REYKJAVIK — If the urge to wander off the beaten path strikes and you are curious enough to look a little deeper, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Iceland.
It is preposterously pretty.
After navigating the pandemic restrictions, it felt liberating to get my wings back, and I was ecstatic to experience this Nordic country with all its charm and mystical offerings. Over the past decade, Iceland has climbed the charts and become a sought-after bucket list destination for good reason.
Why is Iceland so trendy? And why are many travellers donning their jackets and flocking to the cooler weather, even in summer?
Unsurprisingly, the landscape’s unspoiled natural beauty is breathtaking and draws millions of tourists annually. If you’re seeking vast open spaces, you need not look further; there are simply no crowds here.
Located midway between North America and mainland Europe, this Viking-settled mighty nation of 360,000 is easily accessible by both neighbouring continents. And the good news is, there is no wrong time to visit. September through March brings in the peak season for the elusive Northern Lights and summers brimming with endless hours of sunlight.
For myself, chasing the solstice midnight sun and basking in endless daylight was my calling, and it was genuinely magical.
As I traversed across Iceland, I experienced untamed natural diversity and complex landscapes firsthand, from surreal lunar-like terrain, to fields drenched in a sea of blooming vibrant purple Alaskan Lupines, to black beaches, endless waterfalls and erupting volcanos.
Iceland is better known as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice,’ and it’s clear why the destination has become a long-time Hollywood gem and exotic setting for blockbuster TV shows and movies such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
HOT SPRING BLISS
Blessed with an abundance of geothermal hot springs, Iceland has a thriving bathing culture which dates back centuries. It’s a favourite pastime for locals and tourists alike.
Although there are many bath spas to choose from in Iceland today, the Blue Lagoon is world-renowned and the country’s top tourist attraction. Located just minutes from Keflavik International Airport, it is also one of National Geographic’s 25 Wonders of the World, making it a given on everyone’s Icelandic itinerary. This man-made lagoon is rich with mineral waters and is a perfect first stop before an afternoon hotel check-in.
I was delighted to try The Retreat Spa at Blue Lagoon, a 5-hour luxury experience that included access to my own private change room and the comfort of a thick plush bathrobe and slippers. The Blue Lagoon Ritual provided a sequence of invigorating skincare treatments and entry to the Retreat Lagoon, a serene private bathing area. Needless to say, this was a much-appreciated treat and a perfect option after a sleepless, overnight flight.
Meanwhile, Iceland’s Sky Lagoon, which opened in 2021, is a new opulent spa quickly gaining recognition. Conveniently located just on the outskirts of Reykjavik, this slick, state-of-the-art facility provides an infinity pool complete with grottos, waterfall and ocean view with a seamless transition embracing both pool and sea. At the tail end of my week, I was ready to spend a remarkable morning experiencing yet another lavish Icelandic treatment – the 7-step ‘Sky Lagoon Ritual’ followed by a delicious charcuterie board and beverage. Infinity pool aside, the stand-out feature was the sauna with an enormous floor-to-ceiling window that captured the endless ocean vista.
ICELAND’S MUST-SEES? CHECK!
Navigating around Iceland can be pretty straightforward. Car rentals are super popular and readily available for those who prefer to self-drive, with wide open roads to greet them.
But if you prefer to sit back, relax and leave all the driving to the pros, your best bet is to choose from a wide range of carefully curated tours anywhere from half to full-day excursions.
My daytime adventures consisted of two of Iceland’s most popular, offered by Reykjavik Sightseeing.
The South Coast Classic is a full-day excursion with several unforgettable points of interest. It includes the stunning Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where you can walk behind the thundering waterfall itself, and a stroll on the world famous and most scenic spot in Iceland, the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, unique for the basalt sea stalks that jut out off its coast. Nestled nearby is the charming neighbouring village of Vik, where you can meander, explore the local shops, and enjoy some local fare.
