I was lucky to visit Iceland last month. I wanted to share my observations and thoughts, as there are many more reasons you’ll be
enchanted on a visit to Iceland. So pack your (faux) fur-trimmed hat and prepare to be wowed by this unique little island country.
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to witness the wonder that is the Northern Lights. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the mystical green lights dancing in the sky on a cold, clear winter night. The phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis can be explained scientifically as the result of the upper atmosphere being blitzed by highly charged electrons from the solar wind.
The hunt for the elusive Northern Lights can be even more memorable than actually witnessing the show. Bundle up for an adventurous 4x4 Jeep excursion searching for the best nightly sighting, or test your luck waiting for the lights to appear on your evening dip in one of the country’s many geothermal pools.
Geysers, Volcanos, Lakes and National Parks
Steaming geysers, drifting icebergs, black lava beaches, erupting volcanos—you’ll find them all in Iceland—and sometimes within a half-hour’s drive of one another. The country has more than 4,500 square miles of glaciers, so you can’t visit without walking on ice in some way. Take a walking or ice climbing tour on the Solheimajokull glacier on the south coast of Iceland. Or take a self-guided driving tour of Ring Road, the main national route that circles the country, to see even more natural wonders at your own pace, including the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, the East Fjords and the impressive Dettifoss waterfall.
Iceland’s Vatnajokull Glacier is the largest ice cap in Europe, covering over 5,000 square miles and plunging to depths of over 3,000 feet. This glacier encases active volcanoes similar to those under Eyjafjallajokull Glacier that erupted in 2010, causing travel snafus throughout Europe. Vatnajokull is so large that it can easily be seen from space. Thingvellir National Park is where you can witness the spot where the Earth’s giant tectonic plates shift and pull apart. It is where the European and North American plates meet. These powerful forces are still hard at work as red-hot magma fills the gap 6,000 feet underground between the tectonic plates. This intense heat creates pressure that fuels the Strokkur geyser, sending water and steam erupting 100 feet into the air.
Lake Myvaten, located on the northern end of Iceland, is an unusual spot with vol- canos, steaming vents, bubbling hot mud and weird rock forma- tions. The terrain is so strange that NASA used the area to train the Apollo astronauts because the expansive lava fields replicate otherworldly geography.
Geothermal energy heats and powers homes, baths and pools, public as well as private.
Bathing in communal thermal baths is a popular part of daily life—unwinding after a long day or catching up with the latest gossip and news. Escape the tourists and experience this part of the local culture at the geothermal-heated swimming pool, Laugardalur Park, outside downtown Reykjavik— just one of many places in Iceland to offer natural hot tubs.
The Icelandic horse is a unique breed of smallish horses that came to Iceland with the first settlers from Norway 1,100 years ago. The Icelandic horse comes in many different colors, and the Icelandic language includes more than 100 names for the various colors and color patterns. It is small, weighing between 330 and 380 kilograms (730-840 pounds), and standing an average of 132 to 142 centimeters (52-56 inches) high. It has a spirited temperament and a large personality. In Iceland, they have few diseases, and as a result, Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country, and exported animals are not allowed to return.
Reykjavik and Beyond
Until I visited Iceland a few months ago, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how small Iceland’s population is and what the effect of that has upon the travel experience. The entire country has around 317,000 inhabitants. That’s about the size of St. Louis, Missouri. Reykjavik and surrounding suburbs account for 200,000 of that number, leaving a lonely 100,000 hardy souls strewn about the land of fire and ice. So instead of a colossal capital city, Reykjavik has the size and feel of a small town—or at least not a very big town. But it’s more than size, it’s the mentality of Reykjavik that is so endearing. I never once saw a cop the entire time I was there. The Parliament, prime minister’s house and president’s house all were essentially open with no obvious signs of security, not even a fence.
Being in Iceland wasn’t just nice, it was a vacation from distrust, paranoia and fear, and I loved every second of it.
I also highly recommend that you get out of Reykjavik to explore the countryside, as what really makes Iceland special is what lies outside the city limits. Don’t be afraid to drive. Coming from North America, it was an easy transition for us as Icelanders drive on the right hand side of the road. Gas is expensive compared to the U.S. and should definitely be factored in if you are trying to stick to a budget. Don’t try to schedule too much into one day. Driving distances tends to take longer than you think, and you will want to leave plenty of time to explore and enjoy Iceland’s natural beauty. More than once, we stopped at 3-4 sights while on the road for photo opportunities.
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