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Iceland’s stark, pristine scenery has been shaped by fire and ice: More than 200 volcanoes and numerous glaciers form the country’s landscape. It’s a frozen land that’s always letting off steam. Its U-shaped valleys, jagged lava fields, monstrous ice caps, hot springs and geysers have carved a rugged, bizarre landscape you won’t see anywhere else on Earth. But you don’t need the fortitude of a Viking to enjoy Iceland. In fact, you can experience many of its extremes in relative comfort. During a recent trip, we swam outdoors in a naturally heated pool just feet/meters away from a glacier.
Icelanders, like many islanders, are self-confident and reserved, but once you break the ice, so to speak, they are among the friendliest in the world. Of course, they, too, have their extremes. Although Sunday-Thursday nights in Reykjavik, the capital city, are usually quite sedate, the wee hours during the weekend (particularly Friday nights) can get downright raucous as stylishly dressed young people observe a rowdy party-on-the-streets ritual known as theruntur, or circuit.
Roughly 500,000 tourists visit Iceland each year, far exceeding the country’s total population. Visitors flock to this country to revel in Reykjavik’s famed nightlife, but also to travel over lunar landscapes; wade in hot springs; trek across glaciers; comb miles and miles of secluded beaches; swim in geothermal pools; bathe in the mysterious Blue Lagoon; contemplate stunning waterfalls and geysers; gaze at the midnight sun; and experience winter days where the air’s so fresh it feels as if it might snap.
Iceland’s raw nature is sublime. It is like no place else on Earth.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, be aware that Upper Egypt actually refers to the southern part of the country, and Lower Egypt is in the north. This is in relation to the Nile River, which flows through the country from south to north, where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world, and among African nations, is second in population only to Nigeria. (Cairo, the continent’s most populous city, has 20 million people.)
The country is generally divided into seven geological, physical and scenic regions, and it’s possible to see most of them by driving the Ring Road (Highway 1), which circumnavigates Iceland. A bus makes the route daily year-round, unless weather forces road closures in the north.
Southwest—The capital city is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula which dominates the region, and is home to Iceland’s international airport, the city of Keflavik and the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction. The Reykjanes Peninsula is a geothermal hot spot, and much of the region’s power is derived from this geothermal activity.
West—The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is home to fishing villages and farms, but the main attraction is Snaefellsjokull glacier, which on a clear day can be seen from as far away as Reykjavik. In his seminal novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne described the glacier as the entry point to the Earth’s core. The region is sometimes referred to as Saga Land, because many of Iceland’s sagas (such as Egil’s Saga) were written in West Iceland.
West Fjords—The mountainous area is the westernmost part of Europe, close enough to Greenland (175 mi/280 km) that polar bears sometimes (albeit rarely) drift there on ice sheets. The capital of the West Fjords is Isafjordur, the perfect jumping-off point during the summer to explore the lush valleys, towering mountains and rugged sea cliffs, as well as the many fishing villages dotting the coast. The area is home to myriad seabirds, including the North Atlantic puffin.
North—Iceland’s second-largest city is Akureyri, but the area is more about striking nature. North Iceland is home to Dettifoss, one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls. Whale-watchers flock to Husavik to track humpback whales, and during summer visitors can take to the slopes for glacier skiing under the midnight sun, or enter the Arctic Open, a golf tournament that tees off at midnight.
East Fjords—East Iceland begins about 300 mi/480 km northeast of Reykjavik. The region is known for Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajokull, about an hour’s drive form the fishing village Hofn. The Ring Road wends through and around the fishing villages dotting the region’s narrow fjords, Reydarfjordur being the east’s longest and widest fjord. The East Fjords is home to herds of free-roaming reindeer.
South—South Iceland is known for the Golden Circle, named after the popular tour that takes visitors to Thingvellier National Park (home to the world’s first parliament), the powerful Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir, a hot spot for geysers. (The word geyser is derived from the Icelandic word geysir.) South Iceland is replete with lush farmlands and lakes, including Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. The active volcano Hekla is also in the south. The Westmann Islands, visible off the southern coast, are easily accessible by ferry or airplane.
The Interior—Simply called the Highlands, Iceland’s interior is uninhabitable, a vast area of desolate beauty, characterized by glaciers, mountains, volcanic wastelands and variable weather. The Highlands are primarily accessible only during summer, mainly via tours in four-wheel-drive vehicles or on horseback. (Winter travel should not be attempted without a guide.) Highlights include Thorsmork, Sprengisandur and Landmannalaugar. Organized tours last from one to 10 days. You should never travel alone in Iceland’s interior; always have a companion, if not a guide.
Popular folklore states that Iceland was named after ice to trick would-be settlers into venturing to Greenland. This is actually true. To elude the King of Norway, the Vikings who settled the windswept island (traditionally dated AD 874) wanted to dissuade other Vikings from going.
The records of Iceland’s first inhabitants were written in Landnamabok (Book of Settlements), in the 12th century, detailing the island’s first settler, Ingolfur Arnarson. The story goes that when this Viking chieftain from Norway spotted land, he tossed his boat’s seat posts into the sea, and made his home where they washed ashore: Reykjavik. He started a farm in Reykjavik (which means “smoky bay”), named after the steam rising from the region’s hot springs.
Being an isolated island, the language hasn’t changed much since the time of settlement, and Icelanders can still read the epic 13th-century sagas written in Old Norse.
The country enjoyed an early golden era as an independent republic from 930 to about 1262 (its parliament, the Althing, is considered the oldest in the world). Following a time of bloody anarchy, it entered a long, dark period—ruled first by Norway and then by Denmark—until its second independence, the formal establishment of the republic on 17 June 1944.
It was World War II, and the resulting Marshall Plan, that transformed Iceland from a farming and fishing nation where many rural inhabitants still lived in turf houses into a modern country. British troops first moved into Iceland during the war, followed by U.S. troops. The British withdrew around 1941, but U.S. forces maintained a NATO base outside Keflavik until 2006. These U.S. forces built the nation’s international airport in Keflavik, and helped Icelanders complete the nation’s main highway, the Ring Road, which circumnavigates the country.
One of Iceland’s only major international disputes occurred when the country decided to redraw its territorial waters, which only extended 4 mi/6 km offshore prior to 1952. During the next several years, Iceland began expanding its waters to protect its fishing grounds from foreign trawlers. By 1975, the country had extended its waters to 200 mi/322 km. Each time Iceland increased the size of its waters, the country met huge opposition from the British. Several times, the British sent large ships into Iceland’s waters in protest, followed by a ban of Iceland fish imports in the U.K. These skirmishes, known as the “Cod Wars,” established Iceland’s reputation as a staunch nation. The British eventually backed down and signed an agreement with Iceland to honor the 200-mi/322-km limit. Almost every maritime nation has now adopted the 200-mi/322-km zone.
Iceland also received global criticism for its resumption of whaling, especially because it prides itself on being environmentally aware. The government ensures that the catch is limited to a sustainable number, and that there is a market for it.
Iceland appeals to travelers who enjoy outdoor activities, rugged scenery, brisk weather and a relaxing, invigorating vacation (anyone who enjoys Alaska would be a prime candidate). The capital, Reykjavik, offers an array of overnight accommodations, from luxury hotels to youth hostels. There is an abundance of cafes and bistros in addition to fine-dining establishments. Reykjavik’s nightlife is an all-night adventure, with some pubs and clubs staying open until the wee hours of the night. But outside the capital, the choices are rather limited. Budget travel was a problem in Iceland, but since the global economic crisis, Iceland’s currency has decreased in value, and prices are now reasonable for youth hostels and guesthouses.
The land’s history is beset by volcanic eruptions, most notably one that erupted continuously for about 10 months in 1783, belching poisonous gases that destroyed pastures and crops. Almost 75% of the country’s livestock and 20% of the people died from the resulting famine. More recently, in 2010, an ash cloud disrupted air traffic across Europe for several weeks.
Icelanders all seem to be related—or at least know each other. Nearly everyone living in the country can trace his or her descent back to the settlers listed in a 14th-century book called Lannamabok (Book of Settlers).
Icelanders’ names are based on the patronymic system. A boy takes his father’s first name for his last name, and then adds the suffix son to it. Girls do the same but add dottir instead. For example, a man named Johann whose father’s name is Jon, is called Johann Jonsson. His son, named Halldor, is named Halldor Johannsson. Halldor’s sister Vigdis is called Vigdis Johannsdottir. Icelanders are listed by their first names in the phone book.
Swimming is a way of life in Iceland. It’s a compulsory part of the school curriculum. It’s said that to find the pulse of the nation, visit one of the many geothermal pools, hot pots and saunas. Because these pools use less chlorine than U.S. pools, visitors must shower naked, and, humorously, there are instructions in the locker rooms as to where to soap up.
The interior of Iceland is so barren and moonlike that the Apollo astronauts did some of their training there. The area is classified as Europe’s only desert.
Icelandic horses are known for their unique gait, the tolt (similar to that of a Tennessee Walker). Icelanders claim the tolt makes the ponies very comfortable to ride for hours at a time. If an Icelandic horse is taken abroad to a competition, it can never return to Iceland, in order to protect the local herds from disease.
Iceland is one of the most educated nations in the world, boasting 99.9% literacy. It also has one of the longest life expectancies and cleanest environments in Europe.
Thanks to Iceland’s geothermal energy, a majority of the country’s houses are heated with hot water pumped straight up from the ground.
Iceland opened the first hydrogen fuel station in 2003, and that same year it began running hydrogen-powered buses in Reykjavik. The country is striving to transfer its entire fishing fleet to hydrogen fuel cells to reduce Iceland’s dependency on fossil fuel.
Iceland has a coastline that covers roughly 3,088 mi/4,970 km, so there are plenty of beaches from which to choose. The black-sand beach at Vik (southern Iceland) is the most popular. But quirky Icelanders created Nautholsvik Beach, a man-made beach in the heart of Reykjavik, by pumping heated geothermal water into a sheltered cove to make it a swimmable 70 degrees.
Routinely named one of the world’s top 10 beaches, the black-sand beach in Vik (114 mi/184 km southeast of Reykjavik) should not be missed. Stroll the volcanic sand while gazing at puffin or the peculiar rock formations where director Clint Eastwood filmed scenes from his World War II film Flags of our Fathers.
Don’t leave your binoculars at home. The largest colony of puffins in the world nests in the Westmann Islands, off the coast of Iceland. More varieties of breeding ducks are found at Lake Myvatn in the north of Iceland than at any other place in Europe.
Fishing for salmon, brown trout and arctic char is popular June-September—and expensive for tourists. Purchase a license from landowners or a tour operator.
Iceland has more than 60 golf courses, including one of the world’s northernmost 18-hole courses in Akureyri. You don’t need to travel to the north, however, as there are multiple courses in the Reykjavik area. During the summer, you can hit the links at almost any hour and golf beneath the midnight sun.
HIKING & WALKING
If glacial trekking interests you, you don’t need to be a professional climber to enjoy Iceland’s numerous glacial peaks. Tour operators offer hikes, monster-Jeep trips and even snowmobile rides across the glacial tundra. Information is available at any Icelandic hotel.
Hiking tours of the national parks can also be arranged from Reykjavik. Your hotel will help you sign up for a half- or full-day tour.
Icelanders are proud of their horses, so even though they look small, don’t call them ponies. Numerous travel operators in and around Reykjavik offer day trips and short jaunts atop these docile and surefooted animals.
