Iceland Dazzles with Natural Beauty

Waterfalls and icebergs by day; search for Northern Lights by night

The naming of Iceland and Greenland, which some think were switched to confuse rivals, happened because, like Ohio, it all depended on the weather when the explorers visited.

Sure, there is ice in Iceland, but not as much as Greenland, which does have some grasslands, but not as much as Iceland.

You might be interested to know that AAA Travel has put together a fabulous tour of Iceland. Here is a just a glimpse of what awaits you on this itinerary.

A visit to Iceland should be on your to-do list for its natural features such as geothermal fields, icebergs, waterfalls and, the showpiece of the trip, the northern lights.

Your tour starts in Reykjavik, the capital city. It is known for its cultural liveliness, modern architecture and exceptional cuisine. A walking tour will get you acquainted with the city as you visit city hall, the harbor and Hallgrímskirkja church, the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures. In front of the church, placed before the church was built, stands a statue of Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson. The figure was a gift from the United States in 1930 in celebration of the country’s 1000th anniversary.

Following a dinner of Icelandic cuisine – which could include smoked lamb, seafood (it is an island, after all), fried pastries and berries – you will embark on your quest to see the aurora borealis, the northern lights. The aurora is caused by particles from the sun interacting with the earth’s atmosphere and letting off energy.

After spending the night in Reykjavik, you will awake to take on the Golden Circle, a 190-mile journey to visit many of Iceland’s famous natural works of art. Thingvellir National Park is where Icelanders first convened in 930 to create the world’s first parliament. Besides its historical aspect, the park has scenic beauty with its rift valley that marks the peak of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Thingvellir was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. Next on the circle are the geothermal fields of Haukadalur, home to the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. While Geysir has been dormant for years, Strokkur erupts regularly, putting on quite the show. Your final stop along the circle will be the Gullfoss, Icelandic for Golden Falls. Along the Hvítá River, it is unique because it is a two-step waterfall with the first step being around 36 feet and the next step being about 69 feet. But the most impressive waterfall is the next stop. Seljalandsfoss, along the Seljalands River, drops 197 feet, but the coolest thing about it is there is a cave that visitors can enter and walk behind the waterfall, making it one of the country’s most visited and photographed locations.

Your journey continues to Vik, where you will have dinner, continue your quest for the aurora borealis (or see them again if you were lucky enough to see them the first night) and retire for the evening.

For the next two days, Vik (officially Vík í Mýrdal, not to be confused with Vik, Norway) will be your home base. Your first visit from here will be to the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano Visitor Centre, home to an ice-cap covered volcano. When it last erupted in 2010, it caused flooding and evacuations in Iceland and the volcanic it spewed into the atmosphere caused airline traffic to come to a halt for more than six days. At the Visitor Centre, you will learn about how a family struggled through this ordeal.

At the Skogar Folk Museum, you will finally get some time indoors as you delve into the history and culture of the Icelandic people. The museum will celebrate its 70th anniversary later this year and had been curated by its founder until 2013. It houses more than 15,000 artifacts covering fishing, agriculture, natural history and furnishing and crafts. The main feature of the fishing section is an eight-oared fishing boat built in 1855 and used until 1946.

Just a minute away from the museum is the largest waterfall in Iceland, Skógafoss. It’s impressive 200-foot falls and 49-foot width has made it popular with visitors and Hollywood. It was featured in scenes in the 2013 version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Marvel Studios’ blockbuster, “Thor: The Dark World.” From there it is off to Reynisfjara, a black-sand beach that has been ranked among the top 10 most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. Neighboring the beach are the natural rock formations of Dyrhólaey and the basalt sea stacks named Reynisdrangar. There are legends about how the stacks came to be, but you can make your determination once you see them. The cliffs of the area are peppered with caves which allows a variety of birds to make their home there. On your visit you might catch a glimpse of black guillemots, fulmars, gannet and razorbills, as well as various seagulls.

After dinner, you will have yet another chance to look for the aurora borealis, which have no set schedule, but the best time of year is from September through March.

Your journey is far from over so make sure you have a hearty breakfast before heading out on a full day. Your first stop will be at the Jökulsárlón glacial lake to see floating icebergs as they break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. As the glacier continues to break off, the lake becomes more prominent and is considered to be one of the deepest lakes in Iceland. This also is a popular filming location as “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Batman Begins” and two James Bond films, “A View to a Kill” and “Die Another Day,” have used this site.

You will then head south to Skaftafell, home to the Vatnajökull National Park, the second-largest national park in Europe and home to Europe’s largest glacier and Iceland’s tallest mountains. The glacier, for which the park is named after, is estimated to be more than 3,000 feet thick in some places, covering peaks, valleys and some active volcanoes.

Following this big day, you will head back for your final night in Vik and more aurora borealis hunting.

As your journey nears the end, you need time to relax and the Blue Lagoon in the Reykjanes Peninsula is the perfect solution. Besides more breathtaking views of the Icelandic landscape, lava fields and hot springs, you will get a chance to take a dip in the geothermal spa, which runs around 100-degrees Fahrenheit and is full of minerals.

And now it’s time to say goodbye with a farewell meal in Reykjavik before your flight home leaves the next morning.
Besides all the scenic landscape and flora and fauna, hopefully, the aurora borealis made an appearance on your odyssey.

John T. Garcia is managing editor of AAA Magazine.

To find out more about AAA’s Iceland’s Magical Northern Lights tour, call your AAA Travel Agent or visit AAA.com/travel.