“Iceland seems to be on everyone’s bucket list these days,” a friend exclaims when I tell her I will visit there soon. “I hope it lives up to the hype,” I reply.
My wish list of sights starts with waterfalls, puffins and Icelandic horses. It goes on to include glaciers, black sand beaches, and icebergs. Some wildflowers would be nice too.
We are not even fifteen minutes from Reykjavik along the Ring Road, the main highway that goes all around the island, when we spot a crowd of Icelandic horses in a lush seaside field. They have thick glossy coats and toss their long, shaggy manes like super models as they walk towards us. These are the first of many we see but each time, we are charmed.
Not long after seeing the horses, another wish is crossed off the list. Surrounding a hilltop, red-roofed, white church is a field of mauve and blue lupines. Stretching almost as far as we can see is an undulating carpet of blooms waving in the wind. At times, we see them lining the road for kilometres or covering mountainsides or colouring vast expanses purple in an otherwise empty landscape.
Sheep are the other constant roadside companions. They could graze almost anywhere in the countryside but they have a propensity for hugging the edge of the road and wandering onto it. An oft seen sign says “Icelandic lamb, free range since 894” and I guess the sheep take roaming as their right.
Not far from Lake Myvatn, we dodge hissing steam vents as we explore the post apocalyptic looking landscape at Hverir. I walk too close to a billowing cloud of steam coming out from a vent and my glasses are completely fogged. This barren red plain is studded with steaming fumeroles and gurgling mud pots; all reminders of the volcanic activity going on beneath the surface.
We take a winding road over the mountains to a remote spit of land in north east Iceland. Puffins roost in burrows on the grassy hillside and they strut about, flapping their wings, and dodge their noisy seagull neighbours. Steady streams of puffins dive into the water and they return with their beaks full of tiny fish to feed their young. Seeing them within a meter of me is more than I hoped for when I made up my wish list.
Our experience with Arctic terns is less bucolic. Our taking photos from the roadside alarms them and we are dive bombed by dozens of screeching terns. It is like a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” We realize nesting sites are nearby and make a hasty retreat.
I am very glad of my waterproof clothing for some of our waterfall viewings. At Seljalandsfoss, I cautiously make my way along a slippery path. It brings me behind the water curtain and I get thoroughly soaked from the spray. In no way does this diminish the fun of being so close to where the waterfall hits its bottom pool.
I get equally wet when I wander up to the face of Skogafoss and peer far up through the mist to its lip. Dettifoss, while not that high or wide, is considered one of Europe’s most powerful in terms of water volume. It is hard to believe such a huge amount of water can gush by. Gullfoss’s flow runs over a broad series of smaller drops before disappearing into a deep, spray filled gorge. My favourite is Godafoss, known as the “waterfall of the gods.” Multiple cascades, with the aquamarine colour of glacier water, pour over a wide rocky crescent.
Glacier blue is also evident in the icebergs floating on Jokulsarlon Lagoon or standing on Icy Beach. Icebergs calve from glaciers surrounding the lagoon. Jostling against each other, they eventually float out to the ocean and the tide washes some up onto the black beach. There they stand like kinetic sculptures, slowly melting until they are once again washed out to sea.
After seeing the rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and the vast field of moss covered lava from the late 1700s eruption, I contemplate my list of sights. Geysers, steam vents, glaciers, icebergs on black beaches and thundering waterfalls – check. Handsome horse, comical puffins, and lupines galore – check. Such scenic diversity in this tiny country is a marvel and for me, this land of ice and fire is incredible.
IF YOU GO:
Tourism Iceland: www.inspiredbyiceland.com/
PHOTOS: by K. Cullen, unless otherwise accredited
1) Handsome Horse: K. Cullen photo
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