The fog is so dense, I have to slow down. It was a bright, sunny day when I left Reykjavik in my Mercedes-Benz B-Class, but Iceland is a land of contrasts. The landscapes were forged by volcanoes and glaciers. In keeping with these extremes, here it isn’t unusual to experience four seasons in a day.
I’m not alone on misty Route 1, which runs 1,339 kilometres as it loops around the island. In fact, I’m on its most popular stretch, known as the Golden Circle, which links Reykjavik to the country’s three most visited natural sites. Every day, a throng of tourists make the journey to admire the impressive Gullfoss waterfalls, and step over the gap separating the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in the Thingvellir National Park. Others choose to gape at the power of what is known as The Great Geysir, a geyser that can shoot water up to 70 metres in the air.
The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano has nothing on the recent tourist boom here. Tourism has enabled Iceland to recover from its 2008 financial crisis, and has become the country’s economic backbone. In 2016, the island welcomed 1.77 million tourists – that’s five times its population. As you walk through the streets of Reykjavik, this increase in visitors is plain to see. There are dozens of cranes overhead, busily transforming this city of 120,000.
In 2016, the island welcomed 1.77 million tourists – that’s five times its population.
“People realized we weren’t so far away after all,” said Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir three days earlier. After having travelled the world, this former flight attendant returned to her native Iceland to realize a crazy dream: to turn the workmen’s digs at a geothermal factory site, set amid a lava field, into a luxury hotel.
That was in 2013, just before the jump in tourism. Today, it’s a regular occurrence for the ION Adventure Hotel to have no vacancies – so much so that Sverrisdóttir just inaugurated her second Reykjavik establishment. “Iceland measures 103,000 square kilometres. That’s half the size of Great Britain. Our island may be big, but it’s partially uninhabitable because of glaciers and lava deserts. It’s still possible to feel alone in the world here,” she promises.
Those are the words that resonate as I’m hiking up a steep path in Reykjadalur, or the “steamy valley.” Soon enough, clouds of smoke mix with the mist and vapour from the hot springs (heat courtesy of the Hengill volcano, which last erupted 2,000 years ago). I stop a moment to peer into a crater filled with water boiling at 100°C. Other hikers pass by, and I see that they, too, have donned their bathing suits, ready to sink into the reward that awaits us at the end of this hour-long hike. Soon I spot bathers lounging by the river that runs through this valley. I slip into one of the natural hot springs. All around me, majestic mountains. I can feel Iceland’s magnetic pull.
The next day, while crossing the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the island’s west end, I feel like I’m on another planet. The road weaves its way through the giant lava desert of Búdahraun. There are rocks as far as the eye can see, in odd formations that make silhouettes – some of which are shaped like legendary huldufólk elves. If it were a sunny day, I could probably spy the snowy planes of the Snæfellsjökull glacier from here, immortalized as the entryway to the centre of the earth in Jules Verne’s famous novel. But it’s still misty, so this journey has an eerie atmosphere worthier of a whodunit.
In the pretty seaside village of Hellnar, I stop by the Fjöruhúsid Café to sip on their renowned fish soup. This defunct fisherman’s hut only has six tables, and its decor looks like it’s been frozen in time. “We opened 20 years ago,” says owner Sigrídur Einarsdóttir. “We just wanted to serve waffles and hot chocolate to the fishermen.” The place is still filled with patrons wearing lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic sweaters, but I have my doubts that they are fishermen.
After my meal, I head to the waterfront to fill my lungs with fresh air. I’ve got company: Hundreds of birds are cutting shapes in the sky. On Ytri-Tunga Beach, my flying friends and I spot a couple of seals timidly dipping into the cold water.
Then, on Lóndrangar Beach, I see the impressive basalt stone columns, 61 and 75 metres high respectively, and a former crater sculpted by the tides. I walk all the way to Dritvík Cove, which until the 19th century was a port that hosted up to 600 fishermen.
Today, I’ve got this pebble beach to myself, save for the vestiges of a British trawler that ran aground in 1948. As I watch the waves violently crash against the shore, I can’t help but imagine how rough life must have been in the old days on this island licked by winds and sunless in winter.
“No one used to come this far, other than criminals banned from Iceland who would find refuge in the lava caves,” says Thór Birgisson. He’s my guide on an excursion to the Langjökull glacier. We’re riding in a modified military truck, but it feels as if we’re speeding forth on a giant snowball, the way the snow is mixing with the mist. Our driver, Guttormur, seems in no way concerned. Using a simple smartphone app, he’s working the pressure of his studded tires like a pro to help us climb this ice mountain.
At an altitude of 1,260 metres, we stop in front of a gap in the snow. No, it isn’t another doorway to the centre of the earth. Rather, it’s the entrance to a tunnel that cuts through 550 metres of the glacier, a marvel of engineering by the people at Into the Glacier that enables visitors to experience the inside of this outsized natural phenomenon. I dive into the tunnel, walk, and take a brief pause in the middle, under 40 metres of solid ice. I can’t help but think of Narnia.
After having crossed through this sleeping giant, I take a few steps out into the endless field of snow that lies before me. I feel tiny against this white immensity. Suddenly, the fog lifts, and as if by magic, a shining sun is revealed. Clearly, nature here always has the last word.