Above: My wife, Mary Pat, standing amid chunks of ice from the glacier ice lagoon Jökulsárlón.
The main question I've had to field in the weeks leading up to my visit to Iceland has been a simple one-word query: "Why?" Iceland is on very few bucket lists of travel destinations (my former colleague Dan Mitchinson, who is now living in New Zealand, being one notable exception).
In fact, most people don't think of Iceland at all unless they recall the volcano eruption in 2010 that disrupted so many international flights and stranded thousands of travelers. That specific volcano, by the way, bears a name that is one of the only Icelandic words I have learned to pronounce: Eyjafjallajökull.
The simple answer is that I came here eight days ago (I fly home today) with my wife to preview a trip that she will be making in May with a larger delegation of U.S. visitors. But considering that Icelandair is making it easy for people who are already heading to Europe to make an Iceland stopover — "at no additional airfare!" — a visit to Iceland makes a lot more sense to anyone heading east across the Atlantic.
Yesterday, while lounging in the geothermal waters of popular Blue Lagoon, we met a New York couple who were stopping over en route to London before catching a cruise to the Canary Islands.
So that simple one-word answer can now be doubled: "Why not?"
Anyway, as this is my last blog post before I catch my Icelandair flight to Seattle (and then the 50-minute hop home), I thought I'd share the best part of our drive around this island (only nine-tenths the size of Ohio): the stretch of the country's main highway, otherwise known as the Ring Road, that runs across the south-eastern edge.
We'd spent the night in the port town of Höfn, which sits between the ocean and the mountain range which cradles the country's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. From there we drove west, past lava fields, to the turnoff to a gravel road 8 kilometers long where we could get a better view of one of the glacier's arms. Then we returned to the highway and drove to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where first we took a 40-minute amphibious boat ride through huge glacier icebergs (and even got to munch on some glacier chunks) and then walked along the black-sand beaches that were littered with ice bits of all sizes and shapes.
Driving ever west, we passed geology that ranged from lichen-green-covered fields that resembled sodden cotton balls, to larger upturned cones the size of small houses, to more stark lava fields, to mountain cliffs fronting the ocean that looked as if someone had transplanted them from Monument Valley. We stopped at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, where a private museum told the story of a family whose dairy farm had been threatened by the 2010 eruption.
And we stopped at the site of Laufskalavarda, where travelers are invited to place a rock to help ensure a safe trip. Which seems to have worked because, finally, we arrived at the village of Vik unscathed. And after a short trip north to see the sun set over a natural rock arch, we settled in for the night.
If you do visit Iceland, and if you do decide to rent a car, making a trip to the southeastern coast is worth the effort (tours can be arranged in Reykjavik, too). It might be one of the most scenic bits of highway I've ever navigated.
Which, if nothing else, makes the question "why" a simple rhetorical query.