Updated: Aug 26
The land of fire and ice... we found the ice and missed the fire. However, we did observe amazing evidence and stunning effects of the volcanic activity here!
*Kolugljúfur Canyon and Gorge Walk
Our Iceland story is a bit odd, many people have Iceland on their bucket list for years before making the trip. Personally, I didn't see the draw until we noticed flights from NYC to London were significantly cheaper if we landed in Iceland first.
Our family is originally from Wisconsin in the USA... we've done enough cold and sleet and snow and freezing rain and boots and slush and windshield scraping and endless gear and long underwear. When we moved away in 2014 our goal was to chase the sun and land in areas where a bathing suit and sarong count as fully dressed!
But something we've learned over the years is that opportunity appears in many ways, often urging us to go a different direction that we originally planned... and that's what happened with our Iceland trip. The universe invited us to stop in Iceland.
We originally thought we'd stay a few days to explore the Reykjavik area... but when we began talking to friends and worldschool acquaintances, we learned that Iceland has geological features which set it apart from many other areas on this planet. A few days wouldn't be enough, so we picked 10 days, which also wasn't enough!
*Ytri Tunga Beach (there are seals out there), Sun Voyager, Gljufrabui waterfall & river hike
This pop-up structure was quite different than all our previous gatherings. Due to the nature of Iceland, each family needed to have a car in order to access all the amazing attractions. We also chose three areas to explore for 3-nights each. That way we had a bit of a base and didn't have to travel with all our gear in the vehicle with us every single ride.
Akureyri - Northern Region
We started in the north and had a very windy, chilly day for our first meet-up. Luckily it involved thermal areas which did warm us a bit (of course there was a touch of a sulfur smell). We trekked through the mud pits and sulfur vents of Hverir, walked through a sheep pasture for the views at Skútustaðagígar, and lounged in the mineral hot springs at Mývatn Nature Baths. What a beautiful facility with lots of places to soak, sweat, and warm up!
*Hverir Thermal area and Mývatn Nature Baths.
Other notable stops were the Goðafoss waterfall, the Akureyri Botanical Garden, strolling the Akureyri streets, and the Glaumbær church and historic turf homes. We also had planned a free day during this time so families had the chance to go out whale watching (they saw humpbacks!) or exploring some of the other attractions such as the Bjórböðin beer spa where you can pay to have a hot bath in beer (totally not kidding but no one gave that a try this time round, it is rather expensive to fill an entire bathtub with beer).
*Goðafoss, Akureyri Botanical Garden, Glaumbær church and historic turf homes
Bordeyri - Western Region
After leaving the Akureyri area, we traveled toward Bordeyri for our second home-base. On the way there we had a fantastic stop at the Byggðasafn Húnvetninga & Strandamanna, a local museum with Icelandic history and artifacts. We learned a ton about the shark fishing tradition, how Icelandic's history is nearly completely known from the beginning of its settlement (which occurred 870-930 CE), and how wood is hard to come by so after sailing into Iceland, ships were dismantled to build homes and smaller boats.
Iceland's best source of wood is driftwood which originates in Siberia. These massive trunks are soaked with seawater upon arrival, but once dried, they're incredibly resistant to rot. The Icelandic people have learned to use exactly what nature gives them. And if you think wood is hard to come by, a reliable food source is another issue.
The first settlers learned that shark meat is toxic to eat... but over time, realized that if the meat was fermented, the toxins break down, making the meat edible. Sharks are buried near the sea and the fermenting process takes roughly a year. Lucky for us (or not so lucky) the museum's employee had some fermented shark meat on hand for us to try. We could take the frozen or room temp samples, the frozen being less aromatic/flavorful due to the colder temp.
Like good worldschoolers learning about a new culture, we dove in! The consensus? The ferment tasted a bit like the rind on a camembert or brie cheese. The flavor was fishy and strong, and the aftertaste was easy to remember because we tasted it a long time! The smell had hints of ammonia and the fumes definitely opened the sinuses as we chewed and chewed (it was chewy). I'm sure there were loads of friendly probiotics and I wouldn't doubt if fermented shark will "put hair on your chest" whether you want it or not.
Something we love? Maybe if we grew up with it, but always worth a try!
*Byggðasafn Húnvetninga & Strandamanna museum (shark fishing boat, fermented shark tasting, and mustache cups with a divider to hold your whiskers out of the coffee) and Kolugljúfur Canyon and Gorge Walk (the two group photos by the falls are shared by our attendees).
Iceland's weather is unpredictable. October might be mild and cool or quite frigid. We needed to have a flexible itinerary so we could take advantage of the best weather for site-seeing.
On Day 3 we found out an intense storm was predicted for Day 5... so we canceled out Day 4 of the itinerary and made a beeline for the Snæfellsnes Peninsula while the weather was cooperative. What an gem of a destination. We had all sorts of stops to make: a mineral spring to fill our bottles with naturally carbonated water, beaches for seal spotting and whale bone inspection, gorges to walk through the river to get to the falls, the Black Church Búðakirkja, basalt columns, waterfalls, lighthouses, a natural arch bridge, and more. There was so much to see and if I planned it again, I would spend more time in this area. Just stunning!
*Ölkelduvatn Mineral Spring (pic shared by an attendee), Ytri Tunga Beach, Búðakirkja, Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge, Arnarstapi Basalt Columns & stone bridge
The day after our Snæfellsnes excursion was a stay-at-home-day... gale-force winds, snow, sleet, iciness... a taste of winter. For some of us, we had booked lodging in the same guesthouse which worked out really well. We had a kitchen and laundry so used the day to play games, visit, and catch up on chores and work tasks. Since we had to have a down day, we were grateful that it was warm and cozy with good company.
