Is it just me who has a touch of a wanderlust this year, in fact all I seem to bang on about these days is ‘travel’ and how excited I am to finally spread my wings. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing is it? Besides, what’s a girl to do; after being unlocked from my travel cage of five years, I am finally ready to explore the beauty outside of my ‘London Surroundings’. I used to dream as a child of the holidays I would take and the places that I would see; where would I go, what would I experience, who I would meet. I had fantasies of holiday romances that would never be and envisioned myself to be a fictional book heroine, who would adventure to places so far away and discover a world not yet destroyed by humankind’s disruptive touch. I envisioned myself floating into alternate worlds, where the water ran as clear as crystal and the skies were like marble, clouded over with milky blue. But over time my travel dreams were put on the shelf and I was imprisoned in the gate of my very own mind. It was when I realized that 2017 was my year to travel that I decided to make a change and let myself dream again.
I imagined myself stepping outside of my London house and foraging in the lush green woods of nature; I would join the street art painters in Bali to become part of their creative movement and feel light as air, as I waltzed around the Tuscan mountains. I would catch a plane to Valencia and party downtown until I made my way into Granada, but when the air feels cooler I would catch a sledge ride into Iceland and marvel at the Northern Lights. Because despite my love for ‘warm Mediterranean climates’ there is so much more to see in the world than just beaches, as tropical as they may be. I want to feel the icy Icelandic winds and watch it whip through my hair, I want to discover the bold and learn how I too can be as adventurous as they are.Most of all I want to see how travel changes me, how will I feel, what will I do next?
But why Iceland? I know this might come as a shock to you but there is more to Iceland than just the ‘Northern Lights’. I remember reading Phillip Pullman’s series on the ‘Northern Lights’ (His Dark Materials Triology) aged 9 and how I was spellbinded by the poetic beauty of the alternate worlds he had created. How in a world so dark, its people have created harmonious light and how despite the cold, the warm of its community will warm your soul. I was never one for religion but it is adventure that makes me feel spiritual and want to offer gratitude to Mother Nature for creating a world that is so diverse as it is homogeneous. From exploring the ice caves, to exploring the many street art murals that Iceland has to offer, there is more to Iceland than just the Northern Lights. Don’t believe me? Read on below to see 12 unbelievable experiences that you must try in Iceland!
- Hekla (Nicknamed The Gateway of Hell, Iceland)
With a nickname like ‘The Gateway of Hell’, you may understandably be a little apprehensive about experiencing ‘Hekla’, a strato-volcano located in the south of Iceland. But here is where you are wrong; deeply entrenched in mythological and historical roots, the strato-volcano is one of Iceland’s most breathtaking sights.The skies are marble blue puddles, shining over grassy plains, while wild horses graze nearby, glancing into the beaded eye of the strato-volcano. The beauty of the horses add to the wildness of Hekla’s domain but contrary to its nickname, it is not bleak, instead it is full of silence, interrupted only by the sound of the horses munching on Hekla’s earthy grass. It seems peaceful now but Hekla was once a demonic monster in action. He would spout fire as he erupted time and time again and tourists would cower in the wake of its destruction. In fact not only does Hekla have its nickname because of the ‘severity’ or ‘intensity’ of its eruptions but also has been lauded as the ‘Eternal prison of Judas’ where folklore stated he would remain for the rest of his days for betraying the ‘messiah Jesus’. Of course not being religious that makes no sense to me but nevertheless a beautiful poetic analogy to keep in mind.
But if you’re worried about stepping foot into the ‘strato-volcano’ domain have no fear, because it has not erupted since 2000 and is unlikely to do so again. Then again, there’s no point of shying away from ‘what could happen’ as the best way to experience life in Iceland is to truly immerse yourself within the culture and challenge yourself to do things outside of your comfort zone !
How To Get There
Transport is accessible and there are several options you can take
- If you are driving take route 26 and then the Gunnarsholt trail. It will take a bit over 1 hour and 40 minutes to drive there.
- You’ll also be able to board a bus for Hekla from Reykjavik. Take the line 11 towards Landmannalaugar getting off at Leirubakki where you can stay in a guesthouse (room or camping), or at the Skaro farmhouse.
