A unique landscape offers manifold moments of enchantment
Within a few moments of meeting my guide Svavar Jónatansson at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, I suspect he’s more than human. On a weeklong customized tour with Scott Dunn, a luxury outfitter who specializes in the unusual aspects of a location and that uses only extremely skilled guides, Svavar leads me and my friend John to manifold moments of enchantment.
Though it’s nearly midnight and I’m dead tired from a long flight, we talk amiably in the car, as he expounds on the plans we’ll execute together in the coming days. Unveiling compelling details of his just-below-the-Arctic-sited, volcano-rife, stunner of an island, he prattles on like the best professor you ever loved, riveting my attention.
But, suddenly, he bangs the brakes, and we careen from the highway down a rocky road toward the sea. An almost full moon floats like a lost balloon against a charcoal backdrop. “Look!” he cries, leaping from the car, now tucked into a sandbank. “Hurry, follow me,” he calls, grabbing blankets and rushing down a trail.
Unhesitatingly, I go. I have no choice but to follow—so I scramble behind him down a zigzagging path, struggling to keep up, spurred by his excitement for whatever may come. The moon’s milky light illuminates our trek, and we head toward the sound of the sea.
But then, what Svavar knew would happen, does. The sky rumbles with color. In this desolate, dark, haunting place by the ocean, the heavens roll and burst in emerald puffs, purple nebulousness, silvery, glittery explosions that shoot from the sky to our very souls. While I expect thunder somehow, the silence is louder in its quietude. We’ve just driven right into Iceland’s first gift—the northern lights.
In Iceland, despite its veritable modernity, studies reveal that 10% of the population confesses to a belief in otherworldly creatures—such as elves and trolls—said to live side by side the human world.
Another 10% of its denizens resoundingly deny any existence of magical creatures. And those Icelanders in between, the majority of the nation’s sparse, total population of a third of a million, refuse to commit either way. “After all, you wouldn’t want to anger an elf,” says one hotelier, shrugging, when I ask if he believes. “They may be real; but maybe not.”
A most gobsmacking landscape, abundant with contrasts, home to bellicose volcanoes, bright glaciers, craggy mountains, and churning seas, Iceland lies just south of the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic. The size of Alaska, it harbored no human inhabitants until the Vikings seized it and made it home around the year 1000.
With black sand beaches and seemingly omnipresent waterfalls, bound by impenetrable sea cliffs and towering rock formations, electrified by ever twitching tectonic plates, Iceland’s terrain spurs one to consider that somebody (or something) besides human beings might negotiate nature, its largesse and its glory, from the backside. Could it be the little people? Just one evening imbued in Iceland’s uncanny, golden, dusk hour light, (which falls like a blanket of fairy dust) makes a believer out of me.
So does Svavar, whose name I struggle mightily to pronounce, as I do most Icelandic words. As in the first northern lights sighting, he continues to co-opt nature as handily as a magician with a bag of tricks. Whimsically (yet somewhat seriously), I really do begin to wonder if he might be an elf—or perhaps a huldufólk—which translates to hidden people. According to Icelandic myth, huldufólk are taller and more human-like than elves (who tend to be big-eared with spiny legs and live in small houses) or trolls (who are lumpish, maleficent, and turn to stone when struck by sunlight).
Huldufólk, talented and wise, could be anywhere—hiding in your very presence. That fits with Svavar who has multiple talents from picnic packing, to film making, to literature quoting to athletic abilities beyond the pale. A speaker of multiple languages (perhaps even Troll), Svavar espouses history, geography, and cheerful gossip in all of them. An Icelander to the core, who takes a ritualistic swig of cod liver oil with breakfast, Svavar knows everyone on this relatively small parcel of land, including prominent musicians, writers, politicians and most people we meet in rural stores, at charming hotels and on the slopes and trails we conquer.
“There’s just a few degrees of separation here,” he reminds me.
One day we hike across a volcanic area near Reykjavík, eschewing a dip in Iceland’s iconic urban-located Blue Lagoon, intent on discovering, instead, a hot spring of our own. We pass emerald fields that brim with sheep and wander through meadows mottled with black boulders and scarred with spooky crevices that emit odorous billows of sulfuric steam. We climb hills and scramble over rocks.
