Hundreds of miles of ocean separate Iceland from its nearest neighbors, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Travelers in Europe often overlook this remote Nordic nation, focused on seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum and Big Ben. Yet, Iceland’s grandest sites are natural, not manmade, and were created over millions of years, instead of a few decades. I’ve visited once and cannot wait to return because there is still so much I want to do. Here’s what you could be experiencing if you were in Iceland right now:
Scuba diving and snorkeling in a country with “ice” in the name is as crazy as it sounds. Lugging an aluminum tank while wearing a constricting drysuit is cumbersome, but the annoyance is forgotten when you take the plunge. The water temperature in the Silfra Fissure is just above freezing year round, causing you to struggle for breath because it is so shockingly cold. When you submerge for a first look underwater, you can see 300 feet in every direction. Even more mind-blowing is the fact that you are swimming in unclaimed territory — between two continents — in the chasm formed by the shifting Eurasia and North American tectonic plates.
Geothermal energy accounts for 25 percent of Iceland’s power supply, and heats dozens of lagoons. Grjótagjá is an undeveloped pond hidden in a cave in the northeastern Mývatn region. The nearby Mývatn Nature Baths have been commercialized but are less crowded than the Blue Lagoon. Not far from the Reykjavik airport, the famous Blue Lagoon has a swim-up bar, gourmet restaurant and spa.
Craters, volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields, geysers, mountains, waterfalls, beaches — Iceland has them all. Walk along the continental divide in Thingvellir National Park, home of the Silfra Fissure. See Iceland’s most active geyser, Strokkur, which shoots water 100 feet high every few minutes. Peer over the edge of the magnificent Gullfoss, a roaring 70-foot-wide waterfall multiple drops that span more than 1.5 miles. Photograph the cascading 200-foot-tall Seljalandsfoss from the cave behind it. Walk on the black sand of Reynisfjara and admire the basalt towers several stories above the water. Wander the maze of icy passageways within the Langjokull or Jökulsárlón glacier.
Created by some 30 volcanoes, the island’s lava fields transport you to the lunar landscape of flat, rock-studded terrain: some areas an eerie dark gray, and others covered in bright green moss and colorful flora. Dimmuborgir plain has massive formations reminiscent of castle turrets and chapel spires. Several tour companies lead expeditions into the depths of the inactive lava tubes in the Leiðarend Cave. Thrill seekers should spelunk Thrihnukagigur instead — you’ll have bragging rights to say you’ve been lowered 400 feet into the heart of a volcano.
If weather conditions are favorable during the late fall and winter, you won’t have to leave the capital to witness the Aurora Borealis illuminate the sky in shades of gray and green; the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula and the Perlan building are the best urban viewing spots. In late June, it doesn’t get dark in Grímsey, a tiny Icelandic island at the Arctic Circle.
Strap on skis and head downhill at one of seven resorts in northern Iceland. Climb a frozen waterfall or lead a dogsled across a glacier. Speed across the wilderness while snowkiting or snowmobiling.
There’s also intriguing Viking heritage and legends, fantastic food and a plethora of wildlife. Plus, if you’re traveling between Europe and North America, you can add up to a weeklong stopover for free with IcelandAir.