Choosing a destination for a family vacation can involve tough negotiations and strategic compromises. Are history, art, and culture the priority? Or perhaps sightseeing, outdoor adventures, and natural phenomenon? Maybe tasty and varied food is near the top of the list.
When it comes to satisfying almost everyone, Iceland is a great way to meet halfway — both figuratively and literally.
About a 71/2-hour flight from SeaTac Airport, this rugged Nordic country in the North Atlantic has long been a favorite stop for airplanes as they soared across the pond.
“Icelandair has been encouraging passengers to stop over in Iceland since the ’60s, and has been known as a pioneer in stopping over,” said Michael Raucheisen, the marketing and communications coordinator for Icelandair. “Back then, the planes had to land in Iceland for a refueling stop. It only made sense for travelers to take advantage of the extra time in the beautiful country of Iceland and explore on their way to Europe.”
Icelandair has taken advantage of that history to market a competitively priced round-trip ticket to Europe with the ability to stop over in Iceland for up to seven nights at no additional airfare.
“Then in 2014, Icelandair started a campaign called #MyStopover to showcase the options of what travelers can do while on a stopover, and for them to share their pictures and stories,” Raucheisen said.
The campaign was a smashing success, with subsequent waves of tourists coming to this island country after the first wave returned with upbeat reports.
That’s how my husband and I and our two teenage daughters ended up hearing about Iceland’s free stopover and decided to spend three nights in Reykjavik on our way to the continent.
First, Some History
Celtic monks and Norse Vikings happened upon Iceland many centuries ago, with the Vikings settling the land and naming it. (Greenland was discovered later. Too bad the name Iceland was already taken, because there’s more ice in Greenland and more green in Iceland.)
In this dramatic, remote place, the world’s first parliament, the Althing, was established in 930 A.D. Each summer, a judiciary and law-making body of chieftains met at the huge natural rock wall, located in the valley of Thingvellir, to vote on laws and try important cases. The striking backdrop provided a sense of authority, an easy place to find, and a natural acoustic system. While there, they and their families would exchange wares, catch up on news, and scope out potential marriage partners.
In 1262, Iceland became subject to Norway and then in 1397 to Denmark, which imposed a strict trade monopoly. It wasn’t until after two World Wars that Iceland was declared independent, on June 17, 1944.
Arriving on Independence Day
Thankfully, before we arrived on June 17, 2016, we realized we’d be landing on a national holiday. We weren’t too sure if that would somehow impede our bus ride from Keflavik International Airport, some 30 miles to Reykjavik. No need for concern; tourism is one of the country’s top three industries, and transportation options abounded. However, on the plus side of coming on June 17, once we had settled into our Airbnb apartment and walked into town, we stumbled upon an impressive Independence Day celebration complete with formal ceremony, parade, and street fair.
Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is the northernmost capital in the world and is powered exclusively by geothermal power. The city boosts a beautiful, compact walkable downtown that is a compelling combination of coastal town and urban chic, with a lively arts community; plenty of shops; and just about any kind of food you can imagine, including traditional Icelandic fare.
Several world-class museums elucidate Iceland’s history, and the shimmering Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center, located on the working port, is a spectacular structure that houses the country’s Grammy-nominated symphony orchestra, as well as The Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavik Big Band.
Playing several times a week, two popular long-running shows for tourists are The Icelandic Sagas: The Greatest Hits and How to become Icelandic in 60 Minutes. The second promises to teach you to “walk, talk and behave like a regular Icelander.”
A 244-foot-tall geyser-inspired Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja sits on a hill overlooking the downtown, providing a stunning reference point. For a few Icelandic kroner, one can take an elevator up to survey the city, with its brightly colored buildings and ocean outlook. Music lovers will also be amazed at the gargantuan pipe organ in the sanctuary, featuring 72 stops, 102 ranks, and 5,275 pipes.
Our last day in town was a Sunday, so we were able to attend a service inside the elegant sanctuary and were treated to a mini concert afterward by an organ prodigy who worked up a sweat as his fingers flew over the keyboards and feet danced on the pedals.
Later that last day, we took a walking tour of the city with a jolly informative Icelandic guide whose English was perfect. As you might imagine, Icelandic, which is derived from Old Norse, isn’t a popular language off the island. So children begin learning English and other languages quite young. Almost everyone speaks English well, and all tourist information is available in English.
The Golden Circle
Sandwiched between our two days exploring Reykjavik, we ventured out to see The Golden Circle. In researching our trip, just about everyone we talked to and everything we read advised making The Golden Circle a priority on a first visit to Iceland. They all were right.
So we rented a car and devoted an entire day to seeing the three major natural attractions, which are easily found along a loop of highway that begins and ends in Reykjavik — Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
The driving was easy with little traffic. The roads are well-constructed but a bit narrow with skimpy shoulders at times and often a steep drop. For the four of us, renting a car offered the freedom and price point we were after. However, I’m not sure it’d be my first choice in stormy or icy conditions. A myriad of tour companies offers to escort tourists in everything from jeeps and ATVs to large buses. Whatever your ride, you won’t have gained a good taste of Iceland without seeing The Golden Circle.
