Two years ago when Amateur Traveler had an episode on Iceland. Iceland had long been on my bucket list — stories of Vikings, rugged shores and volcanoes had been on and off my radar since I was a child. When I listened Episode 204, with guest Dave, I was inspired to learn more. Doing the usual research I do before a trip (some on-line, some with library books, always with at least one good travel guide in hand) Iceland soon moved to the top of my travel list. Within a few months I had booked a week’s travel in Iceland.
My brother and I take one week each year to travel together, time we consider sacred as it keeps us in touch and deeply connected. In 2010, this journey to Iceland was our joint trip together. And it was such a great adventure to share!
Getting to Iceland is easy, with several major airlines flying there from North America. We flew on Icelandair, the national carrier, an adequate if not inspiring flight. But the red-eye flight’s arrival in Iceland soon found us wide awake as we picked up our car rental and headed into the countryside. There were many surprises on the trip and these started the moment we left the airport. I had not counted on just how rugged and raw the country was — seeming freshly poured of a volcanic mold not unlike the Big Island of Hawaii. I didn’t expect it to be so green. I didn’t expect it to be treeless (it was deforested within a few centuries by very cold Vikings for fuel and shelter). I didn’t expect to see so many glaciers (about 10% of the country is covered in an ice cap). I didn’t expect to see so many Icelandic horses, nor did I expect them to be so short and handsome. Simply stated, I didn’t expect Iceland to be so beautiful.
So despite reasonably detailed research, including Chris’ fine podcast, Iceland was a pleasant surprise. The capitol, Reykjavik, is a beautiful and colorful modern city with a lovely harbor setting. Almost two thirds of the island’s 300,000 population lives here. The rest of the island is sparsely developed and not very populated and it’s very easy to get around. There are times when on a hike where you won’t run into anyone for hours — I like that. We drove the ring road, stopping at most major highlights, and saw and did a lot. It would have been nice to have had a few more days, but we were satisfied with our visit. I’m planning on heading back soon.
My biggest surprise was at just how rugged and pristine the land is. I love waterfalls and the island has no shortage of magnificent waterfalls. I was pleasantly surprised by the rift valley at Thingevillir, a World Heritage Site. The valley is fairly narrow and it seems to be almost be ripping apart in front of you. I was also surprised by how many rainbows we saw. The weather changes frequently, with showers blowing by commonly; these are often accompanied by rainbows; these rainbows were magical and I could enjoy them as a child would have!
Chris asked me to share my best tip for travel to Iceland. I guess it would be just to go and not be intimidated. Iceland is very easy to navigate and everyone (EVERYONE) speaks English!. If you can, travel during the shoulder seasons (May, Sept) to take advantage of lower rates for hotels and car rentals. Also, be sure you go outside on a clear night and look north. You’ll likely be rewarded with a view of the northern lights (as we were), although it’s not something you’ll see if you’re there in summer because it, too, is the land of the midnight sun (with almost no dark during the June solstice).
There are many things unique about Iceland, but none more so than the putrified shark meat (buried for more than 6 months) they pride themselves in eating. I couldn’t stomach the stuff but perhaps you’re more man than me and can get it down. In direct contrast, the meal of roast reindeer in a blueberry sauce was also unique and one of the tastiest I’ve ever eaten anywhere.
Thank you, Chris, for all you do to get us Amateurs out there traveling.
For more about Iceland read Karl’s Iceland Travel Blog.