By Sarah Sekula
If you’ve seen “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” featuring Ben Stiller as a chronic daydreamer, chances are you’ve got the itch to start wandering, too. And trekking through Iceland, where much of the movie was filmed, could be the first step.
From black-sand deserts to glaciers sparkling under the Northern Lights, this Nordic country has more than its share of beauty. But there’s more to Iceland than just its chiseled good looks. For starters, the locals are welcoming (and, yes, many are named Thor); the wildlife is spectacular (think: miniature Icelandic horses and chubby puffins); and the cuisine is superb (as long as you stay away from kæstur hákarl, fermented shark).
“The topography is so different, you can go up on a glacier that’s only a few hundred feet above sea level and feel like you’re at the top of the world,” says Stiller, who directed and starred in the film. “All you can see is ice for miles and miles, and then huge cliffs.”
Here are a few ways to follow in Walter Mitty’s footsteps:
1Hveradalir – “Iceland Volcanic Hotel”Iceland Bureau of Tourism
Start by exploring the centuries-old stalagmites and stalactites of the area’s lava caves. Afterward, make sure you’ve got a swimsuit (note: there are no changing facilities) and head toward the absolutely primordial geothermal areas of the region. You’ll know you’re there when you see steam billowing from underground fumaroles. Hike among the multicolored slopes and green mosses and make a beeline for the sky-blue waters of the hot springs and the bubbling mud pools.
2Fjallsárlón Tundra – “Afghan Tribe”Iceland Bureau of Tourism
If you’ve never been to a glacial lagoon, here’s your chance. Not only will you see icebergs constantly drifting by, you may witness the crack of the icebergs breaking off into the dreamlike lagoon. Better yet, Iceland’s tallest volcano, the Öræfajökull glacier, is in the background. It’s part of the rough and rugged terrain that is Vatnajökull national park. You may recognize the craggy beauty, because this area doubles as Afghanistan in the movie.
3Garður – “Iceland Harbor”Iceland Bureau of tourism
For birdwatchers, this fishing village by the Faxaflói Bay on the Reykjanes peninsula is the ultimate paradise. Thousands of migrating seabirds flock here from Greenland and North America. The coastline sequence where Mitty plunges into the chilly waters of the North Atlantic was filmed on the Reykjanes peninsula. Garður is known for its lighthouses and also because it’s the home of the popular indie band Of Monsters and Men (you’ll hear their song “Dirty Paws” on the trailer). The older lighthouse, Garðskagi, displays information on the coastline and maps showing the spots where ships have run aground. For another dose of local history, pop into The Garður Peninsula Historical Museum.
4Stykkishólmur – “Greenland/Nuuk Village”Iceland Bureau of Tourism
The drive to Stykkishólmur is highlighted in the film, and for good reason. On the way, you’ll see the Berserkjahraun lava field, which is filled with waterfalls and towering peaks. And, as if that wasn’t enough, once you get to Stykkishólmur, the jagged peninsula is a sight to see. To explore the coast from a different perspective, take a sailing trip around Breidafjordur fjord in search of puffins and white-tailed eagles. And be sure to drive around the Snæfellsnes peninsula. You can’t miss the behemoth glacier-covered volcano, Snæfellsjökull, which is the entrance in Jules Verne’s book, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Afterward, dig into local volcano lore by paying a visit to the Volcano Museum, where possessions of the well-known volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson are on display.
5Höfn – “Greenland/Nuuk Airport”Humarhofnin
Part of this striking landscape is a nature reserve. Situated on a spit of land, it is the only navigable estuary in the country. While wandering around Höfn, ask just about anyone, and they will likely have a story to tell about Stiller’s visit. In fact, he rented a home from a local dentist during the filming and had meals catered by Humarhofnin (the lobster harbor), where langoustine is the main attraction. In the film, this small fishing village appears as Greenland Airport.
6Grundafjörður – “Iceland Harbor”Iceland Bureau of Tourism
Grundarfjörður – on the Snæfellsnes peninsula – is the gorgeous area that Mitty must bicycle through to track down his friend, Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). On the sea side of Grundarfjörður is a mountain called Kirkjufell, (the lone mountain), which forms a small peninsula. It may look like a volcano, but don’t be fooled. It’s a piece of the mountain range that got separated from the main mountain strip. Whale watching is popular in this town of 1,000; in fact, there are more than 20 different types of whales commonly found in Icelandic waters, so keep your eyes peeled.
7Seyðisfjörður – “Volcanic town”Visit Seydisfjordur
The memorable scene where Stiller jets around on his longboard was filmed here, but it’s also a great place to strap on your hiking boots for an epic hike or two. There are plenty of trails in this town of 668 people, nestled in the east fjords of Iceland. Seyðisfjörður is surrounded by mountains, with the most prominent, Mount Bjólfur, to the west and Strandartindur to the east. If you have energy left after your mountainside jaunt, try a guided sea kayak tour after sunset or paragliding off Mount Bjólfur.