There’s good skiing December-May at Hveradalir, Skalafell and Blafjoll (not far from Reykjavik).
Reykjavik is known as a spa city. The capital area has nearly 20 pools from which to choose, all heated naturally with geothermal water. Laugardalslaug is Reykjavik’s most popular geothermal pool and, like all Icelandic swimming spots, has multiple hot pots, a sauna and steam bath.
Pools are inexpensive (about 500 ISK) and a great place to meet local Icelanders. Take your bathing suit, a towel and toiletries. Lockers are available.
Reykjavik is known for its energetic and sometimes wild nightlife, especially in the 101 postal code. If all roads lead to Rome, then those roads first wind through downtown Reykjavik, where on any given night you can listen to indie music played by tomorrow’s superstars while mixing with some of the most beautiful people in the world.
Shop for woolen goods (sweaters, jackets, blankets, scarves), gold or silver Viking-themed jewelry, Icelandic art (paintings, photographs, etchings or ceramics), stamps and coins, smoked salmon and herring, lava ornaments, Icelandic folk and popular music, and sheepskins (for cribs, car seats or rugs). Look for the shops with the Duty Free sign.
Walk around the old part of Reykjavik, near Parliament, and peer into the area’s shops. If looking for knickknacks, don’t skip Kolaportid. At this flea market, you can unearth some of the city’s top bargains. Eymundsson, a bookstore near the main post office, has a good supply of English-language books, photo books on Iceland and small gifts. Across the main street and up the hill is Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street, where you’ll find anything from fish-skin leather to record stores to Reykjavik’s hippest fashion in design shops such as Kron Kron. The Handknitting Association of Iceland is a good place to buy handmade woolen sweaters or yarn to make your own.
Rammagerdin has souvenirs, woolen sweaters and other local items. The Wool Market in the old section of town, close to Hotel Borg, is another good shop. Stop by 66 Degrees North on Bankastraeti for rugged but fashionable outdoor clothes. Its cool caps make perfect souvenirs. The Keflavik International Airport’s large duty-free shop has a few bargains, although some items are more expensive than in the downtown (nonhotel) shops, which aren’t duty-free. Kringlan, just outside downtown Reykjavik, is the city’s major shopping mall, with 40 to 50 shops carrying everything from Icelandic lava to Christian Dior fashions. Smaralind, the largest mall in Iceland, is located in the suburb of Kopavogur.
Some larger stores have a streamlined process for reimbursing visitors for the local value-added tax (VAT). Refunds are only applicable if you have spent more than 4,000 ISK.
Shopping Hours: Monday-Friday 9 am-6 pm, Saturday 10 am-4 pm. Hours may vary seasonally. Some convenience markets are open daily until 11 pm.
Many of the vegetables and fruit are locally grown in greenhouses heated by hot springs. If you see svid on a menu, be forewarned—it’s boiled sheep’s head. With more than 200 restaurants in Reykjavik, there is quite a variety of international cuisine, including Spanish, Indian and Thai restaurants. Pizza, too. While in Reykjavik, be sure to try an Icelandic hot dog from the small stand Baejarins Bestu, located in the old harbor. Order a dog with the works, topped with ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion and “remoulade,” a secret sauce consisting of mayonnaise and sweet relish, among other ingredients. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton ate there when he visited Iceland.
If you are traveling the Ring Road, there are usually restaurants within the petrol stations. The food is edible, but sometimes can surprise you. In either case, these petrol stations are usually the only option.
Iceland’s traditional alcoholic drink is Brennivn (meaning “burnt wine”), made from fermented potato pulp and flavored with caraway. The nickname is “black death” and rightly so—it’s a strong drink. There are high taxes on alcohol, intended to keep consumption down. Upon arrival at the airport, Icelanders and others in the know buy duty-free alcohol as soon as they get off the plane. There is a liquor store in the old part of downtown Reykjavik, near the post office. Though prices are high, it does have a nice variety of wines.
