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Visiting Iceland’s spectacular natural wonders

A volcanic eruption Geldingadalur valley in the Fagradals mountain. The eruption began late the 19th of March. This image is taken 20th of March. Rare close-up access to a lava flow draws onlookers to Geldingadalur volcano. | Photo by Gyda Henningsdottir

Gray mist blots out the horizon, dampening sound save the TV-static sizzle of cooling lava. Veils of smoke wash across brutalist hunks of volcanic rubble. Fissures in the blackened landscape reveal red molten rock radiating heat inches below the surface. In some places, lava flows like a bewilderingly bright river; in others, it oozes like thick syrup over charred ridges. Fires spark and die. Cheeks redden.

This pulsing shore of a volcanic sea feels decidedly apocalyptic, but this isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning of it.

“We’re watching Iceland develop,” Ryan Connolly, my guide for a nature tour over the next few days, says as I watch a viscous pile of glowing orange lava shed its burnt-marshmallow skin and consume it before resuming its slow melt in my direction. Wild, I thought.

“It’s a new, dynamic environment. Everything is changing.”

He’s got that right.

It’s hard to believe this eerily beautiful vista exists on the same planet as, say, the living room where I’ve spent the past 14 months. Being anywhere else is strange and exciting at the moment. As Iceland itself grows before my eyes, the world in general suddenly feels big again.

The author looks out at an active lava field near Reykjavík. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

The author looks out at an active lava field near Reykjavík. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

Our crew—Connolly, a fellow travel writer, and I—stands on a mountaintop on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where the Geldingadalur volcano sprang back to life in March after nearly 800 years of hibernation. Same, girl. Same.

Eruptions in Iceland are common, but accessible lava flows are rare. Nearly half the country’s population of about 350,000 had either trekked to Iceland’s southwest point—about 45 minutes outside of the capital, Reykjavík—or otherwise viewed the volcano the first month it was active. Nobody knows how long it will flow.

I’d love to say that I, too, immediately jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Iceland’s hottest new real estate form before my eyes. But I hesitated a little, even though I live to travel and had been fully vaccinated for a month when the assignment came through. The wilds of Costco, I’d just about mastered. But a foreign country?

Like many, I worried about ease of entry in this new post-vaccine universe. But the logistics proved much simpler to overcome than the mental block. (I had to register online, then test at the airport and quarantine briefly upon arrival; at press time, the rules were evolving due to concerns about the Delta variant.)

In retrospect, the anxieties giving me pause were exactly why I needed a trip like this.

Glacial runoff carved spectacular Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, located near the Ring Road, about 40 miles from Vík. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Glacial runoff carved spectacular Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, located near the Ring Road, about 40 miles from Vík. | Photo by Jessica Fender

All across this charmed island—bubbling up from deep in the earth, beaming down from snowcapped glaciers, bobbing along in steamy turquoise lagoons—I found little reminders of who I’d been in the Before Times. Each new wonder became a stepping-stone back, a small easing of a pressure I’d forgotten I was under. A reboot. 

Starting back down the black gravel trail after our volcano exploration, Connolly seems just as awestruck as I am. Three weeks earlier, our mountaintop perch overlooked an empty, 300-foot-deep canyon. Today, this vantage point was level with the lava field. Mere days from now, it will be consumed entirely. He never knows what to expect, he explains with a gleam in his eye. And it suddenly occurs to me that uncertainty has gotten a bad rap over the past year. When did I stop calling it by its other name: adventure?

That wow factor

A narrow, moss-covered slot canyon near Seljalandsfoss. | Photo by Jessica Fender

A narrow, moss-covered slot canyon near Seljalandsfoss. | Photo by Jessica Fender

The next morning, I have no idea I’m about to scream until the sound escapes my throat. An exhilarated “Whooooo!” bounces through a rocky slot canyon, competing with the waterfall pounding to earth behind me. A short walk through a small stream led us to this secret chamber shot through with sunbeams, and my delight is a physical force filling my rib cage. It cannot be contained.

“Iceland’s always had that wow factor. Maybe more so now,” says Connolly, an earnest Scottish expat who fell so hard for this country’s glaciers that he cofounded boutique tour company Hidden Iceland. “You can drive out of a city, see a few farmhouses, sheep on the road, and then you’re into the wilderness. It’s exactly what the soul needs in general, and especially after the last 14 months.”

