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It’s dotted with hundreds of volcanoes, yet is home to Europe’s largest glacier; it’s perched on the edge of the arctic circle, yet is warmed by the Gulf Stream,…Iceland truly is, the Land of Fire and Ice. It’s also the land, of story. The marks of human hands are few and far between on this windswept land. Footprints are quickly reclaimed, but stories,…linger forever. Such is the sheer force and beauty of this place that Viking warriors have been transformed into poets, and family stories into epic sagas.
When Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson first caught sight of these shores over eleven-hundred years ago, he cast the wooden seat pillars of his chieftain’s throne overboard and vowed to build his farm wherever they washed up. Three years later the pillars were found, and a settlement was born. That settlement became Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, a city two-thirds of Icelanders now call home. With a population of only 300,000, Iceland can feel like the most isolated place on earth, yet Reykjavik is only a three-hour flight from London and just under six from New York.
Reykjavik is one of those places that’s not sure if it’s big town, or a small city, and therein lays its charm.
It’s relaxed and welcoming yet possesses a fierce creativity and cultural life that holds its own against other European capitals. Most buildings here are a response to the natural environment,… simple and low, to beat the North Atlantic winds,…colourful, to brighten the spirits through the long dark winters. Yet there’s grand civic architecture here too, buildings truly inspired by Iceland’s natural beauty. Like a spire from a fairy tale ice-castle, the soaring central tower of Hallgrímskirkja watches over all of Reykjavik. Designed to mirror the geometric shapes of ancient lava flows, few other churches in the world so honour the natural world.
Iceland’s conference and concert center, Harpa, is designed to reflect the city’s sky, harbour and cultural energy. Once again, the island’s dramatic geologic formations are honoured here, as well as the incredible winter spectacle of the Northern Lights. Icelanders value their heritage buildings too. When Reykjavík modernized in the mid-twentieth century, dozens of the city’s older buildings were relocated to the last of the city’s farms.
Today, Arbaejarsafn serves as a museum which allows visitors to walk through the pages of earlier times.
While at the National Museum of Iceland, take a voyage through Icelandic history, from the present day, back to the Settlement Age. Wherever you step in this city, nature beckons you,…over windswept waters, across the mountains, and into limitless horizons. Many of the country’s most popular sights are within easy reach of Reykjavík, often by public transport. Immerse yourself in the spirit of Iceland, at the Blue Lagoon. Here, and at hundreds of volcanic baths across the island, locals come to soak in the healing thermal waters, share gossip with neighbours, and even conduct business meetings.
Not far from Reykjavík is an area known as The Golden Circle, which encompasses three of Iceland’s greatest natural wonders. Just 30 miles from the capital, is Thingvellir National Park, considered the country’s heart and soul. Here, you can actually walk between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe, that have been drifting apart for millennia. Stand upon the shore of the country’s largest lake, …wander the grass covered lava flows and imagine the clans who gathered here for Iceland’s open air parliament, for two weeks each year, for over 800 years. Also in the Golden Circle, experience a boiling cauldron of hissing steam vents and belching mud pools, at the Geysir Geothermal Field.
The Great Geysir itself has been quiet in recent years, but nearby, it’s little brother Strokkur, still puts on a show, thrusting water into the heavens every 10 minutes. If there’s one natural wonder in The Golden Circle that outshines them all, it’s Gullfoss. Early last century, the waterfall was threatened by a hydroelectric project, until a local farmer’s daughter walked barefoot to Reykjavik and threatened to throw herself from the falls unless the project was stopped.
Today, that woman is regarded as Iceland’s first environmentalist, and The Golden Falls have been protected, forever. For many visitors, their Icelandic story continues no further than Reykjavik and The Golden Circle, which is a shame, because the further you roam, the greater the adventure.
Iceland’s main ring road circles the entire island, stringing together an endless series of epic landscapes and tales. An hour and a half’s drive east from Reykjavik is one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss.
Follow the trail behind a 200 foot veil of pure glacial water, where throughout the ages, adventurers have come to pause and breathe in the mists of this sacred place. Drive another 18 miles east, to Skógafoss, where according to folklore, a Viking buried his chest of gold behind the falls. Years later, a local boy found the chest and attempted to wrench it from it’s hiding place, only to tear off its handle before the chest vanished again.
On sunny days the falls create a double rainbow, a treasure in itself. Continue eastward towards Vík, the southern-most village in the country. Here wedged between the mountains and the sea lie some of Iceland’s most dramatic landscapes, weather, and legends.
Explore the basalt sands of Black Beach, considered one of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. Just offshore rise the basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar.
Locals say the formations are the remains of two trolls heading out to sea, who, when caught by the rising sun were frozen in the morning light. The shorelines here are made up of otherworldly rock formations and caves, like Hálsanefshellir, said to be a monster’s lair until a landslide sealed the entrance only a century ago.
Hike across the natural arch of Dyrholaey and sit surrounded by puffins. While below, waves that have travelled uninterrupted, all the way from Antarctica, end their journey against Iceland’s most southerly point. Follow the ring road for another two hours, into the ethereal light of Jökulsárlón Lake.
Here, at the tongue of Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, icebergs break away and float for years, melting down until they are small enough to tumble out to sea. A magnet for photographers and filmmakers, Jökulsárlón has been the setting for modern day legends, like James Bond, Batman, and Lara Croft. From the wild, windswept shores of the East Coast to the volcanic wonders of the north, Iceland’s ring road offers one jewel after another, all strung together with mile upon mile of absolute solitude.
Stand before the northern horseshoe falls of Selfoss. Then just downstream, feel the earth rumble beneath your boots at Europe’s mightiest waterfall, Dettifoss, who’s plume can be seen over half a mile away.
Nearby the Myvatn region awaits, whose centerpiece is a tranquil lake, surrounded by nature in all its violent beauty. Take a careful walk through the boiling landscape of Namafjall. Lose yourself amid the lava pillars and dark castles of Dimmuborgir, the place where Satan is said to have landed when God cast him from Heaven. Then, peer into the caldera of Krafla Volcano, and witness the incredible geothermal power that resides just beneath the ice. Just to the west of Myvatn, is a waterfall forever linked to a turning point in Iceland’s epic narrative.
When civil war threatened to tear the island in two in the 10th century, Iceland’s law speaker united the country under one faith, Christianity.
In a symbolic act of conversion, the chieftain hurled his pagan totems off the falls, which have been known as Godafoss, the waterfall of the gods, ever since. After a few days on the road, the tiny city of Akureyri appears like an arctic oasis. Known as the Capital of the North, Akureyri is the perfect place to warm up and enjoy some comfort and culture before heading off into the wilds again. There are some stories we never want to end that we never want to put down, but rest assured, this is only an introduction.
In Iceland, every side road, every path is a story waiting to unfold.
From the vast interior, to the West Fjords, each untouched beach and windswept plain is an unwritten page. So come and live your own Icelandic story; it’s one you’ll keep telling for the rest of your days..