The Golden Circle is yet another perfect combination with a viewing of erupting geysers, hot springs, and Gullfoss’s waterfall, where a walk down to the waterfall’s edge leave visitors enthralled by the most impressive cascade. There is also a visit to the Thingvellir National Park, home of the world’s oldest parliament and the best place to see the tectonic plates of Eurasian and North America. Did you know, when you stand in the Almannagjá fault within the park, you are physically standing between the two continents?
Another top contender that will add a shine to the endless list of experiences is visiting an ice cave, a phenomenal activity available year-round in Iceland. Tour company Into the Glacier provided an epic adventure from Husafell that brought us to the raw nature of Langjokull, Iceland’s second largest glacier. This remarkable one-of-a-kind journey draws you deep inside man-made weaving ice tunnels led by well-versed staff to the blue heart of the glacier.
As the week progressed, I happily crossed off several classic Icelandic experiences. Horseback riding on an Icelandic horse in a field of wild yellow flowers? Check. Visiting The Whales of Iceland Museum, the largest whale museum in Europe? Check. FlyOver Iceland, Reykjavik’s newest attraction with motion seating? Check. Perlan, the beautiful glass dome building, offers a planetarium, interactive museum and fine dining. Check. Last but not least, an Icelandic hot dog with all the local trimmings, including crispy fried onions? Check.
REYKJAVIK’S RICH WITH CULTURE
Somewhere between indulging in thermal baths, breathing in the island’s rugged natural beauty, and a raft of one-of-a-kind activities, time is well spent exploring Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, a treasure on its own that requires little introduction.
A walkable city with a modern verve, vibrant nightlife and enviable culture, who would have known Reykjavik also hits the mark on the culinary scene? Curious about their fork-to-table success, Oddny Arnarsdottir from Visit Iceland shared some insights as to why her country is gaining momentum particularly for the dining scene.
“We are emerging as an exciting gastronomic destination, where local ingredients are the main character of the dish. We have some of the most fertile fishing in the North Atlantic, sheep that roam free and feed on wildflowers and grasses, and geothermal greenhouses so we can grow our vegetables year-round,” says Arnarsdottir.
Today, this tiny nation hosts a plethora of casual to upscale international cuisines and even boasts several Michelin-rated restaurants.
In addition to Iceland’s growing list of accolades, who would have known that this small Nordic country made the cut as one of the top 10 happiest countries in the world by Condé Nast? Tapping into the close-knit sense of community where socializing with family and friends is a way of life has also benefitted the curious traveller like me. The locals are welcoming, warm and proud to share their culture and country with you.
ICELAND’S MAGICAL SUMMER SOLSTICE
Enjoying the phenomenon of the summer solstice is an extraordinary time to visit Iceland, where the golden hour seems to last forever. There are very few places in the world where you can revel in 21hours of daylight, and even when the sunsets for those wee hours, capture a beautiful rosy afterglow of twilight.
“There’s a flow of energy that comes from these longest days between June 21 – 22, and on June 24, named Jonsmessa (Midsummer), that’s when the magic happens,” says Arnarsdottir.
She adds: “It’s mystical and supernatural; the cows can speak and rolling around naked in the dewy grass can bring good fortune.”
If you are wondering if mythical creatures, trolls and hidden people still exist in Iceland today, most locals will surprisingly answer that question with a resounding yes!
Among the Viking countries, the traditions in Iceland around solstice are more superstitious than religious. Nevertheless, many organized events celebrate this magical occasion, including the Secret Solstice music festival, Viking Festival and the Suzuki Midnight Sun Run (my initial inspiration for this trip, and a runner’s dream).
When you think about it, Iceland has many tempting touchstones – an abundance of natural beauty, solstice summers, northern light winters, and enviable organic gastronomy. But more distinctly are the locals of Iceland, who make those curious visitors feel welcome and encourage them to dig deeper and take that unbeaten path.
Visit Iceland’s website is visiticeland.com.