2. Grjotagja (Volcanic Cave Lake)
If you’re tired of hearing about the Northern Lights and want to experience a ‘less touristy’ version of Iceland that exists outside of its ‘postcard image’, then Grjotagja is your kinda ‘vista’. Proof that Iceland is one of the most magical places on earth, this volcanic cave lake features natural hot springs, creating a comforting ‘bathing session’ that you can do either alone or in groups. But in my eyes why would you want to share the stunning Grjotagja with anyone else? After all its not everyday that you can take a bath, heated by natural volcanic activity underground! Besides, there is more to this cavernous fissure than just a ‘volcanic cave lake’ ; while it retained its popularity as a bathing spot to warm visitors up during its harsh but breathtakingly beautiful winters, Grjotagja’s cave served as a redoubt for 18th-century Icelandic outlaw Jón Markússon. Not sold yet? Well you should be, after all Game of Throne (GOT) fans will know that ‘despite its appearance’ as a squeaky clean cave/lake that was home to the occasional outlaw, more recently it became more of a ‘sex cave’, where Jon Snow finally had SEX with Yigritte in Season Three. I probably should have issued a SPOILER ALERT but then again if you haven’t got past season three yet then shame on you, go home and re-educate yourself #nottodaysatan# .
3. Jokulsarlon (Multi-Coloured Iceberg Lagoon)
Light blue milky icebergs cascade across the glacial pool, swimming to safety as their glaciers begin to melt, accelerated by the inevitability of climate change. Its a bittersweet moment for me to observe, how global warming continues to take away nature’s natural beauty, yet remnants of this glacial pool exist. Despite the reduction in the number of glaciers that Iceberg Lagoon has, the serene beauty nevertheless remains. I can picture myself gazing into the glacial pool and watching it mirror my thoughts. How we must protect our planet and sustain it against the winds of time, how we should care about the world we live in and do more to pause its regression into middle earth, lest it results in combustion. As I grow older I have learned to cherish the surroundings around me and you should do too. Because one day you might wake up and realize that something is gone. It could be Jokulsarlon, it could be closer to home.
Take time away from technology and breathe in the fresh scent of mother nature outside your door. Unplug, re-wind, let nature for once welcome you into its fragile home. Do you see how it continues to welcome us, even after the damage and hurt we have caused it? But nature might not be so forgiving next time; which is why Iceland made it on to my bucket list in the first place. I don’t want Iceland to be a ‘fantasy world’ that exists only in the realms of our imagination. I want to be able to see the multi-coloured iceberg lagoons as they are now, surviving and hanging on, determined to stick around and be celebrated as the outstanding beauty that it is now. Because one day those marble slabs of milky glaciers might dissipate into nothingness, leaving behind nothing but a chasm of deep water, a sorrowful reminder of what once was one of Iceland’s most breathtaking natural wonders.
4. Kerid Crater Lake ( Volcanic Crater Lake )
AS I wander into the Golden Circle, a rainbow of light hits me, spotlighting rich mossy green, firebrick red and sapphire blue. But this is not just any ordinary spectacle, the Kerid Crater Lake is a stark contrast to Iceland’s otherwise frost-glazed landscape. As I peer outside the iced realm, the scent of fresh moss wafts past my nostrils mixed with a cleanliness that my imagination would only associate with water. While some might associate the volcanic crater lake as being formed from an eruption, theories state that the magma in the centre of the crater depleted itself and according to Atlasobscura its empty chamber beneath then caved in as a result. Regardless of Kerid’s origins, imagining myself tiptoeing between the watery eye of the volcano and climbing its red versus mossy green terrains would be a true beauty to bequeath, just be careful to not fall in!
Tourists who like to play with danger must be careful to keep their wits about them as one false move and you can slip and hurt yourself, although luckily Kerid crater lake is shallow as opposed to say the multi-coloured ice lagoon, but nevertheless the terrain is slippery. In fact a quick fact for readers who are interested in the macabre, Iceland warns tourists to ‘not die abroad’ (yes you read that correctly) as they do not embalm their bodies, due to the cold weather where they see no need to do anything but pop them in the morgue. Even more worryingly family or friends must issue paperwork within 7 days to claim the body unless there are extenuating circumstances and even then it can be difficult to get everything sorted in time!
