2004 was an amazing travel year for us, starting with a trip to Iceland to view the aurora borealis (northern lights).
It is often observed that Greenland and Iceland should switch names, as the former is almost entirely covered by snow and ice, whereas the Gulf Stream makes southern Iceland warm and green. However, rainy weather is also much more common, so we opted to spend the bulk of our time in northern Iceland, in hopes of having clear weather for viewing the aurora. We can attest that the Gulf Stream doesn’t reach anywhere near northern Iceland, and in fact its effect appears to end not far north of Reykjavic.
Through the magic of the Internet, we found a "Northern Highlights" tour offered by a small tour company called Isafold Travel. As it happened, we were the only ones on the tour (after all, what fool would choose to vacation in Iceland in February?). The experience was beyond our wildest expectations.
On the first morning of the tour, we were waiting to be picked up in the hotel lobby. Eventually someone strode in. I barely had time to think, "Wow! That man looks just like a lawn gnome!" when he came right up to us and exclaimed, "Hot damn!" When we just stood there, stunned, he went off to accost other guests in the lobby. Finally it occurred to me maybe he was trying to say "Kodama" which, it turned out, was the case.
This was our first introduction to Siggy, a unique man even among Icelanders. All sorts of things, such as Icelandic horses, farm animals, tractors, and old cars, fascinate Siggy. It worked out great for everyone, because we were just there for the scenery and the aurora borealis, and were quite content to see anything Siggy was interested in showing us. This meant we were usually going off the beaten track, doing things that in the U.S. might be considered, well, trespassing. At one point we found ourselves crawling on our stomachs through a sheep pasture to get a good view of eider ducks (yes, there were things on the ground in the pasture).
Although most visitors to northern Iceland stay in the city of Akureyri, we stayed in Saudarkrokur, the second largest city in the area (population 2,500). We had a great room in the historic Hotel Tindastoll. Amazingly, its parking lot afforded magnificent views of the aurora borealis.
The aurora borealis is something that just cannot be conveyed in words, pictures, or video. It must be experienced first hand. The display can range from a faint glow, to gently undulating curtains of light, to flames of green and red. What surprised us most was how fast it could move, even while spanning the sky from horizon to horizon. We were extremely fortunate to have solar activity peaking just in time to give us an awesome show.
We were also treated to unbelievable sunrises and sunsets which lasted almost an hour. In fact, Iceland was full of amazing sights, not just snow covered mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls, but also black sand beaches, hot springs, and geysers. Three of Dave’s favorite things are lava, moss, and snow, and in Iceland you can see them all on the same rock.
Iceland is volcanically active because the Mid-Atlantic Ridge splits it, with the North American plate grinding past the Atlantic plate. Because of this, most of Iceland’s heating and electricity is produced by geothermal and hydroelectric power plants. In fact, Iceland has announced that it will be the world’s first hydrogen society, free from the use of hydrocarbons and fossil fuels. It has a very good chance to achieve this, as most countries don’t have access to the vast amounts of clean, cheap electricity needed to electrolyze hydrogen, not to mention liquefy and compress it. Here in the U.S., we’re probably going to need nothing less than a breakthrough in fusion energy. Hopefully this happens before civilization collapses.
Finally, you can’t be in Iceland in February without experiencing Thorrablot, the winter feast prepared the ancient Viking way. We’re talking original recipes dating from the 900’s here–mummified lamb heads, ram’s testicles and other chopped meats pickled in a soured milk product, putrefied shark meat, and other delicacies. You wash all this down with a schnapps-like drink that literally brings tears to your eyes (oh wait, that was the shark meat).
After a meal like that, you wouldn’t believe how delicious Pizza Hut food is.