Once apon a time, Iceland was known for its wild, rugged and colourful scenery, the moniker ‘the land of fire and ice’ and its otherworldly landscapes where black lava fields jar against red sulphur vents, boiling spurts of water exit the ground at great speed and lush green valleys dotted with sheep roll away into the distance. It was a land of fishermen and farmers, with the odd quirky musician, but that was all before the financial crisis and the great ash cloud. Now people know it as the country that suffered economic collapse, and prefigured global recession, as well as the place where that unpronounceable volcano ruined their holiday/business trip/spring in 2010.
Life still continues here as it always has, with the difference being that the world has seen how such a small country can have an outsized impact on the world around it. Those headlines have focused attention on a country that is often missed off the map of Europe but should be celebrated for being as quirky and independent a country as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Around the coastal regions, Iceland is a bustle of activity, particularly in the capital city, Reykjavík, where more than half of Iceland's population lives. Reykjavík is set on a broad bay, surrounded by mountains, and is in an area of geothermal hot springs, creating a natural central heating system and pollution-free environment. It is a busy city combining old-fashioned corrugated ironclad wooden architecture and reflective glass and steel buildings. Despite being a relatively small capital city, Reykjavík has managed to forge a reputation for partying, and its nightclubs and bars are regularly filled with fun-loving citizens. There is certainly an air of ‘frontier town’ about it on a Saturday night.
On the outskirts of the city you’ll find the much-talked about Blue Lagoon, a patch of bright turquoise water in an otherwise dark lava field, and Þingvellir National Park, the seat of the Viking parliament and an iconic place to visit. The fault line running through the park demonstrates that you’re in a land that’s still evolving: underneath it, the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart little by little every year, and the land bears witness to it.
Beyond the city, small brightly coloured coastal towns cluster around the coast, while orange mountains and bare wilderness broken by occasional hot springs, waterfalls and glaciers spread across the centre. Just offshore are islands that didn’t exist a hundred years ago, patches of freshly made land that undersea volcanoes have disgorged and are still cooling down in the freezing North Atlantic. No wonder the people here believe in elves – nothing here is as it seems, and drama is around every corner.
Whether you wish to quietly watch birds or whales, or prefer to get active and ski, glacier skidoo or horse ride, Iceland amply provides for both. It’s the place to come for an out-of-this-world nature experience, and whether you visit in the winter to watch the Northern Lights, thought by the Vikings to be a reflection of their dead heroes’ shields as they sped towards Valhalla, or in the summer to enjoy the midnight sun, where dusk lasts a couple of hours and the sun barely sets, it’s not hard to find. It’s a land that constantly trips you up, and won’t be tied down to a single viewpoint or predictable definition: Iceland is Iceland, and that’s all you need to know.