Just Back: Everything You Need to Know About Iceland

Gullfoss
Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall
Ignacio Maza at Kaldidalur
Ignacio Maza at Kaldidalur, also
known as Cold Valley

Located on the edge of the Arctic Circle in the far North Atlantic, Iceland is one of the most unique places on earth. There are few places in the world that offer the rugged beauty and stunning landscapes found in Iceland. The defining characteristic of the country is that Iceland sits where two massive tectonic plates meet, which explains why the island has 24 active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and endless plains of crushed lava. Iceland, roughly the size of the U.S. state of Virginia, was not settled until the ninth century, when Viking clans built permanent homes on the island. The country was governed by Denmark for about 500 years and 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. Iceland is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, collectors of one-of-a-kind destinations and flexible travelers who can handle unpredictable weather.

Highlights

Most international visitors arrive at Keflavik (KEF), Reykjavik’s international airport, about 45 minutes west of the city. If this is your first time in Iceland, my advice is to spend a week or so in the Southeast region, experiencing somewhere special every single day. This will also spare you from spending all day on the road, trying to cover the entire country. Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world, is home to 50 percent of Iceland’s population. Reykjavik is relatively small and easy to navigate: Walk through the city’s historic quarter, visiting museums, shops and restaurants. If you see only one museum, make it the Settlement Exhibition, which gives you an overview of Iceland’s unique history. Don’t miss the ultramodern Harpa concert hall on the harbor, and the views from the top of the bell tower at Hallgrímskirkja church. If you have time for a hot thermal bath, experience the Laugardalslaug complex. 

One of the ice tunnels under the Langjökull Glacier, a highlight of the ‘Into the Glacier’ experience

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The most popular “day trip” from Reykjavik is the so-called Golden Circle, including some of Iceland’s best-known sites. The good news is that sites are close to the capital. The downside is that these landmarks get crowded, especially during the summer and particularly on days when ships are in port. I recommend visiting these places early or late in the day, to avoid the peak times. The sites include the Thingvellir National Park, location of the first parliament in the world and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, in a park-like setting. Continue to Geysir (gusher in Icelandic) to see the Great Geyser, which erupts every 10-15 minutes, sending up a 100-foot-tall plume of hot water. Nearby is Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, a powerful double cascade. Tip: The best light for photos at Gullfoss is in the afternoon.

Háifoss, Iceland’s third highest waterfall, an impressive 400-foot cascade

Beyond the Golden Circle

The further away you get from the Golden Circle, the smaller the number of travelers. Here are some ideas: Northeast of Reykjavik is the Langjökull Glacier, second-largest in Iceland and an endless ocean of powder snow in every direction. I recommend the “Into the Glacier” experience — an impressive, thousand-foot-long maze of tunnels under the icecap lit by LED lights, which can be visited with an expert guide. On the way out, hire a driver with the right 4WD vehicle to cross the Kaldidalur, or Cold Valley, for otherworldly vistas of Iceland’s barren interior and snow-capped mountains. East of Reykjavik are the beautiful waterfalls of Hjalparfoss and the hidden Gjainfoss, at the end of a well-marked hiking trail.

Exterior of Skálakot Manor, Hvolsvöllur

If you can handle serious potholes and rocky roads, visit Háifoss, Iceland’s third highest waterfall and my personal favorite, dropping 400 feet into a deep canyon. If you want to get up close to the two Háifoss cascades, follow the path down the canyon to the river bank. Southeast of Reykjavik is a natural wonderland, including Vestmannaeyjar Islands, a fun day trip by ferry to Heimaey, the main island settlement. From here, visit the other islands on a large Zodiac called “Rib Safari” for the adrenaline rush of your life; or hike up to the dormant Eldfell volcano in Heimaey for fantastic views of the archipelago. Back on the mainland, visit a volcano, either by walking down a lava tube into dormant Raufarhólshellir, or hiking up to the edge of a volcano and dropping down a 400-foot-deep shaft by elevator at the unpronounceable Thrihnukagigur. The southeast region also has some of Iceland’s most emblematic sites, such as black sand beaches, iconic waterfalls like Skógafoss, horseback rides to the edge of a glacier and outstanding hikes.

Ignacio Maza at Langjökull glacier, 4,000 feet over sea level

What about the Blue Lagoon? No visit to Iceland is complete without experiencing the Blue Lagoon, the country’s most famous attraction. The lagoon is an enormous thermal baths complex, located in a black lava field next to a geothermal plant. The water is heated at 100 degrees Fahrenheit all year long and is full of silica mud, which has therapeutic qualities. Visit early or late to avoid the crowds. Tip: Advance reservations are a must.

Exterior view of one of the guestroom wings at the Retreat at Blue Lagoon

Where to Stay?

Iceland’s hotel stock has grown dramatically in recent years. Here are my recommendations: In Reykjavik, ION City hotel opened in 2017 in the city center, featuring contemporary Icelandic design, warm and caring service and a superb restaurant called Sumac. I loved the Junior Suites on the fourth floor, with a terrace and private sauna, and the spacious Panorama Suite on the top floor. About 45 minutes east of Reykjavik you will find the sister hotel, ION Adventure, a design-forward lodge located in a moss-covered lava field. Décor is understated and features locally sourced materials. During your stay, have a drink in the Northern Lights Bar, and soak in the hotel’s outdoor thermal pool. For help with ION reservations, contact [email protected] A great “base camp” from which to explore the southwest is Skálakot Manor, a recently opened country lodge located on a working farm that has been raising Icelandic horses for seven generations. Contact Tomas ([email protected]) for enquiries. Other options: In Reykjavik, the Tower Suites comprises eight luxury residences on the 20th floor of an office building. For sales support, contact [email protected] On your first or last night in Iceland, stay at the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, a serene ultra-luxury hotel (think a Nordic Aman) featuring elegant suites, a 40,000-square-foot spa and three restaurants; it’s only 15 minutes from the airport. Contact [email protected] for assistance. On the Horizon: Reykjavik Edition, opening late 2019.

Panorama Suite at the ION City hotel, Reykjavik

Practical Advice

Bring the proper gear and layers to ensure you are ready for any kind of weather. High season is June to August, when Iceland experiences light almost all day. A great time to visit is either late April to the end of May or September to early October, when hotel prices are lower and there are fewer crowds and still plenty of sunlight. Northern Lights can be seen from September through April. Regardless of when you travel, advance booking for Iceland is a must, particularly in high season, as the best hotels and lodges are small and sell out frequently.

A great resource planning your next journey to Iceland is Nordic Luxury, the destination specialist. The company owns the largest fleet of luxury vehicles in Iceland and has access to exceptional guides. Contact Marina Safonova ([email protected]) for assistance with your next itinerary. 

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