Iceland Air started non-stop flights to Keflavik from various North American destinations this summer.
In early September, thanks to Visit Iceland, and other tourism partners who were hosting the Society of American Travel Writers’ Annual General Meeting, I leaped at the opportunity to board one of the twice-weekly IA flights out of Vancouver to explore this ancient volcanic island. The Bárðarbunga caldera action had been grabbing seismologist’s attention since August 31.
“Are you still going?” everyone asked.
Iceland is high on my Bucket List, I told them. No one knows if, or when, this sucker will erupt. Why wait. I’ll put my faith in the legendary Norse gods and let the lava fall where it may.
For 10 days I travelled by air, road, and sea. The north wind did blow (at times), but generally the early autumn weather varied from comfortably warm to brisk and cool.
[Above, watching a humpback whale from a fishing trawler – Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]
As you no doubt know, this is an island famous for lava, volcanoes, Blue Lagoon hot springs, geysers, sheep farms, icebergs, whales and fishing. But who, I wondered, could live in such a remote place, and why they would choose – if there were a choice – to do so?
After a seven-hour flight, I transferred to the domestic airport close to Reykjavik for the short Dash 8 flight northeast to Akureyri International located at the delta of the Eyjafjörður River.
Akureyri is a picturesque town about 48 kms from the Arctic Circle.
During the next few days Runar, our Icelandic-born guide, introduced us to Viking history, customs, food, and fellow countrymen. He was also the first of many to give me some insight into the independent spirit that pulses through Icelanders.
Married to a Boston school teacher he’d met when she was in the area as a tourist, Runar surprised me with his forthright opinion about the upcoming Scottish independence vote. “They should vote ‘yes’, he told me emphatically over dinner one night.
“Cameron called Icelanders terrorists after the Cod Wars. He put us on the same list as Al Qaeda!” Clearly he was outraged. “We don’t forget!” he assured me. I believed him.
It was a sentiment I heard repeatedly from locals throughout my travels.
Icelanders have Scottish and Irish roots, in addition to Danish, Swedish and Norwegian heritage. In fact, they won their own independence from the Kingdom of Denmark in 1918. They had survived alone, and staunchly felt Scotland could do the same.
[Designers abound in Reykjavik. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]
From a religious point of view, Icelanders are mainly Lutheran, but, despite the picturesque churches you see countrywide, they are not churchgoers. In fact, I was assured (seriously) that believing in trolls, elves, and other strange characters, is not unusual.
For example, Icelandic Christmases have closer links to ancient Winter Solstice traditions. Instead of Santa Claus, 13 rather frightening-looking bearded men clad in red, known as the Yule Lads, are reputed to come down from the mountains to lurk around the villages at night. Starting on the eve of December 12, children leave a shoe in a window of their home. From then until December 24 they receive either a small gift – or a potato, depending on their behaviour, from the mysterious Yule Lads.
Gift opening and festivities begin in earnest at 6 p.m. on December 24.
Iceland is generally pricey for travellers, but one of the best buys is wool.
Icelandic sheep are unique. Their dual coats, comprised of inner and outer layers of wool, are durable and water resistant. Each layer is valued for different purposes.
The traditional Icelandic knitting patterns are truly beautiful and collectable. Locals tell me you get used to the itchier variety of wool commonly worn everywhere.
Wandering through Bondar, a Reykjavik grocery store, Unnur, a young mom, told me that the cozy-patterned toque and sweater I admired on her 2-year-old daughter, Hildur, were designed by her mother from traditional family patterns. She also explained that grandmothers traditionally knit a lacy style of silk helmet for newborns as keepsakes. She kindly offered to email me the pattern – if I could find someone to translate it from Icelandic.
The patterns reminded me of Fair Isle ones I remember my mother knitted when I was a child in Scotland. Since those keepsakes are long gone, I splurged on a couple of Icelandic wool toques for my grandchildren as souvenirs.
Buying Puffin Eggs (delicious chocolate-coated liquorish balls) in a Reykjavik gift-coffee shop lead me to the co-owner, Deborah. Her Scottish accent led to the obvious question: how to she wound up living in Iceland? While working as a flight attendant for a charter company in the United Arab Emirates she met her future husband, who is an Icelander.
“I love it,” she said. “This is the best place to bring up our daughter.” She treasures the wonderful geothermal water that heats 98 per cent of houses in the country, free education and healthcare, and the laid back Reykjavik lifestyle combined with easy access to the rugged countryside. She also loves the centuries of strong family traditions. She then encouraged me to sample her husband’s grandmother’s secret cake recipe – six layers of thin biscuits anchored by a little cream and lots of chocolate. A delicious, lighter than anticipated, confection.
[An usual altar painting in an old northern family church]
At dinner one evening I chatted with a server in charge of our group. He was a Moroccan from Casablanca. Some years ago he happened to be in Paris and met and married an Iceland girl. “Living here is heaven,” he said quite simply. He, too, raved about the clean water, air, and emphasis on healthy lifestyle. “People are so welcoming and friendly,” he said. I certainly couldn’t argue with that.
From riding Icelandic horses, to the thrill of watching the Northern Lights dance overhead in a freezing Arctic night, to scalding mud pots and watching a humpback whale from a fishing trawler, Iceland remains a true frontier worth exploring.
For more information go to www.iceland.is.
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a B.C writer and photographer. She will be posting more about Iceland on her website www.TravellingTimes.net