A geology student takes us on a tour of the land of fire and ice
Whenever people ask me what it was like to live in Iceland for a year, I tell them, “it was the best year of my life.”
I fell in love with Iceland when I first visited with my family. I was 16 at the time and vowed to return. To be honest, I based my choice on which university to attend in my native England on the fact that the program offered a year abroad in Iceland. In my third year of studies, my dream came true: I moved to Reykjavik for one year to study earth science at the University of Iceland.
I had fallen for Iceland’s open nature, both in its culture and landscape. Iceland is true Viking country, settled 1,100 years ago by the Norse who brought their ancient language and unique horses. The hardiness of those horses is a valuable trait in a country swept by winds gathered from the whole Atlantic and chilled over Iceland’s many glaciers. Although true to its name, Iceland’s cold is neatly balanced by volcanic forces that shape the country’s stunning landscape and provide free and green geothermal energy.
The Hallgrlimskirkja Church in Reykjavik, designed to resemble basaltic lava columns that form Iceland's landscape.
Despite its name, which means “Bay of Smoke,” Reykjavik is a wonderful city. It has everything you could ask for in a capital city — theatres, cinemas, stores, museums, concert halls — just with a lot fewer people. (About 200,000 people — two thirds of Iceland’s population — call the city home.) Three of Reykjavik’s most popular viewing sites provide excellent perspectives of the city and the surrounding area, and walking between them will show you much of the city in just under a day.
Start with a trip up the bell tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church to see the city spread out below. Since wood and turf were the primary building materials for the first 1,000 years of Iceland’s settlement, there are few old buildings in Reykjavik. Hallgrímskirkja is no exception, first commissioned in 1937 but not finished until 1975. State architect Guðjón Samúelsson designed the church to resemble the landscape’s basaltic lava columns. In front of the church is a statue of explorer Leif Eriksson, the Icelander regarded as the first European to land in America, nearly 500 years before Columbus.
The Sólfar, or The Sun Voyager, sculpture.
Viking exploration is also celebrated at the second stop on the tour beside the Sólfar (The Sun Voyager), a sculpture by Reykjavik’s harbour representing a Viking ship. This is an excellent spot to sit and watch the sunset over the city’s protective mountain, Esja.
The last stop on the city tour is Perlan (The Pearl). It combines energy, culture and fine dining all in one landmark complex. Here, a large glass dome that gives the building its name perches upon huge geothermal water storage tanks, which provide the entire city with natural hot water. Inside is the Saga Museum of Viking history, a Christmas store (open year ’round), and the fanciest dining spot in the country. Although dining at Perlan’s revolving restaurant was never within my modest student budget, there is a great ice-cream parlour on the lower level that provides the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent on the complex’s viewing deck where you can take in the 360-degree panorama over the “Bay of Smoke.”
The Golden Circle
The day-loop of wonders around Reykjavik is known locally as the “Golden Circle” and includes the sites of Geysir, which gives its name to all geysers worldwide, Gullfoss (Golden Falls) and Thingvellir, the site of the original Icelandic parliament, which is nestled in the great rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the separation between the European and North American tectonic plates. (Reykjavik, incidentally, lies on the North American side, so while I studied in Europe politically speaking, as a geology major I always say that I technically studied in North America.)
The geyser Strokkur erupts.
Although the original Geysir rarely erupts nowadays, its little brother, Strokkur, happily spouts hot water several metres into the air every five to seven minutes. The surrounding area is a stunning array of colours, from the green and yellow sulphurous streams of water to the azure blue pools cloudy with heat-loving bacteria. Close by is Gullfoss with its powerful, cascading waterfall — usually adorned with a picture-perfect rainbow. For even more local colour, consider stopping off at Kerio, a volcanic crater lake on the drive to Thingvellir where brilliant red volcanic rock frames a pool of dark green water.
The South Coast
Beyond the Golden Circle, just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavik, are some of Iceland’s most breathtaking sites. Along the coast to the east is Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall you can walk behind. Just beyond that is Skogafoss, a tall and wide sheet of water streaming over a cliff in front of Eyjafjallajökull — the glacier capping the volcano that famously erupted this past spring, bringing air travel in Europe to a grinding halt.
If by this time the waterfalls and their complicated names are starting to run together, our trip throws up some variety in the form of Sólheimajökull, a long tongue of glacier that you can walk right up to. Beyond is the enchanting town of Vik, with its black, sandy beaches and jagged black basalt columns stretching out into the sea.
Past Vik, the glacial fun really begins at Skaftafell National Park, which boasts the largest ice cap in Europe. You can hike around the glacier or take a guided walk on it. In the summer you can hear the eerie sound of cracking ice as the glacier retreats. Finally, the last stop to the east is Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon where you can take a boat trip that glides between the towering icebergs or wander down to the ocean’s edge, where small pieces of iceberg lay washed up on the shore in perfect contrast to the black volcanic sand.
One Ring Road to Rule Them All
Continuing east from Jökulsárlón on Iceland’s famous Ring Road One brings you to the east fjords, where the town of Seydisfjördur will give you a taste of the country’s fantasy-book landscape. Just north of town is Myvatn, a lake with green-water craters and troll-shaped lava statues. Close by is the volcanic area of Krafla, a lava field that erupted less than 40 years ago and still steams and bubbles in places today. (It is so exposed I got burnt walking around the lava plains after just a few hours.)
The last area on the circuit is the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the setting for Jules Verne’s classic novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Although there are no volcanic tubes here that feature prehistoric animals and lead to southern Italy, as the story suggests, the glacier that caps the peninsula does offer an ethereal experience to those who hike the narrow track that leads past the 1,400-metre summit.
Although it’s not on many itineraries, the Westman Islands off the southern coast of Iceland hold a special place in my heart. Reached by ferry or a short plane ride, the main island, Heimaey (pop. 4,036), is home to the volcano Eldfell. It erupted unexpectedly in 1973, creating a 231-metre-high mountain where a meadow had once been.
After I finished my year in Iceland, I was so inspired by the natural energy I saw there that I made volcanology my specialty. I am studying Eldfell as part of my master’s thesis research. I have since visited the island in the harsh winter and the more gentle summer, when I always feel welcomed back by the flocks of puffin who seem to greet me in their smart tuxedo-suits before flying away over the dark and menacing lava fields of Eldfell.
The famous Blue Lagoon, the natural geothermal spa — its pale blue waters are full of minerals like sulphur and silica and are said to cure skin ailments.