Monday, September 17, 2012

Travel Notes on Iceland

I am just coming to the end of a three-day visit to Iceland. (I am writing from my hostel in Reykjavik.) I feel very comfortable here and hope to come back someday. Here are my notes—things you might not figure out with Google alone. Also see my Facebook photos: Iceland and Reykjavik and here is a Google Map of my drive
  1. Iceland is very green. (Don't believe the "ice" part. It's Greenland that's the icy one.) It seems about equivalent in terrain and climate to the north of Scotland. Supposedly, winter temperatures are as mild as New York or Toronto, but it's probably much more gray and rainy. Bring an umbrella!

  2. Iceland is basically one giant volcano. 100% of the landscape is volcanic, primarily endless lava fields covered with moss.

  3. There is hardly a tree anywhere! I found this especially surprising, because even Siberia has trees. Apparently Iceland was once forested but got pillaged of trees by the Vikings. Most of the landscape is mosses, grasses and low shrubs. At least there's nothing to obscure your view!

  4. I was surprises by the lack of obvious history. There are museums but hardly any old buildings. Almost all the buildings in Iceland look new, as though the island was settled only in the past 50 years. It is hard to find any old buildings apart from a few stone foundations. The only "history" is what you read on information signs. Although the Vikings were here for centuries, they apparently built with wood and sod, which has rotted away. What's left looks like generic modern Scandinavia.

  5. Iceland is expensive, but once you take care of food and lodging, there's not much opportunity to spend money. This is a good place to use hostels and camp to avoid outrageous lodging charges.

  6. The only hostels are in Reykjavik. I was very happy with the Kex Hostel. For a short stay or for the first couple of days of a longer one, this is a pretty good base of operations, since the main tourist sites can be done in day trips from there.

  7. You really need a rental car to do Iceland justice. You can take tours to see the sights, but it is very confining and may not be much cheaper than having your own car and stopping where you wish.

  8. The one thing I would bring next time is a sleeping bag to allow me to sleep in the car. (Even a throw-away one.) Camping supplies are available here but don't come cheap.

  9. You have to work hard to meet an actual Icelander, and there's no obvious "culture" on the surface. You come here mainly for the natural scenery not the human environment.

  10. Assuming you can find one, it seems that nearly every Icelander along the tourist tracks speaks English. You'll have no trouble getting along without knowing a word of Icelandic.

  11. Icelandic towns are spotless, sanitary and bland. Hardly worth stopping in them.

  12. There is virtually nothing in Iceland to hurt you. No significant crime and nothing poisonous. (No snakes, lizards or even frogs.) The only danger is your own stupidity walking on rocks or too close to a cliff. Iceland won't protect you from that! Even at their national parks, you can walk right up to the edge of a waterfall if you choose.

  13. In Iceland, you'll soon suffer from Waterfall Fatigue. There are so many spectacular ones that after a while stopping at every one you pass seems like a burden.

  14. "Big City" Reykjavik is only a small city in global terms (140k in the city and 200k in the area). Not a lot to see. You can do it all in a day. Add another day if you want to do the museums.

  15. Two-thirds of Iceland's tiny population is concentrated around Reykjavik. They rest of Iceland is wild and woolly (literally). You'll meet only sheep and other tourists.

  16. Easiest and cheapest way to visit Iceland is to stopover on an Icelandair flight to Europe. Stopovers of up to 7 days at no additional charge!

  17. Gas seems to be the same fixed price everywhere in the country. In Sept. 2012, it was ISK 260 per liter. That's US$8.12 per gallon! A major part of your travel budget will be gas. (I drove a small automatic getting 7 km/liter. My total cost was about IKR 21000 (US$175) for 1250 km of driving.)

  18. Most gas stations are unmanned and automated. YOU MUST HAVE A PIN NUMBER for your credit card in order to use them! (Also, be sure to inform your card issuer of your overseas travel to avoid having your card disabled for unusual charges.)

  19. My three days in Iceland were quite satisfying. I stayed at the Kex Hostel in Reykjavik all three nights. On the first full day, I visited the most popular tourist sites in the "Golden Circle". On the second full day, I took a long day trip to the big Vatnajokull Glacier and the sights along the way. On the half days on either side, I explored Reykjavik itself. There is a lot of Iceland I haven't yet explored, but I feel I got the gist and that staying longer wouldn't give me much more to remember. If I had 7 days, I would have driven the full Ring Road. (Beyond 7 days, I probably would have gone mad in Iceland!)

  20. Kex Hostel: Close to downtown. Good kitchen facilities with lots of food left behind by past guests (pasta, condiments). Free lower linen. Use your own sleeping bag or rent top linen/duvet for ISK 1000 per stay. Free parking in front of the hostel overnight, but you have to pay between 10:00 and 16:00.

  21. There are steaming volcanic springs everywhere in Iceland, but I never found any natural hot pools where you can soak. There are, however, lots of commercial and municipal hot pools where you will pay money to swim. (Not my cup o' tea, since I would rather keep moving.)

  22. The most famous commercial hot spring is the Blue Lagoon, about 10 km off the main road to the airport. To actually use the swimming facilities costs €35, but it costs nothing to visit adjoining pools or look through the glass at the fools willing to shell out the money to swim. It's not really natural, having being created as a side-effect of the nearby geothermal plant, but it's quite interesting and worth the 20km diversion to see.

  23. There is a nice municipal pool complex in Reykjavik (near the City Hostel). It's only ISK 500 (under $5), but there's nothing natural about it except the water itself. (It's modern swimming complex like you might find in Canadian cities.) It looks like other big towns have similar developed hot pools.

  24. A full drive of the "Ring Road" around Iceland would take 4 full days ( I estimate, based on my tour of 1/4 of it) stopping at all the roadside sights along the way. I might do this someday. I would be camping or sleeping in the rental car.

  25. In Reykjavik, there is a tenting campground next to the City Hostel. Outside Reykjavik, it is easy to sleep in a car or find a discreet tenting spot after dark. (You need a tent mainly because of rain.) Many tourists rent small campers, but I don't see the need for them.

  26. Fast food is limited and expensive. KFC, Taco Bell and Dominoes are in the few big town. McDonalds, Burger King and all the others are nowhere to be seen.

  27. Grocery shopping is done at chain supermarkets. (You rarely see a "mom and pop" store, even in small towns.) Iceland seems to have been Walmartted by the Bonus grocery store chain, but don't expect low prices. Prices range from 100-300% of U.S. prices. All your basic foodstuffs are available, but not much variety.

  28. When driving, the usual European rules and signage applies. No left turn on a red light. Iceland stoplights do you the courtesy of showing red and yellow just before the green, but I don't understand why. Expect lots of roundabouts!

  29. The airport is a good place to change money, both coming and going. There's no commission, and the spread is reasonable. This is especially handy when you have excess cash you need to get rid of at the end of your trip. (You change dollars/euros into Kroners outside security, but you change money in the other direction inside security.)

  30. There are signs in the airport terminal saying you can't sleep there. The airport is in a lonely location 45km from the city. You'll have to either take a pricey bus or rent a car.


  1. Can you please start posting about your ingenuity and amazing adventures regularly again! It's been almost 2 years! Walmart parking lots don't blog about themselves!

  2. I just see too many people retire and say, 'I'm going to take off, travel, spend time with my family' and they are just miserable. They end up dying. People who work and stay active, and like what they are doing, live longer.

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