To me, the Nordic element has always been associated with these gloomy, bearded, taciturn types, the product of the harsh environment they live in, and the endless winters spent in turf houses over dark mythology tales.
So, my expectations of Iceland – a borderline uninhabitable rock somewhere near the Arctic Circle – and its inhabitants – descendants of a folk hooked on animal skins and horned headgear – were that of a tough nation living in perfect sync with the extreme topography of their land.
A land, where you’re discouraged from crying at funerals and encouraged to jump naked in the arctic sea (clearly, that’s what dealing with the Midnight Sun and weeks of having no sunlight at all can do to you).
What I didn’t expect was how small, hard and painful the airport benches were – trying to find a position comfortable enough to get a few hours’ sleep after landing in Iceland shortly after midnight was like trying to wrap my body around an armadillo. My bad – Ragnar and his people didn’t exactly sleep on foam mattresses, either.
The decision to come to Iceland was a spontaneous kind of a thing. When we found out that our flight from the US East Coast to Europe (the cheapest flight we could get) made a stopover in Iceland, and not just any stopover but one where we could stay for up to 7 days!, we had to jump at the opportunity.
All we knew about Iceland was:
* It’s an island,
* It’s expensive,
* It’s cold,
* It lies somewhere in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Atlantis.
The only thing we booked in advance was a car; the accommodation, we decided to leave it for once we got there, to find it as we go.
And here we are.
It is July, the peak month of summer, which in Icelandic conditions means that the daily temperatures are around 10°C (50°F), and that it’s the so-called Midnight Sun season, a season when the sun sets at midnight, rises at 3 AM, it never gets dark, and one has a lot of maniacal energy (the dream of every workaholic and bad news for vampires). Sure, we’ll miss the Northern Lights because they can only be observed in winter, but that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make in exchange for exploring a mysterious country, a chunk of ice sitting on top of fire-bearing mountains.
A country that:
- is about the same size as Hungary and Portugal, or Kentucky and Virginia, with a population of 300,000 people, the same as Los Polvorines in Argentina or Qutubullapur in India, just to get an idea. Iceland is Europe’s second-largest island (after Great Britain and before Ireland), and Europe’s least populated country – almost 80% of Iceland is uninhabited (the density is 1 person and 246 sheep per square kilometer).
- was settled by the Norse (Vikings) who came from Norway with their ponies in the 800s, with more Norwegians and other Scandinavians following, bringing with them Gaelic (Irish) serfs; most Icelanders today are descendants of these Norse and Gaelic settlers.
- didn’t bail out their bankrupted banks during the Icelandic financial crisis of 2008-2010, even if it meant a severe economic depression with the government collapsing, foreign investors fleeing, the krona going down 50 % in one week, 80% of the stock market being wiped out overnight, almost every business in Iceland going bankrupt, unemployment rates soaring, prices rising, McDonald’s pulling out and protesters taking to the streets.
- showed no appreciation for the creative investment strategies of their top bank executives and sent them to prison after investigations showed that almost half of all the loans made by the banks were to holdings companies connected to those same banks, and the banks lent that money to their employees so they could buy shares in those same banks. By January 2018, 11 of the court cases were sentenced to 35 years in prison, 7 were sentenced to 25 years.
- became one of the world’s top tourist destinations after an eruption of a volcano in 2010 shut down air travel across Europe for six days. Spinning skillfully all the negative attention, headlines and clogged jet engines into a PR triumph that year, Iceland became one of the world’s most popular disaster sites (along with Pompeii and Chernobyl), the perfect place for your next family vacation. Another major factor in the country’s financial resurrection was the rise in popularity of Game of Thrones, which had scenes filmed in Iceland – before the crisis in 2008, Iceland got 500,000 visitors per year, 4 years later, it got about 1.5 million people visiting.
- enjoys a relatively moderate climate despite its location by the Arctic Circle. That is due to the Gulf Stream whose warmer Mexican waters mix with the cold North Atlantic Current, which is the Gulf Stream with a new name after it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. This system produces unstable weather with sudden changes but stable temperatures – it hardly ever gets below minus 10°C (14°F) and above plus 10°C (50°F), with winters not too cold and summers not too hot (like they need snow blizzards or raging cyclones to shut the country down).
- experiences the interesting phenomenon of the Midnight Sun, when the sun never goes down. The Midnight Sun is caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis towards the sun during summer which brings nearly 24 hours of daylight between May and August, with the sky never going completely dark (shutter business must be thriving here!). The shortest months of the year with almost 24 hours of darkness – the so-called polar night – are December to January, when the daylight hours are 4-5 hours per day (to survive that, locals have to get 3 jobs to keep their sanity).
