The Land of Fire and Ice & Why You Should Go Twice
Are you tired of reading about how incredible Iceland is? If so, you won’t want to read another word because this post is full of nothing but praise for the “Land of Fire and Ice.” Ironically, I was inspired to write this post after I heard that “Hollywood Hunk” Zac Effron had released a new travel series and his first episode was about Iceland. Well, queue the disappointment. Zac is lovely fellow. Likeable, friendly, and yes, easy on the eyes, but at the risk of sounding like a travel documentary snob, this is not his scene and the opening episode of “Down to Earth” did Iceland little justice, even if the episode was focusing on sustainability. If you want to travel the globe with a couple of California surfer bro’s with the ever enlightening vernacular, then totally awesome-cool-tubluar show is right up your alley. But if you’re looking for edginess, mystique, history, or cultural depth, Under an Arctic Sky or Anthony Bourdain’s (obviously) No Reservations Episode on Iceland or the first Icelandic film to earn an Oscar, Children of Nature are much better choices. But I’m not here to bash poor Zac Effron’s efforts to draw attention to sustainability and Iceland’s cutting edge innovations, let’s get into why you should hop a plane as soon as you are comfortable and head straight for the land of fire and ice…
Fall & Winter Activities
I visited Iceland in 2009 in the dead of winter. I was on my way home from a whirlwind round-the-world trip and wanted to throw in a last pit-stop somewhere far fetched. Admittedly, I knew very little about Iceland, but the one way fare on Icelandic Air from London to Vancouver was cheap as chips and figured it was exotic enough to round out a truly mind-blowing journey. With my beloved Lonely Planet tucked away in my the bowels of my backpack, we made very few arrangements before arriving (something I would never recommend now!) My travel partner and I had rented an apartment in the heart of Reykjavik (something I would highly recommend) and we had a small list of things we thought we should see (recommended our trusty guidebook of course).
We spent the first day settling into our loft apartment, and orienting ourselves in the city. We managed to located a tourist centre where we arranged our desired activities (horseback riding, Blue Lagoon visit and Northern Lights Night Tour). And yes, there was such thing as the internet, but we were old school and liked to deal with humans. Once we had the next few days organized, headed out to take a wander through the capital.
The city of Reykjavik is extremely walkable. You can stroll from one side of the city to the other in 20 minutes. It’s also one of if not the safest European city to explore, all hours of the day and night. It’s also nearly impossible (well it is actually) to get lost. If you get disoriented, all roads lead to Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest Lutheran church and the most prominent structure in Reykjavik. If you’re a museum buff like myself, be sure to check out the National Museum of Iceland and the Reykjavik Art Museum.
If you’re into fashion, Reykjavik has some of the most beautiful wool and textile shops I have ever seen. The Icelandic aesthetic is a truly unique blend of edgy, ethereal, minimalist and ruggedness. But prepare yourself – Your bank account will be singing for its supper if you’re not careful. An Icelandic wollen sweater is an investment, not a whimsical buy. The same goes for restaurants. Bring a healthy budget to properly experience the Icelandic culinary scene (but don’t worry about tipping, most places automatically include gratuities on your bill).
Northern Lights Tour
There are few places on earth where you can view the northern lights so clearly, with no visual obstructions. You need three main ingredients for a perfect viewing: Clear skies, darkness, and a high level of light activity. Our three hour tour took us racing across volcanic fields, at 10 o’clock at night, with temperatures hovering somewhere around -20 °C. After chasing ribbons of green and yellow across blackened skies for more than two hours, on the way back to Reykjavik, Mother Nature decided to reward our small tour group with what was the most awe-inspiring displays of natural phenomena I had ever seen. It was so vibrant, the craggy black rock below was a kaleidoscope of golds, greens, and pinks. The group of us, complete strangers, stood in the crisp night, mouths agape, puffs of warm air expelling from our bundled-up bodies, cameras clutched at our sides, eyes glossed over. This is not generally something you can experience in the summer months, because while it’s first nickname is fire and ice, the other is ‘land of the midnight sun’.
If you’re going to visit the Land of Fire and Ice in the winter, ice caving should probably be at the top of your list. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity because of time constraints, so I really need YOU to do it so you can come back and tell me all about it! There are several places in Iceland to go glacier walking and ice caving, but know that it’s not something to do on your own, and these activities should be booked far in advance because these tours book up quickly.
