Iceland’s mammoth and magnificent north is a geologist’s heaven. A wonderland of moonlike lava fields, belching mudpots, epic waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and whale-filled bays – this is Iceland at its best. The region’s top sights are variations on one theme: a grumbling, volcanically active earth.
Southwest Iceland & the Golden Circle
Black beaches stretch along the Atlantic, geysers spout from geothermal fields, and waterfalls glide across escarpments while brooding volcanoes and glittering ice caps score the inland horizon. The beautiful southwest has many of Iceland’s most legendary natural wonders, so it's a relatively crowded and increasingly developed area.
Akureyri stands strong as Iceland’s second city, but a Melbourne, Manchester or Montreal it is not. And how could it be? There are only 18,000 residents! It’s a wonder the city (which would be a ‘town’ in any other country) generates this much buzz. Expect cool cafes, quality restaurants and something of a late-night bustle – a far cry from other towns in rural Iceland.
As you work your way east from Reykjavík, Rte 1 (the Ring Road) emerges into austere volcanic foothills punctuated by surreal steam vents, around Hveragerði, then swoops through a flat, wide coastal plain, full of verdant horse farms and greenhouses, before the landscape suddenly begins to grow wonderfully jagged, after Hella and Hvolsvöllur.
The 200km stretch of Ring Road from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Höfn is truly mind-blowing, transporting you across vast deltas of grey glacial sand, past lost-looking farms, around the toes of craggy mountains, and by glacier tongues and ice-filled lagoons. The only thing you won’t pass is a town.
Sparkling fjords, dramatic volcanic peaks, sheer sea cliffs, sweeping golden beaches and crunchy lava flows make up the diverse and fascinating landscape of the 100km-long Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The area is crowned by the glistening ice cap Snæfellsjökull, immortalised in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Jagged and black, the Vestmannaeyjar (sometimes called the Westman Islands) form 15 eye-catching silhouettes off the southern shore. The islands were formed by submarine volcanoes around 11,000 years ago, except for Surtsey, the archipelago’s newest addition, which rose from the waves in 1963.
Hub of Westfjords adventure tours, and by far the region’s largest town, Ísafjörður (www.isafjordur.is) is a pleasant and prosperous place and an excellent base for travellers. The town is set on an arcing spit that extends out into Skutulsfjörður, and is hemmed in on all sides by towering peaks and the dark waters of the fjord.
The Reykjanes Peninsula expands in drama as you move away from the highway between Keflavík International Airport and Reykjavík. You’ll find not only the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous attraction, filling a part of the vast lava fields, but other gorgeous and interesting sights all around – many of them based around active volcanoes.
The small town of Heimaey (hey-my) is encased in a fortress of jagged lava; its port sits at the end of a contorted waterway that carves a path between towering cliffs dotted with bird nests. Although only a few kilometres from the mainland, Heimaey feels light years away, lost amid the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.