If you have a passion for travel, like me, you’ll have a long list of places yearning to be sampled. But there is always one lingering there in the background that feels kind of special and for me that was Iceland. Over the past few years I’ve pored over endless articles on the amazing abundance of natural wonders and the warmth of the locals, so I was truly thrilled when my long planned visit finally arrived!
Conveniently located between the main Keflavik International Airport and Reykjavik city, the Blue Lagoon is a must for any visitor and a great airport stop off. While there are plenty of manufactured thermal pools in and around Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon is the only natural one and also claims to be one of the 25 wonders of the world. I have to say it’s a very surreal experience to feel the sand squeezing between your toes, lean up against the black volcanic rock and bath in the 38 degree water from which steam rises to create a truly dreamlike environment. The mountains in the background offer a perfect backdrop to relax after the 21/2 flight from the UK.
Most of the 320,000 population of Iceland reside in and around the colourful capital city of Reykjavik, which is pitched on the harbour and edged by snow-capped mountains. Downtown Reykjavik is really very small and easily accessible on foot. There’s a fabulous panoramic view available if you climb the tower of the church at Hallgrimskirkja and I would definitely recommend taking one of the ‘Walking Tours’ at CityWalk. They are free, although obviously the guides rely heavily on tips to make their money and rightly so as they are hugely informative in terms of the culture, history and tips on things to do.
In a land where they have 17 vowels, speaking the local lingo can be a real challenge. ‘Hi’ is an easy and acceptable hello, and ‘Takk’ is thank you, but their word for please is about a half a line long so we didn’t attempt that one! Needless to say, most of the locals speak excellent English and in a country known for international travellers, many of the tours are conducted in English too.
If you like to party, then I’m told downtown Reykjavik on a weekend is the place to be. Its bars are open until the early hours – some even until 5am – and often host live bands. If you are looking for something a little quieter, I’d recommend staying in one of the neighbourhood areas nearby. We stayed in an apartment on Laufasvegur. Icelandic laws state that they do not have shops or bars in the residential areas, so they are peaceful and quiet and if you are nosey like me, then you can wander the streets and see where the locals live.
The crime rate in Iceland is known for being low and it certainly feels safe navigating the dark streets late at night. It has a warm, sleepy feel to it and I’m told that if you do manage to spot a police officer on your visit you are very lucky as they are few and far between.
Compared to Britain, Iceland is expensive. There’s no easier way to say it. There are approximately 200 Icelandic Krona to the pound and a single mug of coffee in and around the shopping areas can set you back as much as £5. They eat pretty much the same food as is offered in the UK, with the exception of a little more fish, and lamb seems to feature pretty highly on their menus. (According to our guide, the national dishes like Hakar or fermented shark you read about beforehand aren’t really eaten by the locals.) If you find yourself seeking refreshment in one of the touristy areas I’d recommend the Café Paris. Situated directly behind the parliament buildings it offers a great all day breakfast and is a wonderful spot for people watching. Alternatively, wander off the beaten track a little and eat with the locals. ‘Snaps’ on Porsgata is close to the main shopping street of Laugavegur and offer an excellent choice of cuisine at reasonable Icelandic prices. Try the ‘catch of the day’ if you like fish. If you fancy a tipple, Brennivin is an Icelandic liquor which is known as ‘burning wine’ or ‘Black Death’ by the locals – after sampling it I think I can combine both these translations!
To see the ‘real’ Iceland you need to venture outside Reykjavik. There are two tourist offices situated within walking distance of the town centre who can organise day trips, or alternatively hire a jeep and take to the roads yourself – just make sure you heed the warnings; Iceland is apparently the most active volcanic island in the world, so make sure you stay within the recommended zones and listen to the weather warnings. Our guide was very happy to tell us that they only have two helicopters on the island which are mainly used for rescuing errant tourists.
We took the ‘Golden Circle’ trip which included the amazing Gulfoss Waterfalls, the fissure in the Earth where the tectonic plates are separating in Thingvellir National Park, and the incredible bubbling geysers. What is fascinating about this place is that you can be surrounded by volcanic rock or barren fields, turn a corner and see rolling lush countryside, then turn another and see snow-capped mountains. There are few trees though as the locals cut them down to keep themselves warm over the past 200 years. In fact they are very resourceful when it comes to keeping warm – some of them even turf their own rooftops to improve insulation! In recent years, there has been a drive by central government to plant more trees, so no doubt this outlook will change in future.
It’s very important to choose the right time to travel to Iceland, based on what you want to see and achieve. There’s a chance to see the Northern Lights from October to April but it is their winter and temperatures can plummet dramatically. During the summer months of May to September temperatures can reach the early twenties. They also only enjoy few hours of sunlight in the mid-winter and similarly few hours of darkness in mid-summer. Icelandic homes don’t seem to bother with curtains, just large windows and black out blinds which fit very well with their changing climes.
This post is dedicated to my best friend, fellow explorer and vodka buddy, Stephanie. I wonder where we will go next...