Show of hands, please: How many people have Iceland on their Bucket List? It's surprisingly easy to visit—whether for a long, outdoorsy trek or a few days as part of Icelandair's free stopovers en route to its many European destinations. The shorter version can be surprisingly satisfying.
Travelers based in Reykjavik, the capital, don't even need to rent a car, although if there are more than two in the party, it's cheaper. Several of the country's major sights are on a loop easily viewed in a day, especially the never-quite-dark days of midsummer. Lots of companies offer bus tours of what's called the Golden Circle. And off the highway between the airport and Reykjavik is the Blue Lagoon, a mineral pool and spa that's a supreme luxury, and served by buses from both the airport and Reykjavik. (Yes, this is a very tourist-friendly country.)
The Golden Circle's offerings include Thingvellir, now a huge park where a thousand years ago, Iceland's national assembly met. It includes a rift valley and is where two tectonic plates are slowly sliding past each other, making for spectacular scenery. Another stop is Geysir, where several geysers are an easy stroll from a hotel, restaurant and parking lot. Unlike their Wyoming cousins, these aren't fenced in, so pay attention to where you're walking and which way the wind is blowing - steam and spray gets plenty of visitors, but it's not scalding hot at that point. The third major stop is Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, two immense cataracts with viewing points from above and almost next to them.
In a lava field, the Blue Lagoon harnesses the water from a nearby geothermal plant. Almost opaque from silica and other salts, the immense man-made pool with a silica sand bottom remains open year-round. There's a spa, as well, with superb masseuses, and a good restaurant. A wild variety of ages and nationalities luxuriate in the 100-degree water and use the silica mud as a skin mask, while attendants take free iPad photos of them and email them off to envious friends. (Warning: It's easy to get dehydrated here, so keep drinking.)
Those outdoor options for a longer trip? Hiking, caving, canoeing, river-rafting, kayaking, snorkeling or scuba-diving, treks using the famed Icelandic five-gaited horses, glacier-climbing and whale-watching, just for a start. Time to start planning another visit.
And now, a word about the food:
Iceland's not what's considered a gourmet destination. The cautious eater will find plenty of lamb, fish and potatoes to eat. But there are some interesting things, too. Reykjavik has ethnic options, as well as modern and traditional food, like the crepe-like pancakes served for dessert. (If you see them advertised for breakfast, odds are they're American-style.) Icelanders are proud of their hot dogs, served with a sweetish mayo and mustard, and two kinds of onions. You can find them at gas stations, which are generally more gastronomically reliable than our 7-Eleven.
There’s good fish soup, with each version slightly different, and a classic called ‘meat soup’ ("meat" always meaning lamb here), a clear soup with wintery vegetables like potatoes, turnips and onions—sturdy and fit for a cold night. Keep an eye out for cured, salted lamb that's much like ham, often sliced and served on a thin tortilla-like rye bread made on a griddle.
No farmers markets, as best I could find out, but a supermarket visit to someplace like Bonus, whose emblem is a pink elephant, will allow for the purchase of the heavenly Icelandic yogurt called skyr, the don't-miss dish of this country. Those crunchy, fried onion bits on hot dogs are sold there, too, labelled Cronions. So is a snack that's found in much of Scandanavia: thin slices of dried fish—chewy, a little salty and pairing well with beer or bubbly.
Fortunately, visitors seldom come across the fermented shark that one reads about. But I did taste whale, seared like tuna, very un-fishy in both flavor and texture (think beef), at a wedding buffet. Occasionally found in restaurants, but not often.