The perceived idyllic character of Iceland as a little arctic paradise island may have taken a blow in the financial crisis of 2008, but that has now been overcome – and anyway, the nation's assets with regard to scenery are unaffected by this.
However, Iceland's nature is also volatile, namely volcanic. And in 2010 Iceland again made negative headlines when huge ash clouds from the eruption of the subglacial volcano Eyjafjallajökull brought unprecedented disruptions to air traffic across much of Europe and the Atlantic
On the other hand, volcanic activity also attracts a special kind of tourist clientele. Watching volcanic eruptions, however, is not something that can be planned ahead – instead it's something that has to be done spontaneously … requiring flexibility and money and you have to be prepared for disappointment if the activity suddenly ceases by the time you get there. There are companies specializing in that sort of travel whenever there's an eruption to be witnessed somewhere in the world (e.g. VolcanoDiscovery).
The best visible physical (i.e. more permanent) evidence of volcanism's destructive forces that can be seen by regular tourists are to be found on Heimaey, the main island and town of the Westman Islands group just off the south coast of "mainland" Iceland, where in 1973 a sudden surprise eruption of a new volcano destroyed part of the town – you can still see crushed houses and harbour walls.
Of the many other volcanic sites on Iceland, one that stands out as a touristic adventure is Viti – an explosion crater with a warm sulphurous lake that you can go swimming in!
Iceland has seen massive volcanic catastrophes too – especially the Laki eruptions of 1783 which led to the death of about a quarter of the island's population at that time, and the poisonous cloud of gases released by the eruption also brought the disaster to far-away Europe, and had a serious effect on the whole northern hemisphere's climate! So stop winging about Eyjafjallajökull merely disrupting air traffic! The remains of the crater chain that formed in the Laki eruptions can be seen in the Landmannalaugar area in southern Iceland, which is also a prime hiking destination.
Some of Iceland's most active volcanoes happen to be located under glacial icecaps. When there are subglacial eruptions they cause ice melt on a massive scale which in turn can lead to discharges of meltwater of catastrophic forces. In fact the Icelandic word for this, jökulhaup, has been adopted as the scientific technical term for this phenomenon. The Grimsvötn volcano under Iceland's (and Europe's) largest icecap, Vatnajökull, is particularly infamous for this. In 1996, a large-scale jökulhaup washed away the stretch of the ring road south of the Vatnajökull icecap and transported blocks of ice the size of houses miles down the slope towards the sea. As the impending outburst after the eruption had been carefully monitored the road had been closed and nobody got hurt. The latest (and largest) Grimsvötn eruption of 2011 did not cause a jökulhaup but again affected European airspace, though not on the same scale that Eyjafjallajökull had the year before. More eruptions are expected, also from the dangerous Katla, which also sits under an icecap and is historically known for much more violent eruptions than Eyjafjallajökull.
Despite all their destructive potential, Iceland owes its very existence to these volcanoes that sit on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between two continental tectonic plates, the Eurasian and the North American plates. The rift goes straight through contemporary Iceland's land and at Thingvellir you can actually stand on it, one foot in Europe, the other in America, as it were. In fact you see many tourists having a photo taken of themselves doing just that.
Moreover, the geothermal heat from Iceland's volcanism provides the country with ample energy. Tapping the Earth's free energy has made Iceland completely independent of oil, gas or nuclear power for electricity generation. The resulting "green" image of the country, however, suffered a severe blow when Iceland agreed to a large-scale hydroelectric project, not for its own energy needs but to attract foreign aluminium smelter industries. The environmental impact of such projects resulted in heavy criticism.
Such industries could also detract from Iceland's attractiveness for tourism – as this is primarily based on the country's "unspoilt wilderness" image. This is particularly true for the interior – the inland highlands of Iceland that are completely uninhabited (except for seasonal oases, research and campsites). Indeed, I found the moonscapes of Iceland's interior the most stunning scenery I have ever encountered (see also Viti & Askja
More regular tourist highlights tend to be situated closer to the capital city Reykjavik, in particular the so-called Golden Circle, which comprises of Thingvellir, Gullfoss waterfall, regarded as Iceland's visually most spectacular waterfall, and the field of geysers nearby. In fact, this is the mother of them all in as much as the Great geyser of Geysir gave the name to all other geysers around the world. The original here in Iceland, however, has in recent years only very occasionally shown any activity. I was very lucky to witness one such rare eruption when I was there in 2004. The smaller Strokkur geyser next to it, however, continues to reliably spout every 5 to 10 minutes. The eruptions always begin with the spectacular build-up of a big blue bubble that then burst into spouts between 5 and 20 metres in height, occasionally even more.
Entry point and main base for almost all tourists is Reykjavik, Iceland's charming little capital. With a population of only ca. 130,000 it's small by European standards, but it's still home to more than half of Iceland's total population. Despite its small size it has a well-earned reputation of being something of a party town. For most tourists wanting to explore Iceland further, however, it is simply the natural starting point. Unsurprisingly, most domestic tour operators are based here as well.
Reykjavik's local airport is mostly for domestic flights only, though (e.g. to Heimaey
), whereas the country's international airport is located further west at Keflavik, which started life as military air force base for the USA
. The national carrier Icelandair as well as various other international airlines have plenty of connections both to Europe and to North America.
To get around in the country outside Reykjavik, you will need a hire car (unless you're on one of those organized coach tours – which I deem unlikely for the clientele this website is aimed at). Getting around in a small car may do for the ring road and most sights near it, but to tackle the interior routes or Landmannalaugar you will need a tougher 4x4 with high clearance in order to be able to ford rivers. This may cost you dearly, but they are really indispensable.
