The Land of Fire and Ice The Temple City Monaco of Asia
A land of contrast where fire and ice co-exist, Iceland is certainly more than just a mere destination. Set amidst harsh natural environment, this country has spurred a rich and vibrant culture, offering once in a lifetime experience for everyone.
Asmall dot in the Atlantic between the Scandinavia and America, Iceland has long been known as one of the most dramatic natural spectacles on the planet. This “the land of fire and ice” features dazzling white glaciers and black sands, blue hot springs, rugged lava fields and green valleys. The fire comes from the ferocious powers of nature ubiquitous there. It is home to abundant volcanoes that periodically burst into life. These hot elemental forces are located just below the surface of the earth across the land, heating Iceland’s tap water and swimming pools, and creating out-of-this-earth landscapes of twisted lava and rainbow coloured mineral sands. Ice in Iceland is another major nature attraction, the dramatic glaciers which slice down and float towards the coasts, calving icebergs into eerie lagoons. Glacier tours by snowmobile, on foot, or on the back of tiny Icelandic pony, are an integral part of Iceland experience. Another big attraction here is the Aurora Borealis, more commonly referred to as “the Northern Lights,” a natural phenomenon formed by particles emitted by the sun during solar flares, causing peculiar luminous green streaks across the skies when interacting with the atmosphere in the earth’s magnetic field. There are many things to do in Iceland from hiking and running, cycling, caving, ice climbing, swimming in a nature-heated pool, spas, riding an Icelandic horse, whale watching, birdwatching to helicopter tours and northern lights hunting.
Reykjavik, on the coast of Iceland, is the country’s capital and largest city. It is home to an impressive collection of exhilarating attractions and places of historical significance. With a population of 120,000 people, Reykjavik is probably not a whirlwind metropolis. Several skyscrapers grace the skyline, traffic jams are notably rare, and faces are familiar. But don’t be deceived, a steady beat of energy and events keeps the city alive and pulsing with excitement. The quirky nature of the Icelandic people is what lures many people back to this land for a second or third visit. Eccentric, creative and fiercely independent, the Icelanders are simply a lot of fun to be around, particularly during the endless days of summer. Sunny days feel like spontaneous holidays in Reykjavik, sunbathers and picnickers fill Austurvollur, the green square in front of the Parliament. Locals and tourists alike stroll up and down Laugavegur, the main drag, shopping, stopping for coffee, and people everywhere one turns. Thirsty jockey for sparse outdoor seating at bars and happy hours rolls around. Crooning buskers line the sidewalk, performance artists stage surprise acts, and marching bands seem to pop out from corners. The Hallgrimskirkja Church is the city’s main landmark, and its tower is visible from almost everywhere in the city. The church features most notably, a gargantuan pipe organ designed and constructed by the German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn. Standing tall at an impressive 15 metres and weighing a remarkable 25 tons, this mechanical action organ is driven by four manuals and a pedal, 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes, all designed to reproduce powerful notes capable of filling the huge and holy space with a range of tones – from the dulcet to the dramatic. Standing directly in front of the church, and predating it by 15 years, is a fine statue of Leifur Eiriksson – the first European to discover America. Apart from it being a beautiful place to walk with stunning views across the bay to Mount Esja, the Old Harbour area is where the majority of marine activities, such as whale watching and puff in tours
clustered; it is also where you find Vikin Maritime Museum and the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. There are numerous new and interesting businesses springing up, offering everything from scooter rides to the city’s best dark-roasted coffee, including the impressive addition of Harpa – the city’s award-winning new concert hall. Harpa easily is one of Reykjavik’s greatest and distinguished landmarks. It is a cultural and social centre in the heart of the city and features stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. Offering the best facilities for concerts and conferences, Harpa has received numerous awards and prizes, thanks to its stunning layout and architecture. The downtown area of Reykjavik (also known by its postal code as 101) is the nucleus of Iceland’s rich culture and arts scene. By day, the cafegoers rule the area, with free wifi and refills on drip coffee being fairly common, a steady hum of conversation keeps the city’s several cafes lively. The locals and tourists mixed, linger until there is a sufficient buzz on the strong, dark elixir. And as the day turns into night, people start filing into many of the cities restaurants. Throughout
101, playful murals and street art testify to the city’s sense of creativity and fun. Art galleries; the Reykjavik Art Museum and the National Gallery showcase the works of classic Icelandic artists, while smaller independent galleries display the projects of cutting-edge, contemporary Icelandic and international artists. Various museums preserve the culture and history of both the city and the country at large. Designated as a UNESCO City of Literature, Reykjavik is also the core of Iceland’s literary heritage where you will discover a treasure of literary works and a wealth of talented poets and authors.
