Perhaps because we are gluttons for punishment, my wife Mercedes and I traveled to the unspeakably beautiful island nation of Iceland when she was just a few weeks pregnant. To top off an already challenging trip, she was bedriddenly sick the entire time. But, as they say, with great beauty comes great pain.
The timing of our journey was unfortunately non-negotiable. I was booked to attend an international conference sponsored by my Master’s in Public Diplomacy degree program at the University of Southern California. My fellow students and I had scheduled meetings with Islandic government officials to discuss the country’s “place branding” efforts.
Iceland has been incredibly successful in projecting an image of itself to the outside world and thus drawing scores of tourists to its wild shores. And unlike some other places, Iceland—with its picturesque waterfalls, moss-covered lava rocks, bubbling geothermal hot springs, active volcanoes, enormous blue glaciers, beautiful snowscapes, adventurous spirit, and spectacular Northern Lights—lives up to the hype.
After Iceland’s economy was hit hard by the 2008 financial crash, tourism helped the country claw its way back to solvency. Home to fewer than 350,000 people, in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of tourists visiting the country grew to more than 2 million annually.
As Kristjan Guy Burgess, chief political advisor to former Icelandic Foreign Affairs Minister Ossur Skarphéðinsson, president of the Social Democrats, and founder and CEO of Global Center Iceland, put it, “Iceland was in the news at a time when it was very cheap and interesting to come here. So we invested in a campaign to promote and encourage tourism.”
It hasn’t always been easy, though. Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, director of Promote Iceland, said that Iceland’s recent political turmoil made their job of promoting Iceland difficult. Between 2013 and 2018, there were five prime ministers, one of whom had to resign in 2016 when the Panama Papers revealed his family’s bank accounts in offshore tax havens. Another had to resign because he tried to cover up a letter of support to rehabilitate a convicted pedophile written by his father.
In addition to its political turmoil, Iceland is also known for its progressive gender policies. When we visited, the prime minister was Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the Left Green Party, only the second woman to hold the office. Iceland is a leader in equal rights for women and the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Iceland became the first country in the world to pass a law mandating equal pay for women.
As for Icelanders themselves, everyone we met was welcoming and friendly. In fact, Iceland was voted the friendliest country in the world, according to a poll conducted by the World Economic Forum in 2013. But while their economy relies on tourism, Icelanders’ views on tourism are more nuanced. They encourage sustainable, responsible tourism.
Around town in Reykjavík
While our visit to Iceland took place before the pandemic, repeat visitors report that the otherworldly island of ice and fire remains as dynamic and vibrant and foreboding as ever.
“It’s hard to believe this eerily beautiful vista exists on the same planet as, say, the living room where I’ve spent the past 14 months,” award-winning journalist Jessica Fender wrote in the Fall 2021 issue of Westways Magazine. “Being anywhere else is strange and exciting at the moment. As Iceland itself grows before my eyes, the world in general suddenly feels big again.”
There are a number of must-see locations in Reykjavík, before venturing out to the wider, wilder countryside. Depending on when you go—we found March an ideal time to visit because while it’s still cold and icy, the roads can be manageable than the dead of winter and you have a higher likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights than in the summer—you can walk across the frozen Tjörnin lake in central Reykjavík.
There are a number of architectural delights in Reykjavík as well, such as the glass honeycomb Harpa Concert Hall adjacent to the harbor.
As a fan of punk rock, I enjoyed visiting the Icelandic Punk Museum (Pönksafn Islands), featuring the history of Icelandic punk (such as Björk’s punk roots) in a repurposed underground public toilet.
Ring Road trip
After my meetings with government officials, we were free to explore the rest of the country. Most tourists visit a handful of destinations within a short drive from the capital, but Mercedes and I decided to venture beyond the beaten path. We rented a camper van with a heater in the back and drove the Ring Road around the entire island, stopping at designated campgrounds each night. This, of course, presented its own set of challenges. (Make sure you shell out for windshield insurance, as little rocks get kicked up on country roads and crack your windshield all the time, a lesson we later learned the hard way).
We did, however, visit some well-worn sites in the Golden Circle, a popular route that includes Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall, which are all worth a visit. In Þingvellir, you’ll see Alþing, the site of Iceland’s original national parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. Founded in the year 930, Alþing is the oldest surviving parliament in the world, now housed in a beautiful old building in Reykjavík. The outdoor parliament area in Þingvellir, situated on dramatic rock cliffs, overlooks a beautiful rift valley created by two tectonic plates and the Almannagjá fault.
