Iceland is a wonderful country. As usual when travelling I love to immerse myself in the history, culture and landscape of a place. Here are some of the things I learnt in my ten days there.
It’s got the wrong name
Iceland and Greenland should swap their names. Iceland is surprisingly temperate, with ice only covering about 10% of the country, and is surprisingly lush. I’ve never seen such green in nature, it’s like a super vivid filter has been applied when the sun shines. I was expecting a black, barren volcanic landscape, which does exist in places, but the majority of the landscape around the parts you’re likely to visit (i.e. the coastal parts) is often green and rather pleasant.
It’s really expensive
Iceland is the most expensive country I’ve ever been to. On a daily basis it worked out more than a cruise to Antarctica. Expect to pay at least double what you would normally be comfortable paying for anything. Accommodation, car hire, food, and drink are all super pricey. About the only thing at normal prices are flights to Iceland. Otherwise it’s a tiny country, with little competition and high taxes (GST is 24%, among the highest in the world). It is a glorious place, but just be prepared. On the upside all the natural attractions (such as waterfalls and geothermal sights) are free.
It’s increasingly popular
Last year 1.8 million tourists came to Iceland, outnumbering the native population six to one. This year they’re likely to break the 2 million mark. They’ve seen explosive growth over the past 4-5 years and the infrastructure is struggling to catch up, though what has been built is to a high standard. Tourists doing stupid / rude / dangerous things are regular items on the news, felt like being back in New Zealand hearing some of the stories. Expect to have to book things like the Blue Lagoon, rental cars and accommodation well in advance. I visited in peak season in July and it wasn’t exactly Paris in July, but neither was it really possible to have anywhere of the sights to yourself.
The weather is proper weather
Living in New Zealand I’m used to unpredictable and highly changeable weather (aren’t we all increasingly so given the effects of climate change?) but Iceland is more extreme. Not so much in terms of temperature, thanks to the tempering effects of the North Atlantic Current, but more the mixture of sunshine, heavy rain, cloud, and wind. I’m glad I brought a couple of t-shirts but certainly spent more time wearing long sleeve merino tops at the height of summer.
There are lots of lupins
Which aren’t native but do help stabilise the soil and certainly look pretty, though only seem to come in blue here, not the bright pinks and purples I’ve seen in Patagonia and New Zealand.
There are not a lot of Icelanders
Only 330,000 people (as a comparison Luxembourg has 570,000). Two thirds of the population live in or near to Reykjavik, the rest are scattered on farms and small towns, primarily on or close to the ring road that circles the island.
There are trees
Which was almost disappointing, having read about how the few trees that were on the island were cut down by the early settlers a thousand years ago. There’s been quite extensive reforestation, particularly around people’s homes, though still less than 5% of the country is forested.
There are a lot of birds
What Iceland may lack in the variety of species of bird compared to mainland Europe, it makes up for in terms of quantity. Most of them seemed to try and attack me when I went for runs, July isn’t the best time given the number of chicks around.
There are a surprising number of cyclists
Given the distances involved between destinations, the typical weather, and narrowness of the ring road around the island, there were an incredible number of cyclists on the roads, though there isn’t a lot of traffic around.
It’s bigger than you may think
Iceland is size of Wales and Scotland combined. Given the sometimes winding roads and 90km maximum speed limit it can take a while to get around. Allow at least a week, preferably a few days more to actually see something if you plan to circuit the island. Also be prepared for long stretches with little around, particularly in the highlands, so stock up on petrol when you can.
Every town has a swimming pool
Which is outside, which seems a little crazy considering the weather in Iceland, but makes more sense when you learn that they are pretty warm thanks to geothermal heating, so much so they add cold water to them. Hofsós in Northern Iceland had a particularly good cliff top example.
They really like their cars
Iceland has one of the highest levels of car ownership in the world, and the bigger the better…
Iceland has been Christian for over a thousand years
Since AD 1000 (or 999) to be precise. There are small churches scattered throughout the country, most white walled and red roofed, but many not. If there is an odd piece of architecture in a town that doesn’t look familiar, it is probably a church.
Icelandic houses are snug
Almost too snug, with geothermally powered under floor heating and decent insulation making most of them feel like saunas inside, even when it is cool and windy out. You end up doing what the locals do and leaving the windows open.
Deloitte are big in Iceland
After working for them for eight years I tend to spot their logo when travelling. I saw it far more often than I expected, from the top of the the tallest building in Iceland, to some pretty small and remote towns.
The days can be really long…
Or really short. In July the sun never really sets, officially sunset is midnight and sunrise around 3am, bring an eye mask! In winter the sun doesn’t appear until 10.30am and sets around 2pm, bring a torch!