Worlds Away: Iceland’s Mysterious Beauty

Editor’s note: In our March/April issue, we brought you a glimpse of Iceland in winter: a period when wide-ranging road travel is not possible. Tom and Betsy Schifanella chose to go to Iceland in the shoulder season – mid-September to mid-October. Driving the entire Ring Road around the island over a period of three weeks, they discovered remote locations that are rarely seen by tourists. Betsy kept a daily blog and Tom captured their adventures in his stunning images. 

Photo by Tom Schifanella

Tom and I have chosen to go to Iceland in the shoulder season, when the temperatures average from a low of 40° F (4° C) to a high of 50° F (10° C).

We also want to avoid the summer tourists. Iceland is slightly smaller than the state of Kentucky with a population of less than 333,000, sparsely populated to say the least. But in 2016, 1.3 million tourists visited Iceland – four times the population. Most of the tourism is centered around the Golden Circle, with as few as ten percent of tourists making it to Iceland’s northwest and northeast regions. Following the Ring Road around the perimeter of Iceland, we will veer off to reach some of these less traveled regions. Finally, we hope to see the northern lights, which frequently display their brilliant colors between mid-September and mid-April.

Florida and Iceland are worlds apart in climate, geology and cultural history, the first two very much shaping the last. The harsh climate on this windswept island with volcanos, geysers and continental riffs, lends itself to Norse mythology, fearless Vikings, and revenge-filled Icelandic sagas.


Photograph by Tom Schifanella / National Geographic Your Shot
Icelandic glaciers disappearing fast
Our Icelandic guide, Hanna Pètursdóttir, admiring and ice cave we hiked to inside the Svínafellsjökull Glacier. Hanna has observed this ice cave for several seasons and she noted that it is rapidly expanding due to the effects of global warming. Since 2000, Icelandic glaciers have lost 12 percent of their size, in less than 15 years.
Tom submitted the photograph above to National Geographic for a story they were producing on climate change. His was one of twenty-five chosen for the story from about five thousand submissions. The twenty-five photos were also exhibited at the Conference of the Parties Climate Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco, and the story was picked up by The Washington Post, CNN, Newshub, and Mashable.

Searching for Iceland’s iconic natural beauty and its amazing light, we choose to take the Ring Road clockwise toward West Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Dominated by the Snaefellsjökull icecap and glacier, this area features in the opening of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth: “Descend into the crater of Snaefells … before the kalends of July, audacious traveler, and you will reach the center of the earth. I did it.”

The Hellnar Hotel is the perfect home base from which to explore the peninsula. Starting just behind the hotel, the coastal walk to Arnarstapi is simply stunning. The moss

Grjótagjá, John Snow’s love cave. Photo by Tom Schifanella

covered lava formations take on a life of their own with faces and shapes; no wonder spirits, trolls and little people abound here. The rock formations and columnar basalt, battered by the sea into arches and magical figures, send spray towering into the air.

From the gravel road (575) leading to the base of Snaefellsjökull, we hike to the rim of an extinct volcano, with stunning views to the sea. There are trails to impressive waterfalls across the ancient lava fields, and peaks to climb with even more expansive views, sea to glacier.

Back on the coastal road, a trek to the Londranger rock pillars, resembling giant chess pieces, makes for a beautiful, albeit chilly, sunset.

Unlike Florida, sunshine here is not a given. Days can go by without a glimpse, but rain and hailstorms can give way unexpectedly to magnificent rainbows, powerful skies and magical light.

Arnarstapi Coastal Walk. Photo by Tom Schifanella

The majority of Iceland’s beaches are volcanic black sand, with more small stones than shells, and sometimes more smooth pebbles than sand. Often, brightly colored seaweeds serve as decoration. So, as we continue northwest on the Baldur Ferry to the Westfjords, Rauòasandur or red sand beach, is an intriguing destination. As we descend the steep gravel road, the beach appears, long and a beautiful orange gold stretching out before us. We are totally alone on this magnificent sand beach, sans rocks or seaweed. Ours are the only footprints, ours the only voices amidst the waves and soaring birds.

Iceland’s most remote region
The Westfjords look like a cockscomb on the northwest coast of Iceland, full of long, steep-walled fjords, with blue/green water. It is slow going over the summit to Dynjandi, the most dramatic waterfall in this region, but the views are stunning down and along the fjords. Dynjandi lives up to its reputation, spreading like a petticoat, with thunderous power and raining spray.

Returning to the Ring Road, we are treated to unparalleled views as we weave in and out of fjords and over mountains, dramatic with clouds and rain. Taking a side gravel road, we reach the sea stack Hvitserkur. Legend has it that Hvitserkur is a troll caught by the sunrise while trying to destroy the monastery. Some say you can see him looking at you, carrying a club, while others say it looks like a giant beast drinking from the water. It’s up to you.

Northern Lights. Photo by Tom Schifanella

On the way to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, we stop for the night at Einar’s farm, an Airbnb just off the Ring Road. The family church is our landmark to turn. The sky is so clear and the stars so bright, we are sure we’ll see the northern lights; but alas, none appear.

Restaurants, accommodations, and sporting activities abound in Akureyri, the unofficial capital of the north. Hiking, fishing, or paddling are just a few of the options to enjoy here, surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks

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Written by Betsy Schifanella • Photography by Tom Schifanella

Author: Arbus

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