Iceland rests on the edge of the Arctic Circle and sits atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hot spots. Iceland is a mix of magisterial glaciers, bubbling hot springs and rugged fjords. Iceland was the last country to be settled in Europe, when emigrants from Scandinavia and the British Isles first came to live on the island in the ninth and tenth century.
It remains the most sparsely populated country of the continent with less than three inhabitants per square kilometer. Iceland is a progressive, modern society that continuously ranks at the top of measurements for quality of life. Iceland is annually considered to be one of greenest countries on the planet, due in large parts to its vast renewable energy resources.
The local natural wonder that is perhaps most ingrained in the fabric of Icelandic culture is the bounty of geothermal energy, the naturally heated water that powers our lives and heats our homes, baths and pools, public as well as private. And as unlikely as it may sound, Reykjavík sports its own geothermal beach, with white sands and warm ocean water. Iceland is the hiker’s paradise.
More than half of the country lies above 400 meters (1300 feet) and the landscape is extraordinarily diverse, with large areas covered with colorful mountains, lava fields, glaciers, hot springs, lakes and black sands. Iceland is known as one of the best places in the world for birdwatching. A large number of birds make their home along Iceland’s coast, including some of the largest colonies in the world for certain types of sea fowl.
Iceland’s wetlands are also a conducive habitat for many species of birds. Iceland is the perfect location for whale watching. The cold waters off the coast play host to a diverse marine life. The extreme dark of the Icelandic winter has a few perks. Between September and April, Iceland is treated to a magnificent natural display: the phenomenon of aurora borealis, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. This is what we commonly call the Northern Lights.
Vatnajökull National Park, established in 2008, encompasses not only all of Vatnajökull glacier but also extensive surrounding areas, including Skaftafell in the southwest, and Jökulsárgljúfur in the north. The park covers 13% of Iceland, making it one of the largest national parks in Europe.
Þingvellir is the national shrine of Iceland. It is a key location in Icelandic history as the oldest existing parliament in the world first assembled there in 930 AD. Þingvellir has for this reason been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides being a location of historical significance, Þingvellir is also protected as a national park due to its unique geology and natural features.
Undisputedly the main attraction of the National Park is the Snæfellsjökull Glacier—the beautiful magnet of the western peninsula. This active volcano, which stands 1,446 m high, provided the setting for Jules Vernes’ famous Journey to the Center of the Earth.