I packed about 40 nut and grain bars before leaving for Iceland. The northern country has more of a reputation for fish, lamb and fermented shark than for vegetarian food. But my worries proved fruitless. Everyone I met in southern Iceland more or less understood the concept of vegetarianism, and cooks were willing to create nut burgers or at least cook a few potatoes for me.
Strengthened by root vegetables, I was able to turn my attention to Iceland’s more interesting aspects. My 10 days there focused on water, hot and cold. Between icy glaciers and geothermal springs created by Iceland’s volcanoes, many attractions involve water. I traversed the popular 300-km Golden Circle tour route in southern Iceland and spent almost a week in Reykjavik, the capital.
About 130 volcanic mountains dot the small country. Eighteen have blown their tops since human settlement in 900 AD. The constant tectonic activity means plates shift and Icelanders can suddenly have a hot steamy vent in their backyard. Or worse, under their house.
During my trip, thervolcano Bardarbunga threatened to erupt in a big way. So I got to experience a little of what the Icelandic people do: Go on about their lives knowing that at any time there might be a huge disruption in air traffic, cell coverage, availability of food, water and utilities and destruction of built property. While I heard occasional speculation about which way the volcano would blow and how bad it might be, people went on working and living as usual. And with tourism being Iceland’s biggest industry – it eclipsed fishing in 2013 – I was able to avail myself of the opportunities provided by a land of volcanoes and glaciers.
As glaciers melt, rivers swell and waterfalls thrive. Marveling at torrents of water is popular with both individual visitors and busloads of tourists. I visited Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. The latter two fall off Eyjafjallajokull volcano – also known as E15, because non-Icelanders are hopeless at pronouncing it. This volcano garnered worldwide fame in 2010 for disrupting more than 100,000 European flights. If you want to see the top of Skogafoss, prepare to climb more than 400 stairs. Gullfoss is an easier walk and offers an impressively powerful waterfall.
Another favorite stop along the Golden Circle, Strokkur geyser shoots 100 feet into the air every few minutes. Crowds gather, trying to catch the action with their phone cameras. The Geysir Hot Springs area offers an easy walk between geysers and boiling pits of mud. Here you can breathe deeply of Iceland’s distinctive sulfur smell.
If paved paths to waterfalls and geysers strike you as too sedate, go rafting. Arctic Rafting outfitted my group with wetsuits and booties for our trip down the Hvita River. Keep in mind that September in Iceland is still plenty cold. I got nervous during our guide’s extensive instructions on what to do if you fell out of the raft. Between cold water and sharp rocks, I figured I was a goner. Luckily I managed to stay in the raft for our 90-minute trip through rapids and quiet drifting. During the serene parts, our 20-something guide urged us to try standing on the end of the raft while everyone paddled in a circle to test our balance. We all looked at her like she was crazy. But some of the people in other rafts on the river stood, balanced, fell in and were successfully hauled out.
I’d especially looked forward to snorkeling between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park. This glacier-fed fissure called Silfra is deemed one of the world’s top 10 diving spots. While a lack of nutrients in the water mean no fish, the photos I’d seen depicted a cavernous blue hole with amazing visibility and rock formations.
However, on a gray, windy, rainy day, it was hard to psyche myself into donning the requisite layers –thermal underwear, hugely puffy teddy bear suit, dry suit, hood, boots, wetsuit gloves, fins, snorkel and mask –and get in 38-degree glacial water. Also, it turned out that the blue in the pictures came from the sky. Turns out, on a gray day you see a big gray cavern of rocks.
Afterward, our group of 17 snorkelers was split. Some of us were chilled beyond appreciation of nature. But the hardy young skiers in our group all thought it was pretty rad.
After the freezing snorkeling expedition, I decided hot water was for me. Icelanders socialize in geothermal baths and I had the opportunity to check out a few.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. This huge lagoon between Reykjavik and the Keflavik international airport accommodates busloads of international visitors. Here you can apply a silica mud mask while bobbing around in the water. It makes for a very warm and pleasant experience.
Back in the Golden Circle, Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths gets its fair share of tourists, but still manages to feel like a much more local scene than the Blue Lagoon. You can choose from three different pools, each progressively hotter. I found myself in the hottest, about 100 degrees, with a rowdy group of beer-drinking Icelandic men.
There’s also a nice café at Laugarvatn Fontana where you can get sandwiches made out of rye bread cooked in volcanic steam vents and fresh smoothies.
The geothermal beach is a couple of miles from the main part of Reykjavik. Here you can bathe in an area of the sea that’s been heated with geothermal water. This is a better activity for July or August. In September, you’ll shiver in your swimsuit. However, the hot pool is perfect year-round.
Veg Food Recommendations
Woman cannot live by water alone in Iceland, so I ventured out for some surprisingly good vegetarian food. Here are my best recommendations.
The best vegetarian food I ate was at Glo in Reykjavik. Go here for fresh food and sleek Nordic design. Iceland is an expensive place, but Glo offers good value. I got soup and bread with choice of three fresh salads for about $13. A steal, for Iceland. You can also get raw food specialties here.
If you’re touring around the Golden Circle, time your visit to Strokkur to coincide with lunch at the Gulfoss Café. Vegetarians and vegans will appreciate an extensive salad bar, bread, potatoes and even lentils. If you like sweets, don’t miss the chewy macaroon bites on the dessert bar.
Ecstasy’s Heart Garden
Ecstasy’s Heart Garden is one of the many vegetarian restaurants around the world run by students of the late Indian meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy. There’s not a lot of choice here. You get the special of the day, soup, bread and salad for about $14. The special is vegetarian, but may or may not be vegan. While eating, you can skim Sri Chinmoy’s books of quotations, including one of my favorites: “What comes to me unmistakably is what I carefully or carelessly invite.”
Reykjavik Hotel Natura
I spent six nights at this hotel and had plenty of opportunities to check out its breakfast buffet. Two magic words I did not expect to encounter in Iceland: soy milk. Add it to your coffee, granola, or oat and barley porridge. You’ll also find lots of fruit, bread, a few salad vegetables, pastries, potatoes and vegetarian baked beans. They even have a gluten-free section.