Journey to Iceland

As pandemic restrictions had just begun to loosen, a local writer traveled to Iceland for one of the most scenic and meaningful vacations of his life.
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cliffs at Thingvellir National Park in Iceland
Cliffs at Thingvellir National Park

Keflavik airport, 45 kilometers outside of Iceland’s picturesque capital of Reykjavík, is strangely quiet these days. One of the world’s greatest adventure tourism destinations—you can hike on active volcanoes, climb on glaciers, see some of the world’s most rugged cliffs, beaches and canyons, and walk to the edge of raging waterfalls—now has only about 15 flights a day coming and going. And most of those flights seem to be only about one-third full. In early June, I was on one of these overnight flights from Seattle.

I had been pining for international travel for 15 months, longing for the day when I could experience the casual patois of language and cultures and braggadocio storytelling, the mélange of experiences told over beers with strangers in pubs and overheard at nearby restaurant tables that only happens on the road. And so, a month into spring, when a tourist-revenue-starved Iceland announced that it would reopen to international travelers who could produce a record of their full vaccination against COVID, I immediately phoned my old friend Jason, a Canadian who lives in D.C., and suggested that we have an adventure. I had turned 49 in April; he was turning 51 in early June. Combine the two ages and we were celebrating 100.

Within a few minutes, we had agreed that we would book for Iceland. At which point my 14-year-old son, Leo, who loves traversing the world as much as do I, kindly agreed to research where we should go and in what hotels we should stay. After two days of research, he came up with an itinerary:

We would, of course, start in Reykjavík, where one third of the country’s population of roughly 350,000 live. Then we would navigate our way to the wild Snaefellsnes Peninsula, jutting west into the North Atlantic Ocean. From there we would backtrack, heading south past Reykjavík, and then east along the southern part of Route 1, the epic road ringing the island. One morning we would hike the otherworldly Fjaõrárgljúfur Canyon. At the culmination of our trip, we would end up near Vatnajökull glacier, a vast complex of ice that covers 8% of the country’s nearly 40,000 square miles of land.

Reykjavik Iceland
The city of Reykjavík

Traveling in COVID times is a strange, bizarre, sometimes frustrating and sometimes truly wonderful experience. On the downside, there’s an element of utter unpredictability. Icelandair is metering in the numbers of planes and passengers per day, so that presumably the country’s COVID-testing regimen at the airport isn’t overwhelmed. What that means is that the airline can change flight schedules on a dime. First, my outbound flight from Seattle was moved forward a day, so I had to rebook my connection flight from Sacramento to Seattle, all the hotels in Iceland and the car rental. Then, a week later, my return flight was shifted up a day, too, and I had to go through the whole rebooking rigmarole again.

The good news, however, is that all of this was virtually painless. The online booking sites are extremely flexible at the moment, with hotels and car rental agencies bending over backward to accommodate the few international travelers there are.

From then on, it was a piece of cake. Iceland tests arriving passengers—mainly from the United States, but a smattering coming in on flights from the UK, France, Germany, Israel, Italy and Poland—at the airport and then requires them to head to their hotels and quarantine until they receive a text message and/or email with the result.

sasha infront of glacier
Sasha in front of Myrdalsjökull Glacier, on the way to Falljökull Glacier

I landed at 5:45 a.m., went through customs, picked up my bag and was COVID tested in a tent set up in the parking lot within the hour. Then I was met by a young representative from the car rental agency and driven to its facility a few kilometers away to collect my car. I was on the road by 7:30 a.m. and before another hour had passed was in my room at the lovely, minimalist-designed, blue-glass Grand Hotel. The blackout blinds drawn, I promptly fell into a jet-lagged sleep. When I woke up at about noon, a text was waiting for me on my cellphone saying that I had tested negative and was out of quarantine. (The return regimen is just as efficient. On a government-run public health website, you book your COVID test for the day before your flight, go in, are tested within five minutes of arriving and have your PDF certificate, needed to re-enter the United States, emailed to you a few hours later.)

Throughout the following week, Jason and I had truly epic adventures, our travel synapses, left to atrophy since March of last year, springing back into action.

