I just visited Iceland for the first time! But, due to airport chaos, I was only there for exactly 36 hours. Here's what I learned from my short trip, camping out on ice and dunking myself in the country's steaming hot springs.
It was supposed to be a three day trip, but a blizzard closed Reykjavik's airport as I was flying to Seattle to connect, so I ended up spending over 24 hours there instead. By the time I landed, it was 5am and there was just enough time to drop my bag at the hotel before hopping in a Land Rover to drive through the mountains for 14 hours. I did that, ate dinner, passed out, woke up, rode a quad bike, sat in a hot spring, and flew home at 5pm the next day. Woah.
Iceland Is Being Ripped Asunder: The island straddles the divide between the North American and Hreppar Microplate (many people over simplify this and say the eastern side is the Eurasion tectonic plate). And, those plates are moving apart at about three inches per year. Travel through Iceland's interior and you can see this rift; roads go right across it in several places. There's even a park where you can dive or snorkel in the gap, which is filled by some of the clearest water found anywhere on earth.
North America (left) and Europe (right). I'm standing right in the middle.
Iceland's Heat Is Free And All Its Energy Soon Will Be Too: With all the volcanic activity, it's no surprise that geothermal heat sources are abundant. Driving around, you can often spot many sources of steam rising at different points across the vast, open landscape. That steam is captured and pumped through homes, businesses and even under Reykjavik's roads and sidewalks, keeping them ice free. This combines with the typical practice in the far north to heat the inside of homes, hotels, restaurants and such to sauna-like temperatures to mean that you should definitely give yourself the ability to easily layer your clothes. Anything more than a base layer and a shirt will be too hot within seconds of entering a building.
The country pumps cold water from its glaciers under the earth, creating high pressure steam that spins turbines, generating much of its electricity. The remainder is generated by hydroelectric dams. This means that Iceland is largely energy independent, with the exception of the oil and gasoline it needs to power its ships and vehicles. There's already a huge push in place to bring in electric cars and, once those become omnipresent in a decade or two, the country will be very close to total energy independence, created clean and sustainably. The ships are already being converted to run on locally produced hydrogen (see cheap electricity) and Iceland predicts it will be energy independent by 2050.
Hot Springs Are Everywhere, And Free To Use: Many of the steam pillars rising across Iceland's landscape are coming off natural hot springs. And most of those are free and open. This book, available at pretty much every book store in Reykjavik or at the Keflavik airport gives you directions, descriptions and GPS coordinates for them. Pack a real GPS navigator (or download one for your phone) and learn how to use it before you go. Image courtesy Los Angeles Swimmin'.
We visited the famous Blue Lagoon just before we were due to fly out, since it's right by the airport. It's a) manmade and b) really expensive, but also clean, nice, easily accessible and they will sell you beers from a swim up bar located in the middle of the water.
The Blue Lagoon, photo by: Berit Watkin.
Hunting and Fishing: Iceland's rivers see a powerful salmon run each year, but the fishing rights are controlled by local land owners and are the preserve of the wealthy. I was quoted something in the region of $US1,800 for a day's fishing by the owner of The English House, a nice little guest house located at the mouth of the river Langá. He was as dismayed as me by that price and suggested I instead hike or drive into any of the numerous mountain lakes and streams to fish for trout. Many of those are totally free, but you can buy unrestricted access to 38 fishing locations across the country for $US50 here. I'm learning how to fly fish and plan to return to the country in the near future for a dedicated fishing/camping/backpacking adventure.
Upland bird hunting is plentiful and the island even has a non-native herd of reindeer up north. You'll need to hunt with an outfitter, who can arrange your licence, tags and firearms permit ahead of time.
The Food Here Is Fresh And Local: I was told that two per cent of the world's ocean fishing takes place in the waters around Iceland, where only local fisherman are allowed to make catches. Any fish you eat in Iceland will be fresh that day and, often, raw.
We stopped for lunch at Hotel A way out in the country to the northwest of Reykjavik and had the best piece of lamb I'd ever eaten. It'd been raised right in the field in front of the dining room, next to a picturesque river below a glacier. Another guy thought he was eating beef, it was that mild and tender.
You Can't Really Drive Off-Road: We've all seen the videos of Formula Off-Road, but that takes place on designated race tracks. Due to the fragile nature of the soil clinging to volcanic rock in the mountains, you can only drive on roads in Iceland. But, those roads are often challenging dirt ones and, in the mountains, will be covered in feet of snow. Those are also the best way to get to and see the country's desolate, totally uninhabited interior. Renting an economical compact 4x4 while you're there will be the best way to get around. Make sure it's got good tires!
Don't Bother With Reykjavik: 323,000 people live in Iceland, two-thirds of which are in Reykjavik. We've all heard about that city's supposedly great nightlife, music scene and beautiful people, but in the admittedly short time I spent there, it didn't strike me as any better than Oslo or Copenhagen or Stockholm. Those are all much larger cities with more stuff going on and fewer tourists. If you want to party and pick up members of the opposite sex, you'll have a better time in any of those. Visit Iceland to go outside, it's roughy the size of New York state and you wouldn't go to Yonkers to party.
Icelandic Literature Is Great: "He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it." How's that for the opening line of a crime novel? Silence Of The Grave is the first in a popular English language series by Arnaldur Indridason, download it and read it on the plane there like everyone else who visits.
You Won't See Trees: Before the viking's showed up, 40 per cent of Iceland was covered by birch forest. The animals they brought and subsequent volcanic activity have since take than down to just 1.5 per cent. The country is trying to address this; a re-forestry project begun in 1990 has planted 107 million seedlings. Thanks to global warming, those trees now grow 50 per cent faster than they did during the much colder climes of the 1960s. The vast majority of what you'll see will be rocky mountains and barren lava deserts. And steam.
You Will See Volcanoes: Throw a (volcanic) rock in Iceland and you'll hit a volcano. There's about 130 of them in the country, 18 of which have been active since humans decided to live here. Bárðarbunga is erupting right now, you can drive a SuperJeep up to see it. Driving around the country, the distinct conical shapes of volcanic mountains are everywhere. Chris climbed one.