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Iceland Cruises

About Iceland

When the first Europeans set foot on the rocky shore of Iceland in the 8th century, they found a mesmerizing landscape of geysers and glaciers—but no people. In fact, the largest mammal on the island was the Arctic fox. Situated just below the Arctic Circle, only the most resilient flora and fauna can survive amid this land’s stark beauty. Yet Icelanders have carved out a unique way of life, one that embraces both progress and tradition.

The Celts were the first people to visit Iceland, but they didn’t stay. It was the Vikings who established a long-term settlement and founded the Icelandic Commonwealth in 930 AD, a type of charter inspired by the traditions and laws of Norway. Regional affairs were managed by local chieftains, who met to discuss issues of national importance. This system held until 1262, when increasing conflicts between chieftains culminated in the establishment of Norwegian rule. In subsequent centuries, both Norwegians and Danish controlled Iceland.

Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1918, though the Danes continued to handle its foreign affairs. Iceland cut all ties to Denmark in 1944.

Iceland Lifestyle and Culture

Icelanders have a profound relationship with their land. Despite the country’s evocative name, glaciers cover only about 11 percent of the nation. And Iceland’s natural geology has provided geothermal power for the fuel-starved island. Iceland has been able to make use of its vast thermal energy and waterways to become one of the most renewable energy–powered nations in the world.

The isolation brought about by Iceland’s remote location has infused the people with an unwavering sense of independence. In the least populated European nation, with about 332,000 residents, self-reliance and determination are especially prized characteristics.

While the sea serves as a natural border, it also provides Icelanders with a ready supply of seafood. The commercial fishing industry is an important part of the economy. Beginning in the mid–20th century, territorial disputes with Great Britain over fishing rights led to a series of intense negotiations known as the Cod Wars.

With no outside influence, the Icelandic language has remained strikingly similar to the Norwegian tongue spoken by the first settlers. Discussions over dinner sound much the same as they did in the 8th century, though the topics have changed.

The Lutheran Church of Iceland counts the most adherents, and it serves as the state church. The majority of citizens are of Nordic and Gaelic ancestry.

Due to its extreme northern latitude, summer days are long in Iceland, and the 24-hour “midnight sun” shines in June and July. Conversely, winter finds much of the country in a state of dusk or darkness.

Iceland Sights and Landmarks

The European and American tectonic plates meet in the southwest at Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, home to hot springs, lava fields and other natural wonders. Swimming in the warm waters of the peninsula’s Blue Lagoon, one begins to appreciate Iceland’s unique geology.

Iceland is famous for several geysers. The Strokkur geyser erupts once every 8-10 minutes, launching a fountain of hot water into the air. The geyser at Haukadalur is believed to be the oldest in the world.

Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital, offers a look at the traditional Icelandic way of life through the lens of a modern city. Watched over by the majestic Esja mountain range, it boasts a small town feel and is easy to explore by foot. Stroll along the Old Harbor, board a boat to watch whales or puffins, then return to port to shop and dine. The city is dominated by the monolithic Hallgrímskirkja; the design of this church’s dramatic bell tower can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. For a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the city and its harbor, ascend Öskjuhlíð Hill to the Perlan vantage point, a glass-domed hilltop landmark offering spectacular city views.