As history goes, this island was named Iceland to drive people away from settling there and send them to Greenland instead, which was named incorrectly in the hope to attract people to settle there. Iceland is one of Europe’s most sparsely populated nations and the last country to be inhabited. Most of the land is barren, rural and uninhabitable. The culture, language and people are mostly influenced by the Scandinavian countries with a combination of Celtic appearances. I was prepared for a relatively small town feel during our stay at Reykjavik and mostly countryside tourism and hiking, but was extremely taken aback to find how isolated, barren, unique, exotic and how extremely beautiful this place actually is!
From black sand beaches to white ice caps, glaciers to volcanoes, hot spring baths to exploding sulphur geysers, from cliffs to dual folding waterfalls, from dog sledging to whale watching, white water rafting to mountain hiking, the possibilities are not only endless, but fascinating!!! Nowhere in the world can I imagine seeing the ocean on one side while standing atop an ice covered glacier, with volcanic activity causing ridges and ravines in the mountainside!
For miles and miles that we drove, (in the little rental car I like to refer to as ‘Herbie’), constantly cursing Avis for not providing us the 4 wheel drive. There are only one or two major highways in Iceland that run for several hundred kilometers in a direction. Depending on how adventurous you want your trip to be and which destination you are heading to, your deviation from the main road will get you to a dirt road amidst a national park or a glacial mountain climb. These roads can get rough for a small rental car, and rather than taking a risk with a flat tire or being trapped on the side of a mountain with not a soul in sight, no cell phone service, nobody to come rescue you, and a car stuck in a pothole, I strongly suggest renting an SUV. Also, there are no lights on the highways so for the sake of safety, plan your time accordingly so you can make your way back to a major town before sunset.
As we drove out of Reykjavik, I found myself deeper and deeper into what felt like a dream visit to the moon. We came upon a crater on the side of a road, beautifully holding a calm mini lake reflecting green and blue colors among the mist that settled within the hollow in the ground. Upon coming closer, the effort to hike down proved worth the trek! As we drove on the highway looking for our first stop on the Golden Circle tour, we suddenly came upon a little car park opening on the side of the road and what looked like a little hill in a very flat barren landscape.
Upon suggesting a quick stop, we peaked over the hill to find the remains of a volcanic crater! Lying low at the bottom of the ‘little hill’ which turned out to be a LARGE crater, we noticed very a step sloped cone shaped bottom with a reflection of clear blue-green water. We decided to walk down to the water from one of the slopes which had a hiking trail built in. It was definitely a lunch earning trek but the peaceful and clear water with the blue sky above was worthwhile! Then we followed the path to the Golden Circle tour, which includes Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall and Thingviller Viking village.
The tour itself takes a good part of one entire day, and the horizon reflects the barren dark ground kissing the blue skies, with a slight layer of iced cap glaciers on occasion – The most breathtaking sight! Driving along Route 1 that seemed to just continue on dry barren land, with an occasional horse grazing or a sheep running across the road, I was convinced we were lost until we come upon a ridge with a ravine and out of absolutely nowhere, the highway brings you upon the most fabulous ravine with a dual folding waterfall! The dual folding waterfall basically was a waterfall with not one, but two steep layers of folding water, coming down a cliff with such force that the two layers of water falling from different angles met in the middle causing a gushing flow of very rapid water causing a rising mist before falling again down a steep cliff into a little ravine several feet below.
Travel to Iceland is a lot cheaper and a lot closer than most people imagine it to be. Icelandair (the only airline servicing Reykjavik to most big cities in the US and Europe) offers one flight a day from New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, London, and all major western European cities. Flight time from NY and London being approximately 4-5 hours, Reykjavik has become a popular destination for young people for a long weekend and to live up the ‘Reykjavik style party scene’. Several years ago, Icelandair launched a series of provocative promotional campaigns, which initially began to raise awareness and travel to this far far away land to younger folks looking to have a good time. The marketing for Iceland boasted statements like ‘One-night stand in Iceland’ reads as inviting Americans and Europeans to stop over for a night on trans-Atlantic flights.
Last year American TV show The Sopranos featured prostitutes dressed, barely, in “Icelandic Airline” uniforms, partying in a New York hotel room. The show was called “Money for nothing and Icelandic Chicks for free.” These campaigns landed Icelandair in a series of court cases and law suits, and a furious staff supported by the Feminist Association of Iceland, but it worked in bringing immediate attention to one of the most popular summer destinations for bachelor parties, glacier adventures, diving and hiking.
The peak tourist months are from May to October, and although to most people’s surprise, the winter temperatures are not as dramatic as North America (due to the warm Gulf stream), the 4 hours of daylight is not conducive to sightseeing, hiking or driving on those very rough dirt roads. The month of June offers the midnight sun and early October attraction are the Northern lights, hence these are the two most expensive times to travel to Iceland. One can often find very reasonable rates on icelandair.com and summer specials closer to August/September timeframes.
So you ask, once in Iceland, what is there to do?? What are the people like? What do they eat? How do they live? Well, it took me all of 5 days to figure out what they do for a living, how they pass their time in the dark winter days and what they really eat. The sightseeing, exploration and adventurous opportunities are plenty! I highly recommend renting a car (a four wheel drive is a MUST!) and exploring to your own fancy and schedules. A word of caution, the maps are not to scale and not as comprehensive, so be sure to do your navigation before leaving the hotel or you might find yourself on a volcanic crater instead of a waterfall! There are plenty of tour buses from Reykjavik, but they are very expensive per person, and take almost all day.
For you vegetarian folk, you might have to frequent the pizza stalls a lot, but the few small and quaint traditional restaurants in Reykjavik offer an amazing variety of sea food and lamb, very well prepared with eclectic flavors and served at extra-ordinary prices. If you feel adventurous, your menu choices range from reindeer carpaccio to whale blubber to foal meat or penguin meat. If you are not looking for haute cuisine, the local grocery store will serve to pack the car with a picnic lunch of sandwiches, fruit, salad, juice, chips, etc.
An average meal at a relatively famous/traditional restaurant varies from $ 50 to $ 80. That does seem a lot for a glass of wine and a piece of fish, which will explain why the local Icelandic youth only step out to enjoy their cocktails post dinner around 11 PM. The nightlife in Reykjavik is mostly confined to the bars/clubs and restaurants on the main city street, Laugavegur. For a country that had a 40 year prohibition on alcohol, they are surely making up for lost time! The ‘scene’ peaks at around 2 AM when all the bars/clubs come alive at night and the street feels like a parade – a very different vision from the week day and morning time when finding a local eatery or a pharmacy seems like a struggle. A few woolie shops, with fine pure wool clothing and accessories is the extent of shopping you might enjoy in the city center. I personally preferred to look at the sheep grazing in the highlands from where the wool was created!
From the Golden circle tour, to the Blue Lagoon to the Langjokull glacier, the places to see are plenty. Upon leaving the city and in driving through the country side, you can enjoy fresh air, horse riding, whale watching, bird watching, or spend an afternoon soaking in minerals in the warm natural spring waters of the Blue Lagoon. If you find yourself intrigued by geography, the Reykjanes area (close to Keflavik by the airport) has numerous little spots one can visit. There is a bridge that is said to be inching apart the North American and European continental plates as a result of tectonic activity, a bird watchers paradise where migrating birds from Greenland find refuge and a hiking trail into the hot spring region. So pony up some riches and I guarantee you the trip will be worth the experience!