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Ingólfshöfði

This flat-topped wedge of coastal land seems to hover above the shimmering flats as you drive east from Skaftafell. Around the year 870, Reykjavík's founder, Ingólfur Arnarson, probably spent his first Iceland winter here -- thus the name, which means "Ingólfur's Cape." It then had a sheltered harbor and was surrounded by grasslands and scrub; now it's separated from the mainland by an expanse of black volcanic sand. Ingólfshöfði is a nature reserve protected from everyone except seven local families, who have been hunting and egg collecting the land for centuries. The birds most common to the reserve are puffin and skua, a large ground-nesting species.

The only way to visit Ingólfshöfði is on the bird-watching tour led by From Coast To Mountains (tel. 894-0894; www.hofsnes.com). Tours last 2 1/2 hours and run from late April to early August, departing at noon from Hofsnes Farm, about 22km (14 miles) east of Skaftafell Park along the Ring Road. The cost is 2,000kr ($32/£16) (cash or credit), and reservations are accepted. Bring sunglasses to protect your eyes from sand in high winds, and pack a lunch. If the weather is bad, at least be thankful that the puffins are more likely to be loitering on land.

This is no bus tour -- guests are herded into a bare hay-cart and hauled behind a tractor for 30 bumpy minutes in each direction. If the tide is right, you may see the sand flats covered with a thin layer of reflective water. The walking is leisurely on Ingólfshöfði, which peaks at 76m (249 ft.). The guide walks in front holding a walking pole aloft, in case of attack from a skua protecting its eggs. The tour group usually inspects a nest of these intimidating birds, while the mother squawks nearby.

Ingólfshöfði to Jökulsárlón

Kvíárjökull -- Thirty-nine kilometers (24 miles) east of Skaftafell, this glacial tongue and its scenic valley make for an easy, charmed hour-long hike sans the Skaftafell crowds. The turnoff from the Ring Road is marked "Kvíárjökulskambar," and a parking area is shortly ahead; Kvíárjökull is clearly visible in the distance.

Fjallsárlón -- About 10km (6 miles) farther east is a marked turnoff for this lake -- a kind of Jökulsárlón for loners. The waters are muddier and less sprinkled with icebergs, but the sight of Fjallsjökull calving into the lake is remarkable. The road to Fjallsárlón divides a few times, but all routes end up in the same place, within a 10-minute walk of the best glacier views.

Breidðárlón -- This lake is a similar variation on its neighbors Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón. The access road is well tended but unmarked from the Ring Road, about 3km (1 1/2 miles) northeast of the Fjallsárlón turnoff. The number of icebergs can vary greatly, but on a good day you'll be glad you came.

Jökulsárlón

Nothing quite prepares you for the carnivalesque spectacle of a lake full of icebergs broken off from a glacier. "Calf ice" from glaciers takes on crazier shapes than "pack ice" in the sea. Calf ice is also marbled with photogenic streaks of sediment. Jökulsárlón's clear water creates a magical play of light and tints the icebergs blue. Glacial ice takes a long time to melt, and the icebergs here can last up to five years. The creaking, groaning, and crashing sounds at the glacier's edge are otherworldly. About 60 seals have established a colony at Jökulsárlón, and they can also be seen from the ocean side of the Ring Road.

Jökulsárlón did not exist 75 years ago, when Breiðamerkurjökull reached almost to the ocean. In the last few years, warming temperatures have accelerated the glacier's retreat and clogged the lake with growing numbers of smaller icebergs -- an aesthetic demotion, unfortunately.

Tours (tel. 487-2222; www.jokulsarlon.is), which run May 15 to 30 (daily 10am-5pm), June to August (daily 9am-7pm), and September 1 to 15 (daily 10am-5pm), set out in amphibious vehicles and last 40 minutes. Tickets are 2,300kr ($37/£18) for adults and 500kr ($8/£4) for children. Walking along the shore is almost as nice, but it's worth the money to float among the icebergs, view the glacier up close, and lick your very own ancient ice cube.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.