Iceland: A Family Trip Worth Considering

While all my readers were suffering through another week of Trumpian drama, my family and I visited Iceland. It was a welcomed divergence from the 24-hour news blitz dedicated to a tweet addict, distortion of facts by both political parties and Trump detractors keenly intent on destroying his presidency.

For a change of pace Softball Politics will be more culturally sensitive. I will tell you about our fantastic trip to a tiny and remote island in the middle of the North Atlantic.

Let’s start from the beginning. A Norwegian Chieftain named Arnarson founded Iceland in 874 A.D. The people acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th Century and Iceland became a republic in 1944.

The population of Iceland is about 350,000 (most live in and near the capital city of Reykjavik). About 75% of the inhabitants are of Norwegian descent and a large portion of the balance are from Ireland, slaves of the Vikings. Its area is about 40,000 square miles (the same as Kentucky). Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The nation is volcanically and geologically active. Sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers characterize the interior of the country. It’s located just south of the Arctic Circle on the 66th parallel. The climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream, although Iceland is never described as warm, even in the summer.

Iceland’s topography is not arable. It consists mostly of lava rocks and residue, so the country imports a great deal of food from elsewhere. Ranchers raise sheep and horses. Both of which are butchered and eaten. Horses are also raised to race and for dressage contests.

The principal industries in the country are fishing, tourism and the processing of alumina, the main raw material in aluminum.

Fishing is an age-old occupation along the southern coast of Iceland. Fresh seafood is a very enjoyable benefit in most restaurants.

Tourism has become a gigantic part of Iceland. Many tourists visit the island arriving by plane to a modern airport and by cruise ships. The sights most frequented by tourists will be discussed in detail later.

The production of alumina, a seemingly odd product for an island nation a thousand miles from civilization, is based upon very inexpensive costs of electricity derived from geothermal sites, waterfalls and rivers blanketing the country. Electricity is the greatest cost of the alumina process, so it’s no wonder that this business has grown to such an extent in Iceland.

The principal religion of Iceland is Lutheran. Nevertheless the country does not mix church and state matters to any great extent.

A parliamentary system and a Prime Minister govern the country. Iceland has no standing army and no mandatory military service. The country is not a member of the European Union, and it has its own currency. It would be accurate to describe the country as socialistic as are Norway and other Scandinavian countries. Health care, education and many social services are free. The US maintains a military base in Iceland, as it is strategically located between North America and Europe.

The country has a long history of myths dominated by trolls and elves. We enjoyed many stories of very colorful characters that the people of Iceland love so dearly.

Virtually every Icelander speaks English. Every child learns English early on in school. But Icelandic is possibly one of the most complex languages in the world. For two things it has many more letters in its alphabet than English, and umlaut-type notations frequently accompany them. Of particular note are individual names, which are complex and usually impossible for outsiders to pronounce and remember. My family partially solved this growing dilemma by branding our guides with nicknames. We called our touring guide “Hammer” (reminiscent of Thor and his hammer), and our snowmobiling guide was dubbed “Killer” (his name had “kil” in it I think). These two men were amused by our issues relating to their names, especially Killer who is a real mountain man.

Let’s now get down to brass tacks. What would a family or group of friends do in Iceland for four or five days? Just so there are no illusions, if you want to be pampered each day and shop, Iceland would not be your cup of tea. The country is a rough and tumble place. It’s overall landscape reminds one of the moon or a scene from a “Mad Max” movie. Very few places in the interior have businesses, homes or anyone living in the area.

Following is a description of the most important tourist sights on our trip.

After we landed in Reykjavik we immediately went to the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. This was the only place we visited all week that catered to comfort. It’s a combination new and modern hotel and spa where one can get massages and roast in saunas. The main attraction is wading in crystal clear glacial water that is heated like a gigantic hot tub. It was a refreshing activity after a red-eye flight. One member of our group also had a facial.

For the first three nights we stayed at the Eldar Lodge, which was a fair distance away from the capital city. It’s frequented, we heard, by many celebrities because it’s remote and very private. The facility consists of just eight luxury suites (we were the only people there at the time). The accommodations, food and service were off the charts. It was a joy to return to Eldar after a tough day in the Icelandic outback. Every day we jumped in the hot tub and then feasted on a cornucopia of food prepared by a fantastic chef.

The next day we took a helicopter tour over the South Coast of the island on the only day that was safe to fly.  Observing black sand beaches, volcanoes, glaciers and waterfalls from the air was our secondary mission. The primary activity was a helicopter landing on the Tungnarkisljokull Glacier (I told you the names were tough), and a trek with a guide. We landed on a spot at which the glacier was melting. It was an extraordinary experience.

On the same day we flew by helicopter to the Laugarvatnshellir Cave where we learned how families survived in Iceland 100 years ago.

The next day we drove in a blizzard to the Langjokull Glacier for a snowmobile tour with Killer, the guide. We rode around as the snow and hail pelted us mercilessly, in a white out. Our clothes were drenched through the provided snowmobile coveralls. It was touch and go but great fun. Later we traveled a short distance to see the Fullfoss Waterfall, and an active geyser, the only one in the country.

The following day we were scheduled to fly by helicopter to the Langjokull Glacier for a trip into the core of the glacier. The weather was bad so we drove for three and a half hours across the interior of the country. It was a harrowing experience as our driver and guide, Hammer, negotiated incredibly difficult terrain with our monster SUV. The tires on the vehicle were gigantic enabling the truck to negotiate deep snow and lava rock.

The drive was worth it. Arnie escorted us into the glacier a hundred or so feet down. He was the only person we met on the trip whose name was pronounceable. In the glacier we learned about how it reproduces itself over the years. Each year the tube is reamed and the various rooms, a chapel, boardroom and outhouse are refurbished. While there I was invited to sing a song in an area that was an echo chamber. I sang and danced to “Satisfaction” to the delight of Arnie, who followed me with a rendition of a traditional folk song.

On the final day we drove to a ski resort, which was closed. We dismounted from our monster truck and hiked about two miles to the Thrihnukagigur Volcano where we descended 400 feet into the crater. This is the only crater in the world that can be explored by tourists. After we got off the elevator we entered a humongous area about 400 meters across that was lit up for our inspection. It was a unique experience being in the center of the Earth.

Our trip to Iceland was a great success. We saw many things that fascinated and amazed us. The people, hotels, food and guides were all terrific. I would recommend this adventure to all those interested in roughing it for a few days.

 

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