Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Iceland’s Natural Wonders

Viking ship skeleton

Our trip started with a delicious breakfast at the Loki Café, in downtown Reykjavík, followed by a visit to the magnificent Lutheran Cathedral that overlooks the city. A quick visit to Perlan, the shopping mall situated on top of the hot water storage tanks perched atop another hill, completed our brief introduction to the city. The soothing voice of Tour Director Árni Magnússon soon lulled most of our weary, jet-lagged travelers to sleep during the hour and a half ride to our hotel in Borgarnes. Sunny skies insured a delightful afternoon visiting the boiling spring at Deildartunguhver, the home of saga writer Snorri Sturlusson, and the beautiful Hraunfoss waterfall, where water pours out of the rocks between two lava flows, all just a short ride through the countryside from the hotel. The day was capped with my talk about the plate tectonics of Iceland.

Day 2 was a ride around Snæfellsnes, the long peninsula on the opposite side of the fjord on which Reykjavík is situated, with world renowned volcanologist, Haraldur Sigurdsson, who grew up there. No one understands the geology of this part of Iceland better than Harald. In addition to the fascinating geological story, a stop at farm provided the opportunity to sample putrified shark meat, an Icelandic delicacy, chased with Brennivin, the Icelandic schnapps. Bekah, Cayce, and Lexi, three teenaged Journeys travelers, did not try it because their parents would not allow them to follow it with a chaser.

Grábrók, Iceland’s most climbed volcano, was our first stop on the third day. Nathaniel, who is 6 years old, thought it was great and brought a rock for me to break open. The horse show at Gauksmýri and the visit to the stables allowed everyone to become friends with the gentle Icelandic horses. After lunch in Blöndhós, we stopped at the old Viðimýri church, constructed of driftwood and sod. The afternoon ride through the mountains to Akureyri was full of glacially carved features. Many people ate on the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the harbor on the fjord.

Dettifoss Waterfall

Waterfalls and volcanoes were the theme of the fourth day. Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, is where a local king threw his pagan idols into water when he converted to Christianity. Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall (above), thundered away as we ate a picnic lunch on the west bank. The volcanoes around the large lake, Mývatn, developed because the midocean ridge passes through the area. At least 10 different varieties of volcano can be seen there. Short hikes were done at both waterfalls, the Námaskarð  Hverir geothermal area, and the volcanic areas at Skútústaðir and Dimmuborgir.  Nathaniel was introduced to troll caves and spotted many of them throughout the day.

Good weather provided calm seas for our excursion to Lundey, the puffin island north of Húsavík, where we saw thousands of the birds. A volcano talk at lunch was followed by walks to the chaotic columnar basalts at Hljoðaklettar and the dry waterfall at Ásbyrgi. People spread out to enjoy the restaurants of Akureyri at dinner time.

We were up early for our morning flight back to Reykjavík. Unfortunately, cloud cover prevented viewing the magnificent glaciers and volcanoes below. A light drizzle accompanied us on our “Golden Circle” tour of Þingvellir, Gullfoss, and Strokkur geyser but good weather is not necessary to be awed by these places. The staff at the Hótel Rangá greeted us with open arms and we quickly settled in to enjoy its hospitality.


The most phenomenal day was kicked off with a talk about glaciers. It was followed by visits to the Solheimajökull glacier (above), Eyjafjalljökull volcano and visitor center, the Skógasafn folk museum, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, and the sea stacks and sea caves at Reynisfjara beach, with views of Dýrholaey sea arch. The only disappointment was that Katla volcano remained hidden in the clouds for the entire day. Many people had their picture taken while framed by a rainbow at Seljalandsfoss just before we returned to the hotel.

Our return to Reykjavík was highlighted by a visit to the geothermal area at Hvera Gerði, including the unusual glass floor at the shopping center that allowed us to peer deep into the fissure over which the building was constructed. We also drove through the geothermal wellfield where steam is collected for the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant. Back in the city we visited the highlights along the waterfront before enjoying an exquisite lobster bisque at a restaurant on the harbor. An afternoon talk by television personality Egill Helgason about the 2008 economic collapse rounded out the formal part of our Adventure in Iceland. In the evening, some people chose to go to a comedy show at Harpa, the beautiful concert hall on the harbor, while others went to the Blue Lagoon or explored the bustling night life of the city.

People spread out to visit the Settlement Museum, National Museum, Art Museum, Saga Museum, Blue Lagoon, City Hall, and shopping areas in the light drizzle of our free day in the city. Our farewell dinner at Einar Ben Restaurant, in the city center, not far from the hotel, was a fine, although bittersweet, ending to our Iceland adventure together.

Interested in seeing more of Iceland's natural treasures? Embark on your own Adventure in Iceland!