If it seems like everyone you know is going to Iceland, you’re probably right. This year, the island nation will see record tourist numbers: More than 2.2-million visitors passed through last year, more than four times as many who came in 2010. And that’s more than six times Iceland’s resident population of 330,000, which is roughly the same as Markham, Ont.
How does one account for this attraction to a hunk of high-priced, wind-buffeted volcanic rock known for its long, dark winters? For starters, it’s easier to get to than ever. If you live in Eastern Canada, it’s an easy trip on Air Canada, Icelandair and WOW air, all of which offer direct flights (clocking in at about four hours) to Reykjavik from Toronto and Montreal. And then there is the obvious reason: The place is stunning.
But after my own visit to the land of ice and fire, I’ve come up with five other less-obvious reasons to add yourself to the country’s guest book.
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There is no better place to nerd out
If you’re into fantasy and science-fiction literature, you can’t miss Iceland. Jules Verne set his 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth at Snæfellsjokull, the glacier-capped volcanic mountain that dominates the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west (the 2008 movie of Verne’s novel was shot here as well). Both the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One and the new film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, gave the landscape starring roles as extraterrestrial planets from long ago and far away. The Icelandic sagas – stories dating back to the ninth century – inspired the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, and the Norse gods – particularly Odin, Loki and Thor – are all over the movie screens by way of Marvel.
But of course the biggest ad for the awesome topography has been the HBO series Game of Thrones, which has created a sub-industry of niche tourism. Fans, some dressed in fur or fake animal skins to look like characters on the show, take week-long tours around the “north of the Wall” locations and check out iconic spots such as the cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte first canoodled in the cold.
The food scene is more than skyr
“Icelandic gastronomy” may not be a phrase that readily leaps to mind, although skyr – a thick, yogurt-like dairy product – is becoming popular in North America.
But when I ended my first day in Iceland at a hip new spot called Sumac, there were no traditional dishes such as sheep’s eyeballs or fermented shark on the menu. Instead, it was a fusion of local ingredients with Lebanese and Moroccan touches: roast cauliflower with pomegranate and almond, lamb with lentils and grapes, salmon with kumquat and coriander. Iceland, it turns out, has a lively culinary scene, with chefs competing in and sometimes winning European contests. Seafood is, naturally, extremely fresh, Icelandic lamb is considered a gourmet item in other countries and because of cheap geothermal energy, vegetables can be grown year-round in greenhouses. Last year, the Reykjavik restaurant Dill even earned the country its first Michelin star.
Icelandic people have a great sense of humour
As we pass a wooden road sign for a place with 20 letters, my guide observes: “You could get rich as a sign painter in Iceland – if you could get paid by the letter.”
Icelandic humour is not of the slap-you-with-a-fish variety. It tends to be dry and quirky. Even the incessant boasting about the island’s per-capita accomplishments (top in the world for gender equality, peacefulness, friendliness, literacy, beauty queens, world’s strong men competitions, and Nobel Prizes – they have one) tempers pride with irony. To put it in Icelandic gastronomical terms, it’s a steaming pile of braggadocio served in a tart, facetious sauce and boiled down to one self-deprecating phrase: “Iceland is the best country in the world – per capita.”
In 2010, Iceland was, arguably, the worst country per capita, at least in the Western world. After an economic collapse that saw three private banks fail, the volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spreading ash into the air and shutting down northwest European airports for a week. The joke was that, as its last wish, the Icelandic economy had its ashes spread over Europe.
In a satiric protest against Iceland’s economic mismanagement, comedian Jon Gnarr ran for mayor of Reykjavik for the “Best Party,” promising everything from free towels at public pools to a polar bear for the zoo. Proving their sense of humour, the residents of Reykjavik voted him and his team of pranksters into city hall.
It’s home to one of the world’s most amusing museums
No discussion of the Icelandic sense of humour is complete without reference to this nation’s answer to the Louvre, the Icelandic Phallological Museum. This collection features the penises of 93 mammals, with an outsized sampling of whale and seal anatomy. There’s even an elf penis (floating invisibly in a jar, ha ha) and a human specimen, purportedly donated posthumously by a 95-year-old man. (The competition between him and an American for the coveted spot was chronicled in the 2012 documentary The Final Member.) As I was leaving the exhibit, the blond, pony-tailed curator apologized for both the old man’s shrinkage and the size of the museum. “We’re hoping to expand,” he told me, with no hint of a smirk.
The culture thrives on change
One of the most socially progressive countries, with a newly elected feminist-environmentalist prime minister, Iceland is a fascinating ongoing social experiment.
It’s not always successful, of course: Adapting libertarian economic policies in the nineties and early 2000s made it an example of how to ruin an economy. But, hey, at least it tried.
A more recent political experiment was the world’s first “crowd-sourced constitution” in 2012, backed by citizens but not officially adopted, and a social engineering experiment that, over the past 20 years, turned Iceland’s teen-aged drunks and potheads into some of the most clean and sober kids in Europe through the “natural highs” of sports and arts.
In short, Iceland is not a great place to get a tan but the perfect spot to experience a shift in perspective. The kind that comes from being in a country of elves and giants, where the days are wildly long in summer and desperately short in winter, where the residents are improvising the script as they go along.