A look back at an island filled with cinematic landscapes and a small population filled with rich culture.
The discovery of a land so far removed from what its name suggests was a revelation for me. Iceland was not a frozen block of ice, void of life and movement that greeted me on arrival, but rather a verdant green and mossy landscape, with smoking cones of geothermal activity, oceans of scraggy lava fields, and the most amazing of all – a plethora of powerful and majestic waterfalls, each one more impressive than the last.
The Iceland Tourist board promotes the country not as a destination, but as an adventure, and it immediately becomes a personal one within minutes of arrival. With only 325,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom live in the capital of Reykjavik, it’s not long before you find yourself quite alone, on a solitary road, awestruck by the cinematic landscapes as far as the eye can see. Easily one of the most romantic settings on earth, it is a place where the past meets the future in a raging flurry of wind, fire, stone and ice.
It’s hard not to be deeply moved by the island’s raw beauty, and few leave without vowing to return. Perhaps it’s the country’s austere bleakness, or maybe it has something to do with one’s absolute ability to be contemplative in a spiritual setting, seemingly untouched from the outside world.
Iceland is literally a country recreating itself over and over. Volcanoes constantly rumble and spewing forth from within, geysers spew water and steam heavenwards, Arctic gales blow wildly along silent fjords, and glaciers grind their way through cracked lava fields along the merciless, treeless tundra. The climate of the island is much more temperate than one would expect considering its latitude just south of the Arctic Circle. This is due to the North Atlantic Current and the fact that the entire island is heated from the thermal, tectonic activity below.
A soul-stirring visit here is as much about the people you meet as it is about the ethereal landscape. The warmth of the Icelanders is a stark contrast with the brutish climate, and any contact with locals is both unforgettable and a profound exchange of culture. Personal stories and the literary legacy of the Sagas always come up in conversation, as does Huldufólk: the hidden people, the elves in Icelandic folklore. This is something inseparable from the very core of their identity. But what’s most amazing is their rich and prolific cultural life that celebrates music, art, craft, and locavore cuisine at every turn. In the coastal village of Höfn one misty afternoon, I sat down to a sumptuous lunch comprised of ingredients from neighboring farms, which also included the daily catch of the freshest humar (langoustines) I have ever tasted. All enjoyed in an elegant, cozy 1890’s built house overlooking the glistening North Atlantic Ocean.
Icelanders have a unique ability to remodel themselves, to assess and redefine the bigger picture. After the financial crisis of 2008, the country was virtually in ruins, but today has seen revenues and growth equal to or greater than the pre-2008 fallout. Last year, tourism accounted for more foreign exchange income than the fishery industry and aluminum production, and the country is fast on track to become the “go-to” destination for just about every demographic.
Influenced by its Scandinavian origins, Iceland’s current contemporary style embodies the airiness and simplicity of a summer Arctic evening. The relative ease of life provides an aesthetic that draws on the desolation of the surrounding land, and mixes it with the whims of the collective imagination.
On a memorable walk one morning in Seyðisfjörður, a picture-perfect village of 700 artists, musicians and craftspeople in the east fjords, the day started out foggy and cool, but with pure fresh air. The fog soon lifted to reveal a canvas of undulating fields of spectacular wild daisies, a majestic fjord with royal blue, calm waters, and the awe-inspiring Skalanesbjarg bird cliffs. I looked out over the remote Norwegian Sea, teaming with bird life including nesting eiders. Puffins darted in and out of their burrows, and I thought this must be Shangri-La, or at least for today it is my distant, peaceful, and secluded hideaway.
Iceland is idyllic pristine isolation, snowcapped volcanoes, and cascading waterfalls – jaw-dropping natural beauty that inspires and reveals in every direction. It is a phenomenon in splendor, transforming the simple into the extraordinary.