Travel Diary: Volcanoes, Lava Fields, and Serious Seafood in Iceland

Blair Pfander
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Travel Diary: Volcanoes, Lava Fields, and Serious Seafood in Iceland
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There will always be room in my heart for steamy, 80 plus degree getaways in Tulum or Phuket, though I also crave the dramatic landscapes, icy adventures and cozy cups of hot chocolate that only come with cold-weather travel destinations.
Like in Iceland, for example. With over 800 volcanoes, spouting geysers, steamy hot springs, and a budding restaurant scene, a trip to this tiny island nation feels like falling through the wardrobe into Narnia (and indeed, three out of four Icelanders believe elves and trolls live in the mountains surrounding Reykjavik).
I spent a week floating in the Blue Lagoon and chowing down on fresh blue ling kebabs in this glacial fairytale city. Here, my top picks for your next Far North adventure.

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Iceland may be a small country (with a population just shy of 320,000), but this tiny island nation makes up for its stature with larger-than-life attractions like jagged glaciers, steamy hot springs, spouting geysers and over 800 volcanoes—at least ten of which are considered "highly" active. 

Photo: Blair Pfander/Blair Pfander

Just a six hour flight from New York City, Iceland may seem remote, but in fact is as easy to reach as Los Angeles—so you can hardly blame us for wanting to take a closer look. I snapped this overhead shot of Reykjavik (the northernmost capitol city in the world) from the bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja church, the city's tallest building. 

Photo: Blair Pfander/Blair Pfander

Here, an exterior look at Hallgrímskirkja, which—with its strange, sloping architecture—was made to resemble the peculiar angles of the country's basalt lava fields. The strapping bronze statue in front depicts Leif Eriksson, a Norse explorer (and Iceland native). The church elevator is open every day until 6 p.m., and for a few Icelandic Krona can be taken to the bell tower for spectacular views of the city and surrounding bay. 

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Because of the country's supply of geothermal hot water, the massive city pond, Tjörnin, never completely freezes, making it the preferred home of a startling number of large white swans. Take heed, however: majestic though they may seem, the swans have no qualms about chasing you down if you're carrying lunch. 

Photo: Blair Pfander/Blair Pfander

If you're like us, Icelandic text looks like ancient alien scripture from a sci-fi novel. Interestingly, the language has changed very little since the 13th century, and some native speakers can still read old viking texts. 

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When it comes to Icelandic souvenirs, nothing—with the possible exception of Reyka vodka, which is produced in geothermaly-powered facilities—trumps the lopapeysa, a traditional sweater made from the wool of native sheep. For about $126, you can choose among hundreds of different patterns at the Handknitting Association of Iceland (19 Skólavörðustígur Street; handknit.is). 

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Most of my time in Reykjavik was spent stuffing my with fresh seafood and dipping into various hot springs, but for a quick dose of history, I stopped by the Maritime Museum, which details the country's sea-faring heritage. Here, a (perhaps too life-like) wax figurine of an Icelandic fisherman reeling in the day's catch. 

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The Martime Museum is brimming with strange black and white photographs like this one, which shows a family of Icelandic fisherman. What appear to be pieces of paper littered around the ground are actually flat pieces of fish being dried in the sun. 

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There's no more appropriate end to an afternoon at the Maritime Museum than fresh seafood kebabs and lobster stew at the Sea Baron, which is owned by a retired galley cook and festooned with trinkets from his travels around the world. If you prefer lighter fare, opt for fresh white fish like cod or blue ling. For the more daring traveler, tuck into a hearty whale kebab (made from minke whale, which is the most abundant species of whale in the world). 

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No trip to Iceland would be complete with a visit to Gullfoss, a massive waterfall located in the canyon of the Hvítá river. Because of its unusual tiered structure, the waterfall looks like a wide river that suddenly drops out of view when looked at from a distance. Go in for a closer look, however, and you can see into the gushing crevice below. Pro tip: stop at the visitor's center for a bowl of hot stew to thaw your hands post-viewing. 

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Spouting every four to eight minutes, the Strokkur geyser may be even more faithful than Ol' Faithful—or, at the very least, a whole lot speedier. Be sure to stand a few feet back when she's ready to blow or else you'll end up drenched in scalding hot water. 

Photo: Blair Pfander/Blair Pfander

Surrounding Strokkur are a number of hot pools like the one above, which looks particularly steamy and gorgeous on a windy winter day.  

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Save your extra krona coins for this dazzlingly blue wishing well, which is located in Þingvellir, or "Parlaiment Fields" (so-named because Icelanders would carry out everything from celebrations to beheadings on site). Because the water is filtered through lava rock, the clarity is unusually brilliant. The tradition goes that if you can see your coin all the way at the bottom, your wish will come true. 

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Part spa, part natural wonder, the Blue Lagoon is probably Iceland's most iconic tourist destination (and, admittedly, the one I was most excited to float around in). Loaded with naturally occurring blue algae and silica—which gives the water its bright blue color, the water is said to have special healing properties. As an added bonus, you can order cocktails and skyr yogurt smoothies from the in-ground bar, and busses are readily available to take you to or from Keflavik airport. 

Photo: Blair Pfander/Blair Pfander

Regardless if it's minus ten degrees outside (it was) or you didn't pack proper sub-zero gear (I didn't), any opportunity to see the northern lights should be taken advantage of. Call tour companies in Reykjavik the day before to check the light predictions. You might see zilch, but you might get lucky, and the spectacle is well worth it. Remember to wear extra socks: you'll probably have to stand in a snowy lava field for over two hours to get the best view. 

Photo: Blair Pfander/Blair Pfander

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