Home to some of the most wild landscapes on Earth, Iceland is a nation dened by its extremes. It’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe: roughly the size of Kentucky at 39,700 square miles, but, with 329,000 residents, home to about half as many people as Louisville. It’s also the most remote European country, with 600 miles of open ocean separating Iceland from Norway, its closest mainland neighbor.
As one might imagine, then, Iceland was one of the final pieces of Europe to see human habitation. According to Landnámabók, the medieval history detailing the settling of this island nation, the first permanent settler was a Norwegian chieftain named Ingolfr Arnason in 874 AD. Over the years, thousands of Norwegians and other Scandinavians followed, seeking adventure, new horizons, or simply a dip in Iceland’s highly touted thermal springs.
Despite its severe northern latitude (the Arctic Circle passes through one of Iceland’s outlying islands), the country enjoys a temperate climate due to the Gulf Stream and its little brother, the North Atlantic Drift. It’s an eminently hospitable nation, as evidenced in part by its status as the only NATO country to host no standing army. As an added bonus, American travelers won’t need a pocket dictionary—English is taught in all schools, and almost all Icelanders are fluent.
Although its name makes it sound like Elsa from Frozen’s summer getaway, Iceland boasts some of the most extensive geothermal activity on the planet. It sits atop the boundary of the North American and European continental plates, and makes up part of
the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a chain of volcanically active mountains running along the ocean’s oor. This unique location gives Iceland its collection of hot springs, bubbling lakes, and spreading volcanoes (including 2010’s tongue-twisting European travel-ruiner Eyjaallajökull).
After landing at Keavik International Airport, many travelers will drive forty-five minutes northeast to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and social hub. And we don’t begrudge anyone taking this route, as the variety of restaurants, bars, and hotels here rivals that of many great European cities. But if you’re looking for something a bit o the beaten track, head southeast towards the town of Hella—a tiny village of less than 1,000 that serves as a jumping off point to the wonders of Southern Iceland.
LAGOON IN THE LAVA
Before you get too far, stop in to the Blue Lagoon spa, located only twelve miles from the airport in the midst of a lava field. It’s one of the most visited spots in Iceland, and with good reason—the mineral-rich groundwater is heated by geothermal steam to a soothing 100 degrees before being pumped into an enormous, man-made lagoon.
FIRE AND ICE
From the Ranga, take a few day trips to explore Southern Iceland, a fascinating landscape of volcanoes, lava flows, and beautiful waterfalls. Hiking types will want to visit the glaciers in this area, particularly Sólheimajökull, an oshoot of the mighty Mýrdalsj.kull glacier which extends through rugged, rocky terrain towards the Atlantic. Icelandic Mountain Guides provides year-round glacier walking tours on this rugged terrain, allowing you to scramble across the frozen glacier’s face and explore its many caverns, canyons, and crevasses.
The nation of Iceland has many peninsulas, and its ords are nearly too numerous to count. But if you’re looking for a spit of land that has it all, visit Snæfellsnes Peninsula on Iceland’s western coast. It’s a place of sheer cliffs tumbling to the sea, crackling lava elds extending for miles, and dramatic volcanic peaks soaring above.
GLACIERS AND VOLCANOES COLLIDE
Gear up and visit the Hellnar Visitor Center in Gestastofa, where you can read up on the history and geology of Snæfellsjökull National Park. Then head out, either on a guided tour or on your own, to explore the park, which covers the western tip of the peninsula. The volcano Snæfellsjökull is one of Iceland’s national symbols, and is itself a study in contrasts. Despite its volcanic status, the peak of the mountain is covered with a glacier. It is known famously as the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the French author couldn’t have picked a more likely spot—the mountain stands in austere solitude amidst its lava fields, craters, and ribbons of hardened lava marring its slopes. Snæfellsjökull dominates the park’s skyline, but its seashores are just as compelling, where black basalt rock formed arches, caves, and grottoes as the lava flowed into the cold Atlantic.
WHALE (AND BIRD) WATCHING
If you’re looking for seafaring adventure, take a trip with Laki Tours. Headquartered in the quaint shing village of Grundarörur, Laki oers a full range of seaborne tours focusing on whale- and birdwatching, as well as shing (for those looking to catch their own dinner). Winter is the best time for orca spotting, while if you want to view the nesting puns, head out during the summer months. Laki also runs late-night tours during the summer, where guests can view the midnight sun set behind Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain in Iceland.
Snake your way to the very tip of one of Snaefellsnes Peninsula’s northern fingers, and you’ll find the impossibly picturesque hamlet of Stykkishólmur rambling along the jagged edges of the Atlantic. This town of just more than 1,000 souls centers itself on Iceland’s two main industries—shing and tourism. The town’s history dates to its 1550 founding as a trading post, and the cluster of wooden warehouses around the harbor accentuates this historical feel. One of the more interesting buildings is the Norska Húsi (Norwegian House), which serves double duty as a 19th-century home and regional museum. Wander through the first floor to discover a range of local antiques and historical gadgets, then head upstairs for a window into life in 1800s Iceland.
After a few days along the south and west coasts, you might think you’ve seen just about everything Iceland has to offer. But wait—as the infomercials incessantly bray—there’s more.
Some of the island’s most incredible waterfalls lie in this northern region, including Godafoss, the “waterfall of the gods,” so named for the statues of Norse gods that were cast into its waters after the nation converted to Christianity around 1,000 AD. But even the gods can’t match up to Dettifoss.
Located in Vatnajökull National Park, this full-throated cataract is reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Dettifoss is nicknamed Iceland’s Niagra, and standing on the east bank, it’s easy to see why. The waterfall’s 330-foot span isn’t a record breaker, but its drop of 150 feet approaches that of the falls on the U.S.-Canada border.
And after a long day of exploring, immerse yourself in the Myvatn Nature Baths. A popular spot for locals and tourists alike, the baths comprise a manmade lagoon lled with hot, mineral rich water from deep within the earth. Its chemical composition and high alkalinity make chlorine or other disinfectants unnecessary, so you know you’re in a 100% natural bathing experience. While less upscale than the south’s Blue Lagoon, the resort does include a restaurant serving lunch and dinner, as well as two steam baths and changing facilities for over 300 patrons.
INSIDE THE VOLCANO
Cavers will have their hands full here, as the rocky island is riddled with tunnels, caverns, and grottoes waiting for explorers. But if you want to up the ante, visit the attraction that sounds like a ride at Disney World: Inside the Volcano. Just a half hour from Reykjavik, this unique experience allows you to go where few humans have ever gone before—into the belly of the dormant Thrihnukagigur Volcano. You’ll hike up to the crater, then descend 400 feet through a magma chamber in a cable lift before getting the chance to channel your inner Bilbo Baggins and poke around the mountain’s fascinating heart.
If your idea of a good time involves a few hundred CCs, might we suggest the many snowmobiling and ATV excursions available. Travel into the interior of the island to hook up with Extreme Iceland, and tear over the Langjökull Glacier on your own personal snowmobile. Red Bull energy drink not included (or required). The thrill of whipping across a glacier might be unmatched for heart pounding excitement, but don’t discount the strategy, diculty, and feeling of personal satisfaction that goes into an ice climbing effort. Arctic Adventures oers a host of glacier hiking and ice climbing tours, including a daylong hike along Sólheimajökull Glacier with an optional ice climbing portion and a stop at majestic Skogafoss waterfall. It’s a breathtaking opportunity to walk along the face of an ever-changing natural marvel, and to wonder at its caverns, sinkholes, caves, and clis.