Caveat: Don’t go now. But plan to go as soon as the virus calms itself down and we’re allowed out of our bedrooms again. It may take a while, but that’s ok. That just gives you more time to save up for the trip. And to read this.
Go to Iceland. Go NOW!
Three days on the Ring Road and you, too, will believe in elves
Why would we want to go to Iceland?”
The sad and ridiculous truth is that I fell for the ad campaign on the subways; the one where Icelandair offers a seven-day layover on flights to Europe.
This ain’t me, friends. I am not susceptible to the wiles of advertisers. Until I am. Or was. Those ads caught me at a vulnerable time. After two years away from our traditional trip to Burning Man, both my partner, AleXander, and I were feeling some wanderlust.
Talking AleXander into this trip wasn’t easy. He’s an urban creature through and through with scant interest in the glories of the wilderness after his 20+ years of self-imposed exile to Vermont (his to tell, friends, not mine). Being back in the city, he wasn’t particularly keen on driving Iceland’s Ring Road.
But similar to how I used that Leonard Cohen concert in Prague to get me there in 2009, I had an “event” in mind that would convince him that we should go to Iceland in 2016. John Lennon’s birthday.
Every year we wander on over to Strawberry Fields on October 9 to hang out and sing along with the others celebrating John Lennon’s birthday.
It’s always a stirring and beautiful time as locals and visitors bring guitars, flowers, and song sheets to honor the memory of John. On October 9, 2007, Yoko Ono, lit the Peace Tower for the first time on Viðey Island, just across the sound from Reykjavík in Iceland.
The Imagine Peace Tower in Viðey Island by Reykjavík in Iceland - John Lennon & Yoko Ono
On Viðey island, which is a small island just a 7 minute's boat ride away from the mainland of Iceland's capital city…
Yes, AleXander saw the light (see what I did there? Eh?) and off we went. I really have to put in a plug here for the drive-it-yourself tour company, Iceland Unlimited.
They were wonderful.
The daily flight to Reykjavík arrives after 11 pm but there was a fleet of shuttle buses awaiting our flight (which was full) and when we arrived at our guesthouse at 1 am, the young man at the desk was ready for us.
We got vouchers for each night’s accommodations, the paperwork to pick up our 4x4 two days later (when you go be sure to get a 4x4; you will need it as some of the roads are roads in name only), and we found a personalized map of Iceland with our route highlighted and many cool places noted in pen including the black beaches of Vik which AleXander had wanted to see.
We also got a cell phone and a programmed GPS that we could easily reprogram as we wished.
We had two days to tramp around Reykjavík which is very trampable. It’s not a very old city compared to other European cities so there’s not much in the way of brilliant architecture.
The island has been almost completely deforested over the centuries so many of the houses in Reykjavík and other cities are made of colorful corrugated metal. If Reykjavík doesn’t have the architecture of Copenhagen or Prague it more than makes up for that with innumerable fantastic murals.
On the evening of October 9 after dinner, we made our way to the bus station where Yoko had arranged for free buses to the free ferries out to Viðey Island. To celebrate John’s birthday we were all invited out to the lighting of the Peace Tower memorial. It was about 40 degrees and the rain was coming sideways. But off we went.
Yoko was there and so were both of John’s sons, Sean and Julian. There was a choir singing and the rain was raining and the wind never let up. But as the first beams of light shot up through the rain and someone at a control board somewhere cued up “Imagine”, it sent shivers up the back of my neck.
I’m glad we went but it’s definitely a check-mark item. Been there, seen it, don’t need to go through that again. I was numb with cold by the time we got back to the guesthouse. It’s even more delightful now to simply walk over to Strawberry Fields again and sing with the other celebrants.
Now let me tell you about the rainbows of Reykjavík. Yes, we were the dorky ass tourists gaping in awe and grabbing our cameras to catch the shimmering rainbow while everyone around us pushed past, ignoring the glory in the sky. Why? Because there are rainbows several times a day in Reykjavík.
And as every hourly storm front gets shoved out of the way by the next band of high pressure, presto!, there’s another rainbow.
We had two glorious days in Reykjavík and then we hit the road. We got a late start that first day but we still couldn’t help stopping repeatedly to see the multitude of wonders.
For example, waterfalls. They are nearly as plentiful as the sturdy little horses and flocks of impassive sheep or, for that matter, the murals in Reykjavík. We didn’t go more than two miles on any given day without encountering yet another magnificent waterfall. Somehow they always cast their spell.
I got the sense that this Iceland isn’t the most litigious of countries. And wheelchair accessibility? Yeah. No. We did some real hiking to get to some of these falls and the one we walked behind was terrifying.
