EDITOR AT LARGE IGNACIO MAZA DISCOVERS THE ETHEREAL LANDSCAPES OF ICELAND AND VIBRANT REYKJAVÍK.
Iceland is one of the most intriguing places on earth. During a recent exploration I discovered many unique characteristics of the country. For starters, Iceland sits where two massive tectonic plates meet, which explains the island’s 25 active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and endless plains of crushed lava. Roughly the size of Virginia in the U.S. and located on the edge of the Arctic Circle in the far North Atlantic, Iceland wasn’t settled until the 9th century, when Viking clans built permanent homes on the island. The country was governed by Denmark for nearly 500 years and eventually became an independent republic in 1944. Despite the rough terrain, blustery weather, and long winter nights, Icelanders are some of the warmest and friendliest people in the world. When you visit, you’ll discover a country rich in natural wonders and primed for outdoor enthusiasts. And if you’re a collector of one-of-a-kind journeys and a flexible traveler undeterred by unpredictable weather, this hot spot should climb to the top of your 2019 travel wish list.
If this is your first visit, spend a week in the Southeast region, where you’ll experience uncommon adventures every day. Most travelers start in Reykjavík, the northernmost capital in the world and home to 60 percent of Iceland’s population. With just 200,000 residents, Reykjavík is easy to navigate. Start your day by walking through the historic quarter, with plenty of museums, shops, and restaurants. If you have time to visit only one museum, see the Settlement Exhibition, which celebrates Iceland’s unique and tragic history. Walk through the ultramodern Harpa Concert Hall (located on the harbor), and don’t miss the view from the top of the bell tower at Hallsgrímskirkja Church. If you have time for a hot thermal bath, visit the Laugardalslaug complex.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The most popular day trip from Reykjavík is the Golden Circle, which includes many of Iceland’s best-known sites. The good news is they’re close to the capital. The downside? Sites get crowded, especially during summer. Visit top attractions early or late in the day to avoid peak times. Not.to-miss landmarks include Thingvellir National Park. Located in a park-like setting and the first parliament in the world, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Continue to Geysir (gusher in Icelandic) and see the Great Geyser, which erupts every 10 to 15 minutes, sending up a 100-foot tall plume of hot water. And make time to witness Gullfoss (aka golden waterfall), a powerful double cascade and Iceland’s most famous waterfall.
BEYOND THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The further away you explore from the Golden Circle, the smaller the number of travelers. Additional, off-the-beaten-path adventures from Reykjavík include the Langjull Glacier. As the second largest glacier in Iceland, expect an endless ocean of powder snow. Experience the “Into the Glacier” adventure with an expert guide and LED lights leading the way—an impressive, thousand-foot long maze of tunnels are found under the icecap. On the way out, hire a driver with the right 4WD vehicle to navigate Kaldidalsvegur, or the Cold Valley. Here you’ll find otherworldly vistas of Iceland’s barren interior and snow-capped mountains. Travel east of Reykjavík, and you’ll find the beautiful Hjalparfoss waterfalls and the hidden Gjainfoss, which is located at the end of a well-marked hiking trail. If you can handle serious potholes and rocky roads, visit my favorite find, Háifoss—Iceland’s fourth highest waterfall which drops hundreds of feet into a deep canyon. Southeast of Reykjavik is the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. A fun day trip by ferry, visit Heimaey, the main island settlement. From here, take a large zodiac during an adrenaline-packed “Rib Safari” and visit the other islands. Hike up to the dormant Eldfell volcano for views of the archipelago. Back on the mainland, visit more volcanoes by either walking down a lava tube into dormant Raufarhshellir or hiking to the edge of a volcano and then, via elevator, dropping down a 400-foot deep shaft to the Thrihnukagigur. Lastly, the southeast region is home to Iceland’s most emblematic sites, such as black-sand beaches and iconic waterfalls like Skafoss. Plan to horseback ride to the edge of a glacier or spend a day hiking through the vast, ethereal terrain.
THE BLUE LAGOON
No visit to Iceland is complete without experiencing the Blue Lagoon, the country’s most famous attraction. An enormous thermal baths complex, the Blue Lagoon is located in a black lava field next to a geothermal plant. The water is heated at 100-degrees Fahrenheit all year long, and the lagoon is full of therapeutic silica mud. Visit early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds.
Know Before You Go: Ignacio’s Tips
- Bring proper gear and dress in layers so you’re prepped for any kind of weather.
- High season is June to August, when Iceland experiences light almost all day long.
- Ideal months to visit are either late April through May, September, and early October, when hotel prices are lower, Iceland is less crowded, and you still get plenty of sunlight.
- The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) can be seen from September through April. Ask your travel advisor to create a custom-tailored itinerary to suit your interests.
Reykjavík’s ION CITY HOTEL opened in 2017 in the city center and features contemporary Icelandic design, warm service, and a superb restaurant, Sumac. I recommend the fourth-floor Junior Suites, which feature terraces and private saunas.
Venture 45 minutes east of Reykjavík and find ION ADVENTURE. A sister hotel to ION City, the design-forward lodge is located in a moss-covered lava field. Understated décor features locally sourced materials. Sip a cocktail in the Northern Lights Bar and soak in the hotel’s outdoor thermal pool.
A great base camp to explore the southeast is SKÁLAKOT MANOR, a recently opened country lodge located on a working farm. The resident owners have been raising Icelandic horses for seven generations.
Another Reykjavík option is the TOWER SUITES, with eight luxury residences located on the 20th floor of an office building.
For your first or last night in Iceland, stay at the RETREAT AT BLUE LAGOON. Located just 15 minutes from Reykjavík Airport, this serene, ultra-luxury hotel has elegant suites, a 40,000-square-foot spa, and three restaurants.
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Cover Photo: Gulfoss Waterfall