Like a lot of other people, I made the mistake of assuming that Iceland looked pretty much like the North Pole, and that everyone who went there returned to their hotels frozen to the teeth with icicles hanging from their nose hairs. I was never so glad to be so wrong!
Iceland is a fascinating country in all respects. The geology, the landscape, the culture, and the people are just some of what make Iceland one of the most intriguing countries in the world. And what’s even better is that there are only 330,000 people in 40,000 square miles! So, no matter how many tourists are there on any given day, it never feels crowded. There is enough open space for everyone to have nose hair icicles - and love every minute of it.
No longer is “Fire and Ice” just the name of the homo-erotic figure-skating routine that Jimmy MacElroy and Chazz Michael Michaels do in Blades of Glory (2007). It also perfectly epitomizes the geothermal landscape of Iceland. The volcanic activity combined with its location just south of the Arctic Circle form an irresistible amalgamation of mountains, glaciers, valleys and waterfalls. I mean, it’s so beautiful that I’m using words like “amalgamation”! Here’s a good mishmash of geological wonders to be sure not to miss:
Thankfully, when we saw Eyjafjallajökull volcano, she was sitting pretty and calm. Prior to “the big one” in 2010, her last eruption was in 1821, so I felt pretty confident we were safe. But it’s this uncertainty and unpredictability that give volcanoes their majestic and mysterious reputation. I find volcanoes quite intimidating, actually. They’re too much like people. They just sit there for a long time, nice and quiet, minding their own business… until all of a sudden, somebody lights a fire under their ass and they blow their top. (Be honest - you know at least three people like that, right?)
Strokkur Geyser is Iceland’s answer to Old Faithful - a geyser that erupts like clockwork (in this case, every 8–10 minutes). The power from which the bubble bursts is impressive to see! Don’t blink, though, because it’s not a continuous fountain so much as one big burp. But here’s a trick on how to know when it’s about to happen: Before it erupts, there’s a huge bubble rising slowly like the Kraken. Then inside the bubble, a huge contrail shoots up like a rocket towards the surface where it finally bursts through. Photographers, I would suggest cranking up your shutter speed and putting it on burst mode. Not many people can say they have a picture of Mother Nature burping (if we are indeed looking at the right end).
Often listed as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, Gulfoss certainly does not disappoint. This multi-tiered waterfall really only reveals its true size when you walk up to it. The falls are so powerful that the mist rises really high, and since we were blessed with a gorgeous, sunny day, a beautiful rainbow stretched clear across the brink. It seemed so fantastical that it reminded me more of Oz than Earth. Actually, I think my hair was already in braids, so all I needed was some ruby slippers and a yellow-brick road and I could’ve clicked my heels all the way to the Emerald City.
At the waterfall, there are two different options: you can choose to walk along the bottom or you can climb the steps to walk along the upper rim. If you’re fit and adventurous, I would suggest going up top. If you don’t mind wearing a poncho and not being able to hear yourself think (for me, that’s usually a good thing), then I would walk along the bottom. And if you’re one of those over-achievers, then by all means do both! Just don’t do like I did and leave your jacket in the car thinking, “We won’t be here long.” (I’ll give you two guesses how THAT one went!)
Iceland is absolutely covered with glaciers. Big surprise, right? Langjoküll Glacier is the one nearest to Gullfoss Waterfall and is the second-largest icecap on the entire island. The ice is nearly 2,000 feet thick! Unfortunately, because of time restrictions, I only saw it from a distance. But I’m putting it at the top of my list whenever I go back to check out the ice caves and do a helicopter tour. There are volcanoes underneath the glacier and from the air, you can see two calderas. Volcanoes coming through the glacier! At some point, your mouth starts to hurt from being open like a codfish all day long because everything leaves you in awe.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park may sound like a haunted forest in a Tim Burton movie but it has one of the most beautiful and photographed views in Iceland. Plus, the fault line of the North American Continental Plate literally runs right through it. It turns out that the opposite end of this plate is the San Andréas Fault in Southern California - literally in my own backyard, 4,375 miles away! After getting over the brain freeze of trying to fathom that, I took a nice stroll down the Continental Rift where I passed waterfalls, towering cliffs and beautiful valley views. I’ve since learned you can also kayak and even scuba dive between the tectonic plates in Thingvellir Lake. Probably not a great place to be in case of another earthquake but at least it would be a gorgeous last vision!
The Blue Lagoon
This geothermal spring is probably the most popular thing to do in Iceland. It’s man-made which takes a little of the organic enjoyment away from it - but once you step into the 100° Fahrenheit turquoise water, all the men and women who built it are easily forgiven. I recommend doing it last on your holiday - there is no better way to unwind, relax and reminisce about the breathtaking experiences you’ve had.
I actually didn’t know there was such a thing as an Icelandic horse before visiting the Fridheimar Horse Show. A local family who owns these magnificent animals put on a demonstration of their majestic features and unique gaits (the horses’, not the family’s). Icelandic horses have two additional gaits from other breeds. Incredibly, the riders were not Yetis from the highlands but were the family’s three kids - about 14, 12, and 8 years old. Had they lived in Canada, they could easily have qualified for Cirque du Soleil in a couple more years. After the show, you get to spend some cuddle time with the horses in the stable. This is one of the best genuine cultural experiences you can have in Iceland.
