1000 Places

Iceland: A Geological Wonder

Follow Patricia Schultz, author of 1000 Places to See Before You Die, on an Icelandic adventure. 

Iceland’s numerous waterfalls are magnificent and varied.

Everyone is talking about Iceland these days. In 2010, the volcano with the tongue-twister name—Eyjafjallajökull, one of some 130 volcanoes on the island, both active and not—put Iceland on the world stage when it erupted, paralyzing air traffic for several weeks, costing airlines and passengers millions in lost revenue. Prior to that, tourism had tanked, when the economy hit rock bottom in 2008. But a government-backed initiative began promoting the little-visited North Atlantic nation as a year-round destination, and tourism today figures as the biggest contributor to the economy.

Patricia on the Ring Road.

The secret has long been out: Iceland is a geological wonder. If you didn’t know that Jules Verne set his outlandish tale Journey to the Center of the Earth in Iceland, or if you’ve been living in a cave, unaware that the island’s otherworldly landscape has frequently served as a location for Game of Thrones, then you likely will not know that NASA used the country’s lunar-like fields to train their astronauts to land on the moon.

The Northern Lights are best appreciated from September to April.

Such spectacular landscape is a major draw, showcased by the Midnight Sun during long summer months and, if you’re lucky enough to see them, bathed by the Technicolor magic of the Northern Lights in the dark winter months. It is a countryside on steroids, one that is vast and ever changing, like your own personal Imax screen. It is Europe’s most sparsely populated country, its inhabitants a fun-loving, quirky, and highly literate people—many of whom paradoxically believe in trolls, elves, and “hidden people.” The 2015 World Happiness Report, released in April by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked Iceland as the second-happiest place on Earth (it followed the landlocked nation of Switzerland, where nature also reigns supreme).

How convenient then, that all that spellbinding topography crammed into an isolated nation roughly the size of England was a mere 5-and-a-half-hour flight with Icelandair from New York City. To see as much as possible in a 9-day visit, and to avoid a no-room-at-the-inn scenario during my July visit (Iceland’s growing infrastructure is still challenged during peak tourist months), I booked Nordic Saga’s Classic Circle Tour, an escorted bus tour along the fabled Ring Road, which promised an abundance of astonishing nature and dreamlike beauty.

The Harpa Concert Hall is a new addition to Reykjavik’s skyline.

Reykjavik’s evolving arts and design scene flourishes in the shadow of Harpa Concert Hall, the dazzling new glass-and-steel cultural center that opened in 2011 to international fanfare. The city’s compact waterfront is a colorful mix of lingering small-scale industry and gentrification. Fish-and-chips restaurants and whale- and puffin-watching boats line the waterfront. The brand-new Whales of Iceland Museum, home to life-size replicas of the 23 whales found in these North Atlantic waters, joins an impressive roster of small, quality museums.

The small capital city of Reykjavik is found in Iceland’s southwestern corner, where some of the island’s finest geological curiosities are found – many of them linked together along the popular Golden Circle tourist route. Geysir is an Icelandic word, and the original namesake can be found here, where visitors stand in anticipation, never having to wait more than 10 minutes for a reliably scheduled eruption. Waterfalls are to Iceland what castles are to Scotland, but you’ll always remember your first time if it is at Gulfoss—it will take your breath away.

The Golden Circle tour includes favorite stops such as the Geysir Hot Springs Area.

From Gulfoss we struck off into the wilderness for an incomparable voyage along the 830-mile Ring Road, which follows much of the dramatic coastline of this North Atlantic island. Usually never more than one lane in each direction, and almost always empty of vehicles, the well-paved artery took us through a countryside that is both raw and serene—rolling fields of blue-purple lupins, moss-covered lava fields, geothermal pools (for a traditional soak, most head to the world-famous Blue Lagoon, out near Reykjavik’s airport—it is the most-visited site in the country), glacier-capped mountains, and the iceberg-chocked Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. We visited more thundering waterfalls than most people see in a lifetime (we stopped counting at 300—though some were but a mere trickle of glacial melt). Húsavík, a charming coastal village, is often referred to as the whale watching capital of Europe—and, yes, we saw whales aplenty.

The small and spirited Icelandic horse has a heavy double layer coat.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Iceland is famous for its horses. They are small and surefooted, with wild manes, direct descendants of the stock the Vikings brought over a thousand years ago. They are commonly spotted in the rolling fields (which they share with some of the island’s 500,000 sheep), and riding them for a few hours or a few days is a popular activity and an excellent way to experience the breadth of the open, tree-free countryside.

Puffins are great swimmers but clumsy flyers and are comical to watch.

We had spotted a number of puffins when the Ring Road followed the fjord indented coastline. But, when our tour ended back in Reykjavik, a bunch of us arranged a last-minute private puffin watch to a cluster of islands just outside the city—one of so many breathtaking highlights of our Icelandic adventure.

For more information on Nordic Saga, click here.

Don’t forget to check out 1000 Places to See Before You Die for more from Patricia Schultz!

About the Book:

The world’s bestselling travel book is back in a more informative, more experiential, more budget-friendly full-color edition. A #1 New York Times bestseller, 1,000 Places reinvented the idea of travel book as both wish list and practical guide. As Newsweek wrote, it “tells you what’s beautiful, what’s fun, and what’s just unforgettable—everywhere on earth.” And now the best is better. There are 600 full-color photographs. Over 200 entirely new entries, including visits to 28 countries like Lebanon, Croatia, Estonia, and Nicaragua, that were not in the original edition. There is an emphasis on experiences: an entry covers not just Positano or Ravello, but the full 30-mile stretch along the Amalfi Coast.

Every entry from the original edition has been readdressed, rewritten, and made fuller, with more suggestions for places to stay, restaurants to visit, festivals to check out. And throughout, the book is more budget-conscious, with starred restaurants and historic hotels such as the Ritz, but also moderately priced gems that don’t compromise on atmosphere or charm.

The world is calling. Time to answer.

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