Nature’s Playground: Iceland
Blue skies and sunshine would have been nice, but when we landed in Iceland at 7:30 a.m. last April, cold rain, low-hanging clouds, and thick fog enveloped the airport. The soupy weather mirrored my foggy brain, which was still on East Coast time six hours earlier.
But my husband, Peter, and I only had two days to spend in Iceland, and we were determined to make the best of it—foul weather or not. I’d always wanted to visit this volcanic island located in the North Atlantic. In spite of its name and northerly location, Iceland is not a frozen wasteland—thanks to the Gulf Stream that flows along its southern and western shores. It is, however, a land of opposites, where heat and cold, fire and snow somehow coexist side by side. Iceland’s lava-covered landscape, thermal-heated lagoons, hissing steam vents, and spouting geysers add up to a stunning natural playground that appeals to travelers seeking bold adventures.
Peter and I wouldn’t have time to experience too many bold adventures or even see the whole island—about the size of Virginia—during our brief stay. Instead, we would content ourselves with exploring Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, and environs. Two activities were on the top of my list: a horseback ride on the famous Icelandic horses and a visit to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, where hot thermal waters invite bathers for a sensuous swimming experience. I also wanted to learn more about Iceland’s culture and its people.
Since time was short, I scheduled our trail ride soon after we arrived, knowing that it would be hard to get sleepy while sitting astride a horse. With directions in hand, we drove our rental car to Ishestar, a tour company founded in 1982 whose name means ice horses, located about midway between the airport in Keflavik and Reykjavik. We’d chosen to take a two-hour ride called the Lava Tour and joined a group of international travelers at the riding center, where we donned foul-weather gear and helmets, met our horses, and sauntered off into thick-as-pea-soup fog for a memorable ride.
Iceland has only 300,000 residents but is home to 80,000 horses. These folks take their horses seriously. In fact, importing horses is forbidden to maintain the purity of the breed. Known for their small stature, Icelandic horses—please don’t call them ponies—are prized for their versatility, friendliness, and good-hearted nature. They’re also strong and sure footed….which is a good thing once you see Iceland’s harsh terrain. From a distance moss-covered meadows appear velvety and soft, but it’s another juxtaposition, for underneath the moss sharp lava rocks cover the land.
Our guide pointed out that not all of Iceland is this rocky. Other areas offer pastoral forests, rolling farmlands, soaring mountains, as well as Europe’s largest glacier. But as Peter and I rode along, all we could see was a land that looked forbidding and harsh. I wondered what caused Norsemen to settle here, Europe’s final frontier, in the ninth century. Perhaps the settlers—like travelers today—were inspired by Iceland’s forlorn beauty and touched by the powerful forces that churn beneath the surface.
Back on the trail, I wondered if the weather would clear long enough for Peter and me to enjoy Iceland’s scenic landscape. As if in answer, raindrops pelted down, making us thankful for the bright-orange jumpsuits we wore that kept us dry and warm in this formidable climate. Our gear proved the Icelandic saying is absolutely true: There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Before the trail ride started, our guide had told us about the five gaits Icelandic horses are known for: walking, trotting, cantering/galloping—and two unique gaits: tölt and flying pace. She encouraged us to try tölt, a smooth gait halfway between walking and trotting that supposedly allows you to carry a glass of water without spilling a drop. I tried and tried to get my horse into tölt and found myself bouncing all over the saddle. Peter on the other hand achieved tölt with ease. During the break my guide gave me a couple hints: Try sitting back a bit and pull the horse’s head in. I tried again and found tölt—yippee. On the back of my horse, I felt like I was on skis, gliding on snow. It was fantastic.
Suddenly, the weather didn’t matter any longer. Everything was all right and in balance. Who cared if the rain fell and the clouds blotted out the scenery. I was practically on top of the world, riding an Icelandic horse in tölt!
OUR INNER ESKIMO
After our ride, we headed for the city center and checked into the Radisson Blu, one of a trendy chain of European-style hotels, currently expanding into the U.S. Our room was spacious and zen-like with sleek Scandinavian furnishings and comfy, white, duvet-topped beds, which Peter and I viewed with longing. But time was marching on and so would we. Museums awaited—and streets to stroll and people to watch. Resting or napping—that’s for sissies!
In the misty rain, Peter and I headed uphill to the National Museum, home to 300,000 artifacts, which tell the story of Iceland’s cultural heritage. The history of Iceland is displayed in chronological order, beginning with a ship like those that sailed to Iceland centuries ago and ending with an exhibit about the modern airport in Kevlavik, gateway to the outside world. Peter and I wandered through the exhibits, feeling a bit jet-lagged. Later I found out that the museum offers an audio guide as well as tours, which I would recommend for visitors new to Icelandic culture.
Even though the rain was omnipresent, Peter and I enjoyed strolling through Reykjavik, a cozy capital nestled up to a natural harbor where fishing boats bob in the steel-gray Atlantic. Seafood is a huge industry in Iceland, and as Peter and I would learn, Icelandic fish and seafood rate easily among the world’s best.
“That’s because standards are high,” our server said that evening as Peter and I dined on a feast of seafood and Icelandic cuisine at Fish Market, a popular restaurant in the city center with an easy, relaxed vibe and cool, bluesy jazz playing. Peter and I chose to enjoy the chef’s tasting menu, a parade of dishes paired with wines.
We knew we were in for a treat when the server presented a plate of mink whale sashimi, thin slices of rare whale meat, slightly seared, which looked and tasted more like beef than fish. Peter and I joked that we were getting in touch with our inner Eskimo as we munched on the delicious whale. Yummy rock shrimp, lightly fried and served on a bed of seaweed with a jalapeno sauce, arrived next—followed by crab legs, cut in half horizontally, making it easy to dig into the sweet, luscious meat.
