It wasn't love at first sight.
But here in Iceland, midway through a nine-day drive around this island country, this was the clincher:
To my right, a 25-foot-high waterfall thundered, dumping its icy waters into a stream that frothed from rock to rock on its way to the fjord below.
To my left, at the bottom of a switchbacky two-lane asphalt road, a tiny village rested in the mist at the end of the fjord that runs 10 miles east to the North Atlantic.
Turning in a slow circle, I saw freshet after freshet springing from cloud-draped, green mountain ridges.
At my feet, the fleeting days of fall had painted the heather and other tiny flowers and leaves that blanketed the ground in subtle shades of pink and orange, yellow and brown.
Mention Iceland, and most people think - what else? - ice. After all, the island does sit with the blustery North Atlantic on its south coast and the frigid Arctic Ocean on its north - just a smidge south of the Arctic Circle. And about 15 percent of its 40,000 square miles (the whole country is about the size of Ohio) is made up of ice cap.
That includes Vatnajokull, a more than 3,200-square-mile glacier (think Rhode Island and Delaware combined) in the country's southeast whose southern edge comes right up to the Ring Road, the 832-mile, mostly paved, two-lane highway that, as its name suggests, circles the island.
Think about that - a drive-by glacier.
But Iceland is not all ice. More than half of the land, believe it or not, is considered desert plateaus. And then there's another 11 percent that's lava fields. Which brings up the volcanoes that help earn it the nickname "land of fire and ice."
Geologically speaking, Iceland is constantly reinventing itself. It was originally created by underwater volcanic eruptions, and even today, volcanoes continue to remake the landscape.
In 1973, an unexpected eruption forced the evacuation of the 5,000 people living on Heimaey, an island off the southwest coast. A third of the village of Heimaey was buried under lava, but many of the residents eventually moved back to the island.
More recently, a 1996 eruption under Vatnajokull Glacier set off a major flood. And minor eruptions have occurred in this century.
All in all, seemingly not a very hospitable environment. That probably explains why, even though various groups, including early Celt and Norse explorers, have been poking around and trying to live in these parts for 1,500 years, Iceland's population is only about 288,000, with two-thirds of those folks living in the southwestern area around Reykjavik, the capital. There are twice as many sheep as people here.
So what's the attraction? Raw, natural beauty - lots of it. Oh, sure, there are some urban attractions. Reykjavik, a big city with a small-town feel, bills itself as a destination for, among others, those who like to party hearty. (Although how hearty do you want to party at $8 or $9 a beer?)
But the natural beauty of Iceland is what my wife, Bonnie, and I were looking for when we visited last September. Iceland didn't disappoint.
During our nine-day drive-around, we saw rugged coastline, delicately colored tundra, colorful Icelandic horses, weird rock formations, amazing sunsets, glaciers, icebergs, steaming hot springs, and more waterfalls, raging rivers and streams than we could count.
And, for the most part, we had it all to ourselves.
June through August is when Iceland sees most of its tourists and is a time when, because of being so far north, it's daylight pretty much 24 hours a day. By September, daylight hours are comparable to what we see in the United States, temperatures are falling a bit (we had weather from the 40s to the 60s), and prices may be falling too, though because of increased popularity, some tour companies are charging peak season prices in September.
The Ring Road
And how's the driving? These roads aren't made for making time. They're made for making memories.
The Ring Road, for instance, is mostly two-lane and mostly asphalt. Mostly two-lane doesn't mean sometimes four-lane. And mostly asphalt doesn't mean sometimes concrete.
There are a lot of bridges in Iceland, and, thanks to the hundreds of streams and rivers flowing to the seas from those glaciers, many are only one lane. They warn you with signs that say EINBREID (though that "D" has a line through it and is pronounced "th" in Icelandic, a language you don't need to try to tackle). So you have to take turns going across, though in September we never had to do much sharing. There were times in the sparsely populated eastern part of the country when we drove for half an hour and never saw another vehicle.
Now about that pavement. Most, but not all, of the Ring Road has it. But you can be cruising along, enjoying the view, when you see a sign announcing MALBIK ENDAR - Icelandic for bye, bye, pavement. Next thing you know you're driving 10 mph and dodging potholes, glad that you're driving a rental.
And there are the construction zones, which you often drive through, not around. One day near dark we were approaching Hofn (pronounced Hup) on the south coast, where we were to stay the night. A construction zone turned the road into a track covered with tiny gravel, and a sign announced a steep 16 percent grade.
As we started down the grade, we were greeted with an astonishing sunset. The entire western sky was streaked with clouds, and where the setting sun shone through, the sky was painted all shades of gold and pink. Wow!