5.The Arctic Henge
Picture the Stonehenge meets ‘pyramid ruins’ and you get ‘The Arctic Henge’, a pagan site that was created as a tribute to Iceland’s Nordic roots and neo-pagan beliefs. While The Arctic Henge is a ‘man-made monument’ that began construction in 1996, to the untrained eye it could easily pass off as an Ancient Neolithic monument. While some might be disappointed that they are not in the company of an ancient relic, you might regain excitement knowing that each constructed pillar is a tribute to the 72 dwarves from the eddic poem Völuspá. Voluspa (otherwise known as the Prophecy of the Seeress) is a poem that chronicles the worlds creation in the eyes of Pagan folklore and is entrenched with verses dedicated to the Seeress who narrates the lore of ancient beings who fought to create the world that we live in. While the 10th century poem might have been written in an Icelandic society that had not yet been Christianized, it is evident that verses draw parallels with the Old Testaments belief of how the world was created. But how on earth does the Voluspa relate to the Arctic Henges pillars which are enscribed with Dwarfen names? According to folklore, Volva the seeress and narrator of Voluspa, told of the dwarves who were created by Æsir, of which Mótsognir and Durinn were the most powerful. Within the poem, there is also a catologue of all 72 Dwarf names that the Arctic Henge draws inspiration from.
6. Hidden World Guided Tour In Hafnarfjörður, near Reykjavík – or even take a course at the Icelandic Elf School
Hafnarfjördur is renowned for having one of Iceland’s largest colonies of elves, dwarves and other spiritual beings, which are known as the “Hidden Folk”. While the legend of ‘elves’ might seem like lore that is relegated to fantasy novels like Lord of The Rings in Iceland ‘elves’ are a reality. According to Alfar, a ‘hidden world walk specialist’, the Icelandic Townfolk have long worshiped the presence of elves and have stated that in Hellisgerdi Park, at the base of the cliff known as Hamarinn, the Hidden Folk’s Royal Family live there, away from mainstream society. While few will openly admit to actually believing in the Hidden Folk, many have shared their experience with elves, trolls and other mythological beings trespassing their home. In fact when anything goes missing in an Icelandic home, people blame it on the hidden folk and have even hired ‘seers’ to mediate between contractors and elves when building homes or creating projects, so that they do not disturb the homes of the Hidden People.
If finding out more about elves is your kind of holiday, then why not take a class at The Icelandic Elf School? Creating an informal gentle approach to elves, by lecturers armed with flavoured bread and tea, the seminars are loosely constructed and according to past students feel more like hanging out with good friends than a boring stuffy class. Lecturers tell stories about their own encounters with the hiddenfolk and how some have even developed friendships with the Hidden Folk who saved their lives.
7. The Blue Lagoon
Shrouded with an ethereal mist, the Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most visited experiences and its easy to see why. Created by accident, the lava fields by the Svartsengi geothermal plant were accidentally transformed into a spa in the 1970s, thus becoming the ‘Blue Lagoon’ that it is today. But the Blue Lagoon is not just aesthetically beautiful; in fact the water which is rich in salts and minerals, alongside blue-green algae, sulphur, and white silica, was found to help with skin problems by locals who first tested out its waters. With temperatures of 39 F, I can imagine myself sipping on a mojito and closing my eyes as I feel the therapeutic water washing over me, purifying me from within. All my worries would melt away and I would float for hours, detaching myself from reality and taking time out to become whole once more. There is something so ultimately pleasing about water and as a self-described mermaid, who grew up being drawn to beaches, pools, lakes and rivers, dipping my toe into Iceland’s most magical water source can create nothing but happy memories am I right?
8. The Northern Lights
You only need to mention Iceland and I can guarantee you that the first vista that will pop into your mind will be the Northern Lights. A spectacle of brightly colored lights dancing around each other in a dance that imitates a predators chase for its prey, the lights are actually caused by collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. While the gaseous particles create the actual lights-known as Aurora Borealis’ in the north and ‘Aurora Australis’ in the south, colours are created by the type of particles that collide. For example Aurora presentations most commonly feature pale yellow-green (produced by oxygen molecules) and blue/purplish red aurora (caused by nitrogen) while rarer aurora forms like red are produced by high altitude oxygen.
Naturally being an island that is associated with Norse mythology and middle earth folklore, it should come as no surprise to learn that the lights are also part of ancient legend. While Aurora was seen as the goddess of dawn in Roman times-thus creating the spectacle of the Northern Lights- other myths state that they were symbols of ‘famine and war’ while aboriginal tribes like Menominee Indians of Wisconsin thought the Northern Lights were a torch that spotlighted the homes of the manabai’wok (giants) who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen. While I am more inclined to believe that they are a result of simultaneous gaseous particles colliding to distribute oxygenated lights, nevertheless the folkloric tales remain interesting to read and give a valuable insight into how Icelandic people view nature in their country.
