Iceland has rightly been called the land of fire and ice as it has both the world’s largest concentrations of geysers as well as the world’s largest glacier Vatnajökull that covers 8% of Iceland’s surface. Even the word geyser comes from the Icelandic verb geysa, which means to gush. In addition, there are 130 volcanic mountains in Iceland, 18 of which have erupted since it became inhabited. In comparison, the land area of Iceland is roughly six times the size of the State of Hawaii.
Vikings from Norway first settled Iceland in 874 bringing with them slaves from Ireland and Scotland. Within 50 years, Althingi was formed in 930, which is now the world’s oldest parliamentary institution, discontinued for only 45 years from 1799 to 1844. Despite this, Iceland only recently became an independent republic in 1944 after being ruled by Norway from 1262 followed by Denmark in 1380.
Iceland now has the 2nd highest quality of life in the world according to Economist Intelligence Index of 2011. This is in spite of beer being banned until 1989 and the legal drinking age set at 20. It has the world’s highest number of writers, authors and artists per capita. And who can forget the World Chess Championship between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky. Also, a well-known tradition of both men and women is knitting warm woolen clothes.
In 2009, Iceland elected their first female Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian government head. Recent elections have resulted in scandals of pedophiles in government and misuse of funds. Iceland has the world’s highest rate of children born outside of marriage (69%). Even the world’s largest bird breeding ground of puffins, northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills is found on the cliffs at Latrabjarg.
The financial crisis of 2010 hurt Iceland’s economy when three banks failed and the kronor dropped in value. However, loans from other countries helped to rebuild the economy and Iceland has risen back up to 9th place in the Human Development Index. Now, 40% of Icelandic economy depends on the fishing industry and 31% on unwrought aluminum. Many European travelers now fly low priced Iceland Air, which usually stops in Iceland’s airport in transit to Europe. The savvy ones travel with a bathing suit and plan a relaxing break in nearby hot springs at the Blue Lagoon, then returning to the airport.
Reykjavik is the world’s most northern capital of any sovereign state. The whale watching capital of Europe is at a small fishing village Husavik where one can frequently see minke, humpback and blue whales. Some traditional foods were whale and seal meat along with sheep’s head. However, in recent decades with youth traveling, Icelandic food and lifestyle has become more cosmopolitan. The music group Bjork and Iceland’s soccer team success has brought it into the news too.
The hardy descendants of the Vikings and their slaves have made Iceland a warm, welcome and modern home for both themselves and the many visitors who flock there.