Gullfoss is a common stop for tourists along Iceland's famed Golden Circle. The falls are part of Hvítá River. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
First stop: Iceland
Known for: Natural soaking tubs, Viking lore, fermented fish, Björk, an affinity for elves
Must see: Blue Lagoon
Must eat: Hakari (fermented shark) or sheep’s head from the BSI bus station cafeteria
Souvenir: Piece of volcanic lava or ash, or Icelandic woolens
Neither one of us mentioned the S-word. We had only 24 hours in Reykjavik; we could sleep on the morning flight to Stockholm.
On the island, Jabin and I moved like the Icelandic wind that could seemingly push the Nordic country closer to Greenland. About an hour after arriving on the red-eye, a nearly six-hour flight from Dulles, we were bouncing along toward the Golden Circle, the nearly 200-mile loop that bubbles, spews and sprays with geologic features. The route provides layover lubbers like us with an alternative to the 830-mile Ring Road, which demands at least a week of your devotion.
With foggy heads and clear skies, we hiked down to the first attraction on the route, Kerio, a volcanic crater lake that is a mere baby at 3,000 years old. The gravely path down to the caldera felt like shifting coffee grinds underfoot. I fell more on that short walk than I had over the past two winters. Fortunately, the landing was soft and silly. I also wasn’t the only tumbler in the crowd. A mom created a human chain with her young son, who eventually lost to gravity. Thankfully, the sliding stopped just shy of the shore; one false step into the icy water and you’re an instant Popsicle.
Kerio is a volcanic crater lake that is a must-see in southern Iceland. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
At Gullfoss, or Golden Waterfall, the water thundered down the Hvitá River gorge, releasing frothy white plumes high into the air. In the distance, the mountains wore snowy stoles around their shoulders. The wind started to kick up, and I had to resist invisible hands pushing against me. The force grew even stronger at Geysir Hot Springs, a site gurgling with geothermal activity. On the short stroll to Strokkur, which puffs steam every four to eight minutes, my headscarf blew around like a kite and my mitten flew into a rivulet near a boiling hot pot. I knew that I had to take immediate action; I couldn’t wait till the shops in the capital.
I disappeared inside the store across the street and, a few minutes later, returned to the field in my new armor, an Icelandic wool hat. You see, sometimes a souvenir is more than a keepsake; it’s a tool of survival.
We completed the Circle by mid-afternoon and scooted into Reykjavik for a one-two punch of diversions. We rode the elevator to the observation deck of the 244-foot-tall Hallgrímskirkja Church and stood on stools to peer at the colorful buildings cascading toward the sea and keeping a polite distance from the steely mountains. Afterward, by the harbor, Jabin stood in line at the food stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, whose name translates to “the best hot dog in town.” When his turn arrived, Jabin, who had trained for this moment, ordered a hot dog with everything (onions, sweet mustard, remoulade sauce) and a Coke. An employee dressed his dog and placed it in a narrow wooden holder on the counter for pick-up.
“I can taste the lamb,” Jabin said as he parsed the medley of proteins.
On our 12th hour in Iceland, we finally arrived at one of the country’s most popular attractions, the Blue Lagoon. (For proof, count the buses and American accents.) Guests of the geothermal spa follow a ritual that includes a pre-soak shower and the slathering of conditioner on one’s hair, to protect locks from drying out. Once in the pool, which steamed like a witch’s cauldron, Jabin and I swam-walked to the bar, where he ordered a cider and I re-energized with a blend of orange juice, carrots and ginger. After dawdling in a particularly hot spot, we wandered over to the facial bar and scooped white silica mud out of bowls. I spread the goop over my face as if I were making a fluff sandwich. An employee advised us to leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes; I kept it on for twice as long, embracing the mime look.
We later returned to the little hut for a second treatment, an algae mask. A staff member told us to wash it off after 10 minutes. I turned my greenish face toward a less-inhabited cove. By the lava rocks, I searched for a quiet place. I had many more hours before I could S, so the least I could do was grab a few minutes of R&R.