Even if you’ve never been to Iceland (and we must fix that), chances are you’ve seen the Nordic country multiple times on screen, both big and small.
Its singular landscape — a smorgasbord of belching geysers, massive glaciers, powder-blue lagoons and lunar summits — has lured many a Hollywood location scout to its off-the-beaten-path corner of the earth.
Batman and James Bond movies have shot here, along with the more recent “Interstellar,” “Noah” and “Jupiter Ascending.”
On the television-side of things, the volcanic island doubled as the inhospitable region north of The Wall in early seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Other series that have fallen for Iceland’s charms include “Fortitude,” Pivot network’s critically acclaimed psychological drama set in the Arctic Circle. (An unexpected warm spell late last year meant producers had to fly in planes full of fake snow for the atmospheric thriller.)
The Wachowskis (“Jupiter Ascending”) revisited Iceland earlier this year to shoot part of their new Netflix sci-fi series “Sense8,” a visually stunning head-tripper of a travelogue about eight strangers tied together in a mysterious, disturbing way. All 12 episodes will be ready for streaming June 5.
Hollywood has long appreciated Iceland’s appeal, and tourists have been catching on, too. The annual number of visitors has nearly tripled from 302,900 in 2000 to just shy of 1 million last year, according to government figures.
Increasing popularity aside, Iceland remains an outlier in the European vacation department. Tell someone you’re going there and you’re likely to get a quizzical look.
“Why are you going to Iceland?” was a question friends and family asked just about every one of the 15 of us who’d signed up for Country Walkers’ “Reykjavik & National Parks” tour.
No one asks why you’re going to Italy or France. At least not with a befuddled look on their face. But Iceland — a seemingly faraway place that’s actually a relatively short flight from the East Coast — remains a mystery to most.
The nation’s name conjures up images of, well, ice, the eccentric singer Bjork and uppity volcanoes prone to belching ash clouds that wreak havoc on European air travel. That pretty much summed up the scope of my Icelandic knowledge when a couple of girlfriends and I decided to vacation there in the summer of 2011.
One of the benefits of traveling on an organized tour is that there’s less pressure to bone up on the destination beforehand. Virtually every detail — logistics, lodging, food, activities — was taken care of by Country Walkers, a Vermont-based tour operator that’s been running guided hiking trips around the world for more than three decades.
Back in 2011, Iceland was a new offering for Country Walkers. It’s now the company’s third most popular tour after Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and Normandy and Brittany in France.
Our trip kicked off in the quirky capital of Reykjavik before commencing on a counterclockwise journey around most of the island’s circumference. (Country Walkers has scheduled four Iceland excursions this summer, starting in late June. Prices for the eight-day trips begin at $6,398. A company spokesperson said reservations are up 30 percent compared to last year.)
The overnight flight took about five hours from Boston and landed us at Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport around 6 a.m. The summer sun had already been up for a few hours in this country whose northern border plays footsy with the Arctic Circle.
Still groggy from our plane ride, we were greeted at the airport by two friendly Country Walkers guides, Kristin Bjornsdottir and Arngunnur Yr. Both are Icelandic natives who spent many years living in the United States. (Kristin also runs her own tour company, Iceland Encounter, and Arngunnur is a successful oil-paint artist.) They shepherded our jet-lagged bodies straight to the nearby Blue Lagoon, the most famous of Iceland’s abundant hot springs.
Soaking in warm, mineral-rich water siphoned from more than a mile below the earth’s surface is a national pastime for Icelanders, although the swanky and expensive Blue Lagoon sees more tourists than locals. Its proximity to the airport makes it an ideal way to kill a long layover.
Iceland sits on one of the earth’s so-called hot spots, supplying the country with an almost endless bounty of natural hot water. This water is used to feed not only the popular bathing pools but to heat most homes and buildings, making Iceland a poster child for environmentally-friendly geothermal power.
The lagoon’s hot water worked like a cozy duvet against the chilly morning drizzle. From our watery nest, the scene was surreal: steam wafting from the surface of a huge manmade lagoon built in the middle of a lava field. We followed the lead of other bathers and slathered gobs of milky white silica mud on our faces and arms, alternating soaks in the hot springs with trips to the sauna.
