Iceland geysir
High on Adventure


Checking Out Iceland and Greenland
Story and photos by Brad Hathaway
  Norway waterfall   Norway glacier   Norway fjord  

Last time, we explored the eastern half of what I call the Arctic Arc. We found that there was more to fascinate and thrill in Norway than just waterfalls, glaciers and fjords. Now it was time to travel to the western portion of the Arc: Iceland and Greenland.

These two countries share a common history with Norway as they were settled by Vikings nearly twelve centuries ago.

The very name Viking is a derivative of the Norwegian word “vik” meaning someone who came from the fjords. And, famously, it was the Viking desire to discourage people from coming to the lovely green land they had settled that made them call it “Iceland”—while they didn’t mind if settlers tried to find spots not covered by the ice shelf of the larger ice-covered island, so they called it “Greenland.”

At least, that’s the favorite version of the story—there’s no real proof of the who and why for the first naming of these lands. The truth is obscured by the mists of history. What is generally known is that Vikings began to arrive in Greenland in the 70s…the 870s that is.

Viking settlement in Greenland, on the other hand, probably dates to about a century later - the 980s.

  Iceland flag   Iceland map  

In 1972, in the midst of the cold war, the world chess champion, Russian Boris Spassky, and American challenger, Bobby Fischer, matched wits in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. That may have been the moment when the world first focused on this beautiful, rugged and unique nation.

But then, in 1986, it was back in the news as US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, held a summit in Reykjavik. That summit failed to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles that was its goal, but it laid the foundation for future successful negotiations.

Then, again, the world’s focus was on Iceland in 2010 when one of the relatively small nation’s 130 volcanoes, the mouthfully-named Eyjafjallajökull, erupted spewing ash as high as seven miles into the jet stream. That stream distributed the ash over much of Europe and many countries had to ground all air transport because the ash, if ingested into jet engines, could stop them from working.

Today, the country is known by most travelers for its scenic beauty, but there is a thriving and unique community of over 350,000 Icelanders living and working in an area about the size of Kentucky. It is a completely independent country, having become a sovereign state within the Kingdom of Denmark at the end of World War I and then achieving complete independence at the end of World War II.

Iceland is a free-market, capitalist nation with a strong welfare system and a notably even distribution of income. Its Gross National Product Per Capita of over $52,000 ranks #25 among 229 countries of the world, while the equality of its distribution among all families is better than all but eight.

Our visit began in the northern municipality of Akureyri, home to just under 20,000 Icelanders. Our very first discovery was an example of fine architecture in service of cultural activities that seems to be remarkably typical of Nordic countries—the HoF Cultural and Conference Center, home for the North Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the TonAk School of Music and conference facilities. Designed by the architecture firm Arkþing, its exterior is a huge disc of Icelandic igneous rock which belies the warmth of its wood paneled interior.

  Iceland, Akureyri Hof cultural and conference center   Iceland, Akureyri Hof cultural and conference center  
Exterior and interior of the HoF Cultural and Conference Center in Akureyri

It wasn’t the only notable building in Akureyri, however. We were impressed by its church on the hill overlooking the city and by the recently enlarged library which is notable for a town of this size.

  Akureyri’s Lutheran church was designed by Guōjón Samúelsson   The Akureyri Library has an addition to its building  
Akureyri’s Lutheran church was designed by Guōjón Samúelsson.
Akureyri Library has an addition to its building.


A distinct feature of life in Iceland is the use of geothermal resources to heat buildings, as a utility elsewhere might supply natural gas or even electricity, which are also abundantly available in all of Iceland. The Earth’s geothermal heat which is deep below the surface is closer to the surface here, and also feeds spas and warm-water swimming pools which can be found in almost every community. This is where much of the daily business of the municipality is quietly done amongst the townspeople as they take their daily soak in the thermal waters. We stopped at one of these pools during our tour.

Iceland geothermal pool
The warm swimming and soaking pools use geothermal heat.