The view behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall. | Photo by Felix/stock.adobe.com

The view behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall. | Photo by Felix/stock.adobe.com

This is the second waterfall stop of our drive along Iceland’s idyllic Southern coast. The glacier-fed Seljalandsfoss, just next door, was our first. Visitors can walk behind that popular, 200-foot-high cascade, snap the quintessential Iceland waterfall photo, and fill a Nalgene in the crystalline creek downstream.

In early June, we’re just a week or two ahead of Iceland’s busy season, yet we have both falls nearly to ourselves—a trick of luck, expert guidance, and a drop in visitors brought on by the pandemic.

A visitor poses at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. | Photo by Jessica Fender

A visitor poses at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. | Photo by Jessica Fender

When I last saw Seljalandsfoss in 2016, I queued for my turn behind its aqueous curtain. In 2018, amid an unexpected tourism boom, a record 2.3 million people visited the island.

In response, the country raced to build and expand hotels, pave highways in farther-flung reaches, broaden fall and winter offerings, and beef up its hospitality infrastructure. From 2015 to 2020, the number of rooms for rent grew by 19 percent. Then, the pandemic struck.

While estimates remain tricky—here and across Europe—even the rosiest forecast puts Iceland’s 2021 visitor numbers at about a third of the 2018 peak. In short, crowds shouldn’t be a problem, especially for those, like us, who have ventured beyond Reykjavík and tour-bus fave the Golden Circle, a 140-mile loop just outside Reykjavík that links geysers, waterfalls, and a national park.

Basalt columns at the black-pebbled Reynisfjara beach. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Basalt columns at the black-pebbled Reynisfjara beach. | Photo by Jessica Fender

We continue east on the Ring Road, which circles the island, passing moss-covered moonscapes; fields dotted with farmhouses; and distant, dazzling seascapes. A little farther along the coast, Iceland’s first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, made landfall around 874 and decided to stay. I can see why.

I keep an eye out for rainbows in the mist of Skógafoss, another waterfall. At Reynisfjara, a black-pebbled beach framed by geometric basalt columns, we scan for the puffins that raise their pufflings along this stretch each summer. And at all times my eyes are peeled for Icelandic horses, with their emo shock of shaggy bangs, that have ventured close enough to the road for a few pats on the muzzle. (We eventually find one, but sadly, it’s too big for my carry-on.)

Icelandic horses are famous for their shaggy bangs. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Icelandic horses are famous for their shaggy bangs. | Photo by Jessica Fender

As the day winds down, at least in hours—it’s June, so it never gets dark—we end at Diamond Beach near the popular Jökulsárlón lagoon, where shards of the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier wash up on black-sand shores. I pick up an estimated 1,000-year-old iceberg and, amazed, hold it in my bare hands.

Icebergs dot Jökulsárlón lagoon in Vatnajökull National Park. | Photo by Ivan Kmit/stock.adobe.com

Icebergs dot Jökulsárlón lagoon in Vatnajökull National Park. | Photo by Ivan Kmit/stock.adobe.com

I flash back to this moment a few days later when Lea Gestsdóttir Gayet, head of public relations for Business Iceland, tells me, “Our weather and landscape are constantly changing, so every moment here is unique and unrepeatable.” So true.

Encounters with cute critters

“Are you sure I can pet him?” asks my travel buddy for the week, fellow journalist Kerri Allen, sounding alarmed.

“Yes!” I shout. (Sort of?)

A knee-high fluff ball with striking blue eyes is making an uncanny beeline right for us on a roadside just outside of Vík. 

“But he’s wild!” she says. (He’s not.) “What do I do?”

A lamb wanders along the Icelandic roadside. | Photo by Jessica Fender

A lamb wanders along the Icelandic roadside. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Kerri doesn’t encounter many lambs in her hometown of New York. In Iceland, for much of the year, these adorable little creatures roam freely.

For days, we’d hoped to get close, but they’d remained distant and wary. Somehow, this trio—a mom and two lambs—crossed the road to get to us, and they’re just as soft as I’d imagined.

Kerri and I laugh at the absurdity of the moment—our reactions, the lambs’ reactions, the sheer elation of a new experience on a sunny day in a beautiful country.

Down the road we find out that it’s not just the livestock that are super into us right now.

Happy days are here again

Skool Beans café serves hot drinks in a retro school bus. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Skool Beans café serves hot drinks in a retro school bus. | Photo by Jessica Fender

Holly Keyser, who runs the popular gourmet coffee shop Skool Beans out of a retro school bus, says most people here—locals and visitors alike—are in a more celebratory mood than usual lately.

“It’s like everybody’s just vomiting rainbows,” she says, topping a foamy fennel-white chocolate cocoa with a line of cocoa nibs.

