Westernmost Country Viking Style
Iceland. It sounds freezing, barren,
and far. But in fact, this island country that looks like a Dr. Seuss drawing
come alive, is temperate, lush, and just five and a half hours from New York
City. Countless volcanoes and geysers, smoking craters, and bubbling mud pools
sculpt a breathtaking otherworld that has scarcely changed since the Vikings
settled there. The descendants of their horses still dapple the countryside
1,200 years later, and are still the best way to trek the terrain.
To experience this phantasmagoric
land and its people, spend a week at a horse farm. By day youll explore
the landscape on horseback; by night commune with your Icelandic hosts and fellow
riders from any number of countries.
Naturally, summer is the "best" time to book; the weather is mild and the daylight is continuous, lending to
endless opportunities for fun. On the other hand, in the summer prices are steep
and the crowds are serious. So if you can handle a little chill and drizzle,
book your trip in May or September for a lower-cost, crowd-free equine adventure
and cultural immersion.
Among the riding tour operators,
southern Icelands 250-acre Hestheimar (pronounced hest-hi-mar) farm stands
out for its affordability, homey accommodations, ample herd of horses, and ability
to customize a tour based on what you want to spend and see. Another advantage
is that spectacular sights are within easy driving distancefor those late
afternoons when youd happily trade your hard leather saddle for a cushy
Of course the bulk of your time will
be spent on and around the farm itself. A short walk from the guesthouse is
the host familys home. Most meals are served in the familys large
kitchen, a bright space with terra-cotta floor tiles and a windowed wall that
overlooks the dozens of horses grazing in wait for the days ride.
The Nordic horses the Vikings brought overnow known as native Icelandic
horseshave remained purebred and isolated on the island through the ages,
thanks to a ban on importing farm animals. So touring the tundra on horseback
is the closest you can get to reliving ancient history.
The horses are smaller than youd
expect; a grown man on an Icelandic horse looks as absurd as if he were riding
a St. Bernard. But true to their Viking roots, these cartoon creatures are Army
tank tough. You could be riding in the rain and through rivers deep enough to
soak your socks. And youll be mounted for about six hours each day.
Yet far from feeling like torture,
theres a raw, poetic thrill in braving the elements Viking-style. More
importantly, its downright fun. Still, youll be glad to find a geothermally
heated hot tub next to the guesthouse. Itll loosen strained muscles until
the Advil kicks in.
You dont need a weeklong riding
tour to experience Iceland on horseback. Most hotels and guesthouses can arrange
horseback riding day tours. These shorter tours, however, wont provide
much time for you to find your rhythm in the saddle, to explore the hidden wonders
of a trail-free countryside, or to end your ride with just-brewed coffee and
homemade cakes in an Icelanders kitchen. For all that, youll have
to stay a while.
For More Info
Ishestar (ees-hes-tar), a popular riding tour operator offers trips that take you to the Hestheimar farm or to the highlands using Hestheimars horses and guides. Ishestar often plays middle-man
for Hestheimar and sweetens the pot with pickup/dropoff from hotels and the airport, along with a brief tour of some local natural wonders. www.ishestar.is.
Icelandair. A package riding tour with Icelandair includes airfare, airport transfers, an Ishestar riding tour, and two nights in Reykjavik at an Icelandair hotel. All you do is show up to the
airport on time, and youre taken care of start to finish. Its the easiest, though potentially the most expensive, way to go. www.icelandair.com.
Additional riding tour operators, with descriptions and links: www.randburg.com/is/tourism/horserent.html.
HOPE CRISTOL is a D.C.-based freelance
writer whose travel articles have appeared in The Washington Post and Los Angeles
Times. By day she is assistant editor at the Futurist magazine.