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Meaning “Golden Falls,” Gullfoss tumbles 105 feet in two stages. It’s a dramatic spectacle of nature’s power.

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Why is Everyone Headed to Iceland?

Article by Nancy C. Hermann

Photography by Nancy C. Hermann & Bill Hermann

Originally published in Tulsa City Lifestyle

The allure of Iceland is unlike that of most of the world’s top tourism hotspots. This remote island nation, resting on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle, is spare and sparsely populated. Icelanders live with 23 hours of darkness in December, and 22 to 24 hours of daylight in June. Icelandic weather can be fickle. The country's terrain is notably treeless. Nearly two million people a year, mostly Americans, are exploring and loving Iceland. I wanted to find out why.

The world’s most northerly capital, Reykjavík, is home to Iceland’s 320,000 people. They are listed in local directories by their first names, given that the tradition of naming after parents, Gunnarson and Ólafsdóttir, etc., can create confusion. Most visitors begin their Icelandic adventure in Reykjavík, spending about an average of six days in the country overall.

Reykjavík is a cosmopolitan hub with notable modernist architecture, many museums, good restaurants and lively cafes. Most of the city is heated with water pumped from hot springs and geothermal wells. We skipped the area’s geothermal spa experience to devote maximum time to the geological wonders of southern Iceland’s 190-mile-long Golden Circle.

In a country of 30 brewing volcanoes and 100 others that are tentatively dormant, there is much that lies beneath. The Golden Circle encompasses geysers, volcanoes, bubbling springs and dramatic waterfalls. Initially, Iceland was heavily forested. The early Vikings cut down most of the trees for shelter and heat. For me, there was something hushed, unique and moonscape-beautiful about miles of stark tundra. Icelandic horses roam through fields of wildflowers, and sheep graze on undulating hills. Iceland’s ratio of sheep to people is more than two to one!

One stop to make along the Golden Circle is the UNESCO Heritage Site called Thingvellir. This national park features Iceland’s largest natural lake and the only location in the world where tectonic plates — the edges of two continents — meet above water. You can even walk between them.

A few miles down the road is Gullfoss Waterfall. Here, powerful cascades have carved out a twisting, cavernous gorge. Another Golden Circle attraction is “Geysir,” after which all other geysers are named. It erupts less frequently than “Strokkur,” also on the site.

Traveling north by ship, with ice floes floating by, we stepped off the off-beaten path in Iceland’s Westfjords, located at the lip of the Arctic Circle. Entering into the town of Isafjordur, where shops offer excellent woolen goods, we boarded a small boat for a 70-minute cruise through fjord majesty, then transferred to a rubber dinghy. Wearing hip-length waders, our boatman slid into icy water and pulled us to shore. The abandoned settlement of Hesteyri is barely livable during winter months and is a designated nature preserve. After a warming break of pancakes and coffee in one of the few buildings left there, we encountered an Arctic fox.

Farther south is the ski resort and fishing town of Akureyri, second in population to Reykjavík. Its harbor, festooned by snow-capped peaks, is breathtaking. The city’s red stoplights are heart shaped. A full-day excursion from here takes you to Lake Myvatn and the 2,300-year-old lava labyrinth named Dimmuborgir. Folklore has it that the troll/ogre Gryla lives there with her child-devouring cat. She has 13 sons, the Yule Lads, who leave gifts in kids’ shoes for 13 days before Christmas. Naughty children could find a raw potato! You can decipher the faces of the other-worldly creatures in the Dimmuborgir lava rocks. This area also encompasses geothermic pools, steam vents, volcanoes and dimply “pseudocraters.” The latter were formed when molten lava flowed into Lake Myvatn.

Our last stop was the avalanche-prone eastern town of Seydisfjordur, tucked away at the innermost point of a fjord. It’s a hiker’s dream. The town is robust with brightly painted houses and pubs. An outing from here offers spectacular panoramic views.

Iceland is one of the healthiest, happiest and most literate countries in the world, with vistas of pristine beauty awaiting every visitor. A land of fire and ice, the country is an alluring work of nature still in progress. Simple but deep, dynamic but austere, Iceland is poetic in that way. Bundle up and enjoy.

There was something hushed, unique and moonscape-beautiful about miles of stark tundra.

  • The 190-mile-long Golden Circle near Rekykavík features the island’s most interesting geological formations, including the place where two tectonic plates meet.
  • Meaning “Golden Falls,” Gullfoss tumbles 105 feet in two stages. It’s a dramatic spectacle of nature’s power.
  • A boat ride down the glorious Isafjordu fjord will take you to the abandoned settlement of Hesteyri. The area is now a nature preserve.
  • A curious and perhaps hungry Arctic fox loafed on Hesteyri, looking for a handout.
  • The lava pillars at Dimmuborgir are said to resemble mythical creatures from Icelandic folklore. The area’s caves shelter Iceland’s storied elves, the Yule Lads
  • Called “The Devil’s Kitchen” because of the bubbling, boiling and strong sulphur smell, the geothermal area near Mt. Namafjail and Akureyi is a bleak orangish m
  • A rainbow walk leads into Seydsfjordur’s culturally cool town.
  • The picturesque town of Akureyri is a gateway to several fascinating geologic sites
  • The world’s first named geyser, “Geysir” is found in the Haukadalur geothermal field. The Strokkur geyser erupts there every 10 minutes.
  • Iceland’s power plants have become tourist destinations, such as the Hellisheioi Power plant near Reykjavik. It draws energy from nearby underground volcanic ac
  • The Godafoss Waterfall is found not far off of Iceland’s Ring Road, which circles the island.
  • Well-known Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarson lived in the eastern part of the country. His mansion has been turned into a museum.
  • A massive avalanche devastated many of Seydisfjodur’s old wooden buildings in 2020, but the town has bounced back.
  • “Pseudocraters” surrounding Lake Myvatn were created by lava flowing over the lake, causing an explosion of steam that breaks through the lava surface.
  • Tourists and kids on field trips, flock to the Thingvelliir National Park to walk or have fun in the crevice between two continents. The meeting of tectonic pla
  • Cod and salmon are fresh from the sea.
  • Iceland’s diverse topography offers spectacular scenery.