15/11/2018 15:22 GMT | Updated 16/11/2018 09:47 GMT

Stargazing, Hikes And Action On Gender Equality: What I Learned About Living Well On A Trip To Iceland

Inside the ‘fourth happiest country in the world.’

When was the last time you tasted clean air? Not the sort that you might find on a walk through the brambles and oak trees of the English countryside - but the raw, pure particles of oxygen, nitrogen and argon that are found at the very top of a mountain hike or standing at the edge of a reservoir on a cold day. Air that must have been what the air at the beginning of the world was like.

It’s the first thing I notice, stepping out of Iceland’s Keflavík airport. The next is how the sun hangs lackadaisical and low, eerily close to touching the mountains in the distance. Then, that the sky’s stark blue is threaded with electric pink at just gone 9am. It’s magical. But in a moody, Hans Christian Andersen way, rather than anything Disney-ish. And I think it (partly) explains why the 348,000 people dwelling on this remote, often cold, little island hanging at the very edge of our planet, live so well.

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The Northern Lights, as seen from Iceland 

Consult the UN’s annual World Happiness Report and you’ll see the same curious pattern that emerges year after year. Namely, that the clutch of countries dominating the top five are Nordic (landlocked Switzerland is usually knocking about there, too.) Iceland took the fourth spot for 2018, a drop on last year’s third place - although the snatches of change in the data are minute enough to not be statistically significant.

Robust welfare systems, often tight communities, a focus on the outdoors - including spending time looking at those views and breathing that air - as well as leaving work at a reasonable hour are all recognised as why they seem to be doing so well. From the time Icelanders spend looking at the stars to how they’re making solid moves towards true gender equality, here’s what I found out about how they do things on a recent trip.  

Stargazing 

Current science suggests that awe is good for you. A September 2018 white paper from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has evidenced that the feeling can create a ‘diminished sense of self’, giving us the sense that a lot of our everyday fixations are not as important as we like to think, as well as upping a sense of connectedness to others and a decrease in materialism.

And there’s not much more awe-inspiring than a pristine night sky, where the stars run through blackness and up into infinity. It’s something that Icelanders, with their clear skies, often look up to.

‘When you gaze at the planets and the stars, you experience that you are part of nature - part of something bigger,’ Icelandic astronomer Sævar Helgi Bragason, one of nine official experts on Inspired by Iceland’sA-Ö of Iceland campaign, who has spent his career educating lay people about celestial beings tells me over flat whites at a Reykjavik coffee shop.

’But most people living in Europe live with light pollution - the Milky Way is now invisible to over 80% of the global population.

So, how to go about getting your starry-eyed fix in the country? ’You need to leave the capital and go out to the more rural areas. You don’t have to go very far from [Icelandic capital] Reykjavik if you want to stay there for a few nights, but preferably go as far as possible, enjoy the scenery, see the glaciers. I’d do at least 10 days,’ he says.  

Timings-wise, avoid summer if you’re a star-seeker. May, June and July see Iceland stay light for most of the day’s 24 hours, with just a few hours of darkness. September to April and you’re good.

Bragason recommends visiting Hotel Rangá, a destination with a roll-off roof observatory, complete with high-tech telescopes. This is in Hella, which is 60-mile drive from the capital - and where the lack of any other human activity makes for unspoilt skies. Or the Icelandic Wilderness Centre, placed at the edge of Northern Europe’s largest wilderness, where, as well as summer midnight horse rides and waterfall trails, there’s a stargazing station. If you’re keen to take in the electric pinks and greens of the Northern Lights, you can see them most places - so long as you leave the lights of the city. The best idea is to look up a local tour. As well as larger groups that are taken out on coaches, you can choose a smaller, more intimate group. How you want to play out is your call.

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Icelandic lava field 

Action on gender equality 

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report 2017, Iceland has the world’s smallest gender gap (the disparity between men and women regarding health, earning power, education and political representation). In January this year it also became the first country to enforce a law that requires companies and governments to prove that they’re paying both genders equally.

