REYKJANES PENINSULA, Iceland — The Icelandic Meteorological Office’s warning was quite clear. Its website advised would-be thrill-seekers not to make the three-hour round-trip hike up the Fagradalsfjall volcano because of persistent gale force winds. Nice try Icelandic Meteorological Office. A little breeze was not going to keep me from hiking Fagradalsfjall, which has been regularly erupting since March. It’s the biggest show in town.
But as we neared the top of the volcano around 1 a.m. I thought, “Well, this may not be the smartest thing I’ve ever done.” And this is coming from a man who once broke his arm trying to ride a bicycle while wearing roller skates. We were fighting gale force winds (sustained at 40 to 55 miles per hour and gusting much higher) the entire ascent. I tried to think of the adventure as throwing caution to the gale force wind. I was finally in Iceland again! I was about to see a volcano in action!
As we neared the top of the volcano, my husband, Alex, and I were hanging on to each other to keep from getting blown into the lava field. But there it was. As promised, Fagradalsfjall was spewing fiery lava into the pink sky every 10 minutes or so. The gale force winds kept the smoke away and visibility clear. We spent about an hour looking at it from different vantage points. Sure, I ended up with the worst chapped lips in Iceland, but this felt like an accomplishment in more ways than one. It was an unreal moment.
Iceland opened to vaccinated Americans in May, and within days of hearing the news, I booked a trip. Now much of the European Union is opening to vaccinated Americans as the pandemic wanes, but Iceland was one of the first, and it’s always been special to me. It’s where I wrote my first Globe travel story 20 years ago. It’s where I first saw the Northern lights. When an anesthesiologist put me under for surgery, she said, “Think of your happy place.” I blurted out “Iceland!” in a semi-conscious state.
Before we dive into the rest of the natural wonders, here are the current requirements for entering Iceland. It’s not as easy as flashing your vaccination card and breezing in.
Before departure, you must register your information on a health website. After registration you’ll receive a barcode by email. Once you’ve cleared passport control at Keflavik airport, you’ll reach a checkpoint near the exit where your vaccination card is inspected. Your preregistration barcode is scanned, a sticker is printed and put on a COVID-19 testing kit. You then enter a trailer where a team is ready to give tourists a rapid test. A word of warning: It was the most thorough nasal and throat swab I’ve ever experienced. You then head to your accommodations and wait for your results, which can take up to 24 hours to come back. You’ll receive your results via text message, and when you’re in the clear, you’re good to go. Mine came back in about six hours.
In order to return to the United States, you’ll need another rapid test taken within 72 hours of your departure home. You will not be be allowed onto the plane without that test result. I found that out the hard way, but that’s a story for another windy day.
Although the volcano would have been enough excitement, my main purpose here was to check out another new attraction. In order to steer hordes of tourists away from the popular natural wonders of the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon baths, and Reykjavik nightlife, the Iceland Tourist Board is promoting other areas of the country. One of those areas, referred to as the Diamond Circle, is either a six-hour drive north from the capital city of Reykjavik, or a 40-minute flight from Keflavik to the city of Akureyri. The Diamond Circle is filled with all the beauty of the southern part of the country, minus the tour buses.
On a sunny day, the drive from Reykjavik to the north is like strolling into the most calming computer wallpaper you’ve ever seen. Snowcapped mountains are surrounded by expansive pastures where sheep spend their days grazing and frolicking. Yes, I observed real life frolicking. Sheep far outnumber people in Iceland and June is clearly lamb season, so the cute factor is dialed up to 11. Not so cute was the night I was eating dinner and an adorable lamb came to the window to watch me while I ate … lamb. As if there was any doubt I’m a terrible person, here was the proof. If looks could kill, that lamb would have had me on a stretcher and headed to the hospital.
I’m getting ahead of myself. We opted to drive to the Diamond Circle rather than fly to our base location of Lake Mývatn in order to make a detour to a pair of scenic peninsulas in the north: Skagi and Tröllaskagi. Dramatic cliffs drop into the sea and long expanses of road reveal nothing but horses and more sheep. It’s the variety of authentic, away from the maddening crowd experience, that I think we’re all craving right now.
We stopped for dinner at Kaffi Raudka in the tiny fishing village of Siglufjörður, where I had some of the best Icelandic pizza I’ve ever consumed. Yes, Icelandic pizza is a thing. It’s also better than New York or Chicago style pizza. If you thought Icelandic hotdogs were delicious, wait until you try the pizza. Also, make sure you drizzle the garlic oil over it for the most authentic experience.
