It goes without saying that Iceland has become a very popular destination, especially for Americans and Europeans. But if you never gave Iceland a passing thought until recently, you’re not alone. Given prominence by a stellar Euro Cup 2016 performance including a 2-1 victory over the English, the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption that brought European airspace to its knees, and an exceptional fall from grace after the 2008 banking crisis, people from around the world are finally taking notice of this barren, but ridiculously beautiful island.
Seriously, it’s bonkers.
After conceiving the idea of visiting, I quickly discovered myself hopping on the mainstream travel wagon which I generally try to avoid. “No way, I’m so jealous! I know someone who just went to Iceland!” became a common exchange of words after sharing my plans.
I often travel through the lens of a camera, a photograph hunter of sorts. As it turns out, I was equally influenced by the stunning photos in my social media feeds: the incredible expanses, remoteness, lush greenery, and glacial silt rivers. And now after visiting, it’s clear that the proliferation of social media has had a strong hand in broadcasting the natural beauty and “adult playground” opportunity in which the country provides.
The Land of Fire and Ice
Home to less than 350,000 people (seriously!), Iceland is a sparsely populated geothermal hotbed straddling the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s also the only place in which you can see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge above sea level (the vast majority runs down the spine of the ocean).
Also one of the world’s youngest islands (~25 million years old), Iceland contains Europe’s largest ice cap and a bounty of waterfalls, volcanoes, fjords, and lava fields. Given all this, the ground beneath your feet consists of pumice and ash layers, with little topsoil to spare in some locations. This makes setting up tents a real challenge.
But there’s another striking feature of the entire landmass: you’re lucky to spot any trees. If you do see any forests, those are imported species grown for lumber and landscaping most likely. The island is covered in small shrubs and grass which its millions of sheep graze on all year long.
In the most Icelandic tradition imaginable, farmers actually let their herds run free across the island, and then conduct an annual nation-wide round-up in the fall. During that round-up, sheep are identified by their tags and distributed to the corresponding farm. I watched some videos of people wrangling rams, and it doesn’t look enjoyable. Because of this tradition, drivers need to remain extremely vigilant of sheep in the road, much like North American deer.
The Only ‘Real’ Way to Visit Iceland
For those on trips of three days or less, a stay in the capital city of Reykjavik and driving the less-spectacular Golden Circle is best. This circuit can be completed in a day and boasts Gullfoss, one of the country’s most famous waterfalls, as well as Þingvellir Tectonic Plate National Park and Geysir, which is–you guessed it–an 80m tall geyser. This route is incredibly popular with “stopover” tourists, when airlines allow a couple days for people to visit a location before flying to their final destination.
While it’s a fine way to see a few beautiful sights, any serious traveler, outdoorsy type, or road trip aficionado should opt for the Ring Road. This coastal road is over 800 miles in total and takes a little over 16 hours to drive. From my research and first-hand experience, most people complete this circuit in 7-10 days as anything less would be fairly rushed.
Completing this national journey takes you to out-of-this world landscapes and pristine sights. The most famous of which the are Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon, Mývatn geothermal springs, Kerið crater, and canyons of the eastern fjords.
Once you get onto the Ring Road, you either circumnavigate the country or sadly backtrack the way you came. There is no negotiating a second path. Developing roads and infrastructure within the center of the country faces many obstacles including harsh winters and rugged terrain. So when I say everyone is going around this thing, I really mean everyone. It’s just a matter of clockwise or counterclockwise.
Cruising around Highway 1 was an attraction in itself. Much like my time in New Zealand, each corner revealed a vast fjord, snow-covered mountain, or mossy lava field. Waterfalls became as common as sheep sightings. That said, the landscape was much more consistent (and sometimes drab) than that of New Zealand or the United States, both of which I find remarkably diverse. There isn’t tropical weather or sandy white beaches in Iceland, just lots and lots of grey and green.
Also, without much foliage, you really take notice of the flat windswept nature much of the country exhibits. The most unusual geological features were these isolated volcanic cones seemingly plopped in the middle of a massive flat–they looked unnatural.
