THE SHAPE OF WATER
Written and photographed by Bridget Williams
"I'd been to Iceland before, but I don't really feel like I've seen it until now," uttered one of my fellow travelers, breaking the silence between us as we stood behind a majestic waterfall, mesmerized by the cascade as the icy mist needled our cheeks. For six days, water in all forms formed the crux of our adventures in Iceland. We simmered and subsequently froze in it, slid on it, sloshed through it and marveled at it.
Iceland has loomed large on my must-see list for years. The most sparsely populated country in Europe, Mother Nature has endowed its 40,000 square miles with a mind-boggling array of amenities: waterfalls, active volcanoes, glaciers, ice caves, black sand beaches, crystal-clear lakes, and hot springs. While a do-it-yourself itinerary is undoubtedly doable, given the country's temperamental weather and vast landscape, I knew I was more likely to encounter trip-busting incidents than happy accidents, so I turned to the experts in insider travel intel—Classic Journeys—and their multi-sport itinerary to deliver maximum adventure in the minimal time I had available.
Delivering the ultimate insider experience is what drove Edward Piegza, a "reformed" banking executive, to found Classic Journeys in 1995. Tasked with planning group outings for VIP bank clients in his former career, he discovered that his ardor for planning group trips was proportional to his abhorrence of banking. Exhibiting the energy and enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy, Edward's passion is palpable, as is his desire to deliver a truly authentic experience, which he says begins with using local guides. "We have one goal: to hand-craft trips of a lifetime," explained Edward, who added that his guides are empowered by the company to be agile in their decision-making. Their guides always have a Plan B (and even a C and D if needed) to account for the unexpected.
Edward pointed out that it takes more than a pleasant personality to be an exceptional guide; he and his staff work closely with local guides in 50 countries on six continents to develop Classic Journeys' current roster of 100 distinct itineraries focused on six areas: culture, walking, culinary, family, multisport, alumni and incentive. "We kiss a lot of frogs and make the mistakes ahead of time so that our trips run seamlessly for guests," he said. Edward's personal desire to experience an upscale trip that is both physically and mentally engaging reflects the interests and expectations of the typical Classic Journeys' client. "I like to get muddy during the day, but I want to sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets at night."
There is something incredibly freeing about a fully supported trip; not having to mind the minutiae frees the mind to drink in every delightful detail. Our group was greeted at the airport in Reykjavik by Atli, our guide for the week. A dyed-in-the-wool native of Iceland whose ancestry can be traced back to 9th century Vikings, Atli is a life-long lover of adventure, and the outdoors, fishing, mountaineering, a teacher of history and geology, and an all-around nice guy. The senior tour leader and resident expert guide for Classic Journeys, Atli helped lead the charge to establish the Vatnajökull National Park, which makes up about 14% of Iceland's landmass and includes the largest glacier in Europe.
Our group eased into the 6 day/5 night itinerary with breakfast at a Viking museum, just as the slivers of sunlight begun to emerge from underneath the blanket of night. Our transport for the duration of the trip was a posh WIFI-enabled 4X4 Mercedes Benz Sprinter van. While we relaxed and admired the scenery, Atli entertained us with stories of growing up in Iceland, including skinny dipping in the famous Blue Lagoon before it became a popular tourist pilgrimage site, as well as tales of legend and lore. His talk of trolls and "hidden people," had me convinced I could discern shadowy figures in the moss-covered lava fields. From that point onward, I thought twice about disturbing a rock, lest I face the wrath of a troll who might be residing there!
There is no bad weather, only bad gear, is a Classic Journeys' mantra. To help their clients avoid the pitfalls of underpacking or the hassles of overpacking, they offer a gear valet program that can outfit you with the appropriate attire to combat every imaginable weather scenario. While you can rent gear just for the duration of the trip, I fell in love with my tough-as-nails parka and rain pants from Iceland's Icewear company and opted for a more long-term arrangement.
Our itinerary included Iceland's notable attractions both inside and out of the famed Golden Circle sightseeing route. We were one of the first groups through the door at the Blue Lagoon, which allowed us to enjoy the thermal waters before the place was overrun with visitors. Spying a waterfall in Iceland is like stumbling across a cathedral in Europe. They're everywhere, and we managed to see quite a few from all angles: below, above and behind.
We explored glaciers in a similar all-around fashion. At the Sólheimajökull Glacier, Atli arranged for Jon, one of Iceland's most accomplished mountaineers and respected experts on glaciers, to lead a three-hour trek atop the glacier, complete with crampons and ice axes. We ventured deep into an ice cave at the Vatnajökull Glacier, admiring the obsidianlike surface created by the compression of water and volcanic ash. We also stopped at "Blue Crush," a cerulean chunk of ice sculpted by the elements to resemble a curling wave. A temporary installation, the ice formations will morph and melt as time goes on and temperatures rise.
Atli likened the notoriety of the Reynisfjara black-sand beach to the Coliseum in Rome. As our footprints pressed a fresh layer of snow into the sand, the resulting mixture resembled crushed Oreo cookies. Most tourists cluster at the entrance, so it's easy to find a sense of solitude by taking a short stroll down the beach in either direction while pondering the jet-black geology of the substrate, which gradually transitions from grainy sand to smooth pebbles.
During one late afternoon drive, the weather changed on a dime from sunshine to a whiteout, and Atli remained unflappable. As night fell and the torrent of snowflakes reflected off of the headlights, he joked that we now know what Hans Solo felt while piloting the Millennium Falcon. Already happy that I wasn't behind the wheel, spying the occasional rental car off the side of the road only deepened my appreciation for our guide.
With much of the country sparsely populated, finding the best lodging options isn't always easy. Classic Journeys carefully vets its hotel partners to make sure they meet exacting standards and contribute to the uniqueness of the experience. "We like to call it 'refraining from sameness,' "explained Edward. Our trip included stays at both Hotel Ranga and Skalakot Manor Hotel.
Hotel Ranga is full of quirky personality reflective of its jocular owner, who provided me with my first taste of Iceland's Black Death. Contrary to its menacing name and labeling, Black Death, also known as Brennivín, is a popular traditional distilled beverage flavored with caraway, and not the plague. A short walk from the hotel is a cabin with a retractable roof and a high-tech telescope, allowing you to ogle the night sky in a whole new way.
If Ralph Lauren designed a hotel in Iceland, it would surely resemble the chic Skálkot Manor Hotel. Set on a working multigenerational family farm with sheep, cuddly Icelandic horses, and miles of trails for exploring. Spending one afternoon on horseback, we spied the snow-capped "tongue" of a nearby glacier that seemed to lap at hills defined by tuffets of straw-colored grass that proved irresistible to my steed. I made judicious use of free time in the itinerary by taking a canyon hike and later a run to a waterfall, where I relished in being its solitary admirer.
Meals each day were full of memorable and hearty local fare. During a picnic atop a glacier, Atli presented us with samples of kleinur, an Icelandic pastry flavored with cardamom (which I loved), as well as fish jerky (which I would say is more of an acquired taste). We feasted on fresh-caught langoustine the cozy Fjöruborðið restaurant and farm-fresh lamb at Skalakot. Because pre-planning on the part of the team at Classic Journeys is thorough, those with dietary restrictions were amply accommodated. "Iceland is one of those places people may only go once. We want to make sure they are getting a real immersion while they're here," said Edward.
Our last day came with the option to explore the continental divide in Þingvellir National Park— a UNESCO World Heritage Site—on foot or by floating. I chose the latter, which allowed me to snorkel in some of the world's purest water, leaving me feeling as if I were floating on air above Silfra, the fissure that designates the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which continue to move apart at a rate of 2.5 centimeters a year. Definitely not for the faint of heart, the water temperature hovers just above freezing (hello ice cold facial!), and there was quite a lot of effort involved in stuffing myself into the dry suit, but I wasn't about to miss the grand finale of an action-packed trip that made me feel like a traveler and not just a tourist.
The sudden closure of WOW Air this past March stranded passengers on both sides of the Atlantic and grabbed headlines around the globe. Intrepid travelers needn't fear, as Icelandair, which celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2017, offers transatlantic routes from 24 European and 21 North American gateways. You can even make a day trip to Iceland an add-on to a broader European adventure with a range of distinct Stopover campaigns, all for the price of a flight ticket. Icelandair passengers can call the Buddy Hotline for personalized planning of their stopover. And, you won't mind getting to the airport two hours early when you have access to the comfy and chic Saga Lounge at Keflavik Airport (Icelandair.com)
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