Iceland, an relatively small island somewhere just south of the Arctic Circle has long been a completely obscure destination - until just recently, when the volcano Eyjafjallajokull's powerful volcanic eruption demanded everybody's attention. Air traffic came to a halt and thousands of travelers found themselves stranded, stopped in their tracks by a cloud of ash that obscured European skies for over a week.
The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, which despite its 'outpost of civilization' location, is a vibrant city full of surprisingly fresh and innovative cultural vigor - stylish, artistically inspired, and classy. Yet, like few other places in Europe, Iceland is also keenly aware of its natural treasures, both powerful and precious. The city derives its energy from geothermal sources, making it the cleanest city in all of Europe.
The greatest environmental threat the country is facing is erosion and loss of soil, but the department of environmental affairs is devoting a great deal of its energies and resources to combatting this trend.
Iceland exists almost in a realm unto itself. It is in every way a place of contrasts and extremes, a place that is very much still 'in the making', where the drama of geological creation can be witnessed and experienced. Nothing is more awe-inspiring and humbling than to watch the forces of nature express their unbridled power.
Iceland should in fact have been called more appropriately 'Fire and Iceland' - for its volcanoes are still shaping this otherworldly landscape - a landscape of fire and ice. Iceland is Europe's last piece of real wilderness. In an area roughly the size of Ireland nature dominates. Just 313 000 people, less than the population of Cardiff, inhabit this little big country and almost 200 000 of them live in the capital, Reykjavik.
Majestic waterfalls, seething volcanoes, bubbling hot springs and geysers, bizarre geological formations, lavafields, mountains and glaciers - a landscape that appears like the playground of trolls, who toss big boulders around like balls. Nature here is primeval, an active force that has to be reckoned with. It often seems hostile and harsh, but this is earth-in-the-making. It is a unique opportunity to watch an active geological process taking place, constantly transforming and reshaping the landscape. Thanks to the nearby gulfstream the climate here is warmer than expected. Also, the earth crust is thinner than on the European or American continent and thus magma that boils beneath the surface helps to warm the ground which provides tolerable growing conditions to unlikely plants such as orchids and gentians normally found in much more southerly regions. This is also what gives rise to the innumerable hot springs that are found everywhere.
However, Iceland's weather is ever unpredictable and can change dramatically and very suddenly. One has to be prepared for anything, at any time. Temperatures, even during the summer are not exactly hot, yet average winter temperatures are also not as frigid as one would expect.
For nature lovers and adventurists there are endless opportunities to become immersed in this wilderness, be it by hiking and trekking, horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, bird watching, whale watching, fly fishing, cycling, mountain biking, and glacier walking.
Hiking is in fact one of the best ways to experience the majestic nature of Iceland. However, inexperienced hikers should stick with short local routes if they are going it alone. Alternatively, a great option is to join a guided and supported trek that allows you to see the most inaccessible and magical places, safely, with expert guidance, while your gear is being transported from one hut to the next. Such treks are incomparable in terms of nature experience, but they are rustic and rugged. Accommodations are simple, basic mountain huts/shelters without private facilities.
For those who like to travel more independently and who prefer to see a larger area rather than experience a small area intensively, a self-drive tour would be the best option. Many of the best sights can still be accessed from the road and there are numerous hiking trails throughout. In Iceland driving conditions are sometimes rather bumpy and on dirt roads, but there is very little traffic, except for sheep who may wander in the middle of the road.
Rural Iceland has few hotels, but many farms offer guest rooms or cottages, which provide simple, clean and relatively inexpensive accommodations even in remote locations.
The compact size of the country means that even in a limited period of time one can get a good general impression, while with a little more time, one can really soak up the atmosphere and explore some of the more hidden corners.
Iceland is truly one of the last frontiers in Europe for real adventurers, nature lovers and bird watchers.
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