You know how they say you never want to meet your idol? I imagine dream travel spots are similar. There are places some travelers spend years longing to see, only to find themselves disappointed once they get there and discover that the spots are not as glamorous or charming as the pictures might suggest. In my case, this was the Caribbean (another post on that later).
And then there are places you dream about going, maybe because you never really see or hear much about them and therefore don’t know what to expect. For me, that place was Iceland.
There’s no doubt that part of why I decided more than 12 years ago that I wanted to go to Iceland, like my desire to see Laos, Namibia or Mongolia, is because no one, myself included, knows anything about it. Even with my degree in International Studies and having been partnered up for a project in college with an Icelander, who described to me her hometown in the east of the country as a place surrounded by mountains, glaciers, seashores, unimaginable beauty and very, very few human beings, it remained a mysterious place in my mind. Doing a bit of research gave me high expectations of this island, which seemed cold yet hospitable, remote yet connected, and mysterious yet comfortably familiar. It turned out to be all those things and more.
The following is a list of ten reasons Iceland is one of my favorite places on the planet, in no particular order.
1. Iceland is STUNNING.
I first approached Reykjavik at night, so it would be morning before I could see what the place looked like in the light. My first daytime glimpse didn’t disappoint. The city is like an overgrown fishing village, with nearly every building painted a different color. The bay and Mt. Esja frame the city views, especially on sunny summer days when you can actually see them.
And then there’s the countryside.
2. Iceland is quaint.
It’s Scandinavia at its finest: low-key and and quaint, with even the biggest city resembling more of a village, but at the same time providing all the comfy, warm cafes and shops a traveler could ever want.
Reykjavik in the winter
Street view from the capital in the summer
I spent much of my time wandering aimlessly, which as I say time and again, is my favorite way to travel, especially when I’m on my own. I come across things not seen in any guidebook, and which are interesting in ways only I would ever understand because I felt as though I discovered them.
And, of course, the quaint little towns and countryside…
3. Iceland is unique.
My first impression of the Icelandic landscape beyond the capital came on a snowy March morning. Some parts looked like the surface of the moon. If it snowed on the moon, anyway. The landscape was barren, but in an eerily and inexplicably beautiful way. And on my second trip in the summertime, the colors of this barren landscape really came out.
There was a certain charm about the fact that no trees could be seen. In some places, especially near the Blue Lagoon, green moss offered a stark contrast to the black lava rocks it covered. It made for a color pallet that my lack of photography skills and my terrible camera at that time failed to properly convey. But I tried:
4. Iceland is odd.
From its miniature-legged horses to its weird statues and the Icelandic Phallological (ahem, penis) Museum, I’d go so far as to say it’s even weirder than Portland or Austin:
5. Iceland is friendly.
On both of my trips to Iceland so far I met people who were welcoming, but not in that way that leaves you feeling like they’re just eyeing your wallet. In fact, one of my favorite discoveries about the country is that they trust you. You, a stranger! On one trip around the Golden Circle my friend and I rolled up to a church and museum to open the unlocked door and find no one there. Instead, we encountered a box where we could drop our admission fee, relying solely on the honor system. (And in case you’re wondering – yes, of course we paid it.) And not only that, but we were also simply trusted not to steal anything or vandalize the place. I had never before been somewhere where people thought they could trust total strangers. I’m not completely naive – I’m sure there are people who betray that trust, but for now there is still a place, isolated out in the Atlantic Ocean, where the trustworthy outweigh the untrustworthy enough to make it worth treating even strangers with total respect. I only hope it stays that way as Iceland steps up its tourism efforts.
6. Iceland knows it’s beautiful and doesn’t take that for granted.
One thing a lot of people know by now about Iceland is that it’s green. Very green. In fact, nearly 100% of its electricity production comes from renewable sources – mainly hydropower and geothermal – while 85% of all energy is derived from these sources. But even that is not good enough for Icelanders. Wind power is now being tapped, and many environmentalists have protested the building of dams for producing hydropower due to what any average American would see as extremely minor collateral damage in a bigger fight for energy independence. But even if it seems silly to us, it goes to show that Icelanders are willing to explore all options in order to protect the beauty of their surroundings.
