Destinations often fail to live up to visitors' imaginations, especially when those visitors have, between them, explored 231 countries. My friend Pat and I aren't easily impressed: The pressure was on Iceland, and its active volcanoes, geothermal plants and powerful geysers, to really wow us.
With its desolate landscape and Viking history, there are few countries as fabled as Iceland. The second-largest island in Europe, it straddles two continental plates, resulting in constant seismic activity and remarkable scenic beauty.
We arrive on the red-eye into the capital of Reykjavik, just in time to catch an Adventure Center tour bus departing to the southwest. Within minutes, the scenery turns into a wasteland of gnarled volcanic rock, covered in furry moss. The countryside is barren, flat and alien. When we stop to hike the rim of Eldborg, an extinct volcano, our bright teal bus resembles an extraterrestrial spaceship on the tundra below.
It is summer, but I am wearing four layers of clothing, barely keeping the Arctic wind at bay. At Gerduberg, the basalt rocks take the shape of hard-edged symmetrical columns, topped with perfect hexagons, formed by lava rapidly cooling on contact with air. It's easy to see why Icelandic folk tradition is rich with elves, trolls, giants and fairies. The landscape inspires superstition, and the belief that powerful forces are at work beyond our control.
Known as one of the major energy hot spots on the globe, the Snaefellsjökull volcano overlooks a spectacular peninsula. Jules Verne set his classic A Journey to the Centre of the Earth inside Snaefellsjökull, but we find ourselves inspired by the Snaefellsnes coastline, where ocean waves crash against volcanic rock, creating outcrops, blowholes, bays and beaches. It's new to me, but Pat says it reminds him of Newfoundland. Which brings us to the Vikings.
We're sitting inside the replica of a small Viking house. It is built with rocks, the ceiling covered in grass and peat. A room like this would have housed 25 people, sleeping sitting up, close to a fireplace giving warmth. Iceland's first settlers lived in harsh times. Their descendants have put up with one catastrophe after the other, from earthquakes to the country's most recent disaster, the 2008 financial crisis that almost bankrupted its economy.
Despite the drop in the value of the kroner, we reckon Iceland is the most expensive country we've ever been to. When take-out burgers cost $15, a bowl of soup $17 and a beer $10, it's no wonder many tour groups picnic for lunch, and stay in converted school residences. Besides fish, lamb and cheap geothermal energy, just about everything is imported. Fortunately, nature has always been free to enjoy.
Our bus has its second blowout in two days on a rocky sand road that proves too much for the tread. While our driver sets to work rotating spares, we set off into the desert moonscape, finding a path of soft moss to relax and enjoy the views of Langjökull, Iceland's second-largest ice cap. The silence in this part of the world is sublime.
Once we arrive in the rift valley of Thingvellir, we enter the Golden Circle – the country's most popular tourist route. Tourists flock to the site of Iceland's traditional parliament, where the continents of Europe and North America are literally drifting apart. Our guide sets up a picnic table for lunch. Every day there's something new: herring, caviar, lamb pâté, cold meats, gravlax, sardines, breads, spreads and cheese. Occasionally there are Icelandic treats, like candy, dark bread, or hákarl.
Hákarl is fermented Greenland shark. The meat is buried for several months underground, before it attains a flavour that, at best, can be described as pickled acidic urine. To wash it down, we swig Brennivín, also known as Black Death, strong potato schnapps with an aftertaste of caraway. We spear a piece of shark with a toothpick and, trying hard not to gag at the smell, take a bite. For a moment, I feel I have conquered this culinary challenge. Then comes the aftertaste. Some local dishes are best left to the locals.
Before the week is out, I have consumed shark, minke whale sashimi, whale steak, smoked puffin, guillemot (a type of seabird), skyr (a type of yogurt) and horse meat. Icelandic horses are beautiful and numerous, so the thought of eating them is a little tough on the stomach. I'm surprised to find that seabirds have dark meat, almost like venison. Iceland is one of the few countries that practise whaling. Conservationists contend that whale watching actually brings in more for the economy than hunting, but still it remains on the menu. It's odd to track a graceful minke whale on the Elding Whale Watching Tour in Reykjavik's harbour, in sight of the same whale hunting vessels that hunt it. As for the taste of the meat itself, I'll gladly stick to tuna.
Glaciers and mountains are a recipe for spectacular waterfalls. We stop at Skógarfoss, Barnavoss and Seljalandsfoss, three gorgeous natural roadside attractions with numerous walking trails to collect the views. These are waterfalls that compare to the world's best. The highlight is Gullfoss, where torrents of glacier water drop 70 metres into a canyon, resembling a giant sheet being tucked underneath a rocky bed. We decide that anyone who sees a photo of Gullvoss will never forget it.
The Golden Circle continues to Geysir, a famous site that gave us the word itself. A geyser named Strokkur explodes every five to 10 minutes, shooting a white stream 30 metres into the air. We arrive just in time to see some Spanish tourists get drenched in hot water. When viewing geysers, it best not to stand downwind.
Getting closer to Reykavik, Eyjafjallajökull is the name of the tongue-twister volcano that shut down European aerospace in 2010. It looks innocuous enough, with much of its ash already absorbed into the surrounding fertile valleys. Not so from above. Iceland Heli gives us a bird's-eye view of the crater, circling around its edge. We have never seen such awesome destruction. The pilot traces the path of the lava flow, cracking and melting the glacier, blackening it with ash. Nearby are two other active volcanoes, Hekla and Katla, which promise to cause even more havoc than Eyjafjallajökull. It may be a country of only 320,000 people, but Iceland's impact on the world can be devastating.
On the way to the airport, Pat and I make a quick pit stop to soak in the sulphur-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon. The waters are the byproduct of a nearby geothermal power plant, and have become Iceland's biggest tourist attraction. We reflect on the week: the hikes along the coast and craters, the strange culinary adventures. Iceland more than holds its own among the world's best travel destinations. If you're going to travel with expectations, it's good to know you can exceed them.
Watch Robin Esrock explore Iceland here.
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is moderngonzo.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail