Among the many places we have been privileged to visit around the world Iceland turned out to be special and unique in many respects . Its geography is marked by extensive volcanic and geothermal activity with the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates running across the island from southwest to northeast. We encountered hot springs and geysers, dramatic waterfalls, glacier views and close-up exposures as well as the geothermal Blue Lagoon. Iceland has understandingly been long described as the land of fire and ice.
This land was first discovered by Vikings in the 800’s and later settled by Erik the Red, father of Leif Erickson of North American discovery fame. Viking Sagas passed down traditions and customs as Iceland passed from Norwegian and Danish control over time. Iceland can lay claim to being the world’s oldest assembly democracy and in recent times as a leader in electing women to positions of highest office.
The financial crisis of 2008 plunged Iceland into deep recession with three major bank failures and a stock market plunge of 97% . Political turmoil was resolved and financial institutions resurrected leading to a current day growth of 4.9% and unemployment of 2.5%. This has been largely brought about by a tourist boom with two million tourists visiting in the past year- this in a country with a population of under 400,000 people! Absorbing this economic boom while maintaining their special culture and life style is a challenge Iceland’s people are striving to successfully address.
Daily trip activities
We planned our trip to include 2 extra days in Reykjavik before our OAT trip began since we wanted to experience some additional time in this capital city. Our travel companions, Joe and Bobbie Richards, who had been to Iceland 4 years ago were knowledgeable about the city. We flew Icelandair from Dulles to Reykjavik arriving at 6 am on June 23. Arrangements had been made with a taxi company recommended by our helpful tour manager, Margret, to pick us up at the airport and transport us to our Airbnb which was a great convenience. We slept until 11 am and then ventured out for coffee and danish before walking about the city to find a restaurant for lunch. Bobbie and Joe found the restaurant they had enjoyed previously and we ordered smoked lamb on petit pancakes with a delicious beer. This was a great way to start our day. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking about the city and learning about the places Bobbie and Joe had previously visited. After returning to the Airbnb to plan our Sunday visits we walked to Fish and More where we shared a plate of steamed redfish, sweet potatoes and broccoli and the first of many excellent local beers.The fish was delicious.
Sunday: The day began with a walk to Reykjavik Roasters for coffee and scones followed by famous warm cinnamon buns from a most popular nearby bakery. After next walking down to the harbor we could not resist stopping at Mokka, the second best coffee shop in town according to Warren’s research. We next visited the Viking settlement museum where we learned about the history of the early settlers. This subterranean museum displays the oval foundation walls of a Viking long house dated 871 AD. Along the wall were dioramas and holographs depicting the early life of these settlers. We then walked along the harbor where we enjoyed a delicious soup and salad bar in a small restaurant. The sun was bright which offered lovely vistas of the boats bobbing in the water and numerous baby ducklings.We then climbed up the narrow streets to visit the Hallkrimskirche. This 240 feet high church which took 40 years to build sits on top of a large hill and is an impressive sight. Walking back to our rooms we enjoyed a gelato dessert. Later in the afternoon it began to rain and discouraged our plan to walk back to the fish restaurant of the previous evening. We walked across to street to the Foss Hotel where we had a great sausage in a bun, salad and beer. During the dinner we enjoyed talking with a couple from the UK who were beginning their tour and our Croatian bartender.
Monday We began our OAT tour with a walk around the town with our tour manager, Margret. During our walk we visited one of Margret’s friends,Loa, in her art studio. This young woman was a talented artist who has published many books of cartoon like characters in satirical situations. She also sings in a band which has become quite popular. After the walk we took a bus back to the Hilton Hotel where we enjoyed hot coffee and a pastry. Our welcome dinner that evening began with thinly sliced beef salad followed by delicious arctic char accompanied by tomatoes, small potatoes and broccoli rabe.
Although we had talked with Margret on the phone before leaving Florida we were not prepared to meet this woman whom we would come to admire and love during our trip. Margret had the knack of excellent tour managers making every member of the group feel welcome and important. She was always concerned that all members were feeling comfortable and informed as to the activities of the day. Her sense of humor, stories of Icelandic history (sagas)and lovely singing voice enhanced the trip. Margret is the epitome of the special OAT tour manager.
