Ok, this is geared mostly towards my fellow Americans and Canadian friends, but could certainly also be applicable to many within Europe as well. I’m always amazed at the initial fear some people have when thinking about leaving the country for the first time on an international vacation. I think I forgot how I felt that first time I boarded a wide body jet headed for locales foreign and unknown. The experience is absolutely exciting, but I do understand the fear as well. A million possible problems immediately come to mind for the neophyte traveler and many times they decide to forgo the experience entirely. That’s why for some it’s important to be mindful when they choose their first international destination so that it’s frankly easier to visit and therefore easier to enjoy. I love Thailand, but I recognize it can be a bit of a shock at first for many people. That’s why, to ease into the role of international jetsetter, I believe Iceland is one of the best choices for the first time traveler.
From a North American point of view there are many logistical benefits to traveling to Iceland. It’s a very short flight, less than five hours from Boston and even from London it’s only a three hour flight. Icelandair has also performed a stellar job promoting the destination and offering fantastic deals that usually include airfare, hotel and even some activities. Their web site is one-stop shopping for visitors and it makes the entire process very easy.
Once in the country, its size has certain advantages for enjoying the travel experience. The bus from the airport to Reykjavik is the best way to traverse the fifty kilometer distance and is how most people reach the capital city. Once in Reykjavik, the relatively small size of the historic, downtown core makes cabs or buses unnecessary. Reykjavik is one of the most walkable cities I’ve ever explored and a stroll along the streets is part of the overall experience.
At first glance the Icelandic language looks absolutely terrifying to foreign guests. I remember newscasters trying desperately to pronounce the name of the now infamous volcano that plagued European travelers for weeks. For the record it’s Eyjafjallajökull and please feel free to pronounce it however you like. But like so much of Scandinavia, English isn’t just common, it is spoken by almost everyone, and spoken very well at that. I don’t know what it is about Scandinavian languages, but their natural accents allow for a natural way of speaking oftentimes flawless English. So don’t worry about words that include 20 or more characters with an improbable placement of vowels and consonants. Here it’s ok to be a tourist who only knows English.
This is well known, but given the history and size of Iceland, most of the people are friendly and helpful. They’ve also become very good at welcoming tourists, turning it into one of their most important industries. Not that it’s really possible to get lost in the historic core of Reykjavik, but if you did there would be an army of people standing by ready to help. Not only are they friendly, but they’re eager to share their country with guests.
Iceland has a very long and proud history, one that almost everyone I met seemed to know by heart. They can be at times independent, but communal, not uncommon traits from a country born of Vikings and long dependent on the sea for its livelihood. So when you visit, don’t hold back, find local people and ask them questions. Ask them about their history, their culture and their plans for the future. You should do this on every trip really, but it’s especially educational in Iceland.
There are a few places in the world that have truly been blessed with an epic display of natural beauty and Iceland is one of those lucky locales. Dramatic is the best way to describe the country known for its ice and fire. Sitting atop two continental plates that are constantly moving, the landscape can be harsh at times, but also dynamic. Volcanoes, fissures, geysers and more all create an ever-changing landscape that is intimidating in its violence, but welcoming in its charm.
A favorite tour is the Golden Circle, a full day trip that takes visitors to the geysers, the Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvelir, the ancient site of governance in the island nation. For those with a little more time, renting a car and driving around the country on the Ring Road is the best way to truly understand the natural forces at work in Iceland. It’s around 830-miles and you can easily do it in a week, but of course two would be better.
It’s not all about just looking at pretty things either, there are plenty of active pursuits including whale watching, dogsledding, snow mobiling and even SCUBA diving. The most popular dive trip in Iceland is to the unusual Silfra – a fresh water spring located in a crack between the continents of North America and Europe. Truly a unique experience for those who love to dive.
Finally, the most popular activity in Iceland is a sight millions of people around the world recognize, the Blue Lagoon. Formed from natural hot springs deep below the ground and tapped originally for use in a nearby geothermal plant, the waters are known for their relaxing but also curative attributes. Thousands descend on the spa each year to seek treatment for psoriasis and other diseases. The spa is great even for those of us without ailments and personally, is a wonderful way to end your journey through Iceland.
I firmly believe that thanks to its location and ease of travel, Iceland is one of the best locations for the first time international traveler. It’s not at all an intimidating experience, in fact the trip was one of the easiest and most pleasurable I’ve ever enjoyed. If you’re uncertain about whether or not international travel is for you, be it out of fear or financial reasons, rest assured that Iceland is your best opportunity to explore more of the world around us.