Nature and Culture Beckon, from Geothermal Spas to Arts Gallerys and Museums, Glaciers, Waterfalls, Puffins and a Notorious Drowning Pool

Chances are good that Iceland was not always at the top of your travel bucket list, but with Icelandair now offering direct flights to Reykjavik from Kansas City at oftentimes unbelievably low rates, that has likely changed. Anecdotal evidence from social media posts show Iceland as a picturesque and increasingly popular destination. This is Kansas City’s first transatlantic flight offering, and the city hopes more overseas flights will be added as demand grows. For now, the direct route is seasonal, May through September, with an eastbound flight leaving each Saturday, Monday and Wednesday and return flights the following day. The flight to Reykjavik is roughly seven hours, a much easier way to head to continental Europe and beyond than connecting through Dallas, Chicago or Eastern Seaboard cities. Planes have been close to 80 percent capacity, a good sign for future prospective overseas flights.

While many Kansas Citians are hopping onto Icelandair to visit other parts of Europe, a good chunk of them are disembarking at Keflavik International Airport to explore Iceland. What they discover is a primeval landscape with otherworldly natural wonders, a land of volcanoes and moss-covered lava fields, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, black beaches and hot springs. It is a unique adventure well worth embarking upon, a place that is at once surprising, invigorating and refreshing. Winter visitors might be treated to the amazing aurora borealis, or northern lights, which appear like brightly-hued ghosts dancing in the sky. Daylight is just about five hours a day. In summer months, it is the Land of the Midnight Sun, with a soft gray twilight descending close to midnight. Total darkness never comes, and the sky begins brightening about 2 a.m.

Iceland is the 16th largest island in the world, with a population just over 323,000, or roughly the same as Des Moines. The majority live in Reykjavik. Icelanders boast one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world, possibly due to the abundance of fresh fish and clean air and water. About 10 percent of the country is covered in glaciers, many of them concealing volcanic mountains. The majority of the arable land is used for grazing and a very small percentage of Icelanders are engaged in agriculture, so much of the food is imported. Because of that, food is very expensive and it’s a good idea to pack some extra snacks in your bag before you leave.

The Adventure Begins

On arriving at the airport, you’ll be funneled through a huge duty-free store. If you plan to drink any wine or spirits during your stay, pick them up there to avoid the high taxes and scarcity of liquor stores in Reykjavik. The selection is large, and the prices are similar to Kansas City’s. Grab a corkscrew if you didn’t bring one along — they are tough to find in Iceland.

Flights from Kansas City arrive as early as 4:30 a.m., so a popular first stop is the Blue Lagoon, a large geothermal pool and spa that is the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland and a 20-minute drive from the airport. Flybus and taxis at the airport can take you there, and all the usual carriers are at car rental counters. Don’t fret about the prospect of driving in Iceland. Same side of the road as the U.S. and easy to navigate; be sure you brush up on manual transmission, since you’ll pay significantly more to rent an automatic. Check your phone as you stand in line to make sure your maps are working. If they’re not, spring for the navigation system. You’ll be glad you did.

The Blue Lagoon is actually a by-product of the nearby geothermal power plant, with pearly water that gets its blue hue from a combination of algae, silica and other minerals. In the summer months, it opens as early as 7 a.m. and is a luxurious way to celebrate the start of your adventure. You’ll be given a waterproof wristband locker key electronically connected to your credit card, so making purchases (a fresh robe, a Bloody Mary, a sandwich) is as easy as swiping your wrist. Pro tip: Have your swimsuit and flip flops in your carry-on bag for easy access. You should be able to enjoy several hours paddling around and decompressing in the sauna or steam room before the larger crowds begin arriving.

Reykjavik is home to three-quarters of Iceland’s population, and is virtually free of pollution and crime —
there is ubiquitous, artful graffiti. Much of the architecture is squat, boxy, and built with corrugated iron siding, maybe not aesthetically pleasing but borne of necessity; wood is scarce and quickly rots in driving wind and rain. For a quick primer on Iceland’s history, visit the National Museum of Iceland to see more than 2,000 artifacts dating from the settlement of the Vikings in 870 to the present. Don’t miss the free National Gallery of Photography on the first floor.

It’s an easy city to navigate. Icelanders are taught English from a young age so there is no language barrier. There’s no need to exchange currency; you could spend a week in Iceland and never see a króna, since virtually every purchase can be completed with a chip-enabled credit card. VISA is the most widely used, and note that some merchants don’t take American Express. Restaurants and coffee shops are plentiful. A few that are noteworthy are Salka Valka Fish & More, which has a fish stew you’ll be dreaming about for weeks, SALT Kitchen & Bar, nestled in the harbor and offering a delicious fresh catch of the day, and Braud, a bakery with delicate pastries and fragrant baguettes.

In the center of Reykjavik is the city’s best-known landmark, Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church named after an Icelandic poet, and at 244 feet, one of the tallest structures in the country. An observation deck at the top gives visitors a wonderful view of the city and surrounding mountains ($8 for a ticket). The statue of explorer Leif Erikson in front of the church was a gift from the United States in honor of the 1930 Althing Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament. There are several dozen registered art galleries in the city and good listings for galleries and exhibitions can be found at Harpa, the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, is a gleaming glass structure on the waterfront and home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera.

