Travel Diary: Volcanoes, Lava Fields, and Serious Seafood in Iceland
Icelandmay be a small country (with a population just shy of 320,000), but this tiny island nation makes up for its stature with larger-than-life attractions like jagged glaciers, steamy hot springs, spouting geysers and over 800 volcanoes—at least ten of which are considered "highly" active.
Just a six hour flight fromNew York City, Iceland may seem remote, but in fact is as easy to reach asLos Angeles—so you can hardly blame us for wanting to take a closer look. I snapped this overhead shot ofReykjavik (the northernmost capitol city in the world) from the bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja church, the city's tallest building.
Here, an exterior look at Hallgrímskirkja, which—with its strange, sloping architecture—was made to resemble the peculiar angles of the country's basalt lava fields. The strapping bronze statue in front depictsLeif Eriksson, a Norse explorer (and Iceland native). The church elevator is open every day until 6 p.m., and for a few Icelandic Krona can be taken to the bell tower for spectacular views of the city and surrounding bay.
Because of the country's supply of geothermal hot water, the massive city pond, Tjörnin, never completely freezes, making it the preferred home of a startling number of large white swans. Take heed, however: majestic though they may seem, the swans have no qualms about chasing you down if you're carrying lunch.
If you're like us, Icelandic text looks like ancient alien scripture from a sci-fi novel. Interestingly, the language has changed very little since the 13th century, and some native speakers can still read old viking texts.
When it comes to Icelandic souvenirs, nothing—with the possible exception of Reyka vodka, which is produced in geothermaly-powered facilities—trumps thelopapeysa, a traditional sweater made from the wool of native sheep. For about 6, you can choose among hundreds of different patterns at theHandknitting Association of Iceland (19 Skólavörðustígur Street; handknit.is).
Most of my time inReykjavikwas spent stuffing my with fresh seafood and dipping into various hot springs, but for a quick dose of history, I stopped by the Maritime Museum, which details the country's sea-faring heritage. Here, a (perhaps too life-like) wax figurine of an Icelandic fisherman reeling in the day's catch.
TheMartime Museumis brimming with strange black and white photographs like this one, which shows a family of Icelandic fisherman. What appear to be pieces of paper littered around the ground are actually flat pieces of fish being dried in the sun.
There's no more appropriate end to an afternoon at theMaritime Museumthan fresh seafood kebabs and lobster stew atthe Sea Baron, which is owned by a retired galley cook and festooned with trinkets from his travels around the world. If you prefer lighter fare, opt for fresh white fish like cod or blue ling. For the more daring traveler, tuck into a hearty whale kebab (made from minke whale, which is the most abundant species of whale in the world).
No trip toIcelandwould be complete with a visit toGullfoss, a massive waterfall located in the canyon of theHvítáriver. Because of its unusual tiered structure, the waterfall looks like a wide river that suddenly drops out of view when looked at from a distance. Go in for a closer look, however, and you can see into the gushing crevice below. Pro tip: stop at the visitor's center for a bowl of hot stew to thaw your hands post-viewing.
Spouting every four to eight minutes, theStrokkurgeyser may be even more faithful than Ol' Faithful—or, at the very least, a whole lot speedier. Be sure to stand a few feet back when she's ready to blow or else you'll end up drenched in scalding hot water.
SurroundingStrokkurare a number of hot pools like the one above, which looks particularly steamy and gorgeous on a windy winter day.
Save your extra krona coins for this dazzlingly blue wishing well, which is located in Þingvellir, or "Parlaiment Fields" (so-named because Icelanders would carry out everything from celebrations to beheadings on site). Because the water is filtered through lava rock, the clarity is unusually brilliant. The tradition goes that if you can see your coin all the way at the bottom, your wish will come true.
Part spa, part natural wonder,the Blue Lagoonis probably Iceland's most iconic tourist destination (and, admittedly, the one I was most excited to float around in). Loaded with naturally occurring blue algae and silica—which gives the water its bright blue color, the water is said to have special healing properties. As an added bonus, you can order cocktails and skyr yogurt smoothies from the in-ground bar, and busses are readily available to take you to or fromKeflavikairport.
Regardless if it's minus ten degrees outside (it was) or you didn't pack proper sub-zero gear (I didn't), any opportunity to see the northern lights should be taken advantage of. Call tour companies inReykjavikthe day before to check the light predictions. You might see zilch, but you might get lucky, and the spectacle is well worth it.
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