Recently, my younger daughter Ally got the notion that she’d like to visit Iceland, so her grandmother (who is also a travel bug) gave her air- and hotel fare for a combined Christmas/birthday present, and off we went during the first week of February. Why then, in the midst of winter? Because it worked best with her school schedule, and because for some reason, rates to, from, and in Iceland are low then. Unpossible, but true.
So like I did a while back for Paris, let me give you some impressions I had of Iceland.
Iceland in winter is beautiful, but it’s no supermodel. Getting off the plane, out of Keflavik airport, and onto a bus to Reykjavik, I was struck by the rugged landscape. It’s more or less flat along the coasts (rising rapidly into high cliffs and mountains), with lots of volcanic boulders, and hardly any trees. There were lots of trees when the first settlers came in the late Ninth Century, but once they cut those down for houses and farms, the forests never recovered.
Nevertheless, Iceland, even in the winter is still really, really pretty, but its beauty is a stark one. You have to like snow and ice and rock to appreciate it. If your idea of gorgeous scenery is sand and lush greenery and gentle waves, Iceland in February may not be for you.
It’s not that cold, and the dark is not that bad (at least, for a little while). “But isn’t it COLD?” you ask. The week before we left, when we were digging out from a blizzard in Scenic, Convenient-to-Nowhere, MD where I live, it was warmer in Reykjavik than it was at my house. While we were on vacation, the temperatures were in the low 30s (Fahrenheit) during the day. I thought of it as going on a ski trip, minus the skiing: no one lets the cold stop them from going to a resort, right?
As for dark, it’s true that the sun came up about 10 in the morning and set about 5:30 in the evening. So, yeah, not a lot of sun, and difficult to wake up before dawn. But not too bad for the six days we were there.
Reykjavik is quirky. As our bus approached the outskirts of the capital, I was reminded of the far reaches of Frederick, MD: highways and ramps, office buildings and warehouses and big stores. And no, the comparison is not a compliment.
But closer in, and especially in the center, Reykjavik becomes cool. Rowhouses of corrugated iron, painted in bright colors. Shops, bakeries, bars (lots of them), restaurants with a wide variety of ethnic foods (I didn’t even know there were places for Nepalese cuisine), art murals and action figures cemented atop street signs.
Cool architecture (many of it done by some guy whose name I don’t recall), and cool sculpture (many done by a different guy whose name I don’t recall). The main shopping area reminded me of the pedestrian-only Bergheimer Strasse in Heidelberg. But take care while walking in winter because…
Shovel snow? Why bother? Many cities have ordinances that say one must clean the sidewalks in front of one’s home or business; Reykjavik either doesn’t, or no one obeys it. So most of the sidewalks had packed snow or ice, and passersby just walked over it.
Same thing with a lot of the streets, in town and out in the country: Icelanders don’t panic about snow the way residents of the Washington DC area do. If the road is clear, fine; if not, they drive over it anyway, often in the center of the road (if no one is coming the other way) where there’s liable to be less of the white stuff. We even saw quite a few people riding mountain bikes down snow-packed streets.
Sure, they run snow plows when it’s actually coming down, but they’re not too pressed about scraping up every bit they can and salting/sanding down the rest: if most cars (with snow tires, I assume) can make it down the road, that’s good enough for them.
On one tour we were on, we had blowing snow so bad that it was whiteout conditions for a while, and our bus driver calmly kept going, as did all the other vehicles on the road. Only once did we see anyone stuck in the snow, and our guide assured us that they must be foreigners.
You’d think that with all that snow, and with a nice like “Iceland,” that’s a cold, miserable place, but that’s not true, because…
They’ve got hot water to burn. Almost all of Iceland’s energy is geothermal or hydropower, produced domestically and entirely renewable. Pipes of water superheated by the magma under Iceland is pumped to homes and businesses, keeping them so cozy that it’s not unusual to find windows and doors open to let out the excess warmth.
Their electricity comes from the same sources: our city guide told us that she spends maybe $30 a month for her home utility bill, and that Icelanders have no incentive to conserve energy. And it’s easy to keep everyone toasty and have their electronic gadgets fully charged, because…
Iceland is smaller than you think. The whole country is not quite 40,000 square miles (so it would easily fit within the confines of the state of Colorado), and is home to about 330,000 people, who could be gathered into two or three American football stadiums, depending on how many people you let onto the field.