The phenomenon of such accessible geothermal warmth is a result of Iceland’s location straddling the line where North America’s tectonic plate meets the Eurasian Plate. Indeed, you can walk down into the ravine created by that juncture in Thingvellir National Park with the edge of North America forming a cliff on one side of you and the flat lands of Eurasia on the other.

  Thingveller National Park Iceland   Thingveller National Park Iceland  
Entering the ravine at Thingveller National Park

North America is on the left and Eurasia on the right of the walkway.

The meeting of the tectonic plates also leads to spots where rivers fall over cliffs and into ravines making Iceland a place where you can view many awe-inspiring, gut-sucking waterfalls.

The Godafoss waterfall in Northern Iceland, pours the water of the Skjálfandafljót River over a cliff 40 feet high and over 100 feet wide. Its name comes from the story that, in the year 1000, when the lawspeaker Thorkelsson proclaimed the Christian religion, he threw the graven images of the Norse gods over the falls. After that plunge, the river continues down the gorge to plunge even further.

Near Reykjavik in the south, the Gullfoss or “golden waterfall” on the Hvítá River also has two stages of its decent. First a drop of about 35 feet deposits the river into a narrower passage from which the torrent tumbles another 75 or 80 feet.

  Iceland, Gullfoss upper falls   Iceland, Gullfoss lower falls  
The Gullfoss also falls in separate stages

Much of the land of Iceland is open pasture and scrub. Often, the land sports the gobbígobb (sounds like “goppy gop”)—Iceland’s iconic horses. They are unique in that they have one or two more gaits than most other horses. Most horses can walk, trot and gallop but Icelandic horses can tölt (a smooth, fast gait) and some also skeid, which is a “flying pace.”

  Icelandic horses   Icelandic horses and sheep  
Iceland has lots of pastureland for their horses. . .and sheep.

Often, these horses coexist with the sheep which are raised principally for their meat and their wool. While the population of Icelandic Sheep has declined in the 21st Century, it is still true that there are more sheep than people in Iceland. These sheep were originally introduced to Iceland by Vikings in the late ninth or early tenth century and have prospered on the island.


Greenland flag

With a population of only 57,000 and with over 80 percent of its area covered by ice, Greenland is not what most think of as a country. By population, it ranks 206 out of the 237 countries in the world. Its largest city is its capital, Nuuk, with a mere 18,000 people.

But the largest non-continental island—that is, an island that isn’t considered a continent because, like Iceland, it isn’t on one single tectonic plate—was granted self-government by Denmark in 1979.

  Greenland map  

While it remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and the official chief of state is Denmark’s Queen Margretthe II, the head of government is Greenland Premier Mute B. Egede, and domestic laws are enacted by the unicameral Greenland Parliament. Denmark, however, continues to control a number of policy areas for Greenland including foreign affairs, finance and security. Had then-President Donald Trump actually tried to purchase Greenland, it isn’t at all clear from whom he would have purchased it.

The last of the Arctic Arc to be settled by Europeans, Greenland is geographically huge. Its total area is over three times the size of Texas; however its arable land is just a few thousand acres. This is a land to visit on its edges and most of that should be done by ship as there aren’t paved roads from town to town or inlet to inlet. In fact, all the roads in the country total less than 100 miles and only about half of them are paved. Instead, Greenlanders tend to rely on snowmobiles, airplanes and dog sleds. I’m told, however, that the capital city of Nuuk does have two traffic lights.

There is also the US Space Force base at Thule with a 10,000-foot runway on the northwestern extreme coast—but, only about 600 people live there year-round. One hundred and forty are Americans.

We didn’t visit the ice sheet but here’s a stunning photo of icy Greenland from NASA.

Greenland ice
Greenland Ice   Photo courtesy
Michael Studinger, NASA

Greenland’s national theatre is based in Nuuk but does a lot of touring to communities within the country. It also takes performances abroad to share a touch of Greenland culture with the world. Here’s a photo of one of their performances, a piece based on the book “Those Who Run in the Sky” or, “Angakkussaq.”

