Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 5: The Land of Fire and Ice
Last week's newsletter was written from Regent's Seven Seas Navigator as we approached Reykjavik, Iceland, the disembarkation port for my cruise. As I write this, I am six miles above the North Atlantic, on an Icelandair flight from Reykjavik to BWI. I have just watched the coast of Iceland fade from view, and I am checking in, as promised, with observations from my visit.
Iceland is not subtle or understated. It is raw and rugged, and ready when you are.
At this time of year, it is light 24 hours a day in Iceland. In fact, the northernmost golf tournament in the world was underway as we arrived, the Arctic Open, with tee times starting at midnight. Having tried five days of continuous sunlight, two on the Seven Seas Navigator and three on the island, I'd like to come back in six months and experience a few days of continuous darkness. When I suggested that to my family, they just shook their heads and looked very concerned.
Our ship docked in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, a small city with interesting public art and architecture and a storied nightlife. There are several good restaurants there, led by the stunning Perlan (Pearl), a domed-glass structure that overlooks the city.
Most people in Iceland speak English, which makes it easy to get around. The native language is Icelandic, the language of the Vikings from Norway that colonized Iceland. Because Iceland was relatively isolated in the centuries that followed, the language has changed very little since the age of the Vikings, while the Norwegian language has changed so much that Norwegians can no longer understand the Icelanders.
Reykjavik reminded me of other places I've visited in Norway and Sweden, but just outside the city I began to realize that nothing else I would see in this country would look familiar. In one direction, a mountain range rises abruptly from the plain, and in the other, an enormous volcano is silhouetted against the sky.
One of the reasons that Iceland is unique is its location atop two tectonic plates that are drifting in opposite directions. Tectonic plates are the gigantic, irregular sections of Earth's crust that "float" on a hotter and softer region of the upper mantle. All of the Earth's continents and oceans sit on tectonic plates, and the plates move slowly relative to each other. When tectonic plates push against each other, pressure builds until eventually one plate slips below the other, causing an earthquake. It was one plate plunging beneath another that caused a sudden rise and collapse of the ocean floor and the devastating tsunami off the coast of Indonesia.
In Iceland, the North American plate and the Eurasian plate meet, but they are drifting in opposite directions. As the plates separate, fissures form in the crust and molten rock pushes closer to the surface, heating Iceland's countless hot springs, fueling its geysers and triggering earthquakes. About every five years, the magma pushes to the surface, and one of Iceland's more than 200 volcanoes erupts. A third of the entire world's lava flow during the past 500 years has occurred in Iceland, a country the size of Ohio.
An eruption in 1783 lasted 8 months and produced the largest lava flow in recorded history. Toxic particles in the ash poisoned vegetation and livestock, and nearly 25% of the population died of starvation. The cloud of ash blocked the sun in Iceland, and spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. That winter, low-temperature records were set in Northern Europe, Alaska and the eastern United States. There were ice floes in the Mississippi River at New Orleans, an unprecedented occurrence in modern times.
Hot springs, geysers, earthquakes, volcanoes…if that's not enough to get your attention, consider this: Iceland extends into the Arctic Circle, and 11% of the country is covered by glaciers, including Europe's largest. It's no wonder that Iceland is called The Land of Fire and Ice.
On our first day in Iceland, we took the ship's tour to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermally heated pool that spreads amid black volcanic rocks in a vast lava field. The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's premier tourist attractions, widely celebrated for its relaxing and rejuvenating powers.
It was cloudy and windy that morning, with a temperature in the upper 40s. Steam rising from the Blue Lagoon was visible from miles away, but the stark landscape left us unprepared for such beautiful water -- a milky, aqua color. We took the mandatory shower in the visitor's center and stepped outside for the chilly dash to the water's edge.
The water in the Blue Lagoon varies between waist and neck deep on most adults, and hovers around 100 degrees year-round. Currents ranging from warm to hot circulate throughout, and at one end, super-heated water percolates into the Lagoon. It was hard to see this through the steam, but you could hear the sputtering sound and feel the rising heat as you approached.
The mineral-rich water gets its color from blue-green algae and white silica, natural skin conditioners. Most visitors dab silica mud on their faces and drift in the mist -- a hundred ghostly heads bobbing on a milky sea.
I believe the Blue Lagoon lives up to its reputation, and I recommend this easy, half-day excursion from Reykjavik. In this week's newsletter, we have been warmed by the fire, and in next week's, we will be tested by the ice.
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Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 1: The Adventure Begins
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 2: Highlights of Bermuda
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 3: New England and Canada
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 4: En Route to Iceland
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 6: Glacier Trekking