Straddling the rift between the Eurasian and North American continental plates, Iceland’s one-of-a-kind geography leaves little to the imagination. In summer the country is moss-covered lava fields, steep rocky mountainsides dotted with free-roaming sheep, pockets of green forest in an otherwise treeless expanse, and bright nights of song and dance in the crisp polar air. By winter, shimmering lights dart across the sky like restless ghosts, people bathe in hot springs with snow melting in the rising steam, and fairy lights glow in all the windows.
This is the essence of Iceland: endless variations of magnificent scenery and adventure. Iceland’s astonishing beauty often has an austere, primitive, even surreal cast that arouses reverence, wonderment, mystery, and awe. Lasting impressions could include a lone tuft of blue wildflowers against a bleak desert moonscape or a fantastical promenade of icebergs calved into a lake from a magisterial glacier.
Iceland’s people are freedom-loving, egalitarian, self-reliant, and worldly. The country established a parliamentary democracy more than a millennium ago, and today its people write, publish, and read more books per capita than any other people on earth. Iceland remains one of the world’s best countries to live in, based on life expectancy, education levels, medical care, income, and other U.N. criteria. Reykjavík has become one of the world’s most fashionable urban hot spots.
For such a small place, Iceland has made more than its fair share of global news. In 2008, the booming economy overstretched itself wildly and went into meltdown, leading to the collapse of the country’s three main banks and leaving the nation with a massive debt load. It has since bounced back, and effects on the tourist industry have been minimal—one of the main reasons being a better exchange rate for most tourists. Then there was the 2010 volcanic eruption in South Iceland, which produced an ash cloud big enough to ground planes across Europe, divert flights from North America, and irrevocably change the surrounding landscape. Yet even at the height of the eruption, it was business as usual in most places across Iceland. When some areas near the volcano became temporarily inaccessible, tourists were presented with once-in-a-lifetime alternatives, such as lava sightseeing by helicopter.