Iceland – beautiful, harsh and stark Iceland. The land of ice and fire – glaciers and volcanoes, blue icebergs and deliciously hot springs. I have always wanted to visit Iceland; ever since I was a little girl, I used to look at pictures of this amazingly beautiful, otherworldly place and wonder what it would be like to walk in the lava fields, pet the fluffy Icelandic horses, swim in the thermal springs and ride the ocean waves with the whales.
In May 2014 I had finally saved enough money (and vacation leave) to plan an 18 day trip to the island – so I went for it – the famous ring-road trip around Iceland – with a few detours here and there to see a some of the slightly less accessible sights on the way. I chose May because it is considered to be part of the shoulder season for tourism, therefore prices are slightly cheaper and there are less crowds. It is also the time when whales start coming back to the area, and when most wildlife can be seen (puffins, seals, arctic fox if you’re lucky!!). Daylight is also ample during May, which meant more time for sight seeing and travelling. By no means did I see all there is to see of the country. You could spend months there, and not tire of seeing the multitude of gorgeous waterfalls, flat plains and mountainous peaks. Even so, I tried my best to fit in as much as possible in the little time I had – and that is what I am going to share with you here. I am going to add links to hotels I stayed in, as well as any useful sites I found along the way.
First of all – a few facts about Iceland:
- Iceland is an island – situated between the Arctic and North Atlantic Ocean. It has a total area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi) and has a population of 332,529 – this makes it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It’s capital city (also largest city) is Reykjavik – which is located in the southwestern coast of the island and 60% of all of Iceland’s population lives here.
- It is the 18th largest island in the world, second only to Great Britian within Europe. Even so 62.7% of this land is in fact tundra, therefore uninhabited. Lakes and glaciers cover 14.3% of its surface; only 23% is vegetated. There are NO forests in the country! There are thirty minor islands making part of Iceland (and contributing to the 103,000 km2).
- There is one main highway in Iceland – this is known as Route 1. It is a complete ring road and basically connects all inhabited parts of the island together. The total length of the road is 1,332 kilometres (828 mi).
- The majority of Iceland’s energy is in fact renewable (around 85%) – with more than half of this being from it’s geothermal energy.
- Iceland has an extremely low crime rate – with violent crime being practically inexistent. The police in Iceland do not carry guns, and the country does not have an army, navy or air force.
- Iceland has it’s own horse breed! The extremely CUTE CUTE CUTE Icelandic horse! It is indigenous to the island and any horse which is exported from Iceland, is not allowed to return. This lovely breed displays two additional gaits, as compared to all other horse breeds. It is also very fluffy, adorable and energetic! ❤
- When going to Iceland prepare to eat lots of lamb, potatos, fish and SKYR (an Icelandic dairy product which tastes like greek yoghurt, but milder). There is also an option of eating whale (namely Minke whale) and Puffin (yes, that cute, clumsy, lovable bird). Raw puffin heart is actually considered a delicacy, and puffins are eaten for food all the time. I am totally against whaling, so I would never eat whale, and I think puffins are too cute to eat, but to each his own I guess… One this is for sure – you’re not going to find a Mc. Donald’s anywhere in the country – the franchise is non-existant in Iceland. Also Iceland has a drink of its own known as Brennivin. This alcoholic beverage is a sort of schnapps distilled from potatoes; this doesn’t sound too bad, but it also uses caraway seeds, and this apparently gives it a vile flavor. I’ve tasted it – I agree, it tastes nasty! This drink is usually consumed alongside and Icelandic fermented shark dish – Hakarl. I was NOT impressed at all with this combination, but it definitely was an interesting experience!!
- Yes, whaling is still legal in Iceland – I know, it sucks! But the major income regarding whales in Iceland comes from whale watching, and not from whaling, which is a good thing! 🙂
- The national Icelandic sport is Handball – that’s right! Expected something more viking-like didn’t you?!
- Icelanders believe in ‘the hidden people’, aka elves or magic little people. These elves usually live in rocky areas and have magical powers, causing trouble if someone tries to disturb their home. In some cases, bulldozers have been reported to malfunction when trying to work on a supposed home of the hidden people.
Ok, so I think that’s enough interesting facts for you! On to the real voyage! Departed my little home, Malta, on May 17th. Flights are relatively cheap when travelling from central Europe to Iceland, they are horrendously expensive if travelling from Malta (especially if using the local or other higher end airlines). At the time, the cheapest option I had was travelling to Oslo via Ryanair – then using Norwegian Airlines to get to Reyjkjavik (Keflavik International Airport to be precise). Flights for two cost me around the total of €780.00. Still quite expensive in my opinion, but better than the whopping €2200.00 I got from airlines such as Air Malta and Lufthansa.
