Our Icelandic Saga

We were somewhere on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula on the edge of the glacier when the drugs began to take hold.

I’m talking about the ibuprofen, obviously. Driving around Iceland in a rented Dacia Duster can be hell on the lumbar. Still, the angle of the Arctic sun on the windshield and the sheer magnitude of the landscape—snow-capped peaks rising like myths out of the mist, waterfalls cascading down rock faces taller than skyscrapers, lava fields tapestried with moss and lichen in varying shades of electric green—it all seemed to be producing an hallucinogenic effect on my husband, who kept screaming “Oh my god, look at the colors!” 

Clearly, whatever fear and loathing he had about international travel or my ability to pilot a six-speed Romanian SUV through the alpine tundra had been left far behind. 

We had flown from Savannah to JFK and out on the red eye four days before, landing at the Keflavik airport at 8am. This happened to be the dawn of my 50th birthday, and as I stepped into the pale sunlight to breathe the sharp, dry air, I experienced the glorious encounter I came here for—to finally feel chilly for the first time since the muggy, buggy Southern summer began last May. Digging through my bag for my collapsible puffer coat, I giggled with glee as we sailed through Iceland’s wondrously efficient customs entry. 

The original plan for this big birthday involved New Orleans, where I’ve never been—yes, I know, a total embarrassment, how do I even call myself a Southerner? When that was delayed by Hurricane Ida, my inner perimenopausal temperatures suggested a frosty pivot, and we lucked into plane tickets a few dollars cheaper than the NOLA flights we’d been eyeing. (Flight costs have completely flipped since, and hopefully we’ll be laissez-ing les bon temps rouler next spring.)

Our first stop in the Land of Fire and Ice was the Blue Lagoon, the wondrous phenomenon of warm, milky blue seawater rich with silica, algae, and minerals accessed by the nearby Svartsengi geothermal plant, one of five such renewable resource sites that power the country. The lagoon is only 20 minutes from the airport and Iceland’s No. 1 tourist destination, but we were tucked away from the madding crowds at The Retreat, an incredible gift from my brother and sister-in-law, Ara and Iris Feinstein (what can I say, I’m a very good sister.)

After an entire day of soaking in the pools and exploring the elegant concrete-metal-rock aesthetic and quiet sanctuaries flickering with fireplaces, we rinsed the salt from our hair to dress up for Moss, the spa’s Michelin-star restaurant I’d once salivated over on the Travel Channel and placed on the “extremely unlikely” section of my bucket list. I kept trying to pinch myself to make sure it was all real, except my fingers were still too wrinkly from the water.

Before our reservation, we stopped into the “library,” a cozy room full of leather chairs and liquor bottles where guests are invited to pour their own libations. I mixed the cocktails while Mark struck up a conversation (as he is wont, with literally anyone) with a multi-generational group of gruff men with tremendous moustaches drinking expensive whiskey. Turns out they were Russians here to hunt geese and whales, which I found terrifying. Naturally, Mark Lebos settled right in to discuss the fishing in Savannah. 

Sharre-man’s March to the Sea,” rumbled the oldest one, demonstrating his knowledge of global war history with an oligarchical air. Yipes. I dragged Mark out by his elbow to dinner before they decided to invite him along on their expedition. 

And what a repast it was! Seven sublimely presented courses, including a single buttery scallop on its own shell, a four-bite seared rectangle of tender local lamb, and hothouse San Marzano tomatoes with fresh burrata accompanied by tomato “snow” and a glass of tomato essence that tasted like a crystal clear Bloody Mary martini. We skipped the wine pairings, as at this point we had been awake for 36 hours and I didn’t want to fall face first into the Wagyu beef. I blew out a candle on a tiny rose gold cake, marking a 50th birthday that surpassed my wildest dreams.

Four hours later, we stumbled back past by the library, where the Russians were still holding court, the blue label whiskey almost empty. “Nightcap, come on, we have another bottle!” they growled at us as I hustled Mark back to our room. 

