When I booked my five-night adventure to Iceland I had one thing in mind -- I wanted to see the northern lights. I wanted to see vibrant pinks and greens dancing across the starry night sky, just like a National Geographic photograph.
So you'd think when I found myself standing in the Icelandic countryside at midnight staring up at a dark, cloud-filled sky I would have been heartbroken. I should have been heartbroken; I should have been furious at Mother Nature; I should have stomped my feet and pouted and gone full-fledged tantrum on a trip gone awry.
But oddly enough, I wasn't -- I just shrugged and got back onto the bus. That's because by the time I went on my northern lights "safari," I had already fallen in love with the land of ice and gnomes, realizing there's so much more the country has to offer.
Natural Wonders: The aurora borealis is the tip of the iceberg of Iceland's natural wonders: snow-capped glaciers, gurgling geysers and hot springs, rolling countryside dotted by short Icelandic horses with their coarse manes. Most famously, the Golden Circle is known as the country's trifecta of must-see wonders, accessible by dozens of tour buses. But in truth they are an arbitrary (though still mighty) collection of natural landmarks; the country is overwhelmed with jaw-dropping beauty worth exploring both on and off the beaten path, from the black-sand beaches of Vík í Mýrdal to the towering waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss to the Snæfellsjökull volcano, made famous in Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth."
A World-Class City: The northernmost capital in the world, Reykjavik can stand up to the cultural, dining and shopping standards of its European counterparts, with a Scandinavian twist. Take in a performance at a world-class concert hall, the Harpa. Dine at top-rated restaurants like Dill or Fishmarket, showcasing the New Nordic Kitchen made famous by Copenhagen's NOMA. Sip a kaffe and people-watch at one of the numerous cafes, where coffee is a religion. Shop along Laugavegur, where you'll find contemporary Scandinavian design, Icelandic wool sweaters and blankets or a Viking helmet to bring home. And then head out to a bar or club for the night -- the city is arguably more vibrant at 1-5 a.m. than 1-5 p.m.
Navigability: About the size of the state of Virginia, Iceland is easy to roam and small enough to take in and appreciate within a week's time. Long weekends here are very popular, and, in truth, you can get a nice flavor of the country in that time frame. However, a week's drive around the island's Ring Road will give you the full scope of the country's diverse landscape. A veritable choose-your-own-adventure, a network of bus tours run like clockwork each day from Reykjavik to surrounding highlights. Renting a car couldn't be easier with several options right in the city center and roads that are safe and easy to navigate, depending on the time of year.
Outdoor Adventures: In addition to the bounty of tours for the less faint at heart, Iceland also corners the market in outdoor sports and adventures. Hike or climb a glacier, descend into the depths of a volcano and lava caves or snorkel in underwater canyons -- the options seem endless. And the best part? No one can hear you scream when snowmobiling across a glacier ... at least, I hope so. Otherwise, I thoroughly embarrassed myself.
-- Chris Vassil is a Travelzoo deal expert based in Chicago. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.