Iceland: A country and journey like no other
There are tourist traps, there are exotic locales, and there are the places you go to get away from it all.
And then there are the places nobody knows about. Iceland is one such place.
When people think of Iceland, they often think of Bjork, Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men, the country's three most successful musical exports. Greenland, its climatically-similar neighbor, usually comes to mind. But ask anyone about the country and most people will say something like, "Yeah, that's that little island right by Scandinavia, right?" And leave it at that.
It's not a commonly-traveled-to area, like continental Europe, the Caribbean or Central America. But it's a place that more people should know about.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Nordic country in early August of this year with my parents and my brother. It was a spectacular sojourn that I'll not soon forget.
I've seen the rolling hills and lush vineyards of Tuscany. I've beheld the barren and arid architecture of Masada and the surrounding desert. I've toured Giverny, the village used by Claude Monet as both his home and muse. I've witnessed the picturesque grandeur exuded by the Bryce, Grand and Zion canyons and Yellowstone National Park in the western United States..
I'm very fortunate to have traveled a lot. But none of these lands can compare to Iceland. The aforementioned regions are absolutely beautiful, maybe even more so than the Nordic country. But Iceland's landscape is picturesque in an otherworldly fashion-- while sometimes desolate, it is nevertheless hauntingly beautiful. And truthfully unlike anywhere else in the world.
If I had to sum up the landscape in one word, it would be... diverse. At one moment, you're driving through a flat plateau composed of moss, devoid of trees as far as the eye can see. The next moment, you'll be cruising along a lake with volcanic ash/black sand as its beach, surrounded by a large range of active volcanoes. An hour later, you could be traveling through the exquisite Icelandic Highlands, which contains wetlands, vast waterfalls, lakes, and ash-laden mesas. Two hours down the road, you could be gazing at a cluster of hot springs or down a large crater lake.
Did I mention that a majority of the country is littered with glaciers and active volcanoes?
The landscape is very dynamic too. With volcanic eruptions so often and tides constantly changing, new land can appear and disappear only over the span of several years. All of this on an island country smaller than Colorado with less people living in it than in Omaha, Neb.
Like many things in life, one would have to visit the country to experience the full effect. But to entice you, here are some of the highlights from my journey:
The adrenaline rush that comes with snowmobiling up a glacier when you can't see ten feet in front of you is stupefying. Especially when it's about 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside and you took a long journey through a landscape not unlike Mordor to get there.
The sense of awe your mind feels as you ride an ATV up a mountain, stop and gaze at the vista of a gorgeous wasteland of volcanic ash, frigid ocean and jagged mountains is absolute. It's stunning, and in a way you wouldn't expect.
The Blue Lagoon, while a tourist trap, is an experience in itself. There's nothing like lounging in the warm depths of the pool, massaging white, mineral-enriched mud into your skin and feeling your body tingle.
It's almost guaranteed that you have never seen anything like the Icelandic Highlands, as previously described. Imagine driving through a microcosm of many different landscapes, all compacted into one small region. Parts of the region are rarely visited, so if you venture far enough in, you feel as one with the nature surrounding you.
Of course there is the food. The freshest fish and lamb you can imagine coupled with meats you'd never dream of eating. I ate whale (tasted like sirloin except tender and a lot chewier), horse (like a tough new york strip except gamier), puffin (can you say salty?) and a ptarmigan and reindeer pate (easily the gamiest thing I've ever eaten; very bitter aftertaste). Iceland has a delicious dish served for dessert and breakfast called skyr, which is a yogurt-like product except creamier and not encumbered with sugar.
Being so far north, the length of days on the island are very different from the rest of the world's. In the winter, daylight is scarce, while the summer dictates the reverse. When we went in August, it didn't get dark until around midnight on average while I was there, which was a decidedly surreal feeling.
The locals are quite affable as well. One of our guides camped outside on the side of a highway one night-- how often do you see that in America? And for those attracted to the stereotypical Nordic/Scandinavian look in people, you certainly won't be disappointed in that aspect.
The entire country has a small town/rural feel to it, so for those used to big cities, you will surely experience something different there. Even Reykjavic, their largest city, feels more like a well-populated suburb than a bustling metropolis.
I strongly urge you to make a trip out there if you can. It's definitely worth it. Be sure to bring a camera and an appetite for adventure if you fly there.
The only downside? Not being able to pronounce nearly any of the place names.
All photos taken from Wikimedia Commons