The tour was billed as Iceland – Land of Fire and Ice. I had never booked an organized commercial tour, but I wanted to travel with my twelve-year-old grandson, Clark. Road Scholar offered a grandparent/grandchild six-day tour of Iceland. The activities appeared structured for us both to enjoy despite the sixty-year difference in our ages. Afterwards, we both agreed – it was a blast.
Volcanoes are not limited to colder latitudes but their juxtaposition with one of the larger glaciers in the world makes Iceland a country of contrasts. Leaving the airport at Reykjavik, a former U.S. Navy air station, we were surrounded by dark volcanic rock, a barren uninviting landscape. We passed a Volcanic hill, Litli Hrutur, quiet for the moment, but one that would cause disturbances throughout our trip, including 4.3 tremors, and erupt the day after our departure.
We cruised through greener pastures watered by Iceland’s many streams and rivers, bypassing downtown Reykjavik, disappearing into the impressive Hvalfjorour three-mile underwater tunnel built in 1998 five hundred feet below the surface. We soon reappeared close to Borgarnes, a small-town of 2000 inhabitants. Its sleepy appearance belied the treasures that were within easy driving distance of our hotel there.
Two activities stood out as unique or special to Iceland – walking through an ice cave and riding the famous Iceland horses.
To reach the Langjokul (long) glacier, hosting the longest man-made ice cave in the world, required a few miles of dirt road off the main highway. At a small transfer station, we exited our bus, donned waterproof coats, pants and shoes and climbed aboard an 8×8 truck, formerly a NATO missile launcher, for the drive to the cave opening.
Eighty feet of snow and ice lay above the ice cave with 650 feet below. Inside, crampons were required to explore. Scientists, geologists, and engineers were all involved in carving out the cave.
It even included a chapel for marriages and proposals (49 said yes and 1 declined). Since we were exploring on July 4th, the mainly American group sang Happy Birthday to our country in the chapel making it a memorable holiday.
An unexpected crevasse had opened as the cave was being carved out, much to the delight of the workers. It originally broke the surface of the glacier but had been filled in at the top by recent snows. Purple lighting gave an eerie feel of other worldliness as the crevasse hole disappeared into darkness. The guide emphasized the cave we saw that day would not be the cave of the next year or the next, as the glacier filled in some parts of the cave tunnels each year and had to be carved out again. If left alone, it would fill in six years.
Horseback riding on the beautiful Icelandic horses, sometimes called ponies, had also drawn us to the tour. At the Olvaldssatadir farm, a large stable held 30 or more horses. A no-nonsense stable master directed us to horses to fit our size and horse-riding experience. We rode English style, meaning there was no horn on the saddle to help pull our bodies up and over, a distinct disadvantage. And, to direct our horse, we would pull back on the right reign to go right and the left to go left. We were instructed NOT to hold the reigns together and direct from there as we do in Western riding. It took some getting used to. I know I confused my horse more than once.
Icelandic horses are a breed, the only breed allowed in Iceland. No other horses can be imported and once an Icelandic horse is taken out of the country, it cannot return. It’s also known for having five gaits instead of the traditional three that are walk, trot and gallop. The Icelandic tolt gait is considered smooth and comfortable. One of the tour participants exclaimed afterwards that she experienced the Icelandic tolt and how wonderful it was. I couldn’t say whether I had that experience since my horse’s gaits felt like ordinary trots or walks.
Riding to the Hvita River with mountains in the background under a cool overcast sky was a gentle, soothing experience. We rode in a trail ride line or at least were supposed to. My grandson started at the back. His horse was having none of that and by the end of the ride he was up front with me. Clark admitted, “I had no control.” The sure-footed nature of these horses was important as we rode in the river around an outcrop of rocks. All sped up as we approached the stables, ending as most trail rides do – horses chomping hay happily in their pens and riders walking unsteadily away.