By Sharyn Alden
I connected with Iceland right away. On our final approach to Keflavik International Airport, a sliver of strange, uneven moonscape appeared through my window. I’d never seen anything like it. This was the mysterious Iceland I’d read about, the land known for its smoking geysers and 15 barely dormant volcanoes. It did not disappoint.
I wasn’t the first person who’d come to Iceland looking for odyssey and adventure. Apollo astronauts practiced moon landings in Iceland. Numerous movies have been filmed there, including Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, and Game of Thrones uses backdrops from the Thingvelfir and Hvalfjordur regions.
Few places can claim as much landscape diversity as Iceland: blackened lava formations, thermal hot springs (about 800), waterfalls (about 10,000) and more than 4,500 square miles of glaciers. Wildlife diversity, too: puffins, whales, free-grazing sheep, and maybe even an elf or two.
Iceland is one of the world’s least populated countries, but this doesn’t count elves. These tiny creatures that purportedly live among rocks first appeared in Iceland’s medieval sagas, and in the intervening years, elf culture has not only survived but thrived. In fact, a study found that 56 percent of Icelanders believe in the little creatures known locally as Hudufolk – “Hidden Folk.”
If you hang out here long enough, you’ll learn that if someone can’t find their cellphone and they blame an elf, they’re not kidding. Elves hold grudges, hence the missing cellphones and other mischief. Supposedly elves taught humans right and wrong long ago, but naturally, humans paid no attention.
Icelanders are so cautious about not upsetting elves that they even refrain from moving stones that might be elf habitat. Reykjavik’s Hotel Klettur has taken this one step further by incorporating boulders into an elf-repellent wall designed to deflect any bad feelings the elves might direct towards Icelanders.
Iceland is closer than you may think – about five hours from New York or six-and-a-half from Minneapolis. Several other major U.S. airports have direct flights as well, most relatively inexpensive. It’s easy to get acclimated since Icelanders are ultra-friendly and English is widely spoken.
Hip Reykjavik is Iceland’s largest city, with a metro-area population of about 300,000. That may not sound impressive until you realize that’s 60 percent of Iceland’s total population. It’s a lively city, with groovy nightlife and an internationally recognized arts scene, much of it found around the old city center. Around the corner from the city center is the Hotel Borg, an art-deco boutique hotel that’s an attraction in its own right.
Reykjavik abounds in cafes, shops and open-air markets, including a terrific fish market. It’s one of my favorite places in Europe to sip a coffee at an outdoor café and watch the world go by. Interesting restaurants and cafes – like Kolabrautin, located in the magnificent Harpa Concert Hall – are strung along the waterfront and tucked into downtown cul-de-sacs.
Now it’s Midnight Sun time, the ideal time to visit Iceland. Otherwise, Icelanders face long, dark days from fall through early spring, and they spend much of that indoor time reading. Every home I visited had bookshelves tightly stacked with books from floor to ceiling. Bookstores are abundant. “Literature is very popular,” said Helga, a fellow book browser, who was interested in what U.S. readers like.
“A wide variety of genres,” I offered.
“Same here,” she continued, “but we really like good tales of melancholy.”
In every bookstore you’ll find books (mostly in Icelandic) by Reykjavik native Halldór Laxnes. He received the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature for his narrative art and remains the only Icelandic Nobel laureate.
The No. 1 reason to visit Iceland is to experience nature. There’s no better place for this than the village of Skogar, at the base of the Myrdalsjokull icecap on Iceland’s gorgeous southern coast. Just a three-hour drive from Reykjavík, the Skogar area is dotted with waterfalls, glaciers, stone fences (markers for people on horseback before the advent of paved roads) folk art, and old turf farmhouses.
Skirting the southern ice cap, a coastal drive passes geothermal fields, hot springs, the horse-breeding center at Hella, and the Fljotsdaur Valley, a popular hiking destination.
Nearby, the ruggedly beautiful Fimmvoroduhals Pass takes seasoned hikers from Skogar to Porsmork between the famous Eyjafjallajokuill and Myrdalsjokull glaciers. Just off the coast road, the Skogafoss waterfall lures thousands of viewers a year. Legend has it that when the sun shines, a pot of gold hidden by Prasi, the valley’s original settler, can be seen behind the waterfall.
Incidentally, roadside advertising is banned and there are few road signs. Reykjavik native Frida Bjornsdottir said, “The government feels advertising signs distract the mind.” It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road anyway because the landscape is so surreal.
The Folk Museum in Skogar preserves early Icelandic life, tools and traditions. It’s supported by the National Museum of Iceland and represents the life’s work of local curator Thordur Tomasson, an inveterate collector of folk art, crafts, furniture, books, manuscripts, tools, and equipment.
Iceland was swept into modernity in a relatively short time. Area residents abandoned horse and harness for motorized vehicles in a single generation. Tomasson recognized that as traditional rural life faded away, the area’s cultural heritage needed to be preserved.
In 1955, Tomasson’s growing collection was large enough to require its own building. By 1968, reconstruction of the surrounding turf farmhouses began.
Before leaving Iceland I spent half a day at the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa, Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction, located about an hour from Reykjavik and 20 minutes from the airport. Hidden in bluffs of black lava, the lagoon’s superheated seawater, turned powder-blue by green-blue algae, is rich in mineral salts and fine silica mud. Basking in the hot water and steamy outdoor vapors left me rejuvenated.
What a way to end a journey. The steam rising off the water made the lagoons look like something from a science-fiction film, and their bizarre beauty perfectly summarized the love-at-first-sight feeling I felt when I first arrived in Iceland.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
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