I can’t stop staring out the car window. My husband and I are hours northwest of Reykjavik, heading to the moss-covered Snæfellsjökull glacier, part of the Snæfellsjökull National Park. Ahead of us, the glacier looms above a sweeping coastal road leading to the sea. On either side, West Iceland’s dreamlike landscape spills toward distant volcanoes, interrupted less by trees and buildings than by jumbles of giant boulders.
Native Icelander Kristjan Guðjónsson, our guide from family-run Wild West Tours, is taking us to hike across the glacier’s vast expanse. Throughout the day, as we stride across the impossibly springy moss, he charms us with stories of flickering lights and the frequent mysterious sightings reported from the glacier, including alleged encounters with trolls and shy Huldufólk, Iceland’s Hidden People.
We’re staying at the lovely and remote Hotel Húsafell in West Iceland, a wood-and-glass oasis filled with original art by Icelandic musician-artist Páll Guðmundsson, known as Páll of Husafell. By the time we reach the dining room, hungry and weary from our day of trekking, water pelts the tall glass windows that rim the room. There’s a fire glowing in the hearth, and we settle in beside the warmth as master chef Thordur Thrastarson prepares a seafood soup he serves in deep blue bowls, filled with a fragrant broth that carries the faint scent of lemongrass. The soup is rich with blue mussels, scallops and Icelandic langoustines, and is finished, unexpectedly, with sweet mascarpone cheese.
Early the next morning, before breakfast, we head outside into the brisk air to see the nearby Hraunfossar waterfalls. There, a torrent of water flows from beneath a field of ancient lava, cascading down the face of the cliffs in too many cataracts to count, each on its way to join the glacial river flowing beneath.
Back at the hotel, a series of tiered thermal pools form a natural feature of the grounds. We float on our backs, gazing upward at the milky topaz sky. Clouds are gathering, and we recall our pre-trip correspondence with Kristjan’s brother, Guðmundur, about the unpredictable weather. By the time we reach the dining room for breakfast, it’s raining; an hour later as we set out for more exploraton, the sun is blazing in a brilliant blue sky.
Eventually, we reach the harbor in the small fishing village of Stokkseyri, where corrugated iron houses glow in the late afternoon sun. We make our way to Fjorubordid, a rustic lobster restaurant that sits at the edge of the harbor. Inside, it’s warm and cozy. The waiter, having correctly identified us as tourists, adds to our growing base of folklore knowledge by telling us the story of a small, nearby coastal island called Drangey. It was there, he tells us, a troll husband and wife were making their way across the water with their goat when they were caught by the rising sun. Though they were instantly turned to stone, the lucky goat managed to escape and swim away. Today, the waiter says, the troll couple can still be seen in mid-stride as two tall stones rising from the water next to Drangey.
The next day, we head back on a two-hour drive toward the western coast in search of an ancient Viking grave we were told about by the hotel staff. My husband slows our car, easing onto a gravel track that leads to a small parking area beside the gray, heaving ocean. A narrow path crosses the dunes to a cluster of huge, rocky outcrops whose feet disappear into the salty sea beyond a hem of pebbled sand. We clamor over them, laughing as the wind threatens to pick us up and hurl us out to sea, determined to find the site.
Finally, we do. The long, narrow space lies within a natural fold in the rock. A small sign explains the bones have been removed, but the Viking was found with an engraved sword laid to rest with him.
The following morning at breakfast, Chef Thrastarson comes out of the kitchen to bid us a safe journey home. He’s laid out freshly baked pastries, eggs and local cloudberries. There’s tea and coffee, and honey from the island’s bees. A large bowl is filled with creamy skyr, the country’s delicious, yogurt-like dairy staple.
Filled, we leave for the airport with time to spare so we can stop at the Blue Lagoon (Bláa Lónið in Icelandic) for a long, pre-flight soak. Beneath Iceland’s hard exterior, geothermal activity is ongoing, breaking open in countless thermal pools across the landscape and making thermal waters a popular source of wellness and rejuvenation.
We collect towels and head into the water, passing beneath an arched walking bridge. A thick mist hangs over the surface where the cold air meets the warm water, creating the sensation of swimming within a cloud. Along the sides of the pool are large pots containing thick, skin-soothing white silica mud. Watching the locals, we slather it over our faces and necks, allowing it to soak in before rinsing it away.
The road to the airport passes through a vast expanse of barren lava rock. There’s nothing here to distract the eye from the blue sky, black stone and small pools of sparkling white snow. Steam from the Blue Lagoon can be seen hanging in the distant air. We can’t claim to have seen any trolls or mystical beings, but Iceland’s vapor, rock and ice form their own indelible magic, one we are unlikely to ever forget.
Thanks to Icelandair’s novel Stopover program, you can make Iceland part of a trip between North America and 27 destinations in Europe and Scandinavia with a single ticket that allows layovers in Iceland of up to seven nights.
For layovers at Keflavik (Iceland’s international airport) that are more than three hours, hop a dedicated bus to world-famous Blue Lagoon, located about 20 minutes away. Stash your luggage in a handy locker in the secure storage center, then head into the soothingly hot waters for a long soak. Buses run on an hourly loop between the airport and the spa, but make sure to book transport and entrance tickets online prior to travel.