But we had filled a picnic hamper in Reykjavík. The food of choice in the back seat was peanut butter sandwiches made with crusty, dense mountain bread, a staple of the city's bakeries; and for the adults in front, Icelandic smoked trout and pickled salmon on crackers.
Our first stop, about two hours from Reykjavík, was a waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, a thin ribbon of water cascading some 200 feet. If you're willing to get wet (we were), you can walk behind the falls, stepping into a cavelike opening where clouds of spray hang perpetually in the air.
After another hour's drive we reached the headlands and curious rock formations of Dyrhólaey, a striking blend of the ferocious and the sublime. Some of the headlands are more than 300 feet high and drops are sheer; the hiker must be careful. Tucked under one such cliff is a long, glittery, magical beach of black stones—rendered all the more magical by being unreachable when the tide comes crashing against a bend in the cliff, which serves as a kind of portal.
The cliff wall running along the beach operates as an open-air apartment building for a rackety crowd of nesting birds. Here, by the hundreds, are gulls and gannets and those most beloved of Icelandic birds, the stocky, orange-footed, clownish puffins. Like shorebirds themselves, my children scampered barefoot just out of reach of the lightly crashing waves, which now and then broke over their calves with a killing, thrilling frigidity.
A few miles off but not to be missed is the Dyrhólaey lighthouse, where the vistas are extraordinary. Massed to the north are the mountains of the interior and the glowing domed sprawl of Myrdalsjökull, an enormous glacier. To the south a luminous blue sea extends as far as the bulge of the horizon. On either side, spread below you, lies the south coast—burnished cliffs and plains, golds and grays and greens. It's as if, from its secure fastnesses of stone and ice, the entire nation were leaning forward to contemplate the world of the South, those faraway, warmer zones where all but a handful of the world's human population have chosen to reside.
We spent the night a short way beyond Dyrhólaey, in an Edda Hotel in the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur. (Many of the 17 hotels in the Edda chain moonlight: they're really boarding schools that, during summer vacation, transform themselves into hotels. Rooms tend to be clean and spartan, and to wear an unerasable schoolboy earnestness.) For dinner at the hotel—restaurants on the road are few and far between—we had spicy marinated lamb and halibut steaks in mushroom sauce. A taste of things to come: We happily ate lamb or fish, those two reliably excellent staples of the local diet, almost every night of our journey.
The next morning, after the usual Icelandic hotel breakfast (cold cereal, toast, rolls, limp slices of cheese and luncheon meat, hard-boiled eggs), we drove a few miles off the Ring Road to the canyons of the Fjadrá River. Again we were alone with the land. The walk along the cliff tops, with abrupt glimpses of the river glinting far below, was inspiring. But better still was the hike on the floor of the canyon, while the murmuring river echoed off cliffs that hemmed us in on either side. The Fjadrá, shallow but wayward, made a drunk's cheery progress down the gorge, bouncing first off one wall, then the other, and we had to do a little fording. If the views above were metaphorically breathtaking, the water temperature was literally so: this was glacial melt, so cold it burned the soles of our feet. On riverbank boulders, we ate wonderful Icelandic "thick milk"—a sort of yogurt—as our feet dried in the sun.
We then climbed back into our increasingly mud-colored car and rolled through what must be one of the world's most dismal landscapes: the wasteland underneath Vatnajökull glacier. We were beginning to feel like connoisseurs of desolation. There were long stretches where everything was gray: little stones, big stones, and the huge boulders called erratics. We were passing through a sort of geological dumping ground—the piled moraines of glacial retreats, the forward-swept stony flotsam of flash floods. Fortunately, the sky had turned overcast, so we got the full effect of the bleakness. The only traces of color were the occasional highway signs warning us not to wander off the road: the most recent round of floods had left the rubble pocketed with quicksand.
Our final stop on the south coast was Skaftafell National Park, where we stopped for hot chocolate and a glacier hike. (And where I had a brisk conversation with a teenager working in the information center. Me: "The recent floods must have been terrible." Him: "The worst in years. I was very sorry to miss them.") A glacier's downhill edge is called a snout, a term I always considered inappropriately ugly until I actually came upon one. Then I understood that glaciers are the earth's largest vacuum cleaners, picking up debris as they drift back and forth over the broken valleys they call home. We scrambled onto the snout, which was black as ash: this glacier had been rolling its face in basalt. (In the words of my younger daughter, "It's neat, but it's gross.") Sloping above us as far as the eye could see, the glacier climbed toward the interior, whitening as it went. We were minuscule figures perched on an alp of ice. Yet the ground we stood upon hardly resembled ice. This was frozen water that looked as though it had passed through a conflagration.
A different sort of ice awaited us some 35 miles along, just as the Ring Road turns the corner north. In Reykjavík, the woman at the tourist office had advised us not to miss the boat trips on the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón. That was sound advice; we all wound up considering it the highlight of our trip. She was less trustworthy, though, in telling us what we might see. In one of those slips of the English tongue common in other foreign countries but rare in Iceland, she'd promised floating ice burgers.