Stark and lovely, the island nation of Iceland is rich in lore and legend, with otherworldly scenery and a long history of a sustainable approach to living.
On a sweeping road outside of Reykjavik that leads to the sea, Iceland’s dreamlike landscape stretches toward distant volcanoes, interrupted less by trees and buildings than by the occasional jumble of giant boulders. There’s nothing here to distract the eye from the blue sky, black stone, and green fields still pooled with brilliant, white snow. I feel as though I’ve landed in the middle of one of this intriguing country’s epic literary sagas detailing the mythic deeds of kings, queens, and Vikings, along with various supernatural events. Written in Old Norse dialect during the 12th and 13th centuries, the stories including the sad tale of the beautiful Gudrun and her tragic love triangle with two brothers are considered to be important literary works, often including actual historical events.
I soon discover that poetry and legend are woven seamlessly into the daily existence of Icelanders, reaching back to its settlement in the 9th century by stalwart explorers from Ireland and Norway, who brought along their Norse and Celtic mythologies and strong sense of adventure. Though the scenery has been compared more than once to the surface of the moon, the country is actually far more exotic and ethereal than such a description might suggest, with healing customs and a practical lifestyle that integrate folklore, botanical traditions, and the very environment itself.
Beside me in the car, chef and Icelandic television icon Siggi Hall, who has volunteered to be my guide for the day, points toward an undulating line of rocks along the horizon, ancient and rounded by centuries of exposure. Only, he tells me, they’re not rocks at all, but giant, sleeping trolls known as huldufolk, best left to slumber undisturbed.
He settles back against the seat, contemplative and serene, not even waiting for a reaction. Unsure of how far to take the topic, I glance back at the roadmap I’ve brought along for the ride, noting that in addition to the historic and natural attractions that are indicated, there are also numerous markings for places said to be haunted, along with other spots inhabited by what the map describes as “man-eating trolls.” Noting that this seems to be gender-specific, I also relax.
We’re on our way southeast from Reykjavik to the village of Hveragerdi, where geothermal greenhouses are used to grow fresh produce that would never survive here as outdoor crops. I’ve been lucky enough to land Chef Hall as an escort because I’ve timed my visit to overlap with the country’s annual Food & Fun Festival, and have booked my room at the Hotel Nordica & Spa, the host hotel for the festival. The event brings together chefs from all eight Nordic countries to celebrate their culinary heritage, and most of the participating chefs are also staying here.
Iceland’s combination of poor soil, short growing season, and isolation has led to a practical diet, with an emphasis on fish that can be dried and stored, lamb and dairy products derived from the same thickly-wooled Icelandic sheep, and game meats such as reindeer. Nothing is wasted, and it takes me a full week to grow accustomed to some of the commonly served dishes made from unfamiliar animal parts. Two of the more delicious foods turn out to be sweet cloudberries (known as mºltuber in Icelandic), and a thick, custard-like yogurt called skyr (pronounced skeer). A staple of Icelandic diets, skyr appears as some part of nearly every meal I’m served, whether unadorned at breakfast, used as an ingredient or garnish in other meals, or as a dessert.
“In Iceland,” Hall tells me, “food developed out of necessity. The early settlers ate what was here, what was available. Later, during the time Iceland was under Danish rule, new cuisine developed based on old, traditional Danish recipes.” Today, the cuisine has become more sophisticated, described by chefs throughout Europe and North America as New Nordic cuisine. We stop briefly at Eden, a small greenhouse-restaurant complex that boasts a banana tree and lime trees. From here, we travel onward for a half hour or so to the larger complexes outside of town, where a phenomenal number of mushrooms and tomatoes are nearly ready for harvest. Many of the greenhouses have their own resident bee colonies that pollinate the plants and thrive in the warm environment.
On the way back to Reykjavik, we stop at Laxnes Horse Farm for a ride through the countryside on Iceland’s rugged, purebred horses, famous for their smooth, rolling gait. Though I grew up riding, these horses are some of the best natured and friendly animals I’ve ever met.
Warmth and Wellness
The same geothermal energy used to produce bananas this close to the Arctic Circle also provides Iceland with roughly 87 percent of its heat. In the vast open spaces outside of the city, unobtrusive zig-zagging pipelines low to the ground transport geothermal energy into homes and businesses, while geothermal and hydropower plants create electricity. An efficient and clean fuel source, geothermal energy doesn’t produce runoff that pollutes water, air, or soil, and is so inexpensive that even some paved surfaces in Reykjavik are heated during winter months.
