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Iceland is a country I'd always wanted to see, but it wasn't high on my priority list until this summer when a friend told me she was going with her sister. Suddenly, I really wanted to go. I offhandedly mentioned it to Bethany, one of my best and most well-traveled friends. Three days later, she had found and booked a cheap fall fare for herself and her husband, and basically said, "Are you coming or what?" So at the end of October, Bethany, Isaac, and I took off for a week in the land of ice and fire.
Our six-day driving tour package, “Best of the South and West,” included all of our overnight lodging and a rental car with unlimited mileage and GPS. We had a list of suggested activities each day, but weren't on a schedule and could do whatever we wanted as long as we ended up at our next hostel stop. To me, it was the perfect balance of freedom and guidance. We appreciated the written itinerary with descriptions, since many of the long Icelandic place names sound similar.
We spent only the first day and night of our trip in the capital of Reykjavik, then headed out to experience nature. In six days, we traveled almost a thousand miles and saw an incredible range of topography and climates. I've always lived in the flat American South, so repeatedly going from sunny, green valleys to snowy mountaintops and back within an hour or two was mind-blowing to me ... as was the sparse population. I'd stand in a majestic valley, or on top of a cliff, and try to comprehend that I was one of very few humans for many miles around. One night, Bethany read from a brochure that we were in a region of Iceland with a population of 500. Without thinking, I replied, "Oh, you mean 500,000?" No. Five. Hundred. People.
Everything we saw in Iceland amazed me and often seemed too beautiful to be real. It's hard to narrow it down, but here are the five places I enjoyed most and would consider must-sees:
1. Búðir Church and Lava Field. After getting a little lost on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, we found this famous black chapel at Búðir almost by accident. The church was built in 1848 and is one of the oldest wooden churches in Iceland. It sits in the middle of a lava field, now mostly covered with tall grasses, that runs down to the sea. The black rocks and mountain view at the beach strongly reminded me of Hawaii. ("Yeah, exactly like Hawaii," Bethany agreed as she put on a second pair of gloves.)
2. Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Iceland is full of awe-inspiring waterfalls, but these subtler falls were my favorite. Hraunfossar is a group of small waterfalls resulting from water flow over a lava field and into the glacial Hvítá River. Nearby Barnafoss (which means "children's waterfall") is the subject of an Icelandic folktale in which two boys fell off a natural bridge and drowned. You definitely wouldn't want to fall in or go rafting here - the current is no joke. It's beautiful to look at, though, with such blue water.
3. Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir (Thingvellir in English) is one of Iceland's most important sites, historically and geographically. As the chosen location for governmental and social gatherings, it was basically the capital of Iceland from 930 AD until the 1600s. The national park is a continental drift site, with several rifts between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. I'd expected to see a real crack in the earth, maybe with steam coming out of it or something. But the fault we saw, while impressive, looked more like a big ravine. We saw the most breathtaking fall colors of the trip at Þingvellir!
4. Reynisfjara. Near the town of Vik, Reynisfjara is one of the most unique beaches in the world. It's a rocky black sand beach with tall basalt stacks that edge right up to the shoreline. Puffins nest in the cliffs in summer, but we didn't see any in October. We arrived at the start of a snowstorm and were buffeted the whole time by snow and gale-force winds. That put a damper on my picture-taking, but made the experience even more memorable. We took refuge in the shallow cave and looked out at the Reynisdrangar columns, which according to folklore are three petrified trolls. The surf at Reynisfjara is so powerful and dangerous that even I didn't try to get close. I'd love to visit this beach again someday under better conditions!
5. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Beach. Jökulsárlón is a deep lagoon, formed by the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, that flows right into the ocean. It was the easternmost point of our trip, and definitely worth the drive. We checked out the "bay" of ice floes next to the Ring Road (and saw a seal pop its head above water!), then wandered around the velvety black sand beach, climbing on pieces of glacier. I'd never known so many kinds of ice could coexist - blue and black ice, glassy ice, frosted ice, Sonic ice. Blocks of ice floated out to sea and sat on the sand. I felt like I was on another planet.
In addition to Iceland's amazing landscape, I really took to several aspects of its culture. Stay tuned for my next post about the geothermal hot tubs including the famous Blue Lagoon.