I was pregnant on my most recent trip to Iceland. I wanted the trip to be active – hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking – and the private guide I was with took such great care and caution. The level of activity was tailored to ensure I was always at ease and safe. Before my daughter was born, I really wanted to experience things like going kayaking in fjords near the Arctic Circle and exploring Thórsmörk Valley – literally the Valley of Thor – which is an incredibly beautiful hiker’s paradise around the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
My private guide had taken me to this secret waterfall she knew that’s part of this jaw-dropping volcanic scenery in Thórsmörk and it was right then that I felt my baby kick for the very first time! Needless to say, we took a picture to commemorate the occasion. Whenever I look at it, it brings me right back to that perfect moment.
Thanks to travel like this, I’ve developed a real personal connection with Iceland.
But the first time I went there, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was the “Land of Fire and Ice” and, thanks to all the photographers who fill up my Instagram feed with shots of volcanoes, glaciers, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, I knew Iceland’s beauty was undeniable, but I couldn’t help feeling it looked cold and stark.
I learned photos don’t do Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes justice. You need to experience its splendor with all your senses. It’s so rugged and varied you’ll feel adventurous no matter what level of activity you’re comfortable with. In fact, with the travel restrictions in place these days, I’ve been reliving Iceland’s thrilling feeling through movies like Tree of Life by Terrence Malick and HBO’s Game of Thrones. My top choice by far is watching Under an Arctic Sky by Chris Burkard. It follows three surfers who travel around Iceland’s north coast. Seeing the unpredictable weather, the incredible landscape, and the majestic Northern Lights takes me right back.
Another thing you quickly discover is that the charm and friendliness of the people also melts away any preconceived notions of “cold” you might have. The sense of community they create really makes you feel at home. The fact that no one uses surnames adds to this communal feeling. Everyone is addressed by their first name only, no titles or last names – whether you’re a teacher, a guest, or even the president. Their informality quickly makes you feel like you belong.
While Reykjavik, the capital, is a wonderful and quirky city that’s full of culture, history, and amazing food, don’t forget that one of the biggest draws is the Northern Lights. It’s one of those things people say you “must-see” that you absolutely do need to see. My first time I got outside of Reykjavik and avoided the Northern Lights bus tours. Instead, I stayed in the countryside, far from light pollution, for a way better viewing experience. It’s these small towns that I Iove to explore and where I find unique new experiences every time I visit. Some of my favorites are Siglufjörður, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and Westfjords. And honestly, heading to the town pub in these places and talking with the locals has almost always been just as memorable as seeing the Northern Lights.
Above all, what I wasn’t expecting the first time I went, was the reason why I would ultimately fall in love with this island. As I’ve said, the otherworldly landscapes, charming people, and unique flavors are all enchanting. But in talking to the locals I fell deeply in love with the myths and legends they talked about, and how those stories are a still active part of how they live today. Trolls and giants still mean something to everyone, as does perhaps my favorite legend – the 13 Yule Lads (or elves) that visit children in the days leading up to Christmas Day.
I can’t wait to tell this story to my daughter as soon as she is old enough. After all, I feel like it’s a story that, like Iceland itself, is already a part of her.
5 Ways to Virtually Travel Iceland
An outsider’s perspective is sometimes a wonderfully thorough exploration into a country. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss is about a British woman who moves to Reykjavik with her family and provides a fascinating look at Icelandic culture.
There are many simple dishes to try and make but if you’re looking for something quick to taste you should try Skyr. This type of yogurt is a national favorite and is great topped with berries in the morning.
Reyka Vodka is one of the world’s first ‘green’ vodkas made from glacial water and distilled with geothermal energy. It makes for some invigorating cocktails.
If you’re looking to see Iceland’s beauty through your screen then check out Under an Arctic Sky by Chris Burkard, you’ll see much more than what a sci-fi film might show.
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