The Golden Circle
If you make only one foray outside Reykjavik, take this popular route. Offered by many tour operators, The Golden Circle consists of the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir hot springs, and Thingvellir national park, all of which are famous in their own way but can easily be enjoyed in the course of one day, making for an ideal day tour. Usually, the first stop on the tour is Kerio, an explosion crater located 15-kilometre northeast from the town of Selfoss beside the road leading to Geysir. The water-filled crater is 55 metre deep and some 3,000 years old. The greenish colour of the water and the circular steep slopes create an eerie view certainly worthwhile stopping to admire. Owing to its natural amphitheatre form and excellent acoustics, a concert was once held at the crater. The next stop is Gullfoss, or famously known as the “Golden Waterfall.” It is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, and one of the natural wonders of the world. Gullfoss is also by far Europe’s most powerful water fall. On a sunny day, the mist clouds surrounding the hammering falls are filled with dozens of rainbows, providing an unparalleled spectacle of colour and motion. Located in the mighty glacial river Hvita (White River), the enormous white glacial cascade drops 32 metres into a narrow canyon which is 70 metres deep and 2.5 kilometres long. In winter, it has an unusual appearance when ice and snow ga rb the entire sphere. Just a few kilometres from Gullfoss, is another natural wonder, the world-famous Geysir which gives its name to hot springs all over the world. Though Geysir itself is hardly active anymore, the area features spectacular hot springs such as the powerful Strokkur, which spouts a vast amount of water to 15-20 metres into the air every 10 minutes. Meanwhile in the north of Geysir are fumaroles, unlike the Hotsprings that emit hot water, only stea, and gas emanate from these. About two kilometres from Geysir is an old preserved natural pool called Kualaug. One can bathe in it, and it has room for 3-5 people at a time, but care should be taken, as the area around the pool is very delicate. The temperature is 39-43 C, depending on how you are positioned in the pool. The water is slightly muddy, as the pool is built on soil, and the bottom is slippery due to algae, so caution is advised.
The last stop is the Thingvellir National Park which sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures like the huge Almannagja fault. Not only does it serve as a National Park, but Thingvellir is also s a historic site, known for the Althing, the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. On the site are the Thingvellir Church and the ruins of old stone shelters. Thingvellir is one of the most frequently visited tourist sites in the country and known as Iceland’s greatest historical site and the jewel of nature.
The Northern Lights
As we have mentioned earlier, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is a natural phenomenon which looks like the lights are cascading around the sky, dancing if you will, and it is unquestionably a pretty and spectacular sight. Recently, the Northern Lights comes on the top of the list of things most visitors in Iceland would like to experience, although it is not a walk in the park to experience this stunning natural phenomenon. There are several factors that you have to keep in mind if you want to experience it. First is to know the season, the official Aurora season in Iceland is from September until mid-April, but like with so many other things that have to do with Icelandic nature, it is not something you can say with any certainty. For example, sometimes, the first Northern Light soft he season in Reykjavik the year were seen around the middle of August. Second is the light condition, the suitable conditions to see the Aurora is when it is cold and dark outside, so Aurora spotting is best to do at night time. It is also a fall, winter or early spring activity since during summer months it is pretty much bright all the time. The third is the sky condition; it has to be clear. Unfortunately, Reykjavik is usually cloudy and full of lights at night time, so it is a good idea also to hunt for this mystic green lights outside the town. There are many great small towns to visit around Iceland with beautiful country hotels and guesthouses, just steps from pure un-modernized nature where there is no light pollution. The last but not least to consider is the length of stay. It is recommended to stay for a minimum seven nights; the Aurora usually tend to be very active for two to three nights, then low for four to five nights, in ongoing cycles. On clear winter nights, sightseeing trips are often organized around this remarkable natural phenomenon. The ideal location for sightings varies, and excursion leaders are skilled in “hunting” the lights, finding locations where conditions are best for seeing them on any given night.
Shaped by the unrelenting forces of nature, Iceland’s harsh natural environment has bred a resilient nation that has learned to exist under extreme conditions and harness the natural resources for its prosperity, luring visitors from all around the globe to come flocking to its wilderness parks and dramatic landscapes.