Picture of a family at Myvatn Lake, Iceland

Visitors take a dip in Myvatn Lake, part of Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland.

Photograph by Travel Pictures/Alamy

Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life, by Keith Bellows

Iceland is one of the warmest cold countries you’ll find—especially so toward children. It seems everywhere you look there are pram-pushing moms and blond-haired kids swarming the capital of Reykjavik. The big hit for children (and adults) will be the city’s 18 mostly open-air geothermal pools (82–109°F); most also have slides and fountains. Use a pool visit to introduce the concept of renewable resources. Iceland is on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a belt of mountains and rift valleys where periodic eruptions widen the ocean floor. One of the world’s most tectonically volatile places, it feeds more than 200 volcanoes and 600 hot springs and heats 85 percent of Iceland’s homes. Add to this energy produced by the nation’s rivers and streams, and the country essentially gets all its electricity from nature.

The other thermal experience kids will love is a visit to the Blue Lagoon—40 miles from the city. This geothermal spa is built over and around what could be described as the world’s biggest Jacuzzi—a large pool with white mud that kids can smear all over their bodies (for the health benefits and to make a joyous mess). Much of the lagoon is shallow enough for them to stand on the bottom, heads above water.

Next comes the grand journey—the Ring Road (aka Highway 1), 830 miles of majesty that encircles the country and skirts black-sand beaches, volcanoes, imposing fjords, crater lakes, thermal fields, and some of the world’s largest glaciers. Prepare your kids for more than eye-filling scenics. But you’ll be in the car a lot—so stock up on some Icelandic tapes and books (maybe even some Björk music) to help while away the hours and give your passengers an earful of Norse sagas and eerie folktales. This is a place of the imagination, where we can all have permission to make things up, pretend, and make believe. The locals indulge in that—and you should, too. “We have thousands of stories,” says Reykjavik-based guide Geir Rogwaldsson. “Stories of people visible and invisible; giants mean and ugly; dwarfs, gnomes, and little fairies who live in rocks. That’s how people entertained themselves in the old days—telling stories through the long winters.”

So as you go, invite your kids to imagine the route populated by ice trolls, guardian spirits in the shape of birds and bulls, mermen and mermaids in offshore waters, ghosts, elves, and other creatures. To Icelanders these are more than mere myths. Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live. And throwing rocks is discouraged—you might hit a huldufólk, gray-clad “hidden people” said to hate churches, crosses, and electricity.

From Reykjavik the Ring Road can be tackled either way, but driving counterclockwise (starting along the south coast) provides a faster introduction to what makes Iceland so special. Reaching the town of Selfoss, detour inland to the steaming thermal field at Geysir and the Gullfoss, a churning wall of water that plunges more than 100 feet into a narrow crevice. The tectonic forces that give the country its thermal energy are also responsible for its dramatic landscape, the basaltic columns, the tortuously rumpled topography, and the kind of volcanic activity we saw when Eyjafjallajökull blew its top and darkened Europe’s skies in April 2010.

Back on Highway 1 continue to Dyrhólaey, a black-sand beach shadowed by volcanic cliffs, and home to one of the island’s strangest attractions—an old military amphibious vehicle now used for tours. “Glaciers cover about 12 percent of Iceland and there are quite a few volcanoes beneath,” says skipper Thorsteinn Gunnarsson, as he plunges his vessel through whitecaps into the chilly Atlantic. “Over the years the volcanic ash has turned this coast into a black-sand desert. We . . . must be prepared for a volcanic disaster at any time—evacuating our homes, schools, or work in one hour or less.”

Continuing along the south coast, the drive culminates in a stretch of blue called Jökulsárós, a lagoon filled with hundreds of icebergs calved from the Vatna Glacier. A boat ride brings you to within reach of the bergs, crossing waters that have appeared in such movies as Batman Begins.

The fire and ice fade away into majestic fjords as the Ring Road banks along the island’s east coast. With its old wooden buildings and family-friendly Skálanes nature center featuring seals, reindeer, and puffins, Seydisfjördur is the place to take a break from driving and arrange a hiking, biking, kayaking, sailing, or fishing trip in a local fjord.

North of Seydisfjördur, the road cuts across a vast volcanic desert and more natural wonders. Among possible detours are the Askja caldera field, Dettifoss waterfall (Europe’s most powerful by volume), and the unearthly Leirhnúkur lava field, where kids can traverse the lunarlike landscape where the Apollo astronauts practiced for moon landings. Akureyri, on the north coast, provides a welcome splash of civilization, as well as a rare chance for children to golf under the midnight sun (in summer).

Round a corner, to the west coast, and the landscape becomes green and lush, rather than cold and stony. Just west of Highway 1 awaits the long and fertile Haukadalur Valley, where Erik the Red settled after his family was banished from Norway. “Erik was a bit of a troublemaker,” says Alma Gudmundsdottir, one of the living-history actors at a reproduction Norse homestead on the site of Erik’s farm. “He was always arguing with his neighbors . . . After murdering three of them, Erik was ‘outlawed’—meaning he could be killed without punishment. Rather than await certain death, he took his family and his livestock and sailed away to Greenland.” One of those family members was son Leif Eriksson.

At Haukadalur kids can see a bit of what Viking life must have been. Alma and others, clad as medieval peasants, sit around a smoldering hearth inside a sod house, chatting in Old Norse as if the modern world never happened. “Iceland offers connections to the past found almost nowhere else,” says National Geographic fellow Jonathan Tourtellot, who has been to the country six times. “Just tell your children that Icelanders have two letters in their alphabet (thorn and edh) that we don’t have but used to, in Old English. And that people go by a first name plus that of the father. Iceland will fascinate kids. They can have a wild adventure in a literate, safe, sophisticated country. And they can hike all day and wind up in a thermal pool.”

Know Before You Go

Fast Facts:

  • Glaciers cover more than 12 percent of Iceland, though the Gulf Stream and warm southwesterly winds moderate the climate.

  • Foxes were the only land mammals in Iceland when it was settled. Newcomers imported domesticated animals and reindeer.

  • Vatnajökull, or Vatna Glacier, covers 8 percent of the country (3,200 square miles) and is Europe’s largest glacier.

  • Iceland contains about 200 volcanoes and produces one-third of Earth’s total lava flow.

  • The colors in Iceland’s flag represent the elements that comprise the island: Red is for the island’s volcanic fires; white for the snow and ice fields; and blue for the surrounding ocean.

Insider Tip: Iceland is home to nearly two dozen waterfalls. On sunny days, the cascades will catch the rays to create single or even double rainbows.

Books for Parents:

Iceland: Land of the Sagas by Jon Krakauer and David Roberts (1998): Icelandic heritage comes to life as the authors walk, climb, and photograph their way through Iceland’s majestic terrain.

Music:

Takk by Sigur Rós (2005): This Icelandic quartet is known for its ethereal sound. Bridging the gap between ambient and pop, the band has magnetic force in both its English and Icelandic renditions.

Gling Gló by Björk Guðmundsdóttir and Guðmundar Ingólfssonar (1998): This collaboration of the acclaimed vocalist and a trio playing piano, drums, and bass allows Björk’s voice to enrich the group’s smooth jazz sound and warms the Icelandic lyrics for a soothing listening experience.

Movie:

Wrath of Gods (2006): This award-winning documentary tells the story of the extremes a cast and crew endured to film Beowulf & Grendel in the wilds of Iceland.

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