At Home in the Land of Extreme

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Iceland Farm Holidays offers an intimate introduction to a country steeped in mist, mystery, and majesty

By Kate Siber

Iceland is famous for its extremes. It's where volcanoes meet glaciers, where the constant brightness of summer relieves the darkness of winter, and where the harshness of the climate belies the warmth of the people. During one of my first days in Iceland, I experienced perhaps the most enjoyable of the country's contrasts: after a thrill ride down the icy, rollicking Class II-III Hvita River, I retired to the warm comfort of a local farmer's guest room.

That day, under a milky sky, I'd wound through fields, farm houses, and lava-rock hills on the gravel roads of southeast Iceland. By mid-afternoon I arrived at Arctic Rafting's headquarters to find 35 exuberant Icelandic teenagers on a graduation trip, tangled in a mess of wetsuits, booties, helmets, and life preservers.

"You can't sleep too much here during the summer," said a calm mom and chaperone with large blue eyes and a blond bob. "There's always time to sleep later on."

That proved to be a sentiment common among adventurous Icelanders, who embrace the summer with unrivaled enthusiasm after enduring the country's cold, dark winters. For the next two hours, we bounced through rapids named Bad Omen, Keyhole, and Titanic, laughing gleefully with every drop and splash. We rolled through a black volcanic-tuff canyon, where the kids dared each other to jump from a 15-foot cliff into the bone-numbing water, and by hilly farmland where wild horses watched our curious group pass.

Satiated and tuckered out, I drove 15 minutes to my abode for the night: Efsti Dalur, a horse and dairy farm perched on a hill with views over the countryside, dotted with the white steam of geothermal vents. After quieting the resident Australian shepherds and mistakenly stumbling upon the milking parlor, I finally found the proprietress, a fair-haired woman named Bjork (no relation to the songstress) feeding the horses. She showed me to my cozy, wood-paneled room, where a giant bed beckoned with down duvets and a hand-stitched quilt—a perfect nook to warm up and pass out in preparation for what the next day might bring.

Efsti Dalur has hosted guests for six years now and is among the growing number of farms that are putting up travelers through Icelandic Farm Holidays, an organization that links farmers and tourists. The association has grown from a smattering of farms across Iceland in 1980 to more than 150 today, many of which are situated next to the country's prime attractions, hiking trails, and geothermal pools. A number are also trying to green their operations by reducing energy and water use and serving only local and organic food. The lodging varies from simple rooms in a historic farmhouse to newly built guest cottages, but all provide a warm, personal welcome, a distinct change from more traditional accommodations—not to mention the hearty European breakfasts. A week-long hop-scotch through the farm network on the southern coast of Iceland (while sampling some of the country's ample hiking, rafting, diving, and hot springs) lets you revel in Iceland's greatest polarity: the thrill of exploring its wilds and the delight of its countryside hospitality.

After breakfast at Efsti Dalur, I followed roads that curved through black-rock hills about an hour west to Thingvellir National Park, site of the Vikings' first parliament and where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. At the visitor center, I met Tinna Sigurdardottir, my guide from Arctic Adventures, who had light brown eyes to match her light brown hair, delicate features, and a perpetually calm visage hardly reflective of her Viking ancestry. We drove through the Tolkeinesque landscape of green lichen-covered lava rock and stark, snow-covered peaks. After stopping by the side of the road at an unnamed pull-out, we donned helmets and headlamps and tromped through the lava-rock fields to a tiny hole, the entrance to a half-kilometer-long lava tube called Gjabakki Cave.

Icelandic people are famous for fanciful stories of elves and trolls, which reportedly live in dank caves like Gjabakki, and routinely divert roads and development projects around suspected elf homes. Though Tinna tells me Icelanders make up those stories to make children behave, in a landscape of mist-shrouded hoodoos and secret caves like this one, it's easy to believe in magical beings.

In this 60-foot-deep cave, however, there were more real dangers. The molten lava froze so quickly that the conical drips were still visible on the cave ceiling. During earthquakes, the soft rock falls down in chunks, so we could do nothing but hope that the nearby tectonic rift wouldn't hiccup that day. After clambering over and under rocks veiled in ice, we stopped for a hot chocolate and turned off our headlamps, blinking in the spooky black.

