Icelandic Overview

While this picture was gorgeous and felt like being on the top of the world, most of Iceland does not look like this during the summer.

The most common response I got from people when I told them I was going/just went to Iceland was, why Iceland?

Well first of all, as any fan of Mighty Ducks 2 (too obscure?) could tell you, the name Iceland is somewhat misleading: Greenland is ice, while Iceland is very nice.  Although home to several spectacular glaciers, including Vatnojokull, the largest in Europe, only 10% of Iceland is covered in ice and in general it has a mostly temperate climate.  Iceland is extremely tourist friendly and in my ever so humble opinion has a number of selling points.

Here are my top five:

1) The scenery is unrivaled:  Iceland has it all: deserts, glaciers, black sand beaches, waterfalls, stunning mountains, old lava fields, active volcanoes, and massive fjords.  Where else can you get all of this packed into one island?

2) 24 Hours of Daylight (at least in June):

Iceland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle means that at least in the summer, there are 24 hours of daylight.  I can attest that this is no exaggeration.  While the sun does dip below the horizon in the wee hours of the morning, I was barhopping circa 1AM in sunglasses.

3) Reykjavik is known as the party capital of Europe:

Again, not an exaggeration.  Icelanders know how to throw down.  Reykjavik isn’t any crazier than any other city on week nights but on weekends last call is 5:00 and the 24 hour daylight means that even after that people are drinking (and eating from delicious food trucks) in the streets.

Laugavegur Reykjavik
Walking home on Laugavegur Reykjavik’s main bar hopping street circa 12:30. In Iceland, you really do have to wear your sunglasses at night.

4) Iceland is an outdoor activity mecca:

Iceland is very much a “do” destination and while a lot of this “do” can cost a pretty penny, there’s tons of hiking trails that are rather well marked if you do your research.  We went snowmobiling, white water rafting, horseback riding, snorkeling and did plenty of hiking.  Glacier walking and ice climbing seemed to be big draws, as were ATVing, caving, and golfing (especially midnight golfing).

5) Hot spring hopping:

Iceland is chock full of geothermal activity.  Geothermal pools and hot springs are part of the culture and we were even lucky enough to find a hot spring river on one of our hikes.

Word to the wise: don’t go to Iceland expecting a relaxing vacation.  This is by no means an insult.  It’s one of the highest compliments I can give a vacation.  We (my sister and I) returned from Iceland last Thursday afternoon) and I still feel like I haven’t completely recovered (part of this is my own doing; I thought that I immediately go for wings and beer on the night of my return to the states).  The thing is, there is literally so much to do in Iceland: hot springs, snowmobiling, hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding, rafting, touring, and staying up all night for one of Reykjavik’s legendary weekends.   We tried to squeeze as much out of our week stay as possible. The whole 24 hours of daylight didn’t really help matters.  Suffice I still feel like I need a day or two of recover which in my book means a big win for a trip.

I went back and forth on how I should present my Icelandic adventure.  Do I commit a post to each activity or location we experienced?  Do I give you a low down of activities?  I settled on providing a breakdown of what we did each day.  We were in Iceland for exactly a week and I’m really happy with all we managed to do (although I could’ve easily stayed for another week…or month). So I’ve decided to dedicate an entire post to each day in Iceland so that you readers can see exactly how we structure our trip, in case you’d like to copy (which I strongly encourage). First, some Icelandic basics.

  • Icelandic Air offers direct flights from several major cities in the US (JFK and Logan are closest).  We chose to do a red eye Wednesday night out of JFK.  We took off at 11:40 and were scheduled to land by 9:00 AM Icelandic time.  Iceland is incredibly easy to reach.  The flight from JFK is about 4.5 hours.  It takes longer to get to Vegas.
  • Iceland is extremely tourist friendly.  Tourism is it’s secondary source of income after fishing (check this) and there are several services that will take you from the International Airport in Keflavik to Reykjavik, a forty minute ride.  We pre-purchased ours a few days before we left and found our shuttle with little problem.  Because of this we actually didn’t end up hanging out with as many native Icelanders as I would have liked but did end up meeting a variety of interesting people from England to Norway to Australia to some other native Pennsylvanians.
  • Two third of Iceland’s population lives in Reykjavik and it’s metro area and Reykjavik is where we stayed, taking numerous day trips out.  The rest of the population lives in Iceland’s second largest city,Akureyri , or somewhere along the coast.  While it’s position in the Atlantic gives it a much more temperate climate than the name Iceland suggests, the interior of the country is extremely rugged, and mostly uninhabitable.  Even in nice weather you need four wheel drive to get around and the roads there are closed in the winter.
  • While Icelandic is the national language of Iceland, all Icelanders learn English in school and most of them that we encountered spoke it very well (I was impressed with how little accent many of them had).  A lot of the signs and brochures are in English which is very helpful and if not it was easy enough to find somewhere to translate for us (we did have a bit of trouble with one Icelandic self serve gas pump).  I found the Icelandic language to be incredibly difficult but did manage to learn Skal (ska-owl), Icelandic for cheers.
  • The possible one downfall is that Iceland is expensive.  There’s no way around that.  The Krona is strong compared to the US dollar and you have to take into consideration that it’s an island, so everything is imported.  We helped reduce cost (and overspending) by booking our accommodations and several tours in advance.  That way, when we were in Iceland, we only had to budget for food, drinking, and any ad-ons we wanted.  We were able to eat fairly cheap utilizing Subway and pizza places.  It was weird.  You could find cheap food (fast food) cheap and expensive places were right about on par with USA prices, but stuff that we consider to be “Mid-range”, burgers, wings, beer, bar food, was pretty inflated.  One “deal” we got one night was a burger and a beer for what equaled out to be about $20.00.  I used very little Icelandic cash.  Literally everywhere we went took debit or credit cards which made the trip that much easier.
  • What was economical were the car rental rates.  We initially went over hoping to only take bus tours but ended up renting a car three days.  Since I don’t drive stick we had to get one of the mid range models which only cost about $100 bucks a day.  If you were traveling with a group and splitting that, you’d be golden.
  • I’m a picky eater so was worried about the food.  I read about how Icelandic cuisine included such “delicacies” as horse, ram’s head, whale, and fermented shark.  While you can search out and find these foods if it so pleases you (I did try whale…it was a one and done experience), in general we ate a lot of what I categorize as “bar food”: hamburgers, pizza, wings, etc.  That being said, I had a lot of very good Icelandic sandwiches and we treated ourselves two nights to some great seafood (which I’ll document in depth on my day by day posts).  Also, Icelanders have an affinity for hot dogs which you can find everywhere for cheap eating.

That’s all I’m giving you here.  I’m not Iceland expert and really, what’s the best way to learn about the country but to start doing research for your own trip.  I’m literally suggesting everyone I know goes.  I can’t say enough good things.

The Icelandic Tourism website and Tiny Iceland where the most helpful resources I used.  We booked all our tours through Arctic Adventures and stayed at The Reykjavik Backpacker’s hostel.

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