In Iceland, you can see the contours of the mountains wherever you go, and the swell of the hills, and always beyond that horizon. And there’s this strange thing: you’re never sort of hidden; you always feel exposed in that landscape. But it makes it very beautiful as well.
– Hannah Kent
A quick way to judge a city’s current prosperity is to count the number of construction cranes in the skyline. Spending the summer in Seattle, I was constantly reminded that there are more cranes there than any other city in the US. Reykjavik would certainly challenge Seattle when the per capita is figured into the equation.
The remarkable fact is that Reykjavik has risen to its current boom in just nine years from a total economic collapse and bankruptcy of Iceland’s three largest banks in October of 2008. The United Nations recently ranked Iceland as the number two country in the world in highest quality of life. They are number one with the lowest rate of income inequality and they are also ranked in the top five of the healthiest people in the world.
Checking Off the Bucket List
I added Iceland to my bucket list a couple of years ago as more and more friends visited there and returned with great excitement. The current economic boom is, in a large part, due to the tourism the country has developed. The good news is, it is still not crowded.
Investing a week to drive the circumference of the island did not disappoint. Waterfalls – check, geysers – check, glaciers – check, icebergs – check, Northern Lights – check.
Deborah and I commented, several times, that two weeks or a month could easily be spent here to explore this magical and majestic island, 18th largest in the world.
There is the vibrant city of Reykjavik with the architectural Hallgrimskikja Church towering from the highest hill and the modern Harpa Concert Hall sitting on the edge of the harbor, with its glass panels designed to mimic the northern lights. Construction is everywhere and in this land of summer vacations, our hotel noted that they are 100% booked into the winter and through the new year. Currently, Reykjavik is rated one of the top places in the world to party on New Year’s Eve.
The Continental Rift
Our first day, was a three star day as, we drove the route of the “Golden Circle.” Thirty minutes into our drive, we stopped at the Continental Rift.
There, at Pingvellir National Park, you can stand and touch both the North America and Euroasian Tectonic plates at the same time. Two continents for the price of one.
The park encompasses the Silfra Canyon, separating the two continents. A potion of the rift forms the narrow Silfra Lake where it is actually wide enough to scuba dive down between the two plates in crystal clear water . There is a parking lot dedicated just for dive vehicles.
The surrounds were mostly void of any trees but were very colorful with ground hugging tundra plants in the yellow golden and reddish colors of fall. The Park also gave us our first, of what proved to be hundreds and hundreds, of waterfalls which seem to come with every new view.
The Haukadalur Geysir Field
A few miles down the road, we came to the second of the big three attractions of the Golden Circle. The Geysir Field at Haukadalur which includes Strokkur, the oldest known continually erupting geyser in the world. The field is a miniature version of Yellowstone with all the geysers concentrated within about a 10 acre area. Strokkur is not as spectacular as Old Faithful, but it does erupt quite regularly, every 10-15 minutes.
Unlike Yellowstone, there are no walkways or fences at the geysers or waterfalls. People are just asked to obey small signs. That is not a problem with Deborah and me, but I did have to turn away several times as people would get so close to the edges of cliffs and waterfalls. It was particularly disturbing to watch them with their backs to the cliffs as they took selfies. I guess the Icelandic courts take the stance, if you are stupid enough to fall due to your own lack of common sense, you can’t blame someone else.
The Gullfoss Waterfall
The last of the big three is the iconic waterfall Gullfoss, perhaps one of the grandest of falls in Iceland. It is a two stepped staircase of falls which measures 105 feet in height. An average flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second drops into a chasm so narrow you cannot see the bottom.
If you really want to see a show, visit in the early summer when flows can reach over 70,000 cubic feet per second (Niagara Falls type volume). We had a rainy day, but on clear day the the spray from the falls is so immense that it creates brilliant rainbows spanning the entire canyon.
The Glacier Lagoon
Each day followed with breathtaking changes in landscapes, waterfalls. black sand beaches, sweeping lava fields, glaciers and sweeping ocean and fjord views. But, from my perspective, none topped the Glacier Lagoon.
We had a brilliant sunny day with temperatures around 9-10 C (low 50’s F). Here, ice breaks from the massive Breioamerkurjokull glacier, part of the Vatnajokull Ice Field (largest in Europe) into a lagoon that has developed as the glacier recedes. It is slowly forming a new fjord and has the deepest water in Iceland reaching depths of 248 meters (814 ft). Ice breaks from the glacier and floats in the lagoon until becoming small enough to escape at the shallow mouth and float the final 1.3 km (.93 mile) drift into the ocean. We watched for hours as massive chunks of ice, one by one, entered the river.
Glacier ice transitioning to the ocean. Glacier Lagoon, Iceland. Note: The piece of the glacier that I videoed is approximately 25 feet long. (To provide you with a scale of these chunks of ice!) #riskblossoming
Posted by Deborah Stone Bateman on Wednesday, September 13, 2017
We were mesmerized as several extra large burgs breached the bottom of the river and others became blocked, slowly building a dam across the center of the river. Some pieces, maybe 30 ft by 15 ft managed to get around the blockage and continue their voyage to the sea.
Seals were popping up amongst the ice, feeding on what must have been an abundance of fish to keep them in this channel all day. Humans even got into the act with several swimming in the ice lagoon including a couple of girls in skimpy French Rivera suits sans tops. They were a few latitudes off in terms of weather and also, perhaps, in common sense.