Thingveiller National Park spans an area where two tectonic plates meet, creating many fissures and cracks in the earth. A geologist’s dream, Iceland is believed to be the only place in the world where the effects of two major tectonic plates drifting apart can easily be observed above sea level. Because of “continental drift,” you can actually walk in a crack between the North American and Eurasian plates, straddling two continents in an easy stroll. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this park contains the immense ridge wall of rock that was the site of world’s first parliament, the Althing, mentioned earlier.
Geysir Geothermal Park, featuring Strokkur (“the churn”), attracts camera-wielding crowds as the geyser erupts every 6 to 10 minutes in a white column of boiling water shooting as high as 100 feet. While Strokkur takes the center ring, the side shows along a short path include hissing steam vents, bubbling hot springs and mud pots belching various colors. The English word “geyser” comes from the park’s namesake Geysir (“Gusher”) that has been dormant since 1916. However, in the clearly very active geothermal area, who knows when it or a new attraction will appear.
Gullfoss, Icelandic for “golden waterfall,” was a surprise. As we neared where the GPS said our destination should be, we could not see or hear any sign of a river or waterfall, just pastures and rolling hills. In faith, we parked in a large parking lot and started down the indicated path and were amazed to find the spectacular two-tiered waterfall fed by Iceland’s second-biggest glacier. (And we had wondered whether we were in the right place!) Difficult to capture in one photo, breathtaking Gullfoss is the largest-volume waterfall in all of Europe. We were lucky to see one of the rainbows that often adorn the double waterfall as the mist sprays across the White River. (On a parental safety note: I found it both refreshing and alarming that a single rope fence and sure-footed good judgment were all that separated the wet rocks of the viewing area and the thundering powers of nature. Fine for our family, but you’d want to have a tight grip on a squirmy little kid.)
In addition to The Golden Circle, Iceland’s largest tourist attraction is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in a lava field. The huge lagoon — a byproduct of a nearby geothermal power plant — is enjoyed by tourists year-round at a toasty 104 degrees. However, both for time and cost consideration, instead of the Blue Lagoon, we opted to experience one of the 170 natural geothermal pools, the Secret Lagoon, located in the village Fludir in The Golden Circle area.
On the way to the lagoon, a herd of Icelandic horses crossed the road in front of us. The woman leading them indicated for us to position our car to block their escape, and we were rewarded by a very close look at this unique breed. The height of a pony, the Icelandic horse has a thick coat, a sturdy build, and two additional unusual gaits.
We quickly visited one of the many strawberry farms and tomato farms for some fresh produce and then dug out our swimsuits for the Secret Lagoon, which we learned was established in 1891 and is considered the oldest swimming pool in Iceland.
The long, long day (the sun didn’t set until 11:45 p.m.) was a bonus that allowed us plenty of time to see everything.
While historically tourists have been attracted to Iceland during the long days of summer, Raucheisen from Icelandair said that the tourist season is expanding. “We have seen a growing number of travelers heading to Iceland in the fall and winter. A big winter attraction is the northern lights.”
Whenever you go, bring a swimsuit, a warm jacket (or better yet, budget to buy a famous Icelandic wool sweater), and a sense of adventure.
“There is so much to do and see in Iceland, which is why we encourage people to stop over and then plan a return trip with Iceland as their final destination,” Raucheisen said.
Home to Huldufolk, Elves, Fairies
The vast and varied dramatic scenery and unpredictable weather in Iceland, when combined with a centuries-old tradition of storytelling, a high literacy rate, and extra-long winter nights, make up the ingredients for something surprising. Just sprinkle in a lively sense of humor and, voila, huldufolk appear.
Huldufolk is the Icelandic word for hidden people, which refers to the elf and fairylike creatures that join Iceland’s 330,000 humans in populating this island country. Reportedly, they range in height from a few inches to human size and have their own homes, often built near rocks or in hillsides. They also play a key role in four of the country’s national celebrations: New Year’s Eve, Thirteenth Night (Jan. 6), Midsummer Night, and Christmas night.
Occasionally over the years, concerned Icelanders have halted or altered building projects, highways, or even the removal of a large rock so as not to disturb where huldufolk are believed to live.
While it usually takes the trained eye of an Iceland native to spy these stealthy elves, tourists may have a chance to catch a glimpse. Thankfully, there are various pictures, books, and souvenirs that can be used as a reference for identification purposes.
Iceland in Hollywood
With its striking landscapes and otherworldly scenery — including rumbling volcanoes, massive lava fields, black sand beaches, endless green meadows, immense glaciers, magnificent waterfalls, bursting geysers, and bubbling hot springs — Iceland has been discovered by Hollywood!
Its various moods and faces star in many science fiction and fantasy movies in the past five years alone, including the recent Star Wars: Rogue One, Jupiter Ascending, Noah, Interstellar, Transformers Age of Extinction, After Earth, The Fifth Estate, Oblivion, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World, and Prometheus. In addition, the popular television show Game of Thrones has filmed certain seasons significantly in Iceland.
Other filming for the silver screen in Iceland includes some older movies, including two James Bond classics, A View to Kill and Die Another Day, as well as Batman Begins, Beowulf & Grendel, Stardust, Hostel Part II ,and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers had the invasion scenes shot in Iceland instead of Iwo Jima to honor those who lost their lives there.
In the movie Thor: The Dark World, Iceland’s black volcanic landscapes were the setting for Svartaltheim. The name “Svartaltheim” is Icelandic and means “black elf world.”