Men’s Journal: Iceland Blows Up

Men’s Journal

September 2010

Iceland Blows Up

Their economy crashed, their volcano wreaked havoc on half of Europe, and there’s never been a better time to go.

by Robert Earle Howells


Iceland Blows UpThe eruption of Iceland’s infamous (and still impossible to pronounce) Eyjafjallajökull volcano brought the air-traffic world to a halt. It also sparked its own boom in volcano tourism, bringing a record 26,000 foreigners to the country in March to see what all the fuss was about. Factor in the kind of favorable exchange rate one might expect from a nation that recently suffered a cataclysmic banking collapse, and it all makes sense. Though the tourist boom has since cooled, along with the seismic activity, the eruption has added a compeling new lure—not that you could tell from talking with the residents of the island, all 317,000 of whom appear to be rather unfazed by the whole thing. But while tourism may help Iceland dig itself out of financial ruin, the aftermath of the collapse means that hotels, restaurants, and guide services are ramped up and ready to go, with prices a relative bargain. Here’s a fully loaded itinerary for an ideal introductory week.


Day 1: Reykjavik

Travel Back to A.D. 871

Everything worth seeing is within a 15-minute walk of Hotel Centrum in the heart of Reykjavik, and the coolest museum in town is literally right underfoot. The Settlement Exhibition, hiply known as 871±2, is a Viking settlement discovered a few years ago during excavation for the hotel and fantastically preserved exactly where it was found. A dark basement vault enwraps a Viking longhouse, and dazzling digital imagery interprets it. There I learned an Icelandic buzzword, tephrochronology, the science of dating a site by identifying its volcanic ash. By that measure, this settlement, among the first in Iceland, harks back to an eruption in 871 A.D., plus or minus two years. Between this museum and the National Museum, a 10-minute walk away, I gleaned a picture of perverse volcanic pride that put Eyjafjallajökull in perspective. Icelanders are more likely to tout the power of Hekla, whose 1104 eruption created a volcanic desert. Or Laki, whose eruption caused Europe’s “mist famine” of 1783–84. Or Katla, Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbor, which underlies a far bigger glacier and whose flare-ups cause jökulhlaups, massive glacial floods. Or Surtsey, an island in the making off Iceland’s south shore, just a couple of years older than Barack Obama.

Lunch: Reykjavik’s most popular restaurant is a hot dog stand near the waterfront. It has a name, but just ask anyone for the hot dog stand. Dinner: Icelandic Fish & Chips, also near the waterfront, for lightly fried cod and oven-baked fries, all dipped in spiced skyr, Iceland’s beloved yogurty concoction. Stay: ($139)


Day 2: The Volcano

Hike a Martian Landscape

On the day I joined Iceland on Track’s Omar Sigurdsson in his Nissan Patrol outfitted with monster-truck Dick Cepek tires for a long day of touring the wild highlands of south-central Iceland in late May, I could see Eyjafjallajökull puffing placidly about 30 miles to the southeast. It was still off-limits to visitors. The more immediate landscape was far more terrifying. Lava flow lay upon lava flow, spawn of Hekla, “gateway to hell,” in bony shades of ochre and brown, scraped bare of vegetation. Then, just when it began to feel oppressive, we’d come upon water in all manner of fantastical forms. The twin falls of Hjálparfoss. The valley of the Thjorsa River, which ups the cascade ante with half a dozen waterfalls tumbling into a narrow canyon that makes for a great short hike. And Háifoss, a narrow tumult plummeting 400 feet straight off a barren plateau. Water always seemed to come emerge from sheer rock like some biblical miracle, and seldom to any greening effect. It was as if someone had superimposed streams and lakes upon Mars Rover photos. Perfect case in point was the Tungna River, flowing across a moonscape into a milky glacial lake called Ljótipollur. Translation: “ugly puddle.” Rock and water. Water and rock. And then only rock for miles.

The landscape turned slightly more verdant at Landmannalaugar, where a hikers’ hostel and hut stands in a valley beside a geothermally heated stream and a narrow swath of green. A group of German hikers was bathing in the stream, and it all looked quite idyllic. But a rocky hike up above the valley put the setting in perspective. Omar pointed out that the valley was really the bottom of a crater, and the craggy mountains ringing it formed not one rim, but two— Landmannalaugar was a crater within a crater, and apart from the tiny green ribbon on the floor, we might as well have been looking at a black-and-white photograph of barren steeps laced with snow patches (grayed a bit by Eyjafjallajökull ashfall), and grotesquely twisted shapes of lava upon lava.