Tuesday We began our first full day of touring with a visit to the Ocean Cluster House located at the harbor. This is an association of companies working together to create new businesses related to the fishing industry. This endeavor began at the University of Iceland involving all organizations that are associated with Iceland fishing. Our guide told us that 20-30% of the companies were involved in food processing and the production of machinery for the fishing industry. Now this includes IT services, design and clothing start-ups. There are now 80 companies in the cluster. 250,000 tons of cod are caught annually and while the average size is increasing there is a decrease in the quantity. The UK is the country’s biggest market for their products.
Originally parts of the fish other than meat were thrown away. Now the skin is salvaged to develop collagen, artificial skin used to treat skin damage such as burns, and anti-aging products, the scales are used to produce collagen as well as salmon skin producing fashion items .
Cod liver oil containing omega 3 is produced in large quantities some of which we observed at each breakfast buffet accompanied by shot glasses. Dried cod head is used to make soup while the intestines are used to produce gel for skin and cure cold symptoms. We were quite impressed with this visit and amazed at the products produced and the entrepreneureal spirit encouraged by this group.
For lunch some of us enjoyed lobster soup and bread at a large food court located nearby. After lunch we visited the National Museum where the history of Iceland is depicted. The displays traced the history through the early settlers from Roman coins to Viking grave god images followed by artifacts such as carved doors and sculptures representing medieval times as well as 19th century clothing and then progressing with objects and materials from current times.
In the evening we gathered in the hotel to watch the World Cup where Iceland was defeated after a valiant effort.
Wednesday: Today we left Reykjavik to begin our drive north along the agriculture area of the Borgarfjordur. This was our first sunny day and although still cold much more pleasant. The landscape is flat and rolling with fields of lupine and distant snow capped mountains. Sheep and horses roam throughout this area where we frequently had to stop to allow sheep to cross the road. We stopped to visit a friend of Margret’s and her pastor husband in Arkanes. This lovely town has a population of 7,000 and is growing rapidly according to the pastor, mostly due to the construction of the 5km tunnel under the bay through which we had just traveled. This tunnel allows people to easily commute to Reykjavik for work rather than having to drive a much longer route around the bay. The fishing industry has mostly died out here and been replaced by service industries including the hospital and school.
We learned that the lovely lavender lupine we have been observing along the roads and fields was first planted to preserve the soil but has now become a serious invasive pest choking out native wildflowers and pasture land.
From the church we proceeded to a visit with a woman who runs a wool factory and instructs students at the University in the art of dying wool from native plants and grasses. This process relies on understanding the chemistry of soaking plant materials in water to achieve colors desired. She showed us the colors derived from lichen- gold/brown, leaves for yellow, red from lichen moss and old cow urine and gold from rhubarb roots. We learned about sheep raising by the local people who depend upon these animals for their livelihood. In the summer the sheep are released into the highlands to graze. In the fall they are gathered up using horses as well as ATV’s and finally drones to attempt to find all stragglers. Each sheep is marked by an skin clip in the ear. In October the sheep are sheered while the wool is still clean from the summer in the hills. It is mandatory that each farm have housing for the sheep in the winter.
We then enjoyed a delicious lamb soup for lunch before our hike up Helgafell or the Holy Mountain, a 250 foot high mountain which was a challenge for some of us. We then continued to Stykkisholmur, the largest town on the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Our dinner that night was again delicious. We began with a smoked lamb appetizer and then progressed to a delicious Bacalao ( salt cod) dinner with carrots and potatoes. Ice cream was a delicious treat for dessert. In the evening we took a walk about the area.
Thursday: During the night we discovered that the sun sets about 2 am with sunrise soon after. The evenings are bright seeming like midafternoon.
Today we first stopped along the shoreline of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to observe harbor seals resting on the rocks and also observing along the shore an oystercatcher and many eider ducks. We then stopped by the harbor to view the nesting terns who were not thrilled with out presence. This dramatic rocky coastline is reported to be the area which marks the entry point for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Lunch was a delicious fish soup which warmed us up and a dessert of skyr, a yogurt like creamy dessert. We experienced very heavy rain with high winds of 50 mph with 60 mph gusts buffeting our bus. Our driver, Halfstead (phonetic) was a most competent driver as well as being very friendly, frequently joining us for meals and discussions. Some of our group chose to walk along the shoreline admiring the basalt structures while others of us enjoyed the dry environment of the coffee shop with excellent pastries.
