Iceland’s Stunning Alien Landscapes Lure Adventurous Travelers

Indulge in an elevated travel experience in Europe’s weirdest natural settings.

It has an alien allure, the southern coast of Iceland. As you stand amid emerald fields tinted with wildflowers you wonder where the trees are? They were chopped down by Vikings 1,000 years ago. And where are the animals? Other than livestock there’s practically none. Empty acres of farmland, horizons as wide as the Mojave, but green not brown, and cold, not hot.

Outback glacier seeking in a Land Rover Defender
(Paige Deasley)

It’s a place so desolate that Neil Armstrong trained here for his historic moonwalk. It’s where the sun stays up later than you, and boulders are inhabited by elves; not the cute Santa’s helper kind, but the Lord of the Rings warrior kind that steals your children and wreaks havoc. But strangest of all, it’s where they actually take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously.

The plane wreck featured in Justin Bieber’s “I’ll Show You” video.

(Stefan Libermann)

And if all of this sounds a bit nuts, just remember the Justin Bieber plane wreck. You saw it in his 2015 “I’ll Show You” video. Now it’s a tourist attraction. And good for Iceland, since tourism has officially overtaken fishing as the country’s largest industry. But bad for Iceland, since Fjadrargljufur Canyon, also in the video, has been declared off-limits because of over visiting.

Go in style aboard your private jet to Keflavik Nas Airport, just outside of Reykjavik. From there, you can take in volcanic craters, glaciers, lava flows and sheep-studded valleys from above while you sip champagne with your nearest and dearest. It’s perfect for winter when access roads are as limited as daylight hours, but summer’s better when the days are twice as long and the temps are conducive to, say, ditching the jet and paragliding over stunning black-sand beaches courtesy of True Adventure Paragliding in the coastal town of Vik.

Breathtaking scenery where the river meets the ledge
(Stefan Libermann)

For earthbound thrills, mountain bike on seaside flats or heli-bike a dormant volcano. Single track through geothermally active terrain, the sulfur filling your head as you dodge in and out of pillars of steam on paths as old as the planet. Fjords, rivers and miles of coastline make for a fisherman’s paradise when you’re not busy whitewater rafting or weaving through glaciers on glassy lakes in a world painted indigo and white.

A few miles inland from Vik you visit the Katla Ice Cave amid an exotic landscape, an inverse image of Lake Bonneville Salt Flats—no trees, no brush, no rocks, just flat, black earth and endless gray skies. The ever-active ground beneath your feet is a steady reminder of who’s in charge—the steaming vents, the frozen lava flows, black basalt, lucky number 13, the house on Westman Island where lava stopped within feet of consuming it.

A helicopter over Hotel Rangá
(Ingibjorg Fridriskdottir)

It takes a while but you spot the glacier lurking in the hills, camouflaged in soot and ash. It’s accessible only by off-road vehicles, in this case your oversized truck. The conditions and climb are doable without training, but use the crampons, since even a minor slip can prove hazardous this far from help. It’s a short hike to the cave, a circular recess in the glacier wall. Depending on the season, you could be looking at a cool, sapphire crystal cathedral, or a glimmering ebony hole with ice laced in ash. Chip off a piece and sample some of thepurest water on Earth, filtered over eons through sand and subterranean byways.

The 1918 Katla eruption sent a cascade of mud and melted glacier down into the harbor, adding three miles to the coastline. Today that area surrounds an island that rises some 50 stories from where the surf used to pound it. That’s where you find yourself in an amped-up ATV, weaving in and out of obsidian dunes festooned with fluorescent green grass. Katlatrack in Vik has badass four-wheelers for fording streams, skirting the surf at high speeds, or doing donuts by the whale skeleton.

Rainbows on the ATV trail
(Paige Deasley)

Wind down by the waterfalls, some so thin they vaporize into rainbows, others so strong they carve a hollow deep enough to fit a house. Some you can bathe under, but not the Seljalandsfoss, which rages with the force of Niagara, nor the Skógafoss, where a path leads to a hollow behind the falls. Look out at the late-night sun through a curtain of rain, and if you’re lucky you’ll find the legendary treasure of the dwarf.

Come prepared to hike, but if you’re going to do all that walking, shouldn’t you carry a golf club? Westman Island features a course rated one of Europe’s finest. At par 70, it’s equally challenging for its terrain as for the winds off the Atlantic. The islands and glacier-covered peaks of the mainland form an epic backdrop to verdant fairways and black and rusty lava rock. Even if you take a bogey, there are way worse places to do it.

Between the cliffs at Skógafoss falls (Ingibjorg Fridriskdottir)

After lunch at Gott, a short walk gets you to the dock and the Zodiacs. Westman is an atoll composed of countless isles, inlets and rocky towers teeming with birds, its waters populated by humpbacks and orcas.

The Zodiac is ideal for chasing them down or maneuvering in and out of narrow passages at high speed, tunes cranked, wind whipping as you snake through caves stained with lichen and lime. In a depression in the cliff you find a secluded beach surrounded on three sides where you sunbathe naked in summer with your blonde friend (or friends).

Aurora Borealis over Hotel Rangá Bottom
(Stefan Libermann)

Back on the mainland and you can also get astride an Icelandic horse at the Skeiðvellir stables. Or duck into the nearby Caves of Hella, one of Iceland’s many mysteries, hand-carved in the sandstone, perhaps by Vikings. A cross carved into one wall suggests an archaic place of worship, while indecipherable runes might indicate ancient taggers.

When the day is done, but not the sun, pull up to the Hotel Rangá near the Hella Caves, just an hour outside Reykjavik. It’s a cabin-like longhouse good enough for the Kardashians, Charlize Theron, and yes, Justin Bieber. You’ll be lucky to score a suite there; with only 52 rooms, Hotel Rangá is the most luxurious lodging for miles, including themed accommodations ($1,000 per night), like the Asian Suite or the South American Suite, or the Icelandic Suite with a revolving floor.

The games room at Hotel Rangá
(Hotel Ranga)

The Rangá Restaurant affords a panoramic view of the landscape, including the Rangá River snaking through the backyard. For dinner, start with the foraged mushroom soup and move on to the smoked puffin with apple mousse and crowberry powder.

If you’re celebrating, the wine list includes French grower champagne like the J. Charpentier Brut Millésime. If you’re not, have one anyway, or select from a curated wine list from France and Spain. There’s also a sizable offering of craft beers from around the world and a cocktail list that will tempt you into a torpor.

Now, finally, get some sleep. The problem is the sun’s still up, which makes you feel like you should be, too. So, head back down to the bar for a nightcap, another bottle of bubbly. Find a jetlagged friend and together you can slide into the outdoor jacuzzi, and watch the sun try, but fail, to set again.