For many, Iceland brings to mind visions of a small, isolated nation with hardy locals stubbornly defying nature’s relentless forces. With just over 300,000 citizens inhabiting the entire island—and two-thirds of those calling the capital of Reykjavik home—Iceland is Europe’s least densely populated country, with only three people per square kilometre of land. And for such a small territory, outsized geologic forces are at play. Straddling the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, Iceland is home to regular volcanic activity and gained international attention in 2010 when the ash cloud from a major eruption at Eyjafjallajökull managed to shut down air traffic over much of Europe for six days.
But while passing glances might inspire curiosity and grant Iceland a home on your travel bucket list, they can’t fully convey the magic of this gem in the North Atlantic. In recent years, more and more visitors have ventured to see for themselves and fill in the picture. As national airlines rapidly expanded their reach across Europe, Asia, and North America, overall annual visits to Iceland surpassed the number of actual Icelanders as far back as 2000. Since 2010, tourist visits have been growing by nearly 20 per cent each year, with the most recent data showing well over one million visitors in 2014.
Some of this growth has undoubtedly been spurred on by promotions from airlines designed to allow travellers en route to or from Europe to hit pause on their flight itinerary and spend a few extra days in the country for no additional charge. While many take advantage by exploring Reykjavik’s cafes and museums, or the surrounding area’s parade of landmarks that allow for an “Iceland in a day” experience, a more rewarding trip is within easy reach for those slightly more adventurous.
By tracking down a suitable vehicle at one of Iceland’s rental car companies, you can take control of your own itinerary and discover a seemingly endless variety of landscapes. It is perhaps best of all for those who were attracted to the remote, desolate nature of the country to begin with, as the number of tourists drops off precipitously as Reykjavik fades in the rear-view mirror. Unlike attempting to drive in almost any other European country, once you leave the city, GPS is essentially unnecessary as a single main highway follows the coastline around the entire country for just over 1,300 kilometres.
But don’t be fooled into thinking a drive like this can be tackled in a hurry or without unscheduled detours. Out in the country you’ll soon be making regular stops to gawk at scenery that changes from jagged mountains, to black sand beaches, to massive glacial lakes and vibrant pastoral expanses dotted with thousands of Iceland’s omni-present sheep. To support a more contemplative pace, even small remote villages are home to numerous guesthouses providing accommodation, sustenance, and ample space to attempt to comprehend the day’s adventures.
It’s only by taking more time in the country that you can properly explore the Eastern Fjords, the mind-bending landscapes surrounding Mývatn in the north, or any of the stunning remote waterfalls, volcanoes, or lava fields waiting to be discovered. Whether Iceland is your primary destination or a more impulsive mid-route stop, it is worth giving this remarkably dynamic island a bit more of your time than you might have been counting on.