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Iceland, the Volcanic Island

Iceland, the Volcanic Island

In Iceland for just a few days en route to Sweden, my husband and I had limited time to explore, so we booked a round-robin excursion near Reykjavik called the Golden Tour. This popular route visits myriad geologic formations that created this island nation, where tourism has surpassed fishing as the main industry.

We set out in a small bus promptly at 9 a.m. with an enthusiastic driver who clearly loved to share his view of Iceland, and it was a fun one. As he drove, David Jaron gave us a brief geological overview of what we would see. Then, as we approached each site during our 11-hour escapade, he went into more extensive detail.

Our day began with a foggy walk into the Thingvellir rift valley, a place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates spread apart at a rate of about two centimeters per year. This spread—and all volcanic activity around Iceland—causes up to 500 earthquakes per week. Most are too small to feel, but bigger quakes do happen and sometimes can be harbingers of danger ahead.

The midway point of our walk along this visible part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was once home to the first parliament in Europe. It was at Thingvellir’s centrally located Logberg, the Law Rock, that Icelandic families met annually from 930 to 1798 to discuss important issues impacting the island. In 1944 the space was used again when the then-governor of Iceland declared the nation’s independence from Denmark.

The sun emerged, and we were able to visit a bakery that uses geothermal heat created by subterranean volcanic activity to create a unique delicacy available only near this location. Bakers dig holes in sandy shores of a local lake to bake their pots of dough in steamy holes. In 24 hours, they pull out fresh, hot, geothermally baked brown bread to serve with cool Icelandic butter.

Nice Travel guide, David Jaron, explains how geothermal baking happens on a Golden Tour in Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Frederikson)

Not far down the road we stopped to watch the Strokkur geyser spray shots of water into the air every few minutes. Signs around nearby rivulets warn of their 200-degree danger—and that the nearest hospital is 38 miles away. A second, larger geyser, Geysir, erupts much less frequently. Its name is where we get the word to describe such hydro-eruptions today. Beyond the two impressive water flares, my group crunched up a volcanic gravel path for a bird’s-eye view and found a boiling stream that bubbled even as it emerged from the ground.

We were awed by the geologic power around us, and that feeling continued as we drove to Gulfoss, or Gold Falls, the waterfalls that give this Golden Tour its name. Legend says that a miserly man hid his wealth in caves behind the 105-foot waterfalls here, and fortunate visitors on sunny days can spot the rainbow leading to his wealth. Such was our luck as the roaring falls exhibited breathtaking energy that sent mist up over cliffs onto the surrounding flat landscape. The riverbed itself was created as volcanic heat melted Langjokul glacier from below and its outwash carved the path of this river and its enormous falls from an otherwise flat terrain.

Kerid Crater is more evidence of the intense geologic activity that created and continues to shape Iceland today. We walked around the rust-colored edge of this 3,000-year-old volcano’s caldera and peered into clear water in its bright turquoise center. Both rich colors come from minerals in the volcanic soil.

Rich rust and turquoise colors in Kerid Crater come from volcanic minerals in the soil there. Rich rust and turquoise colors in Kerid Crater come from volcanic minerals in the soil there. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Frederikson)

The most exciting and interactive part of our day was yet to come. We pulled into the Blue Lagoon for a few hours of soaking in hot, silica-rich water that comes from 2,000 feet below ground. Originally this was a refuse pit for a nearby hydroelectric company that pumped steam from the deep to generate electricity. Once cooled, the steam was cast off as water to sink back into the earth. Unexpectedly, silica in the water formed a smooth white coating on the lava terrain, creating pools of milky blue water. For years, they were avoided as dangerous, but eventually an intrepid young man took a dip and found his eczema healed in a matter of days. It wasn’t long before an entrepreneurial physician purchased the property and began to treat his patients there.

Today the pools have a smooth, man-made bottom, but steam pumped from deep below is still injected into the baths to create water that is continuously circulated back into the earth. Swim-up bars offer beverages and silica face masks, the charges for which are logged on waterproof microchip bracelets worn by each visitor and paid for upon exit.

Our group delighted in the steaming waters, surrounded by jagged black volcanic rock with white silica on our faces as we listened to a guide intersperse folklore and humor into his scientific description of the lagoon’s history. Fortunately, a multilingual staff had guided us through the preparation process for these baths—showers are mandatory, and jewelry can be ruined if worn in the water.

Iceland, the Volcanic Island Nice Travel guide, David Jaron, explains how geothermal baking happens on a Golden Tour in Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Frederikson)

Back in Reykjavik for dinner that evening, we marveled at the active volcanic earth surrounding us there. It is one thing to hear about a distant volcano on TV spilling lava somewhere on the other side of the world, but on this day we had stood at the brink. We’d peered into a crater, watched unbridled energy shoot high above us and soaked in volcanic steam. In this country, electricity is cheaper than anywhere else on earth as they harness the clean energy around them, and that is what we tapped into on a truly Golden adventure.

When You Go 

Book an apartment:
Stop over a while:
Book a tour:
Take a dip:
Savor a meal:

Lesley Frederikson is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at COPYRIGHT 2023 CREATORS.COM

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