TAKE A TRIP TO ICE­LAND

Nature is front and cen­tre on this is­land na­tion — gey­sers, glaciers, wa­ter­falls and even the elu­sive aurora bo­re­alis

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - JES­SICA KWONG

The al­lure of the North­ern Lights led me to Ice­land. Lit­tle did I know how elu­sive they are. Check­ing the weather one last time be­fore de­par­ture on my WOW air flight, things weren’t look­ing promis­ing. Pre­cip­i­ta­tion ap­peared in the fore­cast for the en­tire week, and clear skies are re­quired to see the aurora bo­re­alis.

When my three travel bud­dies and I landed at Ke­flavik In­ter­na­tional Air­port, we were greeted by rain, not snow. Turns out the coun­try isn’t as icy as it sounds — at least not all the time, even in mid-Fe­bru­ary.

It was 4 a.m., an­other five and a half hours to go be­fore sun­rise, so we got the rental car and drove around try­ing to see Ke­flavik. The town was asleep.

Ar­riv­ing in Reyk­javik, Ice­land’s cap­i­tal and its largest city, we were en­ticed by an il­lu­mi­nated glass dome struc­ture on a hill and drove up a side road to see it. It was the Per­lan, a hot wa­ter tower perched over the city. In town, we were lucky to be ac­com­mo­dated at our guest house hours be­fore check-in and took a much-needed nap be­fore sun­rise.

Out­side, the air was fresh and chilly. We drove back west to the Blue La­goon, which we had tick­ets for, but on our last night. A geo­ther­mal spa, the large la­goon was a bright turquoise colour dur­ing the day, its warm wa­ter cre­at­ing steam that rose into the frigid, 30de­gree air.

Fur­ther south­west, we reached the noisy Gun­nuhver steam vents, spew­ing heat from the ground non­stop, they’re named after a fe­male ghost who sup­pos­edly haunts the place. Close by, the Hafn­aberg Cliffs showed off Ice­land’s rugged coast­line. Waves crashed against pro­trud­ing rocks as re­lent­less wind pounded us, forc­ing us to re­treat to the car.

Ice­land was cold, but could’ve been worse. Snow boots — wa­ter­proof — with thick socks, a ther­mal long sleeve shirt, leg­gings un­der pants, a light down jacket and a wa­ter­proof North Face jacket got me through just fine. I only wore snow pants on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions.

Ice­land is known for fresh fish and lamb, so we stopped at Fish House Bar & Grill in Grin­davik. Fish and chips of had­dock melted in your mouth and the grilled lamb chops tasted par­tic­u­larly rich. The sun set just after 5:45 p.m., and we rested for the next day’s ex­cur­sion.

Be­fore dawn, we loaded our back­packs into the car and drove to meet our Dis­cover tour guide Orri Amin, who would take us in a 4 X 4 su­per Jeep for the next cou­ple of days to ex­plore south Ice­land.

Once we hit the road east, vis­i­bil­ity dropped. As Orri drove through the fog and rain with ease, we were grate­ful we chose not to drive our­selves. Soon, we be­gan off-road­ing. The Jeep cleared rocks, small hills and went down and over shal­low rivers to reach the Gigjokull glacier out­let.

Orri pointed out the mas­sive block of ice nes­tled in be­tween the moun­tains and ex­plained that Ey­jaf­jal­la­jokull, a vol­cano cov­ered in an ice cap, erupted in 2010 and caused Gigjokull to burst and melt. He said we could walk as close to it as we wanted, but warned we would have to cross wa­ter. He stayed be­hind.

At a nar­rower part of the stream, some­one had placed a plank of wood, so I crossed — and al­most slipped in the process. The glacier was far­ther than it looked, and a bit daunt­ing know­ing I was stand­ing where a chunk of it had bro­ken off and melted: I turned back.

“Next year, it will be gone,” Orri said as we drove away from the UNESCO World Her­itage Site. “The glacier is melt­ing very fast.”

Our next stop was the Sel­ja­lands­foss wa­ter­fall. I walked up to where it was roped off but no far­ther. Orri said we could walk be­hind it but would get soaked.

Next we ven­tured to Sko­gafoss, an­other tow­er­ing wa­ter­fall that was even more ex­tra­or­di­nary when you re­al­ized you could walk right up to it with­out any bar­rier or ob­struc­tion. I stopped when a wall of wa­ter hit my face, but feel­ing its thun­der­ous pulse for a mo­ment was stun­ning. We con­tin­ued walk­ing up what felt like hun­dreds of nar­row steps to see Sko­gafoss from above.

Tired and hun­gry, we wel­comed Orri’s sug­ges­tion that we eat at the best place for fish and chips. It was a food stand, Sveita­grill Miu Mia’s Coun­try Grill, which serves only the catch of the day. The fil­let of deep-fried fish paired per­fectly with potato wedges served with salt and vine­gar and Ice­landic tar­tar sauce, slightly sweeter than Amer­i­can style with crunchy rel­ish and a hint of curry.

The last stop of the day was Black Sand Beach. Be­neath a grey, over­cast sky, the beach was even darker than I imag­ined. The sand was the colour of char­coal, a sharp con­trast to the crash­ing white waves. Orri warned us not to stand too close. Up close, you can’t see the waves com­ing, he said, and fam­i­lies have been swept away never to be seen again.

I found I could have stared at the beach’s wicked beauty for hours, if it wasn’t for the cold, beat­ing wind. A cou­ple of large rocks pro­truded from the sea. On the sand, cliffs of basalt col­umns re­sem­bled a step pyra­mid and of­fered a photo-op for vis­i­tors will­ing to climb.

We stayed overnight at the Gerdi Guest­house sur­rounded by noth­ing but moun­tains and the ocean. I ea­gerly asked Orri if we could see the North­ern Lights and he pointed to the sky. The aurora ac­tiv­ity was high, he said, but we had no hope of see­ing it through the clouds. He showed us pic­tures of the au­ro­ras and said they look bet­ter in pho­tos, but are still very beau­ti­ful.

The next day, we went look­ing for ice caves in Skaftafell, a wilder­ness area in Vat­na­jokull Na­tional Park. Our guide, Lu Gud­munds­dot­tir, helped us hook spikes on the bot­toms of our snow boots so we could walk on the glacier, and she led us to sev­eral ice caves. The first was flooded and we were not able to en­ter. The sec­ond was more invit­ing.

“We’re very lucky be­cause (the wa­ter) was gone through the night,” Lu said of the cave, called Black Di­a­mond. “Ev­ery­thing we were stand­ing on was flooded.”

Usual Fe­bru­ar­ies in Ice­land are much colder.

As we ap­proached the large open­ing, I was awed by crys­tal­lized, frozen walls il­lu­mi­nated by day­light. Deeper in, the light dis­ap­peared and we used the head­lights on our hel­mets to nav­i­gate our way in. The cave’s ceil­ing dropped grad­u­ally un­til we had to duck down and nearly crawl. It was hum­bling to sit there and take in the nat­u­ral for­ma­tions that are melt­ing and break­ing at an in­creas­ing rate with cli­mate change.

“Now it’s dis­ap­pear­ing,” Orri said. “That’s just the way it is.”

The rest of the day trip was less phys­i­cal, but no less mar­vel­lous.

Joku­lar­son, a glacial la­goon, was full of large, soft blue, float­ing ice­bergs shift­ing slowly. It was hard to imagine the la­goon was ice­less a few days ago, but had changed due to wind and the cur­rent, ac­cord­ing to Orri.

Just when I thought we had seen the high­lights, Orri took us to the other side of Joku­lar­son to Di­a­mond Beach. Ice­bergs washed ashore, or left on the black peb­bled ground by the re­ced­ing wa­ter level, dot­ted the en­tire area. I climbed on var­i­ous chunks of ice, most of them big­ger than me. I felt tiny walk­ing through what seemed like a maze of di­a­monds.

