Iceland. Land of endless sky and unsettled geography, volatile volcanoes and tectonic plates engaged in an eternal tug of war. Brooding mountains, expanses of the formidable and uninhabitable, shaped and molded constantly by fire, ice, water, and wind. If you desire an encounter with the soul of the world, Iceland will not disappoint you.
Recent events have cast a negative eye on this island nation, with the economic collapse of Iceland’s banks and the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull that grounded trans-Atlantic flights to a halt. Yes, this is a country in the eye of a storm, but so is much of the world, and if Icelanders have learned one thing after centuries of living in the shadow of the most volcanically active place on earth, it is a sense of perspective.
This is an unsettling land of contradiction, heroic myth, and powerful natural forces, inhabited by people who will both charm and confound you with their fiercely independent, yet friendly and artistic character. But what can you expect in the land of Sagas, where the Earth still heaves and the descendents of the Vikings dare to tread her smoldering soil?
The Icelandic people revere innovation and artistic expression, rooted in a tradition of oral storytelling and poetry. Once the coveted skaldic poets in the courts of kings throughout medieval Scandinavia, today Icelanders burst with creative expression – in their art and sculpture inhabiting the most surprising nooks and corners of their communities, in the diversity of ground-breaking music pouring out of their cafes, and in the sheer volume of books published in a country with the world’s highest literacy rate.
Icelanders are extremely proud of Iceland. And it’s not difficult to see why. Their ancestors developed a society from their rough and tumble Viking roots into one of the world’s first and longest lasting parliamentary democracies. Yes, the Vikings were raiders and warriors, but they were also poets, sheepherders, fish mongers, and merchants who valued a code of chivalric honor, strong women, and cunning displays of verbal wit. Today is no different.
You will stumble upon the tongue-in-cheek Icelandic sense of humor where you least expect it, even at a glacial lagoon where a certain shopping-cart-pushing-headless-bear resides on the side of a bridge. Be amazed at the high level of education and proliferation of universities in even the smallest of communities. Marvel at the number of books translated into Icelandic. Encounter a nation of strong women in the country that supported the world’s first elected female president.
Today Iceland offers a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts, with active rumbling volcanoes, glaciers, the largest ice cap outside of the Arctic, remote mountain fjords, and an uninhabitable interior of craters, lakes, mountains, and moonscape. Stroll black sand beaches or revel in the wildlife. Scale a mountain summit. Kayak in soaring mountain fjords. Explore lava fields on horseback. You just might find yourself lost in a modern-day Saga.
City Guides: (coming soon)
- Reykjavik, August-September 2011
- Southwest Iceland, August 2011
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula, August 2011
- West Fjords, August 2011
- North Iceland, August 2011
- Mývatn, August 2011
- East Iceland, August 2011
- Skaftafell National Park, September 2011
- Vestmannæyjar, September 2011
Blog Posts about Iceland:
- Volcanic Excitement in Iceland, March 24, 2010
- Ready, Set, …. Learn Icelandic!, October 6, 2010
- A Journey of Learning Icelandic, December 3, 2010
- Sæl og blessuð Íslandi, August 5, 2011
- Icelandic Turf Houses, August 6, 2011
- Of Waterfalls, Volcanoes and Hot Water, August 16, 2011
- The Creative and Adventurous Soul that is Reykjavik, August 18, 2011
- Of Saga Lands and Sunsets, August 19, 2011
- Edge of the World, August 22, 2011
- Akureyri, Iceland – My Alternate Universe Hometown, August 24, 2011
- Glaciers, Steaming Fissures, Volcanoes and a Humpback Whale – This is Iceland!, August 29, 2011
- Summit Hike and Thor’s Revenge, September 1, 2011
- Music, Literature, and a Play of Lights to Soothe the Wounded Soul, September 10, 2011
- Footprints Across Volcanoes and Black Sand Beaches, September 12, 2011
- Homeward Bound: A Farewell to Iceland, September 13, 2011
- Travel vs. the Old Sweater, September 17, 2011
- Restorative Powers of the Icelandic Sundlaug, September 24, 2011
- Daily Life – The Icelandic Way, September 28, 2011
- Lessons in Irony – Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroes with Fibromyalgia, November 7, 2011
Iceland is a nation shaped by the Vikings; yet do not let the popular stereotype of the raiding, pillaging Viking pagan fool you. This was an isolated, tough land settled by a vibrant, complex society of Norsemen, farmers who dabbled in hunting, fishing, exploration, trade, and yes, summer raiding expeditions. The Norse were skilled ship-builders and seafarers, traversing the sea to trade within much of Scandinavia and Northern Europe. It was this mastery of the sea that allowed the first settlers to discover and inhabit Iceland.
