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8 Unusual Experiences to Have in Iceland

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As the land of fire, ice, Northern Lights, and cheap flights, it’s no wonder Iceland has become one of the world's most popular destinations. From 2000 to 2014, the number of foreign visitors has more than tripled, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board [PDF].

Unfortunately, a good portion of those visitors don't make it outside of Iceland's famed Golden Circle, which means they miss out on some of the most memorable experiences the country has on offer. Planning a trip to Iceland? Consider making time for some of these slightly-off-the-beaten-path adventures.

1. FLOAT NEXT TO A GEYSER AT THE SECRET LAGOON.

Stephanie Vermillion

For a no-frills, authentic hot spring experience, make a stop at the century-old Secret Lagoon, Iceland's oldest swimming pool (it opened in 1891 and began offering swim lessons in 1909). The Secret Lagoon is located right off the Golden Circle in Fludir, atop active geothermal grounds that naturally heat the water year-round. Adding to its appeal: It has an active geyser on the premises, which (safely) erupts every five minutes.

2. LEARN ABOUT ICELAND'S "HIDDEN PEOPLE" AT THE ELFSCHOOL.



Elves, gnomes, dwarves, trolls, fairies, and other huldufólk ("hidden people") have long captured the imaginations of Icelanders. (According to one 1998 survey, 54 percent of Icelanders believe in the existence of invisible elves.) If you're looking to get up close and personal with the magical creatures—or at least hear the stories of those who have—check out The Elfschool in Reykjavik. Open year-round, the school hosts lectures and discussions about people who have come in contact with elves. You can opt to end your visit to the school with a private walking tour to one of the country's most popular "elf sighting" spots, located adjacent to the school.

3. EXPLORE THE DIMMUBORGIR LAVA FIELD.

Stephanie Vermillion

Dimmuborgir, located in northern Iceland, is an enormous lava field filled with otherworldly rock formations and volcanic caves. The site has numerous hiking trails, including routes leading up to the towering Hverjfall Crater, and might look familiar to Game of Thrones fans—it served as one of the main wildling campsites.

4. HIKE TO GLJÚFRABÚI, THE SECRET WATERFALL.

Stephanie Vermillion

Southern Iceland is home to some of the country's most beautiful waterfalls, including the mighty Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, where you can hike behind the falls, and a hidden waterfall few travelers know to seek out—Gljúfrabúi. Just a five-minute walk from Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi is tucked away behind mountains, accessible only through a small opening in the rock formation. You may get wet on your hike there—you have to cross a stream—but that temporary discomfort is well worth the awe-inspiring, secret spectacle that awaits you on the other side.

5. LEARN ABOUT OLD ICELAND AT THE GLAUMBAER MUSEUM.

Stephanie Vermillion

For hundreds of years, Icelanders lived in grass-roofed “turf houses,” designed to insulate against the country's harsh winters. Today, travelers can visit these traditional Icelandic homes at north Iceland’s Glaumbaer Museum, located right along the Ring Road. Depending on how much time you have, Glaumbaer can be a short (free!) photo stop in-between destinations, or a full-blown dive into a piece of Iceland's architectural history.

6. SNORKEL BETWEEN TECTONIC PLATES.


Sure, you can hike between the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates at Thingvellir National Park. But for a truly unusual experience, opt to snorkel through them. Guided tours take divers into the Silfra fissure, a navigable, underwater crack where the two tectonic plates are drifting apart at a rate of two centimeters per year. You won’t witness sea life on this snorkel expedition, but get your waterproof cameras ready for some of the most vibrant shades of blue you’ve ever seen.

7. GO INSIDE A VOLCANO.



Geology nerds, take note: One tour company has actually made it possible for travelers to go inside the (dormant) Thrihnukagigur volcano. Visitors are lowered through the crater opening in a basket-like elevator, and are given around 30 minutes to explore the volcano floor. The tour takes five to six hours total, including travel to and from Thrihnukagigur.

8. VISIT GRÍMSEY ISLAND IN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.

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For one of the most remote Icelandic experiences possible, consider taking the three-hour boat ride to Grímsey Island. The only part of Iceland located inside the Arctic Circle, Grímsey Island is just over three square miles and home to fewer than 100 residents. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in opportunities for adventure. You can hike, bike, dive, fish, swim, and, if timed right, view puffins and the Northern Lights.

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
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Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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