an island of extreme beauty
Story, photos, and drawings by Alberto Rey

The writer’s children amid glacial discards.

The smooth sputtering sound of the outboard motor was interrupted by the loud hollow clunking of floating ice hitting the wooden floor of the small inflatable raft. Small bright blue waves radiated off the vessel as it maneuvered around the 1,500-year-old towers of ice that rose thirty feet over our heads. The ten percent of the icebergs that were visible showed traces of Icelandic landscapes collected during their travels as part of Vatnajokull, the third largest glacier in the world. Remnants of this glacier now line the valleys along the coast. At the foot of this particular valley, the receding glacier has formed a lagoon. The placid cerulean blue water is filled with floating pieces waiting out the twenty years that it will take for them to get small enough to drift through a small shallow river flowing into the North Atlantic. The lagoon was surprisingly quiet as the drifting icebergs blocked most of the constantly blowing wind that characterizes this island’s weather.

I have been to Iceland twice before on fishing trips, searching for isolated beauty as much as for the unique fish species that swim through the island’s pristine waters. Visions of this lagoon at Jökulsárlón and the countless other examples of Iceland’s extreme beauty have haunted me since the moment I left the island’s black lava shoreline. I promised myself that someday I would share these scenes.

A few years have passed since I made that promise, and my wife and I now have two young children. We live in a farmhouse in a small college town outside of Buffalo. Most of my time is spent teaching at the college, painting in my studio, or feeding my addiction to fly fishing. My children spend most of their time in school and at after-school activities. We feel fortunate when we can all get together for dinner. The weekends aren’t much better, with household chores and social obligations added to the schedule. Family trips have become our opportunity to abandon our schedules, reconnect to each other, and create quality family memories. The trips also provide an environment for the children to learn lessons about patience and humility while the parents rediscover the innocence and raw sense of joy that is innate to children. Our recent trip to Iceland was marked by similar bouts of eye-watering laughter mixed in amongst hours of repeated renditions of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” and a version of the alphabet game using Icelandic road signs and license plates.

Iceland’s Vik Beach.
A glacier river.
Laufkalavarda, or, Iceland’s version of the “rock pile.”
A map of Iceland.
The Hotel Klauster in Kirkjubaejarklaustur.
A view of Skogarfloss.
The Jökulsárlón iceberg.
A coastal home.
On the plane to Iceland.
On the plane from Iceland.
Luckily for our sanity, our route also provided amazing side trips every ten to fifteen minutes to waterfalls, lava fields, glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, thick, moss-covered mounds, hot mineral springs, and black sand beaches. Every side trip presented its own memorable set of experiences that by itself would be worthy of its own article.

There are very many unique aspects about traveling to Iceland, but perhaps the most impressive is that there is no shortage of opportunities to be alone amid the country’s natural beauty. There is no monitoring of your activities. It is refreshing to visit a country that seems to promote a universal sense of respect for the sites and leaves visitors responsible for their own safety. You will be able to stand with your shoes touching the water on the edges of a geyser as it erupts. You can walk behind one of the hundreds of waterfalls. You can grab bits of thousand-year-old ice and taste its primordial flavor. You can investigate hidden caves. You can jump off mounds of lava that stretch from the glacier-covered volcanoes to the black pulverized lava beaches.

After a winter in Buffalo, why go to ICEland?
You might think that Iceland would be a crazy destination after spending a blustery winter in Buffalo, but the summer climate is surprisingly moderate, with temperatures in the mid-fifties and sixties. Also, the twenty-four hours of daylight has a way of eliminating those winter blues. For golf fanatics, there is a thirty-six-hole open international midnight golf tournament that is the Arctic Open Golf Championship, held at the end of June. For those who like to return home with a tan, a few hours at the hot silica springs of the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik will secure that George Hamilton look. The winters along the southern coast of Iceland are often milder than ours due to the island’s proximity to the Gulf Stream, but the season’s constant darkness is a drawback. The Atlantic current and Iceland’s closeness to the North Pole create constant winds that can change the weather frequently throughout a summer day, but the island remains beautiful under most conditions.

Another unexpected asset to Iceland is how accessible most destinations are by car. Route 1, the only road that circumvents the entire island, is well maintained although its surface varies from perfectly manicured black volcanic pavement to gravel in some of the more secluded regions. This main thoroughfare with its many smaller roads manage to take you within walking distance of some of the most incredible sites you will ever see.

After reading this description of the island’s pristine beauty, you might also be surprised to find that Reykjavik is a sprawling metropolis of over 270,000 people, accounting for eighty-five percent of the island’s population. The city boasts several world-class museums, restaurants, and designer stores catering to residents whose average annual income is over $50,000 and to European tourists who have chosen Iceland as their number-one destination for outdoor adventure and eco-tourism. (The decline of the American dollar will obviously affect your purchasing power.)

Special side trip for Buffalonians:
About an hour east of Vik, on the southern coast of Iceland, you will find a small pullout on your left off of Route 1. You won’t be able to miss the hundreds of piles of small rocks built by travelers on their way to Jökulsárlón. Legend says that building one of these will secure good luck in your travels. If you look on the ground just left of the Laufkalavarda sign, you will find a pile with a “Buffalo” candy bar, the Icelandic version of a crunchy Mello Cup, as its base. If you disassemble the pile, add your own memento and a few of your own rocks, take a picture of yourself behind the pile, and the sign and send it in to Buffalo Spree for possible inclusion in the magazine. This will be our Icelandic version of Buffalo’s Rock Pile.

Icelandic top picks
If you want to treat yourself, stay at least one night at the Hotel Nordica in Reykjavik (, the spot where you are most likely to meet a celebrity. Many of the actors and filmmakers stayed here when filming scenes at Jökulsárlón for Tomb Raider, Batman Begins, and the James Bond film Die Another Day. The hotel provides Reykjavik’s most modern interpretation of Scandinavian design. Your stay also comes with the city’s best breakfast which includes shot glasses full of designer cod liver oil, marinated herring, and smoked wild salmon along with an international assortment of breakfast items. In contrast to the cosmopolitan tone of the Nordica, Hotel Budir ( is the coziest, most serene, secluded hotel located on one of the island’s most beautiful regions. In March of this year, it was voted one of the top twenty secret European hotels by England’s Sunday Times. The hotel is two hours north of Reykjavik, situated on a beach right below a Snaefellsjökull glacier, and on the edge of a lava field. The hotel’s only neighbor is a small black church with white windows overlooking the seashore to the east; to the west is a moss-covered lava field that, according to legend, is home to a large colony of leprechauns. I would not leave Iceland without checking out this hotel.

While you are there, make sure you take the half-hour ride across the peninsula to the small, beautiful fishing village of Stykkishólmur where you will find Roni Horn’s Library of Water, a contemporary artist’s permanent aquatic installation of the island’s glaciers. The harbor tour is a bird watcher’s dream where you will be sure to see Arctic terns, eider ducks, puffins, oystercatchers, white tail eagles, kittiwake, and black guillemot.

When it comes to breathtaking culinary delights, our best restaurant experience occurred at the Hotel Geysir located just over an hour inland from Reykjavik. It is situated just outside a natural phenomenon that was first given the name “geysir” here. The cod and wild salmon were wonderful and from your seat you can see the Strokkur geyser erupt every five to seven minutes

My last top recommendation is the outdoor spa and massage at the Blue Lagoon. A warm wet blanket is placed over you as you lay atop a foam pad floating in hot silica-rich spring water. The sun and water warm you as the masseuse deftly works your body. After twenty minutes you are left to float around the lagoon in total bliss.

Travel recommendations and bargain opportunities
If you are thinking of going to Iceland sign up for Icelandair’s e-mail newsletter (—it regularly posts the best bargains on airfare. Our flight ended up being under $500 roundtrip per person and their service was stellar. It reminded me of what airline service used to be in its heyday. I would also recommend flying out of Boston instead of JFK. Boston’s Icelandair terminal is easier to get to, less crowded, and much less stressful.

Guided tours are available, but I would recommend the self-drive ones over the bus tours that are usually very crowded and restrictive. The self-drive tour agencies ( arrange hotels and possible destinations for you while providing you the freedom to go at your own pace. You can, of course, arrange your own itinerary by getting a tour book and rental car.

Fly fishing in Iceland is notoriously expensive but if you are looking to catch your first Atlantic salmon or Artic char in some of the most pristine and secluded areas of the world, then I would recommend Angling Service Strengir ( Packages vary by species and dates, but bargains are available. When looking for the best prices on high quality Icelandic sweaters and souvenirs, go to Iceland Giftstore Rammagerdin, the island’s largest gift shop in old downtown Reykjavik, and to Atsons for fish leather wallets and purses. It might be one of the few places in the world that manufacture this unique and surprisingly durable item.

Iceland is a unique destination that will provide memories for a lifetime, but don’t be surprised if you want to plan your next visit soon after you return. My wife is already making an itinerary to focus on the sites we missed on our last visit to the island of extreme beauty.

Alberto Rey is a painter, fly fisherman and Distinguished Professor at SUNY Fredonia.


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