All About Iceland

Our morning Icelandic view from the top of our hotel

Patricia and I went on a short vacation last week to none other than Iceland! Many people ask us, “Why Iceland”? My best response was, “Why not”? But now I’d have to say, “Because it is a very fascinating place”!

This island is one of the most geothermic active places in the world with multiple volcanoes, geysers, and even a tectonic plate rip! (More on that in a moment). We even get the English word ‘geyser’ from the Icelandic Geyser named Geyser! The temperatures are mild for the latitude because the Gulf Stream brings warmer air onto the island. While we were there, we had perfect weather! It stayed in the 40’s and was clear or partly cloudy the entire time (this week it’s raining all week). And on top of all this, everyone is nice and speaks English!

We were told by some locals that though children learn Icelandic as their first language, English is taught as their second language starting in Grade 1. They also learn a couple more languages later in their education (I want to say those languages are Danish and Swedish, but I can’t confirm).

Iceland was settled by the Vikings in the 900’s BCE – quite a young settlement. It’s believed that it was Ingólfr Arnarson in the late 800’s who first settled in Iceland. The country didn’t become a Republic until the 1940’s. In fact, the ’40’s was a bit crazy for the country. Iceland was part of the Danish Empire and, just like Denmark, declared neutrality during WWII. In 1940 Germany occupied the country, then the British ran the Germans out, and a year later the US occupied Iceland. During this time an army airport was built in Keflavik but was later converted into the largest International airport of Iceland. In 1944, Icelanders voted to become free from Denmark. The US left in ’46, the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Iceland, and in ’49 they joined NATO.

Older homes still have chimneys but they are not in use anymore. The entire island has tapped into the natural geothermic energy for suitable and inexpensive heating. In fact, it’s my understanding that the term “reyk” means ‘steam’. At one time you could travel all along the area and find steam randomly coming out of the ground. You can still find these spots on the island, but in the civilized regions the steam has been harvested.

It’s so barren that the only native land mammal is the Arctic Fox (which we never saw).  When the Vikings got there they cut down most of the island’s trees for fire and building homes and boats. Only recently has the country seen a re-forestation project. Iceland is sometimes considered part of Scandinavia, but I suppose more properly is that it’s part of the “Nordic Countries“.

Reykjavík, Iceland's Capital and Largest City

We stayed in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík, where more than half of the country’s residents live. It’s a beautiful city that has a mix of European-like downtown navigation with a bit of a North American sprawl. We both felt very comfortable in both settings.

The only US restaurant influence we spotted was Subway (a couple of times), and a KFC/Taco Bell. McDonald’s left several years ago and Starbucks never tried. And all of that was fine by us. We’d rather eat local anyway.

…And that brings me to what might prove to be the more controversial part of our trip…

Our controversial appetizer of Minke Whale, Puffin, and Shag

For our first dinner in Iceland, we decided to taste some real local flare. We ordered an appetizer of Minke Whale, Puffin, and Shag. They all tasted…well…fine. And yes, I’ve seen Whale Wars and know how evil we are now, but I rationalized it by the fact they were already dead so might as well eat’em! However curious we were about the tastes, we won’t do it again. And yes we know by ordering it we are perpetuating the cycle of killing more etc blah blah. We get it. Please just move along. What we really enjoyed eating for most of our stay was fresh Atlantic Salmon, Arctic Char (huge fan!), and Lamb.

Our trip to Iceland was tightly integrated with Reykjavík Excursions, a company that has been offering professional and educational airport shuttles and tours for almost 25 years. We highly recommend them!

Our first trek took us to the most fascinating place I’ve ever been to! The place is called Þingvellir National Park (‘Thingvellir’). This is the site for the original Icelandic Tribal Assembly (930-1271) and a geo-significant place.

A church rests in the tectonic rift at Thingvellir

When the snow-covered volcano pictured above erupted many years ago the underground magma created a hole. That hole was filled by both glacier melt and natural springs forming Lake Þingvallavatn. It’s from the vantage point of the overlook where you can see both the Lake and Rift in one view.

Thingvellir's Lake and Rift

Every year, the rift grows by a centimeter or two. This is the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. These two plates are ripping apart creating chasms and rifts. To stand in such an active geo-active place is simply amazing and fascinating!

Natural, thermal steam warming the springs

Not far from Thingvellir are some natural hot springs channeled into man-made pools for easier enjoyment (baiting suits required so no photos necessary).

Perhaps it’s time to take a break from the trip and talk about the Icelandic lettering. You know how both Shakespeare and King James writing are English but difficult for the modern reader? Iceland does not suffer from that problem. The language is the closest modern language to ‘ye-olde’ Viking. In fact, the character Þ pronounced ‘thorn’ is prominent in Iceland. It’s pronounced as ‘thorn‘ and replaces the ‘th’ sound in English. Because modern Icelandic language has changed little from it’s origins, medieval texts are read by grade-school students. Check out this short video about the origin of ‘Ye Olde’ shops. Also listen to how difficult (IMHO) the language is.

Flat mountain tops

Have you noticed how flat many of the mountains are? There are two possible reasons for this: glaciers cut the top off of the mountains and/or glaciers were in place when the mountains tried to form but the glaciers kept them from growing too high.

Our next trek took us out looking for whales. First we found Puffins.

Hundreds of Puffins
Lots of Puffins
They told us just days ago there were no puffins. We were fortunate.
White-beaked Dolphins
It was difficult to capture on camera the Minke Whale we chased.
We were content with the weather in Iceland

During our Whale Watching tour, we found Puffins, White-beaked dolphins, Harbor Porpoise, and Minke Whale.

The Southern Shores of Iceland did not disappoint.

Eyjafjallajökull was the volcano that caused European chaos in 2010.
Mýrdalsjökull glacier, one of the 4 largest glaciers in Iceland
Me standing on Mýrdalsjökull glacier
Black Sand Beach in South Iceland due to volcanos
Another view of the black sand beach in south Iceland
Rock formations on the black sand beach of south Iceland
The proportions of the south Icelandic black beach are beyond comprehension

Quick recap – we took a tour to the south of Iceland where we were at the foot of a few active volcanoes such as Eyjafjallajökull which erupted in 2010 causing all sorts of chaos in Europe (but not so much in Iceland!), the Mýrdalsjökull glacier that looks dirty because of volcanic ash, and the black sand beach of Vik.

On the way back from Vik we stopped at two huge waterfalls.

Huge Iceland Waterfall
Iceland is one of the few places in the world you don't have to worry about the water quality!
These falls are fed by natural springs
Patricia went behind these falls
The falls are everywhere

Finally our trip ended with a brief stop at the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa.

The Blue Lagoon
Another view of the Blue Lagoon

Surrounding it for miles are lava fields which were amazing to see.

Lava Rock surround the path to the Blue Lagoon

Lava rock as far as the eye can see covered in a brown moss. But the Blue Lagoon was quite a nice treat before our flight out.

I don’t know if I need to comment that it was a great vacation for us! Iceland is an amazing place. Geographically speaking, we were in Europe. Geothermically speaking, we were on both the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. We came face-to-face with active volcanoes, glaciers, and aquatic life. We ate like we’ve never eaten before. I think it’ll be impossible to forget our trip to this Viking land called Iceland.

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