An expansive island of black sand beaches, vast glaciers, towering waterfalls — and yes, the Northern Lights — Iceland has recently become a go-to destination for intrepid travellers seeking gorgeous vistas and a touch of adventure. The land of fire and ice certainly lives up to its name, and here are just a few of its most incredible can't-miss natural spots.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Consisting of Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall, this three-in-one attraction is Iceland's biggest draw, and for good reason. Thingvellir was the site of Iceland's first parliament (established in 930), and is home to the Slifra fissure, where visitors can snorkel and dive in crystal clear waters to see where the American and European tectonic plates meet. Some 10,000 years old, Geysir is said to be the first geyser mentioned in print — and the first to be known to modern Europeans.
The highlight here is the Strokkur Geyser; visitors flock to capture its eruptions which shoot water up to 30 metres into the sky. The final piece of this awe-inspiring trifecta is Gullfoss, Iceland's most iconic waterfall. In the early 20th century, foreign investors wanted to harness the power of this powerful waterway to generate electricity. Luckily, they failed and today, the two-tier falls remain in their natural state. On a good summer day, you might capture rainbows arcing gracefully over the falls — on a bad winter day, you'll encounter freezing cold blizzard-like conditions.
Like waterfalls, glaciers are plentiful in Iceland. Most of these are centred around Vatnajökull, in the island's southwest. Known to be Europe's biggest ice cap, Vatnajökull is home to more than 30 glaciers, the most jaw-dropping of which are Jökusárlón and Svínafellsjökull. Also the deepest lake in Iceland, Jökusárlón is a vast, glistening landscape dotted with luminous blue icebergs and hiding inquisitive wildlife like seals and arctic terns. If the weather's good, Jökusárlón offers amphibian and zodiac boat tours, as well as jeep tours of the glacier.
Further west, 1,000-year-old Svínafellsjökull is a vast, sparse landscape of mountains and crevices on the glacier tongue. Book with Blue Iceland for glacier walks and ice caving. You'll also get a taste of Hollywood on Iceland's glaciers. Jökusárlón has starred in two Bond movies — A View to Kill and Die Another Day — while Svínafellsjökull doubled as the icy north of the wall on Game of Thrones.
THE BLACK BEACHES
One of Iceland's most unique features are the very Instagrammable volcanic black sand beaches along its south coast. Just opposite Jökusárlón is Breiðamerkursandur, nicknamed Diamond Beach for the chunks of icebergs that drift ashore from the nearby lagoon. The result? A magical landscape of black sand and shimmery ice that is in a state of constant evolution.
Near the small fishing town of Vík lies Reynisfjara. This dramatic spot is famous for its enormous basalt columns - which legend says are stupefied trolls who got caught in daylight — and Reynisfell, the towering 340-metre mountain featuring hexagonal columns. Be warned: The huge, powerful Atlantic waves are — quite aptly — called sneaker waves for the unexpected way they creep onto the beach without warning.
SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK
A dramatically different part of Vatnajökull, Skaftafell National Park features sweeping volcanic and icy landscapes, giving rise to Iceland's nickname as the land of fire and ice. In the Middle Ages, Skaftafell was a manor farm and local assembly site. Now, it's a prime spot for major hikes that let you get up close and personal with some of the island's most captivating panoramas.
Undoubtedly, the highlights are the famous turf houses — traditional Icelandic dwellings — at Selið. But do a little exploring and you'll find the three main waterfalls — Svartifoss, Hundafoss and Þjófafoss — scale the Skaftafellsfjöll Mountains, or even go glacier walking and ice climbing.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
You didn't really think we'd get through a discussion of Iceland's natural wonders without talking about the Northern Lights, did you? More formally called Aurora Borealis, this stunning phenomenon manifests as coloured lights dancing across the sky. The Ancient Norse believed that the lights were the Valkyries — female warriors that took the spirits of fallen heroes to Valhalla. It's a nice idea, but if we're being scientific, the borealis are actually ionised solar particles.
Seeing the Northern Lights is very much a matter of luck — and some preparation. Luckily though, Iceland is one of the best places for this, though you'll still need a dark, clear night. Better your chances by heading for the Seltjornarnes Peninsula, Thingvellir or Vik, or stay overnight in a farmhouse on the south coast — Solheimahjaleiga and Guesthouse Gerði are good options. Of course, you could also leave it to the experts by booking a tour — Reykjavik Excursions do boat and bus tours and offer rebooking if you don't see the lights. Whichever option you choose, wrap up warm and make sure you know your camera — capturing the lights require long exposure (and steady hands).