Iceland Vacation: Travel & Visit on an Expedition | Holidays & Excursions
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Iceland Travel

Iceland. Land of volcanoes and Vikings; cold glaciers and hot springs; dancing lights above and lava-covered fields below. It is an island of contrasts and stark beauty; of elves, trolls, and unique Icelandic horses. During summer the Sun barely sets, so 24 hours of daylight prevail from late May until late July—wonderful for extended periods of sightseeing. Conversely, in winter, there are only a few hours of sunlight for several weeks on either side of Christmas. These daylight extremes are thanks to Iceland’s location—just below the Arctic Circle.

To visit this exceptional island with our travel groups, you’ll need to fly. From North America, it’s an overnight flight. If you’re traveling to Iceland between September and April, consider choosing a window seat on the left side of the aircraft. Three to four hours before landing in Keflavik, keep watch out the window. It’ll be dark, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a display of the northern lights—a wonderful start to your Iceland vacation.

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Other Worldly Scenery

Iceland’s amazing landscape is thanks to its geology. Born a mere 16 million years ago via an underwater lava plume that erupted from the North Atlantic seafloor, the island grew as molten lava drove apart the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Even today, Iceland continues to expand at a rate of 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) a year. Icelanders sometimes joke that millions of years from now, Iceland will be large enough to be called a continent.

The most obvious example of Icelandic expansion is in Thingvellir National Park, an hour northeast of the capital city, Reykjavik. Here you can stroll beside a towering cliff wall of solidified lava that is part of the North American plate, while gazing across the rift valley toward the Eurasian side of Iceland. On the Reykjanes peninsula southwest of Reykjavik, you can actually walk across this continental divide via the Bridge Between Two Continents.

Thingvellir is one of three stunning locations that comprise the ‘Golden Circle,’ a must-see excursion when visiting Iceland. The others are the Geysir Hot Spring Area, where every few minutes the geyser Strokkur shoots water 100 feet (30 meters) into the air, and Gullfoss, the ‘Golden Falls.’ Iceland’s iconic, thundering waterfall.

Iceland may have more waterfalls, per capita, than any other country. These falls are a consequence of numerous large glaciers, whose summer melts feed rivers that flow over the many lava walls and cliffs found throughout the island. Along the south coast, in addition to Gullfoss, is magnificent Skógafoss (with the excellent Skógar Museum nearby) and Seljalandsfoss, a tall cascade of water you can actually walk behind. In the north is Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, and majestic Goðafoss, the ‘Waterfall of the Gods.’ In the Westfjords is Dynjandi, cited by some Icelanders as the country’s most beautiful waterfall.

There are at least 30 active and extinct volcanoes in Iceland. Perhaps the most famous is Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010 and caused a major disruption in air travel across parts of Europe for a week. Hekla, an easy 90-minute drive east of Reykjavik, last erupted in 2000 and used to do so regularly every decade. In West Iceland, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, is stunning Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano that last erupted around 200 AD. Its claim to fame is courtesy of the author Jules Verne. In his 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, he placed the entrance of a passage leading to Earth’s center on Snæfellsjökull.

It’s magical to walk behind Seljalandsfoss, one of the best-known and most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
The Geysir Hot Spring Area includes Strokkur, a geyser that shoots water 100 feet (30 metres) into the air every few minutes. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

One benefit of so many volcanoes on the island are the fascinating fields of frozen lava. One of the most amazing is the jagged Dimmuborgir ‘Dark Castles’ lava field in northern Iceland. Created by eruptions 2,300 years ago, this fairy-tale-like lava sculpture park features bizarre rock formations and is an absolute must see on any Iceland trip.

Volcanoes also contribute to numerous steaming geothermal landscapes. In the north near Lake Mývatn, the Námafjall (Hverir) Geothermal Area is full of smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pots. The landscape is a colorful blend of minerals, including sulfur, deposited by the geothermal waters. Thanks to the sulfur, the area’s rotten-egg smell is unmistakable. On the south coast near Reykjavik lies Seltún, another equally colorful and equally smelly geothermal area.

