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Red house on a fjord in Iceland

Iceland Overview

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Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the dividing line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This small island is northwest of England and east of Greenland. Its northern edge nearly touches the Arctic Circle, but thanks to the warm North Atlantic Current, the climate is remarkably temperate and far less chilly than many other countries at the same latitude. This temperate climate, and its beautiful island features, beckons travelers to experience a tour of Iceland.

The land of fire and ice has something to offer any traveler. During your Iceland cruise enjoy ice climbing, soak in geothermal pools, marvel at the aurora borealis, take a horseback ride, go whale watching, or just take in the spectacular geologic features, which include vast glaciers, geysers, hot springs, lava deserts, and active volcanoes. Iceland’s tourism industry is growing rapidly as the country is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination. Today Iceland is known not only for its unique geology, but also for its excellent educational system, longevity, income, and standard of living.

In the early 9th century, Iceland was settled by the Norse who formed the legislative assembly, Althing, in 930 AD, making Iceland the world’s oldest democracy. The country’s relative isolation has also given its people a fierce independence and self-reliance. Over the centuries this country has developed a rich culture of art, literature, and music. During your Iceland cruise you can enjoy theatre productions, operas, and symphonies, or explore the centuries-old homes and artifacts that have been preserved by the National Museum.

Visitors from Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand do not need visas to travel to Iceland. Travel in Iceland is a little more expensive than European destinations; in recent years the American dollar has fallen against the Icelandic krona. However, Iceland’s rugged beauty and spectacular geology continue to draw an increasing number of travelers.

The Ancient History of Iceland

Before you begin your Iceland travel, enhance your experience by learning a little more about the country’s ancient history. Island’s history is closely connected with nearby Norway and Denmark, but the first people to actually inhabit the island were Irish monks, who used Iceland as a hermitage of sorts until the early 800s. The monks were followed by permanent settlers from Norway; one early source states that the first settlers were Ingolfr Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Frodadottir, who came to Iceland from Norway in 874, staked their homestead in the southwest, and called it Reykjavik. Over the next several decades, Ingolfr and Hallveig were followed by hundreds of other settlers, most from Norway, but some from other Nordic countries and settlements in the British Isles.

The settlers formed a parliamentary government system, complete with district assembly, National Assembly (or Althing), code of law and courts of justice. While farmers had political rights, the democratic practice did not include women or common workers. The conversion of Icelanders to Christianity in 999 helped to further unify the people. A tour of Iceland today allows the opportunity to see the influence Christianity still has on the present-day island culture. Over the next 100 years peace reigned and an agrarian economy developed and flourished. The people raised both sheep and cattle for meat, milk, and wool.

By the 13th century the royal power in Norway had strengthened and King Hakon Hakonarson was determined to unite all Norwegian settlements under his reign. By the early 1260s Iceland was under Norwegian power. The next 300 years brought difficulty and turbulence. In the 1300s Icelanders suffered from several eruptions of volcanic Mt. Hekla, resulting in severe death and destruction. Mount Hekla is still an active volcano today, and a popular destination for those enjoying Iceland travel. The volcano is recognized for its notorious history, but also has incredible beauty. In 1380, Norway and Denmark united, putting Iceland under Danish rule. During this time, Iceland’s economy deteriorated, because of deforestation, soil erosion, and an increasingly severe climate, all of which affected the island’s agriculture. Iceland was not immune to the infamous plague that hit Europe; the Black Death struck twice in the 15th century, killing off nearly half of the population.

In the 1530s, the Reformation came to Denmark. The people of Iceland, however, held out stubbornly against Lutheranism for 20 years before their resistance lost its stronghold. After the Reformation, Denmark tightened its hold on Iceland, confiscating all monastery lands, monopolizing foreign trade, and introducing a bureaucratic system. By the early 1700s, the population of Iceland was a little more than 50,000, with most people making their living either in farming or fishing. As the century progressed, some of the people slowly began to cluster into towns. Reykjavik was just a small village in the 1750s, but by the time the Danish governor settled there in the early 1800s, its population had reached 300.

