Do you have the courage to descend into an extinct volcano or walk behind a waterfall falling 200 feet from a glacier? Do you have the patience to wait for that perfect photo of a geyser shooting boiling water 100 feet into the air? These are just a few of the exciting experiences that wait for you in Iceland.
Known as the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland is a land of contrasts. A land of rugged beauty, volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls seem to be around every bend. In Iceland, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are moving apart, it is possible to stand with one foot in Europe and the other in North America.
Being a small island, with careful planning you can see many places of interest in a short time. If you are feeling adventurous you can hire a car, plan your own tours, and drive around Iceland on the Ring Road in around seven to 10 days.
The majority of tourists see Iceland as part of a guided tour group. Not fans of huge bus trips, my husband and I chose small tour companies who had live commentary, not recorded.
- Climb Inside a Volcano
- Basalt Pillars at Reynisfjara
- Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara
- Sólheimajökull Glacier–Home of the Sun Glacier
- Skogafoss–The Forest Waterfall
- Walking Behind Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
- Son of Geysir
- Gulfoss–The Golden Falls
- Snorkeling at Silfra
- Viking World Museum
- Walk the Rainbow Road to the Blue Church in Seydisfjordur
- Heimaey–Westman Islands
- Herjólfur's Farmhouse
Climb Inside a Volcano
Yes, you can go inside a volcano!
Iceland is on a volcanic hot spot with an eruption every three to four years. However, the Þríhnúkagígur volcano has not erupted for over 4000 years. As you descend 400 feet into the magma chamber, you enter a mysterious cavern where the lava, or molten rock, has inexplicably disappeared leaving an empty space more than the height of the Statue of Liberty.
You start the day with a 1.8-mile hike to the volcano Base Camp where you are fitted with safety equipment. Descending into the depths of a volcano in an open elevator cage is an unforgettable experience of a lifetime. You have about 40 minutes to explore the flood-lit kaleidoscopic rock walls.
Looking up, you are almost entirely enclosed except for the entry hole.
When you leave the cavern, you return to Base Camp for a meal of traditional Icelandic lamb soup and the 1.8-mile return trek.
Due to weather conditions, the volcano is only available for tourists from May 10 to October 31 each year.
For our other two one-day tours we chose Your Day Tours, a small family-run tour company that was voted #5 Day Trip in the world by the Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice 2019 Award for their South Coast tour.
Basalt Pillars at Reynisfjara
The unusual geological phenomenon of hexagonal basalt columns, formed during the cooling of magma from a volcanic eruption, is a great photo opportunity, and who can resist a climb?
Reynisfjara vertical basalt pillars are so spectacular they were chosen as one of the many Iceland filming locations for Game of Thrones.
Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara
A short walk from the basalt pillars is the black sand beach. National Geographic ranks Reynisfjara among the top 10 non-tropical beaches to visit in the world.
Three Reynisfjara basalt sea stacks formed by the erosion of black volcanic rocks just off the shore dominate the dark volcanic sand. Legend has it that they were formed when three trolls were set in stone by early morning sunlight.
Although calm, the water can be unexpectedly treacherous, and tourists are warned to be cautious.
Sólheimajökull Glacier–Home of the Sun Glacier
A 15-minute walk takes you to the easily-accessible Sólheimajökull, one of the most famous glaciers in Iceland. The more adventurous tourist can take a guided walk on the ice.
Sadly, this glacier is in retreat, receding annually by the length of a swimming pool, melting due to climate change.
Skogafoss–The Forest Waterfall
One of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland, Skogafoss has so much mist that there is always a rainbow on sunny days. The waterfall is best seen in the afternoon when the weather is clearer and the crowds from the large tour buses have dispersed.
You can also climb the steep staircase to an observation deck above the waterfall.
Walking Behind Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
Warning: You will get wet!
Fine, icy spray wafts everywhere as you walk along a path behind the cascading waterfall. It’s so exhilarating! Generating thunderous noise, the water cascades down the mountain then free falls in front of the cave creating a curtain of water.
