When I mention I have visited Iceland, there’s generally a series of questions, so let’s get those out of the way now.
- Is Iceland covered with ice? No, and Greenland isn’t green; the landscapes are opposite
- Did I see the Northern Lights? Spoiler alert: No, but I did see very cool colored lights in the night sky
- Did you go there because the Kardashians went there? Stop. Right. There. I’m not “Keeping Up With” anyone.
When my friend Denise asked me to join her for a long weekend in Iceland, I thought she was out of her mind. Well, I needed to brush up on my geography because Iceland is in the North Atlantic Ocean with a flight time of less than six hours from NYC. And with a $715 Groupon deal, you can’t go wrong. We visited in March when the Northern Lights are said to be visible, and that was my sole mission: see the Northern Lights.
It was late evening when we boarded our flight on the (now-defunct) WOW Air. The low-cost airline, headquartered out of Iceland, was a nightmare. I had a very cramped and narrow middle seat and not even so much as water was provided—forget pretzels! It was definitely, “Woooowwwww.”
We arrived at 5:30 am into Reykjavík-Keflavík International Airport, Iceland’s largest international hub. The darkness and cold air were overwhelming as we picked up our rental car. I began evaluating my decision to visit Iceland. Although we had a 10-hour tour of southern Iceland scheduled for 7:30 am, leaving little time for regret.
We boarded the tour bus on time and the chairs were a lot more comfortable than WOW! Driving hours on blank snowy roads made me nervous though, “Is this the tour?” I AM now regretting this trip.
I’m taking a nap.
Don’t sleep on Iceland
My eyes opened to a magnificent waterfall, Seljalandsfoss. Remarkably, its vibration was mild for a 196-foot vertical drop. For perspective, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is 185 feet tall measured along its lean. Visitors can climb alongside the waterfall and then behind it. You end up considerably wet, but the experience is worth it. (When will I next have the opportunity to climb behind a waterfall in Iceland?)
“Don’t ever turn your back to the ocean,” was the strong warning as we approached our next landmark: Reynisfjara Beach. It was overcast and snowing upon our arrival, but within moments, an extraordinary circular rainbow appeared serving as the backdrop for the famous black volcanic sand and enormous crashing waves. Treading lightly toward the ocean—acutely aware that I don’t know how to swim—I turned my back for a second to set the camera. As if on cue, the waves crashed underneath me and instantly started to pull me into the ocean. [Insert silent panic] In an instant, the water was up to my calves; my adrenaline raced me out.
I now know they are known as sneaker waves and surprisingly dangerous. A woman vacationing with her family drowned in this spot just two months before and the situation is serious enough to warrant Iceland’s Tourism Minister to intervene. I don’t say “survived” often, but in hindsight, I survived the dangerous waters of Reynisfjara Beach.
Travel Tip: Please be careful if you travel to Reynisfjara Beach and believe me, “NEVER turn your back to the ocean.”
Back on land, Hálsanefshellir sea cave with its basaltic lava columns in tall rectangular shapes felt more my speed. Gardar Cliff is a geological wonder and its basaltic rock columns create a medieval-like setting. They are small reflections of Reynisdrangar, the impressive basalt stacks in the ocean. Folklore provides a bizarre story involving trolls, but they are more likely the remains of sea cliffs. One thing is for sure: they are famous for their appearance in Game of Thrones.
After I climbed Gardar Cliff, of course I did, I entered the cave created below it. Standing inside, I was reminded that I am but a small part of the universe. I am standing in a massive cave, on a beach, on an island country, bordered by the Arctic and Northern Atlantic Oceans, on Earth, just one planet in our solar system.
As a little girl, I dreamed of going on safari but never hiking a glacier in Iceland. Who knew it was even an option? Next stop: the Sólheimajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers.
Sólheimajökull is a glacier outlet of Mýrdalsjökull, the fourth largest glacier in Iceland, but it is melting fast. We hiked quite a distance to the base of the glaciers from the lot. Our guide said that the glacier originally started where we parked our bus a mere 20 years ago.
Thanks to Global Warming, the glaciers are melting faster than new snowfall can accumulate. John Rogers writes in the Reykjavík Grapevine about the diminishing glaciers of the country’s landscape. According to Tómas Jóhannesson, head of Veðurstófa’s glacier group, “Iceland’s total glacier-covered area has shrunk by roughly 2000 square kilometres since the end of the 19th Century. We now lose about 40 square kilometres annually, which is quite a remarkable area to become deglaciated each year.” To give you an idea of how large that is, 40 square kilometers roughly equates to 15 square miles. Iceland is losing 11.5 times the area of Central Park every year!!
Denise and I hiked alongside the glacier, up to the “Do not pass this point” warning sign. We stepped over the line to be rebels. Our guide noticed everything. “By the way,” she said, “the feared Katla Volcano is under the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and it’s due to erupt any day now.”
But she was right, seismic activity has been recently recorded and a major eruption could be on the horizon.
Our first day in Iceland was long, but not drawn-out. I managed to nap on the bus between major attractions, which lessened my resentment with WOW Air. We were scheduled to experience the Northern Lights from a dark and deserted field that night, but it was too cloudy. The tour company attempted to re-schedule us for the following day, but we planned to spend the day in the famed Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon won.
So, I didn’t see the Northern Lights, but my first day in Iceland was colorful and brilliant in other ways. .
I’ve learned that when I travel I must expect the unexpected.