Next a plate of sushi landed on the table with gleaming scallops topped with roe nestled next to rock-star quality salmon sashimi that melted like butter in our mouths. Peter said, “You know it’s good when you lick the chopsticks.” After we enjoyed the next course—salted cod, a local specialty, bursting with sweetness and hints of maple and raisins—an amazing baked salmon arrived served on a bed of creamed barley with cauliflower, hazelnuts, and haricots vert. And when we didn’t think we could eat another bite, tender duck slices with butternut squash tempted us, revealing a sweet, smoky flavor. A dessert course was equally amazing: light airy cheesecake, crème brulee, and raspberry and mango sorbet. No wonder foodies flock to Reykjavik, which hosts an annual food festival every April, and Fish Market is a must-visit restaurant when you’re in town.
A BLUE OASIS
After a restful sleep on the fluffy beds at Radisson Blu, we feasted again—this time on the hotel’s buffet breakfast. Perched among the fresh fruit, yogurt, and volkoren bread was a bottle of golden liquid next to little tiny plastic cups—fish oil, rich in Omega 3s and a regular part of Icelanders’ daily diet. Its pleasant flavor wasn’t fishy at all, and somehow I felt healthier after trying some.
Oiled up and invigorated, we headed across the street to the weekend flea market, where we watched a cross section of Reykjavik’s residents shop and bargain and socialize. Next Peter and I walked along the harbor, where we watched people boarding whale-watching tour boats, wishing we could join them. Friends told us about a geyser we should go see, but it was too far. Instead we headed to the Saga Museum, which tells the history of Iceland featuring life-like replicas of historical figures. I was amazed at how real the people looked and enjoyed a film at the end that described how the figures were made.
Saga Museum is housed in Perlan, a unique domed building comprised of old hot water storage tanks repurposed into a conference center. An award-winning restaurant on the top floor is supposed to offer stunning views of Reykjavik, but all Peter and I could see was fog, fog, and more fog. Another unique architectural attraction in Reykjavik is Hallgrímskirkja, a modern cathedral that rises above the city like a concrete rocket ship. Unfortunately, we could barely make out the cathedral in the fog and decided to skip the observation tower.
The Blue Lagoon was calling us, a place where fog and rain wouldn’t matter. Not far from the airport in Keflavik, the Blue Lagoon has become a very popular tourist destination and even caters to those who have layovers at the airport. It’s located among acres of mossy lava rock and appears like an oasis in the middle of nowhere.
The first thing you see are the sapphire blue thermal pools with steam rising up commingling with the fog, a surreal landscape like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I couldn’t wait to jump in the warm water. Peter and I tried the “Experience” package, which included a towel, a drink at Lagoon Bar, and a beauty treatment—a mask or scrub pellet to smear on our faces. Visitors can also stay at a hotel on the property, enjoy spa treatments, and dine in the gorgeous restaurant overlooking the pools.
But it’s the water that lures you in. Its distinctive blue color comes from the rich minerals, silica, and algae that permeate the hot water, which of course comes from beneath the ground. It first cycles through a nearby power plant to generate electricity. Then it’s piped through a municipal system that provides heat to homes. Finally the water feeds into the Blue Lagoon for recreational and medicinal bathing. The healing water has proven effective in treating psoriasis, and there’s even a line of skin care products featuring the water’s therapeutic minerals.
Peter and I loved floating around in the Blue Lagoon, enjoying a cool beverage in the swim-up bar, and trying the scrub and facial pellets on our faces. Every so often we’d head to a sauna or steam room, then back into the soothing lagoon. It’s easy to see how people get addicted to this experience. You can find thermal pools all over Iceland—enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
YIN AND YANG
Our last night we dined at Scandinavian Smørrebrød & Brasserie, a cozy restaurant on the main shopping street in Reykjavik, known for its Scandinavian-style open-face sandwiches. We loved the simple, airy décor and the Fado music in the background, which reminded Peter and me of warmer, summer climes. After ordering some wine and perusing the menu, we decided to try reindeer paté for a starter. It arrived with crispy toast points, served with a bright red currant sauce as if to remind us of Rudolph’s red nose. The paté was delicious (Sorry, Santa!), and we ate every bite.
Choosing from the many tempting menu items was challenging. The soups looked incredible—creamy and full of fresh seafood—but we went ahead and ordered entrées. Peter chose fish and chips and was delighted with the lightly fried sweet fish—plaice, a member of the flounder family—as well as the remoulade sauce and salad garnish.
I’d heard Icelandic beef was amazing, so I had to try the Surf-and-Turf. It was outstanding. The beef, served a perfect medium rare, was thick-cut, nicely seared, and enhanced by a savory peppercorn sauce—absolutely one of the most flavorful steaks I’ve ever had. The garlic-roasted lobster tail—small but incredibly sweet—was also a hit. A squash medley and baked potato rounded out my decadent feast. For dessert, Peter and I shared a heavenly French chocolate cake served with strawberries and whipped cream, the perfect finish.
That night my mind wandered as I drifted off to sleep in our lovely hotel. I thought about this extraordinary little country surrounded by the cold waters of the North Atlantic yet warmed by sizzling, churning volcanic activity deep underground. I thought of the soft moss and the sharp lava. I thought of the cold rain and warm waters of the Blue Lagoon. I remembered the bumpy trot of my Icelandic horse followed by the smooth effortless movement of the tölt. Iceland seems to be a country of opposites and mirrors life in that way. We are always pulled by the yin and the yang of existence. Sometimes it seems impossible to reconcile the opposites that surround us. But Iceland serves to remind us that the complexity of life is what makes the world such a fascinating place.