7. Iceland knows what is truly important in life: swimming pools.
Hanging out in pools is as much a national pastime for Icelanders as baseball for Americans, cricket for Indians or yelling at jaywalkers for Germans. Frommer’s puts it beautifully: “Three things are reliably found in every Icelandic village: a Lutheran church, a gas station selling hot dogs, and a public pool heated by the country’s plentiful hot springs… Geothermal pools are so important to Icelanders that the Icelandic word for ‘Saturday’ (laugardagur) means ‘pool day’ or ‘hot springs day’. During work hours it’s not unusual to see business meetings conducted in the hot tubs. Icelanders visit the pools year-round, even in rain and freezing weather, and credit them for their long lifespans (81 years-old for men and 86 for women) and low stress levels.” (http://www.frommers.com/destinations/iceland/0260020360.html).
There is, of course, the Blue Lagoon, which is a must-do. If you haven’t heard of the Blue Lagoon, try typing it into Google Images (but make sure you have the Iceland one, not the movie with Brooke Shields). Now keep in mind, it’s even more beautiful and relaxing in person. So relaxing, you might briefly forget about the entrance fee.Thermal pool near Myvatan Look for signs with a guy in water. They usually also show the water temperature (in Celsius)
If you’re looking for a more affordable yet still incredibly relaxing experience, check out some of the country’s regular ol’ pools. They are everywhere and always heated, even in the winter. Every pool I went to also had at least one hot tub, and some even have multiple hot tubs with different temperatures and your choice of fresh water or salt water from the Atlantic. I found it both relaxing and a good way to get a glimpse into Icelandic society.
8. Iceland is safe.
As a woman, if I’m in a new place and feel that my safety is threatened in any way, I don’t enjoy my stay. It’s different for men, whose main concern is their wallets, which can be replaced. If you’re a first-time international traveler, a solo traveler and/or female and in search of a safe destination where your only worry is whether you can stomach the rubbery shark delicacies without insulting the locals, I can’t recommend Iceland enough. As with anywhere in the world, you should always pay attention to your surroundings and take the usual precautions, but crime statistics show that you are extremely unlikely to encounter any violent crime here.
9. Iceland knows how to party.
You wouldn’t think a megalopolis like Reykjavik, with it’s 200,000 inhabitants, would be a place to let loose. But make sure you plan your stay to be in the capital on a Friday or Saturday night. The party starts around 11 p.m. and goes well into the morning hours.
10. Iceland is a bit more affordable (sort of).
I’m a bit cautious in saying this, since it’s still one of the more expensive places to visit in the world. But it used to be completely out of the question for anyone with a sub-six-digit annual income. But after the devaluation of the kronur following the financial meltdown in 2008 and with it being the off-season month of March, I was able to get a pretty decent 4-star hotel room for around $80/night. I can’t guarantee a price like this now, especially since Iceland seems to be recovering from its economic woes, but the off-season is definitely a great time to visit for those on a budget. And if you look at things not in absolute dollars but in terms of value for money, Iceland is up there.
To be fair, my two trips to this island did have a few drawbacks. The putrid smell of sulfur. The consistently dull, gray skies upon my first visit in March. Realizing I should have brought much warmer clothing and better shoes. But I forgave it: the sulfur smell is a side-effect of the clean, renewable geothermal heating. Its dull skies make you all the more appreciative when the sun does peak out and warm your face (and going in July will definitely entail at least a few days of glorious sunshine). And my unpreparedness gave me an excuse to go shopping for some local Icelandic wool mittens and a scarf. For a mere $100. I actually haven’t forgiven Iceland for that one yet.
The ultimate impression I took away is that this is a place of of mysterious beauty, calm and serenity. At the time of my first visit I was living in New York City, a place I loved so much that it didn’t even realize I had trained my brain to ignore noise, crowds, pollution and all-around chaos. In Iceland I felt alone, as though no one in the world knew who or where I was. I had no sight-seeing agenda. I simply walked, stopped into cafes for tea and restaurants for food, and walked some more. I would return a second time just 16 months later and spend a few weeks, rent a car and discover more of the countryside. And I’ll return again someday soon to do the full loop of the island. Until then, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like some tips on where to go and what to see in Iceland.