If it is natural fountains and geothermal heat you desire, consider this sub-Arctic destination in the middle of the North Atlantic over the ever-popular Yellowstone
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle
VISITORS PER YEAR Less than one for each of the 300,000 citizens
Jan: 36°F (2°C); Apr: 45°F (7°C); Jul: 60°F (16°C); Oct: 45°F (7°C)
Apart from the fact that both Yellowstone and Iceland feature awesome geothermal wonders, the differences between the two destinations could hardly be greater. The highlights of world- renowned Yellowstone nestle amidst the forested hills and snow-capped peaks of North America’s Rocky Mountains. Those of Iceland occupy a windswept and nearly treeless island just south of the Arctic Circle in the stormy North Atlantic.
Given its less-than-perfect climatic conditions, one might wonder what makes Iceland a worthy alternative to Yellowstone. To any first-time visitor, it is immediately clear that its landscape is alive and dynamic. While Yellowstone’s geothermic activities are derived from its underlying mega- volcano, Iceland’s are created by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Along this mostly undersea ridge, tectonic movement between the European and North American plates is literally ripping the island in two.
The resulting rift, which slashes across the island, allows volcanic materials to nudge upward from the center of the earth and, in places, form volcanoes, geothermal fields, a kaleidoscope of colorful rock formations, and plenty of other surprises. Visitors will find countless ways to experience these throughout Iceland.
Perhaps the most impressive destination is Landmannalaugar, in the desolate interior. Here, those who are prepared for outdoor adventure can lounge in natural outdoor hot springs or hike across spectacular rhyolite hills to crater lakes, fumaroles, and mounds of natural obsidian glass.
Alternatively, ferries link the Icelandic mainland with the steaming Vestmannaeyjar Islands, where the town of Heimaey was almost buried beneath lava in 1973. It was also the spot that saw the new volcanic island of Surtsey emerge from the sea as recently as half a century ago.
An easy day trip east of Reykjavík lies Geysir, a geothermal area after which all other spouting hot springs, or geysers, are named. Here, you’ll find the Great Geysir which can send a blast of steaming water up to 130 ft (40 m) into the air. However, it is not very reliable, so to pass the time, enjoy the nearby dependable Strokkur Geysir, which erupts every few minutes with 65-ft (20-m) blasts.
Combine these geysers and their empty landscapes with pristine Pingvellier National Park and the serene and beautiful Gullfoss waterfall and you have Iceland’s Golden Circle of attractions – more than a match for bustling Yellowstone.
THE BUILD-UP As the world’s first national park, Yellowstone ranks high on most travelers’ must-see lists, and with good reason. This magnificent wilderness, sitting atop one of the world’s few mega-volcanoes, features numerous lakes and waterfalls, vast forests, a menagerie of North American wildlife, and an impressive collection of colorful hot springs, bubbling mud pots, steaming rivers, and dramatic geysers.
THE LETDOWN A visit to Yellowstone will be hampered by sheer tourist numbers. Most campgrounds and other accommodations are fully booked through the temperate summer months, so advance reservations are essential, thwarting hopes of spontaneous travel. Without resorting to a guided tour, visitors will need to rent a car or private vehicle to explore the park.
GOING ANYWAY? The best time of year to beat the biggest crowds is September, when the fall colors emerge, but late-season visitors risk snow and sub-freezing temperatures. Determined summer visitors will find detailed information on www.nps.gov/yell.
Getting There and Around Flights from Europe and North America arrive at Keflavík, which is about an hour’s bus ride from Reykjavík. Iceland can also be a stopover destination on a trans- Atlantic flight. Geysir and other geothermal spots are accessible using local buses or on a range of locally organized guided tours.
Where to Eat Inexpensive Icelandic meals are largely forgettable, but the fresh – and very pricey – local seafood can be superb.
Iceland’s finest and most imaginative gourmet seafood dishes are found at Sjávarkjallarinn in Reykjavík.
Where to Stay Hotel Geysir at Geysir offers a range of options, from camping accommodations to comfortable double rooms.
When to Go The best time to visit is Jun–Aug, when daylight is almost perpetual.
There are few tourist services at other times, although winter does allow the possibility of watching the aurora borealis, a natural light phenomenon that occurs in the northern polar regions.
Budget per Day for Two
Around US$420 including restaurant meals, hotel accommodations, and bus travel.
Eating at cafés and staying in hostels, “sleeping-bag accommodations”, or farmhouse accommodations will bring down the expenses.