A Wintery Week in Iceland: Packing Update

Prior to leaving on my trip, I spent an extensive amount of time researching what to pack. And then writing about it. Now that I’m back, here is the update to how well my packing plan fared. I am pleased to say that I what I packed was just about perfect!

First the coat. It was exactly what I needed. It was warm, but also reasonably stylish. Which kind of mattered because I was wearing it in pretty much every.single.one of my pictures. Forget all the effort I put into picking out cute outfits. They were constantly covered up in the name of warmth and comfort.

Yeah, maybe I looked cute. But no one would know.
Yeah, maybe I looked cute. But no one would know.

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Yep, pretty much every picture looked like this. Not that what I looked like really mattered. Just check out that scenery!

Relatedly, if I was going to look the same in every picture, a colorful hat really make a difference.

Underneath all of the pants and shirts and coat and gloves were my handy thermals (linked here and here). These were literally a lifesaver. They were thin enough to easily fit under what ever I was wearing and perfectly regulated my body temperature. Although not cheap, these were worth every penny!

They are both the Smartwool's heaviest base layer, the MTS Mid 250. And they both kept me nice and toasty! I wore these daily. They were warm when I was outside and, because of the moisture wicking merino, did not make me sweaty when I was inside.
They are both the Smartwool’s heaviest base layer, the MTS Mid 250. And they both kept me nice and toasty! I wore these daily. They were warm when I was outside and, because of the moisture wicking merino, did not make me sweaty when I was inside.

Then there were the pair of waterproof pants I purchased.

DSC03480I only wore them once – during my glacier hike – but even so they were worth the space they took up in my suitcase. They kept me warm and dry. Again, the temperature regulation they provided was useful. Yes, a glacier may be literally freezing, but hiking on a glacier? That is going to work up a sweat.

My real success was my choice of shoes. I may brag a bit for a moment. I only packed two pairs of those – Sorrels and a pair of Crocs. The Sorrels were my day to day shoes and I wore them just about everywhere.

On ice and snow
On ice and snow
On the black sand beach
On the black sand beach
On a glacier (with crampons to make me look super legit)
On a glacier (with crampons to make me look super legit)
On the rocky surface of long-cooled lava
On the rocky surface of long-cooled lava

That being said, I loved having a second pair of shoes, something lighter to wear after a long day in boots, something easy to slip on and off in the airport, and they had a surprising amount of traction that allowed me to walk comfortably around the city of Reykjavik.

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And let’s not forget my new Kavu rope bag. Despite being loaded down with everything I would usually have in my purse, a book (okay, so technically that falls under the category of “things I usually have in my purse”), a water bottle (Icelandic water is great, so I could fill it up anywhere), and various other items needed for travel, it never felt heavy or awkward, even after a 3-hour hike or walking around for hours exploring the city. I continue to use the bag for my weekend hikes and cannot recommend it enough.

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For more details about exactly what I packed, please read my original post. One added note that I somehow overlooked originally – pack a swimsuit. Geothermal springs are an important part of the culture year round and are a relaxing way to enjoy Iceland. Otherwise, I fully stand behind my obsessively researched packing list!

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My final purchase was a new LifeProof case for my cell phone. It enabled me to take my phone everywhere, less worried about dropping it on the ice or into a hot spring while I took pictures or used FaceTime. It was a last minute, impulse buy, but I was thankful I had it.

One last thing I packed was a Tep Wireless Egg.

IMG_9381After seeing how convenient it was in South Korea (my friend Shannon had one), I thought I would give it a shot for my first really and truly solo trip. At $100 for the week (including delivery and return by mail – super convenient), for me it worth it to have consistent access to the internet. I could use Google Maps to find my way around, I could FaceTime my boyfriend from some really cool places, and I could stay connected with people back home (and by that I mean post cool Instagram photos) without depending on unpredictable wifi. I know that it may not be worth it to everyone, but for me, I was glad I had it.

Oh, and don’t forget an adapter, even if at the end of everyday, it means your nightstand will look something like this:

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So that’s my post-trip review of my packing list! There’s just one more question to answer: Did I see the Northern Lights?