The move for independence began in the early 19th century. The Icelanders expressed a desire to reinstate the Althing as a local representative assembly. This wish was granted by the Danish king, Christian VIII, in 1845. Over the next several decades, the Icelanders and the Danes worked to reach an agreement on Iceland’s status, but it was not until 1874—the millennium anniversary of Iceland’s settlement—that King Frederick VII granted the Althing legislative power in domestic affairs. After several more decades of struggling for independence, Iceland finally became a separate state under Danish rule in 1918. In 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark, the connection between the two countries dissolved. After the war, Iceland severed all ties with Denmark, and established an independent republic. Sveinn Bjornsson became Iceland’s first president on June 17, 1944. If you travel in the middle of June you can experience Iceland’s National Day, which is annually celebrated on the seventeenth.

Iceland’s Unique Cuisine

Understandably, Iceland’s cuisine centers on its fishing industry. Adventurous visitors on a tour of Iceland can choose between some of the more unique traditional foods, which include hakarl (putrefied shark meat that has been carefully decomposed), hrutspungur (ram’s testicles pickled in whey), and slatur (a dish made of sheep entrails). Other dishes use cod, haddock, salmon, whale blubber, puffin, scorched sheep’s head, lamb, and seal meat as ingredients. A popular Icelandic dessert is skyr, which is made of cultured skim milk and served with fresh bilberries. Most of the people drink coffee, and many enjoy brennivin, a liquor made from potatoes and caraway.

Discover the Local Culture on an Iceland Cruise!

Despite being an isolated island country—or perhaps because of it—Iceland has developed a rich and varied culture that invites travelers to come and experience. Iceland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. During your Iceland cruise you are such to notice the passion Icelanders have for literature and the arts. Iceland’s literary heritage dates back to the 12th century and has been captured in the heroic poetry that was written during that time. Icelandic poetry was followed by epic sagas of settlement, vendettas, mythology, and romance. In modern times, several of the island’s writers have gained international acclaim, most notably 1955 Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness, for his novel Sjálfstætt folk (Independent People).

Iceland’s long artistic history began with several centuries of religious art, with secular artists coming into their own in the 19th century. Much of the artwork was centered on the beauty and uniqueness of the landscape. On a trip to Iceland today, you will find that painting is still an important part of Iceland’s artistic culture. Traditional arts such as silver working, weaving from Icelandic wool, and woodcarving also hold a significant position in the local culture.

Björk of the alternative rock band The Sugarcubes may be Iceland’s most famous singer. Due to the success of various Icelandic pop singers, in recent years Reykjavik has become an important performing center for musicians throughout Europe. Icelanders also have a rich classical music tradition. If you have time during your Iceland cruise, enjoy the popular Iceland Symphony, or the National Theatre and Icelandic Opera.

A tour of Iceland presents the country’s history, well preserved in old houses and ruins throughout the country, largely due to the work of the National Museum of Iceland. The museum exhibits artifacts dating back to the Viking Age. One Viking cultural artifact that is still enjoyed today by many Icelanders is chess—chess clubs proliferate throughout the country and have produced a number of world-class grandmasters.

Ninety-five percent of the population consists of Icelanders, which are a homogenous mixture of Norse and Celts, while the remaining five percent is of foreign origin. Because of its homogenous population, Iceland has been the subject of various genetic studies in recent years. Icelandic is the country’s primary language, and is closest in origin to Old Norse, but on a trip to Iceland you will also hear English, German, and other Nordic languages spoken. Iceland’s religion is as homogenous as its people and its language, as the Reformation took firm hold in the country in the mid-1500s. Ninety percent of the population belongs to the Lutheran Church of Iceland.

Icelanders take pride in their independence and self-reliance, developed out of necessity due to their country’s relative isolation. The people engage in a variety of sports, from wrestling, swimming, horseback riding, ice and rock climbing, fishing, and kayaking. The rugged landscape of Iceland makes it a wonderful spot for rock climbers, and some brave souls on their Iceland cruise will enjoy the challenge of making their way up frozen waterfalls and glacial crevasses. Fortunately, Iceland has hundreds of hot springs and geothermal pools to soothe strained muscles and tired bodies.

