Monday, July 28, 2014

Our Lifestyle Adventures: Getting More Captivated by Iceland

Icelandic landscape in summer
I have long wanted to visit Iceland, especially Reykjavik, the northernmost capital of the world. She captivated the world when over a period of six days In 2010 volcanic eruptions caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe.  About 20 countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic, affecting about 10 million travelers.

lupina all over Iceland after winter
Coexisting ice and geothermal landscapes make a mysterious combination that has captured my imagination even before this seismic activity. We took the “Iron and Ice” segment of the MV Explorer’s Enrichment Voyage because of Iceland for me, Denmark for Bill, and also because it would take us from Scandinavia to the UK for the wedding of April and Clint.

island of Surtsey
It took two days at sea before we reached Iceland from the Shetland Islands. We attended all the sessions about what to expect in the three ports we will visit, about the Vikings and origins of the country and its people, and its current economy and development. But, even before reaching Reykjavik, we encountered the island of Surtsey off its southern coast formed in a volcanic eruption which began 426 ft below sea level in November 1963, continuing for seven months after. Now the island is half its maximum size of one square mile because of wind and wave erosion.

Iceland is a Nordic country between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. A population of 325,671 occupies an area of 40,000 square miles, the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It is volcanically and geologically active, consisting mainly of a plateau of sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, with many glacial rivers flowing to the sea. I learned that the Gulf Stream warms it so that its climate is temperate despite being just outside the Arctic Circle.

largest natural lake
We took a bus tour in Reykjavik that took us first to Þingvellir, a continually evolving volcanic area and to Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. Haukadalur is the third tourist attraction in the Golden Circle where geysers and other geothermal features have developed on a rhyolitic dome.  There are also more than 40 other little hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles nearby. But it does not compare to Yosemite in America, the largest and densest area of geothermal activity in the world.

you would really want to dive into it
geothermal springs
Our next stop was the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in a lava field in Grindavík. One of the most visited attractions of Iceland, the Lagoon started to form in 1976 from the waste water of the geothermal power plant that had just been built there. In 1981people started flocking to it after they discovered its healing powers for psoriasis. In 1992 the Blue Lagoon Company opened a public bathing facility, separate from the section used by people who sought its healing powers. It is truly blue! 
Viking Museum
The final swing of the tour was a brief stop at the Viking Museum, a glimpse of the Sun Voyager, a sculpture that is both a dreamboat and an ode to the sun, the Harpa, a very new concert hall and conference centre, and the Pearl with five immense hot water tanks topped with a domed revolving restaurant. It was too bad that the Hallgrímskirkja was not part of the tour and we were so tired that we couldn’t walk to it. It is the largest church in Iceland (Lutheran) and is of outstanding architecture, visible from any part of the city. There was a lot more to see but we simply did not have the time or the energy.

Sun Voyager
view of the town
The next day our cruise ship docked at Ísafjörður, meaning ices' fjord, a town in northwest Iceland. With a population of about 2,600, the small town is located on a spit of sand, or eyri, in the Skutulsfjörður fjord which meets the waters of the larger Isafjarðardjúp fjord. The town is connected by road and a recent 3.4 mile road tunnel to Bolungarvík to the northwest and to the small town of Súðavík to the east. Completed in 1996, the tunnel also leads to the small towns of Flateyri and Suðureyri, and to the western parts of the Westfjords. Ísafjörður also has an airport with regular flights to Reykjavík.

the town
I had developed a slight fever so I stayed on the ship while Bill walked the town and took pictures for me. Fishing has been the main industry and the small town has one of the largest fisheries in Iceland. Despite its size, small population, and historical isolation from the rest of the country, the town has a rather urban atmosphere with a school of music, a hospital, a cultural center with a library and showrooms and a distance learning center for the 7,000 residents of the Westfjords area. Later in the day, Bill briefly took pictures of me from the viewing deck with the town as a background. The scenes were postcard pretty and not because of me, I concede.

view from bus
The following day I was feeling better and we joined a bus tour at Akureyri, the third Icelandic port we visited.  Iceland's second largest urban area after Reykjavík, Akureyri is nicknamed the Capital of North Iceland. It is an important port and fishing centre, with a population of 17,754. The area where Akureyri is located was settled in the 9th century and was the site of Allied units during World War II.

Godafoss Waterfalls
The bus tour gradually took us away from the town and gave us so many picturesque scenes of it, our docked cruise ship, and the countryside. We were taken to the The Goðafoss, waterfall of the gods, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. It is located in the Mývatn district of North-Central Iceland where the water of the river Skjálfandafljót falls from a height of 12 meters over a width of 30 meters. It is said that in the year 999 or 1000, upon returning from the Alþingi (one of the oldest extant Parliaments in the world circa built 930 AD), the Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorgeir threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall, the story preserved in Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók. Thus Christianity became Iceland’s official religion.

Church of Akureyri
A window in the Cathedral of Akureyri (Akureyrarkirkja) illustrates this story. And that was our next stop. It is a prominent Lutheran church towering above the city on a hill right in the middle of the city centre. Bill and I counted about 55 steps to reach the top. The church has a notably large 3200-pipe organ, a unique interpretation of the crucifixion and a suspended ship hanging from the ceiling which reflects an old Nordic tradition of giving offerings for the protection of loved ones at sea.


with the folkloric trolls
We then wandered around town for more pictures, including one with folkloric trolls and the beautiful visitor center. The views from the dock and the ship were equally astonishing.  

view of the town from the ship's deck
After the ship set sail, we had a grandly wild party celebrating our crossing of the Arctic Circle. At precisely the time, the Captain announced at the Gazers Lounge, ’Ladies and gentlemen, look to the left of you.’  We all looked. Then he said, ‘Look to the right of you.’  We all looked. Finally he said, ‘There is really nothing.’ And we all laughed, drank, and danced. We may not have seen boundless expanses of ice for it was summer.  But Iceland is certainly another kind of land and I became even more captivated.