Fire and Ice

Iceland's volcanoes, glaciers and waterfalls are but a few of the natural elements that contribute to the country's rugged beauty.

June 12, 2005|By Phil Marty | Phil Marty,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

It wasn't love at first sight.

But here in Iceland, midway through a nine-day drive around this island country, this was the clincher:

To my right, a 25-foot-high waterfall thundered, dumping its icy waters into a stream that frothed from rock to rock on its way to the fjord below.

To my left, at the bottom of a switchbacky two-lane asphalt road, a tiny village rested in the mist at the end of the fjord that runs 10 miles east to the North Atlantic.

Turning in a slow circle, I saw freshet after freshet springing from cloud-draped, green mountain ridges.

At my feet, the fleeting days of fall had painted the heather and other tiny flowers and leaves that blanketed the ground in subtle shades of pink and orange, yellow and brown.

Spectacular.

Mention Iceland, and most people think - what else? - ice. After all, the island does sit with the blustery North Atlantic on its south coast and the frigid Arctic Ocean on its north - just a smidge south of the Arctic Circle. And about 15 percent of its 40,000 square miles (the whole country is about the size of Ohio) is made up of ice cap.

That includes Vatnajokull, a more than 3,200-square-mile glacier (think Rhode Island and Delaware combined) in the country's southeast whose southern edge comes right up to the Ring Road, the 832-mile, mostly paved, two-lane highway that, as its name suggests, circles the island.

Think about that - a drive-by glacier.

But Iceland is not all ice. More than half of the land, believe it or not, is considered desert plateaus. And then there's another 11 percent that's lava fields. Which brings up the volcanoes that help earn it the nickname "land of fire and ice."

Geologically speaking, Iceland is constantly reinventing itself. It was originally created by underwater volcanic eruptions, and even today, volcanoes continue to remake the landscape.

In 1973, an unexpected eruption forced the evacuation of the 5,000 people living on Heimaey, an island off the southwest coast. A third of the village of Heimaey was buried under lava, but many of the residents eventually moved back to the island.

More recently, a 1996 eruption under Vatnajokull Glacier set off a major flood. And minor eruptions have occurred in this century.

All in all, seemingly not a very hospitable environment. That probably explains why, even though various groups, including early Celt and Norse explorers, have been poking around and trying to live in these parts for 1,500 years, Iceland's population is only about 288,000, with two-thirds of those folks living in the southwestern area around Reykjavik, the capital. There are twice as many sheep as people here.

So what's the attraction? Raw, natural beauty - lots of it. Oh, sure, there are some urban attractions. Reykjavik, a big city with a small-town feel, bills itself as a destination for, among others, those who like to party hearty. (Although how hearty do you want to party at $8 or $9 a beer?)

But the natural beauty of Iceland is what my wife, Bonnie, and I were looking for when we visited last September. Iceland didn't disappoint.

During our nine-day drive-around, we saw rugged coastline, delicately colored tundra, colorful Icelandic horses, weird rock formations, amazing sunsets, glaciers, icebergs, steaming hot springs, and more waterfalls, raging rivers and streams than we could count.

And, for the most part, we had it all to ourselves.

June through August is when Iceland sees most of its tourists and is a time when, because of being so far north, it's daylight pretty much 24 hours a day. By September, daylight hours are comparable to what we see in the United States, temperatures are falling a bit (we had weather from the 40s to the 60s), and prices may be falling too, though because of increased popularity, some tour companies are charging peak season prices in September.

The Ring Road

And how's the driving? These roads aren't made for making time. They're made for making memories.

The Ring Road, for instance, is mostly two-lane and mostly asphalt. Mostly two-lane doesn't mean sometimes four-lane. And mostly asphalt doesn't mean sometimes concrete.

There are a lot of bridges in Iceland, and, thanks to the hundreds of streams and rivers flowing to the seas from those glaciers, many are only one lane. They warn you with signs that say EINBREID (though that "D" has a line through it and is pronounced "th" in Icelandic, a language you don't need to try to tackle). So you have to take turns going across, though in September we never had to do much sharing. There were times in the sparsely populated eastern part of the country when we drove for half an hour and never saw another vehicle.

Now about that pavement. Most, but not all, of the Ring Road has it. But you can be cruising along, enjoying the view, when you see a sign announcing MALBIK ENDAR - Icelandic for bye, bye, pavement. Next thing you know you're driving 10 mph and dodging potholes, glad that you're driving a rental.

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