A smattering of shuttered storefronts in Reykjavík and half-stocked shelves in shop farther east hint at the toll 2020 took on many tourist-facing businesses here. Hidden Iceland, which specializes in private and small-group tours, pivoted to online information sessions and tours for foreign students already in the country during the lean months. Reconnecting with the U.S. market and global progress on vaccinations have the company staffing up and working double time.

Throughout Iceland, bar hours have been extended, shops and hotels have resumed their bustle, and cafés like Keyser’s have been able to reopen.

As European cities spring back to life, dispatches from Rome, Paris, Santorini, and elsewhere describe similar lovefests happening across the continent. Tennessean Bill Harper, whom I met as he awaited his outbound flight to trek Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago, shares experiences that mirror mine when I check in by email a few days later: Easy entry, low traffic, lots of community.

My post-vaccine “to visit” list is growing by the minute.

Exploring ice caves and glaciers

Some 800 years ago, the first snowflakes began collecting in the crater of a dormant volcano, compressing there over time into a massive block of dense ice under so much pressure that the bottom liquefied, sending the frozen behemoth flowing imperceptibly downhill. This morning, we’re going to climb that glacier.

The author strikes a pose at the Falljokull glacier. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

The author strikes a pose at the Falljökull glacier. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

It’s the last day of our nature tour before heading back to Reykjavík for some Icelandic city living and a soak in one of its famous geothermal lagoons. The skies are blue. An overnight rain has washed Falljökull glacier clean, so when I catch my first glimpse of its icy peaks in the sunshine, they’re radiant—and a little intimidating. (I’ve broken three of four limbs. Let’s just say I’m waiting for the other shoe to trip.)

Connolly straps us into crampons, hands us both icepicks, and leads us upward onto a vast, otherworldly ice field. Water drips, burbles, and flows in winding rivulets dropping below the surface to make Swiss cheese of the 1,000 feet of ice beneath us. We gaze into deceptively deep, turquoise crevasses, marvel at on-ice waterfalls, and discover a rare summer ice cave. Though a few red helmets bob far in the distance, it feels like we have this frosty playground at the top of the world all to ourselves.

The author fills up a water bottle from a glacial stream before climbing the Falljokull glacier. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

The author fills up a water bottle from a glacial stream before climbing the Falljokull glacier. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

Halfway up, we pause for a snack, picnicking on the glacier’s frozen crust. For the first time, I really take in what’s behind me: The cotton ball clouds that feel close enough to touch, the brilliant white ice giving way to emerald-green fields, and a steely sea below.

I’m positive there’s a bigger lesson here. Maybe something about unbearable pressure producing beauty, or the general smallness of human struggle in the grander scheme.

But, for the first time in what feels like forever, I’m too absorbed in the moment to overthink things. 

Award-winning journalist Jessica Fender blogs about her adventures at travelerbroads.com.

Visiting Iceland: What you need to know

Shaggy-banged Icelandic horses stand in front of the Skógafoss waterfall. | Photo by Chris Burkard/Cypress Peak Productions

Shaggy-banged Icelandic horses stand in front of the Skógafoss waterfall. | Photo by Chris Burkard/Cypress Peak Productions

Getting there: Icelandair flies from eight U.S. cities, though there are currently no nonstop flights from California. Several U.S. carriers also fly into Keflavik airport. 

COVID cautions: At press time, Iceland was seeing an uptick in Delta variant-related COVID cases. All vaccinated visitors and those who could show proof of a prior COVID-19 infection were required to present a negative test result no more than 72 hours old before departure for Iceland. Unvaccinated travelers had to also test and quarantine in approved accommodations after arrival, pending results. For the latest requirements, visit covid.is/english

A deeper dive: For glacier hikes, a safer volcano visit, wildlife spotting, and a better chance to see the Northern Lights, consider hiring a guide. Hidden Iceland offers private, bespoke, and small-group tours. hiddeniceland.is.

The author relaxes at the Blue Lagoon spa. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

The author relaxes at the Blue Lagoon spa. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Fender

Soak it in: Geothermal pools are a must for any Iceland visit. The famous Blue Lagoon spa, located 20 minutes from the airport, also offers on-site luxury accommodations at two hotels. bluelagoon.com.

Just outside of Reykjavík, the trendy Sky Lagoon opened earlier this year with sea views, a swim-up bar, and a chance to mingle with locals. skylagoon.com.

Getting around: Rental cars are plentiful, and the paved Ring Road makes driving to many locations possible in cooperative weather.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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