Iceland—perpetually chilly, geographically inconvenient and generally misunderstood—used to be a destination for only the most intrepid travelers. However, the tourism industry in this Scandinavian outpost has quadrupled in less than 10 years, with one million visitors heading to Reykjavik last year alone. That may not seem like a lot until you realize that the population of the entire country is only 320,000. So, what's all the fuss about? Should you visit Iceland?
I just spent a few days traveling in the south of the country. Iceland's main attractions are concentrated in the southwest corner of the country, but if you're feeling intrepid and money is not an object, you can fly around the country, explore glaciers, visit an ice cave or lava tube and even dive in volcanic rift formations. Simply put, there are things to see and experience in Iceland you can't find anywhere else. You can even have plenty of adventures just renting a car or hybrid camper van and driving around the ring road that loops around the country; a journey around Route 1 typically takes 10 days. Car rental prices are reasonable and there's plenty of wide open spaces and free parking.
Need further incentive? Wow Airlines and Icelandic Air both offer free stopovers on a trip from the U.S. to Europe, so my advice is to toss in an extra mini-vacation on the way to your other vacation in continental Europe. At my time of booking, flights from Boston to Reykjavik were $99 each way with Wow Airlines. Granted, there was nothing fancy and no extras, but the seats reclined and the staff was very pleasant.
There's not a lot of civilization between the scattered towns once you start exploring the country, but the scenery is unlike anything you have probably seen before. Over millennia, volcanic action and glaciers have carved out bizarre formations that give Iceland a rugged, almost alien landscape. Jokulsarlon is an amazing iceberg-filled bay that's been used as a setting for two James Bond movies. On the ocean side of the bay, one can get up-close-and-personal with the clear blue iceberg chunks that have washed up on the beach as playful seals splash around, mugging for the cameras.
The English word "geyser" is borrowed from the town of Geysir, where bubbling, steaming pools of sulphuric water are just the sideshows for the main attraction: Strokkur, a geyser that faithfully erupts every five minutes or so for happy, camera-toting tourists. Nearby Gullfoss is the country's most impressive waterfall and and is touted by the local tourist board as an equal of Niagara Falls—though, to be truthful, waterfalls can be found everywhere in Iceland in all shapes and sizes. As you drive along Route 1, you'll find dozens of waterfalls and scenic areas to explore. Best of all, almost all of Iceland's scenic vistas are free. The only exception I found was a small, water-filled volcano on the Golden Circle route that charged €4 per person. After hours, the gate stayed open for free.
In addition to unique landscapes, Iceland has food choices you're also unlikely to find elsewhere. Topping that list is, of course, rotten fermented shark. Not a popular choice for tourists due to its intense ammonia smell, hákarl is still consumed by the locals as a truly Icelandic rite of passage. Smoked puffin is on some menus as a delicacy, though you're more likely to come across reindeer meat, whale steaks and even random cooked shore birds in some of the traditional eateries. Oh—and horse steaks, an increasingly popular option. In Reykjavik, you'll find more mainstream cafes, bistros, pizza places and other food choices, but expect prices to be almost double what you'd pay in Europe. Liquor is very expensive as well, so it's a good idea to stock up at the duty-free shop before you leave the airport.
Hotels, by comparison, are reasonably priced, though your choices might be limited in the high season (June and August). There are few large towns outside the capital (and in those small villages are mostly gas stations selling snacks and sandwiches for food), so it's wise to make a plan before you get too far from civilization. Some of the towns that appear large on the map might in actuality be nothing more than a few homes, a church and a gas station. Some adventurous travelers opt to drive the entire circumference of Iceland, as there are few roads that journey into the interior—and many that do exist are only navigable in the summer, require a four-wheel drive vehicle, and are verboten by the car rental companies.
Most travelers allocate about 10 to 12 days to circumnavigate the whole island but you can realistically visit most of the highlights of the country in a few days on the southern section of the country—if you don't mind driving five to six hours a day. Most of the attractions on the route are fairly well marked, but it's a good idea to be familiar with the sites before you invest your time going down a rugged road toward a place with an unpronounceable Icelandic name. If you take the time to learn a few words of places in the Icelandic language, you may soon realize that foss means waterfall, jokull means glacier and vik means port; even these small bits of knowledge help identify where you're going.
Near Reykjavik are boats and ferries that can take you to see puffin colonies (on shore) and whale pods (off shore). The capital itself is full of shops, lots of outsider art, and some interesting buildings, including one of the strangest churches on the planet, the Hallgrimskirkja, the tallest church in the country and home to an observation tower that lets you take in the entire city at a glance. Speaking of extremes, the nearby town of Hellisheidi uses its third-largest geothermal plant in the world to power most of Iceland. Tourists visit for another reason: to soak in the hot springs as an escape from the chilly winds, and as a base for exploring the surrounding areas during Iceland's long summer days, which can last nearly 24 hours.
Iceland's number one tourist attraction, by far, is Blue Lagoon. Though you're unlikely to spot Brooke Shields at this Blue Lagoon, you will spy ads for it the moment you arrive at the airport. This surreal iridescent blue bathing pool is really a volcanic oasis created by natural minerals and geothermal water, reputed to possess anti-aging qualities and other benefits. Need something more intense? A small booth in the middle of the blue steamy lagoon allows guests to spread a natural silicon or algae treatment on exposed parts of the body. Besides the pool areas at Blue Lagoon, you'll also find a hot waterfall, steam sauna, spa, and hotel hidden amidst the black lava rock formations scattered in the area. The attraction even has bridges and gradient beach-like entries for easy access. Your visit also comes with a high-tech bracelet that allows you to access your locker and get drinks and other extras without having to deal with cash. The Blue Lagoon was a great way to finish off my trip to Iceland; after all the cold places I visited, a hot mineral bath felt really, really good.
Which leaves us with a final question: Is Iceland really cold? Yes. Even in the summer it can be fairly cool. Smart travelers will pack a good jacket as the skies can change in an instant, while some areas can be very windy as well. But the brisk weather is worth it; you simply won't find anything like the unspoiled natural beauty of Iceland anywhere else in the world—and if you're hardy enough to brave the winter, you'll have a chance to see the famous Northern Lights. Iceland is one of the most accessible regions in the world to witness this amazing phenomenon, and all you need to do is book that free stopover.