I have been fascinated by the idea of visiting Iceland for many years. As an elementary school teacher who often talked about geological formations in Iceland during science classes, I thought I knew a lot about the country and the forces that shaped it. I knew many facts, but after experiencing Iceland in person, I learned that our planet is more beautiful and amazing than I ever imagined.
Even after I decided to visit Iceland it took a while to get there. My daughter and I originally planned a trip in early May of 2020. Needless to say, that trip did not happen. We rescheduled for the following year, but that was also canceled. Eventually, the opportunity to visit Iceland opened up in May of 2022 so we went for it. We were so happy we decided to travel again.
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Iceland has become a major travel destination over the past 7 years. It was estimated that over two million tourists passed through Keflavik International Airport in 2019. For a country with a population of just over 366,000, that is an impressive number. Especially when you consider that most tourists visited during June, July, and August.
Iceland was one of those travel destinations that found itself straining to accommodate all the visitors who wanted to experience the beauty of the country. I now understand why. Based on my experience, Iceland is an amazing place with unparalleled scenic beauty. The country offers endless vistas and landscapes untouched by humans since their creation. The air is as pure as I have experienced anywhere. Every day seemed fresh and vibrant.
If you are trying to decide if it is worth it; I can attest that it is. If you have not visited Iceland yet, then it should be high on your list of future travel destinations.
In many ways, Iceland reminded me of the scenic beauty I experienced in other areas of the world such as Alaska and Tibet. The landscapes and open spaces reflect Iceland’s unique location and creation: high latitude, intense geological forces, fierce weather patterns, and development in the middle of the Gulf Stream.
Our goals were to see as many scenic areas as possible and to take advantage of some of the unique experiences that can be found in Iceland. It would have been nice if we had unlimited days, but like many travelers, we had limited time. In our case, we found that we could comfortably get away for ten days.
We knew that we wanted to start in Reykjavik, so we focused on the southern half of the island. We estimated that we could reasonably spend 2-3 days each in Eastern Iceland, the Golden Circle, and the Snaefelsnes Peninsula. We discovered a tour company that had an itinerary that visited most of the major sites we wanted to see. We knew we were in for a very full agenda, but we wanted to see as much as possible in the limited time we had.
Guided Tour in Iceland
There are many ways to travel through Iceland. A large number of visitors opt for driving, camping, or hiking vacations. It is easy to drive and navigate around the island. I opted for a guided tour due to limited time and my desire to engage with fellow travelers. I enjoy small to moderate size group tours mostly because I enjoy sharing the experience with other travelers.
Groups are always a mix of experienced, veteran travelers and first-timers. I enjoy trading travel stories and listening to the adventures of others. I get ideas, but I also enjoy the camaraderie of those who enjoy similar experiences. Every trip is a mix of many positive travelers, a few negative complainers, and people who become short-term travel friends. Many are interesting one-time acquaintances, and others I wish I had the time to talk more with and know better.
I enjoy the way groups come together for an experience and then dissolve and everyone returns to their area of the world. I also confess that I like the security of having a local guide to share knowledge and handle any problems that may occur.
After flying into Keflavik Airport, Reykjavik was a natural place to begin and end our journey. The capital of Iceland is not a large city by most standards throughout the world, but it is Iceland’s largest and most diverse city. Here we easily found a variety of places to eat and stores to equip ourselves.
Reykjavik did have some noteworthy attractions worth seeing. Immediately upon entering the city, we were drawn to the great church Hallgrímskirkja.
Walking downhill from there to the waterfront there were pedestrian shopping streets such as Skólavörðustígur and Laugavegur. We saw unique statues such as the Sun Voyager, the futuristic concert hall Harpa, and the old town area near City Hall known for its restaurants and nightlife. There was also an extensive harbor area that featured many restaurants serving Icelandic foods. We further discovered a variety of bakeries and tasty lunch eateries.
We found that the two days our tour started with in Reykjavik allowed us to adjust to the time difference and to see and learn about the city. We were also happy that our tour ended with one day in Reykjavik so we could get last-minute gifts and enjoy a final visit to the city.
Many people come to Iceland to specifically visit the famous Blue Lagoon located between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik. There is no doubt that the Blue Lagoon is a must-do experience in Iceland. It was my favorite part of our trip and one I hope to revisit one day. We spent three wonderful hours relaxing in warm geothermal waters by putting on mud masks and enjoying drinks at the swim-up bar. The waters made every part of my body feel relaxed and energized me to start my journey around Iceland. Soaking and relaxing among the rocks in a lava field felt otherworldly. It was an experience I will remember for my entire life.