The Environment of Iceland

Travelers may be surprised to find Iceland’s environment so temperate for its location in such a northern region. The climate supplies Iceland with two primary vegetation zones: the tundra, a zone of treeless plains; and the taiga, a zone of coniferous forests. Prior to human settlement, woodlands and birch forests are estimated to have covered 25-40% of the land area, but by the early 1900s these forests had nearly been exhausted. Today, the number of trees has once again increased due to reforestation initiatives, but unfortunately much of the native forest ecosystem has been lost. One-fourth of the land is continuously covered by vegetation, which consists of forestland, bogs, moors, and grasslands.

Iceland’s natural resources are limited in variety, but each resource in itself is considerable: fish, hydropower, geothermal power, and diatomite. Iceland’s primary industries include fish processing, aluminum smelting, ferrosilicon production, geothermal power, and a growing travel and tourism sector. Fishing provides 70% of the countries export earnings, and employs four percent of the workers. Over-fishing has long been an issue, though the strict catch quotas imposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s have helped somewhat to stabilize the fish population. Despite its small size, Iceland also faces increasing issues with air pollution. Water pollution from fertilizer runoff is also a concern, as is inadequate wastewater treatment, but awareness is key and Iceland is taking proactive steps to improve these environmental distresses.

Less than five percent of the country’s workers are involved in agriculture, due to the small amount of arable land and short growing season. Icelanders make up for this deficit, however, by using geothermal energy to heat a large number of greenhouses. Agricultural products include potatoes and green vegetables. On an Iceland tour you are likely to also notice a variety of cattle farms. Many Icelandic farmers raise sheep and dairy cattle, making the country nearly self-sufficient in dairy products.

Explore Iceland’s Geography

Iceland is a small island country about the size of Kentucky that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean just below the Arctic Circle. Its size, location, and beautiful landscape make Iceland a popular choice for travelers interested in an adventure cruise. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge splits the country roughly down the middle, separating the North American plate from the Eurasian plate and making Iceland a country of active volcanoes, geysers, and geothermal hot springs. Most of the island is a plateau, with the remaining landscape offering its visitors a stately view of beautiful mountains, magnificent glaciers—including Europe’s largest, the Vatna Glacier—and an intricate coastline of rugged fjords, which provide the country with many natural harbors. Because Iceland is so young, geologically speaking, the glaciated landscape is still full of rivers and lakes. Most of the lakes are dammed by lava or glacial ice, while the rivers are either full of glacial debris or clear-running, fed by rainfall and underground springs.

Iceland is a land of fire and ice: ten percent of the landscape is covered by cooled lava, while another ten percent is covered by glacial ice. The 3,000 square miles covered by the Vatna Glacier are equal to the total land area covered by glaciers in continental Europe. The Vatna is also the location Hvannadals Peak, which at 6,952 feet above sea level is Iceland’s highest point of land. Other striking points to explore while on a tour of the island include Iceland’s 200 volcanoes, which have been the source of one-third of Earth’s total lava flows in the past 500 years. Iceland not only has a vast amount of lava, it is also home to the largest number of hot springs and solfataras to be found in any country. This geothermal energy heats all of Reykjavik, the capital, and several other communities, as well as heating commercial greenhouses and providing steam for industry.

Iceland’s nearly 300,000 people live almost exclusively along the coasts. Reykyavik, the northernmost capital in the world is a desirable stop for travelers on their Iceland adventure cruise. Reykyavik is located in the southwestern portion of the country, which has numerous natural harbors and good fishing. Along the western coast the fishing industry is balanced with agriculture, while northern Iceland focuses even more on farming. The east has more fjords, while the rugged, pristine southeast is home to mountains and glaciers, and the lowlands of the south comprise Iceland’s primary agricultural region.

Iceland’s Modern History: What You Should Know Before Your Tour

World War II brought prosperity to Iceland in a time of economic stagnancy. The arrival of British and U.S. forces in the early 1940s brought employment to the country’s 120,000 residents. In 1949, Iceland became a charter member of NATO; two years later the government allowed the United States to take responsibility for defense of the country. If you take a tour of Iceland today you can still find U.S. military forces stationed on a base in Keflavik in southwestern Iceland, though they are currently reducing their presence there.

