Why you should care
Because the Iceland you know? There’s a better one.
Steamy geothermal geysers, otherworldly glaciers streaked with volcanic ash and promises of puffins on black sand beaches: Yes, like many who’ve recently visited the rugged terrain of Iceland, I was lured by a cheap flight to elsewhere in Europe, with a brief stopover in Björk’s backyard.
As more folks flock to this Nordic island country for a quick getaway, with tourism having more than doubled since 2010 — to nearly 1.3 million visitors in 2015 — so too have the rushed bus tours that don’t always let you really explore. “Part of the attraction in Iceland has been you can go into nature and almost see no one,” says Aron Hinriksson, a pastor from the village of Selfoss (population: 6,934) who’s also an Airbnb host and occasional tour guide. “It’s a bit sad how most people go directly to the main touristic places.”
Which is why if you really want to satiate your quest for solitude, you’ll ditch the guided itinerary, rent your own wheels and soak in sites as long as soulfully necessary. Just don’t miss any of these oft-overlooked gems.
Every self-respecting selfie addict stops at Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls. The 60-meter-high attraction has a trail that wraps all the way around it. Breathtaking, certainly, but head left for about a kilometer from the main trail and you’ll come across Gljúfurárfoss — aka Gljúfrabúi, or “gorge dweller.” Most visitors forgo this side walk or call it a day once they’ve glimpsed parts of Gljúfurárfoss between a narrow gorge. For a closer look, “you have to tiptoe on rocks and probably get a little bit wet,” says Hinriksson. “It’s definitely worth it.” Indeed, the experience reminded me of the awe-inspiring walk through the Siq, which gradually reveals a full view of the Treasury in Petra, Jordan.
This rocky, 120-meter-high promontory is about a half-hour drive from where Game of Thrones junkies pay pilgrimage, at the black sand beach in Vík. Following up on a suggestion from Ármann Ragnar Ægisson, a glacier-walking guide from Extreme Iceland, I braved the steep, unpaved road after approaching Dyrhólaey’s base. The stunning view was even better than he described: craggy cliffs, (more) black sand beaches and the smack-your-face chill from the North Atlantic.
Just make sure you’re driving a 4x4, or park your car and hoof it uphill. (I foolishly risked popping the tires on my tiny Honda Civic.) But regrets? Zero. There’s a quaint lighthouse with a trail where you may spot seabirds and puffins. Avoid visiting during May and June, locals warn, when the area is sometimes closed for bird-nesting season.
The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, one of Iceland’s most visited destinations, is an obvious pit stop. But it’s far more expensive (around US$50–$500) than other hot pools and loathed by some locals for having turned into a total tourist trap. (Blue Lagoon didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
For a much quieter natural hot spring, without the freezie-blue color, try Gamla Laugin. Also known as the Secret Lagoon, it costs less than $30. I shared it with just a few people early one chilly April morning. It heats up to 40 degrees Celsius, with some pockets that feel much hotter than others. Sitting in the small village of Flúðir, “it’s out in the country, so there’s less people and a very nice experience,” says Hinriksson.
Among the country’s first swimming pools, built back in 1891, Gamla Laugin still has old changing rooms on-site from 1915. Don’t worry, though: When you need to strip down to your birthday suit and soap up, as is the custom before entering Icelandic pools (with a bathing suit), there’s a shiny new changing facility.
- Flies from/to: 16 North American destinations
- Flies from/to: 26 European destinations, including Iceland
- Iceland stopover: Only works up to seven nights, but you don’t have to buy a round-trip flight.
- WOW air
- Flies from/to: 10 North American destinations
- Flies from/to: 21 European destinations, including Iceland. Flights from/to Israel launch in September.
- Iceland stopover: No limit on your stay, but you’ll need to buy a round-trip flight.