Iceland is very quickly becoming one of the trendiest places to visit in Europe, and with very good reason. This up-and-coming tourist destination was described to me by a native Icelander during my visit as “just like New Zealand without steroids.” Now firstly, if you want a mental picture of this Icelander, just think of a towering Viking warrior and you’re pretty much there, an image that goes for a lot of the population actually. And secondly, as a Kiwi myself this was a humbling statement to hear, but also something I have to admit I disagree with somewhat. Iceland has no need for steroids, it is simply perfect exactly as it is.
This Nordic island nation regularly finds itself named amongst the top tourist destinations globally, as well as being ranked both the world’s safest and most peaceful country to travel to (six years running) and the country that is the nicest to tourists. It seems Iceland could teach many other countries a lot…
Iceland in the winter is just what you’d imagine it to be and more – white, freezing and absolutely gorgeous. The streets were covered in snow up to my ankles and people were ice skating across the frozen lake in the middle of Reykjavik.
Now before I jump head first into talking about the capital, I want to talk about the Icelandic language. It is crazy, even the native speakers agree with that, and it is consistently ranked as one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. For example, there exists a word Eyjafjallajökull. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. It is the name of the volcano in the south of the country that exploded in 2010 and halted European air travel for a few days, and even after having it repeatedly sounded out for me by an Icelander, I’m no closer to knowing how to say this word myself. However, if we start with Reykjavik, it’s pronounced like Rake-ya-vick. Slightly easier. And there ends my limited knowledge of Icelandic…
Reykjavik is a city unlike almost any other that you’re likely to visit anywhere. There is a distinct lack of sky scrapers and shopping malls, and even the often unsealed dirt roads are questionable in places. However, this for me was part of the charm of the small, quirky capital. A trip to Iceland is a trip back in time, to a place where nature prevails and life is slow, sometimes a welcome relief after spending so much time in some of the huge European capitals. This cute and unique little city is full of things to do. Whether it’s checking out the boutique stores or the churches, finding a nice pub with a fire to enjoy an Icelandic beer, or exploring the multitude of different museums, including the world’s largest phallological museum, there is certainly something for everybody.
The Golden Circle
If you’re into exploring natural beauty, then the possibilities are endless here. Not many visitors leave the country without experiencing the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal spa and resort where you can swim outside in a snow storm with your face out of the water at -4°C while your body sits at a delightful average of 38°C (yes, this scenario was my exact experience), and whale and bird watching tours are also very common. Slightly further out of the city and along the Golden Circle route, you will find natural wonders such as highly active geysers (or geysirs in Icelandic), glacial ice caves and tunnels, and the 32 metre high Gullfoss waterfall, one of the most powerful and spectacular falls in Iceland. As for the wildlife, the miniature Icelandic horses which roam the countryside are a very special breed unique to this island, so much so that no horses can be imported into the country, and once exported, no horse can return.
One of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences in Iceland was certainly snowmobiling on the Langjökull glacier. Rugged up in almost every piece of clothing I’ve ever owned to protect against the snow and wind, I could’ve been in Antarctica. All that was visible in any direction was an expanse of white nothingness, and it was incredible. And if you work it right, those snow mobiles can certainly get up to some decent speeds! Top tip – on these trips you generally have to travel in a single file line with everybody else, drop way back from the person in front of you and then floor it! These machines are set up with speedometers, so you can definitely monitor your progress in this department!
You can read more about these Golden Circle and snowmobile tours on the Mountaineers of Iceland website. I did my tours with these guys and they were brilliant!
The Famous Lights
My other absolute favourite experience during my time in Iceland was something which is, for a lot of people, myself included, one of the main draw cards the country holds. The high latitude that this nation finds itself situated at makes it one of the most superb locations in the world to catch a viewing of the Northern Lights, and this is certainly what I saw. The time of year that is best for this is between September and April, however this doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to see this incredible phenomenon by any means. The lights are hugely dependent on atmospheric and weather conditions, but if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse, words can’t describe it. I stood for two and a half hours out in -8°C conditions in the middle of the night, initially seeing nothing, then a few white smudges in the sky which slowly became green, and then sharpened up spectacularly and began swirling and dancing, just like you’ve always seen in photos and videos. However don’t waste your time trying (and probably failing) to take your own photos or videos, unless you have top notch equipment or at least some form of talent for photography, which I quickly learnt I did not. Just enjoy the moment. I never knew that simply standing still for so long and staring, while completely losing all feeling in my feet, could be so rewarding.
I personally did a tour to see the Northern Lights. Of course you can go in search of them yourself, but the real benefit of doing a tour is that the guides truly do know what they’re doing and what to look for. When we can’t see a thing in the night sky, their trained eyes can pick out clues about the lights, whether they’re likely to be seen and where. My tour was fantastic, you can find out more about it on the Gateway to Iceland website.
A little further afield – The Ring Road
Although Iceland has traditionally been viewed as a winter destination, its popularity for a summer holiday is also growing rapidly. Now I use the term ‘summer holiday’ rather loosely here, if you’re after a nice warm beach break then forget it, the country has an average maximum daily temperature of 13°C during its warmest months.
A good summer trip to take in Iceland is the Ring Road tour. This is just under 1,500km on the country’s main road, Route 1, and it takes you on a loop around the entire island. You can drive this route yourself in about 7 to 10 days, factoring in many fascinating stops including various waterfalls, national parks, caves, glaciers, lagoons, fjords, geothermal areas, mountains and volcanoes – most of them utterly unpronounceable for anyone who doesn’t natively speak Icelandic. This trip is also possible in the winter, but is very dependent on weather conditions, so the more stable mid-year temperatures are likely to be a little more reliable.
Another summer activity is found in the Thingvellir National Park, where you can see the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. A spectacular sight, it is possible to scuba dive down and explore the boundary between these plates. Now obviously this is something you can see all year round, not just in the summer, and the same can be said for the opportunity to dive between them, however I feel the latter would probably be an ever so slightly warmer experience in the summer!
Delving into slightly deeper issues
Now the environment is an ever growing concern in today’s day and age, and it’s a topic that is very close to my heart. Iceland is a fascinating nation in this regard, being a world leader with respect to its use of the natural resources it has available in the production of ‘green energy.’ The country is unique the world over in this respect, standing alone in its ability to generate 100% of its electricity using renewables; 75% from hydropower and 25% from geothermal energy, with wind energy slowly starting to come into its own in some places as well. Moreover, Iceland utilises its abundance of geothermal resources to satisfy almost 90% of its demand for both heating and hot water, resulting in almost non-existent heating bills for the vast majority of the country – not a bad deal really! Yes this small country is very lucky to have these resources available on their doorstep, but the extent to which they harness these is revolutionary. Again, Iceland could teach the rest of the world a fair bit in this area…
Do you know what else is revolutionary? Growing tropical fruit such as bananas only a couple of hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, but of course Iceland have had a good crack at that, and rather successfully too. Another use of their geothermal energy is put into heating large greenhouses at Garðyrkjuskóli ríkisins, Iceland’s Agricultural University (have a go at saying that one!), which also doubles as Northern Europe’s largest banana plantation. As well as bananas, these greenhouses are home to coffee, cocoa and avocado plants. Nobody can accuse those Icelanders of not giving things a red hot go!
A destination like no other
This tiny little island 75 times smaller than Australia, with a population of only a little over 300,000 people, is a true wonder. For me personally, even being from a country with many similar natural features, it is unlike any other place I have visited on my travels. Please don’t listen to the haters even for a second, and crazily enough it does have its haters: “it’s too expensive” – it is a little expensive, but you’re off on holiday, not for the rest of your life (or maybe you are, if so, good on you!), get saving and get over it; “it’s too cold” – I mean it really is in the name, but trust me, you’ll be fine; or “it’s too far away from anywhere, it’s such a big trip” – well I’m from New Zealand, so this one didn’t faze me in the slightest… Just get there and experience this place for yourself! Iceland truly is a fascinating and refreshing travel destination for anybody wishing to experience something a little out of the ordinary.