Iceland has more than the Northern Lights and volcanoes … although those are pretty spectacular too, says Denise Li.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say “Iceland”? I’m guessing Bjork, Sigur Ros, the Northern Lights, that volcano with an unpronounceable name (Eyjafjallajokull) that caused aviation havoc when it erupted in 2010, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In fact, it was after watching that particular movie that my fiance Alain and I decided to look for cheap flights to Reykjavik during my recent European sojourn.
We were there for just four days … way too short to experience even a fraction of what Iceland has to offer, so I’m definitely going to start an “Iceland fund” just so I have a chance to visit it again in the future. Iceland is not exactly what you’d call budget-friendly, but the experiences are one-of-a-kind and definitely worth blowing your yearly bonus on.
Admittedly, our trip was pretty spontaneous, so we didn’t plan for it as well as we should (nor did we allocate a big enough of a budget to do some truly adventurous things), but I’ve gleaned a clearer idea of what I would like to do on my next trip. Without further ado, I present to you, what I think are truly compelling reasons to visit the land of ice and fire.
1. It has a low population density
Iceland has a population of just 320,000 (just 6 percent of Singapore’s current population!), despite being the size of Hungary and Portugal combined, and it’s also the most sparsely populated country in Europe. If, like me, you travel to get away from urban living and hordes of people, Iceland is the perfect destination. In fact, with just a 10 minute drive out of Reyjavik, you will find yourself driving for awhile without seeing another car on the road.
2. It’s a great place for self-guided tours
Driving was easy – what we did was to buy an Iceland sim card so we had access to Google Maps, planned our route the night before with all the stops we wanted to make, and off we went. For the more adventurous and experienced drivers among you, you might want to consider hiring a four-wheel drive so you can really go off-road and explore.
3. The friendly people
I once visited a beautiful country in the Asian region. Rich in history and with beautiful landscapes and destinations, my experience of it was marred by numerous encounters with rude locals and being ripped off at every turn. The people living in the country can really make or break your experience of visiting it, but all the Icelanders we spoke to were friendly and helpful, and had a dry sense of humour that Alain and I really appreciated.
4. The myriad opportunities for hiking
If you’re an avid hiker, you’ll find yourself in paradise when you set foot in Iceland. Where else would you have the opportunity to trek up volcanoes and on glaciers? For beginner hikers, there are lots of lowland trails for you to walk on as well. Mount Esja, around the Reykjavik area, is a popular hiking area. Just drive out, park your car somewhere and, well, walk. There are lots of clearly marked trails everywhere for you to follow.
5. The beautiful landscape
Iceland is, simply, a place of indescribable beauty, and since it’s indescribable, I think these pictures will better do a better job at showcasing what I saw.
What we were disappointed by …
Our whale-watching experience: This is something you can do straight from Reykjavik – all you need to do is walk to the port and sign up just before the boat sets sail. Although tour operators claim that there is a 90 percent chance you will see a whale on their tour, sadly, no whales were sighted although Alain and I went out to sea TWICE. We did, however, see a couple of dolphins during our second attempt. If whale-watching is a priority on your travel agenda, try your luck in Husavik, located in the northern region of Iceland – this is supposedly the best area to spot these magnificent creatures.
Blue Lagoon: The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa located close to Reykjavik that you can bathe in. It’s pretty, but Alain and I we were put off by the pricey entry fees and the hordes of tourists. If you really need a soak, go to the tourist information office (there are many in Reykjavik) for recommendations on less crowded/touristy ones to visit.
If you have to chance to stay longer than 4 days in Iceland as we did – and I reckon that you’ll need at least 10 days to really explore what this amazing country has to offer – here are some of the other activities you can consider doing …
Located in the Thingvellir National Park (about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik). Silfra is known as being one of the top dive sites in the world. Not only does it have underwater visibility of 100m (with water so pristine you can even drink it!), it’s also located between the North American and Eurasian continents. You can dive IN BETWEEN the two tectonic plates!
2. Visit the Vatnajokull National Park
The park covers 13 percent of Iceland and is the largest glacier in the world outside of the Arctics. Here, you’ll have many opportunities to see seals, wild reindeer, and exotic birds with your own two eyes. You can also drive a snowmobile and learn more about the unique geographical features – volcanoes and glaciers – of the region.
About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys training in MMA, and doing conditioning workouts. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets and Instagram @smackeral83.