On this weekend following the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and a week-plus of Iceland being at the forefront of the news, let’s combine the two and talk about the island being a very “green” vacation spot.
I’m gathering, however, that the image of spewing ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and just the name of the island might not bring to mind an environmentally friendly, let alone a green, vacation. Well, it’s the very fact that Iceland sits right on the “constructive” junction of the African and American tectonic plates, which are obviously still moving, that makes Iceland especially green.
This cauldron that’s brewing under Iceland and occasionally bursts forth also supplies the country with unprecedented geothermal wealth to heat buildings and keep its pollution levels the lowest of modern nations. Iceland ranks first in the world in pollution control; the U.S. is ranked 61st; India is ranked 123rd in EPI.
Located in the North Atlantic, Iceland is a rugged 40,000-square-mile (103,000-square-kilometer) island roughly five to six flying hours from the U.S. East Coast and two to three hours from the European mainland.
I don’t need to tell you that visitors will find Mother Nature at her most forceful in Iceland. This is partly because its location brings strong prevailing winds and some dramatic weather – during a leisurely lunch one March, the view went from sunny, to horizontal snow, to driving rain, back to sunny, many times, actually. But, besides the weather, Iceland’s raw natural energy is mostly a result of it setting astride still-shifting tectonic plates.
In addition to the active volcanoes, the moving plates also mean steaming hot springs (many of which supply outdoor heated pools or spas), regular geysers and the occasional earthquake (rest assured that all construction is required to be built to withstand these earth tremors). You can drive past barren fields of lava or green farmlands dotted with the unique Icelandic ponies or the island’s incredibly woolly sheep. Waterfalls (foss) are everywhere: some tall, some small, some very dramatic, such as Gullfoss, which plunges in stages at different angles, appearing to disappear into an abyss. Mountain peaks leave you wondering how new (recently formed) they are and which ones are volcanoes.
This is a country that’s still forming. The two plates are gradually moving away from each other – at a rate of nearly an inch (2 cm.) a year. This is one of the only places on Earth where the tectonic plates can be clearly seen on dry land, the other examples stretch across the ocean floors.
Standing in the resultant rift, which runs from the southwest to the northeast of Iceland, in relatively recent lava fields, with the edge of one plate looming 25 feet higher and at least the same distance away from the other, can make even the most macho among us understand why you don’t mess with Mother Nature.
Many who stop in Iceland only get to visit Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital and a 45-minute drive to the west coast of Iceland past gray, dreary lava fields from the airport at Keflavik. More than 60 percent of Iceland’s total population, which is less than 300,000, live in Greater Reykjavik. Don’t let the concrete apartment and office buildings surrounding the city fool you, the center is quaint, colorful, and fun to stroll through and boasts of lively nightlife.
The main shopping street is Laugavegur, with stores featuring books, Icelandic designs, the latest from Europe, trinkets, and music – please note that Icelanders have bizarre taste in music (case in point: Björk) so be sure and stroll through and check it out. Cafes and restaurants are to be found all along the way. For a taste of traditional Iceland, a stop at Laekjarbrekka is a must. While it seems touristy, the atmosphere is delightfully quaint and the food surprisingly delicious (not surprising, however, the specialties are lamb or fish, which you’ll find to be the case throughout Iceland).
Museums and art galleries abound within walking distance in the city – the short days during the winter must bring out the creativeness of the Icelanders as amazing artwork can be found displayed in even relatively plebeian motels.
A “valley” area nearby to Reykjavik, Laugardalur, has been made into a recreational area featuring a sports center, 2- and 10-kilometer jogging tracks, putting greens, a 50-meter swimming pool (with special services like mud baths offered), a Domestic Animals Garden highlighting Icelandic flora and fauna, plus sports stadiums, tenting areas and more.
My favorite aspect in Laugardalur is the exhibition dedicated to the Laundry Springs (Thvottalaugar), where Icelandic women, who had no running water in their homes, brought their dirty laundry to wash in the hot springs of the area for centuries.
Much as the city has to offer, it’s the countryside that is not to be missed, even if it’s just a day trip to Blue Lagoon in Reykjanes, South Iceland. These are public therapeutic thermal pools that are a very interesting, almost milky, color of blue. The salt waters come from more than 6,000 feet beneath the ground, where its temperature is 464°F. On its trip to the surface it absorbs many of the earth’s minerals so the waters are know for their healing and restorative powers.
Contact a local tour company to take a day trip from Reykjavik to places like Pinvellir National Park to view the Great Atlantic rift, to the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir hot spring area, to the South Shore area past lush farmland, glaciers, and looming waterfalls.
Or, rent a car and strike out on your own. Be sure to leave enough time as the scenery — steam rising from hot springs or spray from waterfalls and cone-shaped mountain ridges — forces stops for photos all along the way.
Besides just general sightseeing (and thus riding in a gasoline-powered vehicle, although they have hydrogen-powered ones in Iceland to further reduce their carbon footprint), you’ll be hard-pressed to find activities that are not “green” or nature-based in Iceland. Here are just a few.
White Water Rafting: With all those waterfalls and glacial rivers tumbling to the ocean, you can be sure there’s some challenging white water rafting in Iceland. Here’s one of the foremost rafting trips in Europe on what Iceland’s Arctic Rafting calls the “Beast of the East”. There are many that are touted as “family trips” and some that are just an hour from Reykjavik.
Volcano Tours: It seems the tours to Iceland’s volcanoes have been resumed so you can see nature in action these days. Called “An Adventure in a Day” these tours, here conducted by Nordic Visitor, promise to keep you at a safe distance, but offer helicopter and bus visits to the volcanic areas and lots more tours, including Horse-Riding and Whale-Watching tours.
Caving: Iceland boasts many caves, some of which are included in Icelandic Sagas, called the Landnámabók, such as Surtshellir near Husafell. Some caves, like Víðgelmir, one of the largest lava caves in the world, are locked and need guides, but, if you’re brave enough, well worth a visit.
Icelandic horse tours. Consider taking an Icelandic horse tour. Besides being smaller in stature with thick hair, tails and manes, Icelandic horses are also known for their different, but extra smooth gaits — in addition to a walk, trot, canter and gallop, they also have a fifth gait, known at the tölt, or running walk. Many companies and farms in Iceland offer horse tours, some as long as eight days. Here are a few to check out: Eldhestar, Pólar Hestar and Icelandic Mountain Guides.
And, as for Iceland’s misnomer, according to the website www.straightdope.com, some people say that Iceland was so named to discourage immigration, but that’s been discounted. Or that it was named for its extensive glaciers, which are among the largest in Europe. According to legend, Iceland was named by Norwegian Viking Flóki Vilgerðarson for the view of a distant fjord full of sea-ice that he glimpsed from a tall mountain. Greenland, it is said, was, in fact, named to attract more immigration.
Photos © by Karen Cummings and Charles Leocha (all rights reserved)