I am in the middle of my European-style summer break (“more than two weeks!” as a French friend of mine defined it), and while most of it has been spent wandering around the east coast of the United States I couldn’t help but tack on a new country on my way. Particularly when it was one that I’d had my sights on for quite a long while but hadn’t gotten around to- Iceland!Iceland is actually my 50th country*, and of all the countries to pick for such a momentous occasion this was a good one…
Prosperous little Reykjavik, which has all the feel of a frontier town even though the Vikings have been here over a thousand years. (Trivia fact: it’s the northernmost capital city in the world!) There’s a nice old harbor too where you can hop onto a whale watching tour, though when I went on it we only saw a few dolphins… and then when going around the famous Puffin Island there were no puffins to be had. This had me truly bummed out, until hitting up Dyrholaey Beach a few days later-
Dyrholaey was already in contention for the prettiest beach I’d ever seen (though the rip currents and cold temperatures of the Atlantic up here don’t make a dip appealing), but its place as a favorite beach was secured when the flocks of birds bobbing in the water were confirmed via binoculars as puffins. Hooray! And I am happy to confirm that puffins are just as cute as you’d dare hope, even if they stay far enough out that you can’t get a good picture of them to prove it.
Moving along, as you can see from the above picture one of the best things about Iceland once you get out of the capital in particular is just how empty it is. Around 300,000 people live in the entire country but two thirds of those people live around Reykjavik, which results in… a pristine bit of scenery that would be jam-packed with people anywhere else, but here there is nary a soul. And outside of maybe some particularly tourist spots this happens everywhere, to the point where you can easily drive an hour or two and not see a settlement.
But anyway, Iceland is pretty and empty and a land of extremes, and there are a lot of cool things to stand in front of while someone snaps your picture. To give you an idea of how geologically blessed Iceland is, I have pictures of me standing in front of two glaciers, both completely separate and just a few hours drive from Reykjavik, and both a bit grey-looking at the bottom thanks to all the dirt that accumulates while they’re melting. (All non-surging glaciers in Iceland are receding- they all melt now during the summer, obviously, but don’t advance during the colder months to make up for the difference. This is rather concerning when 11% of your country is covered by glaciers.)
In an effort to further prove its geological blessings, Iceland is a land of extremes so in addition to ice it plays a host to enough geothermal activity to provide for virtually all the nation’s power needs. So there’s all sorts of random steam vents you keep spotting in the passing scenery, not least of all this site, known as Geysir.
You read that right by the way, and it’s not a typo: all geysers in the world are named after an original geyser in Iceland, known as Geysir, because hundreds of years ago when Europeans hadn’t discovered Yellowstone or New Zealand yet no one knew geysers existed anywhere except for this one. Who knew?
The original Geysir itself is a bit finicky in erupting these days and only does so when there’s an earthquake, but luckily right next to it is another geyser called Strokkur, whose pool is pictured above and goes off every 4-10 minutes. And trust me, I’ve seen Old Faithful before but thought the entire thing was underwhelming (very predictable to the point where it looks like you’re turning on a fountain, you can’t get anywhere close to it), but Strokkur made me appreciate geysers. I mean there you are, nothing looking amiss, when suddenly fwomph! a giant plume of steam and water erupts into the air and everyone runs backwards several paces to avoid getting wet. Then, because it was so cool and exciting, everyone creeps back forward again to wait for the next one.
Ah Iceland, what a fascinating place you are. I could do worse for my Jubilee country!
* It is a funny thing, but perhaps the most controversial thing you can ever get yourself into is a definition of how many countries you’ve been to- do airports count? What about if you never set foot on the nation’s soil? (I’ve met some who insist that you can’t count a country until you “know” it but I find that silly, as you can live places and never truly know them.) Myself I take the CIA tracking approach- as in, if tracking me the CIA would shout “she’s in the New Delhi airport for 12 hours!” instead of saying “she’s in an undetermined location for 12 hours on the layover from hell!” If we do not count transit layovers my country count is 44 (but it seems silly to count, say, San Marino but not India in the aforementioned layover if you ask me). Thoughts?