Geothermal waters are also a popular source of wellness and rejuvenation. There are 125 geothermal pools across the country, and swimming lessons are mandatory throughout the school system, with a good portion of Iceland’s population incorporating soaks and steams into their personal daily health regimens. In the afternoon, I make the ten-minute walk from Hotel Nordica to Laugardalur outdoor park, one of the larger public pool complexes, with its own botanical garden, multiple pools, and a variety of steam baths. In keeping with a more European tradition, there’s also a menu of therapeutic massages. I soak for the better part of an hour, and then enjoy a very businesslike deep-tissue massage that, despite the lack of frills and candlelight, is extremely restorative.
While Iceland is Europe’s northernmost country and second-largest island (behind Great Britain), it is sparsely populated, with few people living in the island’s interior. More than half of the entire population dwells in Reykjavik and its immediate vicinity. Despite its close proximity to the Arctic Circle, the climate is surprisingly mild. Those lunar landscape comparisons made by some too easily dismiss the vast expanses of soft green mosses and grasses, tumbling waterfalls, and the astonishing coastlines with their startling beaches of smooth lava pebbles. Still geologically very active, it’s home to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, and volcanoes including Laki and the infamous Hecla referenced by poet William Blake in his work To Winter as the place where winter hides once spring has arrived.
Curious about the country’s native healing traditions, I seek out medical herbalist Kolbrun Bjornsdottir. At Jurtaap³tek, her apothecary shop in the city, she dispenses a variety of native herbs that address diverse health needs, including yarrow, lady’s mantle, nettle, kelp, Icelandic thyme, Icelandic moss, and Angelica. “For a long time,” she tells me, “just as in many countries where Western orthodox medicine is practiced, herbs were almost forgotten in Iceland.” Today, as people realize that Western medicine does not perform miracles, herbs are becoming more popular.
Bjornsdottir tells me that Icelandic moss can be used in many ways, depending upon which active ingredients are needed. How the moss is prepared depends upon the condition it’s meant to address. “Many use it in porridge and boil it with oats, and you can even put in on bread,” says Bjornsdottir. “Icelandic moss has a lot of minerals and can be used as a good tonic in general. It’s also effective for gastritis or gastric ulcers, traditionally prepared as a decoction. The best time to pick it is in the rain because then it is very easy to take the moss out of the grass.”
Wandering through the shops on my way back to the hotel, I purchase a packet of Night Pasture herbal tea, made of Icelandic moss, birch, and Angelica, a blend meant to soothe my digestion, which has been inundated with unfamiliar foods. The scent of the tea is crisp and fresh, much like the air of Iceland.
More Trouble with Trolls
Back at the hotel, I run into one of the Icelandic chefs in the lobby, who’s very interested in my purchase. He makes a point of telling me that the moss and the boulders it grows upon are a widely recognized hiding place for elves, who may or may not be interested in the moss’s healing potential. I just smile and head downstairs to the spa.
Columns of blue tile, and a wall of stones accent an area dominated by steam baths, soaking tubs of various temperatures, and a shallow pool. There’s also an outdoor log cabin sauna, but I’ve decided to stay inside for a Butterfly Therapy. My therapist uses a blend of warm myrrh, orange, and oriental rose oils in a traditional full-body massage during which she alternates long strokes with a light tapping of her fingers like a butterfly landing and taking off, she explains. The intention is to gently release any blocked fluids in my muscle tissue. At first, it’s a little distracting, but after a few minutes, the sensation is quite pleasant.
The next morning dawns cold and clear, and the seashore beckons. Along the drive, I pass a hydrogen fuel service station for cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and recall reading that Iceland is the only country to do so, another example of their environmental progress. When I finally reach the coast, I discover that the beach is composed of small, black lava pebbles that have been rolled smooth by the sea. The contrast between black beach, white snow, and blue sky strikes me as a reflection of the uncomplicated, straightforward approach to daily life that seems to be a hallmark of Icelandic society.
Eventually, I reach the harbor and the small fishing village of Stokkseyri, where corrugated iron houses glow in the late afternoon sun. I make my way to Fjorubordid, a rustic lobster restaurant that sits at the edge of the harbor. Inside, it’s fragrant and cozy. The waiter, having correctly identified me as a tourist, adds to my growing base of troll knowledge by telling me the story of a small Icelandic coastal island called Drangey. A troll husband and wife, he tells me, were making their way across the water with their goat, when they were caught by the rising sun. While they were instantly turned to stone, the lucky goat managed to escape and swim away. Today, he tells me, the stone troll wife can still be seen in mid-stride next to Drangey.