Everything you need to know about Iceland
Each day was continually filled with change and surprises, but rather than provide a day-by-day itinerary I will just provide some photographs and some random Icelandic thoughts:
Money – The monetary system is Icelandic Krona (ISK) but fairly easy to figure out. 100 ISK is equal to about 1 US dollar. Having a bundle of 1,000 ISK bills is nice to carry and look at, but each was just $10 in value. I do admit, the first time American Express notified me that a large purchase of 13,300 ISK had been made on my card, I was a bit startled.
Gas: The gas signs at 209 did not look out of place but applying the 3.785 multiplication factor to get that per liter price into gallons brought it up to the neighborhood of $8.00 US/gal.
Food: Food is pricey, but delicious. I had local fish almost every night. The waiter’s salary is included in pricing and there is no tipping. According to Google, tipping is considered an insult. In fact, there is no line or space to add a tip or gratuity on charge slips. For reference, we had a very nice meal of pasta with mussels, gourmet pizza and wine for 9,000 ISK ($90). We have often had a similar meal, in the States, for $75.
Red Roofed Houses: The most popular paint scheme appeared to be a white walls with a red roof. Rurally, it seemed that many of the homes had their own waterfall.
Staying the Night: Once outside Reykjavik, it seemed that you can, pretty much, stop for the night at at almost any house you pass, as most had a little blue bed sign at their roadway entrance. Some offer breakfast and some just shelter to sleep in your sleeping bag.
Duvets: Every hotel bed we slept in was made up with a bottom king sheet and two individual white duvet tops. No top sheet. No other blankets.
One Lane Tunnels: There are several one lane tunnels up to 4 kilometers long. Going counter clockwise around the island, we were responsible to stop at small turnouts that were always on our side of the road. Whenever we would see headlights coming the other way it was time to get to the next turnout. The tunnels were dark and not straight. Lights could appear out of nowhere. One bus and truck convoy, seemingly coming faster than the next turnout, was particularly disturbing.
One Lane Bridges: Over 75% of all bridges, outside the Reykjavik area, are a single lane. You “kind of” eye the person approaching from the other direction and then “kind of” play chicken. The longer single land bridges would occasionally provide a pullout near the middle of the bridge.
Guard Rails: Guard rails are practically non-existent. There are miles of mountainous roads with sheer high cliffs, often dropping all the way to the ocean. It’s either stay on the road or die. Fortunately, there is minimal traffic on these remote roads, which have no shoulders, so you can drive down the middle. The margin of error while in your own lane is quite small, especially meeting an oncoming bus. Driving counter-clockwise around the island, we were almost always on the cliff side of the road.
Swans: Locally called Whoopers, they are plentiful, and found wherever there is water, which is often.
Horses: They are everywhere and pure Icelandic, as no other horses can be imported. Most rural homes offered them for rent for a true Icelandic experience.
Sheep: Sheep are also everywhere, including on the road at which time they have the right of way. They are not for rent, but do come in a variety of whites, browns and blacks and combinations thereof.
If I had to use three words to describe this country – they would be DIFFERENT, DIVERSE and DRAMATIC. It’s a country of glaciers, deep fjords, innumerable waterfalls, geysers, hot springs, black and barren lava fields, volcanoes, snow covered mountains, and northern lights.
Our six-day visit had us driving our rented Citroen Cactus the circumference of the island. The itinerary provided us with plenty of time to stop, visit the sights and locales, study the history, take pictures, and just sit back and watch the beauty of the magnificent waterfalls and glacier lagoons.
The internet makes planning and visiting Iceland a snap. Sites like Jen Reviews provides an easy overview, while tour operators like Nordic Visitor, offer many options. We worked with Nordic Visitor, to customize our experience. They greeted us at the airport and provided us with our personalized itinerary, travel guide, road atlas, maps, cell phone, rental car, and a GPS. The hotels they selected for us were all unique to their locale. Some were new, others were decades old.
Each of the hotels provided us with a clean room, comfortable king-size bed and what appears to be the local custom of, individual duvets. If you are considering visiting Iceland, we’d recommend that you check out both Jen Reviews which offers one hundred points of interest, and Nordic Visitor which provides easy options and means to visit many of them. #Jen Reviews #Nordic Visitor
The Icelandic Language
Tim designated me as the trip’s navigator, and I will admit I struggled with the highway signs and the roadmap. I did not leave the country fluent in Icelandic, but I am very grateful that they teach their children English in the fourth grade.
Cold processed meat, cold fish, and a variety of things resembling gerbil food was consistently my choices for breakfast. You would think that in a land of glaciers and ice fields that a hot breakfast would be popular. Thank goodness for toast.
The Harpa Concert Hall
I had two personal favorite spots in Iceland. Harpa, the Concert Hall in Reykjavik is one and it is truly unique. Tim and I spent more than an hour inside the Hall taking photos.
It is a steel framed structure that has been clad in geometric shaped panels of colored glass and outfitted with external lights that mimic the glow of the Northern Lights. It is a warm and welcoming facility and was being enjoyed by both locals and tourists.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
But, my absolute favorite was the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. I could have spent an entire day at the lagoon, watching the huge chunks of ice, that had calved off the glacier, make their way to the sea. The playful seals that swim throughout the lagoon seemed to be putting on a show for the onlookers. And, the intense azure blue of the ice added the ultimate drama.
Reykjavik and Customer Service
Reykjavik is an interesting city, and 203,000 of Iceland’s 323,000 inhabitants live in the greater Reykjavik area. While it has an ancient history, it impressed me as a young, hip, and open-minded town.
The recent surge in tourism has fueled much of the city’s growth, with new hotels, restaurants, and retail. However, my experience was that their customer service standards had not yet evolved to first-class standards. It’s not necessarily a negative observation, and perhaps its indicative of a more laid-back culture. Regardless, I have no hesitation in recommending Iceland for your next “let’s get back to nature” vacation.