Our base camp on the Diamond Circle was the Fosshotel in a town called Mývatn, which is a geothermal wonderland. It sits on Lake Mývatn, which is the fourth largest body of water in Iceland, and is named for an insect called the midge, a mosquito-like pest that swarms in summer. Lake Mývatn has a much better ring to it than Lake Mosquito. Our first official stop, after the volcano hike and the arduous drive, was Mývatn Nature Baths. This is the Blue Lagoon of the north, minus the crowds. It was snowing heavily (mind you, this was mid-June near the Arctic Circle) and we swam up to the bar and ordered wine while we soaked away in the geothermal warmth. If you make the drive to Northern Iceland on a snowy June day, I think the nature baths are ideal.
Despite the snow, we forged ahead. There are key stops to make along the Diamond Circle: the waterfall Goðafoss, the coastal village and Iceland’s whale watching capital Húsavík, the horseshoe shaped canyon Ásbyrgi, the waterfall Dettifoss, plus Lake Mosquito, I mean Lake Mývatn. I recommend taking a little extra time and not rushing through a checklist of places. If you do, you might miss Grjótagjá, the geothermal cave where Jon Snow lost his virginity on “Game of Thrones.”
You might also miss Hverir, a geothermal area at the foothill of Namafjall, which is a plain of colorful sulfurous mud springs, steam vents, cracked mud, and fumaroles. In other words, it looks like the surface of another planet. Sort of like the rest of Iceland.
Dettifoss, in Vatnajökull National Park, is the second-most powerful waterfall in Europe. There are two ways to get to it. One is the way normal people take, and the other is the one my husband insisted that we take. Despite the signs telling motorists not to drive any further on the narrow road, and then a few miles later another sign reading “Impassable, closed.” my husband decided to play the role of Felix Baumgartner and keep driving anyway. As you can imagine, the adventure ended with an SUV stuck in a crater in the road and me saying “I told you so,” repeatedly.
But there’s a happy ending. We made it to the roaring Dettifoss (which I took to calling “dental floss”), along with the less powerful but more scenic Selfoss and Goðafoss. Despite the wind and cold (a recurring theme), they were all rather majestic. They’re probably a little more majestic when your SUV doesn’t go down a closed road and get stuck in a crater.
One of the wonderful things about being in Iceland in June is that it never really gets dark. But this can also work against you when you’re trying to do as many things as possible. One night after dinner we were driving to see more of Mývatn, and we ventured to the inactive Hverfjall volcano. A perfect crater was formed approximately 2,500 years ago in a brief but enormous eruption. A landslide believed to have occurred during the eruption caused the south part of the crater to fall, only slightly spoiling the symmetry of the crater. The volcano rises 1,400 feet.
Even better, there are hiking trails that can take you to the top so you can see the giant crater, and walk the circumference of it. We arrived at Hverfjall around midnight. After a brief discussion we decided we would hike it in the snow and the wind. It was still light, and I’d hate to think we’d miss an opportunity to see it. It was an inspiring view, but after this hike, I decided I might be done with gale force winter mountain climbing for a while.
After a day or so of lousy weather, the skies cleared, allowing us a chance to check out the gorgeous Turf House Museum in Staðarbraut, where you can see how Icelandic farmers lived more than a 1,000 years ago in tiny houses with roofs covered in grass.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in Húsavík, a town best known for whaling that has an insightful whaling museum. I would normally grab a Xanax and a pillow at the words “whaling museum,” but this place held my attention with a full-size skeleton of a massive blue whale. Húsavík is now known as the setting for the Netflix movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.” And if you loved the movie that much, you can also take a guided tour of filming locations in the town.
But between you and me and the lamb that made me feel guilty at dinner, some of my favorite parts of the trip weren’t the destinations themselves, but the scenery and experiences of getting to the destinations. We didn’t see puffins, but we did see just about every other kind of Arctic bird. We were held up by sheep traffic jams, and we stopped along the way to see horses grazing with mountains behind them. I would have been completely happy just meandering and admiring the scenery.
Our last full day on the Diamond Circle, before the six-hour drive back to Reykjavik, we went to the Ásbyrgi Canyon, which is about 50 miles east of Húsavík. It’s a 2-mile horseshoe-shaped canyon surrounded by cliffs that rise more than 300 feet high. In my mind I was thinking a canyon hike required another few layers of long underwear, snow pants, gloves, and a hat. Instead, there was no wind or (relative) cold. The canyon was different from every other place we had visited. We took a few hikes within the park in the thick woodland of birch and willow. We didn’t encounter anyone else on the trail except for some very vocal birds.
It wasn’t like our arduous explorations of the volcanoes and waterfalls. Instead it was an afternoon to stroll, look at a species of plant called Little Friend, and hang out on top of the cliffs and soak in the scenery. At the risk of sounding as sappy as the birch trees in the canyon, it gave me a moment to reflect not only on my continued love affair with Iceland, but also about how thrilled I am that we are slowly getting an opportunity to experience the world once again.