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Iceland: The stop-over New Yorkers should stop overlooking

German-born musher Frederike Strube steers a team of Greenlandic huskies through a golden field just before dusk on a crisp, clear November day. Her eyes are on her dogs, but for a moment, her mind drifts to the massive volcano standing in the distance.

"We could be due for an eruption soon," she says. Her brow furrows with concern as she explains the potential consequences-- among them, Hólmasel, the town her dogs call home, being blanketed in ash, but she can't disguise the tinge of excitement in her voice.

"This is Iceland," she says as the furry crew of twelve runs joyfully towards a piercingly orange sunset. "Anything can happen."

Icelandic people enjoy a closeness to their landscape that few populations do, but hovering over the seaside villages, quiet farms and even the quirky capital city of Reykjavík is the undeniable truth that, although it allows the island's inhabitants to so intimately coexist with it, nature makes the rules.

Watching the sun rise over a glacial lagoon in Jökulsárlón, the colors are mirrored so perfectly in the ice you'll think you scored a two-for-one special. Yet your daylight hours are numbered, as the sun rises late and sets early, all year round. And while standing beside a waterfall as it cascades into a deep canyon or feasting your eyes on the contrast of white glaciers strewn across a black, volcanic sand beach will leave you awed, the unpredictability of nature means threats are always looming.

Iceland's largest volcano, Bárðarbunga, sits sandwiched between a testy tectonic plate boundary and Europe's largest glacier. It was the site of a two-week-long earthquake in August 2014, followed by lava flow that fortunately did not reach civilization. In the land of the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history (back in 1783), locals live not so much in fear, but in awareness of the potential dangers that surround them.

Home to less than 330,000 people living on almost 40,000 square miles of earth just outside the Arctic Circle, Iceland can't compete with the sheer size of Greenland to its west or with the cosmopolitan appeal of the Scandinavian cities to its east. But for bedraggled urbanites seeking a fresh perspective, there may be no better place in the world to unwind, because in Iceland you don't just see the beauty of nature-- you feel it.

Iceland Air has begun pushing their home as a stop-over, and it is a relatively convenient one, with reasonable flights connecting JFK and Newark to most major European cities. Travelers can add up to seven days of layover time in Iceland to their itinerary with no extra flight costs. Whether you decide to tack an adventurous leg onto your next trip across the pond or make Iceland a destination of its own, here's what not to miss.

Getting around

With Reykjavik as your base, it is possible
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

With Reykjavik as your base, it is possible to join tour buses to most of Iceland's main excursions. We highly recommend you rent a car, however, as a cost-efficient way to feel the freedom of roaming the island at your own pace.

The roads are serene and simple to navigate, and you just may find that the impromptu stops you discover along the way, from unexpected waterfalls to encounters with wild horses, will be the ones you'll treasure most.

City life

Though small, Reykjavik is a city teeming with
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Though small, Reykjavik is a city teeming with culture, from an eclectic music scene and funky art spaces to trendy eateries and vibrant nightlife.

Eat: Enjoy simple Icelandic seafood with a fresh, organic twist at Icelandic Fish and Chips (Tryggvagata 11, fishandchips.is), or head to Forrettabarinn (Nylendugata 14, forrettabarinn.is) for sophisticated, foodie-approved dishes ranging from toasted cod with pork belly to local mussels in a white wine sauce. For a hearty breakfast, try Prikid (Bankastraeti 12, prikid.is), which claims to be the oldest restaurant in Reykjavik and serves up a mean hangover helper, or hit local lunch favorite Glo (Engjateigur 19, glo.is) for light and flavorful vegetarian fare.

Shop: Iceland is, predictably, the spot to stock up on winter gear, from durable all-weather coats and seemingly indestructible gloves and snow boots to cozy wool sweaters and chic capes, hats and scarves. The Alafoss wool factory outlet (Alafossvegur 23, alafoss.is) is a go-to for knitwear, as is the Kolaportid Flea Market (Tryggvagötu 19, kolaportid.is) is filled with local goods. Popular with visitors, The Nordic Store (Lækjargata, 101, nordicstore.net) will set you back your fair share of króna, but the quality will keep you warm for winters to come.

Party: Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989, and Icelanders seem to be making up for lost time. Reijkavik is home to plenty of pubs with German, English and Irish influence, plus DJ-pumping nightclubs and loud, rainbow-painted gay bar Kiki (Laugavegur 22, kiki.is), the self-proclaimed best spot for dancing.