That afternoon, I drove east, down the coast through endlessly distracting scenery: waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet down seaside cliffs, black-sand beaches, and emerald hillsides dotted with cotton-ball lambs. Just before evening, I found Geirland Farm in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, little more than a gas station and an empty pizza parlor. Of Iceland's 300,000 people, about half live in Reykjavik, which means the countryside remains blissfully empty.

Geirland consists mostly of a ramshackle barn in the middle of sheep pastures and a set of shiny new guest houses made of corrugated-metal siding, a trendy building material in a country nearly devoid of trees. While the rooms were comfortably modern, with leather chairs, down duvets, and electric kettles with supplies of hot chocolate and tea, the views were the most memorable. In one direction, green flats melted into the sea, while in the other a waterfall thundered over the steep black cliffs of a box canyon. Nearby, amid the green pastures, sheep and lambs grazed. This, I realized, is one advantage of staying in farms: their locations are unfailingly bucolic.

Then again, just about all of the roadside scenery along Iceland's southern coast is grandly beautiful. Behind fields of figure-like lava-rock formations, glaciers steamroll down the rocky seaside valleys. Unmarked side roads could lead to a number of treasures: a view of a quiet, kingly glacier calving icebergs into a mirror-like lagoon or a river valley hugged by steep multi-colored sand walls. Stand anywhere for long enough and you'll begin to see the hidden features of this stark but beautiful landscape, like the dozens of waterfalls trickling and thundering over cliffs.

The same holds true for the many trails that lead into the hills from the end of these dirt roads. In Skaftafell National Park, I followed a trail blindly and found myself at Svartifoss, a 100-foot waterfall framed by a natural cathedral of white and black columnar basalt. Another couple of miles through alpine tundra led me to utter solitude at Svonaripa, a lookout point over the Skaftafell Glacier, which resembled raw marble, all pocked and lined with veins. A glacial lagoon at the bottom reflected the clouds while a river meandered over moraines and gravel to the sea on the sun-scorched horizon.

Iceland, I was discovering, is a place where you can have your wilderness and your comforts, too. About 90 minutes east along the ring road in a harbor town called Hofn, I found that night's home. The proprietor, Asmundur Gislason, a schoolteacher from Reykjavik, moved to Hofn for a quieter life and decided to run Arnanes, a small guesthouse with a few horses and sweeping views of the coast and its glaciers. From my cozy dormered room on the second floor of the old farmhouse, I watched the clouds swirl about the coastal mountains. Fog adds a mysterious quality to Iceland's otherworldly landscape, making the glimpses of wild rock formations all the more breath-taking for their brevity.

On my way back to Reykjavik several days later, I stopped in Skaftafell National Park once again for a hike and a break from the steering wheel. I had heard about some hot springs in Skaftafell, but when I asked the woman manning the otherwise-empty visitor center about them, she looked ruffled.

"They aren't on the map because we don't want to encourage people to go there, but if they ask, we tell them," she said. "They're up on this mountainside," she said cryptically, pointing to a ridgeline on the topographical map. "You'll find them."

I wasn't so sure, but off I went, hiking along a ridge with clear vistas of the glacial valley below. I crossed a footbridge over a wide and brawny glacial river and traversed the mile-wide valley with not a soul in sight.

I neared the hillside, then contoured along it, testing out springs for their temperature, but all were cold. After an hour of traipsing over talus and tundra, I cursed the park attendant and myself and just about gave up. But after hiking all the way back up the trail, I spotted what looked like a seldom-used path tucked in some bushes, leading up the hillside. I followed it, lumbering through the thick streamside brush, until I came upon a tiny little pool formed by a rock wall and just big enough for two. I tested the waters: bathwater hot. I stripped to my swimsuit and sat in the pool, watching the butterflies flit about, the bumblebees tending to the day's business, and the view over the whole glacial valley, the lush ridgeline, and the glacier beyond it. Entirely alone, I could almost believe it was my own magnificent kingdom.

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