When you enter the home of an Icelander, be prepared to take off your shoes, and expect to be offered coffee.
If an Icelander offers you shark meat, swallow it whole and then chase it with Brennivin, a bitter-flavored schnapps. Nearly everyone in Iceland speaks English, so don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with a local.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
There is a medical center or hospital in each of Iceland’s major cities. Smaller towns have more limited facilities. For nonemergency medical assistance in Reykjavik, call 585-1300, or visit http://www.heilsugaeslan.is. Confirm coverage with your medical insurance company before your trip and, if needed, buy supplemental insurance.
In Reykjavik and other geothermal areas, the water may have a slight sulfur smell, but it won’t hurt you (locals will reassure you that it’s good for your complexion). It’s safe to eat the food and drink the water in local restaurants or from the tap.
Be sure to take along insect repellent (or buy it there) for the brief insect season in June and July. Tick bites are possible.
Icelandic weather is variable, and can change quickly from sun to rain to wind to snow. Even in the summer, the temperature can drop, and low-pressure systems seem to appear from nowhere. Check the weather (http://www.vedur.is) before traveling into the countryside. If traveling into the Highlands or the mountains, take suitable gear and clothes. If you plan to camp or trek, don’t forget to take along sunscreen, sunglasses, long sleeves and slacks, as well as a pair of sturdy, comfortable walking shoes or hiking shoes.
Call 112 to reach emergency assistance 24 hours a day. For nonemergency police information in Reykjavik, call 569-9020.
DOS & DON’TS
Don’t expect to see Eskimos or penguins—they don’t exist in Iceland.
Don’t stray from the orange-colored dirt while hiking around the boiling geysers and mud pools near Lake Myvatn. Hikers have been killed after falling through areas of yellow, green or gray soil.
Do take along waterproof clothing if you plan to go hiking.
Do take a steam bath at the geothermal pools, and do take along swimsuits. Swimming in the natural hot springs is a grand experience.
Do be aware that nightlife is somewhat limited in the small towns outside of Reykjavik. On weekends, bars and coffee shops in Reykjavik stay open late. However, viewing the northern lights can be an excellent alternative form of nightlife, and pools are open for swimming in the evenings.
Don’t think about taking your pet along. A six-week quarantine period is required before entry.
Passport/Visa Requirements: A passport is required of Australian, Canadian, U.K. and U.S. citizens for a stay of up to 90 days. Reconfirm travel document requirements with carrier before departure.
Languages: Icelandic. English widely spoken.
Predominant Religions: Predominantly Christian.
Time Zone: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed. Voltage
Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 354, country code;
ATMs are located throughout the country, and nearly every shop, bar and restaurant accepts most major credit cards. Be aware of the foreign-currency exchange fee, sometimes as high as 3%, which is charged by most major credit cards. It will appear on your credit-card statement below each purchase.
Tipping is unnecessary. In general, bartenders and waitstaff receive good wages and don’t expect tips. The only exception is at the end of a long tour, when it is appropriate to tip your guide and driver.
What to Wear
For outdoor enthusiasts, or anyone planning on hiking or camping, take waterproof pants and a rain jacket. A light sweater in the summer and heavy sweater during winter are a must. You can leave the shorts behind. Although there are rare warm summer days, pants block the wind. For sightseeing, sturdy boots keep your feet dry during bad weather. Because Iceland is considered part of Scandinavia, a black shirt and casual slacks will get you into any business meeting or nightclub. Think European chic. Many locals, however, dress down on the weekends.
Calls within the country are inexpensive and simple, with only a seven-digit number required. Calls made from a hotel to any place within the country are inexpensive. Iceland has one of the highest cell phone usage rates in the world, and phones are available for rent. The number for directory assistance is 118. Note: People are listed in phone directories by their first names, followed by their last names.
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The most convenient and cheapest form of transportation to and from Keflavik Airport is the FlyBus. Operated by Reykjavik Excursions, the FlyBus shuttle takes you from Keflavik International Airport to Reykjavik city, and vice versa. The Flybus is connected to all arriving and departing flights at Keflavik airport. Seats are always
guaranteed, and it serves all major hotels in Reykjavik. The bus takes passengers to the BSI bus terminal for 1,950 ISK per person. From there, transfer for free to all major hotels in Reykjavik.
Do not take a taxi from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik. It’s prohibitively expensive.
The most-often-used means of transportation are escorted or hosted tours, taxis (expensive), horse trekking (lasting up to 10 days), bus service (both locally in Reykjavik and intercity throughout the country) and rental cars. The legal driving age in Iceland is 17. It is a good idea to have an international driver’s license, but it is not essential. Many of the secondary and rural roads are dirt or gravel and only of poor-to-fair quality. (Extreme weather makes road repair quite a challenge.) The major road that encircles the country, the Ring Road, is in the best condition. (Note that driving off roads and tracks is prohibited.) Rental car agencies in Iceland include Hertz (phone 522-4420), Avis (phone 591-4000), Budget (phone 562-6060) and Kleflavik Airport Car Rental (phone 846-4030). There are many local car rental companies in Reykjavik, and information is available on these at the hotel tour desks. If you’re spending your entire trip in Reykjavik, you do not need a rental car.
For good discounts on cross-country bus travel, consider the pass that takes you around the island. Cost is about 37,000 ISK for the entire route. The ticket, called a Full Circle Passport, allows you to go in one continuous direction getting off and on as many times as you please (http://www.sterna.is/en/bus-passport/full-circle). Board the bus at the BSI terminal, near the domestic airport. The Passport ticket is only available mid-May to mid-September, and can be purchased at the BSI terminal or the Tourist Information Center at Adalstraeti 2, in downtown Reykjavik.
The Reykjavik Card can be purchased locally for a nominal fee, allowing unlimited city transportation, as well as entrance to swimming pools and museums, for one to three days. For more remote locations, helicopters or light aircraft can be chartered for around 140,600 ISK per hour from the Reykjavik airport.
There is summer passenger-ferry service from Denmark, Norway, the Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands on the Smyril Line. There are also ferries between some of the fjords in the north and northeast. There are no railroads. Large cruise ships dock in the Reykjavik harbor. It’s a short walk from the port to the city center.
For More Information
U.S.: Iceland Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017. Phone 212-885-9700. http://www.icelandtouristboard.com.
Iceland does not have tourist offices in Australia, Canada or the U.K.
Canada: Embassy of Iceland, Constitution Square, 360 Albert St., Suite 710, Ottawa, Ontario, K1R 7X7. Phone 613-482-1944.
U.K.: Embassy of Iceland, 2A Hans St., London SW1X 0JE. Phone 44-20-7259-3999.
U.S.: Embassy of Iceland, House of Sweden, 2900 K St. N.W. #509,
Washington D.C. 20007-1704. Phone 202-265 6653. There are consulates in Chicago, Houston, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Anchorage, Atlanta and Seattle, as well as honorary consulates in many other cities.
Iceland has a consulate in Australia but not an embassy.
Foreign Embassies in Iceland
Canadian Embassy, Tungata 14, 101 Reykjavik. Phone 575-6500.
British Embassy, P.O. Box 460, Laufasvegur 31, 101 Reykjavik. Phone 550-5100. U.S. Embassy, P.O. Box 40, Laufasvegur 21, 101 Reykjavik. Phone 562-9100.
Australia does not have diplomatic representation in Iceland, but the Embassy in Denmark is accredited for Iceland.
To get a taste of Icelandic culture, you might read one of the popular mysteries by award-winning author Arnaldur Indridason. Titles include Jar City, Voices and Silence of the Grave.