Iceland’s climate, dramatic geological activity, and unique history provide visitors with amazing landscapes and experiences. From spectacular waterfalls and volcanic craters to thermal baths and other hidden gems, you’re sure to marvel at the country’s natural splendour. It is easy to see why many blockbuster films and Hollywood flicks have selected Iceland as a base for their filming locations, with its otherworldly landscapes and cascading waterfalls.
The country’s distinctive topography is the result of a history of tectonic movement and volcanic eruption. For photographer Robert Ormerod, its similarity to the moon inspired his journey through the country, in pursuit of its most extra-terrestrial sites. These are both natural and man-made, as he also takes in Iceland’s distinctive satellites and geothermal domes.
Ormerod details how Iceland was actually visited by Apollo astronauts in the late 1960s. As BBC Travel reports:
NASA believed it was essential for its astronauts to prepare for their intragalactic journey by training in the most otherworldly terrain on Earth. After scouring the globe, officials determined that the Moon’s lunar landscape was strikingly similar to that just outside Húsavík, a quiet 2,300-person fishing community on Iceland’s northern coast. NASA sent 32 astronauts to train in its crater-filled terrain in 1965 and 1967. Incredibly, of the 12 humans who have ever walked on the Moon, nine first touched down in Húsavík – including Armstrong himself.
Let’s look at Iceland’s many magical, otherworldly places.
The Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site that witnessed the establishment of the Viking Althing in 930. Fragments of the structure that housed the assembly remain, 50 booths built from turf and stone. Thingvellir is also where you can experience walking between two continents, as the Eurasian and American continental plates meet here, visible on the earth’s surface and continuously splitting Iceland into two at a rate of 1 mm to 18 mm per year.
Thingvellir is part of a popular tourist route called the “Golden Circle”, which also includes the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.
Geysir is derived from the Old Norse verb that means “to gush”, and you can immediately tell why it acquired this name from the intense geothermal activity in the area. The Geysir Geothermal Area is dotted with hot pools and vents, including the earliest documented geyser in Europe, the Great Geysir, and its neighbour, Strokkur. Strokkur is the more active of the two, erupting every ten minutes and shooting water 20 metres into the air.
Iceland is also known for its many beautiful waterfalls. Nearby is the breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall, which tumbles down from a great height of 32 metres (105 feet).
The Vatnajökull National Park stretches across more than 1,400,000 hectares of volcanic and glacial land, nearly 14% of Iceland’s territory. Two of ten volcanoes within the park are among the most active in Iceland. The park contains Iceland’s natural treasures and incredibly varied landscapes. Its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2019 signals the need for its conservation, as the glaciers are in a steady process of decline due to climate change. Bordering the park, you will find the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, formed from the melting glacier.
In South Iceland, the black sand beach and imposing basalt columns in Reynisfjara are also well worth the trip.
Vestmannaeyjar, a cluster of 15 islands off the coast of Iceland, is home to the largest puffin colony in the world. Over a million puffins arrive here in the summer to mate and lay their eggs. Whether you’re a puffin expert or not, this is the place to come if you’re hoping to catch sight of these little seabirds.
The amazing Blue Lagoon is another popular tourist attraction, named for its milky-blue geothermal seawater. The lagoon, set in a black lava field, was formed in 1976 near the Svartsengí geothermal power plant and makes for a striking view. The water has temperature at a soothing and relaxing 38 degrees Celsius and is believed to have healing abilities. The Blue Lagoon company has opened a 62-room luxury hotel in 2018 and operates with sustainability in mind.
Eyjafjallajokull Volcano is potentially the most famous volcano in the world today. It has experienced several volcanic eruptions throughout history but the most recent one was in 2010, throwing the country into chaos. It is a strato volcano, built by many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash. It is worth going for a drive along the South Shore for the chance to catch a glimpse of the towering Eyjafjallajokull and the surrounding rugged scenery. It is a truly amazing sight.
Iceland is also a great place to view the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, a natural light display caused by the collision of gas particles electrically-charged by the sun and gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. The sun’s multi-million-degree temperature charges protons and electrons, which escape via sunspot or coronal hole, and are swept towards Earth by solar wind. The lights are only visible in the northern and southern poles because Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles and thus the particles are not as strongly repelled as they would be closer to the equator. Once in Earth’s atmosphere, the particles collide with one another and dispel the energy in different colours depending on the types of gas particles and the distance from the Earth.
If you are travelling on a September departure to Iceland with Odyssey Traveller, you may be in luck to see them, as the best time to see the Northern Lights is between September to April. However, visibility of the Northern Lights depends on several factors, including cloud cover, the phase of the moon (a full moon will make the aurora borealis less visible), and solar activity level. Check the aurora forecast to avoid disappointment!
Of course, your first port of entry will be the capital, Reykjavik, where nearly 40 percent of Iceland’s total population reside. Visit the Old Harbour area, once a service harbour that is now a cosmopolitan tourist attraction, and go on a walking history tour of Old Reykjavik in the heart of the city. The National Museum contains artefacts that tell the story of Iceland’s history. View the eye-catching Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja, a place of worship for most Icelanders, as a huge majority (80%) are members of the Lutheran State Church.