A land of contrast where fire and ice co-exist, Iceland is certainly more than just a mere destination and an adventure set in spectacular scenery.
A small dot in the Atlantic between the Scandinavia and America, Iceland has long been known as one of the most dramatic natural spectacles on the planet. This “the land of fire and ice” features dazzling white glaciers and black sands, blue hot springs, rugged lava fields and green valleys. The fire comes from the ferocious powers of nature ubiquitous there. It is home to abundant volcanoes that periodically burst into life. Ice in Iceland is another major nature attraction, the dramatic glaciers which slice down and float towards the coasts, calving icebergs into eerie lagoons. There are many things to do in Iceland from hiking and running, cycling, caving, ice climbing, swimming in a nature-heated pool, spas, riding an Icelandic horse, whale watching, birdwatching to helicopter tours and northern lights hunting.
Reykjavik, on the coast of Iceland, is the country’s capital and largest city. It is home to an impressive collection of exhilarating attractions and places of historical significance. Apart from it being a beautiful place to walk with stunning views across the bay to Mount Esja, the Old Harbour area is where the majority of marine activities, such as whale watching and puffin tours clustered; it is also where you find Vikin Maritime Museum and the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. Harpa easily is one of Reykjavik’s greatest and distinguished landmarks. It is a cultural and social centre in the heart of the city and features stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. Offering the best facilities for concerts and conferences, Harpa has received numerous awards and prizes, thanks to its stunning layout and architecture. The downtown area of Reykjavik (also known by its postal code as 101) is the nucleus of Iceland’s rich culture and arts scene. By day, the cafe-goers rule the area, with free wifi and refills on drip coffee being fairly common, a steady hum of conversation keeps the city’s several cafes lively. The locals and tourists mixed, linger until there is a sufficient buzz on the strong, dark elixir. And as the day turns into night, people start filing into many of the cities restaurants. Throughout 101, playful murals and street art testify to the city’s sense of creativity and fun.
The Golden Circle
If you make only one foray outside Reykjavik, take this popular route. Offered by many tour operators, The Golden Circle consists of the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir hot springs, and Thingvellir national park, all of which are famous in their own way but can easily be enjoyed in the course of one day, making for an ideal day tour.
Usually, the first stop on the tour is Kerio, an explosion crater located 15-kilometre northeast from the town of Selfoss beside the road leading to Geysir. The water-filled crater is 55 metre deep and some 3,000 years old. The greenish colour of the water and the circular steep slopes create an eerie view certainly worthwhile stopping to admire. The next stop is Gullfoss, or famously known as the “Golden Waterfall.” It is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, and one of the natural wonders of the world. On a sunny day, the mist clouds surrounding the hammering falls are filled with dozens of rainbows, providing an unparalleled spectacle of colour and motion. Located in the mighty glacial river Hvita (White River), the enormous white glacial cascade drops 32 metres into a narrow canyon which is 70 metres deep and 2.5 kilometres long. In winter, it has an unusual appearance when ice and snow garb the entire sphere. The last stop is the Thingvellir National Park which sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures like the huge Almannagja fault. Thingvellir is one of the most frequently visited tourist sites in the country and known as Iceland’s greatest historical site and the jewel of nature.
The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is a natural phenomenon which looks like the lights are cascading around the sky, dancing if you will, and it is unquestionably a pretty and spectacular sight. Recently, the Northern Lights comes on the top of the list of things most visitors in Iceland would like to experience, although it is not a walk in the park to experience this stunning natural phenomenon.
There are several factors that you have to keep in mind if you want to experience it. First is to know the season, the official Aurora season in Iceland is from September until mid-April, but like with so many other things that have to do with Icelandic nature, it is not something you can say with any certainty. Second is the light condition, the suitable conditions to see the Aurora is when it is cold and dark outside, so Aurora spotting is best to do at night time. It is also a fall, winter or early spring activity since during summer months it is pretty much bright all the time. The third is the sky condition; it has to be clear. On clear winter nights, sightseeing trips are often organized around this remarkable natural phenomenon. The ideal location for sightings varies, and excursion leaders are skilled in “hunting” the lights, finding locations where conditions are best for seeing them on any given night.
Shaped by the unrelenting forces of nature, Iceland’s harsh natural environment has bred a resilient nation that has learned to exist under extreme conditions and harness the natural resources for its prosperity, luring visitors from all around the globe to come flocking to its wilderness parks and dramatic landscapes.
Text by Dennis Latif | Photos by Promote Iceland