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IcelandView all tours
Once apon a time, Iceland was known for its wild, rugged and colourful scenery, the moniker ‘the land of fire and ice’ and its otherworldly landscapes where black lava fields jar against red sulphur vents, boiling spurts of water exit the ground at great speed and lush green valleys dotted with sheep roll away into the distance. It was a land of fishermen and farmers, with the odd quirky musician, but that was all before the financial crisis and the great ash cloud. Now people know it as the country that suffered economic collapse, and prefigured global recession, as well as the place where that unpronounceable volcano ruined their holiday/business trip/spring in 2010.
Life still continues here as it always has, with the difference being that the world has seen how such a small country can have an outsized impact on the world around it. Those headlines have focused attention on a country that is often missed off the map of Europe but should be celebrated for being as quirky and independent a country as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Around the coastal regions, Iceland is a bustle of activity, particularly in the capital city, Reykjavík, where more than half of Iceland's population lives. Reykjavík is set on a broad bay, surrounded by mountains, and is in an area of geothermal hot springs, creating a natural central heating system and pollution-free environment. It is a busy city combining old-fashioned corrugated ironclad wooden architecture and reflective glass and steel buildings. Despite being a relatively small capital city, Reykjavík has managed to forge a reputation for partying, and its nightclubs and bars are regularly filled with fun-loving citizens. There is certainly an air of ‘frontier town’ about it on a Saturday night.
On the outskirts of the city you’ll find the much-talked about Blue Lagoon, a patch of bright turquoise water in an otherwise dark lava field, and Þingvellir National Park, the seat of the Viking parliament and an iconic place to visit. The fault line running through the park demonstrates that you’re in a land that’s still evolving: underneath it, the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart little by little every year, and the land bears witness to it.
Beyond the city, small brightly coloured coastal towns cluster around the coast, while orange mountains and bare wilderness broken by occasional hot springs, waterfalls and glaciers spread across the centre. Just offshore are islands that didn’t exist a hundred years ago, patches of freshly made land that undersea volcanoes have disgorged and are still cooling down in the freezing North Atlantic. No wonder the people here believe in elves – nothing here is as it seems, and drama is around every corner.
Whether you wish to quietly watch birds or whales, or prefer to get active and ski, glacier skidoo or horse ride, Iceland amply provides for both. It’s the place to come for an out-of-this-world nature experience, and whether you visit in the winter to watch the Northern Lights, thought by the Vikings to be a reflection of their dead heroes’ shields as they sped towards Valhalla, or in the summer to enjoy the midnight sun, where dusk lasts a couple of hours and the sun barely sets, it’s not hard to find. It’s a land that constantly trips you up, and won’t be tied down to a single viewpoint or predictable definition: Iceland is Iceland, and that’s all you need to know.
Iceland, one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, is a large island in the North Atlantic close to the Arctic Circle.
The most significant of its seismic features is found at Þingvellir National Park along the Almannagja fault. This rift in the rock shows the direct point on the earth where the Mid-Atlantic Rift runs through the island, where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart at an average of 2cm per year. The dramatic valley is clear on the land here, and is also visible in nearby Þingvellir Lake where divers visit the Silfra rift to see the crack between the tectonic plates in more detail.
Equally, volcano tourism is big business, with walking routes near the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, helitours over it and scenic trips to nearby Hekla, its hitherto most famous volcano, all popular.
Five-sixths of Iceland is uninhabited, the population being concentrated on the coast, in the valleys and in the plains of the southwest and southeast of the country. More than half the population lives in or around Reykjavík, the capital. Akureyri in the north is the country’s second city.
The whole of the central highland plateau of the island is a beautiful but barren and uninhabitable moonscape - so much so that the first American astronauts were sent there for pre-mission training.
Eleven percent of the island is covered by three large glaciers. Iceland's highest and most extensive glacier is Vatnajökull; at 8,500 sq km (3,280 sq miles), it is the largest in Europe, although it is now reported to be melting. Vatnajökull National Park, established in 2008, is Europe’s largest national park, encompassing its namesake glacier as well as volcanoes, waterfalls and wetlands.
There are several smaller glaciers in the country, including Snaefellsjokull, visible from Reykjavík, which sits atop an ancient cone volcano and was the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Only 1% of the land in Iceland is cultivated, with 20% used for grazing sheep, Icelandic horses and cattle.Government:
Republic. Gained full independence from Denmark in 1944.Head Of State:
President Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson since 1996.Head Of Government:
Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson since 2013.Electricity:
220 volts AC, 50Hz. Plugs are two-pin.Timezone:
Icelandic krona (ISK; symbol kr) = 100 aurar. Notes are in denominations of kr5,000, 2,000, 1,000 and 500. Coins are in denominations of kr100, 50, 10, 5 and 1 and feature Iceland's many native fish species. It is often difficult to get Icelandic money abroad, though not impossible; there are several ATMs and banks at the airport on arrival.Credit Cards:
American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted.ATMs:
ATMs are available throughout the country.Travellers Cheques:
Accepted, although mainly in key urban areas. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in US Dollars.Banking Hours:
Mon-Fri 0915-1600.Currency Restrictions:
There are no restrictions on the import or export of local or foreign currency.Currency Exchange:
Foreign currencies can be exchanged in all major banks. Most hotels also provide their guests with exchange services, which may cost more.Currencies: Exchange Rates:
- 1 AUD = 107.76 ISK
- 1 EUR = 152.61 ISK
- 1 GBP = 196.38 ISK
- 1 USD = 121.53 ISK
Best Time To Visit:
Iceland's climate is tempered by the Gulf Stream. Summers are mild and winters rather cold. The colourful Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) are best seen between November and February. In June and July, there are nearly 24 hours of daylight in Reykjavík, while in the northern part of the country the sun barely sets at all.Required Clothing:
Winds can be strong and gusty at times and there is the occasional dust storm in the interior. Snow is not as common as the name of the country would seem to suggest and, in any case, does not lie for long in Reykjavík; it is only in northern Iceland that skiing conditions are reasonably certain. However, the weather is very changeable at all times of the year, and in Reykjavík there may be rain, sunshine, drizzle and snow in the same day. The air is clean and free of pollution.
Lightweights in warmer months, with extra woollens for walking and the cooler evenings. Medium- to heavyweights are advised in winter. Waterproofing is recommended throughout the year. Umbrellas are not recommended because rain is very often accompanied by wind.