advertisement

Iceland is by far the most sparsely populated country in Europe: The size of Ireland or Kentucky, it has only 300,000 inhabitants. Two-thirds of the population live in the greater Reykjavík area, and the next largest town -- Akureyri, on the north coast -- has only 17,000 people. Most Icelanders live close to the coast, as the interior is largely an uninhabitable desert, impassable in winter.

Iceland's topography and unified culture do not lend themselves easily to geographic subdivisions. Route 1, known as the "Ring Road," circles the entire island but does not reach the Westfjords or many coastal towns. Chapters 7 through 10 are organized directionally; chapters 7 (West) and 8 (North) "lead" you from Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir (the transportation hub of East Iceland) clockwise, and chapters 9 (South) and 10 (East) do the same counterclockwise.

Reykjavík & Nearby -- Most Icelanders live in the southwest corner of the island. Reykjavík, Iceland's appealing capital, has zoomed to international prominence in the last 25 years, even becoming a trendsetter in music and nightlife. The center of town can be crossed in 30 minutes on foot, but a few miles of urban sprawl have absorbed neighboring towns such as Kópavogur and Hafnarfjörður.

From Reykjavík, many visitors take the "Golden Circle" day tour to Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir (for which all geysers are named), and Tþingvellir National Park, where the first Icelandic parliament convened in the year 930.

Keflavík International Airport, the gateway for most international travelers, is on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwest of Reykjavík. The peninsula's barren, lava-strewn landscape has several interesting sites, including Iceland's most popular tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon spa.

West -- North of Reykjavík, the Snaefellsness Peninsula is known for whale-watching, glacier tours, and stunning stretches of coastline. The sparsely populated Westfjords, with sea cliffs full of nesting birds and isolated, picturesque villages, are unjustly neglected by tourists.

North -- The north is anchored by Akureyri, Iceland's "second city." The town of Húsavík, an hour to the east, is Iceland's best whale-watching port. The region around Lake Mývatn features wild geological formations, bubbling mud pools, and great bird-watching. The canyon park of Jökulsárgljúfur is a prime hiking destination.

South -- South Iceland is packed with attractions and makes for one of the greatest driving trips in the world. Landmannalaugar, Tþórsmörk, and Skaftafell National Park are supreme hiking areas. The dramatic sea cliffs of the Westman Islands are perfect for puffin-spotting, and Heimaey, the main town, is half-buried in lava from a devastating 1973 eruption. The coastal town of Vík features wonderful cliff walks and black sand beaches. Further east is Iceland's best-known roadside attraction: Jökulsárlón, a surreal lake of icebergs calved from a glacier.

East -- Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull, anchors Iceland's southeast corner. Glacier trips often leave from the nearby town of Höfn. Further north, Egilsstaðir is the main business and transportation hub for the region. Ferries to the rest of Europe leave from the port of Seyðisfjörður, the prettiest town in the Eastfjords. In the Eastfjords north of Seyðisfjörður, Borgarfjörður Eystri is one of Iceland's best but least-known hiking areas.

Interior -- Desolate and otherworldly, the interior makes for an unforgettable adventure. In the Askja crater range you can swim in a lukewarm volcanic lake, and Kverkfjöll features bizarre ice formations formed by hot springs emerging from Vatnajökull.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.