A few hours of sleep and we're awake again, fumbling to the airport for our 7:30 a.m. flight to Akureyri. The 40-minute hop affords a glimpse of Iceland's barren interior--only 21 percent of the island is habitable, mostly along the coast. Descending through the clouds above Akureyri, we encounter a wholly different landscape from that in the south: here, towering green mountains, their peaks fringed with snow, flank a sparkling blue fjord. We're only 60 miles below the Arctic Circle, yet verdant meadows and farmland thrive in the mild summer climate.
With 15,000 residents, Akureyri is Iceland's second-largest city, though on this Sunday morning 14,998 of them seem to be asleep. In our second rented Yaris, we head east, with the road to ourselves, and in two hours arrive on the shores of Lake Myvatn.
From a name like "Midge Lake," you wouldn't expect much, but Myvatn is a beauty: five miles across, with tiny green islets and countless waterfowl. Fortunately the lake's namesake gnats aren't in evidence today. The road around the lake takes us over bubbling rivers jammed with trout, past twisted sculptures of petrified lava, and under the shadow of an imposing black volcano that recalls an image of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.
Myvatn's northern shore is a neon-green field that we soon realize is spongy moss—what amounts to an acre-sized, five-inch-thick mattress. "Well, it's obvious what must be done," says Mark, and off we run, three grown men, leaping and somersaulting in the air, bouncing on a squishy cushion of green. Blame it on sleep deprivation.
After a cheap lunch—dense black bread, pan-fried arctic char, and trout smoked over sheep dung (much better than it sounds, really)—in Reykjahld, a lakeside village, we drive north to the thermal fields of Hverarond. Forget Mordor: this is the spitting image of hell itself. Sinister mud pools gurgle and belch, and rank vapor screams out of fissures just steps from the path. Under our delicate footsteps, the ground sounds suspiciously hollow.
Suitably awed, and more than a little spooked, we race to Akureyri for our flight back to Reykjavik. After our day up north, the diminutive capital seems like a sprawling metropolis--downtown buildings shoot up four whole stories!—and the city lights give us a much-needed second wind. At Kaffi ReykjavIk, a wood-beamed, candlelit dining room near the harbor, we have some fantastic grilled haddock, then catch a set by a scorching bebop combo at the adjoining bar. It's well past two when the last note is played.