When I visited Iceland in mid-February, it was actually a little warmer than Chicago. Iceland’s winters average around 28–34 degrees, with the country’s proximity to the Arctic Circle offset by the warmth of the Gulf Stream. Iceland’s wild wind adds a challenge of its own, but it does keep things moving, so the weather can change quickly.
There are several advantages to visiting Iceland in the winter. It’s off-season and costs less than half of a summer visit. You don’t have tourists clustering around everything and appearing in all your photos. Iceland is really beautiful in the snow. And it’s great to watch people’s reactions when you tell them you’re going to Iceland in February.
Iceland’s population is about 286,000, and more than half of that modest number lives in bright, attractive Reykjavik, the country’s capital. Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and is the only capital city with a good salmon river running through its center. (The salmon-fishing season officially begins when the mayor catches the first fish.)Because Iceland is about 14 percent volcanically active, there are few tall buildings. However, there are charming shops, excellent restaurants, and wonderful museums (from fine art to Viking culture to the vellum manuscripts that have preserved the famous Icelandic sagas.)
About 11 percent of Iceland is lava field, about 11 percent is glacier, and only about 1 percent is forested, though in those forests, about 80 percent of the trees are less than two meters tall. Our driver one day told us that a popular joke in Iceland is, “If you’re lost in the woods, stand up.” Icelandic is the oldest Germanic language still spoken. Iceland has a 100 percent literacy rate (incentive: you must be able to read and write to get married) and (we were told) has the highest life expectancy in the world.
Iceland is more than interesting; it’s magic. I can remember few experiences more astonishing and blissful than moving through the geothermally heated waters of the sprawling, milky, mineral-rich Blue Lagoon at night, the rising steam giving everything a dream-like appearance, my body warmed, my face turned upward to the gentle, cold rain. I managed to get out to the Blue Lagoon twice during my three-day visit.
We took an all-day tour of the major sights near Reykjavik, during which we learned that the shortest distance between North America and Europe is in Iceland. There is a deep crevasse that opens into a great rift valley where the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate are pulling apart. In places, it is a short driver between the two continental plates, but in some places, you can straddle the gap.
At the edge of rugged lava fields rose craggy mountains, which gave way to rolling pastures dotted with diminutive Icelandic horses (don’t call them ponies).We drove out through Moss Valley, passing scattered clumps of evergreens, small farms, churches, and geothermally heated green houses, then on to Moss Moors, a gloriously unspoiled region of rocky fields softened by a blanket of snow. We climbed to the edge of the North American plate and looked down over Thingvellir, the valley created by the parting plates. At the base of the wall where we stood was the site where the Icelandic Althing (the world’s oldest parliament, started in 930 AD) was held until recently (it was moved to Reykjavik a few years ago after an earthquake).
The wind picked up, which meant that the weather changed frequently, from snow to sun to snow to sun to snow—pretty much throughout the day. But the wildness suited the place. Crossing the valley and climbing the wall that marked the edge of the Eurasian plate, we descended to another valley and drove through charming farmland to one of Iceland’s hot springs areas. One of the hot springs is called “Gusher,” which in Icelandic is “Geysir.” It is from this hot spring that the generic name for geysers was derived. Geysir is still active, but does not erupt as regularly as its neighbor, Strokkur, which I watched through three 20-minute cycles. The hot water shooting out of an otherwise frozen landscape made a wonderful visual contrast.
After Geysir, we drove to Gulfoss, the most spectacular of Iceland’s many waterfalls. I was not certain my photos would turned out (though fortunately they did), as I had to battle the still increasing wind just to keep my camera pointed toward the falls. But the broad, double falls were a glorious sight, cascading through the rugged, ice-coated canyon. After Gulfoss, we visited Skalhot Cathedral, Kerif Crater, Selfoss, and more, before heading at last back to Reykjavik.While in Iceland, we also explored a lava tube (in hard hats with miners’ lights), drove along the coast, had lunch in a fishing village, visited museums, and prowled geothermally heated greenhouses (so well heated, in fact, that Iceland is able to grow bananas—and it’s the only European country that does raise bananas). Well, actually, one thing in Iceland was not wonderful: Viking food. We had an evening at a Viking restaurant, where we were surrounded by Icelanders celebrating their heritage and indulging in traditional Viking fare during a traditional February festival known as Thorrablot. The dried cod was hard but not unpleasant. I thought that the ram’s testicles were abhorrent, though some in our group (those who love organ meats) said they enjoyed them. The rotten shark (seriously rotten—they bury it for six or more weeks) was so bad that I couldn’t get past the first taste. (Apparently, letting it rot causes toxins to disperse, making it safe to eat. I hope I’m never hungry enough to need this information.) The ram’s horn full of Viking schnapps was about the only thing that got me through the first course. Fortunately, this was followed by a nice, non-Viking lamb steak and baked potato.
Aside from that, food in Iceland is great. There were muesli, yogurt, smoked salmon, whole-grain bread, and fried potatoes on the breakfast buffet each morning. The primary meat in Iceland is lamb, which I love. Beef and pork are served, but when you see “meat” in a description (for example, Icelandic Meat Soup), they mean lamb. Fish is fresh, abundant, and delicious. The fish in Iceland includes some personal favorites: turbot, cod, halibut, plaice, sole. There is also a lot of excellent salmon. The vegetables tended to be rutabagas, beans, carrots, cabbage, leeks, and potatoes—all hearty veggies that do well in cold storage over the winter.
All in all, a splendid destination. I can’t wait to get back. Next time, I want to see puffins—and return to the Blue Lagoon.