By Eliza Gower
Defined by its tumultuous volcanic history and Arctic proximity, Iceland seems an unlikely travel hero.
It’s cold, barren, distinctly uninhabited (it’s is home to so few people that most locals ask ‘Hverra manna ert bu?’ when they meet in a bar to check they’re not cousins. It means ‘Who are your people?’), and over the past 500 years has been responsible for a third of the world’s total lava output. It’s a far cry from the beach-lined paradisiacal islands of South East Asia or charming cultural hubs like France. And yet, the number of visitors to Iceland per year has more than tripled since 2000.
So why has this tiny, treeless, human-less, volcano-laden island nation in the earth’s far north become one of the most talked about destinations in travel?
After a week exploring with Intrepid Travel, I have a few ideas.
I flew in over vast stretches of blackened nothingness and landed into an eternal sunset. It didn’t feel like arriving in another country; it felt like alighting on another planet. I spent the first night in a futile battle with my jet-lagged brain to find sleep through 1 a.m. sunshine. But sleep deprivation only added to the wonder of days to come.
Trees really are few and far between in Iceland, and recently erupted volcanoes have left endless fields of flat gravelly brown. To be honest, I didn’t find this entirely enchanting until the fields gave way to blackened hills, marked with little blankets of snow. Like a landscape of sleeping dairy cows.
Waterfalls are as common and iconic on the roads of Iceland as the golden arches of McDonalds are in California. But instead of iridescent, oil-soaked consumerism, they represent the power of a land still evolving. They rise like giants from the side of the famed Ring Road - Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss tall and delicate, showering passers by with glacial water and rainbows, Gullfoss and Dettifoss monumental for their power alone.
Ragged rock formations (surely carved by conceptual artists) hang out on black sand beaches, sheer cliffs erupt from green fields, icebergs swim in glacial lakes, ethereal Icelandic horses paw across endless moss-scapes, geysers erupt, hot springs simmer, some of the world’s biggest glaciers creak and groan under sprays of volcanic ash.
The majority of Iceland’s tiny 300,000-strong populace believes in elves, and I’m not entirely sure I can fight them.
This really isn’t really a place you ‘do’, it’s a place you feel. ‘Nature’ is cited as the number one reason tourists visit Iceland, but nature alone doesn’t begin to describe Iceland’s power. Sitting in natural hot springs at 10 p.m., in perfect daylight, with wild horses roaming treeless fields, unnamed waterfalls trickling down distant cliff faces, and a muted palette of moss green and brown and cream as far as my eyes could see; the madness and fragility and beauty of the world seemed all too present.
Iceland is known for it’s progressive views on gender equality (half of it’s parliamentarians are female), exceptional literacy rate (99%), for being powered entirely by renewable sources (thanks to abundant geothermal energy), and for producing more professional musicians per capita than any place on earth.
As we hurtled across the island, my headphones ringing with eerie refrains of Sigur Ros, it suddenly all made sense. The melancholic instrumentals, the ghostly ‘hopelandic’ vocals – Iceland is the definition of otherworldly – and there is something about being in a place that is still forming, a landscape so unforgiving and alien, that just demands this kind of open-mindedness and creative genius.
How any humans came to live in such a desolate, geologically volatile place, I’m still not entirely sure. But how it’s attracted such a slew of eager tourists?
Nature, music and delightfully idiosyncratic populace aside… I think it’s probably the elves.
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