Iceland’s tourism industry has been booming recently, since Icelandic vacations have been on sale ever since 2008 when the kronur exchange rate took a nose dive.
Iceland’s typical tourism appeal include all the clichés of “The Land of Fire and Ice” and our world famous northern lights, but some visitors take Icelandair’s offer for a free stopover in Reykjavik just to see the airport, the Blue Lagoon, the nightlife, and, perhaps the Golden Circle on a guided tour. The more adventurous or spendy come for a week or two, bike or horseback ride crazy places, climb mountains, hike spewing volcanoes, or snowmobile across the largest glacier in Europe, and end up seeing more of Iceland than many natives have ever seen.
Many locals in Reykjavik are born and bred city folk, who actually don’t travel around the country that much, but so many have taken a cheap flight to London or Copenhagen, or a holiday in Spain or New York more frequently than getting up north to Akureyri. However, with the “kreppa” and our crappy kronur, the “Stay-cation” is becoming an attractive alternative. The ecological footprint of Iceland is already pretty big already (renewable energy can’t cover us all), so instead of taking another carbon heavy flight a few hours to Europe, perhaps this article can inspire you to just take the bus/car/ferry a few hours to a magical corner of Iceland.
I’ve been traveling around the world for the last few years, and 63 countries later, I’m still most excited to come back to Iceland and travel at home. Here’s a list of my top five Icelandic destinations, and what to do when there, in hopes of giving passer-by’s and Reykjavik locals an idea of where to go next.
The old homes in Flatey, depicting typical turn of the 20th century architecture in Iceland
one of the many shipwrecks surrounding Flatey's shallow coast
Between the wonderous Snæfellsness Peninsula and the West Fjords is Flatey, a tiny Island in Breiðafjörður – a 2011contendor for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. In the long winter months, its almost totally deserted, with only a few resident farmers and their sheep, but in the summer its a bustling little tourist town when all the locals inhabit their summerhouses and run a few restaurants, shops and accomodation services out of their 100+ year old homes. Get there with a Baldur ferry from quaint little Stykkishólmur, or Brjánslækur in the north. Sailing through the archipelago in Breiðarfjörður is definitely its own highlight. Best thing to do there? Take a walk around the Flatey Nature Reserve bird watching, or, if you´re feeling polar worthy, go sea swimming in Stykkishólmur when you´re waiting for the ferry.
If you take the old way to Isafjordur, you'll drive this dirt road and arrive into the West Fjords with the most beautiful view
fishing boats docked in Bolungarvik
Most of us know about Ísafjörður, and one way to get there is to fly into the death-defying runway that convinces all the passengers on board you´re about to crash into the side of the mountain. The other way is to drive, since the road has just recently been paved all the way and shortened by a few kilometers. This way you get to see a few more of the tiny fishing villages and farmer towns along the way, my favourite being Bolungarvík at the end of the road. Best things to do when roadtripping in the West Fjords? Stop at all the natural hot pots hidden along the side of the highway and romp around the empty country side naked. Or just go fishing.
Puffins perching along the volcanic rock columns forming the steep cliffs around Grimsey's coast
This is the only part of Iceland truly in the arctic, with the northern tip of it crossing the 66th parallel. Like Flatey, you can walk around the whole thing in an hour or so, and the jagged cliffs forming the coastline are home to many nesting birds. There is a huge puffin population, infinitely outnumbering the 100 human inhabitants living in Sandvik. Take the ferry from Dalvík (with connecting bus service to Akureryi), and if you want to do as the locals do, harness yourself in some rope and scale the cliffs to pick seabirds eggs. What to do then? Eat one, raw.
Glacier Heaven - Jokulsarslon
By far the most picturesque place in Iceland, be dazzled by Vatnajökull glacier breaking off and melting into a ´glacier river lagoon.´ You´ll feel like you’ve reached Antarctica, and the water is so blue it rivals the Blue Lagoon. What to do there? Hike a glacier. Or just take a glacier cruise. And stay in nearby Skaftafell, a beautiful national park comprising part of the glacier and actually boasting real, wooded forest.
Haimey, last May, with the dark and destructive ash cloud of Eyjafjallajokull looming uncofmortably close
Vestmannæyjar are a group of spectacular islands sticking out of the sea, huge and steep, topped with lots of green grass (no trees, of course) and white fluffy speckles (sheep). The new harbor in Landeyahöfn means Herjólfur ferry only takes 20 minutes to cross the often sea-sickening journey, instead of the old 2 hr crossing, so its more accessible than ever. What to do when there? Smoke a puffin. Just don’t get stuck there next time Eyjafjallajökull erupts and covers them in a cloud of ash again.
While most of Iceland’s population is in south west Iceland, there’s so much more to see beyond that, and the amazing thing is it´s still a small enough country that you could actually see it all. Here’s to more travel around this beautiful country!