Travel

WHY ICELAND IS SO HOT RIGHT NOW

By Sean Fitzgerald, 24 Hrs

One hot tip for visiting Iceland: don't forget your bathing suit! Soaking in the natural outdoor pools is a must. SUPPLIED

One hot tip for visiting Iceland: don't forget your bathing suit! Soaking in the natural outdoor pools is a must. SUPPLIED

I can see the epic geyser shooting up into the sky in front of me. I can feel my muscles relax as I ease into the geothermal spa. I can smell the freshness of the mountain breeze as I stare at your pictures on Facebook.

I’ve never been to Iceland, but I’m aching to visit.

In the past few years, it feels like 95% of my social media pals have taken trips to this exotic Nordic nation, posting fantastic photos from their vacations, boasting about their plans to return and succeeding at making people like me jealous.

The country seems to be seeping into my consciousness, with Reyka Vodka bottles staring at me from LCBO shelves, yogurt-like skyr products calling out to me from the dairy section, Icelandic Glacial spring water ads decorating bus shelters, Of Monsters and Men singing on the radio and emails about the Taste of Iceland festival popping into my inbox.

If you’re also curious about Iceland, you’ll be able to experience a sample of its culture at the festival’s sixth annual edition, which runs in Toronto from Nov.10 to 13 and celebrates Icelandic food, music and literature with a number of (mostly free) events.

So, how did Iceland become so hip in the first place?

It’s largely because people learned more about it after the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – and the ash cloud that affected airports across Europe for a week afterward.

“They launched a campaign in the wake of this, and it was hugely successful,” says Eliza Reid, Iceland’s Canadian-born First Lady, who will be leading a discussion of Icelandic literature at the festival. “Also, having Game of Thrones and other shows and films being shot in Iceland has added to it as well, and the effects have snowballed. Everybody seems to have either returned from visiting Iceland themselves, or they know someone that’s just visited, or it’s on their wish list. It’s really on everybody’s radar.”

Since 2010, the number of visitors to Iceland has been increasing by 25% to 30% each year, with government agencies predicting that the country could receive 1.8 million tourists in 2016. Figures from the Icelandic Tourist Board show that this year marks the first time that the number of U.S. tourists will be greater than the number of Icelandic people living there.

That’s a lot of people snapping surreal-looking photos for their Instagram accounts. Does Iceland have the infrastructure to maintain this kind of growth?

“It’s certainly given rise to a lot of discussions within Iceland, in terms of how to make the growth sustainable, and how to deal with it,” explains Reid, who grew up in the Ottawa Valley and met her husband, Gudni Johannesson, while they were both studying in England. “Obviously one of the biggest attractions for people visiting Iceland is the country’s nature...so it’s making sure that there are the proper facilities for tourists, while maintaining those natural sites and maintaining safety for tourists.”

Toronto Sun Travel Editor Robin Robinson says that she’s definitely noticed a strong uptick in the numbers of Canadians visiting Iceland.

“When I became travel editor 15 years ago, almost no one I knew had been there,” she says. “Now, people tell me all the time that they have been there.”

Both Robinson and Reid credit the direct flights that run daily from Toronto to Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, with fostering strong growth. It takes less than six hours to fly from between the two cities – something that might surprise a lot of people.

One of the friends that unintentionally made me jealous on Facebook, Andrew McCready, took a 13-day journey to Iceland in June, spending much of that time on a solo motorcycle trip around the Ring Road (route 1).

“The entire trip was out this world,” he recalls. “Iceland contains such a wide range of landscapes that look like they don't belong on earth. From lava fields, to mountains, to fjords. The landscape provides such a beautiful backdrop for a motorcycle adventure.”

It almost pains me to hear about these wonderful memories. For now, I can just stare at the mountains of Landmannalaugar online, fantasizing about the otherworldly architecture of the Hallgrímskirkja church and pretending that my grubby Toronto bathtub is Grindavík’s celebrated Blue Lagoon spa.

I’ll get there one day. It’s less than six hours away, right?

ICELAND 101: Tips before jetting off

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Iceland soon, here are a few recommendations from First Lady Eliza Reid:

1) “Try to get out to the countryside. Don’t just spend time in the capital.”

2) “Bring your bathing suit. There are wonderful swimming pools and hot tubs throughout the country, and that’s a really authentic experience to have. It’s something that Icelanders do a lot, is go to the swimming pools and sit in the hot tubs, which are all outside, and they’re open year-round.”

3) “Drink the tap water, because it’s the best water in the world. It’s way better than Toronto water – no offence, Toronto!”