Forget the big tours. Here's what to do in Iceland if you're looking for a more authentic experience.
As travel destinations go, Iceland is hot, so to speak, and for good reason: the country boasts 30 active volcanoes, milky-blue hot springs, elf-inhabited lava fields (or so many Icelanders believe), extraordinary scuba diving, and a landscape best described as a blend of the moon, the Arctic, and western Ireland. Drawn by the country's many natural wonders or, perhaps, more practically, by Icelandair's free Reykjavik layovers on transatlantic flights, travelers have been arriving in the country in droves. To meet the demand, many all-inclusive day tours have popped up—whale watching, glacier walks, waterfall hikes, heli-tours, jeep excursions—with pickups straight from Reykjavik hotel lobbies.
But the group approach isn't always the best way to explore a country and culture defined by a sparse population sprinkled across remote and stunning empty spaces. To truly commune with this otherworldly landscape and experience Iceland like a native, you'll need to go it alone. Here are some of the best ways to do it:
Prepare to go off road
Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with lots of clearance and full insurance, including coverage for the undercarriage. A lot of what you'll want to explore—Glymer waterfall north of Reykjavik; Seljavallalaug, Iceland's oldest geothermal swimming pool, which sits at the base of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano; the steaming volcanic landscapes of Landmannalaugar—will take you inland over dirt tracks and bumpy F-roads (mountain roads in Iceland's highlands).
Chill in your own remote rented digs
Like many natives of Reykjavik, you'll want to escape to a spare stylish holiday cottage in the quiet countryside. Many of these houses dot isolated lava fields—striking land blanketed in moss, heather, and blueberry bushes. Soak in a naturally heated hot tub overlooking a distant volcano. Buy local lamb or seafood and dine in instead of eating at one of Iceland's notoriously expensive restaurants.
Wing it to the Westfjords
Even Icelanders consider this stunning peninsula, set a hair beneath the Arctic Circle, far-flung. The short flight to tiny Ísafjördur Airport is a breathtaking adventure. If you go by car, head north for two hours before stopping for chowder at the remote seaside Fjöruhúsið in Hellnar. From there it's a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur on the south shores of the Westfjords. Or you can break up the trip by staying over at Hotel Flatey on the island of the same name, where the ferry stops en route to Brjánslækur.
Near Ísafjördur, connect with Iceland’s rural traditions by staying at a working farm and dining on comfort seafood dishes at Tjöruhúsið in town. Hike from valley to valley along mountain lakes and crystal-clear streams, through patches of luminous moss, to the neighboring village of Hnífsdalur. Take a boat to Vigur Island, where eiderdown is harvested, or go on a breathtaking drive south to Dýrafjörður fiord, where you can explore the mock Viking festival ground in the village of Þingeyri.
Tölt away on an Icelandic horse
Brought over by Vikings in 900 A.D., these small Icelandic horses are used for sheepherding and pleasure-riding, as well as racing, and are known for having a smooth and speedy fifth gait called the tölt. Ride this ancient breed on a private guided tour around Iceland's most active volcano, Mount Helka. If you're visiting in September, join in one of many rowdy fall rettirs (sheep roundups).
Feast at a local Reykjavik haunt
Once back in civilization, carnivores can indulge in þorramatur, a traditional meat medley with a contemporary Nordic twist at Matur go Drykkur. Cap off the meal with crazy-good homemade gelato at Valdís next door.