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Sjáumst Síðar, Iceland

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The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn’t need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.

Goodbye Iceland

Only 300,000 people live in Iceland. This shocked me at first. An entire country for a population smaller than that of Honolulu? But by the end of our stay, 300,000 felt like a lot. Iceland might be a country in name, but in spirit it’s a big, widely-scattered family. We’d meet people in Akureyri with cousins we’d photographed in Ísafjörður. “Húsavík? Sure! My sister works at the town bar. Stop by and say hi.” Or we’d see a friend from Kópavogur during a visit to the Westman Islands. And he would just wave, like it’s no big deal. Like it’s right around the block!

Considering the small and tightly-knit population, the sheer number of tourists who come to Iceland should be overwhelming. Walking down Laugavegur, the main street of Reykjavík where foreigners far outnumber locals, I always felt a little guilty. After all, I was one of these invaders. But although it would be understandable for Icelanders to turn insular, shunning strangers under the guise of protecting their culture, they are among the most welcoming, friendly people we’ve ever encountered. Whether striking up a conversation at the bar, offering advice, pulling over when we stuck out our thumbs, listening to our stories or sharing theirs, locals were always happy to engage with us. Icelanders are proud of their country, eager to know what we’d seen and what we thought.

And they have reason to be proud. Iceland is home to the most bizarre and beautiful nature we’ve ever seen, bar none. The glaciers, the geothermal areas, the desolate interior, the raging arctic oceans, the black sand beaches. The hiking! During our walk along the Fimmvorðuháls Trail, the moment we crossed between two glaciers and saw the valley of Þórsmörk beneath us, glowing in the evening sun, was one of those transcendent experiences I’ll never forget. How many times in your life does something happen that you immediately know will be etched into your memory forever? It’s rare. But perhaps less so in Iceland.

The nature is unforgettable, but that’s only half of what makes Iceland so special. We were just as amazed by its people. This tenacious little community who brave life on an island which (let’s be honest) is set to explode any day now. Who, despite their small number, have their own language, compelling history and incredibly rich culture. Who have created one of the most liberal, tolerant, environmentally-friendly, pragmatic and down-to-earth countries on the planet. These people who love camping! Who party like maniacs! Who bathe in rivers and climb glaciers for sport! Who knit!

Iceland, you’re fascinating. We left a little sad, but with amazing memories and friendships that I’m sure will stand the test of time. And I have no doubt that we’ll return. It’s your fault. You welcomed us with open arms and now, we’re kind of family.

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Goodbye Iceland
Goodbye Iceland
Goodbye Iceland
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November 3, 2013 at 11:09 pm Comment (1)

Inside the Volcano

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After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.

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The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the cavern which is accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. Here was a perfect magma chamber, without any of the magma. Immediately recognizing it as a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.

Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll Mountain Ski Resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.

Although it doesn’t look like much from the base camp, the underground dimensions of Þrihnúkagígur are impressive. It’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty and taller than Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. But these are just facts and figures; we weren’t able to truly comprehend the volcano’s size until being lowered into it.

Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug,” said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and the tour allows a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.

It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.

There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support large numbers. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.

But this is a petty gripe. In the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm Comment (1)

Geysir – The World’s Original

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The Haukadalur Valley, found along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge just northeast of Þingvellir, is an especially restless area of geothermal activity. Along with other bubbling pools of rotten-smelling sulfur, it’s here that you can find Geysir. This is the original — the geyser which lends its name to all others.


Geologically speaking, Geysir isn’t the world’s “original” geyser, but it was the first encountered by Europeans, and the first to enter the lexicons of Western language. Geysir has always been fickle and heavily affected by the region’s frequent earthquakes. During its heyday, it was exploding as dependably as Old Faithful, but quieted down in the 20th century. In the 1990s, impatient visitors were triggering spectacular eruptions by throwing stones into the crater, and even adding soap.

Today, Geysir is completely asleep, and will likely stay so until the next round of earthquakes awaken it. Luckily for tourists, its little brother Strokkur isn’t ready for bed. At irregular intervals of around fifteen minutes, Strokkur shoots water 100 feet (30m) in the air, less than half the height reached by Geysir in its prime, but enough to impress.

Haukadalur is one of the standard stops on the Golden Circle tour, between Þingvellir and Gulfoss. Besides Geysir and Strokkur, there are a number of other, smaller geysers to check out, each with its own personality. There’s foul-tempered Litli-Geysir (Little Geyser), constantly bubbling and spewing forth its sulfuric stench. Strange Blesi consists of two pools: one of the most beautiful blue water, and another which looks like mud. And the less said about ugly, semi-active Óþerrishola (Wet Hole), the better.

In fact, I think I’d better stop describing these geysers entirely. Erupting, foul-smelling spouts with names like Strokkur and Wet Hole… the profane jokes are just too easy. Honestly, who names anything “Wet Hole”?! But I will take the high road, Iceland, and stop here.

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August 14, 2013 at 6:37 pm Comments (5)

Snorkeling at the Silfra Fissure

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Floating on your stomach in near-freezing water is normally an experience one has only after being murdered by the Mafia. But in the right circumstances, it can be enjoyable. When you’re alive, for instance, and looking through crystal clear glacial water at the Silfra Fissure.

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As the North American and European tectonic plates drift away from each other, Iceland is being stretched apart. The island is growing at two to three centimeters a year, and the rift valley near Þingvellir provides an incredible view of tectonic motion in action. Silfra is just one of the many fissures in the valley. Deep and narrow, it’s filled with glacial water that’s been filtered through miles of volcanic rock, and is of absolute purity.

We went on a Silfra snorkeling excursion with the folks from, and had an amazing time. I had been worried about getting into such freezing water (around 2°C / 35°F), but we were wearing drysuits which kept the cold out and the warmth in. After driving to the site and suiting up, we hopped into the water. In addition to keeping you dry, the suits also keep you bobbing on the surface, making it easy to float… or rather, impossible not to. We popped the snorkels in our mouths, flipped onto our stomachs, and the show began.

What a show it was. Silfra is heralded as one of the best freshwater dive sites in the world, thanks to the flawless visibility of its water. Even though the sky was a bit overcast, the rift was colored a rich, dark blue, and we could see clearly for hundreds of feet, as we floated with the current. The initial section was fairly shallow, but then we entered into Silfra’s “Cathedral”: a chamber over 60 feet in depth and about 300 feet wide, ringed in by walls of lava. It’s breathtaking… especially when your breaths are being taken through a snorkel tube. provided a top-notch experience. We had an excellent guide and the equipment was flawless. The company also offers diving excursions into the fissure, which I would have loved to do. Snorkeling was nice and, considering the water’s perfect clarity, might even offer the better views, but scuba diving into the rift between two continents must be an amazing adventure.

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August 3, 2013 at 1:25 pm Comments (9)
Sjumst Sar, Iceland The daylight hours were growing shorter, but we took our leave of Iceland before the true onset of winter, when the country would be plunged into a period of almost unbroken darkness. For us, Iceland was all about the light. A light which powered long summer days. Which illuminated vistas of mountains, fjords and waterfalls. Which fought through clouds to reflect off a glacier and momentarily blind us. This light, shining on a country that didn't need anywhere near 91 days to work its way into our hearts.
For 91 Days