Farther to the east along Iceland’s south shore is the little town of Vik and Reynisfjara—a black sand beach once described as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, and the only cold-water beach so designated. Flanked by enormous, multi-sided basalt stacks, with mist rising from the crashing waves of the north Atlantic, this beach is a unique site, even for Iceland.

To the west of Reykjavik is the pretty waterfall Hraunfossar. Its name means ‘Lava Falls,’ because the water emerges from beneath a lava field and cascades into the river below. Farther west is Kirkjufell, a symmetrical peak known as ‘The Lonely Mountain.’ It’s thought to be the most photographed mountain in Iceland, thanks in part to the beautiful nearby waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss. One of the more remote and seldom visited regions of Iceland is the Westfjords, where the scenery is stunning but roads and visitors are few.

No description of Iceland would be complete without mention of Reykjavik. The older, central portion of the island’s capital is easily walkable. Here you’ll find numerous museums, art galleries, public art, and Harpa, the city’s stunning concert hall. If nightlife is your thing, Icelanders know how to party on Friday and Saturday nights, but the action doesn’t usually start until after midnight.

The debris-filled toe of Mýrdalsjökull, a glacier in southern Iceland, is easily accessible to visitors. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Staying at dark-sky countryside hotels means we can simply step outside our rooms to enjoy the northern lights. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Reynisfjara, a black sand beach near the village of Vík, is flanked by an enormous, multi-sided stack of basalt rock. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Iceland’s Northern Lights

Witnessing a display of the aurora borealis is high on many people’s bucket list, but to see them you need to be in the far north, and there’s no better place to be than Iceland. All prime aurora-viewing locations lie beneath a narrow, invisible doughnut-shaped region in the sky called the auroral oval. Iceland sits directly beneath this oval, making it one of the best places to catch sight of the northern lights, but be aware that the aurora is not visible during the summer months due to Iceland’s perpetual daylight.

During our Iceland excursions we stay primarily at hotels far from city lights, with easy access from our rooms to outside. This makes it very convenient for northern-lights watching at your leisure. Our trip astronomer is always with us to explain the aurora, answer your questions, and help you get great photographs of these celestial lights.

If you’re planning an Iceland holiday that includes seeing the aurora, keep in mind that the northern lights are almost as unpredictable as the Icelandic weather. There is no guarantee they’ll appear for you, or that the weather will cooperate. So it’s often said: Go for the scenery, hope for the lights. And the spectacular scenery in Iceland is well worth the journey.

The Sun Voyager sculpture on Reykjavík’s waterfront resembles a Viking longship. But its creator, Icelandic sculptor Jon Gunnar Arnason, calls it a dreamboat or an ode to the Sun. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Experience Iceland with TravelQuest

Our trips to Iceland are unlike most other aurora tours. While we devote one or two days to visiting the sights in and around Reykjavik, most of our time is spent in the Icelandic countryside. On occasion we travel to the north and west of Iceland, and even into the Westfjords, where we’re far from the tourist crowds and often have the scenic vistas all to ourselves.

On our travels, we explore many of the locations mentioned earlier, but we also head off the beaten path and journey to picturesque, out-of-the-way spots known only to our amazing local Icelandic guide. We use a Highland bus, so we can go off-road and cross rivers to reach the island’s stunning interior (weather permitting), a region you can’t get to in a regular car. Of course there are plenty of photo stops; we’re not just driving from one site to another. Besides, the entire countryside is amazingly photogenic.

Along the way, our guide describes Icelandic history (Vikings, their sagas, and more), tells stories about the trolls and elves (don’t upset them!), and even helps us spot some of the trolls living in various lava fields. Her extensive knowledge of the country and its people is unsurpassed, perhaps because she has been to every locale, popular or remote, on the island.

If traveling to Iceland and seeing the northern lights are on your must-see list, why not combine the two into one amazing Iceland trip. Contact us to learn about our next Iceland excursion to this island of fire, ice, and the northern lights.

Header image by Paul Deans/TQ