go, including spectacular coastline views, glaciers, and fjords. We used the small town of Grundarfjörður as a base for our three-day stay in this part of the island.
Highlights from our visit to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula included a sunrise hike near Kirkjufell mountain (just outside of Grundarfjördur), an easy stroll to the stubby red lighthouse in the port town of Stykkishólmur, and a long and winding drive on a narrow gravel road along a remote fjord, where we stopped for a picnic lunch at a spot overlooking a small farm beside a picturesque red-roofed church.
We also spent a good deal of our driving time on the peninsula meandering through Snaefellsjökull National Park, Iceland’s first national park. We rumbled over dusty side roads to take in the majestic coastal and mountain scenery and even hiked along a lava path that served as Jules Verne’s inspiration for the entryway to the chthonic realm in Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth.
Looking back on our travels in Iceland, with epic scenery at every turn and so much more of the country left to explore, I can’t wait to return to the land of fire and ice.
Greg Roensch owns and operates a one-man editorial service company, Six String Communications . When not writing and editing for work, he writes short stories, composes quirky pop songs, and likes to travel.