By Alexandria Ott
Located at Latitude 67 north, Iceland and its recent rise in tourism is befitting: With majestically milky hot springs, blistering and bright volcanoes, landscapes that resemble landing on the moon, unusual scapes for scuba diving and lava fields inhibited by Santa and his elves, this Nordic island has quickly become a top destination for American travelers. In fact, at any given time, more American tourists inhabit Iceland than Icelandic residents. With a surge in travel deals from the US to Iceland, journeying to this ancient land has become a must-do for travel connoisseurs and peace seekers.
HEAD TO THE NORTH
With a quick flight from Reykjavik to the town of Akureyri, Northern Iceland gives visitors a picturesque look into the nation’s most treasured natural wonders. More familiar is South Iceland’s Diamond Circle, but what many don’t know is that the North also boasts a tour that will take you to Lake Myvatn, the Godafoss waterfalls, the geothermal area called Namaskard, the Jokulsargljufur canyon and much more.
Godafoss (Goðafoss), which translates to “the Waterfall of the Gods,” is a historical monument and stunning sight near ring-road 1. It is named as such from the ancient Viking story about Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi (Þorgeir ljósvetningagoði), an ex-Pagan Chief who converted to Christianity in AD 1000 by throwing pagan idols of Nordic gods into this waterfall as a proclamation of the new faith.
Lake Myvatn is one of northern Iceland’s most beloved stops. The lake’s birdlife is plentiful with fourteen different duck species (the most gathered in any place in the world) and a Bird Museum worth checking out. Myvatn’s Nature Bath is located just east of Reykjahlid, where guests can enjoy a warm dip in the relaxing natural waters. As the fourth largest lake in Iceland, the Myvatn region also offers visitors many hiking routes, if you’re looking for some cardio after your spa-like experience. The Yule Lads, figures from Icelandic folklore who are commonly identified as the Icelandic version of Santa Claus, also live in the Myvatn area at Dimmuborgir. “Watch out for the little elves,” say the locals.
Namafjall mountain (also known as ‘Namaskard’ or ‘Hverir’) is a geothermal area that looks as celestial as it is serene. With boiling and bubbling mud pools, this high-temperature area is often referred to as “Hell’s Kitchen” for the steam that rises from it and the strong sulfur odor caused by hydrogen sulfide. Take a walk on the Icelandic moon.
Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is home to the roaring and spectacular Dettifoss waterfall. Visitors can travel along the canyon and see the famous Hljodaklettar or “Echoing” Cliffs, named for their exceptional acoustics. Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall and is situated in the glacial river, Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which is the second longest river in Iceland. The river originates in Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier.
In the springtime, you can also see cliffs of the Tjornes peninsula and will be met by majestic puffins that nest in the area. While there, drive through the village of Husavik, which is the whale watching capital of Iceland, before heading back to Akureyri.
WHAT TO WEAR
“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Pack for all seasons and occasions when visiting Iceland, where the weather is often windy and unpredictable. Each day will bring multiple changes in temperature, so preparing for anything is the best way to stay warm and comfortable for your Nordic adventures. A beautiful day can rapidly turn into a windstorm so pack layers that will allow you to go from t-shirt weather to winter weather in the turn of a moment.
SNORKEL THE SILFRA
When you think of the most ideal places to snorkel in the world, your imagination might fill with images of tropical waters in Hawaii or Indonesia. What many may not know when planning a trip to Iceland is that it’s waters are some of the most clear in the world and offer a rare opportunity to swim between continental plates. Scuba divers and snorkelers are attracted to this freshwater beauty for many reasons but most its geological significance: The Silfra is located between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Offering exceptional visibility, there are three main dive sites: Silfra Hall, Silfra Cathedral, and the Silfra Lagoon. If you’re a newbie or first time snorkeler, this is a great place because the area is shallow upon entry. The “Ice” in Iceland certainly applies to the water temperature, which ranges between 36–39 °F but can be relieved with a dry suit. The lava rocks are constantly filtering the water so it is truly some of the clearest water in the world. It’s so clean that you can drink it while you are snorkeling. You will view underwater majesty for as far as the eye can see while staying more hydrated than you have ever been.
