Iceland’s unprecedented growth as a tourism darling made the world take notice. No country during the last decade has intrigued more adventurers and nature lovers within a faster upshot than this pristine Land of Fire and Ice, once a far-flung and isolated place. With its volcanoes and geothermic heat, its glaciers and glacial lagoons, the nation is a little mysterious and a lot magnificent, which add up to a powerful pull. Travelers to Iceland more than tripled between 2012 and 2018*. A trip there is nothing less than memorable at minimum; many vacationers have deemed their Icelandic getaway transformative. Whether you’ve already touched down at Keflavík International Airport or have yet to experience this unique terrain’s uplifting energy, quench your armchair traveler’s wander-thirst right now by diving into the illuminating 256-page hardcover Stunning Iceland: The Hedonist’s Guide, written by Bertrand Jouanne with evocative photographs by Gunnar Freyr. It is published this month by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins.
“Iceland is situated just south of the Arctic Circle, between North America and continental Europe, a location that many would describe as the edge of the world,” begins author Jouanne in the book’s introduction. “Puzzling and paradoxical, this remote island of just over thirty-eight thousand square miles was created from the convergence of the mid-Atlantic ridge, and an enormous amount of magma erupting from its rift in the sea floor, beginning about twenty million years ago. The last eruption happened in March of 2021 and lasted for more than six months.”
Yes, Iceland is still morphing in myriad ways: the active volcanic landscape; an expanding commitment to environmental conservation; a burgeoning hyper-connectivity with the world at large; and an influx of immigrants.
Yet the allure that most attracts travelers — to unspoiled windswept shores and serene mountain heights, to The Blue Lagoon and Dettifoss Waterfall, to cool cultural events and warm artistic gatherings — is Iceland’s distinctive and independent vibe. Quirky sometimes, too. After all, Nordic mythology is enthusiastically embraced, replete with tales of mischievous trolls. This is the home of inimitable Björk, singer-songwriter of global renown. Especially in Reykjavik, its capital, a fresh breath of vitality and youthful vigor rises — evidence of a new generation of chefs fusing modern flavors with local ingredients; bakers serving pastries to the beat of rock music; entrepreneurs and inventors impacting commerce; organic farmers shifting consumers’ mindset; and hospitality mavens erecting boutique hotels and ecolodges. A prime example: Set amid a lush moss-covered lava field, the Retreat at Blue Lagoon, built in 2018 near Grindavik, is a secluded, ultra-relaxing, 62-guestroom haven, overlooking a mineral-rich geothermal lagoon. “Massages can be given in the water to provide an intoxicating effect of weightlessness,” notes Jouanne. Its subterranean spa and two restaurants (one is named Lava; the other Moss) excel. “Moss is run by a chef who takes his guests on a journey of Icelandic cuisine.”
Jouanne organizes the book to reflect the very different regions of Iceland, within which he maps out essential travel know-how; outlines eye-opening driving itineraries; profiles dynamic doers who are making positive contributions; addresses local concerns and accomplishments; and points to what is best and brightest. To absorb the most joy from Stunning Iceland, appreciate it as a fantasy escape. Get comfy, explore the pages; allow yourself to become dream-struck. Jouanne and Freyr lead readers on wild sojourns to waterfalls, rivers, fjords, glaciers, lava fields, calderas, canyons, ravines and plateaus. Also featured are Freyr’s bird’s-eye-view images, shot from the sky for a section called “Flying Over a Unique World,” which unveil rare glimpses of untamed, almost impenetrable parts of the island. That is a treat for sure. Favorite on-the-ground tourist musts? Hiking picturesque trails and bathing in hot springs.
Wildlife wows: Gaze at blue whales, killer whales, sheep, seals, the white-fur Arctic fox and bird species galore.
Icelandic horses are as small as a pony in stature, yet big in beauty. “Originally from Norway,” explains Jouanne, “this purebred arrived with the first settlers and has never been crossbred with another species for more than a thousand years.” Every summer, hundreds of these horses are set free from farms to roam at will, intermingle and raise their offspring. Then, in September, owners come together to sort out and herd their equines home. This Laufskálarétt tradition is cherished as part of Iceland’s many folk festivals.
Fishing in Iceland is a polished feat; its fleet is one of the most efficient worldwide, catching herring, haddock, plaice, rockfish, blue whiting and the ever-important cod. Each June since 1941, the town of Petró applauds a four-day Festival of the Sea.
“In the span of thirty years,” says Jouanne, “Icelandic cuisine has undergone a true revolution. Although traditional recipes still have a privileged place on the island’s plates, its new cuisine, propelled by young creative chefs, offers beautiful surprises in flavors.” One such star is Chef Gísli Matt, who grows many of his own products and heralds the precepts of the Slow Food movement. “The country has become the scene of an astonishing gastronomic revolution,” Jouanne continues. “Eager for new experiences, Icelanders turned the disadvantage of their geographic position into an asset…the purity of local and seasonal products as an asset is undeniable.”
Jouanne leads readers through scenic fishing villages; past farmhouses, trading posts and lighthouses; and into maritime and art museums.
One of many surprises: Sensational surfers who quest to conquer icy waves in the weather-challenging northern fjords. “The harsher the conditions, the more intense the experience,” explains Jouanne about the men and women “who represent audacious character and strength…. This is their way of facing extremes and adversity.”
For those far less daring, yet who thrill to be awed, “the northern lights, which cover the [winter night] sky with their exquisite and surreal moving curtains, are followed by a symphony of spectacular colors during the late hours,” says Jouanne. “From the end of August to mid-April, festivals are held celebrating the northern lights, whose reflection in the waters and on the ice is an unforgettable sight.”
Jouanne and Freyr have elegantly and honestly captured the beating heart of Iceland.
Manske Note: *Iceland’s current population is approximately 355,ooo inhabitants. In 2012, it welcomed 672,773 visitors; in 2018, visitors mushroomed to 2,342,241 — an amazing boost that then fell precipitously due to economic slowdown and the global pandemic. In 2018, tourism revenue accounted for 42 percent of Iceland’s economy. This nation — filled with wonder and wander — is now aiming for a more thoughtful approach to tourism and development.
For trip-planning online access: contact Visit Iceland.