Odyssey in Iceland

Story and photography by Ken Muellers

It all began with a bucket list. A friend of mine called one day and proceeded to tell me that visiting Iceland was on the top of his bucket list. Unfortunately for him, his wife had about as much desire to go to Iceland as I have to go to the dentist. Hence the offer – would I like to go to Iceland? Now to many, this would seem like an odd choice and prompt questions like “where the heck is Iceland?” or “isn’t it cold there?” But I simply replied with, “Awesome! When do we go?”

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon where the largest glacier in Europe meets the sea

Although Iceland was not on my bucket list, seeing the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, was. Iceland happens to be one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights so the die was cast.

With the trip planned for months ahead, I had plenty of time to plan an itinerary packed with sights and to research our destination. By the time our Icelandair flight touched down at Keflavik International Airport, I felt like I knew enough about Iceland to be an Icelandic tour guide (as long as they didn’t have to speak Icelandic!). 

My research had told me the weather in Iceland was milder than you would suspect for a country that kissed the Arctic Circle. This was due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream flowing around this island nation. In the late summer the temperatures typically hovered in the low 50s. Although the five hour flight was smooth, when the plane came to a stop by the terminal we realized the plane was still moving from the wind! Carrying our bags to our rental all wheel drive car, we fought through the monsoon with the thought “what the hell did we get ourselves into?” Fortunately, the weather only improved from then on.

Arriving at the Hotel Centrum in Reykjavik that would serve as our base of operations for the five nights and six days in Iceland, we were happy to find the staff was fluent in English. In the days ahead we would see that although the natives are proud of their Icelandic language, almost everyone we met readily switched to English as soon as we said “hello.”

The Golden Falls, part of the “Golden Circle” tourist loop

After a night’s rest, our first day’s agenda included what is referred to as the “Golden Circle” which consisted of a loop visiting Thingvellir National Park (home of oldest parliament in Europe), Geysir (the geyser that all others are named for) and Gullfoss, 
or “Golden falls.” This popular tourist route is easily driven from Reykjavik in the day leaving you time to enjoy dinner back in the capital city. 

Route 1- The Ring Road that circumnavigates Iceland

The next day we set out along the Ring Road, Route 1, which circumnavigates Iceland. We headed along the south of the island exploring countless waterfalls on our drive to the Jokulsarlon lagoon, where glacial icebergs float out to sea only to be scattered on the black sand beach making for surreal images.

 

The following day our trip north of Reykjavik was highlighted by a hike to Gymur waterfall. After the trail took us though a cave, over a raging stream and along some harrowing cliffs, we were rewarded with a view of the falls that looked like something from a fantasy movie.

Glymur waterfall accessible only by hike, Iceland’s second ­highest falls

Each evening we explored the sights and sounds of Reykjavik which is inhabited by almost half of Iceland’s 300,000 or so residents. The small city’s center has a bustling nightlife with restaurants and bars reminiscent of a college town with reveling going well into the morning hours.

Harpa Concert hall on the Reykjavik waterfront

In the 1200 miles we put on our rented all wheel drive, we saw countless waterfalls, half a dozen rainbows and landscapes that ranged from volcanic wastelands to lush farm country dotted with sheep and Icelandic horses. There were miles of moss covered rocks that were surely the inspiration for the rock trolls from ‘Frozen’ and probably the reason more than half of Iceland’s population believes in fairies or elves. The scenery in Iceland has such an otherworldly appearance it has been the backdrop for several recent sci-fi movies such as “Prometheus” and “Interstellar.”     

Miles of moss covered lava fields

About the only thing that we did not see, despite my nightly searching, was the northern lights. I guess that may be my invitation to return to Iceland.