REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was talking about Iceland. In 2010, the volcano with the tongue-twister name (Eyjafjallajokull, one of some 130 volcanoes on the island, both active and not) put this country on the world stage when it paralyzed air traffic for several weeks, costing airlines and passengers $1.7 billion in lost revenue.
Prior to that, tourism had tanked when the economy hit rock bottom in 2008. But a government-backed initiative began promoting the little-visited North Atlantic nation as a year-round destination, and tourism now figures as the biggest contributor to the economy, surpassing even fishing -- a first since the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th century. In 2014, tourism was up 100% from 2006.
The secret is out: Iceland is a geological wonder. "Driving through Iceland feels like driving through the Book of Genesis," Andrew Evans, TV host for National Geographic and author of the "Bradt Guide to Iceland," told me.
If you didn't know that Jules Verne set his outlandish "Journey to the Center of the Earth" in Iceland, or if you've been living in a cave unaware that the island's otherworldly landscape has frequently served as a filming location for "Game of Thrones," then you likely will not know that NASA used the lunarlike fields to train their astronauts to land on the moon.
Such spectacular landscape is a major draw, showcased by the midnight sun during long summer months and, if you're lucky, bathed by the Technicolor magic of the northern lights in the dark winter months.
In young, vibrant Reykjavik, Europe’s smallest capital city, locals and visitors stay out late during the summer to enjoy the midnight sun.
It is a countryside on steroids, one that is vast and ever- changing, like your own personal IMAX screen. It is Europe's most sparsely populated country, its inhabitants a fun-loving, quirky and highly literate people, many of whom paradoxically believe in trolls, elves and "hidden people."
The 2015 World Happiness Report, released in April by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked Iceland as the second-happiest place on Earth. (It followed the landlocked nation of Switzerland, where nature also reigns supreme.)
How convenient, then, that all that spellbinding topography crammed into an isolated nation roughly the size of England was a mere five-and-a-half-hour flight on Icelandair from New York.
"It is an exotic destination at a price you can afford in terms of time and money," said Dora Rozet, owner of Nordic Saga.
Her Seattle-based travel agency's website is one-stop shopping for all variations of the Icelandic (and beyond) experience.
To see as much as possible in a nine-day visit and to avoid a no-room-at-the-inn scenario during my July visit (an expanding infrastructure is still challenged during peak months), I booked Nordic Saga's Classic Circle Tour, an escorted bus trip along the fabled Ring Road, which Rozet promised would guarantee an abundance of astonishing nature and dreamlike beauty.
Although a risky marketing tactic, Iceland would do well to employ a satisfaction-guaranteed-or-money-back policy. Surely no visitor with good eyesight or a beating heart could leave without profoundly etched memories. You have only one chance to make a first impression, and mine began with a midnight arrival at the world's northernmost capital city to a brilliant sky bright with pinks and oranges.