I slid up the window shade and was temporarily shocked by the brightly illuminated landscape I saw below me. It was, I thought, my mind clouded after a scant four hours of sleep on the flight from Halifax, still before sunrise. Only 5 a.m.
Then, I realized. This was a place where, in summer, the sun seldom set.
The landscape below me was other-worldly, what you might expect gazing from the window of a lunar lander. Flat. Rocky. Grays and browns. Treeless. But in the distance rose snow-capped mountains and soon meadow after meadow of purple lupines broke up the relentless gray.
The plane touched down soundlessly. As the bleary-eyed passengers exited, rubbing sleep from their eyes, a sign greeted us:
“Better weight than wisdom a traveler cannot carry.”
From Hávamál, an early Viking traveler.
Stumbling through the terminal, I gathered my considerable luggage — a duffle bag filled with tenting supplies and a gargantuan suitcase stuffed with clothing for any abrupt change in weather. Iceland, I’d read, is known for that, bitterly cold and windy days followed by sudden sunshine and warmth.
The weather today was of the windy, chilly type — spitting rain like a tightly curled cobra. I climbed in my candy apple red Suzuki rental car and gunned the engine. It leaped forward. Stick shift. When was the last time I’d seen one of those?
Gliding along the road to Reykjavik, the landscape was almost unbelievably stark. Again, rocks, this time covered with browning moss and lichens. Occasionally a stem of green peeped from between the rocks, struggling to survive in this harsh landscape. The black paved roadway snaked between the low rocky hills.
Ahead, a cloud of steam (or smoke?) rose in a crevasse in the black rocky hills. I knew Iceland to be a country powered on its thermal energy, which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s electricity. Seated atop a unique geological rift in the Earth’s plates, Iceland is home to 130 extinct and active volcanoes as well as heated lakes, bubbling mud pools and geysers.
I made a split-second decision and turned off the road to Reykjavik and toward the rising cloud.
As I drew closer I could see it was, indeed, evidence of the island’s thermal activity. A power plant, one of a few thermal plants in the country, belched steam alongside one of the island’s most famous lakes — the Blue Lagoon. Amidst an impressive black lava field, a milky aquamarine lake appeared. The black rocks along its borders were coated with white silica mud and puffs of steam arose from the warm water that hovers around 100 degrees.
Unfortunately it’s also one of the country’s most touristy spots, with lockers for 700 bathers and reservations full for days in advance. But at this time of the morning, before visitors and locals arrived to bask in its warmth and before the buildings even opened, it was idyllic.
The building that had been constructed to accommodate visitors included a stunning lava-rock walled bar, a rooftop overlook, gift shop, sauna, steam rooms, a spa, hot tubs and winding trails through the lava fields. The restaurant overlooked the lagoon and once bathers appeared, would offer diners stunning views of what the lake is famous for — its therapeutic powers.
As the lagoon had yet to open its doors to bathers (indeed, after that flight I would have enjoyed a warm dip), I was off, backtracking to the road to Reykjavik. Finally, I arrived in this smallish city of about 120,000 inhabitants. It’s a city of low-slung building crowded around a central harbor and it and the surrounding area house about two-thirds of the island’s population.
Driving had been unproblematic until now — staying to the right was natural and the roadways were well marked. But now, the street names became a jumble of Icelandic to a non-speaker. Gamla Hringbraut. Laufavegur. Sku Lagata. I found myself pulling off the roadway frequently to consult my map.
I was searching for my home for that evening, the Erik the Red Guesthouse. Guesthouses throughout Iceland are like America’s bed and breakfasts. After a night of little sleep, I was ready for a nap.
Finally I found it, a neat gray building on — what else — a street named Eriksgata. The accommodations are spartan but welcoming. The bed — a godsend.
Tonight is my night for exploring this capital city. I hear it’s a place of incredible nightlife. Who knows, after a nap, I might actually heft a mug of an Icelandic beer, perhaps Skjálfti, Bjartur Blond or Víking Sterkur. Unfortunately, I hear the Stedji brewery’s Hvalur 2 beer — brewed especially this January for a Midwinter festival — is no longer being made from smoked testicles from fin whales.