Plenty of fjords, waterfalls, and glacial lagoons exist on the country’s perimeter making many attractions only a few miles from the Ring Road. Therefore, I thought driving was a great way to see the country. We rented a 4×4 Dacia Duster from a reputable company for the entirety of the trip which enabled us to go on unpaved F-roads, the equivalent of a rough country back road with river crossings.
It came in handy during one crossing which lapped a little water up onto the hood. While the check-engine light flickered briefly, it handled the fording with no trouble. I’m unsure how much water flooded the engine compartment, but we made it across the river nonetheless! If being swept away in a freezing glacial river isn’t your thing, a simple compact will get you to most everything with ease and comfort.
Conversing in Iceland
It’s clear that most visitors come for the beauty. The long drives broken up by ten or fifteen minute “photoshoots” at lookouts and trails along the way. Although locals made up a small percentage of my interactions around the Ring Road, I did my best to get out and chat with as many as I could.
If there’s one thing you notice relatively quickly, it’s the language. Remarkably difficult for just about any foreigner (perhaps outside of Nordic citizens), these words are easy to mispronounce, forget, or confuse. So much of traveling consists of descriptions such as “that 23-letter road starting with G-o-d-a” or “the waterfall where you walked behind it and got soaked”‘ or one of my personal favorites: “that town where we had to chase sheep off the highway”. These descriptors are a saving grace when recounting your trip with other foreigners at guesthouses, national parks, and waterfall lookouts. You learn to cope.
All the people are extremely proficient in English, yet awkward and reserved. They exhibited little interest in small talk or discussion beyond the most basic transaction anyway. The few times people did open up, it was for travel recommendations around town. From guesthouse operator to bartender, there’s a sense of exactness and nothing more. Perhaps this behavior is due to their isolated development? If I lived in such a dark and dreary place, my personality might match.
The Icelandic architecture can be simple and utilitarian as well given their lack of lumber and harsh environment. Why be extravagant? It’s so dark during the winter, no one can see anything anyway! If they had a national design, it would be white concrete structures with a red metal roof. They’re as common as 3,000 square foot single family homes in American suburbs. Observing the physical world tells me what people value, and in Iceland it’s clear they don’t really value how “nice” the house looks. The paint can chip and colors can fade, but that’s not what matters.
Coming and Going
As far as accommodation, we opted for a 50/50 split on camping and guesthouses which broke up the trip nicely: some days involved long hikes and ramen noodles while other days consisted of a hot shower and decent night’s rest. Guesthouses bring you to town and I enjoy taking an evening stroll around local cafes, shops, and grocery stores. This made for some good people watching and a deeper understanding of everyday life (what few people there are). If you’re looking for something a little more private than a hostel or guesthouse, I recommend hiring a camper van complete with bed, sink, table, stove, storage, etc.
While the rain and clouds took their fair share of days from us, we were lucky enough to see the upper 60’s and sunny evenings on occasion. I didn’t expect rain to impact our decision-making quite so much, but it changed our plans a handful of times. Like many mountainous regions, be prepared for quick-changing weather conditions. Setting up camp in the rain is not a desirable activity. What is desirable however are the plethora of campgrounds around the country, basically one in every town.
From an annual perspective, there’s a pretty narrow window that most people want to visit anyway, and that’s the “warm” summer months of June through September. Especially the weeks of Midnight Sun when daylight exceeds 21 hour per day. During the winter months, many campgrounds, roads, and attractions close or have very limited availability. Furthermore, driving back roads, or even the paved Ring Road for that matter, is not advised during the winter. Whiteouts, whipping winds, sandstorms, and sleet are all possible.
Seeing the northern lights, visiting Reykjavik, and perhaps skiing or snowboarding in the nearby hills are the most intriguing options during the winter months. There are plenty of spas and nature baths in each town as well. Much like other Nordic cultures, they deeply believe in the healing powers of saunas and bathing. That said, all these wintertime attractions wouldn’t really deserve a dedicated week and a half in my opinion. Stick to the summer.
Is Iceland Worth the Price?
