The Island of Ice and Fire
America’s closest European neighbor, vast, volcanic Iceland is sadly misnamed. In fact it is about 89 percent ice free, and boasts one of the planet’s most incredible landscapes, full of contrasts and extremes. Medieval Europeans popularly believed it to be the threshold of the underworld, and Jules Verne chose a volcano here as the entranceway for his Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The word geyser was coined here, named after Geysir, the largest of the island’s many spouting hot springs. There are also lava fields, bubbling mud pools, and steam vents, but look in another direction and you’ll see plenty of ice, including the dramatic glacial lagoon at Jokulsarlon, famous for icebergs that break off from the glacier face and form an ever-changing maze for chugging tour boats. In yet another direction, you’ll see pristine farms and extraordinarily green grasslands, mostly along the coast.
The two-lane Ring Road (or Route 1 – the only show in town) runs in an 860-mile circuit around much of the island, taking in everything from ocean scenery to the empty, treeless tundra to the fire and ice of the interior. Motorists may feel as if they’ve returned from a trip to the moon when they return to Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital.
Icelanders tend to be very hospitable, and if you befriend any of the cosmopolitan residents, ask them to take you to the city’s fabled Blue Lagoon, thirty-five minutes outside town, one of a dozen public thermal swimming pools that are said to be Iceland’s health and beauty secret.
The natural swimming area is filled with silica-rich water whose milky turquoise color comes from blue-green algae. With temperatures near 102 degrees Fahrenheit sending up billowing white steam, and a geothermal power plant just next door, the scenario seems almost surreal – much like the entire island.