The same surreal sense I felt during those first few hours in the Blue Lagoon stayed with me for the whole trip. I’ve never been to a place where the earth has seemed so alive. Volcanic eruptions, calving glaciers, spouting geysers, bubbling mud flats, earthquakes, gushing waterfalls. They’re all part of life on Iceland, a nation that owes much of its primal landscape to its precarious position on the globe.
This is a country that’s literally being torn apart — to the tune of nearly an inch a year. That’s because Iceland is perched on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive, mostly underwater mountain range that separates the planet’s North American and Eurasian plates. From a geology standpoint, this means many things. From a bragging rights standpoint, it means you can say you walked from America to Europe. But let’s get back to plate tectonics — something I never thought I’d say. These two plates are drifting apart. Like many divorces, it’s a pretty explosive breakup. Unlike many divorces, this one’s pretty, at least in terms of the dramatic scenery it creates.
Our daily hikes took us through lava flats blanketed in green moss, across dramatic black sand beaches and past a smattering of the country’s 10,000-plus waterfalls. (Country Walkers’ tours visit “Game of Thrones” filming locations Thingvellir National Park and Lake Myvatn.)
We watched the earth spit steam and boiling water hundreds of feet into the air in an area called Geysir, the namesake of this natural phenomenon. The strong smell of sulfur assaulted us at Namafjall, a desolate expanse peppered with pools of bubbling mud and steam vents that look like cloud-making machines.
Much of Iceland’s lava rock landscape resembles the moon. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t too surprised when I stumbled upon a man dressed as a U.S. astronaut during a hike along a volcanic crater. He was an actor shooting “a small film,” according to the cameraman. (At first I thought it might be director Ridley Scott, who spent several weeks in Iceland that summer shooting “Prometheus.”)
Iceland may be one of the most volcanically active spots on earth, but this is the land of fire and ice. It’s home to Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajokull, whose glaciers spill down surrounding mountains. Our Country Walkers group, ranging in age from a Georgia guy in his 20s to an intrepid Pennsylvanian in her 70s, strapped crampons onto our boots and trekked along one of these rumbling rivers of ice.
An amphibious vehicle took us for a spin around Iceland’s largest glacier lagoon. Seals’ bobbing heads and mini icebergs poked through the turquoise water. Jokulsarlon, as it’s called, has been the setting for a couple of James Bond films, but the incessant rain during our visit made it feel more like an episode of “Deadliest Catch.”
The weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable (just ask the “Fortitude” folks). But it’s a safe bet you’ll need your rain gear. And it’s cold here, although not as cold as the name implies. Seventy degrees would be considered a warm day in the summer; winter temperatures are comparable to New York’s.
While the country’s weather and landscape are constantly in flux, one thing that’s remained remarkably stable is the culture. The Icelandic language — especially in its written form — hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. Neither has the DNA of Icelandic horses. These stout and sturdy workhorses are genetically the same as those ridden by the Vikings, thanks to the island’s strict ban on the importation of equines.
Low immigration rates and geographical isolation have made Iceland a homogeneous society with one big family tree, which might explain why the prime minister is listed in the phone book. When I half-jokingly asked our guide Kristin if she was related to Bjork, she pulled out her iPhone to check. (Yes, there’s an app for that.) Turns out Kristin and the unconventional chanteuse are six generations removed.
“We’re all like family — just a small group of people trying to survive on this cold rock in the north,” Kristin said.
A small group indeed. With a population of 320,000 on an island the size of Kentucky, Iceland is the least densely populated country in Europe.
That fact wasn’t lost on Paul Clear, an Oklahoma man who was on our Country Walkers trip with his wife. After we all said our good-byes and flew home, Clear wrote an email to the group. He recalled standing on a hill during one of our hikes and not seeing “a single road, car, sign, village, house, structure, airplane or person.” Or film crew.
Clear, a seasoned traveler, said Iceland was different than any country he’d ever visited.
“It was unlike my expectations, even after reading about it for years and seeing pictures,” he wrote. “It’s great when a place can surprise me like that.”
That’s why you go to Iceland.