Our next stop was a shark farm where we learned about the Greenland sharks of this area. Sharks live up to 400 years and can achieve a length of 22 feet and weigh over 1,000 pounds. Sharks have no kidneys which results in uric acid being present in the meat making it toxic when fresh. When processing shark meat, it is first cured or aged in wooden crates and then hung to dry in sheds for 3-4 months. Fermented shark meat is only sold in Iceland. We all were offered the opportunity to try a small piece of the fermented meat. We first dipped the piece into a shot glass of schnapps chewing the meat until we experienced a sharp ammonia taste; we then swallowed it with the schnapps. Marilyn found the experience interesting but many others did not enjoy it.
We then returned to our hotel and to a local restaurant where some of us enjoyed a large bowl of blue mussels while others relished another opportunity to eat lamb fillet. .
Friday: Today we left the hotel to visit the reconstructed site of Leif Erikson’s dad – Erik the Red -the Eiriksstadir Museum. The historic interpreter was a delightful man who spoke with us as we sat huddled in the sod house dwelling.He showed us the type of helmet and sword which Erik would have used during his lifetime. The saga of Erik the Red is one of violence resulting in his being forced to leave Iceland for Greenland along with many other inhabitants during a time of emigration. Leif Erikson, it is told, left Iceland and sailed to North America probably landing in Newfoundland where he lived for a few years. An Icelandic turf house has reputedly been found in Newfoundland showing a Viking presence. The assumption is that Leif sailed down the St. Lawrence River to Canada.
On our trip after this visit Margret talked about the health system in the country. Everyone receives socialized medical care which is not ideal according to her. There are long waits for procedures, there is not enough staff to care those needing care and one must first visit a clinic where the person is evaluated for future care.
As we drove we noticed we had left the lava fields with its huge boulders and little vegetation. We now saw green grass, sheep grazing and valleys leading to snow capped mountains. Many small brooks were observed flowing off the mountains.
Our next visit was to a horse farm to enjoy an up close encounter with these beautiful Icelandic horses. Although these animals are smaller than the horses we are used to seeing do not call them ponies- Icelandic people are very proud of their uniquely bred horses. Iceland does not allow their horses to leave the country and later reenter nor can any other breed of horse enter the country. This policy is to protect the genetic purity of these animals. Their long, flowing manes and many colors are a sight to behold. We were treated to a demonstration of the paces these animals can perform. Icelandic horses exhibit 5 different paces unlike other horses that only exhibit 4: walk, trot,gallop, canter and toit. This last is a quick, smooth gait allowing horse and rider to cover long distances without tiring. A rider demonstrated this gait while holding a full beer glass without losing a drop. After the demonstration we visited the barns where we were able to pat and view many different horses. What an interesting experience.
We then traveled on to our next stop, Akureyi, Iceland’s second largest city with 18,000 residents. . Akureyi is situated on the northern fjords as close to the Arctic Circle as we would travel.
Saturday: This was a very cloudy and foggy day as we began our drive to our first waterfall, Godafoss.
Margret continued her discussion with us on the taxes in Iceland. The average tax is 37% which includes finances for schools and health care. Those earning the highest are taxed at 46%. Sales tax is 7-24% while taxes are levied on land and homes. There is a “nose” tax in which everyone is taxed to support the national radio. Maternity leaves are 3 months for each parent and one’s job is guaranteed upon return.
The pea soup fog through which we had been driving suddenly lifted as if a curtain had been raised. Really amazing! We arrived at Godafoss a most spectacular waterfall reminiscent of Niagara Falls. Here the water falls over a high rocky precipice of 30 meters wide. Since it was still cloudy and misty we were unable to view a rainbow but the mist presented a very ethereal sense of beauty. According to the legend, 1,000 years ago the Lawspeaker of Iceland declared Christianity to be the official religion of the country. An unproved myth or saga relates that when he was converted to Christianity this official threw his Norse gods into the waterfall. The name Godafoss translates to “water of the gods” thus perpetuating this belief.
Lake Myvatn was our next stop. This volcanic lake was created from volcanic eruptions and the resulting opening in the earth. The name is derived from my=midge and vatn=lake. Although we were warned that this area is rift with small flies (midges) and we came armed with head nets ,these little buggers were not present on this day’s walk. Surrounded by volcanic rock we were amazed by the number of minute wildflowers clinging to the rocks. We were to notice this many more times. Although the lake is an area for ducks we did not observe any during our walk but did photograph a long billed shore bird.
The next stop was Geyser Hot Spring. We walked through steam among many geothermal pools of hot bubbling mud and bursts of water while the smell of sulfur permeated the air. It was fascinating to watch the mud bubble up and then subside only to bubble up again.