DO AS THE LOCALS DO
Four-Wheeling to Freedom: Ditching the tour groups can have its advantages. Trekking through Iceland’s highlands and mountain roads through Jeep Excursions can be the best way to break away. The best places to rent a four-wheeler and take off include:
Glymur waterfall (one hour north of Reykjavik): This amazing waterfall, which is the second largest in Iceland, empties into a giant canyon and with such a short hike, the reward is well worth the time.
Seljavallalaug is Iceland’s oldest geothermal swimming pool, which sits at the base of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Located in southern Iceland, this outdoor pool is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland (built in 1923) and gives you yet another excuse to relax in tranquil waters.
Landmannalaugar (meaning “the people’s pools”) is a steaming volcanic landscape in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Highlands of Iceland. It is at the edge of Laugahraun lava field, which was formed in an eruption that dates back to 1477. With colorful mountains in the backdrop and cute shops in town, this is a great spot to break away and explore with your travel partner.
Relaxing in the isolated countryside is another way to live like a native. Chic cottages on Airbnb start at $53/night and can range from mossy spots that border lava fields to naturally heated hot tubs overlooking volcanoes. When renting in rural areas, you can also have access to fresh, local food including lamb or seafood and produce like strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. Dining in may be a better option for the pocket book as Iceland’s restaurant culture is infamously expensive.
If you are a music lover, then Iceland is a great place to follow major international acts like Foo Fighters, who are headlining this year’s Secret Solace. In addition to being home of major musicians such as Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men and Bjork, Iceland has a breadth of festivals to check out, depending on the time of year you are visiting.
Launched in 1999 in an airplane hangar in Reykjavík, Iceland Airwaves is the most well-known. The festival, which takes place in November each year, showcases the Icelandic rock/pop/electro music scene along with numerous international acts. Hard rock festival, Eistnaflug, has taken place annually since 2005. An indoor festival situated in a quaint little town on the Eastern coast of Iceland called Neskaupstaður, the lineup consists of 30-40 bands from Iceland and around the world. Dark Music Days is another festival that locals love, consisting of contemporary and new music and takes place at Harpa in downtown Reykjavík during the darkest period of the Icelandic winter. The festival was founded in 1980 by the Iceland Composers’ Society as a platform for Icelandic composers to present their work. Today, the festival is a platform for getting to know new music with an emphasis on Icelandic composers and performers.
Reykjavík Blues Festival opens with “Blues Day” in the city center every year and it usually takes place in March or April. It includes live blues in different downtown venues and highlights include surprise performances in the downtown city center. Blues clubs in the area also liven up and serve as the official after hour venues. The annual Reykjavik Jazz Festival is an increasingly prestigious event on the international jazz scene. The festival hosts performances in a variety of styles, from contemporary jazz and the avant-garde to Latin jazz, gospel and big bands. It features many acclaimed international Jazz players as well as Iceland’s leading Jazz musicians against a stunning backdrop of colorful mountains in the inspiring coastal town.
Finally, Secret Solstice is back in it’s fourth year, bringing “72 hours straight of never-ending daylight”, incredible live acts, and some of the most unique parties nestled in Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. The 2017 lineup includes headliners Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, Richard Ashcroft, Pharoahe Monch, Foreign Beggars, Dubfire, and Kerri Chandler. With side events that utilize the beautiful and natural terrain, visitors of this festival can expect events such as performances in the Raufarholshellir lava tunnel system outside Reykjavík. Formed over 5,000 years ago during a volcanic eruption, the Raufarhollshellir cave system is a magnificent phenomenon of nature, which instills a sense of wonder in all who journey within it. And for the first time ever, guests can be part of this ultra-special concert, in this natural space.
WHEN TO GO
Visiting Iceland in winter can impede your adventures with a sliver of sunlight each day, but this is also when some of the best deals can be found. Tourism is most popular in the summer months where the month of June can see 24/7 arctic daylight. If you are looking to miss the high-traffic months of July and August, where the weather is best and most predictable, try booking your trip in the early fall months. This will allow you to enjoy all that Iceland has to offer before the snowy season arrives and even gives you the best chance to catch the enchanting Northern Lights.