Globe Trotting

World's hottest travel destination: Embrace Iceland's wild, weird and wonderful culture

The world's hottest destination: Embrace Iceland's weird and wonderful

Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 hikers on Falljökull Glacier, Vatnajökull National Park
Hikers on Falljökull Glacier, Vatnajökull National Park. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Bruarfoss 1
A view of Bruarfoss Waterfall. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Puffin
A Puffin spotted among the rocks. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Sun Voyager sculpture, Reykjavík
Sun Voyager sculpture, Reykjavík. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Dynjandi Falls (photo credit-Linda Gaines)
Dynjandi Falls. Photo by Linda Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Beach at Reynisdrangur, Vik
A beach at Reynisdrangur, Vik. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Public art & water fowl of Reykjavik
Public art and water fowl of Reykjavik. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Puffins
More Puffins in their natural habitat. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 hikers on Falljökull Glacier, Vatnajökull National Park
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Bruarfoss 1
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Puffin
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Sun Voyager sculpture, Reykjavík
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Dynjandi Falls (photo credit-Linda Gaines)
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Beach at Reynisdrangur, Vik
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Public art & water fowl of Reykjavik
Tarra Gaines Iceland December 2014 Puffins

Years ago when composing a list of new lands to visit, I decided it would be most efficient to start with actual lands, places with land names. Having seen the lands of Eng, Ire, and Switzer in the past, in 2014 I made Iceland my vacation destination.

If you too are looking for a special land for traveling in 2015, may I suggest this ultimate truth-in-naming country, a destination so cool, it's hot enough for Jay Z and Beyoncé. The power couple visited Iceland twice in December — during the Christmas holidays and to celebrate Jay Z's 45th birthday on December 5.

Other travel guides will tell you what to see, but here’s my check list for getting into the spirit of this land of fire and frozen water.

Explore geology, geography and geometry
If land masses were humans, Iceland would be a hormone-addled adolescent whose parents are going through a turbulent separation. The island lies on both the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates causing this teen to sometimes erupt in volcanic temper tantrums so fierce, it shuts down airports across Europe.

To best experience all this glorious geography, rent a car and drive in a circle. Most of Iceland is spanned by one highway, the Ring Road, that traces the coastline as it loops around the country. This geological volatility creates amazing and varied geography in a compact area. Sometimes sea, volcanoes, glaciers, mountains and waterfalls are not hundreds of miles, but mere steps away from each other.

If you’re the type of traveler who likes to get off the beaten path, don’t worry. Route 1 is mostly two-lane and not very beaten; in fact, there are portions that aren’t completely paved. If you’re the type of traveler who wants a direct itinerary, this is also the path for you, as it’s almost impossible to get lost running a ring.

Enjoy Hollywood-induced deja vu
To discover this amazing geology, early in our trip we headed to Thingvellir National Park, where those idiotic enough to dive into the clear, frigid waters of the Silfra Tectonic Fissure, (even in a dry suit, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so cold) can swim between the two continental plates.

Afterward in a futile attempt to warm up, I took a hike along a starkly rocky ridge. Though I knew Thingvellir is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland, I still felt like I was wandering through time, seeing a primal Earth few humans have beheld. But with that sense came another equally powerful feeling that I had walked this rocky path before. Was it memory or past life knowledge?

Then a wise voice inside my head cried out: “Hey, isn’t this the way to the Starks’ crazy aunt’s house on Game of Thrones? OMG, this is totally the way to Lysa Tully’s Moon Door palace."

Iceland’s alien landscapes overwhelm, offering both a feeling of being small yet special, because so few people in the world have seen these visions. Yet, there were several times, standing on beautiful black beaches or triumphantly climbing along the blue and white ice towers of a glacier, when I felt these sights vaguely familiar, probably because J. J. Abrams, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan and even Ben Stiller have also been beguiled by the same visions.

In the past decade, hordes of film crews have invaded Iceland for movies like Thor 2, The Secret Live of Walter Mitty, Prometheus, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Interstellar and Noah. Still nothing beats seeing these “Sci-Fi Landscapes” in real life.

Claim your own waterfall
Iceland supposedly has 10,000 waterfalls and while I lost count at about 100, that number certainly feels true. Every Iceland travel article seems to have a top 10 to see, but I found the best ones are the odd foss (falls) we had to work to see.

I virtually discovered Bruarfoss (Bridge Falls) puttering on Google Maps, but never found exact directions, so when I made it to the area, I wandered aimlessly on foot inside of Iceland’s version of a summer-house gated community until my traveling companions and I stumbled upon the most intense blue falling waters I’ve ever seen. The wandering made the experience all the richer.

Dynjandi, (Thundering One), looking like some giant tiered water cake, took a two hour’s drive on unpaved, snow-covered, fjord roads and even into a one-lane tunnel deep inside a mountain to reach. Neither of these two falls were the biggest or most famous in Iceland, but they were such a journey, I felt like they belonged to me, if only for a few moments.

Embrace the weird
While not its national bird, in my mind Iceland would be best represented by the puffin, which looks like the product of a whimsical night of debauchery between a toucan and a penguin. The puffin might seem comical hopping around on land, but it’s stunning in the air. The whole country seems filled with such dichotomies and beautiful weirdness.

In Iceland you can bathe in the therapeutic waters of one of the most famous spas in Europe, The Blue Lagoon, when, technically from an engineering stand point, you are in actuality soaking in power plant waste water.In Iceland you can ride around on a tiny horse, find reindeer grazing near the seashore, and almost get in a car crash with a flying swan. I had no idea swans flew. I though they just floated in ponds.

The smallest of towns, which are most towns in a country of only 322,000 people, have at least one communal geothermal heated pool and a gas station selling some reasonably good pizza.

There’s even better pizza and pools in the capitol, Reykjavik, a city full of bustling night life, amazing public art and architecture guarded by street armies of lazy cats in a peace treaty with the air force of water fowl blanketing every watery surface. 

This land might be icy, but its people and vast wilderness will send you home with fiery memories to keep you warm for years to come.