Iceland. The Nordic island. A land of contrasts. A land of fire and ice.
Although one of my personal goals is to see the world, Iceland was never really high on my bucket list. After all, it's a land of ice, right? I had also heard that the locals believe in elves, and that the national dish is fermented shark. Ummm...no.
But ever since my first visit to Iceland a few years ago for work, I’ve been hooked. And now with 3 visits under my belt, I guess you could say I’m a changed man. Iceland has fast become one of my favorite travel destinations, and I'd like to share with you some of the reasons why.
Iceland is just a quick 5-hour flight from the east coast, making it easier and cheaper to get to than even some domestic destinations, and definitely cheaper to get to than mainland European countries. Not long ago, the Icelandic airline WOW air started offering a special fare of $99 for one-way flights from LAX to Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík. That’s a price you really can’t beat! Deals like this one from WOW air and other airlines make Iceland an extremely cost-effective destination for budget-conscious travelers. But the word is spreading! Iceland is quickly becoming a top travel destination, so keep your eye out for special deals and don't miss out!
In addition to being some of the most beautiful people in the world (seriously, it seems as if every Icelander is a low-key Norse god or goddess), Icelanders are super friendly and courteous to visitors. They are genuinely welcoming in every sense and seem to love teaching visitors about their traditions, as well as sharing unique facts and stories about their beautiful country. One thing you may also notice is that Icelanders love their hot dogs. Nearly every convenience store, roadside stop, gas station and eatery of any kind has hot dogs for sale. For anyone with a bias against the snack, I highly encourage you to give the Icelandic hot dog a try. They’re far superior in both taste and quality to the ‘dogs you can get here in the States. But unless you are super adventurous, whatever you do avoid the Hákarl. This is their national dish I mentioned previously that has been fermented and hung out to dry for four or five months. Wikipedia describes it as having a “large amount of ammonia and has a strong smell, similar to many cleaning products. Those new to it may gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it because of the high ammonia content. First-timers are sometimes advised to pinch their nose while taking the first bite, as the smell is much stronger than the taste.” Yikes. No thanks.
Iceland is about the size of Ohio, and has a population of less than 325,000 people, half of whom live in the capital city of Reykjavík. It is easy to escape in Iceland and become one with nature. One of the most popular ways to explore Iceland is by camper van. These all-inclusive vehicles are easy to rent in Reykjavík, and are relatively inexpensive compared to hotel rooms. Once you’re setup with your ride you then have the ability to stop and park wherever you like, getting away from crowds and creating your own Icelandic experience.
Iceland is definitely not an island of ice floating in the middle of the North Atlantic and Arctic seas! It is absolutely beautiful, and extremely diverse. I often describe Iceland as a cross between Hawaii and the moon, with it’s jagged volcanic rock landmarks covered in a layer of 4-inch thick green moss. Iceland’s ‘Ring Road,’ or Highway 1, wraps around the entire circumference of the island and is the best way to view the dramatic changes in the landscape. On my first trip, there were stretches where I must have stopped every 100 yards to take a photo of the long road in the distance cutting through the moss covered lava fields. Circumnavigating the country via the Ring Road creates for a road trip of epic proportions.
These things are literally everywhere! You can find them in all different shapes, sizes and shades of blue all over the entire country. Following the Ring Road around the island takes you past some of the most beautiful waterfall locations in Iceland. With most of the waterfalls being fed by the many glaciers throughout Iceland, the water is super clean and pure, and amazingly blue. The Hraunfossar waterfall is fed by an underground glacier river flowing through the porous openings of a lava field, and is one of my very favorites. The magnificent waterfall Dettifoss is said to be the most powerful in all of Europe, with its impressive and deafening crushing roar leaving you in awe. Over 130,000 gallons of water flow over the edge every second. Skógafoss is one of the most iconic waterfalls in Iceland, with a seemingly endless flow of water shooting off the cliffside completely surrounded by green grass, grazing cows and even a farm house in the foreground. And with the ability to hike back behind the falls, Seljalandsfoss at the right time of day is a truly magical place to be.
The Blue Lagoon
While it's true that you can feel alone in many parts of Iceland, that isn’t the case here. One of Iceland’s most famous attractions is the Blue Lagoon, located just outside of Reykjavík. Let me tell you, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve hopped in a volcanic lagoon filled with milky blue-ish warm water and rubbed silica mud all over your face alongside perhaps a hundred other tourists. The Blue Lagoon is truly a super unique experience, and while it may be a total tourist trap, it is one that I highly recommend partaking in. The geothermal spa is purported to have therapeutic benefits, and the silica mud is great for your skin. Plus, the relaxation you feel while floating in the water with a drink in hand, or while receiving an in-water massage, is pretty unreal. I also recommend checking out the award-winning LAVA restaurant at the Blue Lagoon - it has a very unique setting. As an added bonus, selfies taken while floating in the middle of a lava field are pretty epic.
Iceland is the land of fire and ice! Much of the country has plenty of geothermal activity going on below the surface. In fact, in some regions many homes and businesses draw their power and hot water straight from the earth. While visiting the geothermal areas presents you with a not-so-pleasant rotten egg/sulfur smell, it introduces you to sights of boiling mud pots, steam vents, and a geysir that shoots 230 feet in the air. All of these features are natural wonders that add to the charm of Iceland. However, as you explore some of the geothermal areas make sure to stay aware; although there are roped off sections, there is potentially only a thin crust of earth between you and boiling hot mud. When you get deeper into the heart of Iceland you can actually explore lava tubes, and with the right tour guides you can even see the active volcanoes and lava flows.
The opportunities for adventure are seemingly endless in Iceland. Depending on the season you can hike on a glacier, go skiing, fishing, 4-wheeling, mountain biking, snowmobiling, rafting, scuba diving, kayaking, or even take a ride on a zodiac boat. One benefit of visiting Iceland in the summer is the ample amount of daylight Iceland receives due to being incredibly close to the North Pole. You’ll have almost 24 hours of usable light, leaving you with plenty of time for activities. One of my personal favorite things to do in Iceland is explore the Jökulsárlón glacial lake in the southeast part of the island. After suiting up in what looks like an arctic explorer suit, you’re taken on a ride via inflatable rib, getting up close and personal with semi-truck sized icebergs from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. It’s fascinating to watch house-sized chunks of ice calve off of the glacier, or flip over in the lagoon. But if the zodiac boat isn’t quite your speed, they also offer a narrated ride on an amphibious vehicle that travels across the lagoon. The highlight of that trip is getting to taste a piece of 800-year-old ice.
Once you've seen a photo of these feathered friends, it’s pretty obvious why the puffin would be on my list of reasons to visit Iceland. Iceland has protected breeding grounds and sanctuaries that give the puffins a sense of security, and in certain areas allow you to get up close and personal to view the birds. In the summer, after the pufflings hatch and are old enough, they leave their burrows on the hills and fly to the sea. Sometimes at night they get distracted by city lights and land on the city roads, and the people of Reykjavík come to the rescue. They collect lost pufferlings in boxes and release them at the shore. I feel like I must warn you though...while the puffin is a beloved animal in Iceland, come September through April they do come into season, and you may end up seeing smoked puffin listed on the menu of a fine dining establishment.