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Live life like a Viking, search for trolls, play with puffins and more Icelandic fun awaits
It’s the land of fire and ice (no, not Westeros) with over 100 volcanoes and a massive glacier that covers approximately eight per cent of the country. It has a bustling arts and culture scene full of galleries, live music and outgoing people. So whether you’re looking for a city vacation with day-tours and all sorts of things to do, or an active adventure through mountains, valleys and water, Iceland is a place where you can get lost and find yourself.
Although they aren’t all as bold a Bjork, Icelanders have a sense of fashion that is their own. There are boutique shops full of locally designed clothing and jewelry that you won’t find anywhere else, and their thrift stores are full of fantastic finds to cart home with you. Snag your perfect Icelandic sheep wool sweater; a “lopapeysa.” These knit wonders will keep you as warm, dry, and as adorable as the wool keeps the sheep during the winter.
Iceland was formed by volcanic activity when the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates pull apart, and the country is half on one plate, half on the other. As a day trip out of Reykjavík, you can head to Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) and frolic in the rift valley where the two plates meet.
Puffins are about the size of your two hands cupped together, and they are arguably the silliest flyers of the bird world. You can see them frantically flapping their stout little bodies in and out of the waves at the largest puffin nesting ground in the world. During the breeding season (April to mid-August) there are millions in residence on Iceland’s Southeast shores alone.
The varied landscapes of Iceland are alive with colour. Rough young lava flows and ancient volcanoes sculpt the mountains and valleys, while giant blue glaciers sit high above slopes of orange rust and neon greenery climbs black land. There are hiking paths for the avid hiker or the weekend walker, and guided treks that can last for a few hours or a few days, depending on your preference. At the end of any hike, you can soak your tired muscles in one of Iceland’s many natural hot springs.
A bathing suit may not be the first item you think to grab when visiting a country whose summer temperatures max out at around 13 degrees Celsius, but bathing in one of Iceland’s hundreds of natural geothermic hotpots is a very relaxing way to soak in the scenery.
The Blue Lagoon, a unique sprawling full service outdoor spa outside of Reykjavík, is the most popular, but you can discover simpler and more private natural pools, such as Dragness (pictured) in the West Fjords.
If you would rather enjoy the scenery without doing the legwork, Iceland has its own breed of horse, and it is the only kind of horse allowed, by law, to set foot in the country. The Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation calls it one of the “purest breeds of horse on earth.” The horses are short (sometimes closer in size to ponies,) strong and, most importantly, very personable. If full size horses make you nervous, these little guys are great for beginners.
Most of the island country sits just south of the Arctic Circle, a prime location to take in the sky ablaze with the aurora borealis, a common sight during the winter season.
If you prefer going in the warmer months, prepare for beautifully long days of exploration; at the height of July you’ll experience the midnight sun, where the sun only dips slightly below the horizon, or not at, all for a prolonged sunset.
Whether the sun is still out at 11 p.m. or you are catching a glimpse of the aurora borealis in the late afternoon, enjoy the evening with a tipple of Iceland’s own schnapps, Brennevin, which translates charmingly into “burning wine.” Bold botanicals such as cumin and caraway will put you in the mood for whatever comes your way – and after a few you might find yourself speaking Viking.
The Icelandic language is the closest there is to Old Norse, which was spoken in Scandinavia until around the 1300s. Icelanders consciously preserve their language with such precision that they do not adapt new words from other languages, but instead use their own Icelandic words that have fallen into underuse. For example, a telephone is called a “sími,” which originally meant a type of cord. So if you want to hear what a Viking sounded like, listen to some Icelanders have a chat.
It may have been a community formed by brutal bands of Vikings, but Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world as well as one of the lowest incarceration rates. Hitchhiking is a widely accepted mode of transportation and, unlike most cities, there is no area in Reyjkavic or any other city that should be avoided for safety reasons. On a nice day it is not unusual to see baby carriages parked alone outside of stores or coffee shops, right in the heart of downtown.
According to locals, most of Iceland’s troll population has died out due to being tricked into being above ground after dawn, which turns them into stone. (One such troll is pictured above.) There are however millions of “hidden people” or “Huldufolk” who are said to be invisible and live in invisible cities side by side with humans.
The Hidden People are guardians of order and the environment, and have been cited as reasons against development projects in rural areas. As one Icelander pointed out to me, “my grandmother said that she communicated with them from time to time, and I am not going to call my grandmother a liar.” How do you argue with that?