There were many more such moments.
The Tjornes Peninsula juts into the Arctic Ocean on the northeast coast near the fishing village of Husavik. It was here we saw our first large expanses of that magically colored ground cover. When you get up close, you find much of the vegetation, which includes lichens, has taken root on and covered what are thousands of pieces of volcanic rubble.
East of the peninsula, Jokulsargljufur National Park holds Dettifoss, a waterfall that carries the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe (yes, this is considered part of Europe). It's about 145 feet high and puts on a great show.
Upstream is the not-as-high-but-wider-and-U-shaped Selfoss (requiring a 20- to 30-minute hike over large riverside boulders). Downstream is the 90-foot-high Hafragilsfoss. Interestingly, though Dettifoss is one of the country's icons, you have to drive over a lengthy stretch of tooth-rattling unpaved road to reach it, and only a modest sign, like what might point out a picnic area in the United States, shows where it is.
Lake Myvatn (its name means midge, though the pesky flying critters weren't around in September) sits inland in the northeast, in one of the most volcanically and geothermally active parts of the country.
Oddly shaped volcanic formations jut out of the clear, shallow lake, and in places there's so much volcanic rock littering the ground that it's been used to build fences. The smell of sulfur is common in the air and the water of much of the northeast. In fact, after two days of washing my hands in the water here, my silver rings temporarily turned a coppery color.
The Krafla area next to Myvatn continues to be an extremely active volcanic area, and geothermal energy fuels a power plant that you drive right through. South of the Ring Road here is an area so otherworldly that it was used by U.S. astronauts in training for the first moon landing.
In the eastern fjords we parted company with the Ring Road for half a day to follow sometimes paved, sometimes unpaved two-lanes that take you in and out of these fingers of ocean that reach into the island and connect sparsely populated villages.
Even on an overcast, sometimes drizzly day, the views were wonderful, suggesting the Irish coast. Sometimes the mountains (most mountains in Iceland are more high ridges than craggy peaks) crowded right up to the road's edge, as if they were threatening to toss us into the sea.
At other times, the land opened up to a coastal plain flanked by those ridges. At one point, we pulled quickly to the side of the road as a double rainbow rose from the sea. Later, as the day's light began to fade, we came around a curve and found a bay filled with hundreds of swans.
For roughly 100 miles, beginning at Hofn and going west past Skaftafell National Park, the Vatnajokull Glacier dominates, sitting just to the north of the Ring Road. Jokulsarlon, a lagoon between the road and the glacier, is filled with icebergs that have calved from the glacier. In the summer you can take a boat ride among them.
Walking among icebergs
When we visited, we were excited by an even more intimate experience - the icebergs float under the bridge on the road, out to sea and, at low tide, are stranded on the black sand beach where we walked among them, touching their ancient ice.
Extending west from Skaftafell for many, many miles is the Sandur, a desert area of black volcanic sand and gravel that extends from the glacier to the sea. It's caused by jokulhlaups, massive floods produced when a volcanic eruption under the glacier causes it to begin to melt. Eventually there is so much pressure that the water lifts the glacier, then pours out and rushes to the sea, carrying huge chunks of ice and rock with it.
At a stop along the road sits a monument to the power of nature - a couple of large, twisted steel girders that were torn from one of several bridges damaged or destroyed by the jokulhlaup of 1996, which shut down this section of the Ring Road temporarily. Some ice chunks from that flood weighed 100 to 200 tons.
And so it went: misty sea stacks; tidy white farm buildings with bright red roofs, looking like toys as they sit at the base of a 500-foot-high ridge; thundering Gullfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall, throwing up a spray that turns to a rainbow on a brisk, sunny afternoon; tiny yellow wildflowers; shaggy white sheep.
There is so much more to this land than just fire and ice.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Icelandair is the only carrier offering regular service to Keflavik International Airport, near Reykjavik. Limited daily nonstop flights are available from BWI and Washington airports. Nonstop flight time from Baltimore is 5 hours and 40 minutes.
A package may be your best option, both from a cost standpoint and the fact that packagers specializing in Iceland are familiar with travel and lodging options there.
A variety of tour companies offer packages that include air, lodging and car rental, just air and car rental, or a number of other options, some tailored to specific interests, like bird-watching.
And individual packages generally can be altered too. Many of the driving packages have you staying two nights in Reykjavik. Because we wanted to maximize our time in the countryside, my wife and I chose the National Parks & Natural Wonders package from Iceland Experience (800-661-3830; www.iceland-experience.com).
The package included round-trip air from Chicago to Keflavik; one-way air from Reykjavik to Akureyri, Iceland's second-largest city (15,139), in the center of the northern coast; nine nights' accommodations in first-class lodgings (just one night in Reykjavik); car rental from Akureyri to Reykjavik with unlimited mileage; a stop at the Blue Lagoon, a popular geothermal bathing spot near Keflavik airport; and all transfers. Total was $2,275 each, including all taxes. During peak season, we each would have paid $1,000 more. Among other companies offering similar packages are:
Icelandair Holidays: 800-779-2899; www.icelandairholidays.com
Scandinavian American World Tours: 800-545-2204; www.scanamtours.com
Iceland Visitor: www.icelandvisitor.com
Iceland Saga Travel: 866-423-7242; www.icelandsagatravel.com
The Ring Road, which was completed in 1974, is the primary route around the island. It's not built for high-speed travel, but shouldn't cause any problems for most drivers. Same goes for most other roads you'll encounter. However, roads that go inland over the top of the island are primarily limited to travel by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Carry a good map (you'll find many available in Iceland). Also, keep an eye on your gas gauge. Gas stations can be far apart, and during the off-season, you won't have as many options. We typically paid about $5.75 a gallon.
While you can find a package that's fairly reasonably priced, you're going to find that everything in Iceland is high-priced, so come packing lots of plastic, which can be used pretty much anywhere. ATMs are also readily available.
In the smaller villages, which is pretty much everything out of the Reykjavik area and Akureyri, you're not likely to find many options other than Icelandic dishes. Expect to find lots of seafood and lamb. But, unless you're prepared to spend a couple hundred dollars a day on food, develop a strategy.
All of the lodgings in our package included a typical European continental breakfast, so that helped. Most villages have at least one bakery, where two people can eat lunch for $10 to $15. Hot dogs, believe it or not, are quite popular here, and many gas station/convenience stores have small fast-food operations where you can get dogs, fries and even beer without breaking the bank.
Pizza places are another option in some villages, though it's not hard to drop $30 or more on pizza and drinks. We found ourselves spending $50 and more for dinner, even in small villages with restaurants that, while good, definitely wouldn't classify as white-tablecloth options.
Our high was in Egilsstadir, at what was a white-tablecloth place, where we spent $111 - and my wife had only soup as her main dish. We also were the only people in the restaurant. Lodging
Our hotels were all classified first class, but we found that to be a relative term, depending on location. In Reykjavik, for instance, the older but classy Hotel Borg was, in fact, very nice. On the other end of the scale, our room at the Fosshotel in Husavik was small and unimpressive.
Our other lodgings were adequate, including one farm hotel, a popular lodging option in Iceland. As is the case in many European hotels, don't expect expansive rooms. And expect showers to be small.
When to go
Go June through August, and you'll pay higher rates and run into more tourists. Go in May or September, and you'll find most package prices cheaper - and you'll have things to yourself, particularly in the areas farther away from Reykjavik.
But also expect some attractions to be closed and staffing to be reduced at hotels and restaurants. We ate at two restaurants where the person who took our order then went back into the kitchen and cooked it.
Despite its name, Iceland isn't always frigid. Our trip in mid-September found daytime temperatures ranging from the 40s to 60s. About half of the days were overcast, sometimes with off-and-on rain, though we never experienced heavy rains. What we did experience were a couple of days of very high, though intermittent, winds. These were winds that would rock the car and, in one instance, it took two hands to close the car door.
What you won't see
Trees. Iceland's oldest tree, near Egilsstadir, was planted in 1938. Native trees, if there ever were many (no one seems to know for sure), were cut down by early settlers. Only in recent years has there been an effort to reforest some areas.
You also won't see much in the way of large land mammals, other than the distinctive and friendly Icelandic horses and the shaggy, horn-bearing Icelandic sheep, which flee pretty much anytime you stop your car.
Some eastern areas have reindeer, which, like the horses and sheep, are not native. During the summer, puffins, those odd-looking birds with the unusual snouts, populate coastal areas. They had departed by the time we visited.
Despite Iceland's ancient history, the oldest buildings you're likely to see are only a couple hundred years young.
Thingvellir National Park, near Reykjavik, is where the Icelandic parliament first met in 930, making this the oldest continuous parliamentary democracy in the world. But those gatherings were in the open air.
Contact the Icelandic Tourist Board at 212-885-9700; www.icelandtouristboard.com. And take a good guidebook. There aren't a ton of guidebooks available in the United States that cover the country; we used Lonely Planet's good and simply titled Iceland. - Phil Marty