In a period known as the landnám, or Settlement Era (870-930 ce), the first Norse settlers emigrated from Scandinavia, mostly from Norway and the British Isles, bringing with them livestock, farming tools, and Celtic wives and slaves. They set up an agricultural society, led by prominent farmers known as goði, chieftains who acted as local advisor, judge and priest. This was a wild west of individualists leaving other Viking communities in search of land wealth, increased social status, and freedom from the rule of kings. Eventually the chieftains developed their own parliament, called the Althing, meeting in the open-air plains of Thingvellir which first convened in 930 ce. Often labeled the world’s earliest and longest-latest democratic government, the reality was more complex than that. The assembly met for a couple weeks every summer as the country’s leading chieftains gathered to resolve disputes and discuss the law, which was memorized and recited by the Lawspeaker before the development of the written Icelandic language. The Althing did not have the power of enforcement – any decisions of the Althing relied on public support and opinion. This lack of centralized power eventually led to a growing power struggle between the leading families of Iceland, culminating in the Norwegian King Haakon playing the goðar off one another and taking control of Iceland as a subject of the Norwegian crown in 1262.
This was as a pagan society, with an intricate mythology of Norse gods and goddesses, battling the evil forces of the frost giants. Ragnarok, the final battle between the gods and giants that would destroy the world, always loomed inevitably in the future. The Norse celebrated men who were clever, fierce warriors, and wise, while following a clear code of morality that valued defending one’s honor. Women could also be strong, often the head of the household and responsible for running the farm while the men spent their summers plying the seas to trade their wares or going “a-viking” on raids.
Christianity came to Iceland through the maneuvering of the Norwegian king. By the turn of the 11th century, much of Scandinavia had converted to Christianity and King Olaf Tryggvason sought to convert Iceland as part of his efforts to pull Iceland under his influence. At the Althing in 1000 ce, the chieftains debated the matter bitterly, until they agreed to leave the decision up to the Lawspeaker. A pagan himself, he retired to his booth and meditated on the matter for a full day, emerging to decree that Iceland would officially convert to Christianity, but that the private observance of the pagan religion would still be allowed. A potential civil war was averted and soon chieftains began building churches on their farms as a mark of prestige.
Medieval Iceland was a harsh place to live. The first Viking settlers completely deforested the land and set up farms in sensitive environments. Overgrazing and the lack of vegetation led to extreme deforestation. Even today this legacy is acute, as the interior has turned into a bleak rocky expanse used by the Apollo astronauts to train for the moon landings. Constant volcanic eruptions that spurred farmers to abandon their fields and sent rivers of lava to bury towns, the series of famines and plagues, and the quick depletion of resources reduced Iceland to poverty. With the Kalmar Union of Norway and Denmark in 1397, the Danish crown took control of Iceland and enacted a harsh trade monopoly which allowed only approved Danish merchants to trade in Iceland. Prices skyrocketed on imported goods, such as timber and food, while farmers struggled to get decent prices for their wool. Most families lived in small turf farmhouses and scratched out a living. By 1798 the Icelandic Althing, barely functioning as a symbolic body, was disbanded.
Iceland’s fortunes began to change in the 19th century. Denmark ended the strict trade monopoly and approved trading centers, allowing Icelanders to become merchants and begin to slowly take ownership of their economic life. The economy shifted from wool to fishing, as the dried, salted fish called harðfiskur became Iceland’s chief export.
