Iceland has been on my list of places to visit for a long time for a number of reasons.
- Iceland has a lot of natural hot spring pools and volcanic activity
- Bjork is cool (Dancer in the Dark, swan dress, Olympic Oceania dress)
- Iceland is pretty near the Arctic Circle so it has some very long summer days
- Iceland has a lot of direct flights that are reasonable
- During the financial crisis of 2008, Iceland let its banks fail and jailed many bank executives, unlike the US, and has fully recovered (BBC News)
- Bjork is still cool (Vespertine, music videos)
- Iceland has the oldest democracy
- Icelanders catch and eat a lot of fresh ocean fish
- Iceland powers with geothermal heat
- We recently bought a wonderful large painting (http://charlesjeanpierre.com/artwork/3643537_Cherry_Wine.html) from a Chicago-born Haitian American—Charles Philippe Jean Pierre—who told us that his views on women and feminism had been transformed during a road trip in Iceland
But two things came together to get me to Iceland last August (2016). My sister and I wanted to take a vacation together alone (without spouses) and my Colombian granddaughter wanted to revisit the friends she made when living there for five months with her mother when she was 11. Now she was 15. We decided on one week, it being a small island.
Most people grab one of the heavily advertised stopovers in Iceland on their way to somewhere else. The visit consists of soaking in the Blue Lagoon (very expensive and commercial, but a close bus ride from the airport}, continuing on to Reykjavik, the capital, for the night life, tours to Iceland’s equivalent of Old Faithful and a giant waterfall, and finally, a tour to the remnants of the original parliament from the 900’s. Ok, done. Cross Iceland off the list.
Determined to find the road less traveled, without renting a 4×4, I rented a car and we set off on the main Ring Road that circles the island. Our first destination: the northern town of Akureyri , where our granddaughter had lived. The plan was to mosey up north, stopping at places that grabbed us, and then drop her off at the home of a friend of her mother’s where she would stay for the weekend and hook up with some of the girls she has stayed in touch with via the miracle of Facebook. Then my sister and I would drive to a nearby ski lodge, summer version, and hang out and enjoy the mountains. On Monday morning we would pick her up and mosey back south to the airport, stopping again at places that interested us.
Here are the highlights of that trip:
- Hot springs pools. We visited two. One on the west side next to a fjord at Höfsos. As you can see, it was like an infinity pool, except steamy and very clean in a sulphurous sort of way. The second one was in the north, just east of Akureyri at Lake Myvatn. It was very big, very natural, with super hot to cooler areas to explore. The fun cultural fact is the existence of shower Nazis. Since the hot springs pools are not artificially cleaned, Icelanders insist that everyone using one start with a hot, naked, soapy shower. I dutifully followed the rule, but ran afoul of a shower Nazi because I had put on my suit and was exiting to the pool from a different hallway, seemingly bypassing the showers. She challenged my cleanliness. Not so! I avowed. After explaining why I was not entering the pool directly she let me go.
- Riding the famous Icelandic wild horses up into the mountains. Ours were no longer wild and had saddles and so on, but it was really fun passing through fields with wild horses and up and over hills and back. They were pretty frisky, especially the ones that gleaned that my sister and granddaughter were not experienced riders. Icelandic horses have a gait, the tölt, that is specific to the country. I asked our leader if she could demonstrate the gait. She sheepishly admitted that she was not from Iceland and didn’t know how to get them to do it.
- Picking wild blueberries and crowberries in the fields by the side of the road with the locals and eating them with granola and tangy unsweetened yoghurt for breakfast.
- Driving through the remains of volcanic eruptions that look like a moonscape.
- Eating delicious fresh-caught fish: long-cooked char, best fish soup ever.
- Seeing how geothermal power is piped down into Reykjavik from the interior 20 miles away, with only 1 degree of heat lost in the process.
7. Meeting my daughter-in-law’s friend ín Akureyri. They had met in ISL class. She was from Kenya and had met her Icelandic husband online. He was a champion body builder turned fisherman, of course. After a virtual courtship and a trip by him to Nairobi to meet her, she accepted his proposal and moved to take up a very different life. That life was one where he was gone 90% of the time during the prime fishing season and gone 75% of the time during the winter season. Being a fisherman’s ”widow” afforded her a nice house, a lovely son who at 13 months promised to be both a strongman and a smart little student, learning Icelandic, English and Swahili at once, and in-laws who visited frequently and seemed to be delighted to have her join their family.
8. Visiting one of the the Settlement Museums in Borgames to learn about Viking life and the Saga of Egil from the 800s. Little Egil demonstrated his legendary fierceness at an early age when, at 7, he had already killed an enemy. Wonderful wood carvings telling the saga made this a fun stop.
9. Staying at the ski cabin at the foot of a small mountain range where we could stay up playing pool alone until sundown at 10:30, hike up the lush green mountain along sheep paths and then thread our way down over hidden rivulets and soft mounds of thick grasses, while gazing down dizzily into the deep valley below.
10. Seeing the look on my granddaughter’s face when one of her old Akureyri friends stopped by in a hurry to someplace else and presented to her the other half of a ceramic heart they had made together four years before. A very special place in her heart for this country, yet so unlike the one she was born into.