Black-sand beaches. Towering craggy peaks. Steaming geysers, hot springs and active volcanoes. Thundering waterfalls, majestic fjords and, yes, vast expanses of icy tundra. The small island nation of Iceland—its 39,769 square miles make it roughly equal in size to the state of Kentucky—hides a staggering wealth of natural beauty in some of its most elemental and powerful forms, as well as a welcoming population of around 330,000 who enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living.
Ásta Ólafsdóttir of the Icelandic customized tour operator Nine Worlds spoke to the Andrew Harper Traveler about the special appeal of this magical land, its Viking heritage, and how her company offers an unparalleled experience for the adventure-minded traveler.
What do you find most captivating about Iceland? Why travel there?
Iceland is unlike any other destination, due to its small size and vastness of the countryside. Most things are within reach—endless waterfalls and geothermally active sights (volcanoes and other less-traveled areas), as well as the locals, who are happy and interested in meeting guests coming their way. Icelandic cuisine is something worth trying with its fresh ingredients, emphasis on farm-to-table and organically grown vegetables. For those seeking nightlife, Reykjavik is fun, alive and energetic.
The company’s name references Norse mythology. To what extent does that mythology factor into a trip to Iceland and the experiences you craft?
The Vikings who settled in Iceland practiced the Norse religion and believed in the idea of the tree, Yggdrasill, as “earth.” The myth was that underneath Yggdrasill there were nine roots that led you to nine different worlds, hence the name Nine Worlds. When creating our itineraries we think a lot about giving our guests a taste of as many of these worlds as possible and to give their trip depth and the sense of the characteristics that are still alive within our heritage and sagas.
Can you give us an overview of the Nine Worlds experience? What’s the driving force behind the company?
Aside from the love for our destination and the will to share it with our guests, it’s the joy of creating something unique for each trip. Working at Nine Worlds gives us the chance to use our “explorer” side; we are constantly finding and creating new experiences and off-the-beaten-track possibilities. When we say “tailor made,” we really mean “tailor made.” Of course many of our guests want to experience the “highlights” which also means the main tourist attractions, but for us a tour around the Golden Circle, for instance, is more than just driving the route on the map. We make sure there are unique twists and off-the-beaten-track stops that other operators do not know about. Our ambition is for guests to return home with something unique in the form of memories, experiences and true authenticity. To us, it is a privilege to serve clientele that are truly looking for something different and unique.
Can you describe some of the unique accommodations and activities?
Nine Worlds has access to private homes, villas and lodges within Reykjavik and in the countryside. You won’t be able to find most of them on the Internet, but we have exclusive access through personal relationships and networks.
As for unique activities, there’s so much we can offer. Private venues inside secret caves, dormant volcanoes, and other hidden areas in the highlands and around Iceland are always a big hit. Private cooking classes with master chefs or lessons with local designers and artists are also cherished by those interested in that kind of experience.
You offer bespoke, customized luxury tours — What are some examples of how this turns out? To what extent do you influence the itinerary?
Since our guests come from all over the world, the differences in their requests vary a lot. We have had requests for bigger things like a surprise birthday party within an itinerary, a wedding on top of a glacier, private lunches and dinners out in nature and helicopter or yacht trips around Iceland. We normally say that we can assist with most things as long as they are legal and ethical.
On our end, we do our best to make sure the itinerary is put together in the most efficient way in regards to time, driving distance and budget, and if there is special reason for why people want to travel to Iceland we of course work around that. For example, if the goal is to see the Northern Lights then we try to talk our guests into staying a few nights in the countryside to enhance their chances of seeing the lights. Another thing we do is get to know the guest as well as possible during the booking process, in order to pair them with a guide that fits their expectations, interests, age and more.
It’s easy to envision Iceland as cold and unforgiving, but that’s clearly not accurate. What are travelers most surprised by? What really “wows” the luxury traveler?
I have been in this business for over 26 years and only once I have had a guest irritated due to weather! When traveling to Iceland one has to go by the thought “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” But we make sure our guests are well cared for during their trip and provide woolen blankets and rain gear in all our vehicles.
The “wows” are the natural sights, the light and the colors. The vast space and privacy. The friendliness of the locals. I have to say that the food always wows as well—we do serve more than dried fish and rotten shark! Then I have to mention that our guests normally love their guides and drivers. We really make sure we handpick them all.
You also arrange tours to Greenland —what’s the draw? What do you offer there?
Greenland is very different from Iceland—it’s like going 40 years back in time! It is a very unique destination and we can arrange many different types of activities there, from the basic glacier boat tours to the more complicated and adventurous hiking tours. Summer is great for hunting and fishing, while winter is the time for dogsledding.
We recommend having a private guide for all tours in order to keep the itinerary functioning, as our neighbors in Greenland go by their own time (which doesn’t necessarily fit ours). It’s good to keep in mind that Greenland is an expensive destination due to this fact, and that the flight cost is also very high.
What are distances like between communities and these wilderness settings? How “remote” are they? Is it easy to get around?
Normal day tours are from 8-10 hours, where 2-4 hours are spent driving on the road. Normally the first stop is within 40 minutes to an hour. All tours can be done by helicopter as well and that gives an opportunity to enter completely remote areas, where you will see no other human being. We like combining travel where a helicopter takes you into the highlands and then you meet with a super truck that takes you back to your accommodations. This way you get to experience the land from both the air and the ground, which gives a great overall experience.
Does Iceland have a distinct culinary tradition? What are some staples of Icelandic cuisine?
Icelandic cuisine consists of various fish and shellfish, lamb, beef and dairy. We are becoming world famous for our skyr, a thick, low-fat yogurt. Organic vegetables are grown in geothermally heated greenhouses and we often take our guests to visit these greenhouses for tastings. We focus on farm-to-table cuisine and locally made produce for our clients. Organic restaurants are becoming more and more common, in addition to ones preparing traditional Icelandic cuisine in a modern way.
What would you say represents the Icelandic spirit or character?
The normal Icelander lives by the phrase “Everything will go well” on all occasions— meaning that even though things are not ready in time, things will still turn out well and everybody will have a happy experience. For example, a true Icelander is capable of preparing a venue in a short time by including all his friends and family to make it happen.
Icelanders are also well-traveled and curious and love sharing their knowledge on blogs and social media. This goes both for local and foreign brands. You will see it in their homes, cars, mobile devices, fashion and local design.
But when you ask a local if he or she originally comes from the Vikings, 99 percent would still say “YES” with pride!