With their growing economic freedoms and improved conditions, Icelanders also began to lobby for independence, as nationalism and democratic movements swept the European continent. Students educated in Copenhagen, as well as some of Iceland’s leading political thinkers and writers, began to demand further autonomy under Danish rule, if not outright independence. Slowly Iceland wrung concessions for further autonomy out of Denmark, gaining the reinstatement of the Althing in 1845, moved from Thingvellir to the boom town of Reykjavik, and Home Rule in 1904, which allowed Iceland control over her domestic affairs.
With the advent of World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark, which left Iceland in a conundrum. They were now cut off from Copenhagen, which was in charge of Iceland’s defense and foreign affairs. Iceland declared neutrality. Without a standing military (even to this day) and located strategically in the North Atlantic shipping lanes, Britain worried Iceland might be occupied by Germany and quickly moved to establish a base in Reykjavik in 1940, without the permission of Iceland. While the Prime Minister announced his indignation at Britain’s violation of their sovereignty in a radio address, he urged his fellow Icelanders to treat the British with hospitality. British troops were relieved by American troops a year later, a few months before Pearl Harbor and their official entrance into the war.
Iceland took advantage of the war to proclaim their union with Denmark, still under Nazi occupation, as null and void, declaring full independence and the establishment of the Republic of Iceland on June 17, 1944 at Thingvellir to a joyous crowd of Icelanders, almost ¼ of the population in attendance.
With the conclusion of the war and the rise of the Soviet Union, the United States negotiated to establish a NATO base at Keflavik, an agreement that sparked protests in Reykjavik. After centuries of oppressive rule by foreign powers, especially Denmark, Icelanders were suspicious of any foreign military presence on their soil. The NATO base was finally decommissioned in 2006.
Iceland found itself the center of international attention throughout the 20th century, especially during the Cod Wars. As Iceland moved to protect their fishing rights to the waters off their coasts, foreign nations that for years enjoyed unlimited fishing pushed back, especially Britain. The most recent standoff came in 1974-5, when Iceland extended their fisheries jurisdiction to a 200 mile radius and sent out their Coast Guard to apprehend foreign trawlers fishing within their waters. Britain sent in the Royal Navy to “protect” their trawlers, leading to dramatic confrontations on the high sea between the Icelandic Coast Guard (consisting of 3 ships) and British frigates. The Icelandic Coast Guard used special equipment to cut the fishing lines of the trawlers and the British frigates used intimidation tactics, such as intentionally ramming the Coast Guard ships. Amazingly, not one ship was lost at sea, despite heavy damages. International opinion turned against Britain and the United Nations moved to establish fishery rights for all smaller nations.
Today Iceland is a vibrant, highly educated modern society. With the highest literacy rate in the world, young Icelanders are prolific readers and highly creative, with a burgeoning arts and film scene. The worldwide economic depression of 2008 hit Iceland especially hard – the three main banks, involved in high-risk speculation, collapsed and a series of protests now termed the “Pots and Pans Revolution” led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and his government. It is estimated 1 in 5 Icelandic families went bankrupt and the Icelandic króna crashed. Currently Iceland is exploring a bid for EU membership and conversion to the euro.
Iceland is a hotbed of geological activity and one of the newest and most turbulent landscapes on the entire planet. Situated both on a hot spot – a relatively thin section of the earth’s crust that allows magma to easily reach the surface – and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – an 18,000km rift lined with undersea volcanic mountains – Iceland is littered with fissures and volcanoes, at one estimate around 200 currently active volcanoes. The media frenzy over the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption that grounded European and trans-Atlantic air traffic was unusual – most Icelandic volcanic eruptions pass without international notice, an everyday part of living in Iceland.
This is not to say that volcanoes in Iceland aren’t dangerous. Throughout Iceland’s history, volcanoes have threatened and destroyed towns and farms, sparked famines and led people to abandon their homes. The Laki eruptions of 1783-4 were so devastating, around 9,000 people died of famine and the toxic gases. Denmark even considered evacuating the entire island. A more recent example is the 1973 eruption on the island of Heimæy, when a brand-new fissure opened up overnight, forcing the island’s evacuation and a hard-fought struggle to keep the advancing lava from totally engulfing the town. Today Heimæy survives, albeit with one-third of the houses under a new lava field and a brand new volcanic cone towering over the town.
Iceland is perched precariously over the tug-of-war intersection between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As the plates constantly pull away from each other, estimated at a rate of 1mm to 18mm a year, Iceland trembles and groans with earthquakes and eruptions through its mid-section. The dynamics of plate tectonics can be seen most evocatively at Thingvellir, the historic home of Iceland’s Althing.
Vatnajökull rests in Eastern Iceland, the largest ice cap outside the Arctic. Dozens of glaciers descend from the ice cap, carving out valleys in the mountains, as well as a glacial lagoon stuffed with icebergs. For dramatic mountain fjords, head to Eastern Iceland and the isolated West Fjords. Black sand beaches and desert-like stretches of glacial debris fields called sandurs litter South Iceland, shaped by massive glacial floods called jökulhlaups that can suddenly burst from dammed up glacial melt waters and wash out huge sections of the Ring Road highway.
Hot springs, geysers, bubbling mud pots, and ominously steaming fissures sprinkle the landscape. Icelanders harness this wealth of geothermal power to heat their homes. Geothermal power plants provide the unique experience of bathing in a rocky outdoor hot spring formed by the runoff water from the plants. Natural hot springs also exist, some safer to bathe in than others, many used throughout the centuries by the locals.
Encounters with wildlife can be arranged through tour operators or just by simply lacing up your boots and hitting the trails. The Arctic fox of the West Fjords is elusive, but the abundant bird life teems throughout the summer breeding season, especially the puffins. Whale-watching is possible, with minke, humpback and even sometimes the blue whale all swimming the northern waters. The best whale-watching is out of Husavik.
Currency – króna. Check a currency converter for the latest exchange rates. Due to the 2008 global economic crisis when Iceland’s three major banks failed and the króna collapsed, Iceland is actively pursuing membership in the European Union. Iceland may switch from the króna to the euro in upcoming years.
Government – Parliamentary republic, with a multi-party system and democratically elected President and Prime Minister. The President is largely a ceremonial role, with the power to veto laws, although only once has this veto power been exercised since independence. Parliament, known as the Althing, is the world’s oldest democratic government, having existed since 930 ce and reinstated in 1845 after being suspended by the Danish government in 1798.
Population – (2010) 317,398. The majority (about two-thirds) of the population lives in the capitol Reykjavik and the surrounding communities.
Language – Icelandic, the modern descendent of the language of the Vikings.
Icelandic Food & Drink
Agriculture and fishing are the bedrocks of the Icelandic economy and have been for centuries. Sheep farms blanket the countryside and coastal harbors teem with fishing boats. It would be a shame to visit Iceland and not try the local specialties that center around lamb and the fruits of the sea.
Lamb can be found in everything. Stews, delicate main courses, even in Thai curries. For a tasty lunch, try hangikjöt, a thinly sliced smoked lamb often served on flatbread. This was my picnic of choice on day hikes.
Freshly caught seafood is available everywhere in Iceland. Fish and chip harbor shops are good choices for affordable meals. For a local snack, try harðfískur, a chewy wind-dried fish stick. Tastier than it sounds. If you’re brave, there’s always the hákarl, fermented shark meat. While I shudder at the thought, others I met didn’t think it was too bad. I suggest you follow your mother’s advice, try everything once, and make up your own mind.
I still dream about skyr, Iceland’s super thick, creamy version of yogurt. Sample the rainbow of flavors for breakfast – I’m rather partial to pear. Skyr became a staple of my breakfast for my entire four weeks in Iceland.
Icelandic baking is far underrated. Rye is the flour of choice, resulting in healthy, flavorful breads. In the grocery stores you’ll come across a moist, sweet rye bread called rugbrauð – this is a type of hverabrauð that is baked using geothermal energy by burying the dough underground for 24 hours. Paired with skyr or jam and an amazing sunset, it’s a simple meal to remember.
Evidence of Danish influence can be found in Iceland’s bakeries. A wide range of tasty donuts, pastries, and breads are available and even the smallest town will have a bakery. My favorites are the chocolate-drenched cinnamon rolls (be sure to ask for the one with real hard chocolate, not chocolate frosting), ástpungar (love balls), and vinurbrauð (friend bread).
Eating out in Iceland is expensive. You will be shocked at the cost of a sit-down dinner, let along the prices in the grocery store. The best way to stay within a budget is to cook for yourself and splurge on a meal out once a day. It is easy to still incorporate Icelandic specialties into your dining experience while self-catering. Iceland’s grocery stores include plenty of seafood, harðfískur, rugbrauð, lamb, and skyr.
Beer is expensive in Iceland, especially in comparison to the United States. Most locals start the drinking at home with slightly less expensive alcohol from the government certified alcohol shops before hitting the bars. Be prepared to spend at least 800 kr for a 0,5 liter beer. (About $7)
Coffee is slightly more affordable, although the fancier drinks will start to add up. A cup of coffee costs about 350kr, while a latte or mocha costs 450kr or more. Outside of Reykjavik, it is rare to find a café with an espresso machine for specialty drinks. Instead, your pricey latte will be brewed by the push of a button, much like the cappuccino machines in our gas station markets. Stick with an espresso or regular coffee. Free refills are nonexistent, although often you are allowed ábót (seconds).
You may or may not need to ask for the bill – watch the locals and follow their lead. Tipping is not expected as the tip has already been figured into the price of the menu.
Budget eating is difficult in Iceland, where a meal out can cost 2500kr or more ($23+). Petrol stations serve fast food for cheap, although a steady diet of burgers and fries is probably not a healthy idea. Self-catering is a healthier budget option. However, be sure to try at least one pylsur, as Icelanders seem to be obsessed with the humble hot dog. To order one with everything, ask for a “pylsur með öllu” (pill-sur meth oul-tlu).
The easiest way to explore Iceland is by rental car, allowing you the freedom to explore the back roads without the restrictions of the public bus schedules. However, car rentals and petrol are expensive, and outside the summer months many interior and back roads will be closed to traffic.
Numerous bus companies follow the Ring Road, as well as traversing the more popular routes of the interior and even the arduously-long journey up into the West Fjords. Certain routes run only in the summer months, including the interior and East Iceland. Reykjavik, South Iceland, and Akureyri are well-connected year-round. Check bus schedules carefully. The main bus lines are SBA and Sterna.
Bus travel is expensive, so budget carefully. Bus passports are available in various forms. The most popular one allows for one full circuit of the Ring Road in one direction without backtracking. Depending on your travel plans, a bus passport may or may not save you money – do the math carefully. You can buy bus passports at the BSI station in Reykjavik or online before arriving in the country. For point-to-point tickets, you do not need to book ahead. Just show up at the bus station and buy your ticket. Even in remote places where the bus stop is not more than a road sign and intersection, you can buy your ticket on board – the bus drivers have credit card machines on board.
For the popular routes, buses are fairly comfortable coach buses. Not all seats are created equal – one side of the bus has immensely more leg room than the other; test out the seats before settling in. On more remote routes like the West Fjords, buses are no bigger than vans with a trailer hitch for luggage. Be prepared for an uncomfortable, bumpy ride.
Domestic air travel within Iceland is a breeze and sometimes may be cheaper than the bus, saving you lots of time to certain destinations. Air Iceland flies to most major Icelandic cities, including Akureyri, Egilsstaðir, and Ísafjörður. I found flying made the most sense traveling to and from the West Fjords. For less than the price of the bus, I flew from Ísafjörður to Akureyri in less than 4 hours, saving myself from the 22 hour grueling bus journey.
Unlike American domestic travel, flying in Iceland stress-free. Show up one hour before your flight’s scheduled departure. Check-in usually begins 30-45 minutes before your flight, security is swift, employees are smiling and pleasant, and boarding moves quickly. You will think you are in a glamorous 1960s air travel time-warp as you walk out onto the runway and up the airplane steps.
If you are considering extending your travels to other regions, Greenland and the Faroe Islands are easily and remarkably affordably linked by Air Iceland and Atlantic Airways out of Reykjavik Domestic Airport. All other international flights go through Keflavik. The international airline is Icelandair.
Almost everyone speaks English, especially in Reykjavik and the major towns. Icelanders known their language is one of the most difficult in the world to learn, so if you try to learn a couple phrases of Icelandic, you will be met with astonished smiles, especially outside Reykjavik. In Reykjavik, if you are learning the language and trying to practice, be prepared for about half the people you encounter to respond back impatiently in English, especially at tourist-heavy restaurants and sites. The other half will be delighted and patiently help you stumble along.
Useful Icelandic Words & Phrases
Já (yow) – yes Nei (nā) – no Góðan dag (Go-than dag) – Hello (to male)
Góðan dagin (Go-than dye-in) – Hello (to female)
Gott kvöld (Got-kvuld) – Good evening
Bless bless – goodbye Afsakið (af-sak-eth) – Excuse me
Fyrirgefðu (fear-re-gef-thu) – Sorry
Takk fyrir mig (Tak fear-ra mig) – Thanks very much Takk (tak) – Thanks
Skál (scowl) – Cheers!
Ég ætla að fá ______ (Yeg i-t-la ath fow) – I would like to have_________.
Fjörður (fuh-yur-thur) – fjord Foss (foss) – waterfall
Fjall (fee-yaltl) – mountain Jökull (yu-kultl) – glacier Gata – street
Ísland (ece-land) – Iceland Kirkja – church Höfn (hup) – harbor
Stræti (str-i-tee) – street Vík (veek) – bay vatn (văt) – lake
To understand Iceland, just look to its handrítin, a medieval literary heritage of law, genealogy, sagas and poetry. Most Icelanders can trace their lineage back through the Sagas to the first generations of settlers.
The Icelandic Norse were famous for their feats of witty poetry and masterful story-telling of heroic men and women and their adventures and moral misjudgments. Many Icelanders were skaldic court poets in the royal courts of Norway, Denmark, and the British Isles.
With their conversion to Christianity and the introduction of bound vellum books and the Latin alphabet, the Norse developed a written language that is larger unchanged from the Icelandic spoken today. A golden literary era commenced in the 12th and 13th centuries as Icelanders began to compile and write down their oral histories and stories and law, a rich collection of medieval literature that includes the Book of Settlements, Book of the Icelanders, the law books, eddic and skaldic poetry, and the huge collection of Saga stories. What survives today is just a small piece of what was written down, as many writings were lost during the 1728 fire in Copenhagen that destroyed much of Árni Magnusson’s collection.
The Sagas are Iceland’s most celebrated literary legacy. A forerunner to the modern novel, they were written down from the oral stories passed down generation to generation in a gripping prose, telling stories of real men and women who settled and shaped Iceland. While dramatized fiction, the Sagas are also symbols of Iceland’s collective national identity, a mix of fable, history, genealogy with detailed lineages of the first settlers, morality lessons, and Norse mythology. You can still visit specific Saga sites in Iceland, such as the revered holy mountain of Helgafell. The Sagas themselves are written across the very real landscape of Iceland.
A nation of avid readers, Iceland is still bursting with literary creativity. One of her most famous sons is Halldor Laxness, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature. More recent authors to check out are Einar Kárason, Hallgrímur Helgason, and Arnaldur Indriðason.
ADVICE FOR FIBROMITES
Iceland harbors a magical pain-relieving secret that I miss dearly – geothermally-heated public pools, called sundlaug. Every self-respecting community has one and locals will converge on the sundlaug for relaxation in the hot waters as they gossip and children splash in the water slides. The hot pots (basically hot tubs) come in a variety of temperatures – do not stay too long in any one pool and rotate between them. To cool off, dip into the cooler, but still warm, larger pools used for lounging, playing, and swimming laps. My muscle and joint pain eased tremendously after weeks of almost daily sundlaug attendance. A circuit of hot pots the morning after a hike or kayaking proved key to managing my fibromyalgia pain.
There are some important rules when visiting the sundlaug. Always remove your shoes and place them on the rack before entering the changing rooms. (This is also a common courtesy in private homes throughout Scandinavia). You are expected to shower thoroughly without your swimsuit before going to the pool – remember that Icelandic pools are not chlorinated and are naturally heated, so Icelanders will be affronted if you ignore their hygienic practices.
Iceland is a backpacker and outdoor enthusiast’s dream. If you struggle with a chronic medical condition like fibromyalgia, but still love to hike and explore the great outdoors, Iceland is doable. Relatively easy day hikes exist that immerse you in the dramatic volcanic landscape without needing to undertake hardcore hiking or camping. Some of my favorite hikes include the Mývatn region, the island of Heimæy, and Skaftafell National Park. Trails exist for all levels of difficulty, from fairly flat trails to intense summit hikes. You should be able to get out of the hotel and encounter black sand beaches, volcanoes, and glaciers without compromising your health.
Some popular activities are potentially painful – think carefully before trying horseback riding or sea kayaking. I enjoyed the experiences, but endured a lot of pain for a few days afterwards. Each individual’s body is different, of course, so figure out what activities will work for you.
Always pack a day bag with hiking and city-exploring essentials. A full water bottle, high energy snacks, a picnic lunch, and if you are hiking, always carry waterproofs, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Iceland is infamous for its quickly changing weather – locals joke that they experience 4 seasons in one day, even in the summer months. Comfortable walking shoes are a must and invest in good hiking boots if you plan any outdoor excursions to protect your feet from rain and sharp volcanic rock.
Like much of Scandinavia, a sleeping bag hostelling culture thrives in Iceland. Here it makes sense to consider hostelling, as even with the economic crash, guesthouses and hotels are extremely expensive. Hostels and guesthouses are often older buildings with stairs and no elevators – always ask about the layout if you cannot handle stairs or request a room on the ground floor. If you do decide to tackle stairs, consider bringing luggage that is light and easy to carry. I traipsed around with only a carry-on size backpack – super light and easy to navigate around bus stations, on public transit and up hostel stairs. Others may prefer a convertible backpack with wheels for maximum comfort and versatility. Remember, the lighter you pack, the easier getting around will be.
Hostels run the gamut from extremely cushy with lots of services to barebones and bunks. Do your research. Always ask if they have real beds or bunk beds. I found that I often slept better in a real bed. If bunk beds are unavoidable, try to snag a bottom bunk. If all this talk of hostelling sounds exhausting, then you probably should allow yourself to spend a little more money and find a more comfortable guesthouse.
Take advantage of public transportation when you can. Reykjavik and Akureyri have a public bus system. When walking around cities or hiking, take time to rest – sit in a coffee shop, sample a fresh pastry on a bench, or journal on a rock surrounded by mountains and glaciers.
If you need to carefully monitor your diet, try to arrange lodging that provides you access to a kitchen. A number of small family-run guesthouses, as well as hostels with private rooms among their dorms, are good options. Cooking for yourself gives you more control over your health. It also much cheaper than eating out, always an expensive endeavor in Iceland where a basic fish and chips meal can set you back $20.
TO BE CONTINUED
I love Iceland, more than I even imagined I could. If you enjoy art, literature, or music, Iceland teems with creative energy. Live music, literary readings, and public art can be found in even the most remote of towns. Festivals abound, especially throughout the long daylight hours of the summer months. The Northern Lights transfix and astonish, with their shimmering curtains of dancing light in the autumn and winter months. The people are friendly, the seafood and lamb abundant, the pastries decadent. But what most draws me is the landscape itself – the otherworldly mix of active and dormant volcanoes, lava fields, ice and glaciers, mountains, strange lava rock formations, hot smoking earth that boils mud, fuels geysers, and steams buried bread.