The Blue Lagoon
Admittedly, I’m more interested in waters with a healing component, so I head off to the Blue Lagoon (Bl¡a L³ni° in Icelandic). Though I’ve been aware of it for years, I’m a little confused by my first glimpse, and the sight of the enormous Svartsengi Power Plant looming practically next-door. The lagoon itself was created by the runoff of mineral-rich geothermal seawater from the plant, which filled an adjacent lake. The property is a low-key, no frills facility located on a geographic line where the Euro-Asian and American tectonic plates meet. People flock to soak in the steamy water and reap the benefits of the naturally occurring algae and silica contained in the seawater.
While the main facility, with its dramatic lava stone d©cor, is for the benefit of the public, there’s also a small, private hotel with its own geothermal seawater pool. I check in, leaving my bags on the floor of the serene, Scandanavian-style room, and head immediately for the water. It’s warm, but not overly hot, and there’s a thick mist hanging over the surface where the cold air meets the water, creating the sensation of swimming within a cloud. Along the sides of the pool are several large pots containing thick, white silica mud. Following the directions of the staff, I slather it over my face and neck, allowing it to soak in before rinsing it away. The silica mud and algae, volcanic byproducts that occurs naturally here, are being studied for their skin health benefits. Later, my normally dry skin feels especially soft and supple.
Over the past several years, Blue Lagoon has become a popular destination for those who suffer from skin ailments, including psoriasis. The seawater, heated by volcanic activity, naturally contains a combination of algae, sea minerals, and silica that’s believed by some to have the ability to significantly reduce symptoms. However, Bruce Bebo, MD, Director of Research at the National Psoriasis Foundation, cautions that there is a shortage of controlled clinical studies that make it possible to say for sure how beneficial the waters really are.
“While it seems to help some people,” Bebo explains, “it’s kind of an impossible study to do. And, without a double blind study, it’s impossible to eliminate the placebo effect, or to determine with absolute certainty that the water provides a therapeutic effect.” He adds that because stress is known to trigger and exacerbate psoriasis, people enjoying a relaxing, stress-free holiday at the resort may indeed experience a relief of symptoms.
Autonomous Food Nation
Stress is the last thing on my mind as I shower and dress for the evening’s food festivities at The Nordic House, where the New Nordic Food Festival exhibition displays products and samples with a focus on sustainability, purity, renewal, variety, and the beauty of nature. In the exhibition hall, I run into Chef Jeff Tunks of famed U.S. restaurants DC Coast and TenPenh, who’s here to help judge the food competition.
“The healthiness of the Icelandic people, I feel, is a result of the many centuries of adapting to one of the most challenging climates and unique geographic locations in the world,” he offers in response to my question about his take on the health and sustainability of Icelandic culture. “Basically, [being]dropped off in the middle of the North Atlantic and left to themselves for the last 1,100 years has created a resilient and self-dependant society. They have to be healthy if not, they would not have survived the hardships that the Icelandic landscape provides.
“Because of their isolation,” continues Tunks, “they and their food sources livestock breeds have not been affected with disease. This enables them to raise lamb, cattle, dairy, etc. without the needs for antibiotics and hormones. Socially, the hot pools have been a cultural and health-centered regimen that’s embraced every morning and evening, and passed down from generation to generation as [part of]a healthy lifestyle.”
After the exhibition hall closes, I say my farewells to the chefs who have been such wonderful company over the past week. Chef Hall, all smiles, finds me, and gifts me with a copy of his cookbook which, unfortunately, is in Icelandic. No matter, I tell him. Whether I can read the recipes or not, I’ll always remember how he kept me safe from those ubiquitous trolls.
Icelandair’s service to Reykjavik is available from these North American gateways: Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York’s JFK, Toronto, Orlando, and Halifax. Flights continue on to several European destinations, with multi-day layovers in Iceland available at no additional ticket cost. Flights include an onboard menu created by master chefs Siggi Gisla and Stefan Vioarsson. A shuttle from the Blue Lagoon makes multiple runs daily to and from the airport. If you’ve got a long enough layover, you can hop the shuttle and take the short ride out to enjoy a soak in the hot waters before catching your connection. Showers and lockers large enough to store your carryon luggage are available.
A Little Closer to Home
A little closer to home, Cornelia Day Resort in New York City offers treatments based on Blue Lagoon’s geothermal seawater, with its healing cocktail of minerals, silica, and algae. Enjoy a Blue Lagoon Balancing Mineral Soak and Body Therapy, with soak, wrap and massage; Blue Lagoon Facial with a focus on your choice of anti-aging, hydration, or detoxification; Blue Lagoon Nourishing Algae Wrap and Massage with mineral salts, oils, and Iceland algae; or a Blue Lagoon Energizing Silica Body Therapy and Massage with a soak in the Watsu pool, and silica massage.