By: Srinivas R Merugu

Last week marked my fifth trip to Iceland. A country with a population just a bit shy of Cleveland and a reputation as a tourist destination has been drawing me back year after year, for four years. What started as a boys’ trip to the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival for my 40th birthday has become an annual pilgrimage.

Each year has seen me return to Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world. Last year was particularly special because it included my wife’s maiden voyage there. And this year we brought our seven-year-old son.

Why Iceland? Why again and again?  The answer is complicated and simple all at once. My friend David and I first became aware of the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival around 10 years ago. We were heavily into Sigur Ros, one of many great bands to come out of Iceland. In 2003, the year I turned 40 and David 50, we finally went. We got a few other guys to buy into to the 5-day, 4-night trip.

That formula has since been repeated three more times for me, each time with a different combination of travel companions. Each time, the prospect of seeing friends who I get to see just that once made the decision easy. Last year found me on the fence, after an 18-hour layover in May while on our way back from Copenhagen. My wife and I decided to make a spa day of it. We spent several hours at The Blue Lagoon, which I had avoided until then. Yes, it is a tourist trap, but so beautiful!

And then come November, when Björk was added to the line-up of the music festival, I found myself getting off that fence in a hurry.

That brings us to January 2017, when our friends who also have a 7-year old, had heard enough about Iceland and decided that they needed to go. As it turned out, the Icelandic low-cost airline, Wow Air, had just announced non-stop service to Reykjavik from Pittsburgh, starting in June. (That Plain Dealer article, which revealed how Cleveland had been a contender and lost out, was one of my unhappier travel moments.) This trip would be different than the rest. It was summer and we planned on spending significant time outside of Reykjavik, exploring the southern coast.

Reykjavik’s Keflavik airport is about 45 minutes outside the city and is a breeze to get through. The city is compact and easily navigable. Airbnb and TripAdvisor both list a substantial inventory of properties for rent. Hotels are abundant too and for the hosteling fan, there’s the incomparable Kex Hostel, a local institution. The massive Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja has always been a good landmark for me by which to gauge whether the rental unit is in a good location.

We lucked out with the weather on our first day. What started as rainy had turned into a beautiful 50-degree sunny day. We set out to explore the city.

The topography of Reykjavik reminds me of San Francisco, with inclines and several streets offering great views of the bay. It was two days before the summer solstice. Even knowing that the days are really long didn’t quite prepare us for the lack of darkness.

You don’t really value darkness until you’ve experienced unending daylight! It’s an odd complaint, but the lack of a “real” night threw off our circadian rhythm. The trick for me is to remember that I am on vacation, and not worry about waking up before noon.

Day three of our trip held a true surprise. We set out early in the day to see one of dozens waterfalls — Seljalandsfoss. We found ourselves on a drive that changed my whole perspective on the geography of Iceland. Up until this trip, I had spent most of my time in and around Reykjavik in early November. Now, we were on a stunning drive – with black volcanic sands and the ocean on our right and lush green hills and meadows full of gorgeous purple Nootka lupines on our left. And this is when we started noticing that there were so many waterfalls, small and big, tumbling down from the hills. They were everywhere!

As we approached Seljalandsfoss, we found ourselves in cold, cloudy weather, but the sight and sound of the water turned us all into kids, rushing towards the frigid water, not minding the slush, slippery rocks and drenching mist. The trip back to our car was much improved by the hot chocolate and the first of our many hot dogs that came on our drive back – cold and giddy with the thrill of having walked behind a waterfall!

After a quick change of clothes in the parking lot, we were back on the road, to ride the ferry to Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands. We got off the ferry to witness some of the most spectacular views any of us had ever seen. These very young (geologically speaking) volcanic islands with sparkling blue waters, grass and moss topped hills with sheep grazing on what appeared to be impossible inclines, and quite possibly the cleanest air we had ever breathed, combined to stop us in our tracks. Yet another delightful apartment awaited us. But, the excitement of seeing the sun and wanting to make most of the unreliable weather, we set off to explore the northern part of the island of Heimaey (the only inhabited island in the archipelago).

We continued to explore the island. We hiked up Eldfell, the volcano that erupted in 1973, forcing the evacuation of all the residents of the island, then drove on to a puffin-nesting site. We didn’t catch close up views of puffins, but just being at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, the nests of birds all along the rocky shore, seals bobbing in the water, filled us again with an overwhelming sense of being alive!