Iceland is – quite literally – a country in the making. Its continually evolving volcanic landscapes offer scenery that is both epic in scale and surprising in nature – you never quite know what you’re going to find around the next corner. It is home to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest icecap; and the highlands, with their bubbling hot lakes, brooding volcanoes, velvety green valleys and deep canyons, are reminiscent of a Tolkien novel. The effect is both humbling – reminding us of our trifling role amid the grander scheme of things – and often quite surreal: a mountain rising suddenly from the coastal plain, or a powder-blue iceberg floating downriver to become stranded on a beach of black sand. Such elemental beauty is tremendously inspiring, to locals as well as visitors, and you will be welcomed by a resourceful and effortlessly stylish people, known for their warmth and creativity, and an appealing sense of assured individuality.
Read on to discover more of what this ‘land of fire and ice’ has to offer...
Whale Watching, Way Out West
The 100-kilometre long Snæfellsnes Peninsula is not short on drama. As the country’s newest national park, it is home to Snæfellsjökull, a fearsome-looking, glacier-topped volcano; mountains and moorland; black-sand beaches and waterfalls; and an abundance of wildlife that includes puffins, terns, seals and even whales. And it is these latter creatures – and the magnificent orcas (‘killer whales’) in particular – that ply the waters of the western fjords, and that you can seek out on a whale-watching trip from the small fishing port of Grundarfjörður.
Icelandic Sagas & 'Hidden People'
The more you explore this captivating land, the more you will come to appreciate and understand the undercurrents of mythology and legend that permeate its culture. The sagas of the Viking settlers, at first passed down orally from one generation to the next, were bloodthirsty tales of hardship and triumph whose sparse style of succinct storytelling still has readers hooked today. The huldufólk (‘hidden people’), meanwhile, are everywhere, with elves and spirits populating eerie lava fields, and mythical figures petrified into weird and wonderful rock formations. It’s enough to make a believer from the most hardened sceptic.
Surrounded by some of Europe’s most dramatic scenery, Reykjavík, the world’s most northerly capital, somehow manages to fuse small-town innocence with big-city appeal. Rows of low, brightly painted houses sit cheek-by- jowl with futuristic skyscrapers, and although the Icelanders love a party – the late-night, weekend rúntur (‘round tour’) around the bars is a sight to behold – there’s an innocent sense of bonhomie to their boisterousness. Enjoy the city’s thriving café culture and arts scene, and take a lift to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, an immense concrete church whose design mimics the craggy mountains to the north, for fabulous views.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s – and indeed the world’s – must-see destinations, a geothermally superheated seawater lagoon whose steaming, milky-blue, mineral-rich waters provide a unique and memorable bathing experience. The striking backdrop of undulating black lava fields and the visitor centre’s space-station-style architecture only add to the otherworldly feeling, so float off to a quiet spot and soak up the ethereal atmosphere.
The Golden Circle
Comprising three of Iceland’s best-loved attractions – the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, the original Geysir, and the Viking parliament at Thingvellir – the Golden Circle is one the world’s ultimate day trips. It’s popular for a reason; after all, where else could you take in such an important historical site, the iconic spouting hot spring and a roaring, double cascade of a waterfall – all in the space of a single day?
A time-honoured September ritual, the réttir is when Iceland’s farmers collect sheep and horses from their summer grazing pastures. Rounded-up on horseback (though quadbikes are also used nowadays), the animals stream down valley sides to be herded into a corral where the sorting takes place. Spectators are welcome, and, as with the best of all rural traditions, much merrymaking ensues...
This 62-metre-high waterfall spills from a cliff below the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano in truly dramatic fashion, its beauty enhanced by the rainbows which hover in its spray when the sun shines. Stand in awe at the foot of the falls, said to be hiding a glittering chest of gold, then take a walk alongside the river that feeds them, passing through increasingly wild scenery above a gorge and an extraordinary series of cascades.
What's In A Name?
Icelandic is a deeply traditional language that has changed little over the centuries. Names, too, follow age-old traditions, and there is an official list from which Icelanders must choose in order to name their children. Any new additions must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee, so there are no little Rivers, Peaches or Brooklyns running around here! That name is then usually combined with the father’s first name, so that Guðrun, the daughter of Magnus, would become Guðrun Magnusdóttir. As a result, first names are used just about everywhere, making for a delightfully informal and democratic-sounding society.
The hardy Icelandic horse, with its slight stature and unique ‘fifth gait’, was brought to the country from Norway during the 9th century and has garnered a following from admirers across the globe. Foremost among these was the adventure writer Jules Verne, who claimed in his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth: “There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, nor anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies.”
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lake
The journey to the glacier lake of Jökulsárlón, through constantly changing scenery and beneath the icecap of Vatnajökull, is amazing enough in itself. But as you draw near, prepare for something that will test the boundaries between fantasy and reality; fact versus fiction. For here, a ghostly procession of icebergs drifts serenely through the lagoon before floating out to sea, leaving you to gaze in awe at these monumental ice structures and to contemplate the unfathomable power of Mother Nature herself.