The magnum opus of the natural world, Iceland is a country of stark hybrids and extreme forces of nature. This place was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. If it’s ‘pinch me’ moments you’re after and you feel the urge for something different, this is mother nature in all her glory.
Home to some of the earth’s most active volcanoes and some of the largest glaciers in Europe, the landscapes feel almost surreal – from barren hilltops and moss covered lava fields to geothermal pools and hot springs. Known as The Land of Fire and Ice, light blue hues blend with dark fiery-reds and freezing dim winter days are offset by long sunlit summer nights.
A conduit between two continents, Iceland sits in the North-Atlantic Ocean and is a five-hour flight from New York or a three-hour flight from London. For a country where the earth’s activity is constantly moving under its surface (from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions), it comes as no surprise that Iceland has bred a resilient nation with vast renewable energy resources. With a population of 120,000 its capital, Reykjavik, is a modestly buzzing metropolis. Occupying a relatively insular existence, faces here are familiar and skyscrapers are scarce but its culture is vibrant, it’s people progressive and they are dedicated to preserving the natural treasures of their country.
If time doesn’t allow a full week driving Iceland’s Ring Road (which circles the whole country) then the Golden Circle is a great alternative. Unless you are someone who lives for organised tours, I’d definitely recommend hiring your own car and doing it at your own pace. If you’re anything like me – a stickler for impromptu roadside photos – then you’re going to want your own car. The Golden Circle round-trip is approximately 3 hours of driving and dependent on how many spots you want to visit and how long you want to stay in each, give or take a few additional hours. The drive is surreal and almost feels like you are on another planet; beautiful valleys of mountains and farms unfold before you, while Icelandic horses line the side of the road.
From a list of many, here are my top recommendations for Iceland…
Geysers at Haukadalur
Haukadalur is a geothermal area with two famous geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. Picture a cluster of tourists hovering around mud pools waiting for the earth to spray scalding water high up into the sky. The Strokkur spurt – accompanied by a scent one could liken only to rotten egg – erupts every 5-10 minutes.
Kerid Crater Lake
If you want to marvel at the world, marvel at this. Once a typical cone-shaped volcano, the top of this volcanic crater has since collapsed into an empty magma chamber. Effortlessly contrasting the red of the crater itself and the green moss, the crater is now filled with deep blue coloured water. An unreal and dreamlike experience.
As I stood at the very edge of Iceland’s colossal Gullfoss waterfall – sprayed by freezing water, icicles and gale force wind from every direction– I made a poignant note to self that in hindsight, ripped jeans were not a good wardrobe choice for this outing.
I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of this waterfall. The fast-moving Hvita river falls over 30 metres into a crevice in the earth, producing a cascade of water unlike anything I’d ever seen.
This geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland – it’s a cool experience, but bursting with tourists. It’s located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Rich in minerals like silica and sulfur, it’s a man-made lagoon where you can float around in its icy-blue warm water, with a mud-mask on and a glass of wine.
Pingvellir National Park
It’s the most clearly visible junction in the world, where the earth’s crusts between European and American tectonic plates are slowly splitting away from each other. For anyone wanting a good dose of perspective, there’s nothing like looking down at a colossal fracture in the earth and being instantly reminded that you are literally just a spec of what is happening on this planet. This tectonic rift is an extraordinary thing to see, definitely add it to your Iceland agenda.
Ion Adventure Hotel
This hotel was such a treat. An abandoned inn turned luxury hotel, it’s a flawless paradigm of modern design meets Iceland’s natural landscape. It’s a really great Icelandic experience; local hot springs supply the hotel with geothermal energy and hot water and when the green lights are dancing, there’s a Northern Lights Bar where you can catch a glimpse without even having to step outside.
The partially exposed lava hot tub is phenomenal. Outdoor under the modern design of cement pillars and wrapped in locally salvaged driftwood, you look out onto the base of active volcano Mount Hengill onto a mossy green lava field – and from experience, I’d say it’s done even better with a champagne in hand.