by Marcie J. Bushnell

Over 500 kinds of lichens and moss blanket the lava fields. It’s nature’s way of softening the rugged, mostly treeless “moonscape” that greets us as we exit the sleek Icelandair aircraft in Keflavik, Iceland.

My twenty-six-year-old daughter and I exchange glances and smiles as we pass through the modern, minimalist airport boasting flaxen-haired, pointy-eared elfin ads for Iceland Spring Water. This is indeed the land of Nordic legend, featuring hideous ogres, wicked witches, and other enchanted otherworldly types. However, we’re here to take part in a hiking, biking, horseback-riding, rafting, kayaking Viking Challenge Tour that will hopefully be free of any mean-spirited entities—human or otherwise!

If you’re thinking a mother-daughter trip is challenge enough, factor in very long days and a basic unfamiliarity with the Icelandic language. After carefully sounding out “snyrtigar” and figuring it had to be a restroom, we learned we were right. Washing our hands brought us to the heart of Iceland’s geothermal heritage—the hot water vatn tap included a discreet whiff of sulfurous gas, free of charge! The cold
vatn tap could easily win the “purest, freshest, coldest, clearest” award…anywhere on the planet! In fact, when we go to purchase bottles of Iceland Spring Water, the clerk tells us to keep the bottles and refill them from the tap—the water is from the same source.

There’s a large line at the airport bank. We find out later that outbound travelers are there to receive a hefty cash-back allowance or a duty free shop credit (15 percent) on Iceland’s stiff 24.5 percent Value-Added Tax (VAT). Needing money ASAP, I find an ATM and promptly pluck out 2,000 Icelandic Kronur. Moments later, I spy an Icelandic wool cap in a stylish duty-free boutique for 2,160 IK. Another trip to the
ATM is in order, and pronto!

Boarding the Keflavik Flybus for the forty-five minute commute into the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik, we gaze at the vast volcanic terrain flying by on both sides of the bus. Dust devils swirl bits of moss and spew out tiny pebbles as we motor past Hafnarfjordur and into the capital.

The next seven days will quickly blur into a succession of long hours of daylight, brisk winds, warm sun, delicate non-biting flies trying to land on our eyelashes, luxurious soaking in geothermally-heated spring-water swimming pools and an afternoon of pure thalassotherapy bliss at the Blue Lagoon. These impressions are interspersed with hiking the marked trails above Reykjavik’s main geothermal plant, Nesjavellir; rafting the Hvita river; succumbing to hesta bacteria or the Icelandic equivalent of “love of horses;” an ironic whale-watching expedition onboard a former whaling boat; mountain biking through Heidmork, an urban volcanic wonderland just outside the capital; sea-kayaking a reedy inlet of the North Atlantic at Stokkseyri; delicately skirting a very active geyser field; trekking across a gritty glacier; spotting puffins from the cliffs above the black lava beaches at Vik I Myrdal; and last, but not least, reveling in the majesty of the world’s first outdoor parliament site at Thingvellir.

By another act of tradition and independent thinking, Icelandic children are named after the family patriarch as his “son” or “dottir.” Thus, if we were of Icelandic origin, my daughter would carry her father’s first name forever…as Chelsea Richardsdottir. Her name would appear in the phone book under “C” because the white pages are bursting with Richardsdottirs. Many Icelandic types are simply known by their first name…does the name Bjork ring a bell? Yes? Although her name means “birch” in Icelandic, her sense of music and style is not wooden, as evidenced by her original, avant-garde songs and wardrobe.

And speaking of fashion, we pinched enough time to “do” the Kringlan and Smaralind malls, as well as browse the souvenir shops for Icelandic wool products. As our tour was scheduled the third week of
July, it segued perfectly with Iceland Fashion Week. Featuring Icelandic models posing in hauntingly natural landscapes, a small group of international designers showcased new haute couture as well as ready-to-wear fashions.

Culturally speaking, beyond the scope of the fashion world, there are tons of amazing sculpture museums (both indoor and outdoor), art galleries, and for the quirkily curious, the Icelandic Phallological Museum. This highly specialized exhibit vies for viewers with the National Museum of Iceland and the Reykjavik Art Museum Harbor House, to name a few.

Obviously, one week is not enough time to experience what Iceland has to offer, but a Viking Challenge tour covers quite a bit of ground…both literally and figuratively. Our small group of fifteen sported a ratio of two women for every man. Ages ranged from twentysomethings to “almost-retired” status. Our incredible guide, Pierko, spoke Finnish by birth, Icelandic by marriage, German by country of residence, and English by necessity! At fifty-eight years of age and as a brand-new grandmother, she was a dynamic inspiration to one and all. Would my daughter and I do this again? Ya-oh!

I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the nightlife in the twilight zone on the ‘Rock.’ As you might have surmised, the time we had in Reykjavik was spent recovering from the rigorous pacing of our action-packed tour. Heading out at midnight (not before) to cruise the clubs did not figure into our extracurricular activities. Reykjavik’s reputation as a wild and wacky place is safe with us. I would recommend arriving a few days early or staying on past the “Challenge” to experience the nocturnal side of this metro capital at 66 degrees latitude north!

Order a shot of Icelandic Schnapps, but don’t swallow the lichens floating on top—it’s just nature’s way of softening the approach of a long, cold winter!

Viking Challenge Tour Information:

Iceland Adventure

Horses North

Author Marcie J. Bushnell lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest, another land of hideous ogres (think Sasquatch) and other oversized legends (Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox)! Next year, it’s
Chelsea’s turn to plan our itinerary. Pass the Schnapps, please.

Article wins 2005 NATJA AWARD Category: Best Internet Writing: Runner Up 2005