Hitting headlines, topping bucket lists, wooing nature lovers and dazzling increasing numbers of visitors – there seems no end to the talents of this breathtaking northern destination.
A Symphony of Elements
An underpopulated island marooned near the top of the globe, Iceland is, literally, a country in the making. It's a vast volcanic laboratory where mighty forces shape the earth: geysers gush, mudpots gloop, ice-covered volcanoes rumble and glaciers cut great pathways through the mountains. Its supercharged splendour seems designed to remind visitors of their utter insignificance in the greater scheme of things. And it works a treat: some crisp clean air, an eyeful of the cinematic landscapes, and everyone is transfixed.
The Power of Nature
It's the power of Icelandic nature to turn the prosaic into the extraordinary. A dip in a pool becomes a soak in a geothermal lagoon; a casual stroll can transform into a trek across a glittering glacier; and a quiet night of camping may mean front-row seats to the aurora borealis’ curtains of light, or the soft, pinkish hue of the midnight sun. Iceland has a transformative effect on people too – its sagas turned brutes into poets, and its stories of huldufólk (hidden people) may make believers out of sceptics. Here you'll find some of the world's highest concentrations of dreamers, authors, artists and musicians, all fuelled by their surrounds.
Don't for a minute think it's all about the great outdoors. The counterpoint to so much natural beauty is found in Iceland's cultural life, which celebrates a literary legacy that stretches from medieval sagas to contemporary thrillers by way of Nobel Prize winners. Live music is everywhere, as is visual art, handicrafts and locavore cuisine. The world's most northerly capital is home to the kind of egalitarianism, green thinking and effortless style that its Nordic brethren are famous for – all of which is wrapped in Iceland's assured individuality.
A Personal Experience
The warmth of Icelanders is disarming, as is their industriousness – they’ve worked hard to recover from financial upheaval, and to transform Iceland into a destination that, thanks to its popularity with visitors, can host more than six times its population each year. Pause and consider a medium-sized city in your country – then give it far-flung universities, airports and hospitals to administer, 30-odd active volcanoes to monitor, and hundreds of hotels to run. How might they cope? Could they manage as well as the Icelanders – and still have time left over to create spine-tingling music and natty knitwear?
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Iceland.
Vast, varied and spectacular, Vatnajökull National Park was founded in 2008, when authorities created a megapark by joining the 8300-sq-km Vatnajökull ice cap with two previously established national parks: Skaftafell in southeast Iceland and Jökulsárgljúfur in the northeast. The park measures over 14,100 sq km, occupying approximately 14% of the entire country, and its boundaries encircle a staggering richness of landscapes and some of Iceland's greatest natural treasures, created by the combined forces of rivers, glacial ice, and volcanic and geothermal activity.
Snæfellsjökull National Park encompasses much of the western tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and wraps around the rugged slopes of the glacier Snæfellsjökull, the icy fist at the end of the long Snæfellsnes arm. Around its flanks lie lava tubes, protected lava fields, which are home to native Icelandic fauna, and prime coastal bird- and whale-watching spots. The park is criss-crossed with hiking trails, and during proper weather it is possible to visit the glacier with a tour or guide.
Craggy mountains, precarious sea cliffs and plunging waterfalls make up Hornstrandir, one of Europe’s last true wilderness areas, covering some of the most extreme parts of Iceland. It’s a fantastic destination for hiking, with challenging terrain and excellent opportunities for spotting Arctic foxes, seals, whales and teeming bird life. It is essential to plan ahead and get local advice, as vast snow drifts with near-vertical faces can develop on the mountain passes, rivers can become unfordable.
Tumbling in a broad sweep over a 100m-rocky scarp at the head of Dynjandivogur bay, Dynjandi is the most dramatic waterfall in the Westfjords. The bumpy drive to it is famous for incredible views; you'll see how the falls are the catchment area for run-off from the peaks and inland valleys all around. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday from June to August a Westfjords Adventures bus linking Ísafjörður, Brjánslækur and Patreksfjörður stops at Dynjandi twice a day.
One of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions, Geysir (gay-zeer; literally ‘gusher’) is the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers are named. Earthquakes can stimulate activity, though eruptions are rare. Luckily for visitors, the very reliable geyser, Strokkur, sits alongside. You rarely have to wait more than five to 10 minutes for the hot spring to shoot an impressive 15m to 40m plume.
The world’s oldest parliament, Althingi (pronounced ál-thingk-ee; also called Alþing) was uniquely situated at this monumental site where two tectonic plates meet. In AD 930, Vikings would hold meetings among this awe-inspiring geology, which created a natural amphitheatre. A boardwalk snakes between this enormous crevice on the earth’s surface, below deep canyon walls. The gap between these North American and Eurasian tectonic plates continues to grow by 2cm each year.
Near the dramatic Almannagjá fault and fronted by a boardwalk is the Lögberg (Law Rock), where the Alþingi (Parliament) convened annually. This was where the lögsögumaður (law speaker) recited the existing laws to the assembled parliament (one-third each year). After Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the site shifted to the very foot of the Almannagjá cliffs, which acted as a natural amplifier, broadcasting the voices of the speakers across the assembled crowds. That site is marked by the Icelandic flag.
Follow the path to where a circle of people is usually waiting in anticipation. They are here to see this magnificent geyser spurt water up to 40m in the air. It reliably erupts every five to 10 minutes (usually 15m to 20m), so make sure you are on the right side of it unless you want to get wet. It sits near the famous Great Geysir, which can blow boiling water some 70m in the air (but has been quiet for the past few years).
The Þingvellir plain is situated on a tectonic-plate boundary where North America and Europe are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year. As a result, the plain is scarred by dramatic fissures, ponds and rivers, including the great rift Almannagjá. An atmospheric path runs through the dramatic crevice and along the fault between the clifftop visitor centre and the Alþingi site.
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