Our third day began with a surprising reality check. Even though we were told that there were only nine cases of COVID currently confirmed in the country, one of the members of our travel group tested positive. That necessitated that all of us be tested before we could continue on the tour. Fortunately, everyone else tested negative and we had no other problems for the remainder of our journey.
Our delay required us to spend a few extra hours in Reykjavik during which we viewed Höfði house, the location of the 1886 Summit meeting between United States President, Ronald Reagan, and the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
It also allowed us to drive to Bessastadir to see the traditional residence of the President of Iceland. We couldn’t believe that only one security car and a small chain barrier separated the public from the viewing area and the home of the President. It was a refreshing reminder that it is possible to live in a sane, civilized world.
The focus of the second part of our tour took us to Eastern Iceland to view craters, lava rock creations, black sand beaches, snow-capped volcanoes, glaciers, and icebergs. A drive out to the eastern coast of Iceland revealed one geological marvel after another. The snow-capped volcanoes Katla and Vatnajökull dominate the region. From these icy peaks, glaciers descend toward the ocean or inland valleys.
The melting ice of the glaciers creates abundant and spectacular waterfalls that cascade from the faces of mountains, hills, and cliffs to the valleys below. This abundance of water produces glacial washes that shrink and expand depending on the water flow and season. Much of the landscape is black, volcanic soil that is found among craters and volcanic rock formations from previous and recent eruptions of volcanic fissures. The landscape was spectacular and seemed to be never-ending.
We stopped at some major attractions such as the Lava Center near Hvolsvöllur to learn about the geology of the area, battled intense winds along the headlands of Dyrholaey near the town of Vik, and viewed major waterfalls such as Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.
One of our highlights was walking behind Seljalandsfoss to experience the power of the spray descending off the mountain. In Vatnajökull National Park, we walked to the Skaftafell Glacier, took an amphibious vehicle to icebergs on the lagoon of Jökulsárlón Glacier, and held glacial ice at Jökulsárlón Diamond Beach. Even our hotel in the small town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur had an impressive waterfall with a walkable pathway to the top.
We were amazed at how well-marked and accessible major sites were in Iceland. Each scenic location had an Information Centre and comfort facilities for visitors. The country was so accessible and easy to navigate that it was possible to see multiple sites each day. It was also helpful that there was abundant daylight in May that allowed us to take hikes after dinner well into the evening.
Many visitors focus their tour of Iceland by visiting sites in the area known as the Golden Circle. Our journey through the Golden Circle included three major sites and a delightful lunch stop. Our first destination, Gullfoss, was an impressive waterfall due to the massive amounts of water that flow over its rocks into a lower chasm. The waters of the Hvítá River flow over a fault at a sideways angle to descend to lower depths. Like most attractions in Iceland, this waterfall was easily accessible and afforded views from a distance, on a lower level, and close to the top of the falls. It was possible to experience the power of the tumbling water from many different vantage points.
Geysir Hot Spring Area
Our next stop was one of my most anticipated sites, Geysir Hot Spring Area. I have never actually seen a real geyser before (only those at theme parks). At Geysir Hot Springs in Iceland, there were a number of small mud pots, fumaroles, and boiling water pits, but only one regular, active geyser called Strokkur. The large geyser, Geysir, for which the area was named doesn’t erupt that often and there was no activity while I was there.
After I located Strokkur, I stood around with my camera hoping to take photographs or even a video. Sometimes, there was a small boiling and spitting event, but overall, the eruptions were minor and infrequent. Only once during the time I was there did I see a minor eruption that lasted about twenty seconds. Unfortunately, I was not prepared and missed the opportunity to take a video.
Overall, I was a little underwhelmed and thought I would be more impressed than I was. My daughter did walk around and found some scenic geothermal areas farther up the hill from Strokkur. Hopefully, someday I’ll get to experience some more impressive geothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park.
Friðheimar Hydroponic Tomato Farm
We made a lunch stop at the Friðheimar Hydroponic Tomato Farm where we ate in a greenhouse. It was fortunate we had reservations because it was crowded. The lunch included unlimited homemade tomato soup and an assortment of bread. The food was incredibly delicious and almost everyone went back for seconds. Many of us bought various drinks from the bar, some of which used tomatoes in creative ways.
