For all too many of us, we plan a trip as a much-needed break from our normal daily routine. We know that our tired minds could benefit from stepping out from the incessant work/family/social obligations cycle that is often filled with stress and anxiety, or alternatively, a sense of numbness. We put expectations on a getaway to be able to transport us not just physically to a different place, but also to a different state of being, one where our hearts can come alive again with wonder and excitement. 

And then all too often, we get there and experience the grand majority of the trip from behind our cell phones and cameras, like every other day of our life, so intent on showing the world we are living the dream that we forget to actually…just go and live it. 

Black Sand Beach in Iceland.

An adventure to Iceland begs visitors to learn how to unplug. This place is an absolute feast for the senses and a trip here can be deeply transformative if you can stay open and present to what it has to offer. On a Nat Hab tour, for example, you can experience an otherworldly realm of hissing steam vents, bubbling mud pots, cracked earth and pungently strong sulfur in the Hverarond geothermal area. You can meditate on dramatic volcanic black sand beaches on Iceland’s south coast. You can contemplate gigantic chunks of blue ice that drift by on the surface of Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon, a body of water formed from meltwater of Fjallsarlon Glacier, a tongue of the massive Vatnajokull Glacier (Europe’s biggest ice cap).  The Vatnajokull Glacier is responsible for the power behind Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall by volume and the most powerful cataract in Iceland at 330 feet wide and 150 feet high. Its thunderous spray of water is quickly humbling to all who visit, and those who are paying attention will often be rewarded by rainbows. A bit more mysterious in vibe is Drekagil (Dragon) Canyon, defined by its dark and twisted lava formations.

Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.

Traveling to Iceland is an opportunity to feel small in a vast and awe-inspiring place. Iceland invites its guests to become more introspective and to connect with the beauty and sheer power of the Earth. But while “being present in a gorgeous place” may sound easy, it often is not. Many of us are so reliant on technology and living through a screen that it creates tension and anxiety to turn our phones off or not have access to signal for a while. We fear we may be “missing out”, or that there is a certain underlying expectation of always having to be available to our work, our family or our friends. A frequently cited study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies put forth that because “it takes time to wind down after a stressful work period and acclimatize vacation,” it takes eight days of vacation for the benefits of a break to be fully felt.  To help yourself prepare, begin practicing unplugging before your trip. Turn off your phone after work, set up an out-of-office auto-reply after hours, and set up a limit for time spent on email on your phone. Wean yourself down to logging on to social media only once per day for a week or two before you travel. Spend your downtime away from a screen and instead pick up a book related to your upcoming trip or play some traditional music from the regions you will be visiting. 

As Sarah Fogel, WWF’s Deputy Director of Media and External Affairs, recently wrote of her own experience unplugging on a trip, “Rarely in our ‘normal’ lives do we give ourselves permission to truly live in the moment and experience pure, unadulterated joy.  I was calm, clear and content to be in one place, totally absorbed in the landscape and wildlife with nothing to do except savor it. It was a deep level of intimacy with nature I’d never experienced.”

Icelandic Horses in Iceland.

These days, being without any type of internet access is rare even in the most far-flung of locations. Often it is up to us to unplug ourselves. I remember being shocked to find that I had great internet access on a boat far above the Arctic Circle, and I also had service cruising Antarctica. I’m not convinced that having internet in either of those places was beneficial for my trip. I know that I sadly spent more time posting amazing photos and waiting for the likes to roll in on social media than I did watching the sunset in silence. If I genuinely wanted to connect with people and share the moments that I was privileged enough to be living, I had people in my tour group I could have done so with in person. I know that I overlooked the opportunities that I had with those wonderful fellow travelers. A group trip to Iceland undoubtedly attracts people who love nature and who are looking to get away from the grind. Instead of immediately uploading every picture you take of cool seabirds or Icelandic horses, try sharing the experience with someone else in your group. Instead of trying to create a clumsy video that will never be able to transmit the moment, laugh like a little kid with your travel partners as you hang on for the bumpy ride in a modified Super Jeep on your way up the dramatic Askja caldera. Sarah Fogel expounds, “When you shed 24-7 connectivity, it’s amazing what you gain. Everything becomes more pronounced without distractions: the calming sounds of the waves breaking against the shores, the harmonious song of beautiful birds overhead, the vibrant colors…”

An active volcanic crater in Mt Fagradalsfjall, Southwest Iceland.

Being more present on an Icelandic trip doesn’t just apply to better wildlife and landscape viewing. Icelandic culture is rooted in magic, mythology and mystical beings, and no visitor will be able to curiously play with exploring the possibilities of those realms from behind a screen. For example, Nat Hab travelers have the chance to explore the basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar as they walk along a stretch of surreal black sand beach beneath Reynisfjall Mountain. It’s one thing to obsessively spend time trying to find the best filter and hashtags for the shot. It’s another experience entirely to observe the landscape as you listen to your guide tell you the local legend of two trolls who were out fishing in a three-masted ship. When the trolls did not return to their cave before sunrise, they and their vessel turned into these needles of stone, since trolls cannot tolerate daylight. It is experiences like these that will make a trip much more rich and memorable. 

When traveling with a phone or a camera, even though you may be physically present in the destination, your experience is funneled through a small screen, reducing the sense of scope. Set the device down, close your eyes and feel the brisk wind play with your hair. Smell the mineral-rich volcanic environment. Listen intently to the sounds that the seabirds greet you with. Taste the salt tinge in the damp ocean air.  You are guaranteed to return home with much more vivid memories and a clearer, truer sense of the place that you traveled so far to know.