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Jökulsárlón: The Glacial Lagoon

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Our first excursion out of Reykjavík was a day trip to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the country’s southeast coast. With its powder blue icebergs floating, bobbing and flipping atop the water’s surface, Jökulsárlón has become one of Iceland’s most famous sights. Justifiably so.


Our trip to Jökulsárlón was organized by Iceland Guided Tours, a company based in the heart of Reykjavík which concentrates on the southern coast and the capital area. The drive out to the lagoon was long, about five hours, so it was nice to be traveling with a knowledgeable guide who could point out geographical features along the way and answer any questions we had.

Jökulsárlón’s icebergs are supplied by the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, which looks unfathomably huge looming behind the lagoon, but is actually just a small part of the much larger Vatnajökull Glacier. Although it’s been retreating since the late 19th century, Vatnajökull still covers 8% of Iceland and is Europe’s largest glacier.

As Breiðamerkurjökull shrinks, giant chunks of ice break off and tumble down into Jökulsárlón, where they float listlessly about the water’s surface. By a quirk of nature, the icebergs don’t melt, nor does the lagoon freeze over. This is because a natural river connecting Jökulsárlón to the Atlantic creates a mixture of salt and fresh water; cool enough to keep the ice mostly intact, but salty enough to prevent the water from freezing. Eventually, the icebergs do melt away, but the process can take years.

Boat Tour Jökulsárlón

The view of the lagoon is spectacular from the coast, but a reasonably-priced boat tour can provide a close-up look. The icebergs come in a variety of styles, from white streaked with charcoal-black soot, to crystal-clear formations resembling glass, to gorgeous chunks of powder-blue. The colors vary in accordance with the age of the ice, and where on the glacier it originated. The most dazzling are those formed of the densest, oldest ice; blue is the only color in the spectrum which water doesn’t absorb, which means that the most compressed ice has the bluest hue.

A completely unique location, Jökulsárlón has proven irresistible to filmmakers, appearing in movies like Tomb Raider and Batman Begins. Most spectacular was its appearance in Die Another Day, the otherwise awful 2002 Bond flick. At an enormous expense, and for less than a minute of footage, the filmmakers blocked off the river for months, preventing salt water from reaching the lagoon which caused it to freeze over.

Across from Jökulsárlón, where the river empties into the ocean, there’s a black-sand beach which is also worth a look. Here, some smaller ice chunks have floated down the river and come to rest on the sand. Also nearby, though only accessible with your own transportation, is a second glacial lagoon called Fjallsarlón. It’s less colorful than Jökulsarlon, and lacking access to the ocean, but the glacial flow behind it is even more dramatic.

If you’d like to visit Jökulsárlón, either rent a car or get in touch with the guys at Iceland Guided Tours. It’s a long trip from the capital, but worth the effort. In a country full of unbelievable scenery, this lagoon is among the top highlights.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Jökulsárlón | Fjallsárlón

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July 31, 2013 at 10:24 am Comments (9)

A View of Reykjavík from the Hallgrímskirkja

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A light-gray concrete space shuttle pointed to the stars, the Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavík’s most instantly recognizable landmark. Set atop a hill, the Lutheran church is visible from miles away, and its tower offers one of the best views of the city.

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Construction began on the “Church of Hallgrímur” in 1945, just after Iceland won its independence, but the fledgling country had to wait for 41 years before their new place of worship was ready for business. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, took his sweet time, but the result was worth it. Geography is an important part of Icelandic identity, and the Hallgrímskirkja is meant to resemble a volcano, with walls that are modeled on the hexagonal basalt columns formed by cooling lava.

Outside the church is a heroic statue of Leif Eriksson, who landed on the coast of Newfoundland around the year 1000 and became the first European on North American shores, half a millennium ahead of Columbus. The statue was a gift from the USA in celebration of the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament, the Alþing. The placement of a Viking statue in front of a church might seem strange, but in fact makes sense. Leif was among Iceland’s first Christians, having willingly converted in the year 1000. And it was during a mission to proselytize the new religion that he accidentally discovered North America.

The church is named for Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th-century reverend and Iceland’s most noted hymnist. Surely, he would have been proud to see the gigantic organ inside the church which bears his name. Standing at 50 feet, with over 5000 pipes, it’s the church’s only real interior feature, and lures the world’s most accomplished organists to Reykjavík for special concerts throughout summer.

