Iceland is Europes westernmost country, and occupies a strategic location in the North Atlantic, straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. One of the coldest countries in the world, it is also one of the worlds most volcanically active hotspots. Iceland is known today for its mix of glaciers, bubbly hot springs, rugged fjords and fiery volcanoes.
Iceland can give you a truly unique diving experience you cant get anywhere else: diving between two tectonic plates, astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the fault line where two of the Earths tectonic plates are drifting apart. It is not only unique, but it is also exclusive only few people have dared to try the experience. To get to the diving site, you first have to drive deep into geo-thermal territory and tectonic plate activity. If youre not yet thrilled enough, you can drive the next day to its glaciers in the south and race snowmobiles.
The country is the most sparsely populated in Europe, with just 283,000 people living in an area the size of England or the US state of Kentucky. Over half of the population lives down in its southwestern corner, around Reykjavik, the small but cosmopolitan capital. The other decent-sized population center is Akureyri, up on the north coast.
What Else to Do
All long-distance buses and domestic planes begin their trips from Reykjavik. You can visit Geysir, the original geyser from which all other gushing hot springs get their name, and the spectacular waterfalls at Gullfoss. The countrys only international airport at Keflavik is on the Reykjanes Peninsula, an area teeming with birdlife and whales.
Outside Reykjavik and the populated southwestern corner, the wilder side of Iceland meets your eye wide-open spaces of vivid green fringed with coastlines of red and black volcanic sands set against a backdrop of brooding hills and mountains. On the west coast, in the towns of Borgarnes and Reykhold and the surrounding countryside, every landscape feature you see will be associated with parts of the Icelandic sagas.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is the countrys most accessible hiking destination. Arguably, Icelands most dramatic scenery is in the far northwest, the West Fjords, where youll find tiny fishing villages ensconced at the foot of table-top mountains or tucked away in the neck of narrow fjords which protect the houses from ferocious Arctic storms that batter this exposed part of the country.
You can relax for a day at Akureyri. From here, its easy to go inside the Arctic Circle to the island of Grimsey. The countrys biggest tourist attraction outside Reykjavik is Lake Myvatn, one hour away to the east of Akureyri. Many species of duck and waterfowl nest in this lake, which is surrounded by evidence of volcanic activity, including long-dormant cinder cones and still-steaming lava fields. North of Myvatn is the small town of Husavik, the best place for summer whale-watching cruises, while just inland to the east you can hike along deep river gorges of the Jokulsargljufur National Park to the awesome Dettifoss, Europes most powerful waterfall.
Icelands most rewarding long-distance hiking route is found near the glacial lagoon, Jokulsarlon. The Porsmork trail is one of the worlds most exhilarating walking paths. In the south coast, you can take a ferry to the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman islands) to survey the worlds largest puffin colonies and have a look at Surtsey, the new island created by volcanic eruptions in the mid-1960s.
When to Go
Icelandic weather is notoriously unpredictable. In summer, theres a fair chance of bright and sunny days. Many bus routes through the interior dont start until late June or early July when the snow finally melts. The sun does not fully set during June, and though theres no true midnight sun, nights are light from mid-May to early August across the country. Between September and January, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights can be seen. Hiking and camping are out of the question in winter.
Planning Your Trip
Most budget accommodations open only from late May to early September. In winter, theres little chance of accommodations other than large hotels in Reykjavik and the main towns. Given the long distances involved to reach Iceland, flying is the quickest and cheapest option. The highest airfares are around June to August when the weather is best. Fares drop September to November and April to June, and you get the best prices during the low season, November to March. The most convenient flights from Europe and Asia go through London; there are direct flights from the US, but Canadian travelers need to go via the US.