A year and a half ago, my partner managed to do something that few others have done successfully in the past. He surprised me. It was my birthday and my present was a trip somewhere and that somewhere was Iceland. I hadn’t considered traveling to Iceland before. Scratch that, I had but it wasn’t very high on my list for some reason. That trip though was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever been on and since then I’ve thought a lot about Iceland and now, watching others visit, I have come to the realization that it is unlike most other destinations in the world. Iceland grabs on to visitors in a way that is almost unheard of, but why?
Remote but not really
Iceland sounds REALLY far away. It sounds like it should be accessible only by chartered flights or a tanker ship of some sort. It sounds cold and barren, far away and desolate. It’s actually none of these things. When we visited, all-year direct flights from DC weren’t yet a reality (they are now), so we flew up to Boston and left from there. The flying time was less than 5 hours, a fact that still shocks me. From the East Coast, it’s faster and easier to visit Iceland than it is California. Maybe at one time Iceland was hard or expensive to get to, but not anymore. Given its prominence at the top of the tourism world, more and more (and cheaper) flights to Reykjavik are popping up all the time. The name, Iceland, is also a misnomer. People always imagine a frozen tundra, which Iceland really isn’t at all. Thanks to a quirky meteorological phenomenon, temperatures in Iceland are never extreme. It’s never too hot or too cold. That’s not to say the weather is always perfect, far from it and wind and rain can be expected in large doses. But it is not the land of Nanook that most first time visitors envision.
Maybe it’s the country’s unique history or its former, relative isolation, but Iceland and her people are not typical – in the best possible way imaginable. First, not many people live there, just around 300,000. There’s also no crime, well almost none. The prison is a lonely place and violent crime is practically nonexistent. In 2013 Icelandic police shot a criminal dead. It was the first time that had ever happened. Icelandic culture is very egalitarian, most see each other as equals and that, more than anything, has gone a long way in cultivating the harmonious culture that exists today. I’m not exactly sure how to tie this in, but I have to. A significant percentage of people in Iceland believe in elves, or hidden people. There’s even a special school to teach people about the 13 different kinds of elves and how to spot them. I LOVE that. Never change Iceland, please.
Raw, unparalleled natural beauty
What draws most people to Iceland are the countless calendars and postcards we see showing the raw beauty of Iceland. Normally, shots like those are edited and doctored but when it comes to Iceland, there is no need. It really and truly is just that stunning. The best thing to do of course is spend a couple of weeks driving around the country, seeking out small bays and beaches where few others go. The photos I’ve drooled over from those iceberg-encrusted inlets are unlike anything else I’ve seen. But even if you only have a few days like we had, you can still get out there and experience the natural side of Iceland. Easy daytrips from Reykjavik to places like Gullfoss and Geysir are common and a great introduction to what everyone is raving about when they discuss Iceland. If you’re lucky you’ll also get a chance to see the Northern Lights, although that depends on time of year and the weather. No matter what though, the scenery of Iceland is impossible to miss and I promise will form the bedrock of your experiences there.
A certain je ne sais quoi
I have found that it is almost always impossible for me to explain why I love certain cities and countries, I just do. Iceland is the same. I could go through a whole litany of things to do and see in this small, island country but even those don’t really address the passion I, and most others, have for it. There is something classically indefinable about Iceland, a certain je ne sais quoi, as the French would say, that simply latches on and refuses to let go. Like most destinations it is most likely the unique alchemy created when you combine all of its great features together, a seething cauldron of tourism love. Whatever it is, this feeling is not at all common and I know from experience that when it does happen, it should be cherished. I travel a lot and while I enjoy most places I visit, very few elicit the siren call to return that Iceland does. I can’t explain it, but maybe I shouldn’t be able to. It shouldn’t be, and isn’t, an intellectual condition, it’s a visceral, very emotional one.
For these, and so many other reasons Iceland takes hold of traveler’s souls and never lets go. After one visit a return becomes all consuming. I’ve seen this countless times with friends and family, Iceland just does something to you. Look at me, I’ve only been there once and that was 18 months ago. But even as I write this my partner and I are plotting our return in 2015, a fierce desire to go back and see even more of this beautiful, quirky and undeniably wonderful place to visit. Don’t believe me? Go, visit and tell me what you think.
Is Iceland on your travel must-visit list?