- has the world’s greatest light show on Earth, called the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights appear as eerie green lights dancing in the sky, and result from solar particles entering the earth’s magnetic field on poles and ionizing in the atmosphere. Aurora Borealis has to be ‘chased’ since solar activity is not regular and even on a dark, clear night, there still could be no aurora. The season typically runs from September until April, and for a successful stalking trip, Iceland offers a forecast of auroral activity on scale 0 to 9 (anything from 4 and above is worth setting out for). Or there is always the Las Vegas Strip.
- is located directly over the volcanic Mid-Atlantic Ridge that separates the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates (and might one day split the island in two), and that gave rise to about 130 volcanoes, both active and inactive, and about 30 volcanic systems. Hekla, Katla, Krafla, Laki, Askja are not the names of Cinderella’s evil sisters but Iceland’s most active volcanoes (even though Hekla is a very common woman’s name). Volcanoes are what has built Iceland, as are glaciers parked on top of them. Here, you can watch Earth in the making – starting from volcanoes expanding, glaciers cooling and the elements forming. The place is practically a big bang theory live. The result is terrain as diverse and explosive as it is accessible – Iceland has over 130 volcanoes, 270 glaciers, 200 waterfalls, 15 geothermal areas, 109 fjords and countless lava fields, volcanic craters and black sand beaches. All that is the reason Iceland is called the ‘Land of Fire and Ice,’ a country of extremes, even though what you’ll see most of the time will be a peaceful rolling countryside free of any infernal drama (you’ll see more fire in California and more ice at fish markets in Italy). Iceland is also very green and the running joke about Iceland and Greenland getting their names backwards turns out very, very true.
- possesses the fountain of youth, multiple fountains of youth, actually, scattered all over the island. For an average $45 a dip, you can rewind time back to when your flesh was ‘all glossy and sleek, as if bathed in oil’ (wife looked 20 years younger, was the commentary of one husband). Don’t get discouraged by the prevailing smell of sulfur – the reward will be you, emerging from the waters like King Xerxes 300. Iceland is not only volcanoes and glaciers, but also natural hot springs and geothermal spas. Nearly 90% of Iceland’s hot water and electricity is geothermal energy – hot water is pumped from deep underground boreholes and distributed directly to people’s homes. This way, most people have access to inexpensive hot water, heating and electricity, and to vegetables, fruits and plants grown year-round in greenhouses. The cold water is a separate supply of non-geothermal, first-class groundwater that comes from natural springs and glaciers. With no chloride in it, it is perfectly suited for drinking – fill your bottle every time you leave the hotel!
- doesn’t like changes. The best example is the Icelandic language that has remained the most similar of all Scandinavian languages to the old Viking language. Eyjafjallajökull, Þingvellir, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Jökulsárgljúfur or Fjaðrárgljúfur – clearly, the Icelandic has changed little over the last 1,000 years (schoolchildren can even read the Icelandic 11th-century saga texts). Another good example of the originality of the language and its reluctance to take up English words is the word Batman – while in most countries it is Batman, in Icelandic, it is Leðurblökumaðurinn (now you know what dyslexia feels like).
Iceland is in the North Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Norway, and to reach it is easy – it takes 5 hours by air from New York and 3 hours from London.
To plan a car vacation, the island is best divided into several parts: West with the capital city of Reykjavík, South, East, North and the Westfjords. West is the most populated part – 60% of the total of 300,000 Icelanders live here, Westfjords the least – it is just something over 7,000 people. The interior of the island is a barren volcanic desert with no inhabitants or roads; just astronauts come here to train.
With a week on our hands, we split the time into 7 driving days, covering 5 to 6 hours of driving each day, with plenty of time to stop at the sights along the way.
Traveling around Iceland by car is easy – the best way is to take the Ring Road, or Route 1, Iceland’s main highway. Iceland is circular, and the road runs around it in a loop, connecting most of its parts and allowing to see nearly everything the country offers. With a total length of 1,332 kilometers (828 miles), it can be driven in just a couple of days, but if you want to visit most of its natural sights and landmarks, you’ll need more time than that.
So, ready to explore Iceland’s 10,000 waterfalls, 5,000 glaciers, 7,000 volcanoes, 3,000 lava fields, 250.000 fjords and all the 15 cute fishing towns?
Welcome to Ísland!