Iceland: the land of fire and ice
Last month my son and I met at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to begin a five-day trip to Iceland. Even though our flight to Reykjavik was scheduled to depart at 11:15 p.m., we decided to take early morning flights into JFK. Why? We wanted to spend the day together at the new TWA Hotel inside the airport. The terminal that, until 2001, had been TWA’s flight center at JFK has been converted into a sleek, modern hotel. The terminal’s original, white curved roofline that served as an icon for this world-famous airport for more than 40 years has been preserved. Today, JetBlue welcomes passengers in a newly built addition to this grand building. The original space, including two buildings on either side, has been transformed into a full-service hotel. Of course, the TWA Hotel is a favorite for exhausted crew members who wish to avoid NYC traffic between flights, but all passengers at JFK are welcome, too.
We spent the day roaming around in this iconic hotel/museum. It brings to mind the grand old days when TWA was “the king of the hill.” Everything in the hotel is themed to TWA–the check-in counters, the uniforms worn by hotel personnel, the towels at poolside, the menus in the restaurants and cafes, and even the pencils in the 512 guest rooms. There is an imagery departure board, of the pre-digital type, with flashing lights and letters that scramble and unscramble announcing updated flight information. In the courtyard outside the main lobby sits a fully reassembled Lockheed Constellation – TWA’s signature aircraft. This grand old “workhorse” of the TWA fleet is clearly visible through the 486 variously-shaped window panels that form the outer wall of the grand lobby. Facts about the “Connie,” as it is affectionately remembered, and the photos of the famous people who flew it are the central theme of the hotel’s interior.
We had dinner outside on the pool deck and watched flights landing and taking off. As the sun disappeared into a hazy horizon, I reminisced about the many times I had departed for faraway places from this storied terminal at JFK.
Our Delta wide-body aircraft departed on schedule for the nearly six-hour flight to Reykjavik. Due to favorable tailwinds, however, our flight arrived 35 minutes ahead of schedule. Then we set out on a 45-minute drive into the city during which we were introduced to the many landscapes that this Nordic island has to offer. These include the signature volcanic areas, glaciers, black sand beaches and rivers. In the far distance, we caught a glimpse of the plume rising above the Blue Lagoon. I was shocked to see what a gallon of gas costs on this tiny island. In this country where there are no mosquitoes, you must pony up almost $9 for a gallon of gas! Yet, surprisingly, virtually all electricity and heat in Iceland comes from renewable energy sources.
Our hotel was situated along the beautiful waterfront harbor in Reykjavik where Icelanders enjoy walking and bike riding, weather permitting. For the hordes of tourists who have discovered this hidden pearl in the North Atlantic Ocean, the weather is always a factor in trip planning. And Iceland is famous for rapid changes in weather patterns. On the whole, we enjoyed favorable and sometimes even sunny weather during our visit.
On the second day, we went to Reykjavik’s Old Harbor where we boarded a spacious yacht for a 3 ½-hour voyage billed as a “Whale Watching Expedition.” Iceland is regarded as one of the best places for whale watching in Europe – perhaps in the world. So, we were excited to have the opportunity to witness these gigantic creatures going about their natural maneuvers while exhibiting a natural curiosity about humans.
Our ship was one of the larger vessels greeting passengers for the afternoon sailings. We found a seat on the rear deck area and soon the ship edged out from the breakwater into Faxafloi Bay and then out into open waters. While all the passengers were keeping their eyes peeled for whales, it was difficult not to marvel at the views of Reykjavik’s coastline framed by the mountains that rise above it.
After about an hour, the ship slowed and finally stopped along with several other tourist-laden vessels forming a rough circle to watch the various species of playful whales surface and dive back into the deep. It was truly a sight to behold.
The sun broke through the overcast on many occasions during our voyage but did little to address the temperatures resulting from traveling in open waters. The crew was handing out blankets when someone behind me said, “Now I see why it’s called Iceland!”
One of the highlights of our time in Iceland was our visit to Gullfoss Falls. We picked up a rental car and drove about two hours out of Reykjavik. These falls are one of the most amazing sights in all of Iceland. It is fair to say that Gullfoss demonstrates the rugged side of the Icelandic landscape. Before we even got out of the car, we heard the thunder of water cascading down this 575-foot-wide, double-tiered waterfall. Gullfoss Falls dumps up to 500,000 gallons of water per second down 105 feet into the canyon below. Tucked in among the two major drops are several other smaller falls that create the impression of a string of “mini” falls with the larger falls.
As we walked along the pathway toward the falls, the airborne droplets of moisture in the air let us know we were approaching a beautiful phenomenon of nature. Suddenly, Gullfoss’ signature golden-toned mist became clearly visible. The brochure claims that it almost always is! In fact, the beautiful rainbow-like golden mist gave this waterfall its name. “Gullfoss” in the Icelandic language means “Golden Falls.”
