Iceland – October 2007
Upon landing in Iceland for the first time I have to wonder if this is what the moon looks like. The ground is black and volcanic, there is not a tree in sight, there is barely an occasional bush, the sky seems to come down to the land and you can touch it. This stark pristine scenery has been shaped by fire and ice. More than 200 volcanoes and numerous glaciers form the country’s landscape. It’s a frozen land that’s always letting off steam. There are jagged lava fields, monstrous icecaps, hot springs and geysers which have carved out a bizarre landscape that you won’t see anywhere else on Earth.
Why not Iceland!
I read in National Geographic if one likes the beauty and activities of Alaska they will enjoy Iceland. So many of my clients come back from their trip in Alaska asking me what destination I could suggest for their next trip. Since I am counting up countries to add to my 1,000 Places to See Before I Die list, I thought why not. My eventual destination was Amsterdam on a business trip to inspect European River Boats and River Barges. Looking at the dollar and cents, business class on AA was around $8,000 non stop to Amsterdam, Icelandair “business class” with a stopover in Iceland was $2,500 from Minneapolis, New York or Boston. I had never been to the Mall of The Americas, so what the heck, overnight in Minneapolis, visit the mall and take the 7pm flight to Iceland. Here I will mention that the business class is not all that great but neither was the price. Food ok seats large, everything else rather ordinary. Very similar to domestic business class here in the US. Also, you can visit Iceland by adding Lindblad Expeditions’ Iceland’s Natural Wonders Post Voyage Extension to your Land Of The Ice Bears cruise. So that is how I spent four days, and 400 pictures later in a destination that none of my friends or travel associates have visited. Despite its relative isolation and untellable terrain, Iceland has one of the highest standards of living in the world (with sky high prices to match). Think expensive and double that. Hotel prices are high but not out of sight as is food and entertainment. They have the most educated nation in the world, boasting a 99.9% literacy rate. Almost everyone speaks English to come degree. Their television and movies seem to be in English, I am not sure if they are taught it in school. They have the longest life expectancies and cleanest environments in Europe. Theft and crime is minimal to non existent. Swimming is a way of life in Iceland. It’s a compulsory part of the school curriculum, and many business deals are made in heated pools, most of which are heated with geothermal water. Iceland’s names are based on a patronymic system. A child’s surname is based on the fathers first name. A boy would take his fathers first name, and then add the suffix “son” to it. A girl would do the same but would add “dottir” instead. For example, a son named Johann whose father’s name is Jon, would be called Johann Jonson. His son, named Halldor, would be named Halldor Johannson, Halldor’s sister Virgis would be named Virgis Johanndottir. Phone book numbers are listed by the first name. The president is also called by his or her first name. Icelanders all seem to know each other – or at east be related. Nearly everyone living in the country can trace his or her descent back to the settlers listed in a 14th century book called “Lannamabok”(Book of Settlers). Icelanders are a mix of Lutheran and liberalism. They have the highest proportion of unmarried mothers among Western countries even though many have strong ties to the church. The church is state supported and each little village of houses has a lovely small church just waiting to be photographed. About 80% of the country’s houses are heated by naturally hot water from geothermal activity. Any horseback riding gear or fishing equipment must be sterilized by a veterinarian and have a certificate. A 1,00 year-old ban on livestock imports has left Iceland animals free of contagious diseases
My visit –
I had been watching the weather day by day knowing that fall and middle October can be all over the scale. The temp had remained in the 50’s for the week prior and was on my arrival. Temperatures do not seem to change during the day or night. If it is 50 it seems to stay around 50 day and night. The second day our luck changed, we woke up to the fist sifting of snow on the mountains and the temperature had taken quite a drop. We were prepared for the cold, but not for the cold wind. Taxi’s and car rentals are so expensive that most is done by tour bus. The FlyBus from the airport takes you into the city of Reykjavik to a small central bus station of sorts. Then small mini buses take you to your hotel. We stayed at the Nordica, which officially turned into a Hilton with party and all the day we left. Hotel was lovely with Danish minimalist décor. Due to the fact that I was a good 15 minute walk or $25 taxi ride into the middle of the city, I would not stay there again and look for something closer to the city center. Centrum or Hotel Borg. Although in summer the walk might be nice. Food – The local fare is all types of seafood and lamb. They use every part of the lamb in their menu. There recently has been an explosion of sorts with over 200 restaurants opening in all variety of international cuisine. The chains I found were Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds, there only seemed to be one of each in the downtown area. With the cold weather I would think Starbucks would succeed on every corner but there are no coffee shops as we know them. It didn’t seem to matter if you ate the local fare or American hamburgers or pizza; the prices were all sky high. Visiting a market was an eye opener, cake mix was $10 a box, fresh banana $2.50, pretty awful chocolate donut $3.50. Dinner or lunch with two bowls of delicious soup and bread, bottle water or coke ran around $50 for the two of us. Getting around – one can rent a car, (expensive) or take the tour excursions. Having such a sort time we did the excursions. It appears no matter what company you book your excursions with you will go with Reykjavik Excursions. They run everything and seem to do a very good job of it. Everything ran to the minute. Tours were very well done and each exceeded expectations. One night we went on the Night Sky Tour. It was cloudy and rain and probably should have been canceled. But alas they decided to go. We drove long distances away from the city and up into the volcanic mountains to get away from the overcast. I think our bus driver thought he was in an SUV instead of a bus. He opened fences into private property, went on gravel roads, drove with the lights out at a couple of points which made me crazy. We would all get out of the bus next to a cliff and waterfall looking for the northern lights. All lights would be turned off and we would walk. Icelanders must have good night vision for I was freaking out about these activities. The tour guide didn’t give up; he kept trying to find those lights. A four hour tour went for 5 hours and finally we saw what was a shadow of northern lights, it just never cleared up enough to see them. The tour guy didn’t want to give up and disappoint us. Other nights I hear they are fabulous for months on end, every night as long as it is clear. We went swimming in the Blue Lagoon a half hour out of town in a landscape that defies description. The atmosphere is surreal, with industrial stacks from a geothermal power plant belching steam behind a huge crystal blue pool. The warm, silky water is the run-off from the power plant and has reputed medicinal benefits. If this sounds all odd, believe me it was, beautiful but odd. We toured bubbling geysers which shot up every 10 minutes, (no fences around them), to waterfalls the size and beauty of which is beyond words. We visited a UNESCO site where two geologic parts of Iceland are going in two different directions. The geoplates are sliding and there are huge fissures in the ground. I don’t understand it all but is sure was something I have never experienced before. Our few days only touched the surface of Reykjavik, the capital and surrounding areas. A return during summer would be a totally different experience. Renting a car and traveling around Iceland would be a real adventure. Don’t expect Eskimos, penguins or polar bears – they don’t exist in Iceland. But, if you want scenery that you will not see anywhere else on the earth, if you like biking, fishing, hot springs, museums, Midnight Sun, northern lights and waterfalls, then Iceland should be on your “someday list”. Keep IcelandAir in mind to check prices for your next trip to Europe. You might save money by visiting Iceland.