Land of Fire and Ice
With an extremely fascinating natural landscape with many dimensions, Iceland is truly a place for the great outdoors. Glaciers, icebergs, thundering waterfalls, and exciting volcanic activity make Iceland a wild and impressive country with rugged natural beauty. In addition to this fantastic contrast of fire and ice, Iceland offers an extremely rich Viking heritage and locals with a wealth of knowledge.
Land and culture of Iceland
Iceland is characterised by its strange lunar landscape, of which contributing factors are the lack of trees, the rugged empty lava fields, and the distinct lack of human habitation outside of Reykjavik. It affords visitors the unique experience of witnessing a true wilderness and it is a natural beauty if there ever was one. The natural phenomena of hot volcanic activity and vast ice caps and glaciers add to the majesty of Iceland’s atmosphere and contradiction.
Iceland was first inhabited by Vikings and the ancient Viking sagas are written in a language which so closely resembles Icelandic that the locals can still decipher their content today. These sagas document tales from the first inhabitants of Iceland, one of the most talked about being the first discovery of the island. The Viking in question wrote that the icebergs which greeted him on his first sight of land informed his naming of the country we now know as Iceland.
To see much of the natural beauty of the country, the best options are organised trips. Car hire is also useful, however many of the roads are gravel only, and only suitable for ATVs or off-roading, and hire companies don’t usually allow their vehicles to be used on these roads. Therefore organised trips are the best options for access to the interior of the island, which is where the glaciers and stunning national parks are mostly found.
Activities and Sights in Iceland
Golden Circle (Thingvellir, Geysir and Gulfoss)
The Golden Circle is a term for these three attractions collectively, and most tour operators run some sort of day excursion from Reykjavik, stopping off at all three extremely worthwhile sights, sometimes including a fourth – the Kerith crater. Some tour operators include horse riding also, there are lots of options. It is possible to drive to these attractions also, they are reasonably easy to find and no more than an hour and a half from Reykjavik by car.
Thingvellir is the site of the first Viking parliament. It is vast natural wilderness. Only a small number of buildings can be seen from the hill-top view, you will mainly experience impressive vistas of hills, rocks and rivers. The Atlantic tectonic plate divide is also right here at this site. It is an obvious shallow gorge between the two rock faces of the tectonic plates, with a gravelly path running between. Iceland lies on a fault line between two tectonic plates, hence the volcanic activity. Over hundreds of years the two tectonic plates which Iceland lies across are moving apart, which is evident from the arrangement of the rocks at this location.
Geysir is the site of a concentrated collection of natural volcanic geysers and pools. The geothermal activity so close the Earth’s crust makes for an extremely interesting mix of water, rocks, minerals and heat. The minerals in each of the pools influence the colours of the water, and the intense heat billowing up from the geysers can be felt when standing close by, and seen from the steam constantly swirling. The highlight of the park is the enormous and reliably active Strokkur geyser. It erupts every 8 minutes, spewing boiling water straight up, tens of metres into the clean air, which turns instantly to thick plumes of steam.
Gullfoss Waterfall is better heard than described. The wide river is spread over an enormous area, stretching beyond the horizon and an impossible amount of water cascades violently down the gorge in front of you. Steps lead down the side of the rocks so that you can get closer, and hear the immense force of this incredible waterfall.
The tourist information centre at Gullfoss includes a lovely gift shop and café-restaurant, serving homemade delights such as cakes and lamb soup.
This stunning national park in South Iceland attracts visitors from all over, mainly for hiking in the colourful mountains, and bathing in the natural hot pools. Summer is the best time to visit, in order to see the colours in the rocks when they aren’t covered with snow. Winter can also make it difficult to get to Landmannalaugar.
There is nothing like Icelandic horse riding. These Icelandic horses are like slightly bigger, stockier versions of Shetland ponies. They have a feisty and fun nature, and are famous for their special tölt– a special sort of smooth gait, specific to Icelandic horses. It is a wonderful way to appreciate the stillness and sparseness of Iceland’s wilderness, especially on paths through the vast lava fields and trekking through rivers and streams. Most horse riding tour operators offer a range of excursions, varying in location, length, and ability. Many of them do not require any previous experience.
