Iceland is one of the most dramatic natural spectacles on the planet. It is a land of dazzling white glaciers and black sands, blue hot springs, rugged lava fields, and green, green valleys. This North Atlantic island offers insight into the ferocious powers of nature, ranging from the still-warm lava from the 1973 Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) and the 2000 Mt. Hekla volcanic eruptions to the chilling splendor of the Vatnajökull Glacier.
Iceland was settled by Vikings with strong Celtic elements in the late 9th century. Tradition has it that the first Norse settlers arrived in AD 874, but there is some evidence that Irish monks landed even earlier. Icelanders today speak a language remarkably similar to the ancient Viking tongue in which the sagas were recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Norse settlers brought to the island sturdy horses, robust cattle, and Celtic slaves. Perhaps Irish tales of the supernatural inspired Iceland's traditional lore of the huldufólk, or hidden people, said to reside in splendor in rocks, crags, caves, and lava tubes.
Iceland's near-universal literacy might be attributed to its long tradition of participatory democracy, dating from AD 930, when the first parliament met at ingvellir. Icelandic tribal chiefs decided to join the Norwegian crown in the mid-13th century, and after many centuries under Norwegian, and later Danish, rule, Iceland finally gained full independence in 1944. Today Iceland is a modern Nordic—most find the term Scandinavian too limited—society with a well-developed social-welfare system and one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Iceland almost defies division into separate regions, thanks to its inlets and bays, thorough lacework of rivers, and complex coastline of fjords, all crowned by an unpopulated highland of glaciers and barrens. To divide the country into four compass directions is to oversimplify, but since the Icelandic national emblem (seen on the "tails" side of every local coin) depicts four legendary symbols—one for each corner of the country—the number is not totally arbitrary.
Reykjavík is the logical starting point for any visit to Iceland, before venturing out into the countryside, where rainbow-arched waterfalls cleave mountains with great spiked ridges and snowcapped peaks. You can climb mountains, ford rivers, watch birds, catch trout or salmon, even tend sheep and cattle at a typical Icelandic farm. The west is an expansive section of rugged fjords and lush valleys, starting just north of Reykjavík and extending all the way up to the extreme northwest. The north is a region of long, sometimes broad valleys and fingerlike peninsulas reaching toward the Arctic Circle. The east has fertile farmlands, the country's largest forest, and its share of smaller fjords. Iceland's south stretches from the lowest eastern fjords, essentially all the way west to the capital's outskirts. It encompasses rich piedmont farmland and wide, sandy coastal and glacial plains. Powerful rivers drain the area, carved with impressive waterfalls. The national parks of Skaftafell and ingvellir are here, as well as the nation's highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur.