Iceland: Land of Puffins and the Sublime
If I had to pick a different European country to live in, Iceland would be my first choice. Are you surprised? Some people think I am a little weird, choosing a cold climate, remote (for Europe) country with little or no sun in wintertime. I have visited Iceland twice: this summer as part of the brilliant Across the Arctic Circle: Iceland and Svalbard trip with Zegrahm Expeditions, as well as last summer, on my own. And yet I am still longing to return there to explore more of the country that gets such a strange, strong hold of you after you have set your foot there for the first time. There is great deal of reasons for why Iceland has made such a profound impression on me. Let me tell you about a handful of them…
Iceland is incredibly exotic (but not in the “tropical” sense)
I cannot help it but find Iceland exceptionally exotic: its proximity to the Arctic Circle (it transects this country in a few places places, but most of Iceland lies below the 66”33 latitude); its desolate, rocky landscapes with lush green grass; its surrounding seas of the colour of burnished silver; its ubiquitous air of mystery and something other-worldly.
Iceland, or Island in Icelandic, is Europe’s most sparsely populated country: the total number of inhabitants is just over 325,000. This noticeable lack of human presence makes one to appreciate the true power of the sublime, making visiting Iceland an incredible soul-stirring experience!
The geothermal activity adds another touch of the exotic
Another fascinating, exotic aspect of Iceland is the abundance of geological activity: the island is located on the north Atlantic rift zone, and the Atlantic Ocean is spreading a couple of inches every year. In fact, Iceland is a young island formed from high volcanic activity sometime between 16 and 18 million years ago.
Nowadays there are still many active volcanoes and geysers. Iceland derives the majority of its power from geothermal energy: heating, hot water and electricity, thus resulting in an inexpensive and renewable source of energy. Apparently Iceland is the only place where you can descend into a magma chamber of a sleeping volcano.
Icelandic landscapes are breathtaking
Stunning austere landscapes, practically devoid of vegetation but full of jagged rocks, stretch for miles. When Alaskan lupin is in bloom, these green and grey landscapes are drastically transformed with an addition of the beautiful vivid lilac. Interestingly enough there are very few trees because of the harsh climate and the fact that those that did exist have been cut down over the centuries; the only remaining fully-grown trees have recently been planted. The island’s landscapes are interspersed with full rivers and waterfalls, some incredibly powerful; sometimes they are so mighty, they make the ground under your feet tremble.
Have you ever seen a film by Ridley Scott, Prometheus? As soon as I found out that the stunning opening scene of Prometheus was filmed in Iceland (you can watch the trailer HERE) around Dettifoss waterfall – also known as the most powerful waterfall in Europe – this country climbed to the top of the list of destinations that I had to visit as soon as possible. However, since Dettifoss is located quite far inland, it is not as well know as the Gullfoss waterfall, one part of the holy tourist trinity known as the Golden Circle. The other two are the national park Þingvellir and the geothermal active valley of Haukadalur.
Reykjavik: World’s Northernmost Capital
I have a natural affinity for this little city, or is calling it a town is more appropriate? The population here is mere 120,000 inhabitants (with the total of 200,000 in the Greater Reykjavik area). Reykjavik is located on the west coast of Iceland at the latitude of 64°08′ N thus making it world’s northernmost capital. Reykjavik, its name meaning ‘bay of smoke’, boasts an enviable location, right next to the sea, which implies fresh air and stunning seascapes.
I love the laid-back atmosphere of the city centre, with few pedestrian streets and smallish wooden houses. These charming houses come in a beautiful array of colours, some bright, even fluorescent, others pleasant shades of pastel: yellows, blues, greens, beiges. You can see my more extensive photographic post about Reykjavik post here.
The focal points of the city is an impressive, modernist era Hallgrimskirkja church, and Harpa concert hall.
With my platinum blonde hair and Slavic features (Slavic people have a lot of the Viking blood in them from centuries ago), I am always mistaken for a local here: perhaps it is a sign that I should indeed move here?
Delicious, sometimes unconventional, food
Reykjavik is one of the culinary capitals of Europe with excellent restaurants; many serve traditional produce, much of which is deliciously fresh and somewhat exotic seafood: Icelandic lobsters (they are relatively small, yet their flesh is so soft it almost melts in your mouth); minke wale (tastes delicious as a sashimi; if I could compare it to something more widespread, I would say it tasted quite meaty, perhaps beefy?), and puffins ( I tried it once, smoked, but it left little impression on me).
Icelandic lamb deserves a separate mention
Icelanders are very proud of their lamb: all over the country you see healthy and meaty looking lambs wandering the fields, grazing. Icelandic lamb is one of the best lambs I have ever tasted; all being organic and grass fed, it is slightly more gamey than usual, making the meat somehow taste more authentic.
Icelandic horses are the most adorable breed of a horse
Icelandic horse is the most charming breed of a horse: they come on the smaller side, almost like ponies. What is particularly interesting about them is their unique fifth type of gait, called tölt. (all other horses only have four). When a horse uses that type of gait, it is so incredibly smooth and fast, you feel like you are sitting on a sofa in stead of a horse, with stunning views going by you!
Just a few recommendations: as tried and tested by me!
Activities in and around Reykjavik
Inside the Volcano: this day trip allows you to descend into the dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano: journey to the centre of the Earth, or what?! One of the most unbelievable and emotional experiences of my many travels!
Islenski Hesturinn, The Icelandic Horse – Riding Tours: Even if you do not like horse-riding, or if you have never done it, you simply MUST try riding an icelandic horse: a completely different experience. And if you are an experienced rider, and do not feel like riding what looks like a pony, you need to try it just for that unusual tolt gait! Islenski Hesturinn is one of the most reputable horse-riding companies around Reykjavik.
The Golden Circle Tour with Discover Iceland: One of the best ways to experience the Golden Circle tour is in a SuperJeep with a private guide! I used Discover Iceland last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed my day with them.
Reykjavik Bike Tours: In order to get an excellent and comprehensive overview of the city, go on a bike tour, as it allows you to cover the whole of Reykjavik within a couple of hours.
Where to Eat in Reykjavik
Fiskfelagid (Fish Company): this restaurant serves delectable Icelandic cuisine, and not just fish. Everything is beautifully presented and flavourful, and a waiter explains each dish before you tuck in.
Fiskmarkadurinn (The Fish Market): here you can enjoy the freshest seafood from the local waters, including icelandic lobsters, and minke whale. Amazing place for seafood lovers!
Cafe Loki: for simple, traditional Icelandic fare including the traditional lamb soup, go to this cafe, right next to the Hallgrimskirkja church.
Reykjavik Roasters: simply for the best coffee in town!
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Loft Hostel: if you are on a budget, then Loft hostel is a place for you: great location, clean and comfortable.
101 Hotel: this boutique hotel is an epitome of understated luxury, right in the heart of Reykjavik. The room that I stayed in overlooked Harpa concert hall and Reykjavik harbour: could I ask for a better view? I don’t think so!