9. Ice caves in Vatnajökull glacier (South East Iceland)
Enveloped in snow, the ice caves lie nearby the Vatnajoskull glaciers, situated in the snowy hills of the national park. With so many caves to choose from it can be difficult to know which ice cave tour in Iceland would be the best option to book to truly marvel at the glacial display that Iceland is proud to claim as its own. But have no fear, because despite the hidden depths of the caves, the highly rated Guide To Iceland Ice Cave Tour by Vatnajokull Glacier , which departs from Jökulsárlón takes you on a mind blowing journey through Iceland’s caves, where in many cases the locations change each year meaning that no two ice tours are the same. While the change of location might be bewildering to some, to me it makes sense as like street art tours in the UK, the ‘ice cave fixtures’ are not permanent as they thaw out during warmer months. Naturally the ice caves are a highly popular attraction so be sure to book in advance to avoid disappointment. Oh and quick tip, make sure you are kitted out in warm woolies (no jeans allowed as wet denim can make you even colder) as the ice caves are meant to be pretty nippy!
10. Reykjavik Street Art Tours
It wouldn’t be just the outstanding natural wonders like the ice caves that have cemented Iceland at the top of my bucket list but the fact that its capital city Reykjavik is full of colourful street art murals too. Creating a stark contrast to its otherwise snow-filled, frosted plains, these colourful murals are a beautiful tribute to Iceland’s cultural traditions merged with folkloric symbols like the ‘Hidden Folk’, trolls and mythological beings that echo Iceland’s colourful pagan roots.While murals and sculptures seem to be the most prevalent form of street art, mixed media posters and a graffiti scrawled skatepark are a great reminder of how desolate buildings can be transformed into something that is beautiful. Strangely despite the murals and skateparks co-existing with Iceland’s natural world, street art is actually not legal in Reyjavik, meaning that artists have been looking for alternative methods of disseminating their creative works by seeking permission from locals or commissioning pieces for local businesses, like the Nomadic Gardens in Shoreditch.
Some artists are commissioned by local businesses to drum up publicity and bring visitors to their resturant, bars and shops, while others work in the dead of night so that they don’t get caught.
11. Go Horseback Riding (Horses That Look Like Ponies)
Among the elves and trolls that live alongside the ‘common people’ are wild horses that gallop around the frost glazed moors, in search of their own hidden home away from the tourists that cross their territory. While technically classed as horses, Icelandic horses closely resemble what we would call Shetland ponies in the UK, and despite their wild nature locals state that the horses also love to be ridden. As someone who is cruelty free, I was a little apprehensive at first as to whether I should promote horse riding as an amazing experience in Iceland but luckily I saw enough positive reviews from previous visitors commending the treatment of horses, as well as seeing how horse farms like Eldhestar are running in conjunction with of VAKINN, Iceland tourism’s official quality and safety label. Moreover visitors have stated how you are transported into the Iceland of 100 years ago, where unspoiled meadows juxtapose gushing glacial streams, interrupted only by the adventorous gallop of horses nearby, a sight that almost seems alien to us outsiders.
When choosing a ‘horse riding company’ in Iceland, I urge you to ensure they are cruelty free and have been awarded status as a partner with Vakinn, so that you can feel good knowing that you contributed to the Icelandic tourism industry in a manner where no animals were harmed. After all even if you are not an animal lover like I am, have a conscience and think about the impact of our actions on the environment and the habitats that our animals live in.
12. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
What more could a country like Iceland offer when we have already covered a diverse art scene, lagoons, caves and Elf School? Well there is one more thing… waterfalls! Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls and it’s easy to see why. Standing over 200 FT tall, you will feel in awe of this majestic beauty, as it coats you in its refreshing water stream.Be sure to bring a raincoat if you don’t want to get drenched but I personally would go without, to feel nature’s cleansing touch. Whats more, Seljalandfoss has been recorded as being in the top 10 most photographed vistas in Iceland, behind The Northern Lights and The Blue Lagoo, which is unsurprising considering how the waterfall glistens and gleams in the afternoon sun. And if you want to get your Nerd Hat on, Justin Bieber’s Show Me featured scenes from South Iceland, including Seljalandfoss.
Have You Ever Been To Iceland?