A Wintery Week in Iceland: The Food

Now let’s get to my favorite part of pretty much, well, everything. The food. The mostly delicious, very seafoody food of Iceland.

I was not sure what to expect when it came to Icelandic food, although I did a bit of research beforehand into Reykjavik restaurants. I wanted to treat myself to a nice dinner out my first evening in Reykjavik. Because that’s what I do. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a fancy restaurant eating expensive food. Alone. I eventually settled upon Fiskfelagid, Fish Company.

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I was intrigued by the “Nordic fusion” menu, with recipes featuring global flavors made with Icelandic ingredients. The restaurant was cozy after a cold walk from my hotel, despite the sunshine still pouring through the windows.

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I began with an amuse bouche of Arctic char (very similar to salmon) and a hearty bread with citrus and dill butters.

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I followed this with the coconut fish soup – flavors of Fiji made with langoustine and monkfish.

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It was warm, tasty, yumminess. Seriously, I could have eaten just that and been perfectly content.

It was almost impossible to choose a main course, but I eventually settled on the flavors of Ireland – Arctic char served with a flavorful and colorful combination of pan-fried Icelandic lobster, scallops, apple chips, and melon balls, topped with dill vinaigrette (dill must grow like a weed in Iceland – it was in and on everything) and beer foam. 

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I enjoyed every single bite. So much so that I couldn’t even order dessert I was so pleasantly full. That is like a once in a lifetime event.

Of course, it is not like I had gone the whole day without eating. My first meal in Reykjavik had been the previously discussed Bakari Sandholt for an early, post-flight breakfast.

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And no trip to Reykjavik is complete without a stop at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for what is perhaps the world’s most famous hot dog. I recommend ordering a hot dog, with the unique flavor derived from the addition of lamb, the classic way: ein med ollu (one with everything) – ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion, and remoulade made with sweet relish.

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It may not look like much, but it was delicious!

But the good eatin’ didn’t end in Reykjavik. Throughout my trip, I got to enjoy the best that Iceland had to offer. Delicious seafood, lamb, and skyr. One of my favorite stops of the trip was a cheese shop. Burid specializes in otherwise hard-to-find cheeses from around the world and all of the various things that can be served alongside.

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And upstairs there is a cheese school. The owner of the shop is passionate not only about cheese, but about the food history of Iceland. And she was hilarious.

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While we nibbled on cheese deliciously paired with Icelandic bread, fruit, vegetables, and even smoked lamb, we learned about the mostly gross and unvaried diet of Icelanders throughout much of the country’s history.

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There were simply no resources. And there was lots of winter. Which meant almost nothing could grow and anything that could grow or be killed had to be somehow preserved. Skyr, actually a cheese rather than a yogurt, was, and is, a staple of the diet. Served at any/every meal, usually with something sour or pickled (see the above mentioned lack of resources and winter), it is a surprisingly flexible product.

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Dessert was an absolutely incredible skyr parfait. The skyr was mixed with cream and topped with birch syrup, graham crackers, and strawberries. I may have licked the cup clean.

Although Icelandic food may have been, well, less than delicious for centuries, thankfully there have been improvements. Like global commerce and modern technology that has allowed geothermal power to fuel greenhouses that grow actual produce.

One of my favorite meals was a langoustine feast. Caught near the restaurant, the sweet shellfish are not exported – they are only available in this small seaside town.

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Just imagine the smell of garlic and butter. My mouth is watering as I type.
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It was obviously terrible

There was so. much. seafood. I ate seafood at least once a day – a fish soup, a salmon appetizer, a feast of crab and clams and prawns, a salmon and egg sandwich. It was all so good.

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When I was not eating seafood I was eating skyr. With breakfast, in a smoothie, just because.

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And then there’s Icelandic lamb, supposedly some of the best in the world. My last night in Iceland I had the opportunity to enjoy some served, as it often is, with potatoes and a béchamel sauce. Yum!

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Of course, the less palatable (at least to non-Icelanders) traditional foods are still available. Things like horse, fish flakes, and hakarl, which is fermented shark. Oh, and they eat puffins. Keeping up my tradition of eating gross things and taking pictures, I documented, with the help of one of my new friends, me trying harkarl. You are welcome.