Deep Sense of Community
Iceland has a population of only 339,000. I have more people than that living on my street. It’s probably due to this intimate social atmosphere that Iceland has a small-town feel. Everyone seems to know everyone else. They are friendly, patient, helpful, and never seem to be in a rush. They love to share their culture and native land with tourists.
I am definitely generalizing here (although maybe not by much). Our tour guide was telling us that he had 3 daughters and a son, all of whom make Albert Einstein look like a used car salesman. One was a professor at Columbia University, the other a chemical engineer, still another some kind of computer genius and the other an astronaut (okay, maybe not an astronaut, but I’m sure he would’ve been if he’d wanted to). I did seem to hear an unusual amount of tales of ambition, dedication and persistence. Maybe the entire reason for such diligence is because having valuable brains is the only way to ever finance their way off this frozen wasteland; or maybe there’s just nothing else to do during the months of never-ending daylight except read books. Whatever the case may be, I was very impressed that just because a country may be far away from everyone else, it does not mean that they’re behind the times. On the contrary, this physical separation seems to have only made them smarter.
Half the fun of traveling around Iceland is simply laughing at all of the road signs. How anyone could actually pronounce words that have “rkjxpzgfwz” all in a row is in and of itself a divine miracle. The language looks like somebody went through the alphabet, and just for fun, decided to take out all of the vowels. Even when they say a word or the name of a place, it doesn’t sound anything like I see it on the page. How does a 5-year old even begin to learn how to spell?! I used to be a spelling bee champion myself, but if I had to learn Icelandic spelling, I would’ve been out in the first round. One thing is for sure: they never have to worry about foreign intelligence agencies trying to decipher any codes. Their entire language IS a code! Fascinating, really.
Perhaps the biggest statistics that left an impression on me is the crime rate - or should I say, “lack of” crime - in the country. In 2012, there was only 1 violent death reported in Iceland. In the same year in the U.S., there were 1,214,462 deaths from violent crime. Yes we have a much larger population, but the percentage comparison is still quite staggering (386 per 100,000 people in the U.S. vs. 0.3 per 100,000 in Iceland). Being a police officer in Iceland must be the best job in the world - all day coffee and donuts and only one phone call from a guy in Reykjavik whose cat is stuck up a tree. Seriously, though, in this respect, Iceland is an example for the rest of the world.
That’s probably a good place to segué into the politics of Iceland. I generally would advise any travel bloggers to steer clear of the dreaded “P” word, but I think I can talk about it while only offending about 25% of you. What I admire about Iceland is their attitude. They are very progressive, forward-thinking and innovative; they do not resist change, but rather they embrace it. Here’s just a few things that I highly respect about Iceland:
Runs almost completely on renewable energy
85% of the entire country is run off of renewable energy. And why not? They’re in the perfect position to do that: they’ve got water to turn into hydroelectricity; geothermal landscape to turn into geothermal power; and if they can ever find a way to harness volcanic ash into some sort of renewable energy, Iceland is going to outlive us all. They expect to be 100% Energy Independent by 2050, and they are well on their way to accomplishing that feat. What’s impressive is that they are harnessing their natural resources without decimating the gorgeous landscape. In 2010, they were noted the “Greenest Country” by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Iceland has no standing army
Iceland is one of the few countries without a standing army. Although a member of NATO, they have no official armed forces. Is it because it’s so bloody cold that no one in their right mind would ever want to attack Iceland? Perhaps. But to me, it signals an attitude of peace, communication and tolerance. True, their heritage and history may have not always been that way. But maybe they learned that war is never the answer.
In 2009, Iceland became the first country with an openly gay Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. It says a lot about a country that is willing to vote for someone because they are right for the job and not based on any personal choices. Being blind to race, sexual orientation or religion is a monumental step towards peace. This unconditional acceptance could be one of the reasons why crime is virtually non-existent.
Overthrow of Corrupt Government
In 2011, Iceland basically did what every other country wanted to do but couldn’t - they overthrew their corrupt government and installed a brand new one with a new Constitution for the people. They made those responsible for the financial crisis pay the price for their avarice. It’s wonderful to see a country where the people stood united in solidarity and came out on top. They fought to take their country back and they succeeded. They also smartly decided tourism was the avenue that would provide an economic rebound, and thanks to this concept, we now have companies like WOW Airlines.
In 2011, Iceland was voted the Most Peaceful Country in the World by the Global Peace Index. It is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the country ranked “most at peace.” When you have abundance, tolerance, kindness, and community, peace is the result. To me, this is the crux of it all.
Iceland is a country that is not only remarkable in its physical beauty but in its determination to be a trailblazer. Though they are a small country with a population less than you find in most Starbucks, they have a big vision for their future. They are a fantastic example for other countries (and even for individuals) to follow.