The water for this 200-foot fall originates from the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull that last erupted in 2010. Eyjafjallajökull has been nicknamed E15 because no one other than Icelanders can pronounce it!
Multiple rainbows sparkle in the mist. You can either walk in and back out the same entrance or continue to the far more challenging ascent over slippery boulders. Fortunately, there is a thick, knotted rope you can use to haul yourself up.
Son of Geysir
Excitement builds as the crowd clusters around the safety ropes waiting for Son of Geysir to spurt its boiling water up to 100 feet into the air. The eruption lasts less than a minute, so if you miss your perfect photo, be patient. It will happen again in six or seven minutes.
7.5 miles from Geysir is Faxi, yet another huge waterfall with millions of gallons of water gushing downstream. Beside the Faxi waterfall, there are salmon steps built to allow the salmon to bypass the waterfall and follow their natural instinct to leap upstream to spawn further up the river.
Salmon fishing is a favorite sport in Iceland.
Gulfoss–The Golden Falls
Usually included in all Golden Circle tours, Gulfoss is approximately two hours’ drive from Reykjavik. Actually two waterfalls in quick succession, Gulfoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland.
Water cascades down 100 feet in two main drops.
Snorkeling at Silfra
Þingvellir National Park was the site of the world’s first parliament, the Alþing (Althing), from the 10th to 18th centuries. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. Situated in an active volcanic area, it is a rift valley created by the separation of two tectonic plates.
Just 30 miles from Reykjavik, it covers 90 square miles. The Silfra fissure was caused by earthquakes in 1789 and was filled by spring water from underground glacial meltwater.
Decked out in dry suits, tourists can experience the ultimate bucket list snorkeling experience! Iceland is the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two continental plates. With the purest of spring water being filtered through porous rocks at an average temperature of 35 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit, visibility is around 330 feet which far exceeds other renowned snorkeling areas around the world.
Suitably qualified divers can also book a unique diving experience.
Viking World Museum
Dominant in the Viking World Museum is a huge replica of a Viking longship suspended from the ceiling.
You can walk through a diorama of Viking mythology or learn the seafaring history of exploration by the Vikings and the Norse settlement of Iceland. In the restaurant, you can warm up with traditional Icelandic lamb soup, a variety of which is available almost everywhere you go.
Walk the Rainbow Road to the Blue Church in Seydisfjordur
The character-filled village of Seydisfjordur is said to have the best-preserved historic wooden buildings in Iceland. From the many Icelandic craft shops and warm inviting cafés, you can follow the Rainbow Road to one of the most recognized landmarks in Iceland, the Blue Church.
First built in 1882, it has an eventful history, being moved four times to its final location in Seydisfjordur in 1920. It was damaged by fire in 1989. Now a pristine example of Icelandic wooden craftsmanship, it is popular with tourists and is a venue for classical concerts in summer.
Circumnavigating Iceland in a cruise ship allows you to visit many diverse coastal towns in about seven to 10 days. These cruises are usually only available in summer. You can expect days with maximum temperatures as low as 43 F—and they call this summer!
Traveling in a small cruise ship, in our case Windstar’s Star Breeze, gives you the advantage of being able to go where large ships can’t. The narrow waterways at the entrance to Heimaey require skillful maneuvering even in calm weather.
The high cliffs tower over you on both sides as the ship slowly edges its way into the harbor. The Westman Islands are home to the largest colony of puffins in the world, soaring high above the rugged mountains.
The valley of Herjólfsdalurwas excavated in 1970; uncovered remains are believed to be from the 9th century, a century older than historical records in Iceland. Surprisingly spacious, you can walk into the reconstructed turf-covered buildings to get the feel of how it must have been 12 centuries ago in Iceland.
The farmhouse is included in some tours of Heimaey in the Westman Islands. Entry is free.
Special to BookCottages.com by Kerrie-Anne Riles.