But this doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect - a gender pay gap persists - and the women of Iceland are taking action. On October 24th this year, at 2.55pm, thousands of Icelandic women walked out of work to protest the inequality in pay still present in their country. (The leaving time was calculated according to this formula: the latest statistics indicate that women’s averages wages stand at 74% of that of the average man. Therefore, women effectively stop being paid, relative to their male counterparts after five hours and 55 minutes - so, when that time was up, it was time to go and show how they feel about it.)

Eliza Reid, an Iceland-living Canadian journalist who is married to the nation’s President, tells me about her attendance over coffee at her family’s residence, just outside the capital. ‘I was asking women there about how they knew it was actually going to happen, when the first women’s strike happened in 1975’ she says. [This event saw the country’s female population refuse to do any chores, childcare or their jobs, and gather in the streets, to protest pay inequality. It’s impact was dramatic.] ‘Because nowadays, you can see an event on Facebook. But then, it was word-of-mouth. No one could really explain how they knew - but they bravely did it.’

And why does she think that her adopted country scores so well on the gender gap index?

‘In terms of parental leave after you have children, women and men can take three months at 80% pay and then there’s another three months that a couple can share as they like,’ she says - a fact that has resulted a significant chunk of Icelandic men taking paternity leave. This also goes for adoption or permanent fostering of a child younger than eight-years-old.

Then there’s childcare. ‘This differs depending on what municipality you live in,’ Reid says. ’But our four children were all able to be in childcare with me as a writer and my husband as an academic [Guðni Jóhannesson was a history professor, before winning the 2016 election], because it’s heavily subsidised.’ There’s work to be done - Reid points to statistics around the lack of female representation at board level in the private sector - but she believes that there is a ‘collective will’ to get to a fully egalitarian place.

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Icelandic moss field

Hiking 

Icelanders love to hike. Not only do you increase your energy use by 28%, when compared with walking on flat ground, according to a study from the University of Michigan, but time spent walking in nature, when compared to doing the same in a city setting, has been shown in a study from Stanford University to decrease rumination and ’showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness’ in participants.

‘We do a lot of camping in summer, when the days are long and bright,’ says Atli Sigurður Kristjánsson, Marketing Director at the Blue Lagoon geothermal pool. ‘You spend a few days fully immersed in nature and being more wild.’ Bragason agrees that the warmer months are the best time for lacing up your walking boots. ‘But my favourite time to do it is at night - around 10pm -  the sky is dark blue and it’s beautiful and quiet and you can hear the birds more easily.’

Some advice to holiday-makers, though. ‘Make sure you tell someone at your hotel where specifically you are going, what time you expect to be back - and go in a group.’

If you head to visit the country and want to get stomping, Bragason recommends the area of Landmannalaugar, in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, where you can roam around an area with plenty of geothermal activity and over fields of volcanic rock, while Snæfellsnes Peninsula in west Iceland is another scenic spot about two-and-a-half hours from the capital and has ‘lots of old fishing towns, as well as amazing views.’ Iceland is vast - we’re talking 103.000 sq km an each of the main regions that the country is divided into - Reykjanes peninsula, West, Westfjords, North, East, South and the capital area - have a load of great hiking routes. So wherever you head, bring your sturdy shoes.

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Snow-drenched Icelandic mountains 

The upshot 

The key stuff I learnt? Living well is often more simple than we think. Getting outdoors, putting ourselves in the way of nature and exercising seem to be key to how Icelanders roll. As to striving for a more equal society - the general collective will around the idea is inspiring. Iceland isn’t a utopia and its people have no interest in pretending that it is. But in terms of a rough model to aspire to? As I take my last precious gulps of that pristine air, I think they’re doing pretty well.

For information and expert tips on planning your trip to Iceland, head to inspiredbyiceland.com.