With the recently opened airline WOW in San Francisco and Los Angeles offering low priced direct flights to Reykjavik, traveling to Iceland has become much more accessible to Californians.
This summer I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to explore what is known around the world as the Land of Ice and Fire before setting off to explore mainland Europe. Taking along my younger brother Chase and our good friend Jeff we rented a car and began our journey on the Ring Road, a famous path that takes you around the whole of Iceland.
Still overcoming jetlag we set off early the first morning to Thingvellir National Park, a rugged landscape of green flora, waterfalls, and crooked slabs of earth formed by the movement of tectonic plates. Most tourists coming to Thingvellir will climb up to an overlook and take a few pictures before heading on to the next thing. We decided to take a much different approach. But first, a little science.
Over thousands of years the divergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates formed a rift right in the middle of Thingvellir National Park. This rift, known as Silfra, is filled continually with the ice water that trickles down from a far-away glacier. It can take up to one hundred years for the water to filter down through ice and volcanic rock until finally arriving in Silfra mineral-free and three times clearer than the finest shores of Hawai’i.
Teaming up with Dive.is, the three of us strapped on our anti-hypothermia dry suits and hopped into the glacier water to experience Silfra for ourselves. The clarity was unbelievable. All around us fluorescent algae formations sent streaks of lime-green and silver cascading through the dark blue water.
We drifted across the glacier melt with North America on our left and Eurasia on our right. The calm reflection of the surface mirrored the plates beneath it, creating the illusion that we were swimming through an infinite plane of walls and water. It was a truly tranquil experience.
With satisfied eyes and frozen lips we exited the rift, attempting to avoid the rain as we slid back into our dry clothes. Luckily, one of our next stops was a hot springs river just south of the park. What a change of scene!
Northern Iceland: Beasts of the Deep and Icy Volcanoes
Due to its distance from Reykjavik, the northern part of Iceland is comparatively sparse of tourism. Yet it contains some of the greatest wonders of the country such as powerful waterfalls, horseshoe canyons, and serene hikes. Along the way we passed through the quaint harbor town of Husavik, known commonly as the whale capital of Iceland. We decided to put its name to the test. We opted for a speedboat cruise with local company Gentle Giants and, after putting on some wind gear, zoomed off across the freezing ocean.
Before our search for the watery beasts began the speedboat took a pit stop at the famous Puffin Island, which was currently inhabited by thousands of these goofy little birds.
During the summer months, the working puffin gets a vacation from its hard days of catching fish and flies out to Puffin Island where it can spend its paid time off relaxing in shady caves and fluttering about alongside thousands of puffin friends. What a life!
Once we got our fill of cuteness we headed out to Skjálfandi Bay, a congregation spot for whales from around the arctic. But with endless blue in all directions we were skeptical of ever spotting one. Yet soon enough, with a giant splash, something materialized above the surface to our right. Excitement filling his voice, our captain hopped on the speaker and exclaimed, “It’s a Blue Whale!” There in the water before us had emerged the largest animal to ever exist on Earth, dinosaurs included. With gusto, the beast boasted its might with a great spray of wind from its blowhole. The sight was magnificent; however the smell of whale breath was anything but. Yuk!
We would see the blue whale come up for air several more times over the next hour as we glided across the ocean. Along the way we saw dolphins, humpback whales, and even got to taste a dram of local spirits provided by the captain. A highly recommended adventure to anyone in a whaley mood!
Lofthellir Lava Tubes: Where Fire Meets the Ice
Later that same day we took a trip to the Lofthellir Lava Tubes in a new tour provided by Saga Travel. Hopping in the back of a 4×4 lifted van we bounced up and down as our tour guide Arman skillfully navigated a rugged path of hills and lava rock. Soon we came upon a large opening in the ground with a ladder leading down to the icy floor beneath. This, our tour guide revealed, was the entrance to Lofthellir.
The formation of the Lave Tubes was a true spectacle of nature. Thousands of years ago, a nearby volcano erupted in what was one of Iceland’s most catastrophic events. However, before the eruption the volcano needed somewhere to store all its lava. With unimaginable force the lava pushed and melted its way through the earth, creating the tubes of Lofthellir. Once the magma finally spewed out, the large empty tunnels were left behind, deep in the ground. Now where there once was fire and light, darkness and ice have taken over, forming a pitch-black wonderland of frozen sculptures such as the ones pictured below.
Climbing and sliding through small corridors of rock we made our way across the darkness, encountering countless works of natural art as we went. It was definitely not a feat for the claustrophobic. Our legs might have been sore by the end, but it was worth every second to see such unbelievable sights. Iceland is truly the land of ice and fire.
A Stroll Down Beer Lane
Taking a beer tour with Wake Up Reykjavik, our guide Hakon led us along the short timeline of Icelandic beer history as we made our way through the pubs and breweries of the country’s capital. Our first stop was one of Iceland’s oldest pubs where we got to sample beer’s pre-legalization substitute: non-alcoholic beer mixed with straight vodka. Lucky for us, we were able to chase our drinks with some traditional fermented shark cubes. Yuk!
By the end of the night we were sitting in one Iceland’s most popular Micro Bars, sipping on craft beers and chatting with new friends about the quaint, yet buzzing city of Reykjavik.
Gentle Giants: www.gentlegiants.is
Saga Travel: www.sagatravel.is
Wake Up Reykjavik: www.wakeupreykjavik.com