Sans the outdoors, there simply isn’t much else about Iceland that intrigues me as an American traveler. So if great outdoors isn’t really your thing, I wouldn’t waste the money visiting Iceland. Food and accommodation are remarkably expensive compared to mainland Europe (or anywhere else really), even when taking into account the included tip and tax. For example, a sizable craft burger will run you at least $25 and a 12″ artisan pizza about $33. The national lager at most restaurants is about $10 with craft beers exceeding $12. I did manage to find a local cafe in Keflavík that sold happy hour lagers for $6, but this is pretty expensive given the $2-3 price tag for a similar beer in small town America.
A load of laundry was $16 at the local campground and single room accommodation was $50 minimum–hostels and guesthouses alike. The price was high, but admittedly so was the quality. Ingredients were usually very fresh and much of the facilities were clean and comfortable. To sum it up, everything was a little more than I’d like to spend, but my American standards for quality were exceeded as well.
Being on holiday, I’m more likely to pay for conveniences and experiences but I often found myself cringing just a bit. Of course, this is a remote, relatively infertile landmass, which has little industry of its own to support the westernized population. Everything needs to be brough in outside of fish, sheep, and the bounty of fruits and veggies they now grow hydroponically. Remember that whole no tree thing?
While many of these observations are quite general, there are a couple of places worth mentioning as top-notch attractions.
The Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon was probably one of my favorite sights in the entire country. Extremely close to Iceland’s tallest mountain (nearly 7,000ft), is its deepest lake. This lake is one glacial outlet for the massive ice cap covering 8% of Iceland’s area. Each year, 300m of ice breaks off into the lagoon before melting enough to pass underneath the Ring Road bring and float into the ocean. I enjoyed a 90-minute zodiac boat tour which weaved around icebergs and took us within a few hundred feet of the glacial wall. At nearly $100, this was a splurge.
Another very noteworthy sight was Gullfoss (foss means waterfall in Iceland). This is part of the smaller Golden Circle day trip I mentioned. Even after going around the whole country on the Ring Road, I still found this waterfall to be really beautiful. It was probably the 250th waterfall I saw, but it impressed. The magnitude, canyon, rainbow, and history was all quite rich. During the 20th century, this waterfall was a front-runner for a hydroelectricity investment. Thanks to the efforts of a woman named Sigríður Tómasdóttir–who threatened to throw herself over the falls–Gullfoss was preserved for generations to come. Icelanders consider her one of the first environmental activists.
The last place I’ll mention are the Westman Islands. This is not a common stop for Ring Roaders by any stretch as it requires a 35-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The island is home to a large puffin colony and very historic series of eruptions. In the 1970s, Eldfell spewed lava for five months and caused the largest internal Icelandic migration in history. Shortly after fleeing their homes, many islanders returned with supplies to fight off the slow-moving lava from crushing their city and closing off the harbor forever. The citizens built a series of walls to redirect the lava into the ocean and miraculously spared two-thirds of the structures. Much like the Grinch’s heart, the island grew three sizes that day. Well, not quite three sizes, but it increased dramatically thanks to Eldfell.
It Ain’t Gettin’ Any Cheaper
As far as I, or any locals are concerned, Iceland is just getting started. It’s like a volcanic eruption: it just keeps flowing and no one knows when it’s going to stop. Until tourists stop flocking from near and far, this country will continue building out its infrastructure to meet the demand. It will take advantage of the dedicated visitor (such as myself) as well as the stopover visitor. And while it’s straining Reykjavik and the surrounding metro area in terms of housing, it’s also bringing growth to many towns around Iceland’s Ring Road–which, surprise!–is where the government is funneling much of its tourism dollars.
Visitors are circling this island by the busload, literally. And for good reason. Iceland is the New Zealand of the north. During the summer, temperatures are mild and make for a pleasant getaway from the hot European and American climates. The outdoorsman will be taken aback by the natural splendor of this volcanic wonderland. When I called it an adult playground, I meant it.
But here’s the catch. These natural beauties don’t require lots of gear of 15-mile hikes to visit. They are so accessible, that anyone with an interest in visiting can do so. People young and old, physically capable or out of shape all have the chance to enjoy these sights. And that’s a unique quality of their geology that will continue bringing swaths of people here for the foreseeable future.