But let’s be real. You didn’t travel to Iceland to see the opera. The natural landscape is more compelling and unexpected than any performance, and it’s something you can’t see anywhere else in the world. So go explore it.

The Golden Circle

Acclimate yourself to the prehistoric beauty of Iceland by making a journey around the Golden Circle, which is neither golden nor circular, but the name is catchy, and it’s an easy drive from Reykjavik. There are three major stops here: Pingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament first convened in 930, Iceland’s first national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage site; Geysir, a geothermal hotspot from which the word “geyser” is derived; and Gullfoss, a magnificent waterfall whose name means golden falls. Bus tours abound on the Golden Circle, which is convenient during unexpectedly foul weather, but having a car allows you freedom to meander at your own pace.

Pingvellir has rugged cliffs, many walking trails, a natural amphitheater and the Axe River, where, according to Icelandic folklore, the axe that killed Jóra the troll washed up to determine where parliament would be placed. On the north side of the river is Drekkingarhylur, or Drowning Pool, where 18 women convicted of crimes such as witchcraft and adultery were tied in sacks and held under water. In 2000, a wreath was laid there to atone for the executions. The stories are grim, but the setting is spectacular.

On to Geysir and a large grouping of hot springs, mineral-shaded mud, turquoise pools encrusted with silica, and a very reliable geyser to entertain tourists. Large signs warn visitors that the nearest hospital is many kilometers away and to heed admonitions to stay on paths and avoid being badly burned by the steaming water. Try getting here early, as it quickly becomes crowded with tour buses.

The elegant Gullfoss is the most visited and iconic of Iceland’s 10,000 waterfalls and can be reached in a few minutes from the parking area. Two smaller falls up top lead to a massive curtain of water dropping 69 feet to the gorge below. Well-marked paths give great views above and below; be sure to bring a raincoat, because you’ll need it.

If you’re headed back to Reykjavik, swing by Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths for a satisfying thermal pool soak. It’s a good idea to have swimsuits and flip flops handy wherever you are in Iceland, as there are thermal baths everywhere and they are very tempting after a day of sightseeing. You won’t find tourists at this one, just locals. There are four pools of different temperatures next to an ice-cold lake, with sauna and steam bath. Lounge in the pool, plunge into the lake, then back into the warm pool. Now you’re experiencing Iceland like a real Icelander.

Waterfalls Galore and the Spectacular Diamond Beach

A drive around the fjords north of Reykjavik is a pleasant way to spend a morning, and it’s the best way to experience Iceland’s tallest waterfall, Glymur. A group of volcanic mountain ranges known as Esja offers many well-marked hiking trails and astonishing views of the city and the ocean. At the tip of the peninsula is Iceland’s second-largest city, Akranes, population 66,000. Its first settlers are believed to have been Irish hermits, and it commemorates its founding the second weekend in July with the Irish Days festival. A cozy stop for lunch is Gamla Kaupfelagid Bistro & Bar. The lobster soup is divine; the shaved lamb sandwich celestial. And you’ll want cozy. Even in July the wind off the ocean can be bitter. Drive through the tunnel to get back to Reykjavik but be careful — it’s a speed trap.

A drive along Iceland’s southern coast takes time (the speed limit is never more than 55 miles per hour) but is extremely rewarding. Acres of purple lupine stretch on either side of the road with waterfall-dotted mountains looming behind. Craggy, moss-covered lava fields stretch for acres. The country’s fourth-largest glacier, Myrdalsjokull, is a short distance east of Skógar, and guided tours leave regularly to take visitors to climb on it. Skógafoss waterfall is lovely and right in the village of Skógar, which feels more like an outpost but has been continuously settled since the 12th century. There are several good hotels there, as well as a folk art museum.

The town of Vik is at the southern tip of the coast, quaintly positioned between soaring cliffs and a long, beautiful black sand beach. A row of spiky basalt sea stacks more than 200 feet high serves as a navigational point for sailors. Watch puffins nesting and explore the shallow caves along the coast.

One of the most spectacular sights in Iceland is Jökulsárlón, a lake on the eastern coast filled with icebergs calved from a glacier. The ice takes on crazy shapes and the lake’s clear water magically plays with the light, so they appear to be bright blue. Just 75 years ago the lake did not exist, but warmer temperatures have accelerated the glacier’s retreat. Travel across the highway to the ocean side and see the icy chunks floating out, then pushed back to shore by the waves and thrown up against the black sand beach. They look like sculptures scattered on the sand, glittering in the sunlight, giving the place its name: Diamond Beach.

There are many ways to plan a trip to Iceland. All kinds of tours are available, campers can be rented, some see the country by bicycle. The time of year you travel will have a bearing on activities. Warm layers of clothing are a must at any time of year. But with the easy availability of flights flying directly from Kansas City, there’s really no good reason to delay a trip to this magical place.

Kathleen Leighton

Former television news anchor Kathleen Leighton has written for “The New York Times,” “Newsweek,” “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Wine Enthusiast,” among many other publications. When not pursuing adventures around the globe, she manages Media Relations at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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