169IcelandWhat do you do if walk off a plane in a foreign country well after midnight with your daughter and two grandchildren and discover that due to shaky computer skills you never booked your tour?

 

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By Cynthia MacKay 

 

What do you do if walk off a plane in a foreign country well after midnight with your daughter and two grandchildren and discover that due to shaky computer skills you never booked your tour?

 

We were in luck. That country happened to be Iceland, which is arguably the most tourist-friendly country in the world. Its 320,000 people are all intelligent and literate, and almost all of them speak English. There is Wi-Fi almost everywhere, even on remote islands.

 

Icelanders are not only all connected by blood, but also by smartphones. This country may be modern, but culturally it is an old-style small town. The people are happy and friendly and helpful, and everybody knows everybody.

 

We were saved by one of the taxi drivers, who got on the phone to his friends and, in very little time, we were in the spotless Rey apartment in Reykjavik, where we could hear the bells of Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland.

 

The next day, my daughter Hope stopped in at a tourist center, and bingo we had a car, an itinerary, and tickets to the top attractions, including riding Iceland ponies, walking the Vatnajökull glacier, riding boats through the icebergs at Jokulsarlon, and the Blue Lagoon. We had the trip of our life, we stayed in places most tourists do not see, and we saved several thousand dollars.

 

Our first day we went to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja to admire Reykjavik’s colorful old wooden houses and the surrounding fjords, glaciers, and mountains. In front of this church is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson, a gift from the U. S. on the 1,000-year anniversary of the settlement that he founded on the northern tip of Newfoundland, 500 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in North America.

 

We would all be speaking Icelandic today if Eiriksson had not traded cheeses for furs with the local Indians, who were lactose-intolerant. The cheese made them deathly ill, and they assumed he was trying to poison them, so they attacked him and drove him off.

 

A well-preserved Viking longhouse dating from around 870 A.D. lies under a Reykjavik sidewalk. This Landnamssyning (Settlement Exhibition) has excellent demonstrations of life in medieval days, and several of the famous Iceland sagas.

 

These ancient books describe actual historical events of the ninth to eleventh centuries, passed on by singers for hundreds of years until they were written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The sagas have inspired many works of art, including Richard Wagner’s <Ring Cycle> and the Harry Potter books. They are so accurate that archaeologists have used them to locate a probable second Newfoundland Icelandic settlement, just as Schleimann used the Iliad to locate ancient Troy. Icelanders know these sagas by heart. They even consult them during legal disputes.

 

This land of fire and ice is one giant adventure park. There was something different wherever we went. The landscape literally smoked in many areas. The mid-Atlantic ridge runs through Iceland, so this country is being torn apart from west to east. This has created countless volcanos, waterfalls, geysers, waterfalls, and a rift valley called Thingvellir. The early settlers chose this dramatic rift valley for their annual assembly, the Althing, the world’s first democracy, in 930 A.D.

 

All the hot water, and a large percent of the electricity, is supplied by geothermal energy in Iceland, and a trip highlight was visiting the plant that supplies Reykjavik.

 

We had a day’s drive down the south Ring Road to get to the glacier, but every lodging in this sparsely settled area was booked. I thought we would have to buy a tent and use sleeping bags, but my tech-savvy 12-year-old grandson Wilder saved the day by finding us a guesthouse…on the volcanic Vestmannaeyjar islands.

 

The 45-minute ferry ride to Heimaey, the only town on Vestmannaeyjar Island, made our eyes pop as we steamed past numberless seabirds and sheer black cliffs with flat green tops covered by sheep. (The resourceful Icelanders haul them up there as lambs in the spring and collect them in the fall). Half of the tiny fishing village of Heimaey was buried when the Eldfell volcano erupted in 1973. The slopes were still warm. I have never felt further away from civilization.