Our first experience in Iceland is magical, for so many reasons

September 19, 2011

REYKJAVÍK, Iceland –We had simply an amazing day in Iceland. This small island country has long been on my “must” list of places to visit. I was a bit concerned that we were only going to be here for less than a day for our first visit, but was still hoping for a good experience. We weren’t disappointed. The place is magical.

The "big Jeep" that we toured in

We were fortunate to be on a private tour set up by Cruise Iceland, which enabled us to see a lot more in a short time. The Emerald Princess docked about an hour early, at 11 a.m., which gave us a tad more time. We were met at noon by our guides, Bjarni Gudmundsson and Linda Hardardottir, in their Super Jeep…a huge vehicle with four-foot tires that are very popular here for exploring the wilderness.

The first magical thing we discovered is that we were out of the city and into the “moorland” within a scant 20 minutes. We were heading to see the The Golden Circle … a trio of natural attractions within two hours of Reykjavík. The moorland is gently rolling terrain that is very rocky and covered with small willows, lichen and other low-growing plants. Being autumn, these low-lying plants were of all colors.

The magical moorlands outside Reykjavik
The magical moorlands outside Reykjavik

The second magical thing was the amazing light. All afternoon it would rain one moment and the sun would shine the next. This created a soft light that enhanced the landscape and made for gorgeous photos. Of course, this also created amazing rainbows…we saw several of them, each lovelier than the last.

Another magical aspect of Iceland is its dynamism…with volcanoes, hot springs, glaciers and earth rifts, you are constantly aware of an environment in flux. Earthquakes happen rather frequently here. This is a part of the earth that is alive with energy…geothermal energy to be specific, but more on that later.

Our first stop was at Thingvellir (Þingvellir), a national park where two of the earth’s plates are actually pulling away from each other at the rate of about an inch a year, leaving large gaps and chasms. According to Bjarni, this is one of the only places on earth where this happens…on most faults, the plates are pushing upon each other.

The Strokkur geyser erupts regularly

From the visitors center, you can see the walls of the valley created by this rift. A World Heritage Site, this valley has great significance in the history of Iceland as it is where the first general assembly, or Alpingi, was assembled in 930 AD and the islanders convened here yearly for about three weeks to hear the law, settle differences, arrange marriages and conduct trade. It was here that the Icelanders adopted the Christian religion in 1000 AD. Court proceedings continued here until 1798 and the Republic of Iceland was formed here in 1944. (www.thingvellir.is)

From here we proceeded through more mountainous terrain to Geysir country. (The English word “geyser” comes from Icelandic.) We stop in an area of blowholes, steaming craters and watch as the Strokkur geyser erupts. This is currently the only Icelandic geyser that erupts on a regular basis, about every six minutes. However, Bjarni and Linda point out that new hot springs, blowholes and geysers appear after each earthquake!

At the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall

Note that there is excellent shopping for Icelandic goods, particularly furs and sweaters, at the large gift shop in Geysir visitor center.

Not too far from here we make our third stop, and perhaps the most impressive: the Gullfoss waterfall. In a country full of waterfalls, it is said to be the most beautiful and it is certainly the most accessible to visitors. Although not as large as Niagara, its many levels are quite spectacular…and this day, we enjoyed a rainbow over it. There are numerous wooden walkways to viewpoints, or you can walk down to near the base.

On a regular bus tour from a ship, this tour would take about five hours, but we managed to do it in about 3-1/2. We discovered that Bjarni and Linda had a lot more in store for us. From there we headed over to see how Reykjavík’s electricity and hot water is produced. They showed us how deep wells are dug into the ground, which produce steam under incredible pressure. This steam is sent to a geothermal energy facility which converts it into electricity and hot water which is pumped to the city. No fossil fuels are used and the process is pollution-free.

The force of steam produces geothermal energy

There are many hydropower plants in Iceland and seven geothermal energy facilities. After showing us the wells at their source, they took us to the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant, just outside of Reykjavík. (www.orkusyn.is)

After this, Bjarni wanted to show us just what his Super Jeep could do, so we headed off road into the lava fields and caromed through shallow springs, up gravel hills, and generally ripped around where no normal vehicle can go. (These lava fields are covered with soft grey-green reindeer moss and are so mystical that I expect a troll or elf to pop out any moment.) After that bit of excitement, we drove back into Reykjavík for a short city tour.

The Hallgrímskirkja church

This is a lovely small city with a big place in history. It was here in 1986 that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in an historic wood building on the waterfront (still preserved) and developed an agreement that would end the Cold War. It is a nice mix of old and new and easy to walk around. Whale-watching tours depart from its harbor from May through September.

There are many cafes and excellent restaurants. We ate dinner at the Sjávargrilli? Seafood Grill, enjoying Arctic char, catfish and lamb. (www.sjavargrillid.is). It is located near the city iconic symbol, the Hallgrímskirkja church (95 percent of the people are Lutheran.)

We were back to the ship around 9 p.m., plenty early for the all-aboard of 10:30 and full of memories of this quirky yet lovely place. One quirk is that everyone last name is taken from their father’s (or mother’s) first name: Therefore, my name in Icelandic would be Cynthia Seelysdottir. Chet’s would be Chester Carlosson. Also, the language is old Norse and its has symbols not found in English and almost impossible to pronounce.

I am anxious to return and do still more. I would like to swim in the famous hot springs at the Blue Lagoon (many from the ship did that) and I would love to spend several hours exploring the city on foot. Maybe we would go river-rafting, hiking, horseback riding, whale-watching, or take a Jeep trip to the ice cap…or go out and shoot more photos in that extraordinary light.

This year Iceland had 70 ship calls, welcoming 65,000 passengers. Next year they will be receiving over 100,000. It appears that ship lines are catching on to the marvelous port of call (which would be well worth an overnight).

The current advertising for Iceland says “Come and Be Inspired by Iceland” and I can only agree. It is, indeed, inspiring.

P.S. And it is only a five-hour flight from New York City!

Photos by Chet Janssens

For more information:

To arrange a small group jeep tour with Bjarni and Linda, email Linda@ri.is.


Special thanks to Agust Agustsson (Cruise Iceland) and Hera Brá Gunnarsd?ttir (Visit Iceland) for our tour arrangements.

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