Iceland is literally a country in the making, a vast volcanic laboratory where mighty forces shape the land and shrink you to an awestruck speck. The country’s natural features eruptions of lava; gushing geysers such as Geysir in The Golden Circle (the original after which all were named); hot springs; tearing fissures and slow, grinding glaciers are so cinematic that at times they seem unreal. Bathe in turquoise pools, stand behind a toppling cascade or walk across a glaring-white icecap to experience the full weirdness of Icelandic nature.
Full country name: republic of Iceland
Area: 103,000 sq ( 39,769 sq mil)
People: 97% Icelanders
Language: The official language is Icelandic; English and Danish are widely spoken
Religion: Lutheran, with a Catholic minority.
GDP: US$6,4 billion
Major industries: Fishing, aquaculture, aluminum smelting & geothermal power
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Germany, Norway, UK, Denmark, Sweden), USA
Visas: Western Europeans and citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and at least two dozen other countries do not require visas. Tourist stays are granted for up to three months, and can be easily extended at local police stations.
Health risks: Hypothermia if trekking
Electricity: 220V, 50 cycles
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
Reykjavík’s mildish climate can rapidly degenerate into heavy rain, biting wind or fog; May, June and July are the driest months of the year. In the north and east, the weather is better. Blizzards and fierce sandstorms occur in the interior deserts and on the coastal sand deltas.
The Icelandic Meteorological Office (902 0600; www.vedur.is/english) provides a daily weather forecast in English.
Mid-June to August is high season, but most highland tours don’t operate until July because of snow. At other times, many tourist facilities outside Reykjavík are closed.
Few places in Iceland have marked walking paths. The Iceland Touring Association, Ferdafelag Islands, Morkin 6, 108 Reykjavik (tel: 568 2533; fax: 568 2535; e-mail: email@example.com) operates walking tours all year round. During winter, these are mostly day or weekend tours, but longer tours are organized during summer.
A number of travel agencies and tour operators can organize trips to Iceland’s glaciers, which cover 11 per cent of the country. Transport is by 4-wheel-drive vehicles, snow cats or – the most popular option – snowmobiles ( also called skidoos).
This is a year-round activity and Iceland’s most popular winter sport.
This is very popular in Iceland since there are many natural and manmade pools such as the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík, heated by geothermal springs (see also Where to Go section). Most towns and cities have outdoor and indoor pools filled with water from natural hot springs
Icleand is still relatively young in geothermal terms and a popular activity is to visit the naturally occurring springs for bathing.
Because of the wide variety of rivers and beautiful scenery to be found in Iceland, river rafting is a very popular activity.
Attractions - Reykjavík
This landmark church, the tallest building in Iceland, dominates the city from its highest point and is visible on a sunny day from up to 10 miles (16km) away. Named after 17th century Icelandic poet, hymn composer and clergyman, Hallrimur Petursson, the church's unusual design represents volcanic basalt columns flanking its towering steeple. It took nearly 40 years to build the edifice, which was finally completed in 1986. In front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, donated to Iceland by the United States.
A favorite and unique attraction close to Reykjavik, about 30 miles (50km) south west of the city, is the man-made geothermal 'Blue Lagoon', set in a lava field, filled with mineral-rich hot water pumped from about a mile below the surface. The lagoon is flanked by a luxurious health spa where visitors come to be pampered and treated for skin ailments like eczema and psoriasis. The lagoon's surreal phosphorescent aquamarine color is caused by the therapeutic ecosystem of algae, silica and minerals in the water.
Iceland's famed Gullfoss (Golden) Falls are justly rated among the most beautiful in the world and make for a popular day trip from Reykjavik. The falls, with their awesome double-cascade, are incredibly powerful which has meant they have come under threat of being utilised as a source of hydro-electricity. Currently, however, the fantastic vista of the falls, shrouded in mist and rainbows, gushing into a canyon on the Hvita River, are safely ensconced in a national park and remain one of the country's top tourist attractions.
The recently refurbished National Museum of Iceland is the best place to become acquainted with the folklore, history and culture of this fascinating nation.