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DISCOVERING SOUTHERN ICELAND
by Julie H. Ferguson
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

When IcelandAir began flying from Canadian hubs in 2014, I took advantage of their generous stop-over policy as I flew back to Vancouver from Europe. My ten-day exploration of north and south Iceland in late-September was risky weather-wise, but I got lucky. The rich autumn colours and mostly dry sunny days were a welcome bonus in a land of unpredictable weather.

My last few days focus on southern Iceland outside Reykjavik, the capital. In a nation of intense contrasts, I plan to experience her violent and beneficial seismic activity, fire and ice, and black and whites. On arrival, I discover too the abundant co-existence of ancient and modern — a thousand-year-old parliament governs a very progressive population, and ultra-modern technologies harness their millennia-old earth energy.

Day-long guided tours for small groups prove ideal for achieving my aim. These tours in mini-buses allow spur-of-the-moment stops for photography and detours, flexibility in timing, and discussions with storytelling guides. Most importantly, the mini-buses can go where big coaches cannot.

Sharp showers pour down as I await GeoIceland's pick up at my hotel. Baldvin, our driver-guide, announces, "First, I'm taking you on a detour that few get to experience." We drive east through craggy mountains on a road built to service the new hot water pipeline supplying Reykjavik. At a pull-out Baldvin, turned botanist, teaches us about the sub-Arctic flora that grows on lava. A splash of sunlight illuminates the mountainsides in the vivid oranges of autumn beside Pingvallatn Lake.

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1-Autumn - Pingvallatn.jpg

Iceland's fast-changing weather and late fall colors make for dramatic photos. We stopped by the huge, volcanic Pingvallatn Lake and looked back at our route through the mountains. Pingvellir may be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park, but for proud Icelanders it's their national shrine. On the flat plain where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart, settlers established the world's oldest, still-functioning parliament in 930CE.

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2-Pingvellir.jpg

The wide and flat rift valley at Pingvellir, north of the lake, is riven by deep fissures running north-south. The field beyond the cleft was where all Icelanders gathered every June for their parliament from 930CE to 1799.

At Geysir, Iceland's most-visited geothermal field, an azure sky provides the backdrop for regular blasts of steam from Strokkur, bubbling mud pots, and scalding streams. In contrast, the Arctic wind nips my ears and nose. The afternoon brings waterfalls, big and small, including the massive Gullfoss, country roads alongside prosperous farms, and distant views of Langjökull, one of Iceland's glaciers.

After a rest day, I set off to the south shore of Iceland. Of course, showers start the day as we barrel east along Iceland's ring road, but the sun reappears at the first stop.

I confront the volcano that halted European air traffic in 2010. Today Eyjafjallajökull is benign, partly hidden by clouds, with a prosperous farm tucked below. The posters tell a different story: photos of the devastating eruption. Our guide explains, "People can be evacuated quickly, but over two hundred sheep presented difficulties. Many did not survive despite our rescue services' heroic efforts."

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3-Eyjafjallajokull.jpg

The restless volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, on Iceland's south shore deposited 15cms (6 inches) of ash on the farm and sheep in the fields, and halted air traffic for days in 2010.

Near the coast, I trek to my first encounter with a glacier past piles of black gravel and rocks, all evidence of its 2,910 foot (887m) retreat since 1995. Solheimajökull is one of Myrdalsjökull's outlet glaciers. Its lagoon is filled with small icebergs dirty with volcanic ash — I had expected clean, blue ice. The snout towers over me, breathing out cold air as if a fridge door has opened. It's criss-crossed with black veins, crevasses, and lumps of lava. Deep below Myrdalsjökull's vast icecap lies Katla, an active volcano, prompting me to ask, "What happens when the volcano grumbles?"

"Outburst floods," says our guide. "That's why no farms and houses are allowed on the coastal plain below here. Last time was in 1999."

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The trek to the snout of an outlet glacier, Solheimajökull, at the south end of Myrdalsjökull, the main icecap.

The highlight is Reynisfjara, a beach near Vik overlooking sea stacks, pinnacles, arches, and other rock formations where the wild North Atlantic grinds the black lava to sand.

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5-Reynisfjara beach.jpg

The black sand beach and rock formations at Reynisfjara are the most popular and photogenic stop on the South Shore tour.

Behind me, cliffs of basalt columns soar, caves gape, and the Myrdalsjökull's icecap looms. I'm reluctant to leave this dramatic photo op but I'm hungry for the national dish, a hearty lamb stew.

On the return journey, I marvel at Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, where visitors can walk under the waterfall and get drenched. I stick to photography. Next door to Skógafoss is a folk museum, fascinating but overfull, and a modern Museum of Transportation. I head for the restored Icelandic turf houses that I'd seen in the north but hadn't been inside. Icelanders have built these for centuries to survive the harsh winter climate and I'm impressed. The living quarters are cosy and well furnished.

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6-turf houses.jpg

Turf houses at Skögar. With no timber, settlers built them with rocks and turf, and sometimes backed them deep into hillsides. The remaining few, built in the late-1800s, were occupied till the mid-1960s in the north. Iceland, the land of intense contrasts, has shown me her black and white beauty, fire and ice geology, and ancient history today. I crave more but it must wait till my next stopover to Europe.

 

IF YOU GO:

• Iceland is spotlessly clean, has strong mobile phone signals everywhere and excellent Wi-Fi.

• Everyone speaks fluent English.

• The weather is changeable and can be cold and rainy in summer too.

• You'll need hiking boots if you take a tour — expect to walk on rough terrain — and maybe pack a rain suit too. • Late fall and winter are the best time to view the Aurora Borealis.

• Iceland is expensive.

Iceland's official tourism site: www.iceland.is

Reykjavik: www.visitreykjavik.is

One-stop tour planner: http://www.icelandontheweb.com/

GeoIceland tour company: www.geoiceland.com (recommended by author)

Saga Travel: http://www.sagatravel.is/en/ (recommended by author)

Nonni Tours: http://www.nonnitravel.is/ (recommended by author)

Reykjavik Excursions: www.re.is/

Althingi (parliament) history: www.visitreykjavik.is/travel/althingi

IcelandAir flies from Canadian and US hubs: www.icelandair.ca and .com

Map of Iceland: http://www.visitorsguide.is/resources/Files/visitorsguide_is/Maps/Islandskort_2015-2016.pdf

PHOTOS © Photos by Pharos 2014

1-Autumn - Pingvallatn.jpg Iceland's fast-changing weather and late fall colors make for dramatic photos. We stopped by the huge, volcanic Pingvallatn Lake and looked back at our route through the mountains.

2-Pingvellir.jpg The wide and flat rift valley at Pingvellir, north of the lake, is riven by deep fissures running north-south. The field beyond the cleft was where all Icelanders gathered every June for their parliament from 930CE to 1799.

3-Eyjafjallajokull.jpg The restless volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, on Iceland's south shore deposited 15cms (6 inches) of ash on the farm and sheep in the fields, and halted air traffic for days in 2010.

4-glacial snout.jpg The trek to the snout of an outlet glacier, Solheimajökull, at the south end of Myrdalsjökull, the main icecap.

5-Reynisfjara beach.jpg The black sand beach and rock formations at Reynisfjara are the most popular and photogenic stop on the South Shore tour.

6-turf houses.jpg Turf houses at Skögar. With no timber, settlers built them with rocks and turf, and sometimes backed them deep into hillsides. The remaining few, built in the late-1800s, were occupied till the mid-1960s in the north.

 

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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