Anyway, departed on the 17th, spent the night in Oslo, then went on our way to Reykjavik on the 18th! Arrived in Keflavik early afternoon where we picked up our rental car – a Dacia Duster, and drove straight to Reykjavik. The first day was reserved for sight seeing around this adorable city. We stayed in a cute little guesthouse/hotel – the OK hotel (booked via Booking.com – it’s more of a small self catering apartment than it is a hotel) – which is located in a quieter part of Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street. The city centre is very easily accessible by walk and it’s a lovely stroll down to the harbour where you can see the old fishing boats, tour the whale watching companies, see some abandoned whaling trawlers and visit the beautifully designed Harpa – a concert hall and conference centre which looks like a giant iridescent honeycomb! There are a couple of very nice eateries along the harbour, but prepare your wallet – dining out in Iceland is NOT cheap! Make sure to pay a short visit to the Hallgrimskirkja – Reykjavik’s parish church – which looks like a giant spaceship if you ask me, but was in fact designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.
Scenes from downtown Reykjavik and the Old Harbour
Second day in Iceland – visit the BLUE LAGOON!!! I know, I know!!! So touristy, so kitsch! Well I visited, and I loved it!! The Blue Lagoon is about a 45 minute drive away from Reykjavik and no, it is not a natural hot spring. It is actually made from the byproducts of a huge geothermal energy plant nearby which pumps out water very rich in silicates as a waste product. The silicates are very good for the skin, they also contribute to the blue hue of the water within the Lagoon. It’s a very “manicured” experience – but it’s a very pleasant one too! Why not pamper yourself every once in a while! I would recommend going there mid-morning and spending a few good hours soaking in the hot water, giving yourself a good silica mud facial and enjoying the in-pool bar, as well as the man made waterfalls and spa saunas. 🙂
Bathers at the Blue Lagoon – a day of leisure and luxury 😉
Day three in Reykjavik – WHALE WATCHING! I’d been waiting for this experience for so long! I love all animals, but whales are right up there in the top ten favourite list! So this was a very exciting day for me! After some research, I decided to pick Elding Whale Watching as our boat tour operator (http://elding.is). They are eco friendly and do their best to respect the whale’s need for space. I decided to choose the Reykjavik Classic Whale Watching Tour – this lasts about 3 hours (in springtime) and leaves the old Reykjavik Harbour – venturing outwards in search of the local sea life. We were lucky enough to get to see a playful Minke Whale, a few White-Beaked Dolphins and a Harbour Porpoise, as well as a multitude of seabirds including my favourite seabird of all – the PUFFIN!!! ❤ The beautiful Icelandic vistas from the sea were breath taking, with dramatic mountain ranges behind the Reykjavik city skyline.
Scenes from our Whale Watching tour!
Day four in this amazing country – the Golden Circle!!! This popular route contains many memorable sights – with five main attractions – the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Though Geysir has been inactive for a long time, Strokkur, on the other hand, continues to erupt every 5–10 minutes. We first drove towards Þingvellir National Park as this is the closest to Reykjavik. This National Park is the location of Iceland’s first Parliament! It is also where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other – leaving dramatic, deep fissures in the ground! You can actually snorkel/dive within one of these huge fissures, the Silfra!! I did not have the chance to do this, but I would think it would be an impressive experience, swimming within a tectonic rift!
The massive tectonic plate fissure and scenery from Þingvellir National Park
Moving on, we headed towards our next destination – the Gullfoss Waterfall – my favorite of the sights from the Golden Circle, this tiered waterfall flows down into a wide curved three-step “staircase” and then abruptly plunges in two stages (11 m and 21 m) into a crevice 32 m (105 ft) deep. The crevice, about 20 m (66 ft) wide, and 2.5 km in length, extends perpendicular to the flow of the river. It is extremely beautiful and absolutely breath taking.
The beautiful and dramatic Gullfoss Waterfall
The final stop on our Golden Circle tour was of course the Haukadalur valley, with its geothermal springs and of course, the Geysir and Strokkur geysers! This valley has a particularly strong smell – due to the sulphuric properties of the springs. These springs are extremely hot, and it is forbidden for visitors to try to get too close, as touching the scalding and acidic waters can leads to serious burns! It’s always worth a five to ten minute wait to see the angry Strokkur vent his fury 🙂 Unlike Geysir, a much larger but now inactive geyser (apparently tourists used to throw objects as large as washing machines and fridges into it, just to provoke an eruption, consequently blocking it!!!), Strokkur is still highly active, so you won’t be disappointed by the wait! 🙂
The geothermally active Haukadalur Valley
Geysir and Strokkur – the quiet and unruly siblings!
This was our final day in Reykjavik and on the fifth day of our trip we were on our way heading south east – towards Vik to see its mysterious black beaches and massive rock formations! I had decided to take a anti-clockwise route around the ring road, leaving touring of the northern part of Iceland and the Westfjords to later on, in hopes of having warmer weather and more accessibility on the roads. This is where my story ends today – keep an eye on the blog though – Part 2 is coming up soon with more details of my amazing Iceland experience!!