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Go Chasing Waterfalls in Iceland–just don’t tell TLC

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Iceland’s stunning landscapes and eco-friendly efforts have piqued our interest. A business trip to London, a well-placed ad offering a free stopover on Iceland Air and Labor Day Weekend created the perfect storm to make the trip possible.

Reasonable people can debate over a nice, cold Gull beer what has put Iceland into the conversation for so many in the last few years. Is explosion an apt word? Iceland has been in the news for volcanic explosions in 2021, 2022 and most recently July 10, 2023. Iceland is also serious about confronting climate change with the goal of carbon neutrality before 2040. The region’s resources have helped it become a leader in geothermal heat and conservation. Increasingly, it tops the bucket list.

When considering a stop in Iceland on the way to London, a few things surprised us. First, it’s easy to get to Iceland. At 41/2 hours, flight time from the Northeast US to Iceland is comparable to a trip to Dallas. Even less time is required from much of Europe. At 4 hours, the time difference is manageable for a brief trip. The fierce competition between Play, Iceland Air and other airlines makes airfare reasonable. Crafty Iceland Air even encourages stop-over for up to 7 days for free if you are flying to Europe from the US. They made it too easy for my husband and me to visit Iceland over Labor Day weekend on a business trip to London this past week.

Frugal travelers who appreciate living as the locals, we look for an alternative to hotels. Along with VRBO and Airbnb, Home Exchange is growing in Iceland. With wonderful homes from in-town apartments to rural farms, HE offers exchanges by direct trade or through Guest Points. We booked a 3-bedroom flat in Kopavogur overlooking the water and stunning Perlan Museum for free, using our Home Exchange points. Our lovely host gave us great insight on local eating, exploring and shopping (along with leaving a selection of food staples and treats!) The most valuable (controversial?) tip the hosts provided for us was to skip the world-famous and much promoted Blue Lagoon. Should have listened. More later.

Kopavogur is just outside of the City of Reykjavik with easy public transportation and plentiful free parking. Buses are about the only thing you will need cash for in Iceland, you won’t need much. Iceland has affordable, safe, and easy public transportation. Our tip: If you plan to drive while in Iceland, review driving rules and signs before you go as language and signage is confusing. They enforce speed limits and parking restrictions, so know the rules.

Each day we set out of Kopavogur following the well-known Golden Circle, an easy-to-navigate ring road heading East. The Golden Circle’s famous sights-waterfalls, geysirs, achingly beautiful landscape with farms and Icelandic horses-are free, and easy to reach from Reykjavik. This ring road is also easy to navigate. Explore it on your own, even if the town names are difficult to pronounce. Waze works like a charm and has no problem directing you back on course if you wander off the trail.

Our tips: Avoid the tour buses and head out early. The tour buses seem to pull up starting at 10 am and throughout the day en masse, overwhelming some of the glory of these wonders of nature. If you can, experience the beauty of Iceland at your own pace in relative solitude. Don’t forget to bring waterproof clothes, hats, and gloves to avoid being cold and miserable during your trip. We saw more than one tourist in soggy jeans getting back on the tour bus for an uncomfortable ride. We also saw tourists buying water in plastic bottles. It drives the locals wild, and only tourists do it, so bring or buy a waterbottle and fill it from anywhere. The water is delicious! Only thing worse than plastic water bottles is opting out of the naked shower before entering the thermal pools.

Along with chasing waterfalls and straddling tectonic plates, a unique and not-to-be-missed experience along the Golden Circle is Fridheimar Farm. Fridheimar Farm is an important part of the system of large tomato greenhouses around the country. Stop in for a delightful meal with everything from the beer to the desert based on tomatoes. Reservations sell out months in advance, but note the full menu is expensive.

Our tip: Arrive just before 11:30 am (11:45 am is too late) and head for the high-top tables in the fabulous bar area for a light lunch. Enjoy a Viking or Gull Beer, their world-famous tomato soup and delicious home-baked bread. Wander the greenhouses, nearby wine bar, horse-rink with the gorgeous Icelandic horses and enjoy at your own pace. Watch folks order the tomato ice cream.

Spend time in the parks, step on the North American and European tectonic plates at the same time. Parks are easy to find, come well-recommended and are free. The Reykjanes Geopark or nature park area (near the most recent volcano eruption) was our favorite among the jewels, stunning to drive and hike. The drive East from Reykjavik is a rolling panorama of the world in formation showcasing the work of glaciers and volcanoes. We noticed some random lookouts with one or two empty picnic tables. We wished we could have spent more time at these lookouts to absorb the raw beauty of it all.

But be cautious and stop only at the lookouts. The two-lane highway is narrow and they lose a few tourists each year who stop in the road to take pictures.

After 3 nights we left Kopavogur and headed East to top-ranked Hotel Ranga, near Hella, a rustic lodge in the middle of gorgeous countryside near the South Shore, about 2 hours from the airport. Ranga is rustic but luxurious with stunning views, clean and comfortable rooms (our room, number 2, had a jacuzzi for two.)

Staff at Hotel Ranga were skilled and attentive, making our stay a great experience from start to finish. The front desk clerk arranged for a lovely lunch and a wake-up call for the Northern Lights. We received great service from the servers, bartenders, and managers. Witnessing waterfalls, geysers, and puffins before tour buses arrive is a bonus of exploring Golden Circle early in the morning from Ranga.

Our tip: the even-numbered rooms on the first floor open to a gorgeous view of the Ranga River and 4 hot tubs! They are gloriously private. We spent two hours drinking Champagne and reveling in the stunning view. Gorgeous and uninterrupted.

This brings me back to the Blue Lagoon: We stopped at Blue Lagoon after landing (it’s close to the airport) to find it mobbed with people. The murky water was teeming with tired travelers, crying children, and camera-carrying selfie-snappers. It was overcrowded and a bit gross. We had booked ahead and paid the entrance fee but didn’t go into the water despite the no refund policy. Instead we explored the grounds (which you can do for free) and marveled at the otherworldly lagoon and silica. In IMHO you should pass on soaking in the Blue Lagoon, instead splurge on Hotel Ranga and enjoy that private hot tub experience!

Dinner and lunch (we couldn’t leave) at Ranga were expensive, but outstanding. The menus showcase the best of local cuisine. The fish, lamb and fresh baked bread were divine. Ranga provides a free breakfast buffet with a range of delicious options, including champagne and the best lox (smoked salmon) I ever tasted.

Wild. Raw. Primal Beauty are words we used to describe so much of what we experienced in Iceland on our recent trip. Awe and wonder are the feelings Iceland elicits.

“The Earth Has Music for Those Who Listen.” Indeed.

This Column in the Sustainable Travel series is by Lisa Helme Danforth. Each Week ESG News offers readers and experts a chance to share experience and insight on sustainable travel. Email here if you are interested in submitting an article [email protected]

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