Sheep in front of lava fields at Snæfellsjökull National Park
Sheep in front of lava fields at Snæfellsjökull National Park

There’s a rhythm to this sort of traveling. Because it’s light about 22 hours of the day in mid-June in Iceland (and only a twilight dusk the remaining two hours), it’s beyond easy to stay up late. For example, you can eat dinner at 8 p.m.—Iceland has excellent fish and chips, lots of burgers and pizzas, and a wonderful variety of fish and lamb soups—and then set off for another four or five hours of hiking or walking on the beach or, in Reykjavík, just wandering the hilly old streets. It’s a pretty city, small, self-contained, with none of the hustle-bustle of London or New York or Paris. But it’s charming and, surprisingly, quite diverse. There are high-quality restaurants serving Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Greek and other cuisines, even a few places cooking up tacos. Ice cream shops sell some of the world’s best ice cream. And for an island with a population that could fit into three or four large football stadiums, it has an extraordinary range of first-rate locally brewed beers.

In Reykjavík, Jason and I reconnected after having not seen each other for 18 months. We swapped pandemic experiences, tried to process our emotions about what this brutal period has done and attempted to work out our psychic scars from this time of public health catastrophe and political upheaval. Jason is originally from Canada and I grew up in the U.K., and neither of us can easily travel back to our countries of origin at the moment to see our families and old friends. Canada and the U.K. impose—at at least were still imposing as I write—long quarantines on incoming passengers, even if they are fully vaccinated. There’s a pain of absence in this pandemic era that is omnipresent, a chronic low-level ache that at times crescendos to crushing heartbreak.

Hallgrimskirkja cathedral in Reykjavik
Hallgrimskirkja cathedral in Reykjavik

For both of us, Iceland was a balm, a way to emerge from the emotional warp and enforced diminishment during the pandemic. That first day, I was by myself—Jason’s outbound flight from D.C. hadn’t been brought forward a day. Pushing back against the eyeball-hurting exhaustion that a seven-hour time change and a flight into the night brings on, I walked. For hours on end. To the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, an extraordinarily austere stone building, lacking all softening qualities—no ornate icons or intricate religious statues, no carved ornamentation, no stained-glass windows. In front of it, in the cobbled square, is not a statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary, but instead a magnificent greened-by-the-weather copper likeness of Leif Erikson, who may or may not have sailed into the unknown and stumbled upon the Americas nearly half a millennium before Christopher Columbus.

I spent a wonderful hour in the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Museum, exploring the masterful, and sometimes bizarre, creations of Iceland’s first renowned sculptor. I checked out the lake area, and I walked in the wind on the Atlantic waterfront, where Harpa, one of Europe’s most beautiful concert halls, is perched.

It is possible to see the sights of Reykjavík in a couple days of hard touring. By Wednesday afternoon, after Jason had arrived and successfully exited his quarantine, we were ready to start roaming further afield.

Our first effort was a failure: the Fagradalsfjall volcano, not far from the airport, has been erupting since February of this year, and people can park by the side of the road and hike a three-hour trail over the volcanic rocks and into the live lava field to see the flow. When we got there, though, it was so monstrously foggy that we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces, and we realized that attempting the hike could prove a deadly folly. So instead we drove to the Blue Lagoon.

blue lagoon in iceland

It’s hard to convey the magnificence of the lagoon: the steamy waters, fed by mineral-laden geothermal pools, are a milky, opaque white-blue. When you walk in up to your chest, you immediately lose sight of the submerged parts of your body. The sensation is absolutely healing. You can wander in these huge, salty, gassy pools, surrounded by volcanic rocks, for hours—and the price of admission includes a drink at the walk-up bar. Decadence doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of sipping a chilled prosecco while wading in the hot waters through the swirling mists. I could feel a year of accumulated tension start melting off of me, and muscles that I didn’t even know were tense suddenly began to uncork.

sasha at blue lagoon
Sasha in the Blue Lagoon

From there, the next five days were a gift from the travel gods like none I have experienced before. In one 16-hour period, we hiked through the lake, canyon, cliffs and waterfall-dotted wilderness of Thingvellir National Park, a remote region where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet; we explored a series of bubbling geysers, in a Yellowstone-like landscape; and we visited Gullfoss, a vast set of cascading waterfalls of an intensity close to Niagara that eventually coalesce in a rush of white water speeding through a sheer canyon far below. From there, we drove four hours onto the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where the shoreline looks like an angry Norse god threw a tantrum and carved out the unforgiving cliffs (on which an array of Arctic birds nest) and created vast volcanic beaches, moss-speckled obsidian fields, huge lava cones and the Big Sur-like rock formations that jut out into the ocean.

waterfalls at Gullfoss Iceland
Waterfalls at Gullfoss

A few years back, I spent time on the Straits of Magellan in southern Chile. The winds roared through at about 100 miles per hour, making it both bitterly cold and almost impossible to stand upright. That same devil-wind was blowing on the Snaefellsnes.

