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An island born from violent volcanic activity more than 16 million years ago, Iceland’s rugged natural beauty has become globally synonymous with adventurous travelers in search of an off-the-beaten-path holiday. And indeed Iceland’s landscape rewards the curious and intrepid, with all roads and trails seemingly leading toward yet another spectacular Arctic lagoon, geyser, black sand beach, jagged lava field, steaming hot spring, verdant valley, or spiraling mountain top to explore (often without another soul in sight). In winter the dazzling Northern Lights flicker and shimmer overhead, and in summer days stretch without end.
With so much natural beauty around, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the capital city of Reykjavík. Host to one of Europe’s most vibrant art and design hubs, Reykjavík’s dining and nightlife scenes play prominently in the lives of locals and visitors alike. And of course, when you’ve hiked too far or danced too much, geothermal-heated milky-blue pools await to soothe sore muscles back to health.
The largest airport in Iceland, Keflavík International Airport (KEF), is located about 45 minutes’ drive from the capital city of Reykjavík and has been developed considerably in the last several years to accommodate the influx of international travelers seeking the Icelandic experience. Taxis and an affordable flybus service are available just outside the arrivals terminal, with car rentals across from the P2 parking area. Renting a car is advisable, with many of Iceland’s unique sights requiring long drives along unfrequented paths, including unpaved roads. Just be sure to abide by the 56 miles per hour speed limit across the country, as traffic is monitored by patrol and camera.
Iceland’s primary seasons of summer and winter offer diametrically different but equally stunning experiences strongly influenced by its proximity to the Arctic Circle. In summer, daylight lingers for up to 24 hours, a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon known as the midnight sun, offering visitors the unusual opportunity to experience neverending daylight around the clock (peaking in June), with numerous agencies offering guided hikes and whale-watching tours illuminated by the nighttime sun. The summer months are also optimal for investigating the island’s diverse and unique ecosystems — vivid woodlands, pristine ice-blue lakes, craggy peaks, moss-covered coastline, and majestic waterfalls.
In winter the days become shorter and the temperatures dip considerably, requiring layered attire. Yet many will tell you Iceland in winter is the best time to visit, with fewer travelers around, inviting an unforgettable sense of solitary silence, the world muffled to a memory by the pristine white snow that covers the landscape. It’s also the season to catch the spectacular Northern Lights.
Also known as Feather River Canyon, a coat of emerald moss covers almost every inch of this remarkable scar across the South Coast destination during summer months. Created by thousands of years of streaming deep-blue glacial water cutting through dark bedrock, the resulting ravishing ravine is popular with hikers and photographers. If you experience a certain sense of familiarity here, it may be because you’ve seen it as the backdrop in a very famous cable network show set within an imaginary realm of fire and ice.
With 10 kilometers of golden red-tinged sands to explore during low tide, Rauðasandur Beach is a beachcombing paradise of epic proportions. Known for its red sand and tranquil remoteness, this is a place where migrating whales can be spotted offshore alongside the occasional whale bones onshore. Be prepared to drive carefully along a steep and narrow gravel road to the beach, one requiring constant attention and slow speeds.
If peace and quiet rank high on your list and you identify as a capable backcountry backpacker, this nature reserve offers the opportunity to experience a section of Iceland left mostly untouched by human habitation for the last 70 years. Home to the country’s largest colony of Arctic foxes, alongside a unique abundance of endemic flora and fauna, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve’s ecosystem is popular with birders and nature photographers. Camping gear and proper attire are required before entering, as there are no shops available in Hornstrandir.