To say this place is photogenic as well as glorious and turbulent would be an understatement! These falls never freeze. The giant boulders over which this torrent of water cascades are cloaked in a covering of shimmering ice which reflects the rays of the bright sun in patterns that seemed almost to dance. The glistening waters appeared a brilliant white in the bright Arctic sun.
Just a few miles from Gullfoss Falls is a geothermal area where tourists can witness a geyser erupting every five minutes or so. Iceland is the only country in Europe where you can witness exploding hot springs. There are actually two geysers here. The older one erupts only infrequently these days, but the other is very active. This particular spot is, arguably, the country’s most famous hot spring, shooting vast jets of boiling water up into the air as high as 40 feet. We stopped for no more than 30 minutes, and we witnessed at least five eruptions!
On our last full day in Iceland, we drove around the city of Reykjavik. The streets are well marked, and drivers seem far less aggressive than those who frequent the connector in Atlanta! The streets of the “old town” are narrow, and the quaint shops and buildings reflect a distinctly Scandinavian style of architecture.
We saw the location where Presidents Regan and Gorbachev met in 1986. This meeting led to the end of the Cold War and ultimately to Germany’s reunification. In a small park in front of the house where the meeting took place sits a four-ton piece of the original Berlin Wall. It was a gift to Iceland from the German government to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany that soon followed.
We also visited the Lutheran Cathedral, the parish church in Reykjavik, which is the largest church in Iceland. Its spire rises 244 feet and offers breathtaking views of the city below. Completed in 1986, the church has become an important symbol of Iceland's national identity. Its vaulted interior, graced with beautiful stained glass windows and side wings, features a pipe organ with 5,275 pipes. In the front courtyard of the majestic cathedral stands a statue of Leif Eriksson. The statue was a gift from the U.S. as a tribute to this explorer who is believed to be the first European to arrive on the North American continent. The 50-ton statue depicts Eriksson standing atop a pillar that resembles the bow of a Viking ship that would have been used in the early 11th century.
Next, we drove about one hour from Reykjavik to visit the “Bridge between Two Continents.” There was light rain on the drive out, but the skies suddenly cleared as we arrived at the car park. The island of Iceland is situated over the point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This point is sometimes referred to as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This divide runs north to south. In some locations, you can literally walk right between these massive basalt walls that form a line of separation in the depths of the earth. The Bridge Between Continents is one such place where a simple metal bridge spans this divide.
People often ask: “What continent is Iceland on?” Officially Iceland is in Europe. Geographically, however, as this tiny bridge so beautifully illustrates, Iceland is technically both in Europe and North America. Iceland's closest relations are with the Nordic states – particularly with Denmark – and with the EU as well as the U.S. Iceland has been a member of the U.N. since 1946.
Our last stop before checking in at the airport hotel to await tomorrow’s flight to JFK was at the Blue Lagoon. We arrived there at about 5 p.m. and the parking area was jammed with hundreds of cars and several tour buses. One large banner stood near the welcome center. It read: “Welcome to the Blue Lagoon – Home to one of 25 wonders of the world.” That extraordinary claim aside, the Blue Lagoon is an extremely popular tourist attraction, and over 1.3 million people, from all over the world, visit here annually. It is a place where the powers of geothermal seawater create a spa experience that is unique in all the world. The man-made lagoon is located in a lava field – a location that is favorable for harnessing geothermal power. The water's milky blue shade results from the soft white mud on the bottom of the lake. The warm waters of the lagoon are rich in salts and algae. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area averages 99-102 degrees.
The rich mineral content of the water is provided by several underground geological layers. The water is pushed up to the surface by the hot water that averages over 460 F. In the early 1980s, a person suffering from psoriasis bathed in the water and noted that this experience would alleviate his symptoms. Soon the lagoon was heralded as a “place of healing” and bathing facilities opened in 1987. Subsequent studies carried out in the 1990s confirmed that the water of the lagoon had a beneficial effect on skin diseases such as psoriasis.
After a delicious dinner in the Lava Restaurant that overlooks the lagoon, Mike went for his mandatory shower and spent an hour in these famous waters. He was quite pleased with the chance to experience the Blue Lagoon firsthand. “Nothing ever quite like it,” he said, as we loaded up for the short drive to our airport hotel.
Why are more and more travelers making the journey to this remote, cold and windy island? Because there is simply no other place on earth quite like Iceland! There are so many dramatic and inspiring vistas that range from incredible ice caps to lava fields, from active geysers to waterfalls, from glaciers to mammoth hot springs. Iceland’s intrinsic, natural beauty has not escaped Hollywood’s notice, either. Scores of movies have taken advantage of its unique landscapes. The producers of films such as Batman Begins, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Star Trek: Into Darkness and, most recently, Star Wars – The Force Awakens realized that Iceland offers a background that could never be duplicated on a soundstage in Hollywood! Should you ever have the chance to visit Iceland, by all means, go and see for yourself the incredible story that mother nature has written so beautifully on this tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Watson E. Mills is pastor-emeritus at Sharpsburg Baptist Church and professor-emeritus at Mercer University.