There is a unique relationship between Icelanders, water and geothermal wellness, and it’s one that has existed for centuries. Swimming lessons became a mandatory part of the Icelandic school curriculum in the 1940’s, so it should come as no surprise that there are a number of pools around the country, most public, and many, free to access. The Blue Lagoon is no doubt Iceland’s largest, most famous and most beloved (by tourists) geothermal pool, but there are so many other ‘hot spots’ frequented by locals. One of my favourite clients told me about Landmannalaugar (the ‘People’s Pool), located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Access to the pool is free, but it is requested that you shower (with soap) before you enter the pool (the public showers on site cost around (500 ISK for 5 min which is about CAD$5.00).
Spring & Summer in the Land of Fire and Ice
Yes, of course you can book yourself a trip that straddles summer and fall, and get the best of everything, but it’s Iceland. If you come once, you’re going to want to come back anyway, so why not book two seasonal trips. Iceland in the summer is the best time for hiking, waterfall chasing and plenty more, so let’s have a look:
One Word: Puffins
You don’t want to know how long I spent crouched on a rock, chatting with a colony of Cape Penguins in Cape Town (or maybe you do, another post, another time). Personally, I am DY-ING to see puffins in the wild! If you are a nature lover or birder, you’ll want to plan a trip to Iceland between April and August when the world’s largest colony of puffins come to fish, nest and swoop about the rugged cliffs before they head elsewhere for winter.
Get Off the Beaten Path
For the rugged outdoors folk, camping across Iceland may be just what the doctor ordered. In a country that is so sparsely populated (only 300,000 people), it’s easy to find places that are remote. And with no large predators to worry about, camping is a safe, economical and visceral way to experience the landscape. There are campgrounds a plenty, but you’re also permitted to camp anywhere that is not private land. Make sure to arrange your rental car in advance, they tend to get booked up quickly, and always, ALWAYS take the extra insurance. Icelandic roads, while excellent, the weather conditions can be unpredictable and all kinds of debris from the roadside can get kicked up by sudden wind gusts and damage your rental, yikes!
The land of fire and ice is a playground for anyone who wants to throw on their hiking shoes, escape the masses and feel more connected to the earth. There are several multi-day hikes you may want to throw into an itinerary like the Laugavegur Trek, a 4-day hike that takes you meandering through steaming hot springs, across jet black lava fields, deserts and all with rhyolite mountain ranges as your backdrop. If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, the Kjölur Trek (notoriously known as the “Haunted Highway”) takes trekkers into the heartland of the Highlands, between two impressive glaciers. The route is as old as the Vikings and the weather can transition quickly so only experienced hikers should attempt this route. And with most moderate to challenging treks in Iceland, hiring an experienced guide is always recommended.
Iceland by Horseback
Calling all hippophiles (horse lovers) welcome to your next equine adventure. Horseback riding is an activity you can enjoy all year long. If you’re up for a brisk tölt across frozen lava-scapes, snow-covered mountains in the backdrop, than book yourself a winter tour. If you’re roadtripping around Iceland in the warmer months, you’ll enjoy racing across lush, carpeted meadows, alongside cascading waterfalls and up through rugged mountainscapes. The scenery is indeed postcard perfect, but the horses themselves are fascinating. An ancient breed dating back to the Viking era, short in stature, gentle but intelligent, Icelandic horses are unlike any other in the world.
Yes, you read that correctly. Troll hunting. Dating back to the 12th century, the land of fire and ice has held a long tradition of marking long, cold winter nights by sharing stories of monsters, witches and trolls. Each region held its own unique set of folklore and legends, each story carefully passed on to the next generation. These stories were much like European fairy tales and Indigenous stories in that they reflected Iceland’s harsh and often unforgiving environment, taught the younger generations to respect the spirits of the land, and were used as lessons to teach young children how to survive and thrive. There are a number of fascinating cultural tours that take you to various ‘magical’ corners of Iceland where the spirits, trolls and monsters dwell.
Hopefully this gave you a few ideas to help you plan your Iceland experience. Iceland is a great to explore on your own, but combining it with an organized private tour is the best way to do a cultural deep dive.
Feel free to reach out for more recommendations, ask questions, and learn more about why Iceland should be on your 2021 travel wander list.