The next day we lolled in the lagoon for as long as we could until it was time to retrieve the Duster and head to Reykjavik, Iceland’s biggest city, pop. 122,823 (about 20K less than Savannah; there are less than 350,000 citizens in the entire country.) Considered “just a town” until the 1980s, this historic farming outpost radiates with high design and a thrumming modern vibe—though adorable Scandinavian flourishes abound in the cottages and landmarks, as if IKEA designed Hogsmeade, or maybe a Volvo married an elf and had a sleek, expensive-looking baby.  

Such comparisons don’t really jibe, since Iceland’s identity is wholly unique from its Scandinavian cousins. Settled around 800 AD by Nordic Vikings and their enslaved Celtic wives, the island has no known prehistoric inhabitants (unlike neighboring Greenland.) Their descendants rally from resilient, sexy blond stock that has survived famine, disease, tapeworms, deadass Arctic winters, mini ice ages, and more recently, volcanic eruptions and economic meltdowns. Along with the fascinating medieval historical accounts known as the Sagas, Icelanders proudly celebrate their national and personal histories, with one in 10 citizens publishing a book in their lifetimes. 

Because of its isolation in the North Atlantic, the language evolved separately into a melodic poetry that I fear I will never be able to pronounce. We did learn the word for good-bye is “bless,” which gives extra snark to our Southern expression “bless your heart.” However, while we rubes finally stopped calling Snaefellsnes “Snufalupagus,” Grindavik will forever be “Grundlefuck.”

Fortunately for us, everyone in Iceland speaks English—and seems perfectly happy about it, unlike in other parts of Europe (looking at you, mean train lady in Marseille.) Icelandic culture has been highly influenced by the U.S., due to the presence of American G.I.s during WWII, and while there’s an awesome indie music scene, every lobby and radio station bops with a well-curated playlist of Top 40 classics spanning three generations. 

The whole milieu felt like a Eurovision video seen through a Midwestern 1950s lens, maybe because I came out of the bathroom at the Lebowski Bar (yes, dude, that Lebowski) to a packed dance floor of young Icelanders singing along to “You’re the One That I Want” completely without irony. Ooh ooh ooh, honey!

Mark was miffed that the Reykjavik hotel I’d booked through my favorite discount travel app was outside the city center, but he changed his tune when he realized we had a view of Laugardalsvöllur soccer stadium from our room. A kind cab driver helped us procure tickets, and on our second night we found ourselves bundled up in the ninth row of the Iceland vs. Armenia European qualifier match—an exciting coup, since we have been Icelandic footbol fans since witnessing this athletic underdog dramatically beat Austria in the Eurocup semifinals during our last (and first) trip overseas to France in 2016. 

Amidst the mighty thunderclap cheer of the home team, we noticed people coming up to the gentleman in front of us, asking for his autograph. A few whispers to the Danes behind us revealed that this was none other than Gudmunder Benediktsson, also known as “Gummi Ben,” the beloved Icelandic sports commentator and former sports star who went viral with his over-the-top reaction after that epic 2016 match.

Mark shook his hand heartily and flashed his phone screen, which is a photo of us at that game with Icelandic flags on the kids’ faces. Gummi Ben clapped him on the shoulder and introduced us to his daughters and it was the most fabulous fanfamily moment until who should waltz up to the front row but the Russian oligarchs. Middle-aged mustache raised his fist. “Sherman! Nightcap!” Mark waved excitedly but I pulled him away by his puffer before he started asking if they caught any whales. 

Other highlights of our rainy day in Reykjavik included the breathtaking Hallgrimskirja church, cool street art, delicious bowls of hearty lamb soup, and the Icelandic Phallological Museum, where we snickered at sperm whale penises and learned that male giraffes determine the viability of a mate by tasting her urine. 

Everyone we interacted with exuded an air of upbeat bemusement, characteristic of the national motto Thetta reddast, which translates into “it’ll all work out just fine.” It’s a brave—and even Icelanders admit—perhaps naive way to approach life, but I found it a refreshing escape from the sarcastic, cynical doomscroll that seems to have become the American way.