Sasha on lava beds
Sasha on lava beds of Snaefellsnes Peninsula,

And then, over the next few days, things went from simply wonderful to entirely sensational. We drove off the peninsula and southeast, to the remote volcanic beaches of the south coast. At 11 o’clock one night, as we walked on the perfectly rounded black pebbles of Reynisfjara, which because of the huge sleeper waves is known as Iceland’s most dangerous beach, the sun began to gradually set. The clouds turned a breathtaking shade of pink over the water, with the cliffs and the glaciers behind them, and the vast sky’s blue became so delicate—a wondrous palette of pastels that looked like cotton candy. I wanted to reach up and lick it. On that whole beach, mile upon mile of remoteness, there were perhaps half a dozen people.

Reynisfjara Beach
Reynisfjara Beach

But by far the greatest adventure was still ahead. In a freezing wind-and-ice storm, we took our four-wheel drive out of the Black Beach Suites hotel early that Sunday morning and headed east again, into the heart of glacier country. By 1 p.m., after driving through miles of barren volcanic scree, we were at the tiny Skaftafell airport, meeting up with a young tour guide named Katrina, a Czech ex-pat who had relocated to Iceland a few years back and now ran the Melrakki Adventures glacier-tour company.

In the stark cold, dressed in ski jackets and waterproof pants, we journeyed in an old red Jeep onto the edge of the Falljökull glacier, a vicious tongue of ice jutting off of the huge Vatnajökull ice field. At the glacier’s edge, we put on our crampons, helmets and safety harnesses, grabbed our ice axes and clambered up volcanic slopes and onto the frozen landscape.

Falljökull glacier
Falljökull glacier

There are few things on Earth as humbling as being on a glacier and seeing the immensity of nature up close, unmediated. The ice goes for miles, some of the shards scores of feet high. The crevasses are potentially lethal, many of them narrow slits, the walls vertical, the bottom far below. On the ice floe, you feel you could be swallowed up, vanished, erased in an instant. A person becomes a speck, a human voice a mere whisper. It’s tempting to see the ice as a monolith, but of course it’s not. The outer edge of Falljökull is black, its frozen waters infused with volcanic sand particles. Higher up, the crevasses and pools are brilliant shades of blue. Further away, the soaring ice pinnacles emit an orchestral array of whites, blues and grays. On the edges of the glacier, green, moss-covered cliffs hover. Behind them, black mountains, blotched with fresh snow, rise into the mist. Far below, muddy brown lake waters, formed by glacial melt, mix with silt.

Being on a glacier for three hours is overwhelming. It’s both physically and emotionally exhausting. When we came off the ice, both of us were bug-eyed, awed and almost too hungry to talk. In the nearest little hamlet, an hour’s drive away, we wolfed down dinner largely in silence, the day’s sights pinballing in our minds.

Sasha and Jason at Falljökull glacier
Sasha and Jason at Falljökull glacier

From there, we began our journey home: back to Reykjavík for the required COVID test that is a prerequisite for re-entry into the United States, and then an afternoon spent exploring a nearby crater lake. On Tuesday, early afternoon, we returned the car and headed to the almost-empty airport, where most of the gates were deserted, most shops shuttered. Four flights left for the U.S. that day, all bunched within 25 minutes of each other, and serving a total of at most 300 travelers.

En route to Seattle, I had a row to myself, as did pretty much every other passenger. And then, just as I settled in to do my crosswords and listen to my music, a coda: The clouds parted as the plane flew over Greenland, and, far below, the ice-covered mountains and frozen lakes stared back up out of a panorama of stunning beauty.

After a one-night stopover in Seattle, it was time to return to summertime Sacramento, ski jacket, wool hat and winter gloves in hand. It was slated to be 109 degrees that week, and Iceland would soon feel like a fever dream.