Iceland is one of the world's best spots to get astonishingly close to whales, with the best operators using quiet oak-hulled boats to minimise disturbing these magnificent creatures. Two dozen species surface here including minke, blue, humpback, fin, sei – and orcas. The top site is Husavik but expert tours also cruise Trollaskagi and Reykjavik's old harbour. Peak season is May to September.
Iceland does futuristic as well as mythic, including startling modernist churches – not just Reykjavik's soaring Hallgrimskirkja, inspired by lava folds. Stykkisholmur echoes the bleached vertebra of a giant god, while Akureyri could be by Frank Lloyd Wright. Olafsvik is a gorgeous mesh of interlocking angled planes, Blonduos's graceful grey volcanic folds counterpoint the churning Blanda river, while Bjarnaneskirkja is a stark white pyramid set facing Vatnajökull.
Spring and summer see migratory flocks from Africa and America join the locals in Iceland – greylag geese, 15 species of duck, grebes, great northern divers, skuas, wheatears, phalaropes, snipe and grey heron. Hotspots include Lake Myvatn, the Westfjords, Dyrholaey, Ingolfshofdi and the Westmann Islands. Iceland also boasts millions of Atlantic puffin. The sharp-eyed will scout for the Icelandic Gyrfalcon – the world's largest falcon.
Iceland punches way above its weight in the creative ring. Distinctive design is showcased at Reykjavik's Design Centre and the power-station conversion Toppstodin. A sense of spirited independence melds with evocative traditions and ever-shifting natural drama to spur a diverse checklist in other fields: musicians Bjork, Sigur Ros and Mum; artist Ólafur Elíasson; writers Arnaldur Indridason and Nobel Prize winner Halldor Kiljan Laxness.
Iceland's majestic vistas are populated by ghosts from ancient Norse sagas. Breithafjordur was once stalked by villainous Eric the Red (discoverer of Greenland), while Borgarfjordur is setting for the illustrious Egil’s Saga – and a fine Norse museum. Visit Keldur's ancient turf hall and a marvellous folk museum by the sea cliffs at Skogar. In Njardvik, a reconstructed 1,000-year-old longship that sailed to America is Vikingaheaimer's museum centrepiece.
From October to April, Iceland is a brilliant viewing platform for the aurora borealis, when charged solar particles arc down polar magnetic fields to smash into upper atmosphere atoms, creating a swirling Technicolor celestial gauze. This fire in the sky isn't nightly – but whether you gaze up from lava fields, rural valleys or gleaming glaciers, you've every chance of a heavenly vision.
The Blue Lagoon is the tourist draw near Reykjavik but Iceland is dotted with milky blue geothermal pools for toasty dips, your head cooled by crisp air amid grand vistas. Hot baths abound around Hveragerdl, Landmannalaugar offers a steaming stream, while Laugarvatn has a unique geyser-sauna! Algae-rich Lysuholslaug will tone up your skin, while Krossneslaug and Hofsos offer stunning oceanside pools. Lake Myvatn has a quieter alternative to the Blue Lagoon.
Icelandic waterfalls plummet through landscapes out of dreamy TV ads. Dettefoss is Europe's most powerful liquid plunge, while Godafoss bears a 'Waterfall of the Gods' tag thanks to mentions in Norse myth – plus dream-like lava field setting. Skogafoss is the big boy of around 20 falls near Skogar, while Dynjandi's glorious cascade is a Westfjords beacon tumbling down stony terraces.
Whale meat is still served in restaurants, with tourists driving much of this tragic trade based on a false belief that it is part of Icelandic tradition. But Icelanders have only killed whale since the 1930s - and only 5 percent eat it. For a genuine local food treat, try Arctic lobster at places like Vid Fjorubordid in the fishing hamlet of Stokkseyri near Reykjavik.
While Norway's giant trolls somehow evoke supernatural respect, Iceland's thing with elves seems just a little silly. Over half the population claim to believe in the Huldufolk – 'hidden people' the same size as us, just invisible. Usually peaceful, they get angry over disrespect or trespass. But we'd rate Iceland's 'elves' more munchkin than Mordor.
Translating as 'round tour', rúntur is how bored Icelandic youths try to inject artificial excitement into their lives, especially during the cold winter months of near-endless darkness. But rather than Grease-like hepcat cool, here it amounts to gangs of loud teens crammed into ordinary cars and slowly driving around being raucous, occasionally stopping at car parks to socialise. Okey-dokey.
Unlike whale meat, this stuff has ancient pedigree – but remains as hard to stomach. Hakarl (aka 'rotten shark') = normally toxic shark buried for months, then dried to make it 'edible' – if you like ammonia. Svid = singed and boiled sheep's head stuck on a plate (actually not bad – though eating the eyeballs is tricky). Hrútspungu = ram's testicles, pickled. Nose-to-tail eating gone too far...