“How we react to things beyond our control is a good test of character,” writes Icelandic marketing manager Eva Eriksdottir (all women’s last names end in “dottir” and men’s in “son”—quite the egalitarian society, ja?)

“Yes, this is a scary and overwhelming time here in Iceland as it is around the world. Iceland is a place with constant uncertainty with the threats of erupting volcanoes, avalanches, unpredictable weather and an uncertain currency. There is no use in allowing things, even very serious things, to upset you. Today, like always, you have to be able to carry on.” 

This struck me as wise and relevant not only as a life philosophy but as an immediate strategy for the rest of our trip, for which we had no actual concrete plans. Theta reddast and full speed ahead! 

Armed with a full tank of diesel and half bottle of Advil, Mark and I decided to set off around The Golden Circle, a 186-mile drive encompassing three of Iceland’s iconic sites: Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland’s nascent government first convened in 930 AD and you can stand between the tectonic plates of Europe and North America; Geysir Geothermal Area, a splashy hot spectacle that is the origin of our word “geyser”; and Gulfoss Waterfall, a two-level roaring cascade on the edge of Iceland’s mountainous, uninhabited interior.

This popular route wasn’t terribly packed with tourists, though running several times into the same group of young women from New Jersey yapping about their weddings had us hankering for some off-the-beaten path adventure. Mark had heard of another stupendous site, Bruarfoss, aka “The Bluest Waterfall,” that could once be found by a short path on private property but now requires a 4.4-mile round-trip walk in the interests of protecting its beauty.

We arrived at the small parking lot just as the rain started, though with our woolen underthings and raingear we didn’t feel cold. An American couple was emerging from the bushes as we zipped up; they had turned back because of the conditions, but we decided we’d see how far we could go. About a mile up we ran into a European couple coming back—I didn’t ask which country, but the woman who responded to Mark’s Southern-tinged “Didj’y’all make it?” had a clipped accent:

“Yes, we completed the trail. It is muddy and complicated.”

This only solidified our pursuit. “Muddy and complicated? That’s the motto of our marriage!” growled Mark, charging forward with all the ferocity of a Viking Berserker, or perhaps, a Russian whale hunter. 

“Yeah!” I hollered. “Iceland’s got nothing on Tybee marsh mud! Thetta reddast!” 

Thirty minutes later, up to our knees in muck and our hands scratched from climbing through gnarled shrubs with rain shooting sideways, I realized this may have been more than I signed up for, but when you’ve been married to a berserker as long as I have, you just keep on keeping on. 

Finally, the rain calmed and we came upon a jaw-dropping, spectacularly blue waterfall. But this was only the lead-up—we continued along the river past another “midfoss” for another half mile and climbed a steep, slippery section. At the top, burbling in all its aquamarine glory was Bruarfoss. Other than a pair of friendly Chicagoans who snapped our picture, we enjoyed this astounding sight in complete solitude. 

A couple of hours later as we were warming our bones in the black-bottomed bathing pool at The Secret Lagoon, the preciousness and privilege of the experience brought me to tears. Not only for the ability to travel here, but to feel the spray of pure, glacial water, untreated and untouched, an essential yet increasingly rare element that so many on our beleaguered planet will never know. In Iceland, the perfection of nature still rules, and its people protect and respect it—another rarity of life on Earth. 

Throughout the literally breathtaking landscape dotted with fat sheep trundling through the yellow fields and herds of Icelandic horses with their cute haircuts and delicate nostrils, we saw zero billboards and a total of maybe five pieces of garbage—and two were from a packet of fish jerky I bought at a gas station thinking they were like the delicious crispy fish skins we enjoyed at Moss. They were not. Do not recommend. 

Same goes for the famous fermented shark. The next day we began traversing the Snufalup—er, Snaefellnes Peninsula and stopped in at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum, where this traditional Icelandic “delicacy” has been prepared by the same family for six generations—far, far away from any other populated place on account of the smell. Our charming museum guide led us through the process of how 400 year-old Greenland sharks—poisonous to eat when they’re fresh—are first buried, then left to cure from rafters for several months until the meat chunks form a nice rotted crust. 

“It was someone very hungry who first discovered this,” informed the guide with a smile. 

We were offered small samples with a piece of rye bread: The texture was chewy but not unpleasant; however, once the ammonia hit the olfactory system, it was very much like eating a corner of a dirty sponge soaked in Windex. We both tried it without the bread on the second round just to prove our culinary courage, then agreed that we probably didn’t need to bring any home. It made us feel better that Anthony Bourdain didn’t like it, either

The museum itself was definitely worthwhile with its historic presentation of rural Icelandic life and artful displays of ancient fishing tools, though I gently pushed Mark out the door before he asked to borrow any in case we caught up with the Russians.

That evening we celebrated our 23rd anniversary in the tiny fishing village of Grundarfjordur, the ringed majesty of Kirkjufell mountain towering above us from every angle. I’d seen a photo of this distinctive peak at some point in my childhood, and along with witnessing the aurora borealis, placed on the proverbial bucket list, though I was too young to even have one back then. I just knew it astounded me to know that such a place existed, with its perfectly circular ridges as if sculpted by some gentle, giant hand. 

As for the aurora, we just couldn’t get our hopes up with the mercurial weather. While Iceland’s October skies yield enough darkness, the rainy season often obscures them, and the clouds had been scooching in and out all day. After we finished up our exquisite meal of redfish and bluefish (yes, we recited Dr. Suess to our server, to her polite Icelander bemusement) at Bjargarsteinn—blessings to a town this small that supports a restaurant this marvelous—we had planned to suit up and drive around the mountain to see if we could find “the lights,” as everyone calls them. 

There was no need. As we stepped away from the restaurant’s lit porch, we saw that the lights had come to us: Green ribbons danced around Kirkjufell’s crown, stars twinkling above and below the dozens of streaks. The sight made us the happiest berserkers in all the land, laughing and hugging as we celebrated our muddy and complicated union under the swirling skies. 

As a child, I could not have imagined the tremendous fortune I would have in my life. Dancing with my beloved in one of the planet’s purest places under the glow of its mysterious, magical beauty filled my soul to its brim and beyond. Even now as I write this, my heart swells and my eyes overflow, and I know the memory will nourish me for the rest of my days.

You’d think after that the last two days of the trip would be anti-climatic, but no; it was just one long sight-seeing orgasm. We rounded out the rest of the peninsula with a climb on the snaking iron stairs of Saxholl Crater, the white caps of Snaefellsjokull glacier presiding above. We trekked down to Djupalonssandur Black Sand Beach, covered with lava “pearls'' smoothed by the wild waves of the Arctic seas, then crossed the peat moor to look for an ancient labyrinth we glimpsed on the sign in the parking lot. While there was absolutely no directions (by design, I’m sure), we gleaned that it was between the rock formation known as the “Elf Church” and Dritvik, the 16th-century fishing outpost where prospective fisherman had to be able to wield a series of “lifting stones” before they were allowed to work. (Let it be known that the owner of Strong Gym completed the task.)

If “muddy and complicated” is the motto of our marriage, then “running out of daylight” is our mission—our first date involved getting lost on Mount Tamalpais after sunset, and we’ve been racing out of rapidly-darkening remote places ever since. After an hour of traipsing across the cliffs in the waning afternoon, we decided that while we could probably spend the night in one of the old stone fishing huts along the trail, we would really like a bowl of lamb soup. We were about to give up the quest when Mark spotted a trail leading off into the lava stones. Hidden by a lip in the hill, the stone labyrinth lay in the scrubby grass, built by some nameless fisherman centuries before. I tried to imagine how reverent that person must have been as we walked the maze in meditative silence, carefully placing back stones that had come loose over time. 