Iceland on Track Landmannalaugar Tour, $158;


Day 3: Drive the Main Island

Walk Behind Waterfalls

Along the south coast, the Ring Road that encircles Iceland threads between basaltic cliffs representing the edge of the interior highlands, and green coastal plains alternately brightened by fields of wild lupine and darkened by a patina of volcanic ash, depending on the caprices of Eyjafjallajökull ashfall. Stout Icelandic horses graze in the pastures, long manes shimmering in the omnipresent wind. No horizon is without a plume of smoke—signifying either a geothermal energy plant, a test drill hole, or a steam-spewing fissure.

The Ring Road is like those compelling drives in U.S. national parks where a new wonder lies around every bend. Most of them are waterfalls—those basaltic cliffs are a natural host for torrents like Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind, and Skógafoss, 200 feet high and 82 meters across. Its plumes were catching just enough sun to create rainbows dancing against a dark basaltic backdrop. But Iceland just doesn’t go in for protracted bucolic reveries. Green is an ephemeral concept here. Pastures always yield to lava fields—one begins about 25 miles east of the town of Vik, and covers 202 square miles—largest in the world from a single eruption (the 1783 Laki blast that brought on famine in Europe). A few miles farther east, near the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, is a field covered with hundreds of giant mounds up to eight feet high called pseudo craters—lava formations, also the spawn of Laki, that look like giant anthills. Huldufólk, Iceland’s legendary hidden people, not to be confused with trolls or elves, are said to live nearby.

In a valley called Seljavellir at southern base of Eyjafjallajökull I got my closest look at the volcano’s effects—a patina of damp ash covering farm fields, mountain slopes, holiday cottages, and choking a narrow gray stream. Bleak.

Lunch: Strondin Restaurant, a gas station cafeteria right on a black-sand beach in Vik. Offshore are the Reynisdrangar Needles, a jagged formation of basalt. Known to be the handiwork of trolls. Stay: Fosshotel Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park, tucked just below Vatnajökull, third-largest glacier in the world, which overlays Hvannadalshnúkur, highest summit in Iceland.



Day 4: Early-Morning Hike

Bag a Glacial Summit

The highest peak in Iceland is, naturally, a volcano covered by a glacier. Climbing it seemed like a fitting climax to a tour of Iceland. I had arranged to meet guides from Icelandic Mountain Guides who would show me the way to Hvannadalshnúkur’s 6,921-foot summit. The beauty of the climb is its sense of high-altitude mountaineering minus the altitude. Up at 3:30, on the trail by 5, we began in a thick mist up a steep stretch of mossy rocks I thought of as green scree. At 3,000 feet we broke out of the clouds and roped up for the start of the glacier ascent. After trudging for hours on the shimmering ice sheet, dodging modest crevasses, we reached a false summit that is actually the rim of the volcano’s caldera. A gradual traverse along the rim led us to the summit block for the final, steep, crampons-on, 1,000-foot spiral to the top, which we reached at noon. Inventory of view: 360 degrees of immense glacier falling off in every direction, a few rocky protrusions, and far below, a sea of cloud rimming the top of Iceland.

Climb: Icelandic Mountain Guides,; $176


Day 5: Return to Reykjavik

Eat Exotic Seafood

Before hitting the road back to the capital, I made the short walk to a deeply crevassed tongue of Vatnajökull just behind the Fosshotel. The morning was clear, so I could appreciate my conquest of the jagged hulk, Hvannadalshnúkur, looming far behind and way, way above. Back in Reykjavik, I made a dutiful stroll up the town’s main shopping drag, Laugavegur—call it glitz lite—and up to a strange local landmark known as the Pearl. Crowning a hill above downtown, it’s a hot-water storage facility that doubles as a sci-fi-architecture revolving restaurant and cheesy Saga Museum. Strange place. Great view.

Dinner: Orange Restaurant, where dinner concoctions are served with very strange flair. Think tin buckets of marinated puffin chunks suspended over your table by helium balloons.


Day 6: Soak in Nature’s Spa

A New Preflight Ritual

Iceland’s biggest tourist attraction is a “geothermal spa” called the Blue Lagoon, but don’t let its popularity or its spa-ness get in your way of a visit. The lagoon is huge, with coves, a waterfall (I let it cascade onto my shoulders for an instant massage), saunas, and steam rooms to explore. Naturally all sorts of healing and anti-aging forces are hinted to be at work. And, surprise, amazing products are available for sale. But mainly it’s trippy to sit in the naturally heated saltwater surrounded by volcanic rock, spumes of steam rising into the frigid air, while you dip into buckets of silica and slather your face with exfoliating glop. Very Euro. It’s right on the way to the airport, so if you head out early enough, you can spend a couple of hours bathing in bizarre bliss before you proceed home. (