I recall as a young lad back in Ireland how I loved to study the tattered old family atlas that was year older than myself. I could happily spend hours seated at the dining-room table with that large red-covered book before me and totally lose myself in its seemingly dull contents. For me however that book was much more than a collection of maps depicting continents, oceans, countries and climatic conditions. Giving free reign to my childish imagination I would become an intrepid explorer traversing vast desserts and snowy wastes, sailing the oceans wide and climbing the highest peaks. And so my love of travel was born.
One country that particularly fascinated me was Iceland, no doubt because the accompanying pictures showed active volcanoes and glaciers and whales in the surrounding seas. One day, I vowed, I’ll go there and maybe even find the entrance to the center of the earth as Prof. Otto Lindenbrock did in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the center of the Earth.
Fast forward fourteen years to nineteen seventy-four. I’ve just graduated from university in Ireland with a degree in archeology and history and uncertain as to what my next step in life should be. Then, as though ordained by fate, a formal letter arrives from the Department of Education in Dublin telling me I’ve been awarded a scholarship to study history in Iceland. Yes, Iceland, of all places! Forty years on and I’m still here.
Iceland is my home, a country whose stark natural beauty I fell hopelessly in love with and whose hardy people and rich historical heritage I greatly admire. In 1986 I became an Icelandic citizen and today I’m a lecturer in the state guide school and a guide both in Iceland and its nearest neighbor, Greenland.
What I’d like to do is list some pretty convincing reasons why you should take a decision to visit this amazing country aptly known as the Land of Ice and Fire, just as I did as a young boy. Who knows, like me you may fall under its magic spell and throw away that return ticket! First off let’s get two widely-held misconception about Iceland out of the way, i.e. that it’s cold and remote. Thanks to the tempering effect of the Gulf Stream current the average winter temperature is around zero Celsius. Yes, we do get snow in wintertime, but the capital Reykjavik is not at all as cold as other cities on a similar latitude, e.g. Oslo or New York.
Granted, it never gets hot in summer, the average temperature being around 12 degrees Celsius; but hey that’s the ideal weather for hiking and most visitors see the cool refreshing air as a welcome respite from the oppressive summer heat of big cities. And of course Iceland has those special seasonal attractions of being able to gaze skyward in winter and see the Northern Lights dance across the northern skies, or in June enjoy the wonder of the Midnight Sun.
Tradition has it that the country got its icy name from an early ninth-century Viking pioneer who failed to save sufficient hay to maintain his livestock over the long winter and after they died he had no option but to return to Norway. in a fit of pique he gave this newly discovered land the name Iceland.
As to Iceland being faraway, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know it takes less than three hours to fly from London and just over five from New York. And there are daily connections to all major cities in Europe and the US with a number of international airlines. Surveys show that eighty percent of foreign visitors to Iceland come for the nature, and understandably so. When i first started to explore Iceland four decades ago I was immediately struck by its unrivaled beauty, the diversity of the landscape and the opportunity to get far away from the madding crowd and be one with nature. Bear in mind that this is a large country with a very small population at 103,000 square kilometers it’s nearly the size of England but has a population of only 320,000. Sometimes we joke and say Iceland is a country inhabited by lots of volcanoes and a handful of people!
The contras in scenery is amazing, each area having its own distinguishing features and allure. The south coast has endless stretches of black sandy beaches where the waves of the Atlantic thunder ashore. Looking northwards and inland, towering glaciers rise majestically and beneath the sleeping ice caps lurk active volcanoes such as the one with the unpronounceable name that brought world aviation to a standstill in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull. The west and east coasts have spectacular fjords walled in by sheer-faced cliffs where millions of seabirds nest. There’s the remote highland interior, Europe’s last great untamed wilderness and home to the ghosts of once notorious outlaws. There are vast lava fields, countless waterfalls thundering over cliff edges or on glacial rivers and geothermal areas with bubbling mud pots, steam vent and geysers. It’s an endless feast for the eye and the real beauty is you have it all to yourself. Iceland is one of the few places left where the traveler can still find that true solitude of the wilderness, a rare commodity in these times of mass tourism.
As you travel you’ll soon realize that the sheep and the horse are the most common domestic animals in Iceland. Interestingly, the only land mammal that’s native to Iceland is the Arctic fox, so the original settlers had to bring all their livestock with them from Norway: horses, sheep, cows, pigs, goats and dogs.
Visitors frequently ask me if there’s anything especially interesting to do and see when in the Reykjavik area. I could easily come up with a long list, however three activities at once spring to mind as being totally different to anything you’ll experience elsewhere in the world. These are the Blue lagoon spa, the journey down into the Thrihnukagigir volcano and snorkeling or diving in the Silfra fissure. The Blue Lagoon spa is spectacularly set in the middle of a moon-like lava and landscape and has become world-famous for the curative and regenerative powers of its mineral-rich geothermal seawater, pumped up from deep within the ground. Here’s an opportunity to bathe and relax in the most exquisite natural surroundings you’re likely to find anywhere. Full credit to this commercial venture for creating this experience such an environmentally friendly and sophisticated fashion.
Second on the list is to go on a very unique journey of discovery deep into the very heart of an empty magma chamber of a volcano, in the company of an expert guide of course! Now you get to discover what a volcano looks like from the inside. To say this is one of the most remarkable natural phenomena on the planet is no overstatement. Entering through the funnel-shaped opening you descend 120 meters by cable car into a cathedral-like vault of the dormant Thrihnukagigir (Three Peaks Crater) volcano. The chamber’s colossal size, vibrant colors and solemn grandeur are breathtaking. To put it in context, the chamber’s ground space is equivalent to three full-sized basketball courts, while its depth is such that the statue of Liberty would easily fit inside.
The third choice is no less exhilarating and is also below ground, namely diving or snorkeling in the wonderful underwater world of the Silfra fissure in Lake Thingveliir. The Silfra fissure is a large ravine between the American and Eurasian plates and it’s the only place in the world where you can literally swim between two continental plates. Ranked as one of the best fresh-water dive sites in the world, the visibility is amazing because the water source is pristine spring water that over decades has filtered through the porous volcanic rock. Snorkeling is something anyone can do without prior experience and you don’t need a certificate.
Of course no visit to Iceland would be complete without going to one of the many superb swimming pools throughout the country. For Icelanders going to the pool is not just a sporting activity, it’s also where people like to sit and relax in the hot tubs and socialize, chatting and discussing the events of the day. You could say that the swimming pool is to Iceland as the sauna is to Finland, the cafe to France and the pub to the British. So if you’d like to enjoy a swim, meet the locals and even air your opinions on what’s going on in the world then head for the nearest pool.
Just how are Icelanders as a people? Well, after four decades of living amongst them I think I’ve earned the right to comment. Iceland has come a long way since the Second World War. Prior to that catastrophic event Iceland was one of the poorest, most isolated nations in Europe. But military occupation by the British and the Americans brought about a dramatic economic transformation and the country was catapulted into the modern age with the help of Marshall aid. Today Iceland is a thriving independent nation whose people enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. But despite their modernity the Icelandic way of thinking is still very much grounded in the old fishing and farming traditions. They are a resourceful people, creative and innovative and fiercely proud of their literary heritage and language. The sagas are as alive today as they were eight hundred years ago. Their resilience borders on stubbornness after all, what nation would continue to live on rocky island in the middle of the Atlantic where there is a volcanic eruption on average every five years? They’re a friendly but reserved people; an Icelander will be slow to open a conversation, but if you engage them they’re friendly and eager to chat. So don’t hesitate to take the initiation.