So yeah, not a huge place, with 2/3rd of them living in or around Reykjavik, and the rest in towns or villages along the coast. Our tour bus and another one rolled into Vik (home to 300 souls) at the same time, and temporarily increased the town population by a third.
If diversity is your thing, this may not be the country for you, as about 93% of everyone there are Icelandic; our city tour guide is a 30th generation Icelander who can trace her heritage back to Ingolfr Arnarson, the first permanent resident, who fled Norway after kakking some dude.
Icelanders are really into genealogy, so much so that there’s an app for checking out other natives to see if/how they’re related to one (a VERY useful tool when dating). So how do all these descendants of Vikings get along? Very well, because…
It’s a country of hippies. In Iceland, Bernie Sanders would be Gordon Gekko. Icelanders enjoy universal healthcare, the highest life expectancy of any European country, no tuition fees for higher education, and a crime rate so low, there’s only room for 555 prisoners in the country (if you’ve been convicted, but your crime wasn’t violent or heinous, you might get to walk around free for years before you’re sent a letter asking you to show up at the prison to be actually incarcerated).
Technically, pot is illegal, but possession is not usually enforced. Icelanders have pretty much achieved income equality. Gun laws are very strict, but Icelanders own 90,000 firearms, mostly rifles and shotguns, and very few handguns. The police don’t even carry guns except under special circumstances. And Iceland has no standing army.
The Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church
Icelanders are not very religious—on paper, it’s a Lutheran country, but church membership has been plummeting. Women’s rights are promoted, gay marriage is legal, but no, they don’t really believe in elves—that’s just something the news media distorted.
…but they’re not dirty hippies. Icelanders love going to the public pool; many of them do it every day. Pools are outdoors, are well-heated, and admission is relatively inexpensive. However, the normally laid-back Icelanders are insistent that anyone and everyone who comes to the pool shower with soap and water and no bathing suit immediately before entering and after leaving the pool.
And most of those shower areas are wide open, so if you go, I hope you’re not prone to feeling shy. There was no nudity in the pools that I went to, but in the locker rooms, the Icelanders are all good with letting it all hang out.
Life in Iceland sounds so idyllic, doesn’t it? Well, it is now. For the longest time, though, it was…
Europe’s Appalachia (until after WWII). For pretty much all of its history except the last 65 years or so, living in Iceland was tough. Like, really tough. Like living in tiny, unheated (yes, that was before geothermal energy) one-room farm houses made of sod and stone (wood and metal were very hard to come by), farming whatever grows (which isn’t much, given the soil), and eating basically anything that moves (mostly sheep—just about any and every part of the sheep—and fish, but horsemeat, beached whales, and even those too-cute puffins).
That went on for—oh, about a thousand years or so. Sure, life was better in Reykjavik (Iceland has often enjoyed a healthy trade industry), but out in the hinterlands, folks were scraping to get by.
And don’t think Iceland escaped civil strife (so bad, at one point, that the country was eventually taken over by Norway, then Denmark); the Black Death (in 1402-04, then again in 1494-95, killing about half the people each time); and natural disasters, including the Haze Famine that followed the eruption of Mt Laki in 1783-84, when about 220 square miles of Iceland were covered with lava, and the attending plume of ash and gases killed vegetation and livestock, resulting in a fifth of Iceland’s population dying of starvation.
Life in Iceland was basically stuck in this hand-to-mouth sort of existence until World War II, when the British seized the island (violating Iceland’s neutrality). The Americans took over, and after the war, they dumped more Marshall Plan money per capita on Iceland than any other European nation, helping Iceland become a modern nation with better housing, stronger industry, and quality healthcare and food. Speaking of which…
The food is MUCH better than I thought it would be. You may have read horror stories about Icelandic “cuisine” such as sheep heads, ram testicles, or fermented shark. And while you can get those, those are traditional dishes that no one eats anymore, except maybe during Thorrablot, a winter festival.