Fishing has remained a significant portion of Iceland’s economy, but this dependence has also caused the country some trouble. In 1950, Iceland expanded its fishing zone from three nautical miles to 200, sparking protests and military action from the United Kingdom and West Germany. The so-called “Cod Wars” lasted until 1976, when Britain finally recognized the 200-mile limit. In the past 30 years, however, fish stocks in Icelandic waters have drastically depleted, forcing Iceland to impose restrictions on local fishing limits and venture even farther across the ocean to seek adequate fishing areas. Such venturing has not been appreciated by Norway and Russia, and disputes have arisen over Icelanders fishing in the Barents Sea.

More recently, Iceland has sought to grow its economy by investing in such industry as aluminum smelting, and it is also deregulating and privatizing the financial sector. Iceland entered the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1970, and can therefore participate in the European market without having to be a member of the European Union. Recent domestic disagreements have arisen over whether or not Iceland should become part of the EU. If you take an Iceland tour today, the country remains outside the EU, but the Social Democratic Party is pushing for EU membership.

Iceland Travel: Learn About the Local Politics

It may surprise travelers to know that Iceland is the world’s oldest democracy. Shortly after its settlement in the late 9th century, the people formed their own ruling body, the Althing, which, except for the first half of the 19th century, has existed continuously, in one form or another, up to the present. Though in Iceland’s early years only male landowners had any voice in government, today all citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote—and in any given election, about 85% of eligible voters get out to the polls.

After declaring independence from Denmark in 1944, the new Republic of Iceland established a parliamentary democracy with the head of state a directly elected president. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, first elected in 1996, is in the midst of his third term as president. The real power, however, resides with the Althing, which, in today’s political system, is the 63-member parliament. Members are elected every four years, unless the coalition parliament is dissolved and new elections are needed. The prime minister-appointed cabinet must maintain majority support in the Althing; generally the cabinet members are appointed according to which parties hold the most seats in the parliament. In the 60+ years of the Republic of Iceland’s existence, no party has ever held the majority vote, making a coalition government necessary. The prime minister is usually the majority party leader or the leader of the majority coalition. If enjoying Iceland travel today, Geir Haarde, a member of the Independence Party, was just elected prime minister in June 2006.

The center-to-conservative Independence Party has taken one-third to two-fifths of the popular vote since the 1970s. The Progressive Party is generally the second leading party, and other popular parties include the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Party. The Independence and Progressive parties have formed coalition governments from time to time.

Iceland’s Welcoming Weather

Despite its location and name, travelers on a tour of Iceland might be surprised to find that the island has a fairly temperate climate. Both air and ocean currents affect the weather patterns. A polar wind and the East Greenland Current carry Arctic temperatures and drift ice to the northeast shores, while a tropical air current and the North Atlantic Current help to moderate the weather in the southwestern portion of the country.

Almost any season is a good time to plan an Iceland tour. Temperatures vary relatively little from summer to winter. In Reykjavik, the average July temperature is a cool 51° F, while the average January temperature is an only slightly chillier 31° F. Snow falls on the landscape about 100 days each year in the northwest, while the southeast sees only 40 days of snowfall. Some of the mountains receive more than 160 inches of precipitation in a year, though the average precipitation in the south remains around 80 inches. The winter months bring wild island gales, heavy fog, and long dark days, but in the fall and early winter the aurora borealis can often be seen brightening up the skies with vivid colors. Though the winters are dark, the summers bring long days of sunshine; southwest Iceland clocks nearly 1,300 hours of sun per year.

The Wildlife on an Iceland Cruise

Being an isolated island, Iceland was long home to birds and fish before the first human ever set foot on its shores. Travelers are most impressed with Iceland’s fantastic population of fish. The lakes and rivers are filled with salmon and trout, and the seas surrounding the island are a great source of varied fish species, though long years of over fishing have effected the marine population. Before human settlement, the only mammal that existed on the island was the arctic fox. With humans, however, came various domestic and farm animals, and other creatures such as rats and mice. Reindeer and mink were later introduced, and many reindeer still live in the highlands of the northeast. On an Iceland cruise don’t expect to see any wild reptiles or amphibians. Due to Iceland’s latitude and climate, the number of insects is low relative to other parts of the world, and these factors have also made it impossible for the country to be home to any native reptiles or amphibians.

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