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Feeling bad about my life choices and contemplating whether or not downing the rather strong Brennivin liquor would take away the horribleness of the hakarl. Spoiler: It didn’t. Shockingly, a drink called “black death” kinda just burned.

There were so many new and wonderful and, yes, not so wonderful, foods to try in Iceland. I didn’t even get to try Icelandic pancakes (ponnukokur) or black licorice (although I did bring chocolate covered licorice back for my office – it was a rather divisive choice of candy either staunchly hated or thoroughly enjoyed; I told them it could be worse) or birch beer. Food is one of my favorite ways to explore a new place and Iceland most certainly did not disappoint.

 

 

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Museums

I have a confession to make. I like museums. Which, let’s be honest, is probably not all that surprising. During my trip to Iceland, I had the opportunity to visit three museums and learn more about the history of Iceland.

Árnessýsla Heritage Museum – The House at Eyrarbakki

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Built in 1765, this is one of the oldest (still standing) houses in Iceland. It now houses a museum focused on the history of the house and the coastal town surrounding it.

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By far the weirdest thing in the museum was this set of clothing knit from the maker’s own hair. I wasn’t sure whether to be disgusted or impressed.

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Skogar Museum

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This was my favorite museum that I visited. I could have spent most of the day here. The collection of approximately 15,000 local artifacts was impressive for many reasons, not the least of which was that the items were all collected by or given to a now 94-year-old man. This is the personal collection of a man passionate about his region’s history.

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Our guide through the museum provided a fascinating history of the hardships faced by the Icelanders as they settled the country. It was a place that was beautiful, but brutal. To survive required hardiness and creativity – bowls made out of whale vertebrae, shoes made out of fish. Survival in this place was hard won.

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The oldest printed Bible in Iceland. Literacy for the average Icelander was common long before it became usual elsewhere in Europe. In fact, the ancient sagas were written by Icelanders for Icelanders, not by or for the elite few who could read. Literacy was the rule, not the exception. 
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Oh, and as a bonus, there was a super cute dog
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An askur is a traditional Icelandic bowl. Typically made of driftwood (because there were not many other options), the bowls were used for a bit of everything, only one of which was eating.
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Fish shoes wore out quickly, but knitted insoles lasted much longer, thus making them a traditional courtship gift from a woman to a man.

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Outside of the main building were other examples of Icelandic buildings, including traditional turf houses.

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If you stop here, and you should, definitely plan on spending more than the brief hour I had to spend.

Viking World

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As the name suggests, the museum is focused on the history of the Vikings and their role in settling Iceland (although the Nordic people came as setters and farmers, not raiders).

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The highlight of the museum is the Íslendingur. The two story exhibit of the Viking ship discusses the ship’s journey in 2000 to recreate the original Viking voyage of Leif Ericsson to Newfoundland.

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This museum is relatively small and does not take long to peruse, but provides a quick history that gives a greater context for understanding the early history of Iceland.

So, there you have it. A small handful of museum to consider visiting while in Iceland. With more time in Reykjavik, I would have also liked to visit the National Gallery, The National Museum, The Settlement Exhibition, and perhaps the Culture House or The Saga Museum. Another time…

 

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Land of Ice

As I talked about previously, Iceland is a place where the impact of the elements is easily seen. Shaped by fire, Iceland is also a land of ice. With 8 months of winter, learning how to walk in the snow is a needed skill throughout much of the year. February is certainly no exception. Despite the snow and ice, I managed to only fall once. And it wasn’t entirely my fault because I was distracted by someone walking around in a storm trooper costume. Yes, you read that correctly. I fell only once even though I sometimes manage to wear entirely inappropriate foot wear. It’s a gift.

In my defense, the itinerary said we visiting Parliament. Which I thought would be a building. As in a place with floors sheltered from the elements.
In my defense, the itinerary said we were visiting Parliament. Which I thought would be a building. As in a place with floors sheltered from the elements. And for the record, I wore these very shoes all over Reykjavik without slipping. It was wearing my Sorrel’s when I fell. So there.

