After two years of going nowhere fast, due to COVID-19, my husband and I booked international flights and worked with a tour consultant through a company called Nordic Visitor. Last summer, I watched with utter fascination the eruption of a small volcano in Iceland, named Fagradalsfjall. Since then, Iceland topped my bucket list locations, and I was anticipating our upcoming trip with excitement and the type of thrill that young children experience right before traipsing downstairs on Christmas morning.
We’d have one big obstacle to overcome. As much as I loved it, my husband detests seafood. He’s a dry-land American boy who considers sushi to be nothing more than bait for his bass-fishing. And Icelanders are big on seafood—that and mutton, a meat we Americans have been slower to embrace.
Once wheels were down on the tarmac of Keflavik (pronounce the ‘f’ as a soft ‘p’.) my first view of Iceland was an iron-dark landscape similar to the moon. Reykjavik’s international airport is located in the Reykjanes Peninsula, one of the most volcanic areas of the entire island.
But Nordic Visitor did us proud. Our entire trip, from airport transfers to hotel stays, and the rental car, were all handled with ease, care, and lots of smiles. Europe’s most westward country is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been. Not only are these Viking ancestors tall, stately, and visually gorgeous people, but their English is superb—thanks to their practical study of it, beginning when they’re only around five years old.
We had WIFI in our rental car (a hybrid, btw), a magnificent map with hand-written recommendations of interesting stops, compliments of our personal consultant, Hanna-Lara, and at each nightly stop-over squeaky-clean accommodations awaited us, along with pristine, white Scandinavian down comforters. Reykjavik is not a big town by any means, and it was easy to navigate and hit the road and begin our adventure.
We chose to travel the Ring Road, which runs clear around the island, 821.5 miles long, with an additional, curvaceous trek into the West Fjords, Iceland’s most remote area, loaded with sheep, birds, arctic fox, and dirt roads that summit flat-topped mountains known as tuyas, many without guard rails. Ahem—Iceland is not the place to fall asleep at the wheel. Seriously. As well-maintained as most of the roads are, there are rarely any shoulders, so coloring between the lines is tantamount to a safe trip!
What exactly does one do in Iceland?
First of all, you’ll drive through some of the most stunning and jaw-dropping scenery the planet has to offer. Literally, every 5-10 minutes, scenery changes—from the lava-encrusted moonscapes of geologically recent eruptions to rugged seaside vistas offering fingers of rock rising from a white-capped ocean. One minute you’re in a barren landscape of moss-covered rocks that don’t yet offer sustenance for grass, and the next, you’re in the upper elevations of tuyas, driving through snowfields and plunging canyons. In all of this extraordinary wilderness, there are opportunities to hike glaciers—safely with licensed guides and the appropriate equipment. One can walk behind towering waterfalls, which litter Iceland’s landscape more frequently than US rest areas. There are boat-tours through bays of icebergs, calving from Vatnajökull Glacier in Vatnajökull National Park —Iceland’s largest icefield, or consider visiting the picturesque fishing town of Húsavík for some whale-watching. We saw a pair of humpbacks. And every visitor must try the singular Icelandic experience of taking a dip in real, volcanic hot-springs.
The highlight for my husband had to be the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs, where literally millions of birds nest each summer, every year. Guillamots, Arctic Terns, Seagulls, Puffins, Auks… they were everywhere. We mingled with professional photographers that day, picking our way carefully around the cliffs, since again—there are few guard rails. And if you look carefully at the rocks at the bottom of each cliff, you might see some move! Harbor Seals heave themselves out of the water to mingle in colonies. It’s a feast for the senses in a primal way—birds screaming, the stale, acrid smell of guano, sea-mist on your face, and the open view of the Greenland Sea—knowing that you’ve reached land’s end—the westernmost point in Europe.
For me, with my inclination toward all things equestrian, I just had to try riding an Icelandic Horse. These animals are the hearty descendants of steeds brought from Norway by the Vikings, a thousand years ago or more. Today, Icelanders want to maintain the purity of this breed, doing so by banning the entry of any other horses into the country. Icelandic horses may be sold to other countries, but aren’t allowed a return trip ticket. They’re sturdy, powerful creatures wrapped in small packages, most of them only 14-15 hands high. What makes them unique among other breeds is their five gaits—most horses have only three (walk, trot, canter). Add to those the Icelandic horse’s tölt (pronounced tuhlt) and the flying pace.
My experience riding was phenomenal, tölting along through a scenic valley dotted with quaint farms and snow-capped peaks on a sun-drenched afternoon. Iceland isn’t exactly a magnet for sun-worshippers, but during our two weeks stay, we enjoyed ten rain-free days. If you do visit and decide to try the tölt, be prepared to ride English. Remember that Iceland is a European country and they won’t have western saddles to cater to Americans.
If there’s a down-side to visiting the “land of ice and fire”, it’s the expense. We chose a drive-it-yourself tour, where we had our own rental car, chose our own routes, pace, and places to stop for sight-seeing and meals. Breakfast, however, was always provided. Expect to spend what you would on a visit to Alaska, and then some. We always ate big at breakfast, since it was included with our hotel stays, then would stop mid-afternoon for our meal of the day—usually at an off-beat restaurant where we could enjoy local flavors. In some locations, farmers opened their own restaurants or ice-creameries for tourists, and these places were excellent. Icelanders consume a LOT of seafood, understandably, but also enjoy lamb and yes—we actually saw “filet of foal” on the menu once. Let’s just say that my husband ate his fair share of hamburgers. Oh, and for the record, he also did the math. Right now, with the high prices of fuel everywhere, gas per gallon in Iceland measured at ALMOST $10. Ouch.
Was it worth it?
We saw this trip as a once in a lifetime experience. We bought a few select souvenirs and museum visits along the way to allow for the full Iceland experience—catered to US. So, yes. I saw this trip as one of my three BEST trips in my lifetime. Outstanding scenery, pleasant weather conditions, super adventures planned along the way, and expert planning by Nordic Visitor that kept us in clean, unique places as we made our circumnavigation around the island.
Oh, and most importantly, I finally learned how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull!
*If you’re interested in visiting Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Lapland, Finland, Ireland, or Scotland, consider working with Nordic Visitor! Ask for Hanna-Lara and tell her that Brook Allen sent you her way.
Author Brook Allen has a passion for ancient history—especially 1st century BC Rome. Her Antonius Trilogy is a detailed account of the life of Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony, which she worked on for fifteen years. The first installment, Antonius: Son of Rome was published in March 2019. It follows Antony as a young man, from the age of eleven, when his father died in disgrace, until he’s twenty-seven and meets Cleopatra for the first time. Brook’s second book is Antonius: Second in Command, dealing with Antony’s tumultuous rise to power at Caesar’s side and culminating with the civil war against Brutus and Cassius. Antonius: Soldier of Fate is the last book in the trilogy, spotlighting the romance between Antonius and Cleopatra and the historic war with Octavian Caesar.
Learn more about Brook Allen at www.brookallenauthor.com.