When the guy in the Reykjavik car-rental office warned me to be careful while getting out of the mini-SUV that we were renting, I didn’t know what he meant. Was there something I was missing?
Turns out there was. He wasn’t implying that I was irresponsible, though my high school English teacher, Mrs. Bonnie Voss, might disagree. He was merely speaking from experience.
See, Iceland is a windy place. And what the guy knew from experience was that some renters, unaccustomed to the island’s weather, would innocently open the car doors and … the wind would treat them as if they were mere kites.
Sometimes, the guy said, it had been known to blow so hard that the doors would come completely unattached to the car’s frame. I know that seems unlikely, but it’s what he emphasized.
And truth be told, over the week or more that we spent in Iceland, driving the main highway that encircles the whole island – a highway they call the Ring Road – we encountered winds that seemed capable of doing that much damage and more.
The year was 2014, the month was October, and my wife, Mary Pat Treuthart, and I were embarking on a reconnaissance of the island in advance of a group tour that she would be co-leading the following spring. We spent a couple of days in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, before hitting the road.
October isn’t exactly the best time to visit Iceland. It was cold and it rained a lot, though the sun did break through at the most opportune times, giving us some nice views of at least one rainbow and several colorful sunsets.
To capture the experience, I’m going to refer back to a Spokesman-Review blog post that I wrote just before we boarded our flight home. In the post, I addressed the question that I had been asked prior to our trip: Why Iceland?
The obvious answer was to give my wife the information she would need before the group tour. But the bigger reason was that it was a place we had never been. And since we like to travel, the more appropriate question was … why not?
This was, remember, four years after the volcano eruption in 2010 that disrupted so many international flights and stranded thousands of travelers (for a reminder of that incident, check out former Spokesman-Review reporter Jim DeFede’s 2003 nonfiction book “The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland”).
As I wrote in my blog post, that specific volcano, by the way, bears a name that is one of the only Icelandic words I ended up learning how to pronounce: Eyjafjallajökull.
The day before we flew home, we found ourselves lounging in the geothermal waters of one of Iceland’s popular tourist sites: the Blue Lagoon. It was there that we met a New York couple, people also interested international travel, who were stopping over before continuing on to London where they were scheduled to board a cruise to the Canary Islands.
But that was the end of our road trip around an island, which is only nine-tenths the size of Ohio. My favorite part of the trek was the stretch of the Ring Road that runs across the south-eastern edge.
Here’s what I wrote:
“We'd spent the night in the port town of Höfn, which sits between the ocean and the mountain range which cradles the country's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. From there we drove west, past lava fields, to the turnoff to a gravel road 8 kilometers long where we could get a better view of one of the glacier's arms.
“Then we returned to the highway and drove to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where first we took a 40-minute amphibious boat ride through huge glacier icebergs (and even got to munch on some glacier chunks) and then walked along the black-sand beaches that were littered with ice bits of all sizes and shapes.
“Driving ever west, we passed geology that ranged from lichen-green-covered fields that resembled sodden cotton balls, to larger upturned cones the size of small houses, to more stark lava fields, to mountain cliffs fronting the ocean that looked as if someone had transplanted them from Monument Valley. We stopped at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, where a private museum told the story of a family whose dairy farm had been threatened by the 2010 eruption.
“And we stopped at the site of Laufskalavarda, where travelers are invited to place a rock to help ensure a safe trip. Which seems to have worked because, finally, we arrived at the village of Vik unscathed. And after a short trip north to see the sun set over a natural rock arch, we settled in for the night.”
Other highlights of our trip included the drive we took around Iceland’s Golden Circle, where we not only did we soak in the Blue Lagoon but saw both the Gullfoss waterfall and the geyser Strokkur. We also enjoyed the walks we took through Reykjavik (where the population of 123,000 makes up nearly a third of the country’s total). We even managed to squeeze in a film during the Reykjavik International Film Festival
What was amazing was that we got through all this – through rain, sleet, icy temperatures and the ever-present wind, broken by the occasional sunny moment and that one rainbow – while witnessing some of the starkest, most beautiful landscapes ever.
Best of all we avoided having our car doors blown off. Sometimes it pays to follow instructions, which is a sentiment Mrs. Voss would certainly agree with.