By Susan Huff
It has been five years since I was last in Iceland when I lived there with my husband as Records Preservation Missionaries volunteering at The National Archives of Iceland, scanning documents for FamilySearch and for the Archives. As we drove into Reykjavík from the airport, I was overcome with emotions, seeing again the unique, beautiful landscapes of Iceland. A rush of memories came over me as I saw familiar sights.
We lived in Reykjavík in 2017 and 2018. During that time, we saw many uncompleted building projects around the outskirts of Reykjavík. We were told by Icelanders that these uncompleted buildings were from the economic crash of 2008. Iceland was hit very hard by the crash. Many Icelanders lost their jobs and struggled to survive economically. Our neighbors in our Reykjavík apartment were just returning to Iceland in 2017; both parents had lost their jobs in 2008 and the family moved to Norway. The wife came back to Iceland with their children, but her husband remained in Norway where he had a great job; he came home to visit the family every 6 weeks from Norway.
Now as I was returning to Iceland in 2023, for a special 10 year anniversary trip for Icelandic Roots, it was striking that the shells of buildings that we saw in 2018 were now all completed buildings, an indicator that the economy of Iceland is doing better since we left.
A Flood of Memories
My daughter, Alisa, was my traveling companion for this trip. We arrived two days early in Reykjavík before the tour began so that I could see old friends, which was wonderful. Walking around Reykjavík brought back a flood of memories from our time living there. The first day, Alisa and I walked along the harbor all the way past the Viking Museum on the far side of the harbor, to my favorite ice cream store, Valdís. I video-called my husband outside the Valdís store, to show him I was visiting one of our hangouts. Sometimes after a hard day at work, my husband and I would drive over to Valdís for a double scoop of Icelandic ice cream; so delicious! Then we would drive over across from the Grótta lighthouse at Seltjarnarness and watch the waves and sea birds while we ate our ice cream. Such great memories! Icelandic dairy products are extraordinarily delicious: skyr, cheese, ice cream, cream, and milk! When we walked the long walk back to our hotel after enjoying our ice cream, I noticed a Valdís store about a block from our hotel!! But the long walk was a great way to see downtown Reykjavík.
While we walked around Reykjavík, I noticed a few of our favorite restaurants and shops were no longer open, most likely a result of Covid. The first item I purchased from one of the shops was a wool hat with Icelandic sheep, which I wore every day on our tour to keep warm. I loved visiting Harpa Concert Hall and Halgrímskirkja again.
The Tour Begins
After two days in Reykjavík, we were ready to join our Icelandic Roots tour. One of my favorite parts of this trip was meeting other volunteers and spending time with them, getting to know them better. Many of us had only met over Zoom previous to this trip. What an awesome group of travelers! These folks are definitely "my people," and now my dear friends.
This tour was very specialized for our group of Icelandic Roots volunteers with private receptions, tours, and cousin meetings thanks to Sunna Furstenau and Doug Hansen. Our first stop was Bessastaðir, the residence of the President of Iceland and his family. We were hosted by First Lady, Eliza Reid. She was a gracious host, and it was fun to see the works of art at Bessastaðir.
At Eyrarbakki we toured the museum and climbed on the sea wall to look out to the ocean. We traveled on to Hotel Skálholt, where we had fabulous accommodations next to a beautiful, unusual church with colorful stained glass made by Gerður Helgadóttir. The diocese was founded in Skálholt in 1056, and the new church was completed in 1956 to commemorate 900 years since the diocese was founded. We visited Gullfoss waterfall and drove past Geysir.
Guide for the Day
Day three took us to south Iceland, where my great-grandmother, Jóhanna Jónsdóttir was born. This part of Iceland is a scenic wonder to behold. I signed up to be "guide for the day" on the bus because I love this part of Iceland. Although we didn't travel to Vestmannaeyjar, I shared information with the group about the island, and we actually caught a glimpse of the island in the distance from our bus. We had stops at Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Reynisfjara (the black sand beach with beautiful basalt columns), and Jökusárlón (a glacier lagoon). I visited Skógafoss several times while we lived in Iceland and the water was always clear. However, on the day we visited, the water was muddy and there was a lot of water flowing over the falls. Our bus driver told us that heat from the earth melts ice under a glacier in deep caverns. Pressure builds up, and the water breaks through into the river, which is the muddy water we witnessed coming over the falls. The river was also higher and faster than I had seen in the past, so we were cautioned to stay away from the river. We were also cautioned by our driver to watch for sneaker waves at Reynisfjara. Some tourists were pulled out to sea by a sneaker wave.
We traveled on south and then to east Iceland. We held an Icelandic Roots sponsored port plaque ceremony in Seyðisfjörður to honor the Icelanders who left from this port. We enjoyed some time in this quaint port city. Then on to Egilsstaðir and relaxing at Vök Baths, with its warm springs. The infinity pool looks like we were swimming out in the lake.
This was my first time in east Iceland. I loved all the new sights. I loved the Wilderness Center tour and our stay at the lovely Lake Hotel Egilsstaðir. It was great to visit the East Iceland Emigration Center and visit the Bustarfell Museum in Vopnafjörður where we met up with Icelandic Roots volunteers who live in Iceland and had the second port ceremony at the Hof church yard.
In north Iceland we visited Myvatn, Goðafoss, and Akureyri. The power and majesty of Goðafoss is breathtaking. In Akureyri we walked through the Botanical Gardens, visited the Akureyrarkirkja Church, and walked through the downtown business district. One of my favorite parts of the entire trip was visiting the Hælið Tuberculosis Museum. María Pálsdóttir restored the hospital to its former state and has done a fabulous job of telling the tragic story of tuberculosis, the Great White Plague, which was widespread in Iceland. This hospital was a place of safety for those who were infected with the disease.
After Akureyri, we traveled to Hofsós to visit The Icelandic Emigration Center. The views from the bus were spectacular along the way. We stopped at Hólar Cathedral and had a tour by Bishop Gislí Gunnarsson, who we found is related to several of us volunteers. Then on to Sauðárkrókur for the third Icelandic Roots sponsored plaque ceremony on a hill with a magnificent view of the harbor below. The Icelanders who participated with us wore the traditional dress and hosted a reception afterwards.
We participated in the fourth port plaque ceremony, this time in Borðeyri, which was once an important, vibrant trade center, but now has a population of only 16. Icelandic Roots had previously donated to restore the historic Riishús building. At each port ceremony we were met by many people from the area and they served us coffee and treats.
We explored Borgarnes on our way to Reykjavík. We visited Deildartunguhver Hot Springs, the Settlement Center, and the Leif Eiriksson Center, and went inside a replica of a longhouse (very cool). I really enjoyed the creative displays in the Leif Eiriksson Center.
Back to Reykjavík
Our 10 year anniversary trip came full circle as we arrived back in Reykjavík. Alisa and I attended a concert at Harpa and walked around the city. What a wonderful trip! I am so thankful to Doug Hansen for all his planning for this trip and to Sunna Furstenau for her leadership and vision with Icelandic Roots.
Icelandic Roots volunteer Jack Plumley created a short video of the 2023 Icelandic Roots Icelandic Plaque Dedication Tour. Watch it here.