On the way back to Reyk­javik, Orri drove us up a trail he said his wife doesn’t like him to cross, so we could see the dam­age that the re­cent Katla vol­cano erup­tion caused. Look­ing down from the top of the moun­tain, we could see miles and miles of black mat­ter that from a dis­tance looked like an ocean, but was ac­tu­ally dried lava. Then the vol­cano dis­ap­peared be­hind the fog.

“Now you know why I love my coun­try. It’s in­cred­i­ble,” Orri said. “We had it for two min­utes and it’s gone.”

It was al­most dark when we reached Sel­ja­lands­foss, but Orri kept his prom­ise about climb­ing be­hind it. The in­cline wasn’t too steep but scary, as there was no rail­ing, but worth brav­ing and get­ting drenched. The back­side of the wa­ter­fall was ma­jes­tic to see at night­fall, when no one else was around.

The Golden Cir­cle, one of the most vis­ited tourist at­trac­tions in Ice­land, paled in com­par­i­son to the pri­vate su­per Jeep ex­cur­sion. Per­haps we should have done it first.

We drove the route our­selves in­stead of join­ing a large tour bus. The Strokkur foun­tain geyser was im­pres­sive, shoot­ing wa­ter high in the air, and sud­denly, ev­ery few min­utes. The Gullfloss wa­ter­fall was un­like Sko­gafoss and Sel­ja­lands­foss — two-tiered and only able to be ad­mired from a dis­tance.

We spent the rest of the day into the evening at Lau­gar­vatn Fon­tana, a lesser-known spa with geo­ther­mal baths, steam saunas and ac­cess to a frigid lake I only dipped my toe into. It would’ve been nice to see the North­ern Lights from there, but again it was over­cast.

On our last day, we walked around Reyk­javik, ad­mir­ing the quaint build­ings against nature’s rugged back­drop and find­ing our way to the tall, Lutheran parish church Hall­grim­skirkja vis­i­ble through the nar­row streets.

With a lit­tle time left to spare, we drove through an un­der­wa­ter tun­nel and to the small fish­ing town of Akranes. It was more de­serted than other parts of Ice­land, and had a small light­house. Stones painted with flags of the coun­tries peo­ple had vis­ited lit­tered the ground.

At night, we re­turned to the Blue La­goon. It was freez­ing, so in­stead of walk­ing, I swam out from a dif­fer­ent exit. I spread sil­ica mud on my face and deemed a blue­berry Skyr yo­gurt smoothie as my drink, rinsed it with the warm la­goon wa­ter and put on an al­gae mask. It was a re­lax­ing way to end the trip full of ex­treme sight­see­ing.

Leav­ing the Blue La­goon at night, we saw a pas­tel smear across the dark sky and I thought maybe those were the North­ern Lights.

Ear­lier, I had checked the fore­cast and was ex­cited to see the western part of the coun­try would clear up.

We drove to an area where some cars had parked on the side of the road.

One of us had a pro camera, set it up on a tri­pod and snapped a shot and, sure enough, cap­tured the eerie green light. Soon, the aurora ac­tiv­ity in­ten­si­fied and re­vealed its colours to the naked eye.

With my iPhone in­ca­pable of cap­tur­ing even a faint dash of the phe­nom­e­non, I learned to sim­ply en­joy the mo­ment.

Many times in life, things aren’t what they seem, and some­times, well, there they are.

PHO­TOS BY JES­SICA KWONG, TNS

Top: The view look­ing out from the Black Di­a­mond ice cave in Skaftafell, a wilder­ness area in Vat­na­jokull Na­tional Park.

Above: One of the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions in Ice­land, the Blue La­goon is a geo­ther­mal spa where vis­i­tors can swim and spread sil­ica mud and al­gae masks on their faces.

Below: Gullfloss, a two-tiered wa­ter­fall, is one of the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions in Ice­land’s Golden Cir­cle area.

PHO­TOS BY JES­SICA KWONG, TNS

The crash­ing waves at Black Sand Beach ap­pear snow white against the dark peb­ble sand and cliffs of basalt col­umns tow­er­ing over­head.

Lo­cals and vis­i­tors stack stones at the shore of Reyk­javik, Ice­land’s scenic cap­i­tal.

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