National Theatre of Greenland
National Theatre of Greenland photo by Gerth Lyberth

Our visit began with a stop at Qaqortoq, a village of 3,000 near the southernmost edge of the island. Its multi-colored buildings are typical of Greenland communities, drawing off a colorful tradition from colonial times when the color of a building indicated its use: red indicated a teacher or a minister, green a mechanic, blue a fishermen and yellow a nurse or doctor.

Qaqortoq’s colorfully painted buildings
Qaqortoq’s colorfully painted buildings

In the center of town you can find the oldest public fountain in Greenland, the Mindebrønden. To be totally accurate, however, this should be characterized as the “older” public fountain in Greenland as there are only two.

Greenland’s older public fountain
Greenland’s older public fountain

It is surrounded by some of the town’s paved roadway. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to pronounce the name of the street - Tassuunnaqquunnerit Tamaasa.

Street sign in Qaqortoq
The street sign in Qaqortoq

Among the sights during a visit to Qaqortoq were the open-air fish market (fishing is Greenland’s major industry, accounting for nearly 90% of its exports) and the open-air art exhibit, “Stone & Man.” This art exhibit features some 24 sculptural pieces carved into the exposed rock of the cliffs and boulders in the town.

  Qaqortoq fish market, Greenland   Carved man and fish on stone, Greenland   Greenland Qaqortoq carved man and faces on stone  
The Fish Market and fish and faces in the Stone & Man exhibit

But it was the glories of natural scenery that drew us to Greenland and the sights were spectacular. We cruised through Ikerasassuaq, or, as it is called in Danish, Prins Christian Sund - the English is a simple Prince Christian Sound. It is a “sound” rather than a “fjord” because it is open at both ends and, therefore, ships can transit one way and not have to retrace their route to get back to open water.

The Christian in question here is Christian VIII who was a Danish prince from 1786 to 1839 and then King until his death in 1848.

At dawn we reached the entry to the sound where we could see icebergs floating out to sea.

  Dawn at Prins Christian Sund, Greenland   First icebergs at Prins Christian Sund, Greenland  
Dawn and first iceberg at the entrance to Prins Christian Sund

The sound is a 60 mile passage through some of the most splendid scenery at the southern tip of Greenland - but even here you won’t see a lot of green. The mountains on either side of the sound are mostly bare rock.

  Greenland, Prins Christian Sund   Greenland, Prins Christian Sund   Greenland, Prins Christian Sund  
There isn’t much green in Greenland.

The sound is so narrow that at some points the shadows of the mountains of one side are etched on the slopes on the other.

Greenland, Prins ChristianSund

  Greenland, Prins Christian Sund icebergs   Greenland, Prins Christian Sund icebergs   Greenland, Prins Christian Sund icebergs  
Icebergs abound throughout the sound.

Water falls, abound as well.

  Greenland Prins Christian Sund Waterfalls   Greenland Prins Christian Sund Waterfalls    

Sometimes, waterfalls and icebergs fuse.

Greenland Prins Christian Sund Waterfalls and iceberg
An Iceberg in front of a Waterfall

The sound gave us a chance to get up close to a glacier.

Greenland Prins Christian Sund Glacier
One of the glaciers on Prins Christian Sund

Which, of course, brought all the passengers on our cruise ship fusing to the deck to take photos.

Greenland Prins Christian Sund Glacier and ship passengers
Passengers before the glacier

Then our ship took its leave of the sound and headed south, out of the Arctic Arc.

Greenland Prins Christian Sund seen from open sea
Exiting the sound.

Admittedly, our trip was but a “sampler” with a bit of Norway, a bit of Iceland and a bit of Greenland. It left us with the hope of a more lengthy return - perhaps a visit in the season of the glorious Aurora Borealis.


  Brad Hathaway retired to live with his wife on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, after nearly two decades covering theater in Washington, D.C., on Broadway, and nationwide. He is past vice-chair of the American Theatre Critics Association’s Executive Committee.   Brad Hathaway