We’re making our way to Corsica through July. First stop: Iceland.
I’m usually so clear about where to go and what to see when we travel. Not so with our visit to the Land of Fire and Ice. There are so many options, many of them far flung, and I’m completely baffled. I just don’t know where to start.
To narrow our choices, we focus on the number three. Three days to:
- drive the Golden Circle (including three stops);
- hike above the Skógafoss waterfall (divided into three legs);
- and, visit the Blue Lagoon (for three activities).
Iceland suffers frequent gloomy weather but the sun — the midnight sun — which stays up for twenty-three hours, welcomes us. At eleven at night, after an extended sunset, it slips below the horizon and hangs there, allowing an hour or so of dusk, until rising once again. “You’re very lucky,” several told us. “These are the most beautiful days of summer so far.”
Settling into Reykjavik, the country’s capital, we have first impressions:
- There are few trees but hitchhikers abound (I can’t remember the last time I saw one in the US).
- Most buildings look like they were built yesterday. Many, especially residences, are sheathed in corrugated steel. Because it withstands the harsh climate and is plentiful and cheap, Icelanders use it like New Englanders use wood shingles. I find the houses charming, especially those of the white-trimmed tomato red and forest green variety.
- Most in the service industry are young. Very young. Under 25 young.
- The bright purple and white lupines that line roads and blankets meadows are reminiscent of Provence’s lavender fields.
- The island is no bargain. You pay dearly for its treasure: one and a half to two times US prices. Our simple airport hotel is $147, and our Reykjavik hostel (called a guesthouse in Iceland) is $150 a night. It’s clean, the shared bathroom is across the hall, the staff is friendly and the breakfast is hardy. But still, it’s pricey for basic lodging.
- The Golden Circle
On day one, we drive the Golden Circle to see its three main sights. It loops 300 kilometers from Reykjavík into central Iceland, and is a great alternative to driving the island’s perimeter — a full week’s endeavor. We’re alarmed by sheep grazing dangerously close to the road and pass field after field of sturdy Icelandic horses, many pony-sized, with adorable faces, thick, mop top bangs and long, shaggy manes. In a flash, I’m Arya in Game of Thrones (some of which is filmed here), mounting her trusty steed, taking off into deep, verdant waterfall-lined valleys.
Our first stop is Þingvellir national park, where Iceland’s Parliament of chieftains first met in 930 AD. It’s also where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet. As they slowly drift apart, they’ve created the Silfra fissure, the only place in the world where you can see such a crack in the earth above sea level.
Our next stop is Haukadalur, haunting geothermal grounds with steam rising from vents in mud pools. Geysir, the original and now dormant geyser, gave its the name to all those that followed. The Strokkur spout is still active and shoots steam and boiling water one hundred feet high, erupting every six minutes or so amid the smell of rotten eggs.
Stop three on the Golden Circle is the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. The wide, powerful Hvítá river turns a corner and crashes over cliffs into a ravine, creating Iceland’s answer to Niagara Falls. The roaring cascade of water generates thick mist and rainbows a-plenty.
- The Hike
Day two has us up at 5:30 am (I was going to say dawn, but that would have been five hours earlier) for the two-hour drive to the Fimmvörduháls (five cairn trail) above Skogar on the southern coast. We continue the theme of threes with the trek section names: Waterfall Way, The Ashtray, and Godaland.
Let’s cut to the chase: it’s the most beautiful day hike we’ve ever done.
We take the steep stairs alongside Skógafoss, an elegant two hundred foot waterfall, follow the river that feeds twenty-two powerful chutes whose elevations attest to our ascent. We hike at a brisk pace, the GR20 and Corsica in mind. It’s a steady climb with occasional steep rises but there is one scary scramble where the path becomes a tight ledge above a ravine. It’s tough to enjoy the cascade thundering across the way as we side step along. We hear the successive falls before we see them — the powerful roar of water falling off a cliff — and then feel the mist. The lush chasm of each fall looks positively tropical; we could easily be in Hawaii or Tahiti. We leave the waterfalls behind once we cross the rickety bridge over the Skóga river. Part two of the hike stretches before us: the desolate, cratered moonscape of the Ashtray. We’re buffeted by fierce winds as we approach the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers and the still steaming, red-hued volcano that erupted in 2010. After four hours to climb 2,400 feet, we decide to turn around. Part three of the hike, called Godaland, and the descent into “fairytale” Pórsmörk will certainly bring us back to Iceland. On our return, we’ll be sure to bring our tent and sleeping bags so we can do the hike to the end.
- The Blue Lagoon
We save our trip to the Blue Lagoon for our third and final day. We stick to a three-pronged plan: soak sore hiking muscles in its warm, milky blue waters; enjoy facial masks; and, have lunch at the Lava restaurant. It’s an expensive outing in line with the costs of the rest of the country. We pre-book the package that included a bathrobe, flip-flops, a drink, unlimited facial masks, and a reservation at the restaurant with a glass of champagne. I fear the attraction will be kitschy but it’s far from it. Yes, we join a United Nations of tourists, from grandparents to babies in water wings, but it’s a very nice spa – beautifully designed, well organized and spotless. It’s not overly crowded since they limit the number of visitors. The levels of silica in the geothermal water can turn hair to straw, especially blonds like us, so we layer on conditioner in the locker rooms.
The lagoon is ethereal with steam rising from one hundred degree pools and visitors drifting through the water, faces masked in silica mud and algae cream. We soak for two hours, sip drinks at the swim-up bar, and repeatedly slather our faces with masks. (I know several who would pay to see my typically buttoned-up Joe sport a facial treatment!) Hair conditioned, skin tightened and fingertips like prunes, we retreat to the chic Lava restaurant for lunch. Delicious food, sophisticated decor, friendly service, and champagne. All enjoyed in our fluffy white bathrobes. What’s not to love?
Who gets sunburned in Iceland? Apparently, we do, after our hike and a day at the Blue Lagoon. Our badges of honor evident on our faces, we continue on to Paris.