I had two weeks of vacation time to burn before the end of the month. On principle, I refused to squander it sitting on the couch. The baby-sitting money I keep in a glass jewelry box on my dresser implored me to take it somewhere — anywhere. I began searching for cheap airfares.
I found a steal: $198 round-trip from Boston to Reykjavik, Iceland’s only major city. Another quick search turned up a $200 round-trip flight to Boston. Embracing an uncharacteristic spontaneity, I booked the flights. The first would depart in 16 hours.
That gave me time to charge my Kindle, dig my coat out of the closet, procure a pair of long underwear and Google “what to do in Iceland.”
About 28 hours later, I picked up a 1997 Toyota Rav 4 from SADcars, clumsily programmed the Icelandic-speaking GPS, and started on the 50-minute drive to a hostel in Reykjavik’s city center.
By 9 a.m., it was still too dark for sightseeing, so I invited a fellow traveler in my dormitory to join me for a grocery store run — a $25 meal in an Iceland restaurant wasn’t going to cut it on my last-minute budget.
We dumped our week’s worth of groceries in the communal kitchen and, with no other plans, Meganne threw $50 worth of gas into my tank, and we set off for Iceland’s most notable tourist spot, the Blue Lagoon.
A 40-minute drive southwest from the capital city of Reykjavik leads to Iceland’s most iconic geothermal pool. From the winding road through Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, I could see the swirling ethereal mist above the iridescent azure waters of Blue Lagoon.
Located among the dark jagged rocks of an 800-year-old lava field, the man-made pool uses superheated water from a nearby lava flow to produce heat for a municipal water-heating system. From there, it flows into Blue Lagoon, where bathers wade.
The water hovers around 110 degrees through the hot spring and feels restorative against the damp, nearly freezing air.The ever-present drizzle paused just in time for the setting sun to pierce through the thick fog, illuminating the water and baking the algae mud mask spread across my face.
The water’s rich minerals are touted for their healing abilities. But the sheer beauty and the sultry soak were enough to keep me feeling warm and invigorated until bedtime.
Beneath my feet, the ground was gleaming blue and marked by sloping wells and gaping crevasses. With each step I pushed my crampons into the translucent ice, careful to stay on the narrow isthmus between two vertical moulin shafts.
The glacier once stood 30 feet higher, my tour guide explained. But climate change has caused the ice to melt, forming a lake at its base and revealing tunnels in the ice where water poured through.
Solheimajokull glacier, a nearly 7-mile tongue of the larger Myrdalsjokull glacier, soars to almost a mile tall at its peak and is flanked by towering mountains, their caps stained black with volcanic ash and stark against Iceland’s pale afternoon sky.
I’m still not sure if it was the sheer beauty of the landscape, the overwhelming grandeur of it or because hiking up a glacier is remarkably strenuous, but I found myself breathless.
The excursion was a suitably dramatic introduction to the land of fire and ice.
THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
I pulled the SUV off the road, zipped on my three layers and took off running down the hill. The sudden appearance of a herd of ponies instantly warmed my shivering body. When the ponies willingly approached and accepted my snuggles, I actually melted.
Eventually, I tore myself away from the Icelandic horses and continued on into Thingvellir National Park.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site and location of world’s oldest Parliament is home to a geological oddity, Silfra. A narrow body of water fills the fissure between two land masses: the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As I walked past the rift, snorkelers popped up from the water, excited to share that they had just dived down and placed one hand on each continent.
Thingvellir exemplifies Iceland’s greatest appeal — its pervading grandeur. Beneath a sprawling slate sky, punctuated by cliffside peaks and towering waterfalls, surrounded by endlessly flowing lakes and creeks, and separated from a cascading geyser by stretches of birch and willow, I felt so small.
But the overwhelming beauty of the landscape invited me to feel like a welcome houseguest in a newly discovered land.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The one-day road trip along Route 36 connects three of Iceland’s most popular sights between Reykjavik and the southern uplands. From Thingvellir, I drove 40 miles east toward Strokkur geyser. A short walk through heavy mist and the smell of rotten eggs led to a large pool of bubbling water. Three minutes later, the geyser erupted, sending boiling water 100 feet into the air — and jolting me into a short startled cry.
My next stop, 15 minutes later on the road, brought me to Gullfoss Waterfall.
I descended the wooden staircase high above the falls and walked to the edge of a rocky cliff where the water makes itsfirst 36-foot plunge. The canyon bends around the cliff and tumbles 69 feet down before narrowing and turning away. Afaint rainbow appeared over the crest and stretched down, following the fall.
The final stop before looping back to Reykjavik was Kerið Crater Lake. The sun had set by the time I arrived, but the brilliant striations of red volcanic rock, olive moss and yellow earth on the crater’s caldera reflected off the aquamarine water. After I snapped a couple of photos, the wind suddenly picked up, sending me running back to my rental car to begin the 90-minute drive home.
At 244 feet high, Hallgrimskirkja is Iceland’s largest church. From the cathedral’s tower, Reykjavik’s utilitarian architecture looks positively quaint. The tidy rows of gray apartments show off distinctly brightly colored roofs. A statue of Leif Erikson (a gift from the U.S.) stares down the major thoroughfare, a straight shot to the shore of Faxa Bay.
I stopped into Cafe Loki across the street for a splurge: an authentic Icelandic meal. I was served a platter of rye toasts: one topped with a warm mashed fish spread, the other with boiled egg and pickled herring. After a couple of polite bites, I opted to skip to dessert: a cup of rye bread ice cream.
A walk through town revealed a surprising array of vivid street art. Brick walls and bakeries were decorated with cheerful depictions of children and animals, a bright spot on an otherwise bleak winter morning.
A TRAVELER’S TREK
I was among the 1.7 million people who traveled to the Scandinavian island of Iceland in 2016, according to the Iceland Tourist Board.
It’s not the obvious choice for the novice tourist, however. “Mostly well-traveled travelers are going there,” says Maria Lilibeth Ruiz, director of marketing for Prestige Travel American Express. “New travelers still want to do the more popular countries in Europe. But people who have traveled want the more uncommon experience.”
With a population of 332,000, Iceland hosted nearly six tourists for every resident in 2016. According to the Iceland Tourist Board, that was a 40 percent increase over 2015. The Washington Post reported recently that the country’s booming tourism industry brought in $51 billion last year.
For Nevadans who are interested in visiting, the resounding advice is to go sooner rather than later. Before long, it will be impossible to escape the crowds — or the price hikes.
IF YOU GO
Accommodation in Reykjavik
Kex Hostel: $37/night for one bunk in a 16-bed dormitory
SADcars: $65/day for an automatic sedan
Gas: $7.50 per gallon
Airport shuttle: $50 one-way
Average restaurant meal: $25
Small cup of coffee: $4.50
Dozen eggs: $5.50