There was a rope to hold onto part of the way, but the “steps” were roughly carved out of the rock which was slippery and soaking wet. And with high winds and no barriers at Dettifoss, I found myself wondering if this would be where I died. I kept my distance.
We drove through the Black desert that first day after leaving Þingvellir National Park which was the site of Iceland’s first governing body, Þing (pronounced “Thing”), where according to the helpful information boards, was where the beheadings and hangings took place. There’s a government for you.
Throughout the day we obeyed our stern-voiced GPS, but when she got us to a narrow dirt road with a gate swung open to the black of the endless Iceland night, we lost faith in her.
We backtracked to the nearest town and called our host who gently guided us to the farm where we were spending our first night. The next day as we left, we recognized where we had been the night before. Our GPS had been right.
After two days of driving through all of this I understood why some people in Iceland genuinely believe in elves to the point that highways are re-routed so as not to disturb them.
Elf lobby blocks Iceland road project
Supreme court to rule on case brought by Friends of Lava, who cite environmental impact of highway and effect on elf…
I would not have been surprised to see a herd of unicorns come thundering across one of those fields or to look up and find dragons turning tight circles above the fjords.
Even having experienced all of the above, we were completely unprepared for our first glacier. It was so unsettling that we had to pull over. Up ahead, it was curving around the edge of a mountain like a frozen river and it was emitting an eerie blue-green light.
The next day we reprogrammed our GPS to visit a nearby arm of the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland as well as the largest in Europe. Leaving the main road and coming to a gate, we almost turned back. It was the end of the world. But another vehicle came up from behind us and bounced on across the rocky plain. Oh, what the hell.
We couldn’t actually see the glacier but that car ahead of us stopped short of a piled up bank of rocks, so we stopped, too and began climbing that bank. AleXander was ahead of me (and again with the sideways rain), but as he cleared the top of the bank and got his first glimpse of the tail end of the glacier lounging in a pool of icy water, he stopped stock still. I got up next to him and understood why. Just incredibly stunning.
Geysirs, rainbows, waterfalls, black beaches, moss-covered lava fields, stone cairns, and then there is the Icelandic sky. We’d pull over and just stare in dumb awe.
I’m not what you’d call a seasoned world traveler, but I’ve jumped on and off a plane or two in my life and I have never been on a trip like this one. Every morning we packed up and hit the road with no idea what we’d experience that day or what our night’s accommodations would be like. It was kind of like being rock stars without guitars. Or groupies.
There was the day we got stampeded by sheep. We’d come around a bend and there were several hundred sheep crossing the road up ahead of us. Then one looked our way and next we knew the whole flock was charging directly at the car.
“Grab the camera!”
The week started out with abysmal weather, cold rain, and cloudy skies, no Nothern Lights for us! But the weather began to clear and on Thursday night, our next to last night on the road, we got our wish. Our accommodations that night were at a farm at the end of a 3km driveway.
The farm and guesthouse featured a tiny restaurant that served dinner until 9 pm. Best trout I have ever tasted.
Then our hosts kindly informed us that, if we wanted to see them, the Northern Lights were visible out back.
There was a glorious full moon that night that washed out the sky and made our experience a little less cinematic. But they were our Northern Lights and we loved them.
Our last stop before returning to Reykjavík was Iceland’s Capital of the North, Akureyri, at the base of Eyjafjörður Fjord. It felt a little like Brooklyn but colder. It’s actually a really lovely little city and if I had the time and resources I would love to live there for one year and experience the full range of Iceland’s light and darkness.
There is so much mystery, beauty and grandeur to experience throughout the country. You really cheat yourself of the something completely unique if you go to Iceland and stick around Reykjavík, venturing only as far as The Golden Circle.
But when you do go to Reykjavík, don’t miss Kiki, said to be Iceland’s only Queer Bar where, according to the tip jar, when you tip a bartender a dolphin has an orgasm.
Oh, and one last thing. We did not go to the Blue Lagoon. Instead, we went to one of several local pools that featured “hot pots”, small geothermically heated pools, one of which was filled with sea water where we were hard-pressed to not bob around on the surface.
There was also a large jacuzzi filled with locals and their kids and a deliciously hot steam room. All for 20 kronas instead of the 80+ it would cost to join the tourists at the Blue Lagoon.
Yes, Iceland is crawling with tourists now. Go anyway. Everyone speaks English because no one who wasn’t born there can manage Icelandic and they teach English in the schools. It’s expensive but manageable. We bought loaves of hard brown bread and hunks of cheese to have on the road with us and cut down on the restaurant expenses.
It’s a truly magical place that you will carry with you in your subconscious for the rest of your life.
Thanks for reading and do share your travel magic here or in your own stories. I love traveling vicariously!
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