Winter may be here, but a warm welcome from the Nordic nation awaits.

Iceland has gotten major buzz as of late-and for good reason. there’s something (or many things) about this mesmerizing Scandinavian island nation that seems to ignite our imaginations and capture our curiosity. So many feel drawn to this mystical place marked by jaw-dropping landscapes, supernatural legends and fascinating superlatives.

The sparsely populated Nordic land boasts one of the most active volcano areas in the world, the most powerful waterfall and largest glacier in Europe and the cleanest capital (Reykjavik) on the globe. Iceland’s parliament, the “Althingi,” dates back to the early 10th century, and the country can claim the world’s first democratically elected female president. Its dramatic topography consists of geysers,hot springs and lava fields, and the Arctic fox is its only native mammal.

The Blu Lagoon geothermal spa in Reyjavik.[/caption] It’s a land of Vikings, of elves, of kind, interesting and artistic residents who boast one of the longest life expectancies on the planet.

The people here are hearty. Although the shortest winter days welcome only four to five hours of daylight, Icelandic folks adapt by creating extracozy, welcoming indoor spaces and by making sure BBQs and ice cream outings are year-round affairs. It’s also on these crisp, cool nights, typically from September through March, that Mother Nature stages one of her most dramatic spectacles — ethereal-green and purple-accented Northern Lights that dance dreamily across Iceland’s open skies.

ADVENTURES APLENTY

In Iceland, popular activities aren’t exactly run-of-the-mill. Whale watching, Aurora Borealis gazing, pony riding, glacier hiking and diving or snorkeling in glacier water between the tectonic plates are all easily part of a day’s work – or play. The Blue Lagoon proves a popular bucket-list
spot, even if visited during a delirious flight stopover; here, visitors dunk themselves into soothing geothermal waters or schedule pampering spa treatments that help rejuvenate in an otherworldly setting.

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Visitors book reservations months in advance for a seating at Dill restaurant and chef Gunnar Karl Gislason's modern cooking. (photos courtesy Björn Árnason and Mikael Axelsson)

Many visitors rent a car to road trip at their own pace around Route 1 (or the Ring Road), the nearly 830-mile-long highway that circles the island. Others hop on organized tours that explore the Golden Circle, a quintessential Icelandic excursion that takes in the sites of Gullfoss, Geysir and National Park Thingvellir. Hikers rave about stunning routes like those found along the Fimmvörðuháls trail (which begins at Skógafoss and passes many waterfalls) or trekking to the Reykjadalur geothermal river from the town of Hveragerði.

Adrenaline enthusiasts jump at the chance to get out onto glaciers and deep into ice caves, while other travelers choose to soak in the capital’s culture (a free walking tour leaves daily from Reykjadalur’s Lækjartorg Square). For excursions, join tour outfitters like Iceland Luxury Tours
icelandluxurytours.com, Iceland Guided Tours (igtours.is), Icelandic Mountain Guides(mountainguides.is) or Big Chill Adventures(bigchilladventure.com), which launches a new Northern Lights Tour of SouthernIceland in March 2017. For a southern coast adventure, take a ferry to the stunning Westman Islands, where Slippurinn – located in a renovated machine workshop – is a can’t-miss dining destination.

Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones excitedly gear up here for their favorite series’ seventh season (to premiere in summer 2017), which will be filmed largely in Iceland. They follow either self-guided or organized tours – with operators like Iceland Travel (icelandtravel.is) and the Traveling Viking (ttv.is) – to experience firsthand memorable show sites such as the mesmerizing Lake Myvatn area.

WHAT’S FOR DINNER

When it comes to mealtime, the recent tourism boom has nudged Iceland beyond its traditional hunting-farming-gathering ways. The building of greenhouses and an increased interest in artisanal, global foods have expanded this country’s palate. Diners here still expect delectable ocean-fresh seafood and succulent mountain lamb, but other creative culinary endeavors receive regular praise, too. Located on the top floor of the Harpa
concert hall, fine dining establishment Kolabrautin (kolabrautin.is) beautifully blends Icelandic ingredients and Mediterranean cuisine. Housed in one of central Reykjavík’s oldest buildings, The Fish Market Restaurant (fi skmarkadurinn.is) uses Iceland’s freshest local ingredients to prepare traditional fish, meat and sweet dishes with a modern twist. Guests can cozy up to the raw bar or watch meal preparation taking place in the open kitchen, run by Head Chef Hrefina Rósa Sætran of the Icelandic National Culinary team.

Newly relocated Dill Restaurant (dillrestaurant.is)  fills up months in advance with foodies wanting to experience “the mindful creation of chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and sommelier Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, pioneers of the New Nordic Kitchen in Iceland.” Many claim this beautiful eatery to be worth the splurge; diners choose between a  five- or seven-course tasting menu, with the additional option of wine pairings. While lunchtime is more informal, dinner brings a swankier vibe; examples of beautifully prepared dishes include mussels served with celery, watercress and parsley or lamb with sunchokes and crowberries.

DELECTABLE DINING MEETS DAZZLING DIGS

In Reykjavík, the boutique 101 Hotel (101hotel.is)—an art-filled venue with luxe amenities aplenty—also happens to boast one of the trendiest eateries in town, Kitchen and Wine. Inside this casual restaurant-bar marked by high walls and a glass ceiling, diners enjoy offerings ranging from hamburgers to lobster pasta and oven-baked Artic char.

Apotek Hotel (keahotels.is), another Reykjavík gem, can be found in a building designed in 1917 by Guðjón Samúelsson, former State Architect of Iceland. (For ultimate VIP status, check into the hotel’s three- door Tower Suite.) In the restaurant downstairs, guests relish hearty breakfast spreads plus a traditional Icelandic Sunday roast that features slow-cooked, free-range Icelandic legs of lamb with rosemary and garlic.

A relaxing stay in the country means checking into Efstidalur (efstidalur.is), a “farmhotel” on the Golden Circle that combines a B&B (think hot tubs, horse rentals and amazing mountain views) with a cozy restaurant and ice cream barn. Even if you’re not staying over, it’s well worth a stop to dive into tasty ice cream while looking out on the dairy cows who contributed to your sweet treat.

Less than an hour’s drive from the bustle of Reykjavík, ION Luxury Adventure Hotel (ioniceland.is) sits in a quiet geothermal
valley (near the local power station), among a breathtaking backdrop of mountainous lava fields. The boutique hotel has made waves for its sustainability practices, Silfra Restaurant, Northern Lights bar, pampering Lava Spa and indulgent perks like a geothermal soaking pool, perfect for gazing up at the aurora extravaganza overhead.

BEFORE YOU GO:
To prep for your visit, log onto visiticeland.com to attend “Iceland Academy,” an informative (and playful) online program that shows visitors how to “travel, eat and even shower like a local.” One thing’s for certain: We can feel the warm Icelandic welcome all the way from here.

(photos courtesy Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, Big Chill Adventures).

(photos courtesy Björn Árnason and Mikael Axelsson)

(photo courtesy Inspired by Iceland)

(photos courtesy Visit Reykjavik /Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)