After lunch, we had an informative tour of the tomato growing operation in the greenhouses that provided answers to all our questions about the facility. Lastly, we walked to a small horse track to view a 15-minute riding demonstration featuring Icelandic horses. Afterward, we were welcome to see the horses in their stable, pet them, and take photographs. This was a delightful lunch break.
Þingvellir National Park
Our third stop along the Golden Circle was another site I greatly anticipated. As a teacher of social studies and geology for over three decades, I was excited to see the famous rift valley at Þingvellir that had been the subject of lessons I had shared with students. Þingvellir National Park is well known as a place where you can see the continental drift between the Eurasian and North American continental plates.
We approached the park from the Eurasian side and then drove down into the rift valley. A short distance later we ascended the North American plate passing Lake Þingvallavatn, which dominates much of the rift valley. Our major stop was the Þingvellir Tourist Information Centre. From this location, there were great viewpoints from the North American side of the valley and several walking trails between faults and escarpments.
It was exciting to see and walk among the cracks and fissures of the continental plates! Overall, I had seen three amazing geological sites in one day in the Golden Circle. These impressive displays of nature form the core of what draws many tourists to Iceland.
The last part of our Icelandic adventure was scenic, remote, and peaceful. Snaefellsnes Peninsula is often described as a smaller representation of Iceland because it has a sample of all the major geological features you will find elsewhere in greater Iceland. This proved to be true. There were majestic mountains, long fjords, snow-capped volcanic peaks, geothermal activity, abundant waterfalls, endless glacial carved valleys, fishing towns, coastal walks, black sand beaches, basalt cliffs, lava fields, and icy glaciers. We saw all of this during our two-day drive around the peninsula.
Of special interest in our drive around Snaefellsnes was Kirkjufell, a beautiful glacially carved 463 m tall freestanding mountain located near the ocean. It has the distinction of being named Iceland’s most photographed mountain. The alignment of the nearby waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss, and mountain made for amazing photographs.
Bjarnarhöfn Farm Shark Museum
One attraction we enjoyed on Snaefellsnes Peninsula was the Bjarnarhöfn Farm Shark Museum. This was not a place to see Icelandic sharks, but rather a place to taste Hákarl, fermented shark meat. After an informative and interesting presentation of the history and preparation of the fermented shark meat, there was also a presentation on how to eat the meat.
Taste-testing was next and most of our party tried the meat. Supplementing the tasting with alcohol and bread made it easier. Afterward, we were invited to self-tour the farm and fermenting sheds, and to see the farm animals. This was a unique Icelandic experience that was enjoyed by everyone. One of the highlights was the dramatic scenery of the farm landscape. It was worth a drive out to the farmhouse for this alone.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula had many other natural attractions to visit such as Djupalonssandur Beach, which featured unique rock formations along a black sand beach. Ytri Tunga Yellow Sand Beach was a great place to see seals. The small town of Arnarstapi had an exciting coastal trail that hugged the edge of cliffs and crossed a lava field.
Budakirkja was an extremely scenic church painted with pitch to help preserve it from the harsh coastal weather. Of course, the snow-capped Snæfellsjökull peak with its massive glacier was always in view regardless of where we were driving on the peninsula.
I experienced some unique things in Iceland such as my first earthquake, my first walk behind a waterfall, actually seeing the edge of the American and Eurasian continental plates, walking up close to a glacier, touching an iceberg, seeing a geyser, and swimming in a geothermal lagoon. I was amazed at the number of spectacular waterfalls. There were so many, that by the middle of our trip, I stopped taking waterfall photographs simply because I had seen so many.
Yes, food was indeed expensive in Iceland. The necessity to import a large number of food products into the country adds extra expense. Comparatively, I did not feel that prices were any more expensive than what I paid for food in many major cities in the United States.
Sadly, I did not see the northern lights, Aurora Borealis, because I didn’t experience much darkness in the middle of May. I was told there were about two to three hours of darkness each night, but even when I woke up at 2 AM, it still seemed fairly light out to me.
So. what did I learn from my travels through Iceland?
First, I discovered that our recent pandemic did not destroy my desire to see new places and meet new people. It might have been suppressed for a while, but it was still there and now has become stronger than ever. I travel because I want to see what’s out there and experience it firsthand.
Iceland is a place of pristine beauty where I saw amazing natural wonders and experienced forces that have shaped our planet. I know this awakening could have occurred in many places, but for me, this rebirth of my love for travel just happened naturally in the land of fire and ice.