Hella - Southern Region
Our venture toward Hella took us through the "Golden Circle" of Iceland. This is a beautiful national park area that is easily accessible from Reykjavik. Originally we planned 2 days in this area, but the weather was gorgeous, so on the fly, we combined those days into a full exploration of the Golden Circle.
We started with Öxarárfoss waterfalls. The most impressive feature here is that the falls fall off one of earth's tectonic plates. This whole area is where two plates meet and form a chasm which extends underwater (note: you can SCUBA and snorkel this rift, no one in our group chose to add on that adventure but it gets wonderful reviews). However, there was wonderful walking right between the plates with the land rising up on both sides of the path.
*Öxarárfoss and the walk between tectonic plates
The rest of our time in the Golden Circle enthralled us with geysers and boiling pots in the Haukadalur Thermal area, Gullfoss falls (named Golden Falls and the Golden Circle takes its name from these waters), and a beautiful lake inside Kerid Crater.
Here are a few notes about the area:
The Strokker Geyser erupts every 5-8 minutes which was fantastic because we had the time to watch a few rounds. We loved how the underwater bubble forms just prior to spouting.
Gullfoss Falls was windy and chilly -- ice was coating the plant life around the falls, but the sheer amount of water tumbling off the cliffs was magnificent regardless of the bitter wind.
And with all the geothermal activity in this region, it’s worth looking into the hot springs. One of our families made their way to Secret Lagoon for a dip in the thermal waters there, the other option is Laugarvatn Fontana (where they bake bread buried in the hot earth).
*Strokker Geyser, Gullfoss falls, & Kerid Crater
The rest of our Hella time was spent to the east of Hella... so many waterfalls but we also checked out the Lava Centre to learn more about Iceland's volcanoes and geothermal activity, Gígjagjá (AKA the Yoda Cave due to its unique opening), Reynisdrangar Basalt Cliffs with beautiful rock formations rising out of the water, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach with captivating hexagonal basalt columns and Hálsanefshellir Cave, and finally the Sólheimajökull Glacier.
Our explorations of this area truly were of fire and ice!
*Seljalandsfoss, Gljufrabui, and Nauthúsafoss
One of our days, we visited three different waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss, Gljufrabui, and Nauthúsafoss. Seljalandsfoss was the largest and is an iconic Iceland stop. Visitors can walk directly behind the falls and out on the other side. Gljufrabui is nearby and located within a narrow gorge. This was not the first nor the last time we made our way through the river choosing the driest places to plant our feet. We definitely put our waterproof boots to the test, even up over the laces! Lucky for us, we all fared well on the river walking and even the adults said how much they felt like kids again, hopping from stone to stone. It sure pays to have the right gear!
*Gígjagjá, Hálsanefshellir Cave and Basalt Columns, Sólheimajökull Glacier
Reykjavik and Surrounding Area
Our final day found our families heading in different directions. Some stopped at Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River, others went to Blue Lagoon, and our family headed to Reykjavik to explore the city and prepare for our early morning flight the next day.
*Reykjadalur Hot Spring and Blue Lagoon pics shared by our attendees
Reykjavik city is beautiful with plenty of site-seeing to take in. We saw the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Museum, Rainbow Street, the Sun Voyager installation, and had to take a peek at the Icelandic Phallological Museum.
We loved the Einar Jónsson museum, he's an Icelandic artist (both painter and sculptor) and the museum houses 60+ years of his works. I'm glad we visited at the end of our trip so we could connect his pieces with the Icelandic landscape and stories we learned. As for the Phallological Museum, we weren't sure what to expect, but knew we'd learn something (like how many gallons of semen a whale ejaculates... for some species it's 5 gallons, don't ask me how they know). The museum is non-erotic and is chock-full of specimens and facts and oddities... plus sells some giggle-out-loud items in the giftshop. I'm only including one picture, many more exist online for the curious.
*Reykjavik sites, all listed above. Yes, that is a whale penis, now you know!
The last bits to share a certainly an Icelandic treat: first, the Icelandic horses. The Icelandic horses are a unique breed. They were first introduced to Iceland around 900 CE by the Nordic settlers. Over time, they've been bred and raised to withstand the harsh climate. Two characteristics that separate Icelandic horses from others is their unique coats which are quite thick in the winter and their unusual gaits. In addition to the walk, trot, and canter, Icelandic horses also tölt and skeið. The smooth riding tölt involves keeping one foot on the ground at all times and and the skeið is when legs on either side work in unison while running... the left hooves touch the ground at the same time followed by the right hooves. This gait helps them navigate tough terrain.
The northern lights were on all our Icelandic bucket lists, but unfortunately, we had rain and clouds overnight most nights. Every evening our pop-up attendees crossed fingers hoping that it would not be too overcast to see the show in the sky. For one family, their perseverance paid off. They got a beautiful show at 5am on our final night in Iceland. Such a treat!
*Icelandic horses, amazing rainbow (one of many), and the northern lights! Photos all courtesy of Lyra P.
Overall, it was a fantastic excursion and we experienced some serious nature in the raw: rivers & waterfalls, gorges, glaciers, caves, rock formations, thermal vents & geysers & hot springs... just stunning! Thanks to the other worldschool families for joining us in this leg of our travels. We are super grateful to cross paths with you and can't wait to see where we meet next!