Until recently, relatively few travelers ever ventured as far north, and as far out of the way, as Iceland. Empty volcanic landscapes, glacier-carved fjords and the wild, ever-changing skies set Iceland well apart from mainland Scandinavia. Intrigued by maps with such long names for such empty spaces, I first wandered to Iceland when I was fresh out of college. Now I go every year.
I wrote my first guidebook to Iceland in 2006, when only 300,000 foreigners visited the country. Today, over 2 million tourists come to Iceland each year—six times the country's resident population. While the influx of foreign currency is a boon to the Icelandic economy, the weight of sudden growth threatens everything that makes Iceland special: clean air, unspoiled landscapes, a unique language and culture, and a wealth of silent space. Iceland now faces the challenge of safeguarding their natural and cultural treasures against the onslaught of mass tourism.
Small and hip, Iceland's capital thrives on fun, food, art and design. No other city offers more indie music per block than tiny little Reykjavík; and no other city parties harder. While a reputation for cool has shown a marked success in business, far too many tourists get stuck on these streets. Two-thirds of annual visitors never leave the capital, meaning two-thirds of foreign visitors never experience the best of Iceland.
My favorite part of Iceland lies in the West Fjords, way up in the remote northwest corner of the country. Vast, untouched and overlooked, less than 3% of all foreign visitors to Iceland ever make it up to the West Fjords. As a travel writer, I try to encourage visitors to step away from the more easy-access destinations and embrace whatever adventure greets them at the fringe of any country. Over the past decade, I see more first-timers willing to explore Iceland's farthest edge, and for this I am glad.
On my last trip to the West Fjords, in a remote bay in Hornstrandir, I met Birna Zaphroniasdóttir (age 75), who was spending her summer holiday in her family cottage. Through my very broken Icelandic, we discovered we share the same birthday, and she gave me a big hug and invited me in for coffee and cake. Without Icelanders, Iceland is a far less interesting place, and somehow, their big Viking smiles keep pulling me back to their island over and over again.
I'm currently writing the 4th edition of my bestselling guidebook to Iceland, the Bradt Travel Guide. Updating a guidebook to a country that is so quickly evolving into one of the world's top destinations has its challenges, but like all my work, I am enjoying the process.