Iceland

Discover Iceland

The Country

Iceland is an island of 103.000 km2 (39,756 sq.miles), about one-third larger than Scotland or Ireland. Its highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur, rises to 2.119 m and over 11 per cent of the country is covered by glaciers, including Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe.

In geological terms Iceland is very young - and the youthful exuberance of the land boldly greets travelers. The landscape is alive with the restless play of nature's forces. Action lovers in search of a real challenge will find plenty to their liking in Iceland. In some places where swirling glacial rivers race over rugged terrain on their way seaward, the scenery looks custom-built for river rafting. White water rafting operators often offer a choice of routes with different levels of challenge – for both newcomers who want to experience the basic thrill and the really wild at heart who seek more challenging rides. Kayaking is a sport not native to Iceland - although the country''s huge variety of natural waterways is ideally suited to it. And thrills await at many lakes and inshore bays where wave jets can be rented. Regular boating is another natural attraction in this country where life is inextricably linked with the sea. And sea fishing is especially popular because of the size of the catches to be had.

Glaciers cover one-ninth of Iceland''s land surface. Vatnajokull, at 3,300 square miles, is the largest glacier in Europe. The beauty of glaciers is eternal, but obstacles to enjoying it are largely a thing of the past. Glacier exploration is a unique experience, literally transporting travelers to a higher plane, where different values apply.

Tours are available where travelers make the ascent by bus and other vehicles, and then have time to explore on their own by snowmobile. Safaris in modified jeeps are also available. But because of the risk of hidden cracks in the glaciers, travelers should only visit glaciers on organized tours with experienced operators and guides. After all, there's all the freedom in the world - once you make it to the top. The main starting point for exploring several of the many glaciers that form the Vatnajokull cap is the town of Hofn in southeast Iceland. Other glacier favorites are the mystical Snaefellsjokull on Snaefellsnes peninsula, Myrdalsjokull on the south coast, and Langjokull where west Iceland borders the highlands, the closest major glacier to the capital. Go-it-alone types can also test themselves against nature. Cycling around Iceland is a genuine challenge, attracting a growing number of contenders. And really vigorous mountain hiking trails fan out in all directions from the outskirts of almost every community. In Reykjavik, the public bus system even runs to nearby Mount Esja, where it’s a brisk 3-hour trip to the summit and back. Just don’t forget to relax in a geothermal pool afterwards.

Energy

Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity: 30 post-glacial volcanoes have erupted in the past two centuries, and natural hot water supplies much of the population with cheap, pollution-free heating.  Rivers, too, are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power.

People

Out of a population numbering more than 300.000, half live in the capital Reykjavík and its neighbouring towns in the southwest.  Keflavík International Airport is located about 50 km from the capital.  The highland interior is uninhabited (and uninhabitable), and most centres of population are situated on the coast.

Language

Iceland was settled by Nordic people in the 9th century - tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavík now stands.  The Icelanders still speak the language of the Vikings, although modern Icelandic has undergone changes of pronunciation and, of course, of vocabulary! Iceland is alone in upholding another Norse tradtion, i.e. the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames; and Icelander´s christian name is followed by his or her father´s name and the suffix -son or -dóttir, e.g. Guðrún Pétursdóttir (Guðrún, daughter of Pétur). Members of a family can therefore have many different "surnames", which sometimes causes confusion to foreigners!

History

In 930, the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world´s first republican governments; the Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas, lasted until 1262, when Iceland lost its independence, and in 1944 the present republic was founded.  The country is governed by the Althing (parliament), whose 63 members are elected every four years.  four-yearly elections are also held for the presidency; President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was elected in June 1996 to succeed Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and was re-elected in June 2000.  The head of state plays no part in day-to-day politics.