Imagine you set up a surprise birthday for your best guy friend. Time and money are no object.
On the big day, you blindfold him, put earplugs in his ears, walk him on a plane, and fly to Reykjavik, Iceland. You grab a rental car at the airport, drive about 45 minutes out to the middle of nowhere, stop, and help him out of the car to stand on the side of the road. Then, you take out the earplugs, and tell him to count to 500 before he removes the blindfold. You jump back in the car and drive out of sight and earshot.
He’ll panic, become curious and impatient or, finish the count to 500, and rip off the blindfold and wonder if he’s either on the Moon or at a NASA training site. A 360° look around will reveal a rough terrain of black and brown lava rock, some with tinges of yellow or green plant life, as far as the eye can see.
And it’s quiet. There are few sounds in this country away from the coast and the populated areas except for the wind and an occasional birdcall. And it’s cool all year long, and downright cold at times.
Is this Iceland or the Moon?
NASA thought it was enough like the Moon that it sent Astronauts from the Apollo program here for training in 1965 and 1967. Those Astronauts had a reunion tour of the island in 2015.
A Geological Curiosity
Iceland is a curious place. If you ask almost anyone other than an Icelander about it, you'll prompt an “I don’t know, but that’s interesting” type response. And it’s a place chock full of eclectic and oddball geological facts.
- It gets more hours of sunshine than any inhabited country — 5,500 hours a year according to one scientist we talked with. This is surprising because the temperatures, overall through each year, range from cool to cold.
- Temperatures in the winter average 27° – 32° Fahrenheit: a temperate surprise given the proximity of the country to the arctic circle.
- Track vehicles with plows dot the land: there’s lots of rocking plowing to do here!
- Geothermal energy powers the entire country. Icelanders have come up with clever ways to channel steam from Volcano’s to warm their homes, swimming pools and spas. In fact, the famous Blue Lagoon tourist spa is about a 45-minute drive outside Reykjavik.
- Most of the country is uninhabited, save the coastal areas. Two-thirds of the entire population lives in or near the capital city of Reykjavik.
- It is THE above ground point of the North American — Eurasian continental divide. Tectonic plates come together above the surface in Iceland on the highest mountain range on the planet — the ocean beneath the country. This rift widens about 1” a year. One side is in North America. The other side is in Eurasia. On the surface, this rift is a giant glob of volcanic rock around a massive crack, varying in width, extending through the country. The divide is so big now that a tourist walkway runs through it in one area.
- Stunning optics offering dramatic and diverse perspectives of the contrast between mountains of lava, green valleys and the sea. You tell us: is it Iceland or Area 51 in the picture below? (!)
Come on, are we In Greenland?
If you visit between June – August, you’ll see colors: brown, black, yellow, red, maroon, and green where there are areas that aren’t all lava rock. This may cause confusion for some believing the entire island is icy all year.
This is Iceland or Greenland? It's green here!
When we asked Icelanders about the Nonarctic climate in the summer, they said the name of their country stems from a carefully planned plot by their ancestors to convince Nordic nomads to settle elsewhere! The ruse was a success.
Greenland, the largest island on the planet (Australia is a continent), is a polar ice cap with 80% of the surface covered by snow and ice all year. It is almost the largest ice cap on the planet, second only to the Antarctic.
But in Iceland, you’ll find patches of green fields cultivated by farmers among the lava fields. The hay bale wrappings in the picture below are designed to keep ravens away! The farmers here change the colors of these bale wrappings to keep the ravens wary of picking at the bales.
At the northern port town of Akureyri in the summer, mile high black and green mountain walls with hints of red, yellow, brown and maroon jut out of the sea like scoops of black cherry ice cream. If you squint your eyes and stare intently along the base of the mountain you’ll see tiny, colored specks moving oh-so-slowly. They’re tour buses and cars! THAT’S how big those mountains are.
A “Bi-polar” Geographic and Cultural Oddity
Isolation breeds uniqueness. It happens on all islands to all creatures and, this one is no exception.
Want to learn Old Norse? Come here and learn Icelandic. It’s the closest living relative to this ancient tongue largely unchanged over the last 1,000 years, dating back to the 874 settlements by Nordic peoples escaping oppression by the king of Norway-Denmark. Icelandic is also a close relative of Faroese and West Norwegian spoken today.
Want to get away from it all and live in a country with a sparse population? The total population here is about 332,000.
Want to live in an ethnically homogenous place? Every person born here can trace their lineage back about 30 generations to the original settlers.
Want to live in North America but enjoy a European-like culture? Come here. Geographically, Iceland is part of the North American continent. Culturally and economically, it’s part of Europe.
Want to see odd variants of critters in nature? Visit Vigur Island, about a 45-minute boat ride north of Isafjordur. There you’ll see Eiders, Puffins, Arctic terns, and black Guillemot’s.
Unique cultural conditions stemming from isolation
Icelanders celebrate, not surprisingly, their own ethno-centric views of the outside world.
During our visit in July 2016, one resident told us of the latest saying in the country: “… England was defeated twice in one week. The first time came from the British countrywide vote for BREXIT from the European Union. The second occurred when the Icelandic national football team beat the British national team in the UEFA cup series! …”
The British occupy the not-so-distant memories of Icelanders. They occupied the country during World War II to control the shipping lanes and check the actions of Nazi U-Boats. It was a friendly and welcome occupation with the U.S. controlling Naval bases here after this war up to 2006.
