Words to fully describe Iceland don’t exist yet. Calling it pristine, luminous, and pure would be a good start. But that just doesn’t begin to encompass this country famous for its glaciers, volcanoes and musical bands such as Of Monsters and Men and Bjork. It’s a place where most everyone cares about the environment and does their part through biking instead of driving, recycling and supporting local businesses. Here are 10 reasons to visit Iceland, which has the makings of the next mega tourist hub and is well on its way, but refuses to do so at a pace that would compromise the culture at its heart.
Sources: MountainGuides.is, IcelandBike.com, IcelandTravel.is, CavingInIceland.is, Arcanum.is
With so many direct flights from Denver, Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York, Iceland is a great stopping point on your way to or from Europe. It’s a two-to-four-hour flight to most major European cities. It’s one of the smoothest travel experiences I have ever had. I left Denver at 5:40 p.m. and arrived at 6 a.m. the next day, making for a six-hour flight after the time difference is factored in.
Icelandair took care of the details, which made for a comfortable flight. American movies were available, but opting for the Icleandic documentaries gave me some ideas for excursions and a glimpse into the country.
Planes are named after volcanoes, (like Katla). Bottles of Icelandic glacial water are served throughout the flight and you can buy a postcard from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull which the airline will post for you.
Leave the city behind and get ready for otherworldly landscapes. Either rent a car or find a guide service to make the three-hour trip to Landmannalaugar in the South Highlands of Iceland. Then stay the night in a mountain hut. Afterwards, I couldn’t wait to put my boots on the ground to climb Brennisteinsalda. The hike (plan for three to four hours) starts mildly, but soon the incline sneaks in, carrying you to the summit. The route carves through bubbling volcanic vents, craters and lava fields. At the end of the hike go into a plank position. You can get low enough to drink right out of a stream so pure, no ultraviolet treatment is necessary. After the hike, get ready for a soak in the hot springs near the mountain hut. Chances of seeing the northern lights are good, but I didn’t have any luck this trip. The northern lights might have to become my 10th reason to go back. I did see a red glow in the sky from the Bardabunga volcano erupting. It made up for the northern lights’ no-show with interest.
All within a few miles of each other you can find the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Thingvellir National Park. This is the only place in Iceland where you can see tectonic plates pulling apart above ground, and you can hike right between them. This area encompasses the Golden Circle of Iceland, which is a fantastic route for any trip in Southern Iceland. It’s a top tourist attraction and offers a marvelous escape to the outdoors. Three great stops for any trip on the Golden Circle are the national Park Þingvellir, the golden falls known as Gullfoss and Haukadalur Valley.
Rent a bike and navigate through downtown Reykjavik where you will find cozy cafes and stores selling all things Icelandic. One of the top items tourists are on the hunt for is a handknit Icelandic sweater. For those on a budget, check out Sputnik or the Flea Market where you can find some threads that won’t cost $250-plus USD.
Another top site to keep a lookout for is the Hallgrimskkirja Lutheran church. For $7, you can take an elevator to the top of the church for city views. Come night, find yourself in one of the many bars or dance clubs such as the Big Lebowski bar for a White Russian — perfect for any pop culture nut. Plus, if you’re ready to throw some strikes, the Big Lebowski’s bowling alley is a must-stop spot.
Set in a lava field, the Blue Lagoon might as well be the eighth wonder of the world. Try an in-water massage — there’s no need for a table when you can float on a mat as a masseuse’s skilled hands get to work.
If you need more pampering, treat yourself to a unique Blue Lagoon facial. All Blue Lagoon facials use pure ingredients like geothermal seawater, minerals, silica and algae. Make sure to check out the Lagoon Bar — it will satisfy your craving for a cool drink as you continue bathing.
The Laredi Cave Tour takes a look at caverns formed by volcanic rock. Approximately 11 percent of Iceland is formed of lava fields which create lava-tube caves out of cooling magma from volcanic eruptions. The magma flows into defined channels, forms tunnels, then empties out of the tunnels. If the channel remains hollow it forms a lava tube. There are more than 500 in Iceland.
Trek up Mýrdalsjökull ice field, Iceland’s fourth-largest glacier on one of Iceland’s largest mountains, Mount Katla. No need to pack extra gear — the adventure starts on a lifted van and the tour operator will provide balaclavas and insulated coveralls to keep you warm in case of cold weather.
These are words you don’t notice often in Iceland. And yet that’s what you most often get (so long as you avoid packaged foods). I love that I can visit here and not wonder if the boiled egg I’m eating is free range, or if that chicken was supplied by a shoddy supplier. In Iceland, you’ll eat fresh ingredients, with most of the food arriving directly from the farm. You will still find insanely delicious flavors, but simple, honest ingredients are at the core. To splurge on dinner, head to Hofnif, a fish hut-turned-cozy-restaurant on the harbor. Find menu items such as shellfish soup with a langoustine sauce made with cognac, Icelandic skyr (a type of yogurt), fresh lamb, plokkfiskur (fish stew with potatoes, onions and boiled fish) and rubragud (rye bread cooked in wooden casks buried in the ground near a hot spring).
Purity doesn’t just refer to the water, but the country as a whole. Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, takes the concept of purity and simplifies life with it. Citizens and tourists enjoy pure air, cold, clean water from glacial runoff and hot water thanks to environmentally friendly geothermal energy. About 90 percent of the buildings you see, and all swimming pools use geothermal energy to heat water. If you see a clear-running stream, you can probably drink out of it instead of going indoors.
Iceland wasn’t always this way. It started as an isolated nation of farmers and fisherman until the early 20th century. Iceland has become a resilient nation. Family ties and its sense of tradition are strong. Wherever you go in Iceland, whether it’s a lava cave or the Blue Lagoon, you catch a glimpse of the spirit of its people.