But the best reason to visit the Hallgrímskirkja is for the incredible view over Reykjavík. An elevator takes you straight to the top of the tower, where you can enjoy a 360° panorama. Reykjavík might not be particularly impressive in size, but it is quite beautiful. From the tower, the colorful houses look particularly quaint against the majestic backdrop of mountains and ocean.

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July 25, 2013 at 12:26 pm Comments (4)

Reykjavík: Iceland’s… City

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Reykjavík is more than just Iceland’s biggest city. It’s Iceland’s only city. Really, even calling it a “city” feels like an affront to its spirit. Despite claiming two-thirds of the country’s total population, Reykjavík is closer to an overgrown village than a major European capital.

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Found in the southwest corner of the island, Reykjavík became Iceland’s first permanent settlement in 874 when Viking chieftain Ingólfur Arnason landed on its shores. According to legend, he came upon the location using the conventional method of the Vikings: throwing the pillars of his high chair off the longboat and settling wherever they drifted ashore. After arriving at his new home and, probably with some trepidation, noticing the steam issuing from the ground, he named it “Smoky Bay”. Or Reykjavík.

Throughout most of its history, Reykjavík was a provincial village, dedicated to farming and fishing. It wasn’t until WWII and the arrival of British and American troops that the city truly entered the modern age. Eager to take advantage of the strategically-situated island, the Allies built airports, paved roads and helped Reykjavík expand. Soon, rural Icelanders began seeking out jobs in the only urban setting their country offered, and the capital’s population exploded.

Despite the rapid development, downtown Reykjavík has maintained its small-town charm. Colorful, small houses are the dominant construction in the city center, with business centers and apartment blocks kept to the outskirts. At the city’s heart is the Tjörnin, a naturally-occurring pond on whose shores sits the City Hall (Ráðshúsið). The harbor, which has always played a pivotal role in the city’s fortunes, is just a couple blocks away. Really, everything in tiny Reykjavík is just a couple blocks away from everything else.

The downtown area can comfortably be covered in a single day. But to really become acquainted with the city takes far longer — a good thing, since we would be based here for 91 days! Given its size, Reykjavík offers a lot to do: museums, boat tours, hikes in the surrounding hills, excellent restaurants and cafes, cultural exhibitions, and a famous nightlife which ranks among the best in Europe. With its easy-going pace, the almost nonexistent traffic and appealing quirkiness of its inhabitants, Reykjavík is an instantly lovable city.

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July 17, 2013 at 2:16 pm Comments (7)

Halló Iceland!

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Iceland, a small island stranded in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic, was our home for 91 days. The country’s 300,000 citizens lay claim to some of Europe’s most remote and beautiful terrain. Massive glaciers, simmering volcanoes, geothermal pools, puffin colonies, Viking sagas, whales and nerve-wracking road trips conspired to provide us with an exhilarating summer.

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We had spent the previous three months in Istanbul, which although technically on the same continent as Iceland, couldn’t be further apart in spirit. Istanbul is one of the Earth’s biggest cities and, upon leaving, we felt the need to reconnect with nature. In Iceland, we would experience the outdoors at their most extreme. We’d do a lot of hiking, participate in adventure tours, and bathe in hot springs. We’d visit frontier fishing villages, scale glaciers, and get to know a sizable percentage of the country’s population on a first-name basis (the only such basis Icelanders know).

We rented an apartment in Kópavogur, just south of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and by far its biggest city. Our apartment would serve as a base while we set off to explore the country, using buses, cars, hitchhiking, and even planes. About the size of Kentucky, Iceland isn’t big in terms of area, but the harshness of its terrain makes getting around a tricky proposition. Almost the entire interior is covered by glaciers and mountains, and is nearly impassable, let alone inhabitable. Icelanders live and work almost entirely around the coast.

After exploring Reykjavík and the surrounding southwest corner of the island, we would make our way up the west coast, to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords. We’d spend time in the north, visit Akureyri (Iceland’s second city) and lounge around picturesque Lake Mývatn. We’d see the stunning Eastfjords, the glaciers and waterfalls of the South, the vast and barren interior, and even ferry out to a couple outlying islands.

Amazingly, we were able survive all of this without going broke, finding ourselves stranded on a glacier, or falling into a raging river of lava. It was an incredible 91 days.

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July 16, 2013 at 5:29 pm Comments (2)
Jkulsrln: The Glacial Lagoon Our first excursion out of Reykjavík was a day trip to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the country's southeast coast. With its powder blue icebergs floating, bobbing and flipping atop the water's surface, Jökulsárlón has become one of Iceland's most famous sights. Justifiably so.
For 91 Days