An abundance of geothermal activity means that Iceland can heat their water and light their homes using this extremely environmentally friendly and sustainable form of energy. It also means that the mineral-rich naturally heated water from geothermal plants is available for bathing in.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s geothermal pools and is the most famous and accessible. It is within twenty minutes’ drive from the international airport at Keflavik, around fifty minutes from Reykjavik. The natural mineral and algae content has long been renowned for its healing qualities, especially for the skin. The pool is an opaque milky blue colour and in summer it takes on a more turquoise colour when the sun photosynthesises the algae.
The floor of the pool is natural mud-clay which is silky-smooth on your feet and around your ankles. Slap this on any bare skin including your face and let it dry, for excellent top-notch skin-care. Ladies, take a good hair conditioner – the water is good for your skin, but can leave your hair feeling dry. The blue lagoon is fantastic to use in winter when the contrast of the hot water and cold air stimulate your senses.
The changing facilities and main buildings are spotless and modern, with an excellent, but rather pricey gift shop.
Waterfalls in South Iceland
On the South coast, a few hours past Vik, there are number of spectacular waterfalls, the main one being Skógafoss, a tall, wide curtain of water tumbling down a sheer drop in the rock face. Climb the steps up the hill to the top for panoramic views to the South West – fantastic for sunsets. An earlier visit to this area ties in particularly well with visits to Jökulsárlón.
Past the waterfalls and heading for the site of the famous and disruptive Icelandic volcanic ash-cloud eruption near Iceland’s largest glacier Vatnajokull, there is a fantastic lagoon of enormous icebergs, which have naturally broken free from the glacier. These bergs have been weather-beaten into various shapes and sizes, and depending on the colour of the sky and time of year, they can be tinted various colours including deep purples, turquoises and blues. This site has been featured in various films and music videos and is very often photographed due to its unique and dramatic nature. If arriving in winter time, ensure to leave early to arrive before dark.
Reykjavik - Iceland's Capital City
Reykjavik means ‘Smoky Bay.’ It is spread across a wide bay and affords wonderful views over the water and the surrounding low mountains. This wonderful city is by far the most concentrated area of the Icelandic population but remains spacious and spread out. If you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights from the city, this can be a wonderful sight, reflected in the still black water of the bay.
A major sight in Reykjavik is the Hallgrimur Church (Hallgrimskirkja) just off the Eriksgata main road in the centre. It is a unique and beautiful construction.
There are some fantastic restaurants in Reykjavik and although the economy in Iceland means travellers from the UK and most other non-Scandinavian locations will find it expensive, there are a number of good value restaurants including ‘Krua Thai’ on Tryggvagotu, a few streets away from the water’s edge. An excellent upmarket steakhouse is the Argentina Steakhouse on Barónsstígur . Expect wonderfully tender and thick steaks sizzling tastily on skillets with excellent chips, vegetables and side dishes. Watch the chefs preparing your food in the centre of this classy and stylish restaurant while you wait.
Getting to Iceland
With Iceland Express there are some really cheap flights from London, Birmingham and Glasgow. Icelandair also have lots of flights from the UK and they are Iceland's main airline. They provide a very good service and the staff are very friendly.
Northern Lights & Midnight Sun
The ethereal northern lights (the Aurora) are certainly a highlight of any winter excursion to the polar regions. Although phenomenal, they are never guaranteed and any trip to see them shouldn’t be based solely on the hope of catching sight of them, as you could well be disappointed. That said, there are ways to ensure you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
The best time of year is midwinter as the abundant darkness means the sunlight isn’t drowning out the lights (they can only be seen in the dark). 1-2 months either side of the beginning of January is the most likely time to see the lights in Iceland, or generally in the Arctic (Northern polar region).
It is best to avoid any light pollution including lights from the city or a full moon, as these can drown out the lights and faint Aurorae will not be visible. The Aurora happens in various levels of the atmosphere, all way above the clouds, so clear starry nights are the best nights for viewing the Aurora. There are places in some landscapes which are less likely to have cloud cover, sometimes called rain shadows.
The Aurora can vary in colour depending on which gasses in the atmosphere are involved. The most common colours are green and white, and the more rare colours are yellow, red and even pink and purple.
Text and Images Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2012
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