Reykjavik is also the venue of world-renowned music festival Iceland Airwaves (tickets for November 2015 go on pre-sale Dec. 1 at icelandairwaves.is), and the city's love for music doesn't stop there. Hit Kaffibarinn (Bergstadastraeti 1, kaffibarinn.is) for live music or a DJ, depending on the night, or check out a concert or art show at Tjarnarbio (Tjarnargata 12, tjarnarbio.is). For those looking for a rocker vibe, Dillon Whiskey Bar (Laugavegur 30, facebook.com/dillonwhiskeybar) doesn't disappoint.

The Northern Lights

No trip to Iceland is complete without a
Photo Credit: Flickr/Kris Williams

No trip to Iceland is complete without a viewing of the world's most spectacular natural light show. Prime viewing locations and times vary according to weather conditions and time of year (cloudless skies and March and September tend to be best), but you can track them at en.vedur.is. Some tours offer a free re-do if you miss them (see extremeiceland.is for tour options), but part of the thrill is taking your car outside of the city late at night and chasing them yourself.

We drove out to Þingvellir National Park after midnight and were almost as thrilled by the pure silence, encompassing darkness and never-ending stars as we were by the grand finale of green lights dancing their way across the sky.

Unforgettable sights

One of Iceland's most visited routes, the Golden
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

One of Iceland's most visited routes, the Golden Circle consists of three main sites-- the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, perfect for light hiking and a photo pop, striking Þingvellir National Park and the Haukadalur geysers, where you can watch Strokkur erupt every five to ten minutes.

Head to Jökulsárlón Lagoon just before sunrise, and watch the darkness fade into a spectacular spectrum of pink sky reflected on aqua blue glaciers. Climb one of the hills beside it and take in the view from above, or wander along its pristine shore until Jökulsárlón Cafe opens for business... you'll want to warm up and take it all in again as its appearance shifts with the changing daylight.

Bucket list-worthy adventures

Go dog-sledding: Dog-lovers will flip for Dogsledding Iceland
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Go dog-sledding: Dog-lovers will flip for Dogsledding Iceland (dogsledding.is), the only kennel in the country where Greenlandic huskies will take you on the ride of a lifetime, on a sled through the snow in Skálafell in winter and on a wagon through a scenic field in Hólmasel in the warmer months. You'll get to know your team of strong and hard-working, yet playful and goofy pups, and feel like you're starring in your own version of "Balto" while riding along in a thermal suit.

Venture into an ice cave: Vatnajokull in south eastern Iceland and Langjokull in the south west are popular for ice cave tours, where visitors can strap on a helmet and climb into an enormous, naturally carved out glacier for a one-of-a-kind experience-- with an experienced guide, of course. Extreme Iceland (extremeiceland.is) books a range of tours, and professionals check the caves daily to make sure conditions are safe.

Explore on horseback: Icelandic horses are one of the island's most iconic inhabitants, and tours of the countryside on horseback are offered at various lengths and skill levels. Beginners looking for a relaxing, fun and scenic ride should try Islenski Hesturinn (Surtlugotu 3, islenskihesturinn.is) for volcanic landscape tours, evening rides and more.

Seaside treats

Though it's not your typical beach vacation destination,
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Though it's not your typical beach vacation destination, Iceland's southern coast is filled with stunning, black sand beaches, the one at Jökulsárlón dotted with shining glaciers, others with seagrass admiring itself in the reflection of perfectly still waters interrupted only by the occasional seal or puffin.

Once you've filled your pockets with teal stones worthy of a Pottery Barn window display, felt the ashy sand between your fingers and frolicked around the ice to your heart's content, head to Fjöruborðið (Eyrarbraut 3a, fjorubordid.is) and warm up with a waterfront meal of seafood soup followed by langoustines, miniature local lobsters, cooked in a garlic, lemon and herb butter sauce you'll crave for time to come.

Pure relaxation

Coat your hair in creamy conditioner and let
Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Coat your hair in creamy conditioner and let the powder blue, 100-degree geothermal water of Iceland's Blue Lagoon (blue lagoon.com) ease your aches and pains as you sip a drink from the swim-up bar.

The lagoon, containing 6 million liters of water that originates 2,000 meters below sea level, is processed at Svartsengi, a geothermal power plant, and contains is then harnessed via drilling holes at a nearby geothermal power plant, Svartsengi, and contains silica, algae and minerals that are believed to rejuvenate the skin and even contain anti-aging properties. Indulge in a luxurious massage, done on a floating raft in the water, or hang by one of the many mask stations and coat your face in a soothing and fun algae mask. Before you leave, you may want to stop in the gift shop and grab the ingredients to recreate your own Icelandic spa at home.

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