If you were paying any attention to this summer’s World Cup, you must have heard about the team from Iceland, the smallest country participating in the 2018 tournament. With a total population of 350,000 hardy souls, the island nation has also become a popular travel destination. I was one of the nearly 2.2 million tourists that passed through in 2017. That’s 6 tourists for every Icelander!
“Iceland? Why Iceland?,” we all asked after my mother announced that she wanted to take us there for our family reunion. What’s there besides the Northern Lights (which only appear during the winter months) and active volcanos that disrupt air travel? Somehow all 17 of us, ranging in age from 8 to 80, managed to be available during the same week last summer and agreed to explore this mysterious location together. Even after doing the research to build our private tour, I was still surprised by what I learned while touring Iceland.
1. Location, size & weather
Iceland sits in the North Atlantic Ocean, between Greenland and the coast of continental Europe. By land mass, it’s smaller than of the state of Ohio. The island’s total population is less than half of San Francisco’s. Despite being just outside of the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s weather is temperate. The Gulf Stream sends warm ocean currents across the Atlantic that keep the island warmer than other locations of the same latitude. Its mild summer weather (average high of 55°) was one reason grandma chose to visit Iceland; just like home but without the fog.
The majority of Iceland’s population lives in or around the capital city. Overwhelmed by cities that are too big, too crowded, too busy? Then add Reykjavik to your list to visit. This northern capital is just the right size for getting around on foot. On the water’s edge sits Harpa, the concert hall covered with faceted glass panes. Atop a hill sits Hallgrímskirkja Church, the tallest building in the city and visible from the water and nearly any corner of the city. Laugavegur, a mostly pedestrian shopping street, runs from the city center to the colorful residential area below the distinctive art deco façade of the church. We used Reykjavik as a home-base, returning to our apartments after day trips out of the city, giving us plenty of time to explore the city itself each evening. And during the summer, with plenty of daylight hours, the city’s personality changes when the shops close and the bars open with plenty of live music.
Fire & Ice. Volcanos & Oceans. Glaciers & beaches. Iceland sits atop the boundary of two tectonic plates; volcanos formed the island and 30 volcanic systems are active. The glaciers feed the numerous rivers and waterfalls that are the highlights of a tour of the island. Those more adventurous can drive (4x4 needed), hike and camp to be fully immersed in the scenery. Those who want the guidance of an experienced driver/guide and the comfort of a coach can take a tour. Even from a bus, the views from the highway are outstanding. Lots of moss, very few trees. Rocks and steam vents. Snow and sand. What looked like a cloudy mist from the parking lot becomes a looming cascade was you walk closer to the roar, soon to be soaked by the volumes of spray from the falling water.
Yes, food is expensive in Iceland. Even the Icelanders complain about the prices. What is not grown in greenhouses or raised on the free-range ranches or caught in the surrounding seas must be imported. Restaurant entrees are three times more expensive that those at home. We had our share of Icelandic hot dogs (mix of lamb and beef, served with onions and gravy) and wharf-side fish-n-chips as inexpensive meals. But we also enjoyed meat (lamb) soup from a diner, giant bowls of langoustines (mini-lobsters) at a famous but isolated establishment, and an assortment of locally caught fish at top-end restaurants. Yummy sweets to look for are chocolate covered licorice, ice cream and skyr, which we know as Icelandic yogurt.
5. Blue Lagoon
Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction is entirely man-made. It’s milky baby blue hued, soothingly warm, mineral-rich water is the resulting run-off from energy production by the neighboring geothermal power plant. After locals discovered the pools and rumors spread of the waters’ healing powers, a spa facility sprang up to accommodate the bathers. Now complete with a hotel, two restaurants, a pool-side bar, locker rooms and a menu of optional spa treatments, the Blue Lagoon is the first stop for many tourists after disembarking their flights in Keflavík. If you wish to avoid the crowds, add a visit to the Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths to your Golden Circle tour. Or join the locals at the neighborhood public swimming pool.
6. Hot water
The geothermal activity underground not only provides a much-needed heat source for the island; the same provides the hot water that is piped into homes and residences. One of the key items of Iceland life that our tour guide pointed out was that the water coming of the hot water taps of our hotel rooms would have a slight sulfur odor, the “hot springs” smell. The little bit of stink thankfully does not linger in the air or on the skin once the faucets are turned off. I believe the best way to enjoy Iceland’s hot water is to soak in a hot spring or a hot pot. The second best way is to watch the geyser Strokkur erupt, shooting boiling water up to 30 meters above excited visitors gathered at its edge.
With its current popularity, Iceland is overflowing with international visitors, especially during the prime summer months when the entire island is accessible and the nighttime sky seems to never darken. Winter months are popular for catching views of the ethereal Northern Lights but the interior of the island is impassable. The weather during shoulder season is unpredictable but the crowds will be thinner. Already operating at the edge of capacity, the main airport at Keflavik announced plans for a $1 billion expansion to increase gate and parking lot capacity. IcelandAir and Wow Airlines both have stopover programs allowing travelers to spend time exploring Iceland before continuing to other European destinations, or as an extra site to visit on the way home. A few cruise lines are also to adding Reykjavik and Aukereyi as ports in some Northern European itineraries. However you get there, pack clothes to layer including a swimsuit and a waterproof jacket, have plenty of room in your phone for tons of photos, and prepare to be wowed and awed by the spectacular views.