In Geysir, the Strokkur geyser erupts every 15 minutes, shooting hot water 30 feet into the air.
Around this area is where we saw the most beautiful long-haired Icelandic horses, one of which tried to eat my sweater. Also nearby we discovered the Secret Lagoon, the oldest pool in the country. Known to the locals as Gamla Laugin, it was established in 1891 at Hverahólmi, a geothermal area near Flúðir, and maintains its 100° Fahrenheit temperature all year round. With fewer people than the Blue Lagoon and tucked away in a rural area with geothermal activity, geysers, and rising mist on the terrain surrounding the lagoon, this one felt especially special.
Gullfoss in the Hvítá river canyon is likewise a beautiful view, but while most tourists stop there and head back to Reykjavík, there’s so much more to see beyond the Golden Circle, including many more breathtaking waterfalls as you drive east around Iceland’s southern shore. Those include Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, the two biggest waterfalls in Iceland at 197 feet. We slept at a campground near Skógafoss and severe winds rocked our camper van back and forth all night. It can feel at times like Iceland is trying to kill you.
Also on the southern coast of Iceland is Seljavallalaug, an outdoor pool built in 1923, and Reynisfjara, a stunning black sand beach with a dramatic series of basalt columns and smooth jet black pebbles.
As you continue driving along the Ring Road, you’ll pass through miles and miles of moss-covered lava rock fields, a mindblowing moonscape known as Eldhraun that was featured in a music video for the Sigur Rós song “Glósóli.” The Icelandic, Radiohead-esque, post-rock band makes for a perfect atmospheric soundtrack on your Icelandic road trip.
On Iceland’s southeastern shore, we walked around Diamond Beach, located by the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Huge chunks of ice are scattered across the black sand beach, and even bigger chunks of the glacier float around like sea monsters in the gloomy lagoon.
Completing the circle
Most tourists, if they’ve ventured beyond the Golden Circle, stop here and turn back for Reykjavík, but Mercedes and I were determined to drive around the entire island, even though we only had a few days to do so. If you’re visiting anywhere from October to March, you must check road conditions and weather forecasts before you plan to continue on here. These roads are no joke. Black ice, wind, steep roadside cliffs with no guardrails, sudden blind curves, tight lanes, unpaved roads, and endless scenery distractions make for a treacherous trek.
While the number of sites to see in the northeast, north, and northwest areas of the island do thin out, there are still places indescribably more beautiful than many on earth: blanketed by snow, rural, vast.
For example, Dettifoss on the northern side of Iceland is the second biggest waterfall in Europe, after Rhine Falls in Switzerland. (Iceland is sort of a hybrid European/North American country, as it sits on the tectonic plate boundary of Eurasia and North America—though it feels more European than North American). We also saw a herd of wild reindeer around this area.
As you approach Lake Mývatn on the northern side of Iceland, you first pass through the Námafjall Geothermal Area, also known as Hverir, where smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pots steam and bubble out of the earth, making you feel like you’re on another planet. Huge plumes of multi-colored smoke scattered across the landscape gives it the feel of an alien warzone. I got too close to the sulphur-smelling smoke and breathed some in, which made me lightheaded.
On the other side of the hill is Lake Mývatn, which is where we saw the most brilliant display of aurora borealis. The Northern Lights were, hands down, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life (until that was blown out of the water by the birth of my daughter Sienna). The swirls of color dancing around the sky are pure magic. Mercedes set up her camera on a tripod and captured these stunning images. You have to set your camera to a slower shutter speed to get good images, and you have to get away from the light pollution of the city in order to see them in the first place, provided the night sky is not blocked by clouds.
Next we arrived in Akureyri, the second biggest city after Reykjavík. The Eyjafjörðurin fjord juts into the middle of the town, a body of water you have to drive around. Here is where the Einstök Brewery is located. Excellent beer, but the brewery itself was underwhelming, as it was a drab, featureless building that appeared to be off-limits to the public.
By the time we got back to Reykjavík to drop off our camper van, rocks from the road had chipped a couple of spots on the windshield. Unfortunately for us, we hadn’t opted for the more expensive windshield insurance at the beginning of our trip. The rental company, of course, noticed these cracks and said our options were to pay them €200 now or wait to get the exact amount later. Knowing that these kinds of fixes can be as cheap as $15, we chose to wait. For whatever reason, they never charged us for the repairs.
*All photos by Mercedes Blackehart