By Kelsi Walbeck
Breathtaking fjords. Majestic mountains. Giant glaciers. In the ninth century, Vikings and other explorers happened upon this peaceful, beautiful island. This idyllic place came to be called Iceland because of the snow-tipped mountains and the drifting ice found in some of the fjords.
However, Iceland’s chilly name is deceiving. Although there are snowy mountains and glaciers, Iceland’s landscape is also home to lush vegetation, giant waterfalls, and active volcanoes. Because of this diverse landscape, Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice.
Temperatures in Iceland are generally not as harsh as you might expect. Average winter temperatures in the capital city of Reykjavik are similar to those in New York City. The relatively mild weather makes Iceland an ideal place for winter sports and activities. And since Iceland is only a five-hour flight from the East Coast of the United States, adventure is closer than it may seem.
One who has traveled to Iceland many times to partake of the rich traditions deeply rooted there is Grandpa Thor Leifson, whose grandparents were born in Iceland. If you don’t want to leave anything out and you have only a few days, “take a tour all around the island,” Grandpa Leifson suggests. On your tour, try to hit several major areas of Iceland, such as those listed below. And the capital city, Reykjavik, bustles with activity and boasts a variety of fine hotels and restaurants. Following are some of Iceland’s must-see locations, as suggested by Grandpa Leifson.
Hot Springs and Pools
Reykjavik and the surrounding area have some of the finest hot springs and geothermal pools in the country. The most famous of these pools is the Blue Lagoon, located about 40 minutes from Reykjavik on the Reykjanes peninsula. “It’s warm in the pools,” says Grandpa Leifson. “It’s like a mineral bath.” The milky-blue color of the naturally heated water gives it an almost tropical feel. Because the water is so warm, these pools are open year-round.
National Parks and Reserves
Thingvellir is a historically significant and beautiful national park. The area was originally used as a spot for Iceland’s congress to gather. Now it’s a perfect spot for scenic hiking. “There’s a lake and valley with beautiful mountains around it,” says Grandpa Leifson. “And there are all kinds of trails.”
Myvatn is a nature reserve in northern Iceland. Grandpa Leifson describes the reserve as being similar to Yellowstone Park because of its eutrophic lake and many geysers. The lush, green area is full of life both above the earth and below it. A variety of bird species thrives in the wetland environment, and far beneath the surface, volcanic activity is taking place. Many beautiful hiking trails can be found throughout the park.
Glaciers and Volcanoes
Snowmobiling up to the glaciers is a popular winter activity. Glacier guides take visitors deep within the maze of unique ice formations. For the truly adventurous at heart, river rafting down glacial rivers is exhilarating. “Another popular pastime is skiing on a mountain range not far from the capital city of Reykjavik,” says Grandpa Leifson. People travel from all over Europe to hit these ski slopes.
The many volcanoes found on the island make for breathtaking hikes. Mt. Hekla is the most famous of Iceland’s volcanoes. During the Middle Ages, many Icelanders believed that this volcano was the gateway to hell. No one dared climb it until the year 1750, when an Icelandic biologist decided he was up to the challenge. But don’t worry—he made it back down safely. Discover the ups and downs of Mt. Hekla for yourself.
Fjords and Waterfalls
“There are some very interesting fjords over on the west coast,” says Grandpa Leifson. The West Fjords of Iceland are somewhat separated from the rest of the island, but this distance provides a peaceful serenity that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Fjords are long, narrow inlets lined by steep cliffs, usually formed by glacial activity. The deep, blue waters are a spectacular sight, even in the winter. The only thing that’s better than seeing the West Fjords is kayaking them—kayaking trips are offered throughout the year.
Although tall waterfalls can be found in the West Fjords, Grandpa Leifson strongly suggests a hike up to something bigger: Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, in the canyon of Hvítá River in southwest Iceland. The cascading falls are nearly 100 feet high, with two spectacular drops, making Gullfoss one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
Iceland is one of the few places in the settled world where the northern lights are plainly visible. “They are very vivid in the northernmost part of the island,” says Grandpa Leifson, “because this part of Iceland is right under the Arctic Circle.” It may take some planning to see those bright colors streak across the sky, but Iceland offers tours specifically for viewing the aurora borealis. The best time to view this celestial light show is during the winter months, usually between November and April.
Wildlife and Other Animals
Iceland is home to a variety of wildlife, specifically various bird species. “One of the most famous is the puffin,” says Grandpa Leifson. He explains that puffins nest in the massive cliffs of an island called Heimaey, located just off the coast of Iceland.
Iceland is also home to reindeer and polar bears, which are found mostly in the east and north of the island. And the Icelandic horse is a special equine breed. These horses have five different gaits. Although they are small, similar in size to a pony, they are sturdy. Horseback riding is a great way to see the rugged landscape that would otherwise be difficult to reach.
Icelandic people take great pride in their heritage. They have protected and preserved the island and its history since the twelfth century. Literary tradition and family history are closely intertwined through the tradition of Icelandic sagas, which began with the art of storytelling. “There’s a natural platform at Thingvellir, the meeting place,” says Grandpa Leifson. “Speakers and storytellers would get up on that platform, and large crowds of people would come from all parts of the country to listen.” These stories—many of them now recorded in written form, including poetry—tell of heroes, villains, epic battles, and wondrous adventures. The many sagas lining Grandpa Leifson’s bookshelves represent the living legends of ancient Icelanders. The longest and most deeply defined of the Icelandic sagas, Njál’s Saga, is set in southern Iceland, where you can explore historical sites and visit museums to learn more about the saga’s origin. The Skógar Museum, which is near the Skógafoss, is a good place to start.
Like Grandpa Leifson, take time to explore the wonders of Iceland without rushing. Pause to meet people and enjoy the scenery. Savor every moment of it.