Winter travel isn’t a new phenomenon. Divulge your plans to ski the slopes of Aspen, shop the Christmas markets of Germany, or ice skate in New York’s Central Park and you’ll be met with covetous looks and exclamations of jealousy. Friends will regale you with choruses of “oh how you must do this” and “oh how you can’t miss that.” Should you tell those same acquaintances you’ll be spending the winter vacationing in Iceland, quizzical looks and implied “but whys” will greet you instead.
Perhaps Iceland itself is at fault for this. Already burdened with a misleading name, the island is riddled with a host of other inadequacies. There are no medieval castles. No coliseums or grand pyramids. No romantic remnants left to show off its historically rich past. It’s a country that’s still in the midst of its own creation.
A place where fire and ice vie for attention as active volcanoes make themselves heard by spewing lava onto the shifting glaciers below. Diverging tectonic plates continually alter the landscape, lengthening Iceland’s landmass as they thrust apart. Frigid waves strike against dark-as-onyx sand beaches and transparent lakes fill the confines of volcanic craters. Geysers jet up towards the heavens from desolate lands. Wisps of steam hover over the surfaces of geothermal pools while solar storms forge masterpieces from green, pink, and purple hues that lithely dance above majestic waterfalls.
This juxtaposition of natural occurrences leaves the country with a landscape to which cliches aren’t applicable. Exotic doesn't quite fit, foreign won’t cut it, and extraordinary just sounds contrived. Otherworldly? Peregrine? Unfamiliar? Closer perhaps, but there’s still that feeling of the right nomenclature lying just beyond reach.
Eighty percent of the terrain is sparse. Bleak. Barren. Stark. Dense lava fields stretch for miles. Rock formations stand stoic. There is little to no foliage and disparate tones of whites, yellows, browns, and blues typify winter’s color palette. Yet the effect gives way to an uncanny attractiveness. An ethereal allure that for centuries has shrouded Iceland in a sea of mysticism that dares the deepest ambit of one’s imagination to try and capture its elusiveness.
The Vikings were the first to try. After settling here in the late 800’s, they were quickly forced to adapt to their new environs as they discovered firsthand the unforgiving temperament of the Icelandic landscape. It taught them to respect the unruly power of Mother Nature and a deep connectedness towards the land took root as they tried to make sense of the world around them. Cautionary tales were soon spread far and wide as men detailed the ramifications of provoking mountain trolls while others spoke of imprisoned giants shaking the earth as they struggled to break free from beneath its surface.
Thus, Icelandic folklore was born and rather than being filed away into some metaphorical vault labeled historical mythology, these folk tales continue to play a role in modern day Icelandic culture. Just ask local developers who illogically fashion roads that zigzag around clusters of stones to avoid disturbing Iceland’s ‘hidden people’.
Elf-like in nature, these wily creatures reside in rocks and boulders dotted throughout the country. They attend elven churches set in the vast lava fields and are respected by the bulk of Iceland’s population who harbor no doubts as to their existence. Unexpected sightings of these dwellings have led to whole construction projects being halted - or not even begun at all - in fear of the consequences that come with disrupting them. Recent years have seen crashed bulldozers, ill employees, machinery malfunctions, and similar freakish mishaps plague many projects to the point of abandonment as a direct result of agitating the hidden people.
While these tales may fall on cynical ears, it’s difficult for outsiders to deny the spirituality that Iceland inspires when exploring the assemblage of natural sites in each contrasting region. The undercurrent of energy that flows through the island becomes palpable when standing at the un-railed edge overlooking the partially frozen Gullfoss Waterfall. It’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the natural wonders of the world when watching the glacial waters surge over the terrain and disappear into the rugged canyon below.
On the opposite end of the spectrum (and only about two hours south) lies the Solheimajokull Glacier where instead of appreciating water in its liquid state, it’s best experienced in its solidified form. Traversing the glacier brings one face to face with crystalline blue walls of ice and serves as a reminder that Iceland floats along the fringe of the Arctic Circle. Black ash from the 2010 Eyjafjalljokull volcanic eruption can also be found dusting the surface.
Southwest Iceland is home to Thingvellir National Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site whose claim to fame is two-fold. On the historic side, it served as the annual meeting place for a Viking law court - known as the Althing - which ran from 930 to 1798 and backs up Iceland’s claim of having the oldest surviving parliamentary institution in the world. On the geological side, the park sits athwart a rift valley where evidence of continental drift can be seen as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates continually push away from one another.
The various cracks and fissures caused by this can be viewed both above ground and below, for the split has widened enough to become filled with clear water that allows for scuba diving and snorkeling between the two continents - even in the dead of winter.
It’s easy to forget that civilization exists after sleeping beneath the northern lights, watching the Strokkur geyser shoot upwards of 100ft every 8 or so minutes, boating around the glacial lagoons of Jokulsarlon, and experiencing the rejuvenating powers of a silica mud mask at the natural thermal baths of the Blue Lagoon. Yet, believe it or not, Iceland does have a lively city.
Iceland’s total population caps at around 330,000 and the capital city of Reykjavik holds approximately 40% of it. Despite its compact size, this coastal city is remarkably cosmopolitan. There are a multitude of museums celebrating every facet of Icelandic culture including its Viking past, the evolution of its literary history, and its modern day art and sculpture. The oddly-shaped Hallgrimskirkja church lies just as unusually guarded by the statue of native voyager, Leif Ericsson and at 240ft is the tallest structure in a relatively highrise-less city. Views from its spire span out over Reykjavik’s brightly colored roof tiles, snow-capped mountains, and blue waters. For the adventurous palate, trendy restaurants dish up Icelandic specialties such as fermented shark, reindeer, puffin, and whale, while modish cafes and bars are responsible for its burgeoning nightlife scene that rages throughout the nearly sunless winters.
Winter visits on this isolated island make one feel as if no other place exists and it’s hard not to fall under its enchantment with the myriad of emotions its subliminal landscape conjures. This unlikely destination has an intriguing historical past, a cultural present, and a geographical future that will have visitors coming back year after year.