The Wow Factor
Delve beneath the gobsmacking scenery to discover the charming idiosyncrasies of this extraordinary country and the can-do attitude of its people.
WORDS JOCELYN PRIDE
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It might be small in size but, when it comes to nature, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe Iceland – it surpasses anything imaginable. From its 130 volcanoes to more than 10,000 waterfalls, every skerrick of the landscape seethes with intrigue. Then there are the 350,000-plus Icelanders who collectively make up one of the happiest nations on the planet. What’s their secret?
Is it because soaking in thermal baths is a way of life? That the crime rate is low? Or that 99 per cent of their energy is generated from renewables? Perhaps it’s because the World Economic Forum ranks it the best country for gender equality? There aren’t mosquitoes? Or maybe it’s simply because many Icelanders believe in elves.
The Saga Museum, Reykjavik. Photo: Saga Museum
Sagas, trolls and hidden people
Icelandic folklore is a rich tapestry of tales and legends, and is responsible for producing countless writers, musicians, artists and dreamers. Written as far back as the twelfth century, the sagas – bloodcurdling, whimsical stories depicting everyday life through iconic characters – are the basis of cultural Iceland. The Saga Museum in Reykjavik presents a brilliant overview, but to really feel the vibe of where many sagas were set, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and pretty village of Stykkishólmur are where you want to be.
Adding to the fascination, Icelandic children grow up with stories of trolls who are bad-tempered and have a penchant for human flesh. Fortunately, they only travel at night – daylight turns them to stone – which is a handy way to encourage kids to go to bed. Then there’s the question of elves. More commonly known as huldufólk (hidden people), they look like people, live between rocks in cliffs and prefer to remain invisible. Above all, they don’t like to be disturbed. Over the years, during the expansion of roads and buildings, there have been many colourful stories of failed projects, freakish accidents and changed plans thought to be the consequence of upsetting the elves. Whether Icelanders in their heart of hearts believe in elves or not, denying their existence can bring a lifetime of bad luck.
Icelandic trolls in the city of Akureyri, Iceland's fourth largest city. Photo: Camille Seaman
For people visiting the country its usually not such a predicament, says Huritgruten expedition leader Steffen Biersack. “Guests are mostly amused,” he says, “especially when they hear that some seats in the Icelandic parliament are reserved for elves. “If they think about it a little deeper, they find it understandable that in a country where natural events have such a presence and magnitude, before the explanations of modern science there was the need for a framework that wasn’t altogether hostile. A bit like religion, just without the weekly confession and crusades.”
Bakkagerdi in East Iceland is elf capital. It’s a quintessential fishing village with a population of 130 (people) sitting at the base of Álfaborg. This large rock, which resembles a fortress, is where the queen of Icelandic elves resides.
The Goðafoss waterfall is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. The water of the river Skjálfandafljót falls from a height of 12 metres over a width of 30 metres. Photo: Shutterstock
The creative spark of Icelanders can be seen in the many quirky museums throughout the country. Topping the ‘are you serious?’ list is the Icelandic Phallological Museum in downtown Reykjavik. Yep, that’s penises – around 282 of them representing more than 90 species of animals. Flateyri, an enchanting edge-of-the-world-type village in the Westfjords, is home to the Nonsense Museum where literally anything goes. Collections of random stuff like police caps, sugar cubes, model ships and pens create a happy mix of treasures for vintage buffs. Also in Westfjords, the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum is scary enough to make any naysayer ponder what lies beneath steely Icelandic waters. With a blend of eyewitness accounts, scientific theories and interactive multimedia presentations, the museum in Bildudalur, on the shores of Arnarfjörður fjord, is at the epicentre of sea monster activity. When Eldfell, a once dormant volcano, blew its stack unexpectedly in 1973, no one knew it would one day become the impetus for Eldheimar – meaning ‘worlds of fire’ – a poignant and unusual museum in Heimaey, the only inhabited island in the Westman Islands. On that fateful day all but one the 5,300 residents managed to escape, but 400 homes were swallowed by lava. It’s now affectionately known as the Pompeii of the North, and painstaking archaeological digs have uncovered buildings and objects just as they’d been left – beds made, tables set, clothes folded, fireplaces laid, all preserved beneath the ash. Built around one of the surviving intact cottages, Eldheimar is a reminder of the power of nature.
The stunning view from Eldfell volcano over the town of Heimaey. Photo: Karsten Bidstrup
Bird watching in Bakkagerði, Iceland. Photo: Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock
Puffins don’t live in Iceland, however, come summer around 60 per cent of the world’s population – approximately nine million birds – retreat to the country’s coastal colonies to breed. Maybe it’s got something to do with the Queen of Elves living there, but Bakkagerdi is one of the easiest places to gaze at these comical birds strutting in and out of their burrows, often with beaks stuffed full of fish. “They are stubby, cute and have a very unmistakeable style of flying,” explains Steffen. “But the most loved feature is their colours – they are more to be expected from tropical birds, which gives puffins quite an exotic appearance.”
And if the word puffin isn’t adorable enough, try puffling, the official name for the chicks. In the Westman Islands, home of the largest puffin colony in the world, residents of Heimaey go one step further to protect puffins. As the pufflings fledge in late summer, they’re often attracted to the bright lights of the township and become confused. Using boxes lined with soft tissues, locals gather the pufflings, watch over them during the night and release them into the ocean in the morning light. Icelandic spirit at its best.