Best Country Ever: Iceland The geothermal-intensive nation in the North Atlantic rings in at number one on the annual United Nations Human Development Index for places to live.
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Best Country Ever: Iceland

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Best Country Ever: Iceland

Best Country Ever: Iceland

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey, the results are in. What's the best place in the world to live? Well, before I give away the tiara, a little background.

The U.N. Human Development Index has released its annual habitability rankings for 175 nations around the world - plus, Hongkong and the Palestinian territories. The rankings are based on life expectancy, education levels and per capita gross domestic product. They go to categories in the swimsuit, congeniality and talent competition for the crown.

For example, when it comes to how much they make per capita, GDP, Luxembourg came at number one. The average haul: 60 grand. The U.S. was number two in that category. The average: $42,000. As for life expectancy, Japan leads the world, 82.3 years, while the U.S. tied for 26th place at 77.9.

The countries at the bottom of the overall rankings were predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy in Zambia: 40-and-a-half years.

So what country is number one overall? The best place to live? Not the U.S. We're number 12, down from number eight. Now, if you follow this thing, every year, Norway always win. They're like the Yankees of this thing. They've won six years in a row. But the envelope, please. And the winner is…

(Soundbite of envelope being ripped)

STEWART: Iceland.

Yeah, who knew? Iceland is the best country ever, the country that gave us Bjork and Sigur Ros. The island nation of 300,000 between the Greenland Sea in the North Atlantic is slightly smaller than Kentucky, but it's on top of the world today.

Joining us now to talk more about Iceland are travel experts Charlie Leocha and Karen Cummings, writers for

Good morning, guys.

Mr. CHARLES LEOCHA (Writer, Hey, good morning.

Ms. KAREN CUMMINGS (Writer, Good morning.

STEWART: Good morning. So Charlie, should we just pack up and move to Iceland? Where would we live?

Mr. LEOCHA: Well, you don't have much of a choice. You're going to probably be living in their capital city of Reykjavik. And that's where about 80 percent of the people live, in that region. You just got to imagine that Iceland is about the size of Ohio or Kentucky, as you said.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEOCHA: And I think something like 60 or 70 percent of the people all live in their main city, which is down in the southwestern quadrant of the island. The rest of the island's just about uninhabitable.

STEWART: And with only 300,000 people in the entire country, Karen, it's a pretty small, isolated place. How homogenous is the population?

Ms. CUMMINGS: Well, they're - they were shuttled by the Vikings in 800, I think. And they have stayed pretty much a pure population. In fact, they brought over horses in the 900s, and they also brought over sheep. And so the things - when you think of Iceland, you think of the Icelandic ponies. You think of the beautiful, for the most part, people who are blond, blue-eyed and sort of a pure people because they haven't had as - like in the U.S., where there's so much mixture. And then the wool from their Icelandic sheep is famous for the Icelandic sweaters.

STEWART: And Charlie, I have to imagine that you probably know your neighbors. If it's that small, and everybody's in Reykjavik.

Mr. LEOCHA: Yeah. It is kind of interesting that you know all your neighbors. And the other neat thing about it is that - you know, one of the kind of funny things is that, you know, we went in and someone told us that the telephone books were all listed by first name and not by last name, because everybody's someone's daughter or someone's son. And so we have looked in the phone book, and I couldn't believe it. It is actually listed by first name.

So, you know, it's kind of a - it's really a unique place. And when people asked me once, would I like to live there? I said, I don't know. You look at something like the average temperature on the Fourth of July, I think it's something like 55 degrees. So, you go, okay. And, you've got this good standard of living and you've got a good medical system and you've got thermal energy.

You don't have to use oil. You know, they use thermal energy from underground to do all their heating and also to make electricity and so on. And you've got some good points, but, you know, it's - you don't have Miami or anything there. It's definitely a different world.

STEWART: Got you. Charlie, Iceland's supposed to be a super productive place at all - as well. What seems to be the main source of business? The main economy?

Mr. LEOCHA: I think the main economy right now is - the fishing industry…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEOCHA: …is still really, really big. And then they've got a developing service industry. They've done a great job of putting themselves between Europe and North America. And so they've got a lot of - they're able to work with, you know, people on both sides of the Atlantic, because they're kind of right in the middle. If you look at it in a polar map…


Mr. LEOCHA: …they're almost on a, you know, right on the straight line from New York going to London, let's say. You're going to be go - almost right over Iceland every time. So they've done a really good job of - in that area. And in high tech, they're also doing lot of work.


Mr. LEOCHA: And right now, big, big industry is construction. Man, everywhere you go, they're building a new road or putting up a new apartment building.

STEWART: That's because everybody's moving there, because it's the best country ever.

Charlie Leocha and Karen Cummings from Thanks for all the info.

Mr. LEOCHA: Okay, thanks a lot. Take care.

STEWART: Stick around. More to come from THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

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