By Conor Makem
“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man, nor soil to bury a man,” said one of Oliver Cromwell’s generals. And while I couldn’t give a flying fig what any of those sociopaths thought, the quote did enter my mind as we drove through our first early hours in Iceland, the sun melting the frost off the black, volcanic rock covering as far as the eye could see – rock, as it happens, that had been strewn by forces down deep and not all that long ago.
It was like Frodo and Samwise Gamgee setting sights on Mordor for the first time, pondering if they might ever see the shire again or partake in a drink that comes in pints. In fact, I recall wanting to film a little humorous video on our phones with me as the somewhat portly sidekick to the hero of the story, ready to ferry him on my shoulders into the dreaded mountain, but the other half was quite tired and not in the mood for antics of any sort.
What, in the name of all that’s holy am I talking about? Well, as it turns out, we traveled to Iceland—the land of fire and ice—to see what it was all about. And we were not disappointed.
When we landed, there wasn’t a wisp of light, it being the end of April. We landed somewhere in the region of 6 a.m. and it wouldn’t be long before the sun began to show itself. Iceland, you’ll find out, either sees a lot of dark or a lot of light. We were on the light side.
So, what was it like? What if I told you that I had the best ramen noodles of my life, felt the heat of molten lava filling up the room and sat in freezing temperatures inside natural hot spring pools by the ocean, watching birds play on the stones, the stark mountains in the distance? In a word, it was magical.
The other half and I decided that it was high time we eschewed our usual travels of shopping, eating and drinking and branch out to something more earthy, a place where we could be at one with nature, so to speak. Our first stop, in the wee hours, was the “Bridge Between Continents,” where North America meets Europe. You can stand with one foot on each continent and momentarily become king of the world (or something similar). This, I might add, was the height of Mordor, for all of you Hobbit fans. The country was dealt a devastating blow after a volcano erupted in 2010. You might remember it. Airports around the world shut down due to ashen clouds and the economy of Iceland was in free fall.
The country took on a new strategy. They tried to lure tourists with the promise of living the outdoor life and as you might have discerned, their gamble paid off. Iceland has become a huge tourist destination.
The citizens are openly appreciative, with one hotel employee in Reykjavik telling an apologetic tourist such as myself that we saved their country. What a lovely take on the situation, thought I.
For those of us of Irish descent, I need to make a caveat. Iceland, although it sounds an awful lot like Ireland, is most definitely not Ireland. Expect very few corner pubs. And if you’re a drinker, plan accordingly.
We stayed in the picturesque town of Vik for several days and assumed that alcohol would flow as it does in most of Europe. It most certainly doesn’t (Hint: Stock up at the airport).
We purchased a bottle of wine at the local grocery, and when we returned to our most decidedly beautiful hotel room afterwards, we were beguiled to discover how much it tasted like grape juice. The reason it tasted like grape juice is that it was grape juice.
Upon further examination, we realized that there were no alcohol sales in town until Tuesday (it was Saturday) unless we wanted to make a 60-mile jaunt to a “nearby” shop. But that’s neither here nor there.
Vik lies beneath a glacier, which provides much splendor, but all that frozen water comes with a catch. When the volcano underneath said ice erupted in 1918, the majority of fatalities actually came from the rushing waters of the melted glacier and not the lava.
That gruesomeness aside, we enjoyed a lava show in Vik, which is highly recommended. The company name is a bit hard to remember … what was it again? Oh yes, Lava Show.
They heat actual lava rock to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, then slowly ooze the lava into a darkened room of spectators, heating the vicinity up considerably. The affable representative noted that if the volcano were to erupt, all of our mobile phones would alert us to the quite unsettling fact that we had a half hour to get to higher ground. Ha ha, thought I. Wonderful stuff.
From Vik, we headed north to Geysir, where erupting waters awaited. Once again, you can imagine a Tolkien-like landscape with waters boiling on the ground and geysers erupting every few minutes. I could finish an entire column on this area, but space is short and suffice it to say:
Mother Nature is Awesome
On our way out of Geysir, we stopped at Hvammsvík Hot Springs, a set of naturally heated pools, lying on the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. What a gem.
After a freezing jaunt from the shower areas to the outside pools, visitors can submerge in one of eight open-air pools, the mountains and ocean offering a backdrop, and in our case, only four other people to contend with. Pure heaven (and quite a bit less touristed than the infamous Blue Lagoon).
From there, we made straight away for the capital city of Reykjavik, with its hot dog stands and Leif Erikson statues. It’s quite a small city, but we tourists were more than happy to fill in the empty spaces.
Should you try the hot dog stands? Yes. Should you visit Ramen Momo? Most definitely. Are waterfalls as common as traffic jams in the States? They certainly are.
But once again, my space here is limited. How is visiting Iceland even realistic, you ask, when Ireland awaits with all of its charm? As it happens, Icelandair allows travelers to stopover anywhere from one to seven days if they’re continuing on to Europe—for free. So you can book a flight to Dublin on the airline and choose to stop for a few days in the land of fire and ice.
What’s the downside? I don’t have an answer for that one.
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*Conor Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem. Visit cbmakem.com or email co*****@cb*****.com.