"I think many of us have an unclear image of Iceland."
This was a comment I received on Facebook when I shared that I was in Iceland for an Internet conference. I hope to crystallize for others what Iceland is like now that I've traveled there.
It's a magical place. It's closer than you might think. For me, about a five-hour flight from New York. It's like nowhere else, at least anywhere else I've ever been. Sometimes it didn't seem real, but rather like I was on a different planet. But it is real.
The diversity of the country is striking. You can go from the open fields of lava rock to the colorful city of Reykjavik, situated nearby mountains and along the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly a third of Iceland's population lives here. You can then go on to see glaciers, volcanoes, waterfalls and so much more of nature's beauty, all in a day's trip. You can go from ice, strong winds and whiteout snow conditions to a peaceful valley basking in the sun or lying in a geothermal hot spa in a short period of time. (I actually did all of this.)
You can do a lot more, as I only saw a small sliver of this island nation, focusing my stay along the southern part.
The people of Iceland are kind and friendly with a good sense of humor. All of those I encountered spoke English well. If you are in need of help, you ask; every time I had a question, I was answered. They also know how to have a good time.
I observed patience among the locals that I'm not used to seeing in the States, as well as a sense of "just go with it" no matter what life deals you. Part of that goes along with the attitude Icelanders have toward Mother Nature, who often deals them surprises to cope with in terms of earthquakes and volcano eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull"s activity in 2010.
Along these lines, the organizer of the conference I attended, Kristjan Mar Hauksson, told me during my stay, Iceland is "a country where nature holds all the cards."
You expect the unexpected, and that's what makes journeys out to glaciers and volcanoes so interesting. You never know what'll happen.
I was part of a group day trip to the glacier Eyjafjallajökull, which hosts the volcano mentioned earlier. It was quite a journey. We experienced whiteout conditions, swirling winds that nearly blew away my hat forever (caught it at the last minute), and snow flying into our face. The weather got so bad we had to turn back at one point.
One of our jeeps got stuck in the snow. It took a good 10 minutes or so to get it out. "He's stuck," our jeep's guide translated for us, as the drivers were speaking in Icelandic. Moments later, "He's more stuck." Snow buried it in to a small area and remember, this is a glacier, so it was also on ice. I actually slipped and fell on the ice once, I must admit, but was fine. It was all part of the experience.
PHOTOS from my glacier excursion (text continues below):
Everywhere you go, the theme of nature persists. As soon as I landed at the airport, a tiny one in Keflavik, Iceland, I saw signs of nature. This beautiful poem is posted at the airport and was visible as I got off the plane:
"On earth's part
all days start beautifully
patiently it revolves and revolves
with its trees
and oceans and lakes
deserts and volcanoes
the two of us and the rest of you
and all the animals"
Then there were large vibrant posters depicting nature and glaciers and mountains themselves visible as you walk out the airport.
Fortunately, it's also a place you can disconnect. I had no cell phone service in Iceland, and had no desire to play with roaming charges. I had limited Internet access from the occasional WiFi hot spot.
In addition to all the above, Iceland has excellent food. I tried whale, shark, duck and lamb for the first time while there; every single one of these was delicious. Particularly the way Icelanders prepare food, the seasoning, the sauces they use; it's so good.
On top of that, the natural spring water. I've never tasted such pure water. I miss it already, and I haven't even been back for 24 hours yet.
On the downside (maybe?), there's a recurrent smell of sulfur in Iceland. Even showering at the hotel, it was quite a strong smell, and it smells a bit like rotten eggs. For the natives, they are used to it; for some, it even means "home." For me, it took some getting used to.
I found Iceland to be a refreshing place for the soul. Whether you believe in God or not, you can also experience something quite spectacular and what I found to be spiritual (reminding us we're connected to something much larger than ourselves) in the Northern Lights. I saw the lights move across the sky on Saturday night, warping into different shapes, and it literally gave me goosebumps. My soul was also refreshed at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa.
It's a place unlike any I've ever visited. I hope these thoughts help you generate a clear image of Iceland.
VIDEO from my experience on a glacier/volcano in Iceland: