Iceland, (Icelandic: Ísland) a country nominally in Northern Europe, is a large mountainous island in the north Atlantic Ocean, on the fault between Europe and North America. In a sense, it is a well-named territory, with over 11 per cent of the country covered by glaciers, but in another sense it is not, with a surprisingly mild climate and countless geothermal hot-spots. And of course the native spelling (”Ísland”) is appropriate in English as well.
Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Lava fields, lava tubes, plains of fractured rock, ice, fire and steam.
Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle (a small island to the north of the main island crosses it), the amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but it doesn’t get fully dark before it comes back up again. In March and September, days and nights are about equal, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, forget about sight-seeing; it’ll be too dark outside. Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild. The midnight sun is a beautiful sight and one definitely not to be missed. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun is still high in the sky at 11pm.
The people on Iceland
Iceland was settled by Nordic and Celtic people in the 9th century AD - tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavik now stands. The Icelanders still basically speak the language of the Vikings. Iceland maintains another Norse tradition: the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames (an Icelander’s given name is followed by his or her parent’s first name (usually the father’s) and the suffix -son or -dóttir, e.g. Guðrún Pétursdóttir (Guðrún, Pétur’s daughter). Members of the same family can therefore have many different “surnames”, which can sometimes create confusion for visitors. Because of the patronymic last names Icelanders primarily use first names, e.g. phone books are alphabetized by first name rather than last name. This also applies when addressing an individual. Icelanders would never expect to be addressed as Mr. or Ms. Jónsson/-dóttir no matter how important they might be.
The Climate on Iceland
Despite its name, Iceland is very mild for a country at that latitude owing to the warming effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. The weather is often compared with that of New England (though cooler in the winter). I went there once 10 years ago and the average June temperature was 10C (50F. It has been getting warmer and warmer by every year that passes and last time when I went it got to 23C. However the rapidly changing weather has given rise to the local saying: ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes’! - some Icelandic people also believe that if the winter is hard and long then the summer will be good and warm.
If possible avoid a stop-over in the US as the extra security hassle is not worth it. Travellers with children should be aware that strollers and sandals may be x-rayed several times during a stop over. If you can fly to Europe and then to Iceland (on Iceland Express, for example) do that. It is perhaps best to use the UK as an entry point to Iceland, as it faces less rigourous checks than some other European countries.
Iceland is easily reached via air, the international airport is Keflavik, in the South West of the country about 40 km from Reykjavik.
The airport itself is quite barren; if you have a lengthy layover you should make sure to bring books or other entertainment.
An airport transfer bus service (called the FlyBus) runs between the airport and Reykjavik bus terminal via various hotels (1100 Kr, 45 minutes). A return is 300 Kr cheaper than 2 singles. Another great option is to take the bus which stops at the Blue Lagoon either to or from the airport, then continues every half hour or so to Reykjavik.
Be warned, a metered taxi costs about 9500 krona (roughly US$140).
Direct flights from New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, Orlando, Baltimore, San Francisco and most major European (i.e. Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Helsinki, London, Oslo, Madrid, Manchester, Milan, Munich, Paris, Stockholm and Zurich) airports are available, especially since Icelandair uses Keflavik as a hub (note that some are only during the summer months).
Another option is the low cost airline Iceland Express which flies from Copenhagen and Stansted (close to London) to Keflavik (with additional service during the summer month to Frankfurt Hahn, Berlin Schönefeld, Friedrichshafen, Alicante, Gothenburg and Stockholm Arlanda).
In addition to this British Airways will offer flights from London and SAS from Oslo starting in 2006.
The Icelandic travel search engine dohop.com finds low cost flights to Reykjavik from 200 cities in Europe. Make sure you check out all prices as the so called “low cost” option may not be the lowest cost option at all.
Getting to Iceland by boat takes longer than by plane but has the advantage of allowing you to take your own vehicle. In the summer, Smyril Line’s MV Norunna sails to picturesque Seyðisfjörður in a week round trip from Hanstholm in Northern Jutland (Denmark) via Tórshavn (Faroe Islands), Lerwick (Shetland Islands) and Bergen (Norway).
The website is slightly vague on the costs and doesn’t show many special offers, so it’s worth calling their friendly sales office in Shetland. In July & August 2005 a return ticket from Lerwick could be had for ~£50.
Aircraft in Iceland are like buses or trains elsewhere - they’re the main form of internal travel other than the roads. Be warned though, that the ride can be a bit bumpy if you’re coming into one of the fjords like Akureyri.
Scheduled service to domestic destinations, including Greenland and Faroe Islands, is provided by Air Iceland.
Driving in Iceland is on the right-side of the road. Headlights and seatbelts for all passengers must be on at all times. There are excellent car hire desks from Hertz and Avis in the airport, as well as a local company, Alp. Hiring a car can be extremely expensive, especially for four-wheel-drives. Renting cars on-location is almost never cheaper than doing so in advance.
Be aware that car rentals - also at the airports - are not open around the clock.
There is one main highway, Route 1-Ring Road, that encircles the country. If traveling around the country,the gas tank should be kept near full because stations can be 100-200km apart. Also, because of Iceland’s everchanging weather, one should keep extra food and know where guesthouses/hotels are located in case of a road closure.
Most mountain roads are closed until the end of June, or even longer because of wet and muddy conditions which make them totally impassable. When these roads are opened for traffic many of them can only be negotiated by four wheel drive vehicles. The roads requiring four wheel drive (and possibly snow tires) are route numbers with an “F” prefix, e.g. F128.
Icelandic roads are adequate or at least tolerable if you are driving in populated areas. The interior of the country is a different matter and a good four-wheel drive vehicle is essential even if you stay to the “roads”, you might have to cross many rivers and fords, some of which can be over 4 feet (1.2m) deep - especially if it has been raining.
A word of warning is in order: With the growing number of tourists on the Icelandic roads it has become evident that the roads are dangerous for the visitors. Please be careful! The number of drivers that lose control of hired cars on the gravel roads is disproportionately high. And the accidents are sadly too often fatal.
There are two signs that foreigners should pay attention to. First, “malbik endar” means that the road changes from a paved road to a gravel road. Slow down before these changes, for one can lose control easily. Also “einbreið brú” means that a one-lane bridge is approaching. Arrive at the bridge slowly and assess the situation. If another car has arrived at the bridge first allow them the right-of-way.
If you are travelling by road a great site to check is the Iceland Meteorological Office who have an excellent set of pages including the weather and driving conditions on all of the main roads.
The DUI limit in Iceland is 0.05%.
Driving in Iceland is an amazing experience - the changing landscapes are unlike anything else in the world. Pay attention to the driving rules and you will have a wonderful time.
BSI Travel Runs regular bus service to most parts of the country, especially around the Ring Road (Route 1).
Special offers include 1-4 week unlimited bus travel round the Ring Road (optionally with travel round the West Fjords); one time-unlimited breakable journey around the Ring Road in either direction.
Some of the largest excursion companies include Reykjavik Excursions which actually operates bus routes all over the West, South and East part of the country and SBA-Nordurleid which operates routes all over the North and East of Iceland.
Cycling is a good way to experience Iceland, and provides a very different cultural experience to other means of transport. You should bring your own touring bike; don’t buy locally, unless you really have too much money to spare. Traffic in and out of Reykjavík is heavy, otherwise, it’s OK. You can cycle safely on the Ring Road, or take the bike on the buses (which are equipped with bicycle racks) serving the Ring Road and do side trips.
Hitchhiking is a cheap way of getting around in Iceland. The country is among the safest in the world, people are quite friendly and the percentage of cars who do give rides is high, especially in the off-season. However, low traffic in areas outside Reykjavik makes hitchhiking in Iceland an endurance sport. Even on the main ring-road there is quite often less than one car an hour in the eastern parts. Nearly everybody speaks English and most drivers are interested in conversations.
Hitchhiking into the interior is tough, but everything works if you have enough time - calculating in days, not in hours. For longer distances or less touristic areas be prepared with some food, water and a tent or similar. The weather can be awful and sometimes spoils the fun of this way of traveling.
Although most visitors don’t stray far from the capital city of Reykjavik (see separate link) we here list some other popular destinations on Iceland. There are many excursions offered by tour companies and are readily available from any of the main centres such as Reykjavik and Akureyri. They will fly you around and take you on to the glaciers and to the big volcanos for a reasonable price.
- Blue Lagoon - famous outdoor pool and health center. In area of Reykjavik and the international airport. This geothermal spa in the middle of a lava field was very surreal.
- Þingvellir(pronounced “THINK-vet-lihr”) - National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. 20 or 30 miles eastward of Reykjavik.
Interesting for a number of reasons. This is not only the site of the longest running parliament in the world (the name literally means parliamentary fields), it’s also where the North-American and European continental shelf plates are being torn apart. And if you think
- Gullfoss - the Golden Falls
On the edge of the inhospitable Interior of Iceland about 60 miles east of Reykjavik, the river Hvita plunges down a double cascade to create what many people believe is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland
- Geysir - Geothermal hot spot
A bit west of Gullfoss. Geysir itself (from which the English word “geyser” derives) rarely erupts, but fortunately Strokkur next door goes off every five or ten minutes.
A lake near Akureyri in the North of Iceland, Myvatn has an unearthly appearance owing to special types of volcanic craters throughout the lake.
- Skaftafell National Park
The majestic glacier lake in southeast Iceland and is located near Hofn and on Route 1. Interior Iceland water runoff flows into Jokulsarlon lake which opens into the Atlantic Ocean.
- West Fjords
Located in northwest Iceland, the West Fjords are somewhat isolated but beautiful to see.
Europe’s largest waterfall located in southern end of Jokulsargljufur National Park.
A Golden Circle tour is available from Reykjavik which will take you round the Gulfoss waterfall, geysirs, the crater, the Garden of Eden and the Mid-atlantic rift/ place of Icelands first Parliament. Although you dont get much time at each stop the guide does tell you about Icelands history and some general information.
Iceland offers many hiking opportunities. Hiking in Iceland is no easy business, strong walking boots which support your ankle are recommended as the terrain is usually craggy lava rock or springly moss with hidden holes!