We are headed out on a road trip in Iceland, and we are excited. We are excited to explore Iceland’s legendary natural beauty, to stay in two of Iceland’s most iconic hotels, and to witness the Northern Lights. Most of all, we are excited to see elves.
The majority of Icelanders believe in elves. They believe elves exist in the natural world, and as our road trip in Iceland begins, it is clear the little fellas must be hardy spirits. As we drive southwest from Reykjavik, the landscape quickly turns surreal. Beyond the striking Blue Lagoon, we see endless, lava-crusted desolation bordered on one side by an angry sea, and on the other, by sleeping volcanoes.
As we turn east, the rocky moors give way to less formidable tundra. We catch our first glimpse of Icelandic sheep, and they are a comical sight. With bounteous wool coats and little stick legs, they look like the cartoon sheep you picture in your head when you can’t sleep. We roll on through a couple of hardscrabble fishing villages, and arrive at our first stop, the Hotel Rangá.
Hotel Rangá is a remote, log-hewn lodge located in the shadow of the trouble-making volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. Eyjafjallajökull has ceased the dramatics that confounded European air travel so completely a few years back. But, as we check-in to Hotel Rangá, the clerk is quick to tell us that the nearby Hekla volcano is three years past its ten-year eruption cycle and ‘could blow at any time’. Given its isolation, Hotel Rangá is considered one of the prime Northern Lights viewing destinations in Iceland. The clerk asks if we would like a wake-up call if the lights are active. We eagerly confirm.
That evening we enjoy a very fine meal in Hotel Rangá’s restaurant. Our dinner companions mention that we just missed Matt Damon, Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey, who dined at Hotel Rangá while filming a space movie nearby. It tells you something about Hotel Rangá’s surroundings that the landscape passes for another planet.
We cap our evening with a soak in the outdoor hot tub, then retire to bed for a restless slumber. All night we anticipate the Northern Lights wake-up call that never comes. It seems the elves had invoked an uncooperative cloud cover.
The next morning I am scheduled to ride an Icelandic horse. They look like ponies to me, but saying so is a grave offense to Icelanders, so I keep my thoughts to myself. I am a little skeptical about the animal’s prospects as a ride, but as we set out over the tundra, I am proven wrong. My mount is full of energy and eager to please. Perhaps my stubby steed knows that horsemeat is a staple on Icelandic plates, and he is anxious to remain a mode of transport, not a main course.
Meanwhile, Michael takes a stroll down the bank of the river which runs beside Hotel Rangá. He stumbles upon a fly fisherman at the very moment the angler lands a catch, a sizeable salmon. It is a dramatic scene, and the sportsman exclaims that it is his first bite in three days of futile casting. Michael shakes his head in wonderment at the happenstance of his timing. The work of elves, perhaps?
Resuming our road trip, we head northwest toward the Thingvellir National Park. Along the way, we spot hundreds of short, white creatures moving about awkwardly in a distant meadow. We think we’ve come upon the wee ones at work, so Michael parks roadside and heads toward the teeming apparitions. As he tops a hill, he realizes that he has startled a huge flock of wild swans, not elves. Nonetheless, as the birds take flight, the sight is mystical.
We venture onward, stopping to gawk at geysers, glaciers and the massive Gullfoss waterfall. We spot a picturesque church, perched on a hillside overlooking a Tahoe-worthy lake. As we approach the church for a closer look, we are stopped by a woman with a walkie-talkie wearing a bright orange vest labeled “STAFF”. She tells us the church is being used as the set for a zombie movie, and we are not allowed to go further. We peek surreptitiously over STAFF’s shoulder and get a glimpse of the walking dead trudging about the chapel’s ancient graveyard.
We spend the last night of our road trip in Iceland at the ION Hotel. The ION Hotel is a design-centric lodging which cantilevers boldly down a hillside, and overlooks a pristine lake and snow-capped mountains. Once again, the Northern Lights evade us due to cloud cover, but the ethereal quality of the ION Hotel’s setting does not.
The following morning, Michael is quick to go vertical on foot for a bird’s eye view of the ION Hotel’s dramatic environs. I am content to sit in the natural pool, heated to perfection by geothermal water. I reflect on all that we encountered on our road trip in Iceland.
OK, so we didn’t see Matt Damon, the Northern Lights or elves. But we did see a salmon take the bait, wild swans blanket the sky, a little horse with a big heart…..and zombies.