We finished out the drive passing monuments to other intrepid Icelanders: Ari the Wise, the 12th-century chieftain and scribe who penned the first of the Sagas, and feminist explorer Gudridur Thorbjardottir, who around 1000 AD became the first European woman to set foot in North America and after converting to Christianity, made the pilgrimage from Greenland to Rome to meet the pope. 

Exhausted and out of gas, we dined at the Fjorukrain Restaurant at Viking Village in Hafnarfjordur, a woodhewn wonderland where servers dress in furs and horns in the summer season. Such kitsch was not on display for us, though we enjoyed roaming the empty rooms pretending we lived there. 

The South Coast beckoned with more massive glaciers, black beaches and an active volcano, but we forewent such a long drive in bad weather for our last day. Instead, we took an hour’s hike through a steaming geothermal valley to the Reykjadalur Thermal River, where we lazed for hours under a soft rain. We didn’t see our Russians, though we enjoyed conversations with other adventurous types from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and Brazil, all of whom agreed that Iceland was the most extraordinary place they’d ever visited. 

Those who have been, how could you not concur? The kaleidoscopic palette of blues and greens and black and yellow, the waterfalls flowing purity at every turn? The mountains jutting towards the heavens, reminders that the Earth was formed by violent and tremendous forces and continues to push itself from the inside out regardless of human error and endeavor?

Most of all, the silence: Though our phones continued to ping, the noise was dwarfed by all that space, and the rest of the world felt very, very far away. All by itself in the frigid North Atlantic, Iceland remains a place unsullied by pollution, overcrowding, war, greed. But how long can it resist the pull of scaled trade, of ten more packed flights a day, of tourists on four-wheelers zooming across the precious lava pearls?

I worry for Iceland, that its bemused welcoming of the world will lead to its despoilment. As someone who lives in a beautiful place that people visit and trash Airbnbs that were once family homes and leave plastic cups and penis tiaras all over the place, I want Iceland to be more rigid, less relaxed, harder to get to. 

But maybe my fears are unfounded. The other side of thetta reddast is being empowered over things within one’s control, and Iceland has been aggressive in its climate change policy and environmental protections. New tourism infrastructure is being met with a longview, and seasoned journeyers continue to advocate for responsible travel. Perhaps Iceland, once a remote outpost full of jolly folks with wicked skills, will show the rest of the world what it means to have boundaries without zealotry, how to repel quick dollars for economic endurance, how to remain pure in the face of global devastation. 

In any case, I hope that I find Iceland unchanged the next time we visit—and there will be a next time, even if we have to hitch a ride with the Russian oligarchs. 

Keep cool and carry on ~ JLL 

**No photos since they exceeded the data limit—posting them on Instagram, more coming for subscribers only!

A few notes for the potential traveler:

Food: We were warned many times that eating out in Iceland is astronomically expensive. Including the fine dining, we found the prices to be on par with downtown Savannah—a burger is $18-20, except in Iceland it arrives hot. Farmed lamb and coldwater fish are native staples, prepared with classic French technique. Almost every restaurant has a version of lamb stew, and it’s always good. Tipping isn’t a thing, yet service was perfect. Skip the fish jerky at the gas station, but the salted licorice by the cash register is surprisingly compelling. 

Driving: Other than stoplights in Reykjavik that conveniently flash before they’re about to change, most roads are two lanes with roundabouts rather than intersections. The speed limit is 90km/hr on the highways, which the Duster loved. All in all, far less treacherous than trying to get home on I-16 at rush hour. 

COVID protocols: We had to present our vaccine cards and negative PCR tests (taken less than 72 hours before arrival) at check-in at the Savannah airport. Before coming home, we were required to get free rapid PCR tests at one of two easy-to-find locations in Reykjavik. We were in and out in ten minutes and they emailed the results within the hour.

Hotels: Other than the Retreat, which cost almost as much as our monthly mortgage, I found places to stay on Priceline at the last minute for $89-$110 per night.  

Guide: We used Rick Steves’ Guide to Iceland for almost the entire trip, though we found out about Bruarfoss and the thermal river from talking to other folks. I also found the local bloggers and travel tips on GuideToIceland.is invaluable.