At last, we discover Reykjadalur river pools, where just a few hikers soak up the healing waters, safer and more tepid than some of the dangerous, underground springs we have spied along our jaunt. We join the bathers, channeling the Vikings who surely soaked here a millennium ago.
On the way back, caught in a downpour, we see our first rainbow. But that’s just a foretoken for the days to come. Under Svavar’s tutelage, we view the rocky spires and basalt columns at Reynisfjara, a glittering, obsidian-hued beach, picnic amid wildflowers in the woods, and frolic like children atop a glacier. But at Skógarfoss, a 200-foot waterfall, one of Iceland’s biggest, Svavar once again seems able to manipulate or be in concert with nature. He delivers us to the impressive waterfall at the exact moment a double rainbow appears. Thick and deeply hued, the prism looks three dimensional—as if it could be coiled like streamers of silk and tucked into my purse to take home.
Our week in Iceland concludes with a foray to the north, where we ride stout, storybook horses by the sea, and cruise amid a pod of whales a few miles off the coast.
There, as a finale to our trip, we stay at swanky Deplar Farm, Eleven Experience’s high end, remote playground of an intimate hotel, once an 18th-century sheep farm. Here, personal guides, who like Svavar have the characteristics of magical beings, connect guests deeply and physically into Iceland’s prodigious nature. In winter, they take guests heli-skiing, in some cases leading them down sheers that end at the sea. In summer, they offer river rafting, fly fishing for salmon, hiking, and horseback riding.
An all-inclusive, one-party stay experience, the farm, topped by a turf roof, complete with sommelier, chef, spa therapists, a gym, outdoor sauna, natural heated spring pool and yoga room, has only 12 sleek bedrooms. Here, we drink in the spirit of Iceland like an elixir. It’s the ideal place for travelers who hanker for heart-stopping adventure, who believe the landscape—and conquering it—is what defines a place.
On our last night we peer from the window during a late dinner, and suddenly see the sky light up with heaving color. Running outside, we look up to see a northern lights display to trump all that have come before. Kaleidoscopic, the heavens rupture and roll as smatterings of gem tones—smears of emeralds, sapphires, amethysts, and topaz.
Spellbound, I feel I might be lifted into that celestial sphere. But, then, like cymbals crashing to culminate a ponderous symphony, a streak of light travels at a hypnotic pace across the sky. A meteor, slow and steady, it writes its mystical script from star to star, the colors of the northern lights a veritable canvas.
Awed, I can’t help but wonder—is it a good-bye message from the huldufolk? In Iceland, I believe that’s possible.
If you go:
Fly: Icelandair is by far the easiest, most affordable, most comfortable and most Icelandic (in mood and style) way to fly to Reykjavik. Many travelers choose Icelandair to travel to other parts of Europe, taking advantage of the airline’s remarkable stopover fares. Visit www.icelandair.com.
Outfitter: Choose Scott Dunn, a long respected, luxury outfitter, who specializes in custom itineraries for curious, sophisticated travelers who prefer to go beyond the basic checklist when on adventures. Their Iceland tour takes guests to less visited corners of Iceland (and other parts around the globe) for authentic, unforgettable trips. Visit www.scottdunn.com.
Stay: Dream big with a stay at Deplar Farm. For exclusive, one-group stays only, the 12-room, opulent hideaway includes personal guides (for everything from heli-skiing to fly fishing), a chef, concierge staff to plan every minute, meals (and top-notch beverages), spa services, and use of state-of-the-art equipment (from skies to rods)—and much more. Visit elevenexperience.com/experiences/hideouts/deplar-farm/step-inside.
Award-winning poet and writer Becca Hensley first noticed her penchant for connecting with other cultures when, as a child, she had a slew of pen pals from around the world. Today, travel is her spiritual journey. Her work appears regularly in many magazines. She is travel editor for New Orleans Bride and Insiders Guide to Spas.
See also “Iceland is now open for business,” The Norwegian American, June 12, 2020.
This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.