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ICELAND FULL CIRCLE - THE LAND OF FIRE AND ICE
 
(2012 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: ADRIENNE BROWN



I’m standing in the middle of a lava field, surrounded by craggy spikes of crumbly, rough rock. The sky is grey and a light snow is falling. There’s barely any colour in the landscape, yet this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

I find myself saying that with every twist and turn along Iceland’s Ring Road (Route 1). Once you leave Reykjavik, it’s the lifeline to the rest of the country, and my husband and I have decided to drive the full circle.

If you’re travelling during the summer months (June–August), driving counter-clockwise may be less busy than the oft-travelled clockwise route. Either way, book accommodation early because there is limited hotel space and it’s not always convenient to “try the next town over.” The bright side (literally) is that in summer, you’ll almost always be driving in daylight. Soak up that midnight sun!

If you have time, the land of fire and ice deserves to be explored from top to bottom. Here are just a few coast-to-coast highlights:

Reykjanes Peninsula

Every year, thousands of people flock to Reykjanes’ most famous stop, the Blue Lagoon. Its milky-blue water is runoff from a nearby power plant and just an hour in its 38 C waters will leave you feeling relaxed. You’ll also reap the healthy-skin benefits of its silica mud, algae and mineral salts.

Kick off your vacation here or save it as one last hurrah before you board your plane home at Keflavik International Airport.

Reykjavik

Iceland’s capital may be small (about 120,000 people live in the city proper) but it has much to offer. This is where you’ll find the best shops, cafés, restaurants and nightlife.

Get your bearings by zipping up the 74.5-metre-high tower in Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic symbol of the city. It’s by far the tallest building in Reykjavik. Once you’ve taken in all the views, walk toward the water where you’ll find Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a hotdog institution that’s been around since 1937. Icelanders claim it serves the best hotdogs in the world!

Next, explore Reykjavik’s artsy offerings. It has plenty of galleries and a stunning new concert hall, Harpa. Or, for something completely different, visit the one-of-a-kind Icelandic Phallological Museum.

Golden Circle

After Reykjavik, tour the Golden Circle, which comprises three sites: Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir.

Gullfoss is a roaring waterfall (Iceland’s most famous, although there are hundreds) where water tumbles 32 metres and then kicks up an impressive spray. Pop into the visitor’s centre for incomparable lamb soup, especially on a damp day.

All other geysers around the world take their name from Iceland’s Geysir, a blasting hot water spout, so you know it must put on a spectacular show. It erupts two to three times daily, so consider yourself lucky if you catch it. But don’t worry—Iceland’s most reliable geyser, Strokkur, is right beside it and it erupts every few minutes.

Finally, Thingvellir National Park, about 23 kilometres east of Reykjavik, is indisputably the country’s most important historical site. This is where Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament in AD 930. While you’re imagining where everyone gathered, also note that you’re standing right on the edge of a tectonic plate. The North American and Eurasian continents meet here, and you can snorkel or scuba dive in Silfra rift, the water-filled crack between the continents.

 South Iceland

From the Golden Circle, find your way back to Route 1 and explore some of its small side roads. You’ll see a smattering of houses and farms and, eventually, you will reach Vik, one of Iceland’s notorious black sand beaches.

Down the road, hike Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, which is easily accessible from Skaftafell. You’ll feel dwarfed by its magnitude—and you’re only seeing a small part of it.

Once you’ve slipped off your crampons, head west to Jokulsarlon, an otherworldly iceberg lagoon. Watch massive pieces of ice float by and, if you listen carefully, you might hear new ones breaking off the glacier.

East Iceland

Most towns in East Iceland are industrial and less charming than those farther north or south. But don’t write it off entirely: East Iceland’s fishing villages, lovely walks and ocean views will draw you in. This is your chance to take a breather between the strikingly different south and north regions.

North Iceland

Situated at the top of Iceland, Husavik is the country’s whale-watching capital. It also boasts a number of top-notch museums, particularly the history-filled Husavik Museum.

From Husavik, head to Myvatn. It takes less than half an hour to drive all the way around Lake Myvatn, but you’ll need more than a day to see everything: bubbling, colourful mud pots, lava fields and massive craters abound. Lake Myvatn is home to more than 115 bird species—see how many you can spot after a visit to the Bird Museum. Locals claim their nature baths, although smaller than the Blue Lagoon, are cleaner.

Continuing west, you’ll find yourself in Akureyri, the capital of the north and home to about 18,000 people—large, relative to other Icelandic towns. Dine at one of many charming restaurants, shop (you’ll pay less for that Icelandic sweater you’ve been coveting if you buy it here instead of Reykjavik) and take in the harbour views before you continue to the sparsely populated Westfjords.

West Iceland and the Westfjords

You could spend your whole vacation in the west, horseback riding, exploring the Snaefellsjokull National Park (the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and winding in and out of seemingly endless fjords.

In the amiable fishing town of Holmavik, make a point of visiting the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, an interesting exhibit with an even more fascinating curator, whom you’re likely to find dressed as a Viking.

Another must-see is the Latrabjarg Peninsula. There, you can stand cliffside and watch as thousands of sea birds swoop in and out, including the lovable little puffin.

Along the way, no matter where you are in Iceland, make time for hot-pot hopping and keep your eyes peeled for the Hidden Folk. If you’re not sure how to find them, ask a local. They won’t hesitate to tell you their favourite tales.

Travel Planner

More information on Iceland can be found online at visiticeland.com. Icelandair (icelandair.ca) offers seasonal service to Reykjavik, Iceland, from Toronto and Halifax.

 
 
 
 
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