Lunch today was a starter of delicious lamb soup and then a buffet featuring tasty fresh-water trout and meatballs. As delicious a meal as everyone has been during this trip.
After lunch we drove to Laufas located by the estuary of the river Fnjpska where there is a church and the site of a chieftain’s residence. It is the site of a large turf house, a mansion in its day. The history of the building of the turf-clad timber building of Laufas stretches back to the Middle Ages. This turf house has been rebuilt many times most recently by Rev. Bjorn Halldorsson, a priest and dean in Laufas between 1853 and 1882. This collection of 5 gabled buildings are all connected . It was last inhabited in 1936 before a new vicarage was built. We toured through the many rooms all connected to each other. There was also an upper area where children slept. The church just beyond the house has a pulpit from 1869.
Returning to the hotel in Akureyri we began to prepare for our home hosted dinner. Our hosts were a delightful couple. the husband was Norwegian and the wife Icelandic. She had been a journalist and news broadcaster as well as now teaching at the University. We enjoyed a lively conversation discussing both politics and Icelandic traditions. The home was decorated with lovely paintings and furnished in a clean, simple Nordic style. The backyard was tastefully planted with lush plants and shrubs. Our dinner began with bruschetta and salad then progressed to a scrumptious dish of cod accompanied by sweet potatoes. Dessert was a chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and raspberries.
Sunday: This morning Warren and Joe as well as others went on a whale watch. They were able to observe humpback whales, porpoises, Icelandic gulls and puffins on a very smooth cruise. Some of the members caught pollock and cod which were cleaned and filleted on the ship then grilled for all to enjoy. They enjoyed good views of the mountains and close-ups of the whales. Bobbie and Marilyn spent a great morning walking about town and finding the coffee shop that Warren had wanted to visit.
In the afternoon the four of us walked into town again to enjoy coffee and pastry and then a pleasant lunch at a restaurant where we all greatly enjoyed a fish casserole with cheese topping and a crispy salad. We then walked to the Botanical Gardens located near our hotel. This was a much enjoyed visit with lovely displays of flowering plants.
Monday: Today we took a short flight from Akureyri back to Reykjavik . This is the day when we began exploring the Golden Circle which was a ring of highlights south of the capitol. We first visited Thingvellir National Park which is located in a major rift between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This park was established in 1930 to preserve a national shrine for Iceland. The park straddles the two plates. We were able to walk along the rift between the large volcanic rock structures thrown up during the volcanic activity over 100,000 years. Sitting on the rocks in the immense lake formed in the rift or valley we were happy to see three brilliant Harlequin Ducks on the rocks while out in the water Mergansers were diving. The area is dotted with snowcapped mountains along with many canyons, streams and springs. This is a natural amphitheater where the first Parliament, the Althing, of Iceland was held in 930 AD. Sessions of the opening assembly or Althing were held here until 1798.
Our next stop was a most interesting visit to a family run Flower Farm. Located in this geothermal area there is an abundance of power and hot water which the farm utilizes to its benefit. There are numerous greenhouses all with lighting to maintain year round growing. The volcanic soil has no minerals which makes it an ideal sterile, neutral source to which they add fertilizer. Each pot receives one gallon of water daily using only 20%. The remainder is collected in troughs below the pots. For each 1,000 gallons of water 1 gallon of fertilizer is distributed daily. We viewed a hothouse filled with gerbera daisies. These flowers are picked every day and distributed to the flower merchants. Roses in another hot house were lovely. Roses are the most labor intensive to grow according to our guide. Each plant must have all suckers removed daily on the 100’s of plants. These roses are now bred to be thornless which is certainly an advantage. In the area outside the individual hothouses we observed collections of cut flowers ready for distribution to market. This visit was certainly informative as well as being a beautiful break.
We then progressed to Geyser where we had a delicious soup and then walked to the geyser where we witnessed the gigantic plume of water spurting out of the groundThis area of geothermal activity was filled with bubbling puddles of water boiling out of the ground. We then drove to Gulfoss waterfall which was another stunning waterfall with two tiers where the water falls into a hundred foot crevice.We watched mesmerized as the water tumbled down the mountain with the mist rising from the deep ravine. This area was filled with many wildflowers including one with a large stalk that sported a tall bud which then opened into a cluster flower which the small flies sought in great numbers.
