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Land of Fire & Ice

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

“Amazing.” “Stunning.” “Incredible.” “So, so beautiful.” I’d been hearing superlatives decorating any mention of Iceland like confetti, every mention of the country laced with gasps and breathless adjectives of wonder. Over the last decade or so, Iceland had gone from an overlooked afterthought to the must-see, Instragram-starring icon of the Atlantic.

Surely, the place was overhyped.

Surely, I was in for a let-down.

I’d been plenty of places of the years that many have described with the above descriptors, and while I’m sure I enjoyed most, if not all of them, I’d be lying if I said some places we’ve been in the world left us a bit underwhelmed. Nice, but not incredible. Interesting, but not Oh-my-god-I’m-so-jealous-it’s-my-favorite-city-in-the-world. In fact, the places that are on my list of favorites are probably, more often than not, cities and villages that I hadn’t heard much about, places that took me by surprise, as in, “Wow, this place is great. Why haven’t I heard more about this?” Places like St. Jean de Luz in France, or Bergen, Norway. The Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland comes to mind. Places that perhaps Europeans are well-aware of, but might be a little bit hidden in the shadows to Americans.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. Venice and Rome, for example, are everything you hear they are (although the over-tourism might detract from the truly magical experience you’re looking for).

Iceland is popular and growing more popular by the day. We had the trip booked for July 2020 after hearing again and again what a jewel it was, a place not to be missed. And then the trip was cancelled due to Covid and rebooked for the following July. Another year of hype. Another year of anticipation. I was certain the country couldn’t handle the accolades, sure that it would crumble under a crush of hype.

But guess what? Iceland delivered. Big.

Here’s what I mean: as our plane touched down at the airport in Keflavik, the distant landscape of mountains and mist sliding by our porthole window, my wife nudged me with an elbow and said, “Look.” Through the glass, dazzling as the sun itself, was the hot-orange spewing lava of the Fagradalsfjall volcano, the active volcano that had been erupting for months but had been quieting down as of late. We weren’t sure we’d get the chance to see it in person, yet there it was in all its burning glory, as though welcoming us, letting us know: you’ve just landed in another world.

That first day, on no sleep, we picked up our car rental and spent the day driving the Golden Circle, the three-hour rural road (redundant—every road in Iceland is a rural road), worried that the red-eye overnight flight would leave us too exhausted to focus—much less enjoy—the long day ahead. But then a funny thing happened. We got coffee, something to eat, then a little more coffee, along with the adrenaline surge triggered by the wild and beautiful landscape around us, and we never really got tired. At all. We checked into our airbnb apartment sometime before dinner, after driving nine or ten hours on no sleep. We saw the hot, bubbling Geysir spurting five stories in the air, saw the massive Gullfoss waterfall crashing, walked through a natural rock chasm that separated the North American tectonic plate from the Eurasian plate—literally walking between continents. And we were ready for more. I looked at my phone and saw that I’d taken over a hundred photos already. We had four more days ahead of us.

It was going to be an unforgettable, otherworldly week, that much I knew already. We went to bed, our bodies drained. I was dizzy with exhaustion, a headache blooming between my eyes, punishment for staying up all the previous night. But my brain was still firing with a replay of the day we’d had a buzzing anticipation for what was next. I lay awake in the midnight gray gloom—summer in the Arctic Circle—for an hour or two, then give up and grab my phone, look at the next day’s itinerary, trace my finger along the Google map: south along the coast, stops at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and its neighbor, the Gljufrabui “hidden” waterfall, then a quick check-in at our hotel, a sheep farm called The Garage standing in the shadow of majestic green cliffs and facing the sea, then a hike above the Skogafoss waterfall an its epic trails, followed finally by dinner in quaint Vik. Later in the week we'd see another national park, then Diamond Beach with its massive jewels of ice contrasted against Iceland's iconic black sand, then the nearby glacier lagoon.

I put the phone down and tried again to find sleep.

But an hour later I was sitting up with the guidebook in my hands, waiting, impatiently, for the stubborn dawn.

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