I quickly learned that we were, in fact, not going to a building. Rather, Parliament referred to the Althing. Held every summer at Thingvellir, the snowy site that we visited, the ancient assembly was the Icelandic lawmaking system from 930 until 1798. When Iceland separated from Norway in 1844, the Althing relocated to Reykjavik. The scenery at the ancient site is incredible, another spot where the separation of tectonic plates is evident. Thingvellir continues to be an important site to Icelanders today. And, as an added bonus, it is also one of the many filming locations for Game of Thrones.

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Iceland is also home to many waterfalls, partially frozen in the cold February weather. I got to see some of the most well-known ones during my short trip.

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Gullfoss

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Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind when the weather is a bit warmer and the ground isn’t a solid sheet of ice

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Skógafoss

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Although I live in a place where I can easily and often hike to waterfalls, they never stop taking my breath away. They never cease to be wondrous.

Ice even showed up in unexpected places. Like the beach.

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And I have to talk about the horses. Not exactly ice related, but they did have their soft winter coats to insulate them from the cold. But they must be spoken of. Because this:

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And this:

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Seriously, they were incredibly gentle and friendly. And beautiful and soft. Apparently, Icelandic horses are born with a completely one-of-a-kind smooth gait found in no other horses in the world. It is important to remember that the horses have a very specific diet that includes the worst of the worst kind of grass. Their stomachs cannot handle good quality hay and foods like apples and carrots can be disastrous. So, please do not feed the horses. Content yourself with taking approximately 30 pictures of said horses instead. Or riding them, something I did not have the opportunity to do.

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Of course, sometimes one can get a bit tired of ice. When visiting Kerith Crater and given the opportunity to walk around the rim, as a group we began the walk before having the collective thought that it was cold and windy and that it would look exactly like an icy hole in the ground whether or not we walked all of the way around it. Not worth it.

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Perhaps in the summer…

One of the highlights of my trip was hiking on Solheimajokull glacier. You know it’s going to be an, ummm, interesting afternoon when your guide starts with “Here’s a harness. Put in on so that I can pull you out if you fall into a crevasse.” Fantastic. There were also crampons and an ice pick. Suddenly it felt like the “hike on a glacier especially designed for beginners” was not so amateur after all.

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Especially when this sign greets you as you step onto the glacier.

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Of course, there was some sense of relief when we saw the people way up on the glacier. Certainly we, the beginner hikers, were not going all the way up there. We would surely just get the short and scenic tour just long enough to be able to sound awesome by saying, “Yeah, I hiked on a glacier today. No big deal.”

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Yep, so didn’t happen that way. We did, in fact, go way. up. there. At each point of interest where we stopped to learn about the glacier and it’s ever-changing environment, I would think surely this is the place where we will stop and turn around. But no. Up we would go, slowly making our way across the icy surface of the glacier.

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At the end of the 3-hour hike, I was tired and a bit relieved to see the parking lot again.

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But I was also feeling pretty accomplished. I had climbed up and down the often steep surface of a glacier. I had walked through caves and tunnels made of ice. I had remained upright. It was not an easy afternoon, but then again, the most amazing and worthwhile things in life are rarely easy. Welcome to Iceland!

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Land of Fire

Iceland is a land constantly shaped by powerful forces – the land of fire and ice. During my trip, I was able to see this first hand. I relaxed in geothermal springs, I hiked on a glacier, I saw geysers erupt and now dormant volcanoes, I walked through ice and snow. All of it was beautiful and powerful.

The heat in Iceland can be both violent and wonderful. In the wonderful category are the geothermal waters that are used to create thermal baths. One such location that I enjoyed while on my trip was the Fontana Geothermal Baths.

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Located on the banks of Laugarvatn Lake, the multilevel baths offer multiple temperatures, as well as the opportunity to dip in the chilly lake if you’re overheated. Or crazy.

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There was also a sauna available.

