In the land of fire and ice: A visit to Iceland offers great vistas and photographs

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 07-21-2023 1:16 PM

Standing near the edge of Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most dramatic waterfalls, the first thought that jumped into my mind was “Iceland looks like the land that time forgot.”

Gullfoss, a broad waterfall that dumps about 5,000 cubic feet of water per second over a two-stage, 105-foot drop, flows from the Hvítá River, a glacier-fed course that cuts across a huge, empty grassy plain. Take away a slender road that runs just north of the waterfall, and the visitors on a nearby walkway, and you could almost imagine you’re looking at a landscape from millions of years ago.

Last month, I found myself in this land of fire and ice for the second time in seven years. My daughter Marissa spent the last two years getting a master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital. My wife, Joyce Tousey, and I flew over to attend her graduation, after which the three of us did some touring in the western part of the country.

I can’t remember what prompted our first visit to Iceland in 2016 — our older daughter, Seana, was part of that trip — but ever since both Marissa and Joyce have been pretty much gaga over the place. Joyce flew there last August, and she and Marissa spent three weeks circling the entire country in a rental car. My wife is already contemplating another trip (which she might make with friends, as two visits to Iceland is probably enough for me).

What’s the appeal? Well, nature at its wildest is one. Between volcanoes, glaciers, myriad waterfalls, fjords, hot springs, and miles and miles of sculpted mountains and buttes, Iceland offers stark but incredible beauty; it’s hard to take a bad picture there. A lack of tree cover – Viking settlers cut down Iceland’s original forests centuries ago, and reforestation efforts have made limited progress – makes for expansive views.

And if you want quiet and solitude, you’ll find it. Nearly two-thirds of the approximately 375,000 Icelanders live in and around Reykjavík, in the far southwest corner of the country, leaving most of the land dotted with more sheep and horses than people. (A fair chunk of land is also covered by glaciers and lava flows; only 1 percent of Iceland is farmed.)

The weather leaves something to be desired – we had some partly sunny days in the upper 50s but also a number of days of rain and cold – but Icelanders are friendly, and nearly all of them speak English (it’s taught in school as a second language beginning in the elementary grades). And they’ve got the best yogurt going, called skyr.

Iceland’s been a popular vacation destination for well over a decade now, though the rush has slackened in the last few years, in part due to the pandemic.

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Still, there’s no disputing the overall numbers. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, the number of annual visitors to Iceland increased by a factor of more than five between 2010 to 2019, from 459,252 to over 2.3 million.

The largest numbers have come from the U.S., Great Britain and Germany, but travelers hail from many other countries: France, Canada, China, Denmark, Spain, Poland, Italy.

Thousands of foreign workers, most notably from Poland, have also come to the country to work in tourism, and between those folks and the tourists, you can hear a wealth of languages when you stroll through Reykjavík.

A guide who took us on a backcountry trip said the boom began after Iceland received worldwide attention in April 2010, when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in the country’s south erupted, producing enormous clouds of ash that disrupted air travel in western Europe for weeks.

Those eruptions basically served as a global billboard for Iceland’s raw beauty and what were then very affordable prices, as the nation’s currency, the Krona, was still weak following a severe recession that began with a banking collapse in 2008.

Those prices are no longer quite so reasonable, as by some estimates tourism now makes up 10 percent of Iceland’s GDP, and a good number of people have gotten in on the boom. That means you need to plan way ahead to visit. Joyce began looking at guesthouses and Airbnbs last fall and found some places were already taken or outside our price range.

Canyons and fjords

But since my wife has planning skills I can only dream of, she was able to put together a fine itinerary. We began with some walking tours and short drives in and around Reykjavík, where Marissa showed us some of the sites, including a museum on Iceland’s settlement that includes the remains of one of the country’s earliest homes, a stone and turf longhouse from the early 10th century.

Reykjavík is a study in contrasts. The city is dotted with cranes from new construction projects, and it seemed a fair number of generic restaurants and shops had popped up since we visited in 2016. But the older part of town has small, slightly hilly streets with a lot of charm, lined by smaller houses and buildings whose architecture and colorful paint jobs collectively say “Nordic locale.”

We spent a few days on the south coast, not far from one of Iceland’s most noted volcanoes, Katla, checking out some beautiful waterfalls and hiking above a slender, glacier-carved canyon. One highlight was our visit to the backcountry glacial valley of Thórsmörk, a nature preserve, on a “superjeep,” a vehicle outfitted with huge wheels for traversing rough dirt roads and creeks and shallow rivers.

It was raining off and on all day, sometimes with a howling wind, but the access we had let us hike to the edge of a glacier, up a beautiful canyon, and through a rare sight in Iceland: a small but lush forest of birch.

I’ve done a good amount of backpacking and day hiking in the American Southwest, and I was struck by some similarities with Iceland’s terrain. Sure, Iceland doesn’t have cactus or sagebrush, and obviously there’s a lot more water there than in the desert. But the rugged, treeless ridges and buttes, the canyons, and the jumbled rocks invite comparison.

We also traveled in the Westfjords, in Iceland’s northwest, laced with beautiful fjords, towering cliffs, and tons of seabirds. The roads mostly follow the deeply indented coastline, as the interior land is generally too rough and steep to cross, so there’s a lot of driving — not my favorite thing — but you won’t mind the scenery. The small fishing ports in this region are few and far between, as are the handful of farms and houses.

Alongside hikes to some more spectacular waterfalls, we took a boat ride to see a small sanctuary island for puffins and other seabirds; one of them, a fulmar, had some fun as it repeatedly skimmed alongside us, then hovered just a few feet off the bow. At one point it came so close its right wing brushed against my hand as I snapped a picture.

Other animal adventures included a horseback ride down a small valley to a fjord, while the resident cat at a guesthouse we stayed at followed us much of the way on a hike up a steep ridge. I reached the top to find myself alone on a windswept plateau, my only company some arctic terns that kept squawking their unhappiness at my intrusion.

One final note on Iceland: It was interesting to attend Marissa’s graduation, even though I couldn’t understand a word that was said, in part because I have never seen so many tall people – men and women alike – in one place. I thought I’d stumbled into an NBA tryout camp. Must be all that Viking blood.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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