Our hotel in Selfoss that evening was the Hotel Selfoss which we found especially comfortable.
Tuesday: Today we learned that the Arctic Terns which we had been observing nesting in astounding numbers travel annually from Antarctica to the Arctic. As we drove we also observed Icelandic Gulls and Fullmer on the cliffs above the sea.
We visited our last waterfall, Skogafoss which certainly was another spectacular sight of tremendous force. There was a walkway which some of our group climbed to view the falls from a higher level.
Following the waterfall we enjoyed a lunch of sea trout and veggies followed by chocolate cake. After lunch we drove further south to Vik where we got into a large Mercedes four wheel drive van to go off-road to the area of the glacier
This was certainly a highlight of our trip.In 2010 the volcano under the glacier erupted resulting in 6-9,000 cubic feet of water flooding the area. The ice in this glacier is over 200 feet deep in the upper area and 100-110 feet deep in the lower or black area. We all walked up to the base of black glacier. This is the accumulation of volcanic debris collected as the glacier slowly moves down the mountain. It was most interesting to see the enormous carved out opening at the end where the base of the glacier is melting and forming bridges and caves. We were amazed again at the minute wildflowers clinging to the rocky volcanic surface at the base of this mountain.
We next drove to a natural area outside of Vik where we observed the tall cliffs surrounding the sea. On these cliffs were numerous Icelandic Gulls nesting in the rocky surfaces. At one crevice we spotted a beautiful puffin posing for the camerasMany other puffins were flying in and out of the grassy tops on the cliffs where there were presumably nests. What a thrill. We then walked to other side of the park area where we viewed the basalt formations along the coast and the black sand of Iceland.
That evening we went to a newly opened noodle shop near our hotel. It was a delicious meal of wide noodles, broth and beef. The proprietor was friendly and pleased when we said we would recommend his shop to our tour manager for future OAT tours.
Wednesday July 4: Today on the bus Margret explained the process of sorting sheep which occurs each fall as the sheep are brought down from the highlands. This process of gathering the sheep takes about 3-4 weeks and involves all the people of the area. At the base of the mountains there are built rings or structures divided into segments. Into these segments sheep are sorted by the ear marks. Once all the sheep have been sorted there is a very celebratory festival held in the town including much drinking, dancing and feasting lasting all night.
Our first visit today was to the Hellisheidi Power Plant. This facility is the largest geothermal power plant in Iceland and the second largest in the world. The plant produces both hot water and electricity of 330 megawatts which supplies many households and businesses. Helmet is a volcanic mountain behind the plant which contains magma chambers producing hot water at 400-600 degrees. Pipes are installed 3 miles deep and use the pressure from the magma chambers to force the hot water to the surface. Steam is then separated from the water and sent to turbines to produce the electricity. Dirty water left from the separation process is used to heat surface water sent to Reykjavik . Gravity is used to send water from the plant down to the city. During this 6-8 hour process the water has lost no more than 2-3 degrees of heat due to the basalt lining insulating the pipes. Sulfur is added to the water to help preserve the pipes.The streets of the capitol and certain floors in some buildings are heated from this resource. We are not likely to again visit a place where the hot water coming out of the tap [with a slight sulfur odor] is heated by nature and the cold water is really ice cold. This was a most interesting visit learning how Iceland has become such a progressive country in utilizing its natural resources.
It was now on to ATV rides. We first were given an introduction to the ATV vehicles and the safety measures necessary. Each rider was given a suit and helmet and we climbed onto the two person ATVs. We We first drove to the emergency/coast guard center where our guide described the system used to rescue stranded sailors on ships broken up on the coast. We then drove for approximately 1 hour through the coastal lava fields we had been observing throughout our trip. Is is no wonder NASA uses these fields to test the vehicles they are sending to the Moon and Mars. Warren did a great job driving through this bumpy terrain.
When we returned Margret had set out a 4th of July luncheon for us with the Icelandic flat bread and meats as well as a beautiful 4th of July Chocolate cake. What a great trip with an amazing tour manager.
After our luncheon we drove to the Blue Lagoon where many of us enjoyed the warm thermal water and a time to relax. Although we had been skeptical about this experience given the fifty degree outside temperature it was a delightful way to end a most enjoyable trip.
Dining at the gourmet Vox restaurant in the hotel for our farewell dinner provided a delicious meal including roast lamb that was just perfectly cooked and a serving of pulled lamb which we had never experienced but was also delicious. A great meal to end our tour.