On a daily basis, you can also find fish jerky (that is, dried fish) or horsemeat sausages, but dining out in Iceland is much better than that. My wife and I enjoyed a fabulous and inexpensive lunch at Reykjavik’s Apotek Restaurant, consisting of grilled plaice (similar to flounder) for her, and lamb for me.
Lamb is very popular and VERY good in Iceland; we had great stew one day, and the Icelanders are crazy for hot dogs made with lamb (and other meats) and smothered in various sauces. Skyr (pronounced “Skeer”) yogurt is simply the best I have ever had.
So, while food is expensive in Iceland, there’s nothing to be scared of, so long as you’re paying attention to what you’re ordering. And don’t worry about how you’re going to order your meal, even though…
The language is impossible, but that’s okay. Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I try to learn some of the language, at least some common phrases and such, because I think it’s rude to show up in someone else’s country and not even attempt to speak the local tongue. But Icelandic is so tricky (lots of long words, lots of words that aren’t pronounced how they’re spelled), that my attempts at speaking it were dismal failures.
Fortunately, just about everyone in Iceland speaks English and is happy to do so. Certainly, all the folks you’d expect to interact with while traveling—airport staff, taxi and bus drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant waiters, hotel clerks—spoke excellent English. Even the older fellow we were sharing a small, thermal pool with. English is the “common tongue” in Iceland: at a store in Reykjavik, I eavesdropped on an Icelandic cashier speaking English with a tourist from Sweden.
Icelanders speak so much English, they do it with each other. As in, they have a habit of dropping whole English phrases into their conversations among themselves. At one small pool I was in, a young native lady was conversing with her young native boyfriend, when she announced, verbatim: “Girl better get her shit together.” No, I have no context for that remark.
A little while later, in a different pool, two older gentlemen were discussing what I can only assume were politics, when one said, “But the world’s not like that anymore.” And the next morning, outside our ground-floor rental apartment window, a construction work foreman told his concrete-working crew, “Hurry up and pour: I’m waaaaaiting.”
No, I have no idea why any of these folks said what they said in English instead of their native tongue. It’s just an Icelander idiosyncrasy.
Or maybe they were just having a bit of fun. Icelander humor is understated, but it’s there, and you can see it and purchase it with the witty sayings on t-shirts at souvenir shops. One of my favorites is the ubiquitous phrase (which you can find on clothing, bags, mugs, etc.), “Ég tala ekki ĺslensku,” which means, “I don’t speak Icelandic.”
Iceland: too much to do in a week. We were there for six days, and did a lot: going on the Golden Circle tour to see Thingvellir national park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Strokkur geyser. To the South Coast, to see the Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss falls, and the Solheimajokull glacier.
Through the Skogar Folk- and National Museums. To the Blue Lagoon (mandatory, after a five-hour night flight from BWI Airport) and two other spas; to see the Northern Lights; and all around the center of Reykjavik.
But that was just getting a taste of this wonderful country. I’d like to come back in the summer, not because I minded the cold, but to see the greenery. And while I’m there, I’ll go on some tours to see whales and puffins (which you can’t do in winter). I’ll take Joni to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic Lutheran church, which we didn’t get to because the line was too long.
We’ll wander Reykjavik some more, and I’ll study up on my Icelandic. I’ll get more of those hot dogs, some local ice cream (Islanders love themselves some ice cream), and try Brennivin liquor, whose nickname is “Black Death.”
Auður, owner of and blogger at I♥Reykjavik, our guide through the city
I can’t wait to go back, and if you’d like to go, I heartily recommend you start planning your visit with at I♥Reykjavik, the best site I’ve found for travel to Iceland.
Our trip to Iceland was also very inspiring for working on my current novel, In Lonely Lands. Part of the backstory involves the Norse settlements in Newfoundland, and I soaked up a lot of historical details that should prove useful. More about that some other time.
Leif Erikson, who plays a part in the story of In Lonely Lands
Kenton Kilgore is forging a new direction in young adult science-fiction and fantasy. His latest work-in-progress is In Lonely Lands, a modern-fantasy/horror novel, to be published in fall 2016.
Kenton is the author of Dragontamer’s Daughters, based on Navajo culture and belief. He also wrote Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.
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