Updated: August 10, 2014 at 10:49 am
It's nearly midnight in Iceland when we land at Keflavik International Airport. In most places, the sky would be pitch-black. But here, it's like the gray of a late-evening drizzle.
Iceland might be the most intriguing nation in Europe. It's a country of the midnight sun when it's not cloudy. A country of vast wilderness and natural beauty with seemingly endless waterfalls, glaciers and hot springs. A country where a sunny day of 60 degrees is a sign of a heat wave. A country of potential danger where a volcano could erupt at any time.
"It's long overdue," a tour guide said of one volcano. "And, if it goes, it could disrupt international (air) traffic for four months."
Volcanoes are so prevalent that Icelandair names each of its planes after one. The red in the nation's flag symbolizes volcanic fires. A drive from the airport to the capital of Reykjavik is reminiscent of being on a moonscape.
Then there are the earthquakes. The "Hot Springs Capital of the World," or Hverageroi, has a strange visitors center in which tourists can walk on a glass walkway above a split in the Earth's surface. It's from a 2008 quake that registered 6.3 on the Richter scale. If that isn't enough, you can peek into a kitchen that still is littered with broken dishes and other debris. You see, the visitors center was someone's house when the quake hit that day.
Volcanoes and earthquakes formed Iceland and play large roles in the very nature of what it is today. So much so that a must-see destination is the Blue Lagoon, a thermal pool of milky blue water surrounded by lava rock. One of the many tours there includes taking a dip before heading to the Keflavik airport.
According to the website Iceland.Is, a major eruption occurs every five years on the island, which is home to between 30 and 40 active volcanoes, meaning they "have erupted within the last few years." The most infamous of these is Mount Hekla, which Iceland.Is says has erupted 18 times since 1104 with the most recent lasting two weeks in 2000. Earlier this year and two months before our trip, a University of Iceland geoscientist predicted it would erupt again soon.
Perhaps that's why Iceland and its more than 320,000 residents - smaller than the population of Colorado Springs - seem rather odd to the point of being humorous. As you enter the country through its airport, a large billboard featuring a cow reads, "There are many wonders in a cow's head." More than half of the population reportedly believes in elves. Fermented shark and dried fish chips are among the favorite foods. Horse meat also is a traditional choice, even though we didn't find any restaurants that served it. (And who would want to eat the beautiful and gentle Icelandic horse anyway?)
Many of the soups and foods are delicious. One restaurant, called Fish Store Seabaron, near the coastline of Reykjavik, serves whale steak, shrimp and other seafood. However, the specialty is a tasty lobster soup with bread. It's worth sitting family-style across from people who don't speak your language but instantly smile when they taste the soup.
There are coffee and pastry shops for those who don't like seafood or are not adventurous in their food selection.
Reykjavik also has several modern art museums, which are, yes, somewhat odd, too - the Saga Museum that gives you the history of the island by using lifelike wax figures; the architecturally unusual Harpa music hall; and the Hallgrimskirkju, the country's largest church with a front that resembles a space shuttle turned on its end. Iceland even has its own language, Icelandic, described by Iceland.Is as a "Germanic language derived from Old Norse," with some words that have seemingly an endless number of letters. English is commonly spoken there, but if you're blond and blue-eyed, you'll probably have Icelandic spoken to you first.
As one of the few European countries that doesn't use the euro, Iceland has the krona. Although the exchange rate is good, prices still seem relatively high. Sticker shock will occur often when you see the cost of a meal total 3000 krona, or a little more than $26.
So take advantage of a layover in Iceland or a trip there if you're not afraid of potential volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, love scenic wonders, can stand some cold and rain, are adventurous with your food tastes, believe in elves, like long days in the summer and have a sense of humor. You'll leave with many wonders in your head while also wondering what wonders there actually are in a cow's.