Metro Weekly

Northern Exposure: Planning a trip to Iceland

Iceland offers a truly original and enthralling experience for those seeking a different adventure

Iceland Night Road - Photo: Andrés Nieto Porras

Iceland Night Road – Photo: Andrés Nieto Porras

It’s a time-pressed vacationer’s well-known dilemma: finding a destination that is easy to reach, yet feels like it is a million miles away. If you are an East Coaster looking for a short but fascinating break this fall or winter, your answer could be a trip north to Iceland.

This small island, just south of the Arctic Circle, sits between two oceans (Atlantic and Arctic) and on the divide of two continental plates (North American and Eurasian). Not surprisingly, it is volcanically active and topographically fascinating.

It also occasionally makes the news, such as when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and disrupted air traffic across Europe in 2010 or, almost as explosively, when Beyonce and Jay Z stopped by for a visit last year.

For the lower-profile, if equally intrigued visitor, this exciting geologic and geographic destination makes for amazing natural experiences with phenomenal variety — many of which can be enjoyed in the space of a few days. Not only are there the (mostly calm) volcanos, but with little more than a modicum of effort you can expect to discover or explore lava fields, breath-taking glaciers, green valleys, roaring rivers, immense waterfalls, bubbling geysers, natural hot springs and even black-sanded beaches.

And that’s what makes Iceland so unique: it’s like visiting another planet.

Indeed, it is this “other-worldliness” that has frequently caught the attention of location scouts. Films such as Thor: The Dark World, Interstellar, Prometheus and Star Wars: the Force Awakens, among many others, all filmed scenes in the country.

So how to plan a trip? Being a small country with a small population centered mostly in and around the capital of Reykjavik, this is a peaceful, largely rural place. The roads are long, often empty outside the city, and the driving is on the right-hand side of the road. Put simply, if you are a reasonably travelled individual, you will find Iceland eminently manageable as foreign countries go — and you can expect to have as much or as little autonomy as you like.

It is quite possible, for example, to fly into the main international airport of Keflavik on a red-eye, get some shut-eye at an airport hotel and then rent a car in which spend a week exploring the country by road and inn at your own do-it-yourself pace. Alternatively, you can base yourself at a comfortable hotel in Reykjavik, enjoy the city’s Nordically-hip scene and take the odd bus tour out to the major attractions such as the Blue Lagoon, a hot-spring-cum-spa experience. Or, if you are the outward bound sort, you can arrange a jeep or snowmobile trip to see glaciers or volcanoes. In other words, if you are in an Iceland frame of mind, there is pretty much something for everyone.

As with any travel prep, start by perusing the country’s official visitor site, the usual travel guides, and have a look at Trip Advisor. Then it’s all about your budget, time, and expectations.

Having said that, it is also worth considering the season when you plan your trip. Despite its location, Iceland has a temperate climate with cool summers and winters that are surprisingly bearable. Summer is a great time for hiking and pony trekking and it is just cool enough in the mornings to make a swim in a hot spring magically misty. But many save their travel for September through April when the Northern Lights can often be spectacularly visible from many parts of the country. Road trips are easier in spring and summer when there are no snow storms to contend with, but the winter months offer their own spectacular treats and vistas.

Getting to Iceland is another of its advantages. Flights from the D.C. area are about five hours, give or take, with a slightly longer return trip. Icelandair offers daily service out of Dulles International and for those tired of the cattle-car experience, their smaller planes, eclectic viewing options and Icelandic beer can make for a nice change from the usual.

It’s worth noting that to encourage tourism, Icelandair does not charge extra for up to seven days’ layover in-country between flights — so consider a stopover if you are heading to Europe. You might also want to try out the new discount Icelandic airline WOW, which now flies out of BWI on certain days of the week.

Another travelling plus, especially for those going solo, is Reykjavik International Airport. It’s a small, busy hub with a light and airy Nordic style and some interesting shops. It’s not the worst place to browse, have a drink or sit and read a Kindle during those inevitable post-security hours.

As for the people of Iceland — if one can generalize — they are friendly, if not overbearingly so, and quietly dedicated to helping their visitors. Interestingly, tipping is expected only for exceptional assistance, not the usual bag-carrying and restaurant service. Tourism is a big deal for Iceland’s economy and this is reflected in the cheerful efforts online and in person to make the country’s unique offerings easy to research, navigate and enjoy.

Things to bear in mind include the exchange rate (Iceland is not cheap), the weather (winter can bring storms, summer a cold rain), the wilderness (unmarked hot springs may scald, you can fall into rivers and off mountains), the roads (signs can be incomprehensible, drinking and driving don’t mix), and your street smarts (the crime rate is very low but not non-existent). In other words: read up and then use your common sense.

So if you find yourself looking for a truly original and enthralling experience that won’t break the time bank, consider the land of the midnight sun.

For more information about Iceland, visit iceland.is.

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