For some really extreme driving you will have to rely on local operators, e.g. if you want to go on the icecap of Vatnajökull. It's only possible to drive on such a surface in so-called super jeeps with enormous tyres. Usually they deflate the tyres a bit to ensure a better grip on the ice. You can also go on snowmobile trips on the icecap. Mountaineering and horseback riding are yet more very popular activities.
Iceland has traditionally always been a rather expensive travel destination, although the recent financial crises have led to more affordable prices in some sectors.
Accommodation options are most varied and easy to come by in Reykjavik. Outside the capital, pre-booking (often well in advance) is essential. In the countryside you often get boarding schools serving as "summer hotels" in the short peak season, which are school holidays – and when half of the Icelanders appear to be taking up summer jobs in the tourism industry.
As for food & drink
: Icelandic cuisine has a few surprises in store. Not at all surprising is the proportion of fish. Remember that Iceland's fishing industry is the second largest in Europe! But the fish is sometimes served in unusual ways, e.g. accompanied by blue cheese sauces. I personally found this very convincing, though.
A legendary speciality is one that has an almost impossible to acquire taste: "hákarl", which is putrefied shark! Indeed, its "odour" of ammonia is the main obstacle to overcome when trying it Think of what the most grotty train station loo you ever encountered smelled like and you get an idea. No wonder it is suggested you follow it with a swig of the national liquor brennivin.
More palatable specialities include "skyr", a kind of rich, smooth, creamy strained yoghurt, "lava bread" (baked in hot spots near volcanoes, in ash or near geothermal fields) as well as smoked fish and meats.
Among the meats used are not just those from the usual animals but also reindeer, seabirds such as puffins (see Heimaey
), and, most controversially, whale. Much to international scorn, Iceland ,like Japan
, still continues whaling, or rather: it resumed whaling in 2006. Though under the mantle of "scientific purposes" whale meat still lands on Icelandic plates, mostly the still relatively abundant minke whale, though in one speciality restaurant in Reykjavik I found that dishes made from stocks of frozen fin whale meat were still on the menu! Needless to say: I did NOT eat any of this – though I admit that I did try a couple of seabird dishes out of curiosity, even though I am normally semi-vegetarian
What is comparatively scarce and therefore only found in small quantities as accompaniments on plates is vegetables. These mostly have to be expensively imported or laboriously grown in greenhouses, due to Iceland's arctic climate. Potatoes can be very good, probably thanks to the rich volcanic soil. Similarly, wild berries are a delight. But getting by on an entirely vegetarian or even vegan diet will be rather difficult in this arctic country.
One aspect I found particularly pleasant about eating out in restaurants in Iceland is the fact that a service charge is always already included and that no further tipping is expected – so no worries about too little or too much as a tip, it's just not done at all, period. Such a relief. On the other hand, price levels are high enough without any tips or charges coming on top. But that applies to almost everything in Iceland (though not quite to the same excessive levels as in Norway
An excessive example of inflated pricing concerns drinks other than soft drinks. They are prohibitively expensive, as is typical for Scandinavia. Here in Iceland (like in Finland) alcohol is only sold through specially state-licensed outlets, where clerks in white lab coats dispense the stuff from behind iron bars through small holes … probably to make the customer feel like a drug criminal.
Water, on the other hand, is plentiful – and in the highlands you can fill up your bottles for free. Indeed, my guide on the Askja/Viti
tour suggested we all pour away our mineral water and instead fill our bottles up from the highland stream we were passing, because it would be "much, much better". Lucky Iceland.
Linguistically, Iceland is also unusual in that it is so conservative about its native language that it even has state commissions employing professional purists to stem the tide of foreign influences. On the other hand, practically every Icelander will be proficient in at least two or three foreign languages – and not just those working in the tourism industry. When I must have looked a little confused while looking for a particular shop in Reykjavik, a group of young teenagers (at best 14) asked if they could help me out (and then did) – all in flawless English. I found the Icelanders in general to be an incredibly friendly bunch of people.
The main point, though, making Iceland one of my top-10 landscapes
I have ever travelled to remains its unbeatable scenery. It really is stunning in the most literal sense. Time and time again I found myself gazing at the sheer beauty of the land with my mouth open. It really is breathtakingly amazing.
- Iceland 01 - Gullfoss waterfall
- Iceland 02 - chapel near Budir on Snaefellsnes peninsula
- Iceland 03 - inland Hofsjokull glacier
- Iceland 04 - inland Kjolur route
- Iceland 05 - Hveravellir thermal field
- Iceland 06 - Hverarond sulphur field
- Iceland 07 - Hverarond mudpot
- Iceland 08 - iron-tinged slopes on Jokulsa a Fjollum
- Iceland 09 - Kverkfjoll
- Iceland 10 - older lava field near Askja
- Iceland 11 - recent Krafla lava flow
- Iceland 12 - still steaming Krafla lava
- Iceland 13 - solidified Krafla lava
- Iceland 14 - a walk in the lava field
- Iceland 15 - on top of Vatnajokull glacier
- Iceland 16 - Jokulsarlon 1
- Iceland 17 - Jokulsarlon 2
- Iceland 18 - Jokulsarlon 3
- Iceland 19 - uninhabited inland
- Iceland 20 - fording rivers
- Iceland 21 - Landmannalaugar climbing party