The young taxi driver who meets me at Keflavik International Airport whisks my luggage and me into his van. Leif has a halo of fiery red hair and a curly beard to match.
“We’ve got to move fast to get you to Reykjavik to catch your flight to Akureyri,” he says as he manoeuvres onto the highway.
I can’t stop asking him, “Are you descended from the Vikings?”
“Pure Viking!” Leif smiles at me. “Everyone asks me that.” He weaves his family saga into his commentary about places we pass.
I had been excited ever since I discovered that IcelandAir began flying non-stop from Canadian hubs, including Vancouver, in June 2014. Two months later, I took advantage of their generous stopover policy and explored the north and south of Iceland for 10 days en route home from Scotland.
My small plane side-slips down to a fjord, flies north below the mountain peaks, and lands on a runway built in the middle of the water. Akureyri, my base for five days and 110 kms from the Arctic Circle, is five minutes away by taxi. It’s a pretty town and home to 20,000 citizens who voted for heart-shaped stop lights. I like them immediately. Settled in 890CE by a few Norse, Akureyri bustles today with a university, active fishing and ship-building industries, and a vibrant tourist trade. I spy a cruise ship alongside the harbour wall.
The climate here is sunnier and drier than the south. The end of September is almost winter in northern Iceland and today the wind blows straight from the Arctic. The season has painted the region in rich golds, subtle grey-greens, and lush crimsons, an unexpected bonus for a photographer. Farms dot the lower slopes beside the fjord, and behind the town empty ski lifts await the first snows. Akureyri feels remote, as well as chilly.
I explore the north with companies that operate a wide choice of small-group tours year-round from Akureyri, including night adventures to view the Aurora Borealis and flights over active volcanoes. It is a good decision — in the comfort of mini-buses or AWD vehicles, visitors can reach places where cars can’t go, with storytelling guides who know the history and geology of Iceland. And, of course, geology is Iceland’s major attraction.
The land steams. Volcanoes erupt. Earthquakes rumble. Mud boils. Geysers gush. And water between 100C and 200C pours right out of the earth. Iceland is the only landmass that spans the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Their junction is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that runs north-south splitting Iceland in two. The geology here is wildly temperamental because the plates are relentlessly pulling apart. Seismic activity has defined Iceland’s landscape and shaped its people for centuries. It is both a blessing and a curse.
My tours are 10- to 12-hours long, and as it’s low season, I share the guides with only one or two others. The companies customize the tours to fit our interests and my need for photography. I experience nature’s power, marvel at contrasts of hot and cold, black and white, and once I think I’m on the moon.
Around Lake Myvatn, we whiz by cinder cones, explosion craters, caves, and black lava fields — dramatic and strangely intimidating. Further along, the flat land is barren, pock-marked by small rocks and this is where the astronauts trained before the moon landing. I travel unpaved lanes in the bottom of glacier-scoured valleys and high on mountain sides. One minute, I’m by the sea, the next in the clouds. Then I’m in a golden canyon, Ásbyrgi, where the elves live. On the north coast, hundreds of Icelandic sheep watch me pass in river deltas surrounded by green fields, and the small harbours are crowded with fish and whale-watching boats. Nearby, I straddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, left foot on the North American plate and my right on the Eurasian, yearning to feel them move.
The big waterfalls in Iceland are must-sees — the water cascades in thunderous roars and the spray dazzles with multiple rainbows. My favourite in the north is Dettifoss, the biggest in Europe, but the 50 kilometres on washboard to reach it are the worst I’ve ever endured. (Rental cars are forbidden on this old road.) The hike from the parking lot down to Dettifoss is tricky — steep and rocky — but the reward, spectacular. When I turn downstream, I face a mini-Grand Canyon.
I catch my first glimpse of Icelandic horses on the north coast at sunset. They are small, but not ponies, and come in all colours; strong and hardy, they winter mostly outside. Later, after coffee with a farmer near Grenivik, I meet 50 of his 250-strong herd. These horses are polite — an odd but perfect word to describe them. They amble over to greet me and stand still as I stroke and pat them, never tossing their heads or treading on my feet. Icelandic horses have remained pure-bred since their ancestors came to Iceland aboard Viking longships in 834CE, thanks to an ancient law enacted in 930CE that remains in effect. It prohibits importation of any horses to Iceland and the return of any that have been exported. Today, the tiny horses don’t work on the farms; instead they are the gentle mounts for the popular riding tours.
Now I’m high above the clouds on a plateau of intense geothermal activity at Hverarond, staring at the barren, orange slopes of Mount Námafjall scarred by deep gullies. Sulphurous fumes and an icy wind assault my nose while pale blue mud pools boil at my feet and fumaroles deafen me with their roars. Desolate and not commercialized, many consider this spot is the best attraction in Iceland.
Iceland harnesses their limitless geothermal energy to produce electricity from the 200C water, provides the nation’s 100C water for central heating and household use, and diverts the used hot water under their roads and sidewalks to melt ice and snow in winter. Icelanders appreciate the geologic boon that costs them little and attracts growing numbers of tourists. They philosophically accept and manage the curse of catastrophic seismic events and do not fear them. The endless hot water means they can swim year-round; every community’s outdoor swimming pool is the heart of Icelanders’ social life.
On the flight back to Reykjavik, I ponder my five days; the truth is I have only seen a fraction of the north. Iceland is like no other place I’ve visited. Scenic, yes. Remote, certainly. Friendly, definitely. But it’s different somehow — the land under your feet feels alive.
The author is grateful to GeoIceland, Promote Iceland, Nonni Tours, and Saga Travel for making her explorations of Northern Iceland possible.
IF YOU GO
* I urge visitors to Iceland to include the north in their travel plans: it has fewer tourists than the south, a dryer climate, and some of the best experiences.
* Iceland is spotlessly clean, has strong mobile phone signals even 150 kilometres from the nearest civilization, and excellent Wi-Fi.
* Late fall and winter are the best time to view the Aurora Borealis.
* Everyone speaks fluent English.
* The climate changes rapidly and can be cold and rainy even in summer. I was glad of my hat, scarf and gloves.
* You’ll need hiking boots if you go on a tour in the north — expect to walk on rough terrain — and pack a rain suit too.
* Iceland is expensive and uses the Króna as currency.
One-stop tour planner: http://www.icelandontheweb.com/
Saga Travel: http://www.sagatravel.is/en/ (recommended by author)
Nonni Tours: http://www.nonnitravel.is/ (recommended by author)
GeoIceland: www.geoiceland.com (recommended by author)
Riding tours: www.polarhestar.is
IcelandAir flies from Canadian hubs to Iceland and on to European centres: http://www.icelandair.ca
Air Iceland (domestic airline): www.airiceland.is
Map of Northern Iceland: http://www.visitakureyri.is/static/files/vefmyndir/akureyri/pdf/Map-Nordurland.pdf. (It takes a while to load.)
october 2016 INSPIRED senior living
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