REYKJAVIK, Iceland — We left New Orleans for Iceland in summer, fleeing sweltering days and fears about tropical depressions.
Iceland welcomed us with a sullen sky and chilling, gale-like winds. Talk here was not of hurricanes, but a possible volcanic eruption in someplace called Bardarbunga, easier to pronounce than most Icelandic names. Eyjafjallajokull caused havoc with European flights in 2010. Don’t ask.
As unusual as the names was the lack of something else. Where were the tourist traps?
Iceland offers miles of stark landscape, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers, vineyards, horses, even miniature row houses for elves (squeeze your eyes shut and say, “I believe!”). There are geothermal waters, the most famous the Blue Lagoon, where one freezing afternoon we floated and bounced in a meandering outdoor swimming pool with steam clouds obscuring our vision.
Like most visitors, I took the popular “Golden Circle” tour, which includes a geyser, the massive Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park, where tectonic plates are separating and Iceland’s governmental history started. At each site, food and souvenirs are confined to a single building. Amazing.
We consulted cheat sheets to calculate exchange rates. Figuring out extended family connections also was puzzling since Icelanders use patronymics — a father’s (or more recently a mother’s) first name becomes a child’s last name, ending with “son” or “dottir,” depending on the sex.
There’s a youthful, healthy-living vibe among Iceland’s 321,000 residents populating Europe’s most sparsely populated country. In the North Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle, the island nation once was owned by Norway and Denmark, and the Scandinavian influence still shows up in Reykjavik’s architecture and shops. The acclaimed Harpa waterfront convention center has spectacular views inside and out. Cafes and beer pubs abound.
A dozen of us shared a dinner of small plates downtown at Forrettabarinn, a minimalist restaurant, trying not to shudder at the menu’s listing of filet of horse “Bearnaise,” but pleased with the mussels, salmon, coq au vin and duck breast on beet root.
Reykjavik was a delight, but I wanted to see more. So my husband, Keith, and I picked up a rental car on a (finally) sunny day, with temperatures in the 50s.
“Should we take the GPS inside the hotel at night?” I asked the agent. “I think maybe two have been stolen in the last year or so,” he said, chuckling. “That doesn’t happen much.”
The Ring Road encircles Iceland, which is the size of Kentucky. How hard could it be? We had a simple map marking Icelandair hotels for overnights in Vik in the southwest and Keflavik near the airport. Tourist literature was basic; the newest guide I found in Reykjavik was eight years old (note: buy one before leaving home).
Cars in front of us turned left. So did we. One lure was a graceful waterfall, sun filtering through its steady shower. A little farther along, we ended up at a fence of what looked like a farm. Sheep baa-ing. Green hills.
A sign back on the main road pointed toward a glacier that is calving, meaning it’s breaking apart, melting like glaciers around the world. You used to be able to walk on it. No more; it was closed in 2014. We sipped coffee instead in a little diner that is now much closer to the glacier than it was just a few years ago.
We drove on, the ocean on our right, passing flat land covered by moss and wheat-colored grass. The sky was so gray, it looked as if it had been smudged with a giant thumb to blend into the faded grass.
I wanted to see Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, where day cruises zigzag among icebergs. Two early James Bond movies and “Batman Begins” were shot here, the latter pretending the area was in the Himalayas.
There’s only the single road, but we couldn’t figure out where we were. Towns were scarce. A sign pointed to Hof 1 Hotel. I asked the desk clerk in the cozy inn, “Where are we?” Nowhere near where we thought. The Glacier Lagoon was another 90 minutes.
We turned around, heading back to Vik, and a pizza place across from our modern hotel, where visitors had seen Northern Lights the previous night, a dream of mine still unfulfilled.
Our final day, we drove a long stretch on the Reykjanes Peninsula, south of Reykjavik. It was stark moonscape scenery, hardened lava, more moss, few cars. After miles of emptiness, there was a sign advertising a coffee house — Kaffihus — in a brown chalet.
A woman who had been sitting with two friends got up to hand us menus. There was no common language. Soup, bread and coffee were the only things we recognized, so we pointed, and she nodded and smiled.
We were eating a light cream soup with French bread when a middle-aged Icelandic man came inside with several foreign students, greeted the woman and stopped to speak to us. “Try the pancake with whipped cream and jelly,” he said.
Is this what everyone gets? I asked. “It is if they order it,” he said. Delicious.
Our new friend said the few cars outside were heading to Strandarkirkja, a nearby church, which he said has more donors than any in Iceland. Believers say that church prayers since 1397 have protected sailors from the rough seas, and even though there have been many church buildings there over the centuries, all have had “the power of protection” from many things.
“You promise that if your prayers are answered, you’ll send a donation,” he said.
My hands felt frozen when we parked by the Strandarkirkja, the white wood church overlooking a surly sea and a cemetery. Birds circled, making high-pitched sounds. We were alone inside the jewel of a chapel, five pews with a central aisle, a Madonna, and walls painted in salmon, royal blue and white. We lingered, embracing the silence.
Nearer to the airport, behind a lighthouse, we followed a narrow road ending with views of several island rocks jutting up from the ocean. On another road, we smelled sulphur, and following more cars, discovered hot steam rising from a clay pit. The earth had been used for making pots. I think.
Truth is, I couldn’t tell you where we were. But It didn’t really matter. Iceland is like this, one discovery after another, uncluttered by trappings of tourism. Exploring it is an adventure. Go.