Weird and wonderful Iceland
Rugged beauty, explosive geysers, and tiny horses
Red Hook, N.Y.
Iceland is green, and Greenland is icy. How to explain these misleading monikers? Medieval marketing. Norwegian explorer Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson reached Iceland in the ninth century and named it after a large fjord. When he returned home, he told everyone that the frozen tundra wasn’t worth visiting, yet he moved there, prompting some to say that he lied to keep Iceland to himself. Conversely, Greenland was named by Erik the Red, a Norwegian exile, who sought to convince other settlers to join him by painting the ice-covered landmass as a verdant oasis.
A small country (about the size of Ohio), Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with a population of just over 350,000 people (half of whom are said to believe in elves). (Ohio, by contrast, has a population of almost 12 million and no statistics on elf belief). The country is also inhabited by some 800,000 sheep, giving it a sheep-to-human ratio of roughly 2.5:1.
Thanks to hydro and geothermal power, the island gets most of its energy from renewable resources. While the heat from the earth’s core that generates geothermal power can be a blessing, it also explains why, on average, Iceland experiences a major volcanic event every five years.
Residents speak Icelandic, an Indo-European language that has remained unchanged for centuries, so a 12th-century text can be understood by a modern Icelandic speaker. The addition of 10 “uniquely Icelandic” letters, however, ensures that there’s a good chance that you will not understand Icelandic. Fortunately, most Icelanders speak English.
Despite its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s climate is warmed by the Gulf Stream and even in winter, temperatures are often, but not always, above freezing. Icelandic weather is notoriously unpredictable, and on an average day, you can expect sun, rain, sleet, hail, and snow. Even in summer. As long as you know what you’re getting into, a visit to Iceland rewards travelers with stunning natural beauty, great food and a warm welcome from locals. It’s easy to see why Vilgerðarson wanted to keep Iceland to himself.
Upon arrival, you’ll land in Reykjavik, where you can wander through the cozy capital’s quirky, artsy shops. Walk down to the cliff-lined harbor to see the sleek Harpa concert hall and the Viking-ship-inspired Sun Voyager sculpture. Reykjavik’s most iconic building, Hallgrímskirkja, was built to resemble the island’s lava flows. Take the elevator to the observation deck for excellent views of the city. Outside is a sculpture of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic explorer who some believe encountered America 500 years before Columbus.
Check into Hotel Borg, an Art Deco masterpiece commissioned in 1930 by a famous Icelandic wrestler who wanted a hotel fit for visiting heads of state. The Art Deco details are impeccable, from sinewy bronze sculptures to elevators decorated with chrome geometric designs. Rooms are decorated with custom-made Deco-style furniture of burnished wood and leather upholstery.
You’re welcome to eat exotic things like svið (sheep’s head) or hákarl (fermented shark), but be forewarned that celebrity eater Anthony Bourdain once called hákarl “the single worst thing I have ever put in my mouth.” And this from a man who had eaten maggot fried rice and warthog butt. Or, enjoy fish so fresh it practically swims onto the plate; skyr, a protein-packed, low-calorie, yogurt-like cheese that Icelanders have been savoring for more than 1,000 years; and Reykjavik’s famous hot dogs made with beef, pork, and lamb. Order one with everything (eina með öllu), which comes loaded with sweet brown mustard, ketchup, both raw and deep-fried onions, and remoulade sauce. If you just want mustard, order a “Clinton,” but be prepared to be laughed at as Bill was during his 2004 visit.
To fully see the island, it’s best to rent a car. As you drive out of Reykjavik past moss-covered lava fields and geysers spouting boiling water, you might feel like a character out of “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones,” both of which have filmed here. (You can even take a special “Game of Thrones” tour to visit some of the legendary landmarks seen on set.)
Sixty miles outside the city, Hotel Rangá is the ideal base for exploring southern Iceland, which packs plenty to see and do in a relatively small radius. The log-built hotel is rustic-chic with quirky touches like the 10-feet tall stuffed polar bear in the reception area. Book a Luxe Suite inspired by the seven continents. Fittingly, Jake Gyllenhaal stayed in the North American suite decorated with cowhide upholstery and a wall-mounted bison head that might have reminded him of his “Brokeback Mountain” days. Rangá’s Nordic-inspired menu is local, seasonal and sophisticated. The local Arctic char served with an apple stock sauce is sweet and tender, and don’t miss the restaurant’s lightly spiced seafood soup. The river just outside is teeming with salmon; if you catch your own, the chef will be happy to prepare it. The hotel also has a full bar and extensive wine list. If you’re feeling brave, try a shot of Iceland’s national spirit Brennivín, a potent caraway-flavored schnapps also known as Black Death.
One of the highlights of a visit to Iceland is witnessing one of the celestial wonders of the world, the aurora borealis (or northern lights), which can be seen from late September to early April. Rangá, its sky unmarred by lights, is one of the best places to see them; gazing skyward from the hotel’s outdoor hot tubs is breathtaking. In full force, aurora borealis blankets the sky with undulating green curtains dotted with flecks of pink, blue and white. Rangá offers an optional aurora wake-up call so you can go to sleep knowing that you won’t miss a thing.
A short drive from the hotel, you can ride to a local waterfall atop horses whose ancestors have lived there since Viking times. Icelandic horses are very short in stature and long-lived. These sturdy steeds can tolerate Arctic blizzards, earthquakes, and volcanoes. It’s also good to be close to the ground if, like me, you happen to fall off.
The Golden Circle showcases the region’s highlights and the 185-mile route can be driven in three hours, but allow six to eight for stops. Start at Thingvellir National Park, the location of Iceland’s first parliament held here from 930 until 1738. The park also marks the rift separating the tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America. Austere in winter, the park is a colorful display of green fields and blue lakes during the summer.
Twenty minutes from Thingvellir are the geothermal baths and natural steam rooms of the Laugarvatn Fontana, which Icelanders have been enjoying since 1929. You don’t go to Iceland for fancy spas—you go for the sheer bliss of soaking in naturally heated thermal pools surrounded by snowcapped mountains and pristine wilderness.
Next, stop at the magnificent waterfall, Gullfoss (golden falls) where millions of gallons of water crash down over 100 feet into a rugged canyon. Rainbows span the falls on sunny days. Then it’s off to the famous geyser, Geysir, which has given its name to fellow geysers throughout the world. Although Geysir is now dormant, Stokkur, a few feet away, erupts every couple of minutes sending plumes of boiling water 100 feet into the air.
Once you’ve built up an appetite, stop by Fridheimar for delicious tomato soup and freshly baked bread in a greenhouse lined with tomato vines. The soup is truly special during winter.
While summer promises endless days, and lush green vistas, visiting Iceland in winter has its charms. Drive through stark landscapes dotted with geothermal heated greenhouses. Sit by the fireplace with a cocktail and a good book after darkness falls at 6 p.m. and sleep in guilt-free knowing it won’t be light until 10 a.m. Whether you experience summer’s midnight sun or winter’s northern lights, Iceland is truly a land for all seasons.
Robin Cherry writes about travel, food, wine, and garlic for many publications and websites. She is the author of two books: Catalog: An Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping and Garlic: An Edible Biography. She lives in Red Hook, N.Y. in the Hudson Valley.
This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.