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It was a lovely and relaxing way to spend an afternoon. With one exception. There is a certain set of bath etiquette in Iceland that can be somewhat, ummm, uncomfortable for certain (prudish) Americans. That would be the expectation that one showers unclothed in a group shower prior to putting on a swimsuit and entering the baths. I kept reminding myself that I would never see any of these people again. It was certainly worth the temporary discomfort in order to spend a leisurely hour soaking in the warm baths. The spring at the site of the Fontana Baths is one of three in the area. The coolest, Vígðalaug, is where the pagan Parliament of Iceland was reportedly baptized into Christianity in the year 1000. The warmest, Bláskógabyggð, is used for geothermal heating.

The other bath I visited is the not-to-be-missed Blue Lagoon. The water in the lagoon is the result of a byproduct of the nearby geothermal factory. Built into the lava bed, the lagoon waters combine fresh and seawater, as well as beneficial minerals, silica, and algae.

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The lagoon has been moved and expanded over the years to accommodate the factory and growing crowds that flock to the lagoon. There are multiple price options for enjoying the Blue Lagoon. My group got the Premium package. This included a towel and bathrobe, a drink from the swim-up bar, and the ability to use an algae mask in addition to the silica mask available to everyone.

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Upon check-in, you are given a band that corresponds with your package. It gives you access to the spa treatments and can be used to purchase additional services and drinks. Anything charged to the band is paid upon leaving.

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Also, there is wifi. Which allowed me to have the coolest FaceTime conversation ever. Sidetone, it is amazing that technology lets you share cool experiences with someone thousands of miles away.

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There are springs both large and small located throughout the country. I think that for a first time visitor to Iceland, visiting the Blue Lagoon is a must. It is a completely unique place and popular for a reason. Because of this, however, it was quite commercialized and crowded. Although the lagoon was large enough to accommodate the crowd without feeling packed, the number of people were quite evident in the dressing rooms. My preference was the smaller, more intimate Fontana. On a return trip to Iceland, I would probably forego the Blue Lagoon (although again, I think you should go at least once) for one of the many other geothermal springs. Regardless of where you decide to go in Iceland, definitely bring a swimsuit and find some warm water.

Although the water in Iceland can be pleasantly warm, it can also be destructively hot. Approximately 90% of the energy in Iceland comes from geothermal energy, heat harnessed for productivity. The evidence of it is visible in steam and in geysers. In water much too hot to bathe in. In water hot enough to boil water and cook food.

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One such geyser – Strokkur

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The water can even be hot enough to destroy roads when the activity below the surface unexpectedly shifts and makes its presence known above ground.

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One afternoon, I had the opportunity to take a tour with the family-owned Iceland Activities. What I loved about this tour was that it is a family who takes small groups of people to do the things that they love to do in and around their home town of Hveragerdi.

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Located in a volcanic zone, the town of Hveragerdi lives with the constant threat of a changing landscape. They average a major earthquake every 10 years, not to mention the frequent minor earthquakes. Case in point, the hot springs on the hillside that we hiked up with our guide opened up literally overnight due to an earthquake in 2008.

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At the top of the hillside, we had the opportunity to sit on the quite warm ground as we learned more about the springs, ate bread and eggs cooked in the springs, and sipped hot chocolate.

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It's all fun until you get sulphur steam in your face...
It’s all fun until you get sulphur steam in your face…

With a return trip to Iceland, I wouldn’t hesitate to use Iceland Activities to explore more of the area.

Iceland is clearly a country shaped by “fire,” although at times it can look deceptively like ice. Take for instance the now dormant Eyjafjallajökull (don’t ask me how to pronounce it – I’m still working on “godan daginn” – good morning).

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The volcano erupted violently a mere six years ago, the eruption bringing attention to Iceland as flights throughout the world were disrupted by the ash from the eruption.

Then there is the line between tectonic plates that runs the entirety of Iceland. Now visibly cooled, the space between the plates as they move apart continues to be filled with magma far below the surface.

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This evidence of how the world has been shaped and built is rarely seen above ground, most plates meeting below sea level. Throughout Iceland, this divide between the North American and Eurasian plates is easy to observe and provides a fascinating glimpse into the forces at work in and on the earth.

This is a land in which the forces of nature are readily apparent, visible, and a part of daily life. As much as heat has shaped the landscape, so has ice. In my next post I will share more about the other forces at work to create the magnificence that is Iceland.