Blue skies and sunshine would have been nice, but when we landed in Iceland at 7:30 on an April morning, cold rain, low clouds and thick fog enveloped the airport. The soupy weather mirrored my foggy brain, which was still on East Coast time six hours earlier.
But my husband, Peter, and I had only two days in Iceland, and we were determined to make the best of it — foul weather or not.
I had always wanted to visit this volcanic island in the North Atlantic, which, despite its name, is not a frozen wasteland. It is, however, a land of opposites, where heat and cold, fire and snow coexist. Iceland’s lava-covered landscape, thermal-heated lagoons, hissing steam vents and spouting geysers add up to a stunning natural playground that appeals to travelers seeking bold adventures.
We stayed in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and pursued two activities: a ride on the famous Icelandic horses and a visit to the Blue Lagoon, where hot thermal waters invite bathers for a sensuous swimming experience.
What’s so special about Icelandic horses? Silja Ólöf Birgisdóttir, co-owner of Íshestar, a tour company whose name means “ice horses,” said it’s their personality.
“The Icelandic horse is friendly, good natured and not easily spooked,” she explained to about 25 international travelers gathered in the riding center not far from Keflavik International Airport. Brought by the Vikings to Iceland as early as 874, the breed is a mixture of Norwegian horses and Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies.
“But don’t call these small, hardy horses ponies,” Birgisdóttir told the group of Scandinavians, Brits and Americans. “They get really offended. They have the build and just barely the height to be considered horses, and they are really proud of it.” In fact, Icelandic horses, on average, are 13 hands tall — about 52 inches — at the shoulder.
Birgisdóttir explained that Iceland has only 300,000 residents but is home to 80,000 horses. Icelanders take their horses seriously. To maintain the purity of the breed, importing horses to Iceland is forbidden. While some are used on farms for herding sheep, Icelandic horses are primarily used for recreation — both pleasure riding and competition.
After donning our helmets and foul-weather gear, we met our sturdy mounts. I was struck by their large heads and muscular, compact bodies covered with a thick winter coat. Besides being good natured, the horses are known for their strength and sure-footedness, which is a good thing when you consider Iceland’s harsh landscape.
We began our trail ride along dirt paths. The terrain was mostly flat, although with thick fog surrounding us, it was hard to see more than a few feet in any direction. We rode through a lava field covered in places with velvety-green moss that looked soft but masked the harsh rocks underneath.
Our guide told us about tölt, the unique gait Icelandic horses are known for. It’s a smooth gait, somewhere between walking and trotting, that supposedly allows you to carry a glass of water without spilling a drop.
However, it’s not easy to “find” tölt. My horse only wanted to trot, so I found myself bouncing all over the saddle. Our guide told me to sit back and pull in the horse’s head. I took her advice and — yippee! — I found tölt. I felt like I was on skis, gliding on smooth snow.
Our second day was devoted to the beautiful Blue Lagoon, also not far from the airport and a popular tourist destination. It lies amid acres of mossy lava fields, like an oasis in the middle of nowhere.
We tried the “Experience” spa package, which included a beauty treatment of a mask or scrub pellet to smear on our faces and a drink at the lagoon bar.
But it was the water that lured us. Its distinctive blue-green color comes from the rich minerals, silica and algae that permeate the water. The hot water comes from underneath the ground, where it first cycles through a nearby power plant to generate electricity. Then it’s piped through a municipal system that provides heat to homes. Finally the water feeds into the Blue Lagoon for recreational and medicinal bathing. The healing water has proven effective in treating psoriasis, and there’s a line of skin care products featuring the water’s therapeutic minerals.
Warm steam rises from the water, making us feel as though we were in a cloud. The pool is about the size of a football field and contains 6 million liters of geothermal seawater, which is renewed every 40 hours. Bacteria don’t grow in this heated water, so no chlorine or cleansers are needed.
Sharing the pool with us were dozens of happy people — families and couples of all ages. We met a family from the U.K. and took turns snapping photos of each other. There was a partylike atmosphere and sense of camaraderie in this communal pool.
Every so often we headed to a sauna or steam room, then back into the soothing lagoon. It’s easy to see how people get addicted to this experience.
That night my mind wandered as I drifted off to sleep. I thought about this extraordinary little country surrounded by the cold waters of the North Atlantic yet warmed by sizzling, churning volcanic activity deep underground. I thought of the soft moss and the sharp lava, the cold rain and warm waters of the Blue Lagoon. I remembered the bumpy trot of my Icelandic horse, followed by the smooth, effortless tölt.
Two days in Iceland didn’t disappoint. It really was an adventure in extremes.
Peggy Sijswerda is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia.
• Icelandair allows you to interrupt trans-Atlantic flights for a stay in Iceland at no extra charge; Icelandair.us.
• Most major rental car companies can be found in Keflavik. Iceland’s roads are easy to navigate and traffic is minimal.
Where to stay
• Radisson Blu offers trendy European-style accommodations. Our room was spacious and zenlike with sleek Scandinavian furnishings and comfy, white, duvet-topped beds; www.radissonblu.com.
• Reykjavik has a number of family-run lodgings with clean, spare rooms. Try Sunna Guesthouse (sunna.is) or Butterfly Guesthouse (www.butterfly.is).
• The Blue Lagoon offers a hotel near the thermal pools; www.Bluelagoon.com.
Where to eat
• Fish Market, a popular restaurant in the city center, has an easy, relaxed vibe and amazing seafood. If you’re adventurous, try the minke whale sashimi, which tastes a lot like beef. The giant king crab claws, cut in half lengthwise, were rich and satisfying; www.fiskmarkadurinn.is/english.
• Scandinavian Smørrebrød & Brasserie, a cozy restaurant on the main shopping street in Reykjavik, is known for its Scandinavian-style open-face sandwiches. Try the reindeer pate for a starter served with crispy toast points and red currant sauce. Recommended entrees include fish and chips and the surf-and-turf, featuring flavorful Icelandic beef and a garlic-roasted lobster tail; www.scandinavian.is.
• Íshestar offers a variety of horseback rides, including multiday tours and packages that combine riding with whale watching, bike riding and snorkeling. You can opt for an evening ride during the summer to experience the midnight sun or in winter when you might see the Northern Lights; www.Íshestar.is.
• The Saga Museum in Reykjavik tells the history of Iceland and features lifelike replicas of historical figures; www.sagamuseum.is.
• Hallgrímskirkja, a modern cathedral that rises above the city like a concrete rocket ship, has an observation tower that promises amazing views — weather permitting.
• For information on Iceland, see www.visiticeland.com.
• For information on Reykjavik, go to visitreykjavik.is. For information on the Reykjavik Welcome Card’s discounts, see http://tinyurl.com/c5wa8ag.
— Peggy Sijswerda