Iceland declared independence from Denmark on June 17, 1944, when the Nazi’s were still in control of Denmark. It’s history is decidedly European, specifically, Nordic.
Yet the country is a member of the European Union. But don’t expect to waltz in without showing your passport or other acceptable identification papers. Isolation drives the need for authorities to inspect the travel documents of visitors.
Despite the financial collapse of 2008, Iceland’s economy has made a strong comeback. Tourism is now the biggest revenue generator for the country. Fishing was the primary industry until international conglomerates fished out the waters.
Homes are extraordinarily expensive compared with those in other countries. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. One tour guide told us a new two-bedroom condo in Reykjavik not far from the industrial port area could cost between 469,000 – 938,000 Euros. That’s around $500,000 to $1,000,000 U.S. dollars. Yet, the average Icelander, according to those we talked to, makes about 3,000 Euros a month!
Obviously, “house poor” takes on a new meaning in this country. We never could get a straight answer from anyone about how Icelanders can afford homes at these prices, other than they team up with others to take out 40-year mortgages.
When to go
If you like lot’s of snow, cold, and 4-5 hours of daylight, go in the winter season for North America. For Iceland, that means anytime between September and April. Keep in mind, daylight is limited during this period. If sightseeing is important to you, it’s best to visit during the summer.
Note: Roads to the interior are closed during the winter months spanning September – April. When the roads are closed, lodging, dining and other facilities are usually closed and unavailable to travelers.
“Summertime” for all practicable purposes, spans June through August. Daylight and weather drive define summer here. If you visit then, you’ll be in a land of the midnight sun. Sunrise was at 02:24 and sunset at 00:06 during our visit on July 7-8, 2016.
What to do
Out in the boondocks stuff
If you’re an outdoors-person, you’ll love Iceland. Tour guides can take you to those well-known spots for pictures of snow-capped glaciers and sweeping, volcanic valleys, under eerily odd light conditions. You can visit almost anytime for outdoor adventures: ice fishing, snowmobiling, SCUBA diving, or monster truck riding into the vast expanse.
Given the rough and tough countryside, it’s not surprising to find industrial grade vehicles across this country. Some tour operators hauling visitors into the valleys and peaks of the interior, drive 3500 class diesel powered monster pickup trucks. These behemoths feature onboard air compressors, special suspensions, oversize tires, and van cabs welded onto the pickup truck chassis. They buy these muscular oafs — usually Fords and other brands from the United States — and modify them in country.
You can rent-a-car or FWD truck and drive yourself around the ring road encapsulating the country. But take heed (again): roads to the interior are closed during the winter months spanning September – April. When the roads are closed, lodging, dining and other facilities are usually closed and unavailable to travelers.
The rule is this in Iceland: watch the weather and do as the Icelanders do. If they don’t go out into the interior, you shouldn’t either, unless you’re in expert hands.
In town: things to do
Consider a visit the Blue Lagoon tourist thermal spa, about a 45-minute drive outside Reykjavik, for a thermal bathing experience beneficial for your skin. It's southeast of Reykjavík, near the fishing village of Grindavík, on the Reykjanes peninsula.
A high-temperature geothermal field supplies the Reykjanes district with hot water and steam to run a power plant. The geothermal water is pumped up from 6,000 feet below the earth’s surface to the plant. It is the mineral rich overflow water from this operation that fills the bathing lagoon, waters featuring high levels of silica, minerals and algae that give the Blue Lagoon its rich, blue color.
All you'll need is about 3 hours, roundtrip from Reykjavik, to complete this thermal bathing experience of a lifetime. Bring your swimsuit and a towel! The changing rooms are European-style (not private) and segregated by gender. Lockers, showers, and soap are included. Towels are available at your expense. You can pay with US dollars (bills only; no coins), Euros, Icelandic kroners or a major credit card. The minimum age for admission is two.
But there's more to do than visit the Blue Lagoon. Multiple businesses throughout the capital and major towns, all present tours and information including those for self-guided expeditions.
For metrics driven travelers
Are you a “metrics-driven” traveler? If so, you'll love this next tip.
Snag a helicopter tour for a 1-hour ride to Grimsey Island from the northern port town of Akureyri. The arctic circle cuts halfway through this place, making it a great way to claim you been there! A ferry sails from Dalvík to Grímsey 3 days a week throughout each year. And there are flights by Air Iceland from the capital, three times a week during the winter and seven days a week during the summer.
How to get there
Icelandic Air has some good deals from the U.S. and Europe. You can fly in on, say, a Sunday, and pick up a flight exiting the country on the following Sunday — all for the same price. This means you can stay in the country for a week without incurring two airfare bookings.
You can also take a cruise liner for day visits to various areas around the island. The Holland America line, offers an 18-day Viking passage cruise running from Rotterdam to Boston and back. Ports of call in Iceland include Reykjavik, Isafjordur, and Akureyri over a four-day period. This is a great way to various areas of the country quickly to decide if you want to return to explore one or more areas in greater depth later.
Well, that's all for now. We have much more to tell you about Iceland. Check back here regularly or watch our posts on Facebook or Twitter for our latest stories. If you're a member if this website, you'll get an Email each time we put up a new story.
Until the next time, stay well, and happy roving! Tom @ RoverTreks.