“Why Iceland?” Anyone who has ever been to the world’s youngest landmass has been confronted with this question from those who picture a cold, icy, desolate island that flirts with the Arctic Circle. Somehow, despite having been there many times, I have always been at a loss for words when trying to answer this query. Even with the broadest vocabulary, one would be hard-pressed to find words that can completely describe this amazing country. Imagine slipping into warm, geothermic spas that not only warm your bones but also revitalize your skin. Imagine going spelunking in natural lava caves, where the deepest secrets of our beautiful planet have been frozen in time in a myriad of earth tones. Imagine cruising along to watch whale pods surface for their almost daily photo shoot, or puffins flapping their tiny little wings before landing in the waters around their nesting holes, or gannets dive-bombing for their supper. Imagine breathtaking scenery that has attracted writers and film crews from around the world who draw on the natural beauty of an island that has offered itself up as muse to many storytellers.
Now, imagine, if you will, a strong Viking man overlooking a western Norwegian fjord, his family loading all of their worldly possessions and farm animals onto the family knarr. Their knarr was a ship that would require fewer people to sail while at the same time holding more cargo than the snekkja or drekkar, ships that had sown fear and destruction across the British Isles and a greater part of the European Atlantic coast over the course of the late 8th and early 9th centuries. That Viking was Flóki Vilgerðarson, later nicknamed Raven-Flóki for his use of three ravens to locate what until then had been known as Garðarshólmi (Garðar’s Home), Iceland’s name after Garðar Svavarsson was blown off course on a trip to his wife’s home in the Hebrides. Flóki would have most likely been fidgeting with a sunstone in his hand, going over the rumors he had heard about this mysterious place, not knowing that he would be the first to spend a winter in this desolate island.
Not long after Flóki, blood feuds and taxes would spur Scandinavians to the island that at first had been known as Snæland (Snowland), a name given to it by the first Scandinavian to be blown of course towards the island, a Danish man by the name of Naddodd. The 9th century would culminate in the first recognized settlement of Iceland by Ingólfur Arnarson, who, along with his wife Hallveig and a small band of followers and slaves, would found what would later be known as the city of Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital, and probably one of the safest, friendliest cities one could ever visit. Although it remained farmland until the 18th century, Reykjavík, which translates from Old Norse into “Smoky Bay,” was nevertheless one of the power centers on the island.
From this tiny island, Leif Eiríksson, son of Erik the Red, sailed to what he would call Vinland, a continent whose “discovery” would later be attributed to a certain Christopher Columbus, the latter having made a wrong assumption on his journey to find a shortcut to the spice route, and landed in the Americas just shy of five centuries later. Some say that the stories of the Vikings had come to Christopher Columbus’s attention during his days as a young sailor, and it is even postulated he spent time in and around the town of Grundarfjörður.
These images and stories bounce around in my thoughts as I fly into the Reykjanes Peninsula again, something that always puts me in a good mood. Who wouldn’t be? I almost always remember that question (“Why Iceland?”), and an open-ended answer comes to mind: Why not? Why not visit a land that is noted for its scenery, from geologically rare tuya mountains (extinct subglacial volcanoes), glaciers, and every kind of lava field imaginable, to double rainbows in the light months and Aurora Borealis in the dark ones? Jules Verne’s 1864 novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth saw its protagonists find an entrance into the belly of the Earth at Snæfellsjökull. And who could forget when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano brought European airspace to an almost complete standstill in 2010?
A land over which the Norse god Thor battled the giants from Jötunheim, and Odin completed his ride to find souls for Valhalla, the Asgardian Hall of Heroes. Where Loki schemed and Heimdallr kept an eye over Bifröst, the bridge connecting Asgard to Midgard (or in Norse mythology, Heaven and Earth). Where the struggle of men and gods played out of a land that would later inspire the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, the famous Oxford professor who dreamed up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
A land that, faced with its own economic crisis, saw its people democratically hold their government and bankers responsible, all while remaining independent and working out deals to repay their international creditors. One of the unofficial mottos of Iceland following the economic crisis and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull always brings a smile to my face: “Don’t mess with Iceland; we may not have cash, but we’ve got ash.”
A land with animals whose genetic lines stretch back a millennium (riding my favorite Icelandic horse Sómi at the Skjaldarvík Farm just outside Akureyri is a personal highlight), and whose inhabitants can trace their genealogy just as far back, thanks to the Landnámbók (Book of Settlements). A land where migrating birds find sanctuary, among them the ever-so-cute puffin, but also gannets, oystercatchers, fulmars and gulls of all kinds. When we cruise out of Grundarfjörður to see a protected island where the puffins mate each summer, it’s hard to fight back a smile as you watch those little guys flap like crazy before coming in for a crash landing . . . cuteness does not always equal grace in nature.
For these reasons and many more I love going to Iceland, and yet there is truly no way to put into words a proper answer to “Why Iceland?” The words above, try as they might to capture actually being there, much like trying to describe being in love, always seem to fall short. It is no surprise to me that tourism in Iceland has developed so much in the post-World War II era, especially in the last two decades, and yet, it still feels like an undiscovered country. Whale watching, glacier walks, lava cave exploring, soaking up minerals in the geothermal baths, and doing it all with a population that speaks English almost as well as you do. Iceland is waiting for you, waiting to inspire you, and waiting to share with you the same conundrum I’ve tried to address here: Why Iceland? The answer awaits you just north of the North Atlantic Drift. –Gregory Hall, Iceland Tour Manager, Collette
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