“Few people take an interest in Iceland, but in those few the interest is passionate.” (W. H. Auden)
What kind of place most excites you in booking a cruise vacation? For me, warm island cruise destinations typically tantalize my senses as I expect to find true paradise there in the spirit of the unknown. Losing track of time on a remote coastal shoreline, engaging strangers in a cool tiki bar conversation or climbing steeply to a sheltered mountaintop hideaway thus make excellent ship excursions to satisfy my wanderlust longings. Gazing with awe on top deck at snow capped mountainous ranges surrounding Reykjavik on our late September, reposition cruise, I imagined Iceland as a more frigid version of my desired paradise ideal. I truly felt invigorated then to face expected extreme Arctic weather with my wife Ruth here during our two days of touristic exploration.
Day 1 – City Tour of Reykjavik
In mid morning on our first day, we joined hordes of cruise passengers to disembark at Reykjavik passenger terminal. While many tourists huddled in an adjoining gift shop to buy local souvenirs or obtain free wi fi service, more pressing matters occupied our immediate attention. Considering the bone-chilling weather we now faced, walking nearly two miles to the city center seemed impractical. We thus opted to escape the crowds by boarding a cruise shuttle for drop off within walking distance of the main Visitor Center in town center. I soon observed Reykjavik as a uniquely quiet place of minimal vehicle traffic and sparse human presence as we made our way along the shoreline route to our intended destination. Our attention would now divert to the serenity of Lake Tjornin, oddly occupying a massive space in the center of town. Prolifically occupied by thousands of sea birds exhibiting little fear of our human presence, we aimlessly lingered by the lakeshore in spite of the chilly weather to embrace this unique place of wildlife refuge.
Entering the modernistic tourist center overlooking the lake, we then requested information about visiting the “Blue Lagoon”, a hugely popular swimming attraction fed by warm geyser waters outside the city. A negative thought surfaced quickly. Did we really want to swim outdoors in thirty degree weather and risk the chance of getting sick? Unfortunately, a bus tour would also dissuade us from making such a visit as bookings were in excess of our expected price range and required advance reservations. An additional challenge arose as we attempted to find an affordable lunch in nearby pubs. Our examination of posted menus in Icelandic currency typically converted prices as $20.00 for one Diet Coke and over $25.00 for one lunch entree of fish and chips. Settling for a plain pizza to share, we now pondered our upcoming afternoon touristic options.
My travel research had revealed that Iceland presented an ideal place to view the spectacular Aurora Borealis phenomenon at this time of the year. Such curiosity led us to visit “Aurora Reykjavik”, Iceland’s Northern Lights Center along the shoreline. Spectacular photographs and panoramic video re-creations of past Aurora sightings throughout the island there offered conflicting explanations that both hard science and religious mysticism could explain the true essence of this phenomenon. Which theory do you believe? As we exited the museum, heightening wind gusts/ driving rain blowing ashore from the North Atlantic alerted us to hastily scurry back to the bus stop for our return back to the inviting comforts of our cruise ship. Amusingly, we were informed later that such extreme weather was common in Iceland for this time of year.
Day 2 – Iceland Island Tour
Curious to explore outside Reykjavik, we then booked the popular “Golden Circle” tour onboard the ship for the last day of our Iceland visit. Traveling inland uphill by bus to southwestern Iceland on this eight hour journey, we obtained a firsthand look at the remote eeriness of land devastated lava fields, lifelessly flat tundra plains, and ominously bubbling geyser fields. Feeling dispirited by the dull, gray clouds settling amidst faint sunlight conditions, our spirits lifted as we entered the impressive geothermal basin of Thingvellir National Park. For there we would learn that this UNESCO Heritage Site served as a nationally protected place of underground plate fissures, where superheated magma from the earth’s core violently rose to the land surface near a glacially filled lake. A subsequent hike along a gusty, wind tunnel- like canyon here would arouse awe-inspiring emotion in us amidst this spectacular kaleidoscope of silence, shape, and color manifested by such extreme, geothermal forces.
Moving further inland, geyser activity became increasingly more noticeable. Such “hot spots” spewing steady streams of boiling liquid along both sides of the roadside would become a major distraction for us as no warning signs or barriers existed to protect humans from these extreme heat dangers. At one geyser stop, in particular, we noticed tourists moving dangerously close to an “Old Faithful” like geyser that soon would expel its heated gases/liquids high into the air. In nearby fields, similarly, Icelandic horses grazed similarly unaffected by the geothermal dangers lying below their feet.
Looking back at our first visit to Iceland, I realize that future attempts to walk around Reykjavik on our own must be conducted more mindfully. Thus, we must better prepare our mind/body to face arctic- like weather, find affordable ways to spend on food, and prioritize making advanced ticket reservations. Adventuring throughout the island will also present the challenge of selecting suitable hike routes to avoid “hot spot” dangers of an unpredictable nature. We must also be more cognizant of how to find temporary shelter for avoiding extended exposure to the bitter cold. Clearly, Icelandic “paradise of the extreme” cannot be been accomplished easily, yet it seems clearly worth the survival effort. Watch the video below and you thus might find your own version of paradise in Iceland on your next Atlantic overseas vacation.