We are standing on a viewing platform four stories above Oskjuhlid hill, beholding a 360-degree panoramic view of Reykjavik, Iceland. Called The Pearl, this popular attraction consists of a glass dome resting on five mammoth tanks where the city stores natural hot water for heating the tightly woven community of 118,000 residents.
To the southeast I see the sun just reaching apogee perhaps 20 degrees above the horizon even though it is noon on a mid-October day.
Across the bay of Faxaflói to the northwest, I see Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old stratovolcano with a glacier covering its summit. Commanding the tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula 75 miles directly across this bay, the ancient volcano towers above the landscape, stoic and mildly threatening though it last erupted in 200 AD. This view connects me with Jules Verne who in 1864 employed Iceland’s most famous landmark as the entry passageway to begin his “A Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
Within The Pearl’s massive glass dome and casual café, we have eaten our fill of Iceland’s traditional meat soup, a lamb stew brimming with rutabagas and carrots to add bright flavor and color. Having been fueled by this robust lunch, a small harbor city with a big persona awaits our further exploration throughout the afternoon.
Ahead of us will come adventurous days traveling to geysers, waterfalls, lava flows, glaciers and quaint agricultural communities.
We will tour the Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant situated above an active volcanic ridge in southwest Iceland, which produces 303 megawatts of electricity and 133 megawatts of thermal energy. Eighty percent of Iceland’s energy comes from geothermal sources—a striking example of how non-polluting geothermal energy is being harnessed in a sustainable manner.
On the aforementioned Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we will trek along a hiking trail above black lava beaches connecting Hellnar and Arnarstapi, stopping to linger over a steaming bowl of fish stew at a small cottage tucked in a cove above jagged lava cliffs. The young Iceland woman who prepares our lunch from the day’s catch is typically friendly, fluent in English and most welcoming.
Iceland is a land of powerful contrasts: between modern and primitive, high-tech and high-touch, natural landscapes and inspired human engineering—between a distinctly idiosyncratic Nordic tongue and the universal language of the hippest rock music today. Iceland is wild spaces softened by gentle, rugged people fiercely proud of their island’s heritage. It is technically a European country geographically isolated from all the hubbub of the mainland to the east.
Now Iceland calls to a generation.
I predict here and now that Baby Boomers, especially Americans, will in accelerating numbers travel to and through this mystifying land of fire and ice. The next chapter of the generation’s zeitgeist includes Iceland as a main attraction.
They will go to Iceland because McDonald’s failed there, unable to muster profitable retail support from a country proud of its slow food traditions. Boomers will set out to sample rich espresso coffees where Starbuck’s has yet to gain a foothold.
Many will take an odyssey more than a vacation because Iceland asks for introspection and engagement: to consider the toughness of a Scandinavian people who have quietly built a modern nation, unbowed by economic hardships from the Great Recession; and then to touch lava flows of antiquity and smell sulfurous air misting up from bubbling caldrons of super-heated water.
They will set out because one of their generation’s musical heroes lived and died for peace, and his most cherished value has been enshrined by Yoko Ono on the island of Videy, a short ferry ride from Reykjavik. John Lennon’s wife and spiritual partner annually ignites her artistic tribute—Imagine Peace Tower—piercing the night sky from October 9th (John Lennon’s birth date) to December 8th (the date of his assassination).
They will visit other chapters of their shared 20th century history when, for example, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit that eventually resulted in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. They will discover the mental battleground where two strategic titans clashed for international domination: the 1972 victory by world chess champion Bobby Fischer over Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War.
Boomers will go there because Iceland lures the adventurous and peripetetic with the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll road trip: a circumnavigation of the island on Highway 1, a lava asphalt byway also known as Ring Road, all 830 miles of it. This adventure through time and geology will tap into their quixotic and youthful feelings about the American west that many first discovered on western television shows and movies from the 1950’s.
Along this circuitous highway they will pass through landscapes similar to Nevada’s dry and barren red-rock expanses; California’s magical central coast, punctuated by Edward Weston’s towering cliffs hanging over Big Sur’s splashing waves; Alaska’s white capped mountains and blue-ice glaciers; and, Yellowstone’s bubbling mud pots and furious spewing geysers.
Boomers will be lured to Iceland in some ways similar to how so many once were compelled to visit Europe during the countercultural psychodramas of the 1960s and 70s. They will come in search of adventure, ephemera and meaning and maybe a couple of all-nighters in Reykjavik’s harbor bars that finish late-late happy hours near midnight to launch the main drinking events, sometimes coinciding with the northern lights, the mother of all natural hallucinations.
They will soak their hangovers in The Blue Lagoon, a man-made public bath carved from lava and filled with iridescent, milky-blue waters. Here Icelanders have demonstrated great creativity and technical knowhow by generating power geothermally then recapturing that steam as soothing bathwater. In this otherworldly place, Boomers can soak away the stresses of their hectic lives while exploring steam caves, saunas and hot pots, and smearing their age-creased faces with gray silica, a natural product reputed for its skin restorative promises.
Speaking with Líney Inga Arnórsdóttir, the North American marketing manager for Promote Island and Inspired by Iceland, I learned that Iceland’s tourism leaders comprehend the vast visitor potential that will soon arrive from North America.
She nodded when I shared my observations about the volume of post-50 travelers that I had just encountered during our own guided and unguided adventures. Tourism is the third most valuable industry, exceeded only by fishing and industrial manufacturing. Attracting more travelers won’t be their greatest challenge; accommodating them will be, especially along the Ring Road’s most secluded outposts. High tourist season, from June through August, stretches the limits of a country that has not been included on many “bucket lists”—until now.
Thus, for those Boomers who are also looking into investments that can integrate core values with personal fulfillment, this mysterious land where the aurora borealis dances across the night sky is in need of sustainable and creative accommodations and everything that comes with the growth of a nation’s visitor industry. Opportunities to profit from adventure travel, eco-tourism, heritage tourism and cultural tourism await the entrepreneurs of this generation.
Thanks to the creative work of Líney Arnórsdóttir and her team, here’s another way of perceiving the possibilities of Iceland, post-50: