Feast on cinematic landscapes along a route less traveled
BY JILL ROBINSON — Fall 2019
of aurora borealis outlines a mountain in the Icelandic countryside, separating the peak from a winter night sky scattered with stars. Steeped in local folklore, as nearly everything is in Iceland, stories about the mountain liken it to a sleeping dragon. The green northern lights appear like breath vapor escaping the dragon’s nostrils and slowly winding along its body as if the vapor longs to remain with the sleeping beast before dissipating into the darkness. n emerald ribbon
“According to the old sagas, the northern lights are the capes of the Valkyries,” says Atli Lydsson, our guide for Classic Journeys’ new “Iceland Multisport” tour, launched just last spring. “As they ride across the sky to choose the souls who are worthy of sitting by Odin’s side in Valhalla, their capes light up and paint the evening with color.”
Descended directly from the Vikings, the original Icelanders, Lydsson is my key to adventure and a deeper connection to Icelandic culture on this six-day sojourn. While the classic Golden Circle route is popular among many visitors to this country, Classic Journeys extends the route’s boundaries with this trip, taking visitors far along the southern coast.
Iceland’s dramatic landscape spans from waterfalls to glaciers, black-sand beaches to lava fields blanketed with spongy moss, and ice caves to geothermal pools. All of them find a way onto our itinerary. In one of the most dramatic spots, in Thingvellir National Park, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart. Like the plates, my group divides in two — half to hike among the plate boundaries, and my half to snorkel between them in the Silfra fissure.
Outfitted in neoprene and dry suits, we wade into the icy glacier water that has been filtered through hardened, porous lava rock, making it one of the planet’s clearest bodies of water. As I float through the big crack between continental plates, I reach over to one side at a time so I can drag my neoprene-gloved fingers along the continents. Sunlight plunges through the water and reflects on the vibrant golden and copper rocks strewn in some places with chartreuse vegetation. The beauty distracts me from the near-freezing temperature.
Settling into Skálakot Manor late in the day gives us a sense of home, if our home were a sparkling new luxurious manor house on a farm that has been in the family for generations. Tucked at the foot of expansive Icelandic highlands in the tranquil heart of southern Iceland — with a view of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) in the North Atlantic Ocean — the manor house has 14 rooms, each with its own look.
During dinner, we take turns running outside on aurora watch. As the glowing ribbon grows brighter, we all don cozy Icewear jackets, grab our cameras and cocktails, and brave the winter evening to gaze upon the capes of the Valkyries. As in the Silfra fissure, the vivid color takes our minds off the cold.
Aside from the manor home, Skálakot’s variety of horseback tours with the farm’s gentle, purebred Icelandic horses inspires us to get outside to see the landscape of the slopes of the Eyjafjöll mountains — not far from the volcano that erupted in 2010. Kaftan, my shaggy-maned horse, seems to love the uphill path so much that she races her equine compatriots to lead the herd.
All the southern coast hotels that Classic Journeys books on this tour give us plenty of access to the majestic landscape of Iceland, from Skálakot and its intrepid horses to Hotel Rangá and its glittering night sky tours to Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon and its proximity to Breidamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe outside the Arctic.
With spiky crampons, we traverse the ancient aquamarine ice of the glacier to walk between walls of blue that appear as if an ocean wave froze just as it was perfect enough to beckon surfers. Nearby, the Anaconda cave swallows us inside, in thick ice that looks like a million facets of ebony and cobalt. Both spots in the ever-changing glacier are here now, but may disappear by the end of the season as the ice slowly moves.
At the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue, our crampons crunch into the ice as we form a single-file line behind our guide, making our way gradually uphill. Tucked between mountains, the glacier seems to stretch so far into the distance that it connects with the clouds in the winter sky. Our hike lasts a few hours, and despite finding a spot with sweeping views of our path, we hardly cover its vast surface.
With its enormous basalt columns and rocky sea stacks, Reynisfjara black-sand beach has an otherworldly beauty, especially as we walk the length while a dusting of snow settles over the sand and in the crevices of the hexagonal basalt rock. The scene could almost fit better in another planet or fantasy world. I’m not the only one who has been so inspired — the location has been used in Game of Thrones and Star Wars, and local folklore claims the sea stacks were once trolls trying to pull ships to shore until they were turned to stone.
Along the entire journey, we encounter old pagan stories still alive in modern Iceland, from the chest of gold that lives in the spectacular Skógafoss waterfall to the elf’s hill that caused glacier jeep breakdowns until the road was routed elsewhere. Our immersion in Iceland’s dramatic landscape makes the legends feel closer to reality, and it’s easier to understand how the northern lights could become the capes of Valkyries.
In a stop at the Blue Lagoon near the end of the trip, the warmth of the geothermal water creates a mist that makes it impossible to see the other side of the steaming lake. Our muscles relax from the days of adventure, and we take turns telling ghost stories.
Details: From $5,595. 800-200-3887; classicjourneys.com
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