March 25, 2014 – April 7, 2014
When I was younger, I dreamt of an enormous, hot lake surrounded by stones and overlooked by a huge industrial building resembling a factory. The details of this dream were vague and probably forgotten the next morning. However, when years later I began planning a trip to Iceland, I realized I’d essentially dreamt of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. During my last semester of college Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites prompted the planning stages of my first trip to Iceland. Burial Rights is an exploration of what life may have been like for Agnes, a woman accused of murder in mid-nineteenth century Iceland and ultimately sentenced to death. In Kent’s account, because of Iceland’s limited resources for trying, sentencing, and in this case executing criminals, Agnes is sent to spend her final months awaiting execution with a family in Iceland’s wild and extreme far north. I found Kent’s writing intense and compassionate, and her vivid imagery made Iceland irresistible.
In my 23 years I’ve only just scratched the surface of my travel bucket list, but I’d venture to guess that Iceland is one of the most remarkable places I’ll ever visit. All of my research and planning could never have prepared me for the magnificence of this country and its people. If you’re thinking of visiting Iceland, google images and consider the following stats:
- Iceland was the first European country to elect a female president.
- Eighty percent of Icelanders believe in elves, and attribute everyday occurrences to elf intervention.
- The expansion of a highway in south Iceland (of which there are few) was halted after locals protested the removal of a larger boulder thought to be an elf church. The dispute was eventually settled and construction resumed after the boulder was transported down the road.
- Icelanders have high life expectancies, with Icelandic men at the top of the charts internationally.
- Iceland boasts the most artists and writers per capita of all countries, and among the highest literacy rates.
Perhaps this all seems too good to be true, but it isn’t! Some of the highlights of my first visit to Iceland include marveling at gargantuan waterfalls, swimming in the Blue Lagoon, and experiencing the northern lights. Even if there were nothing else to see, the northern lights alone would make a trip to Iceland worth it. I spent the first half of my trip in Reykjavík with my grandmother before visiting the countryside with my boyfriend, and although Reykjavík is small it is worth giving this city the time it deserves.
Reykjavík, Iceland’s largest city, is a fantastic place to visit for its colorful buildings, support of the arts, tight knit community, and thriving restaurant scene and night life. Authentic Icelandic cuisine is supposed to be superb, however most traditional dishes involve seafood, of which I am not a fan. Because I don’t love fish I appreciated Reykjavík’s international offerings, including Italian (delicious pasta at Italia), Thai (Thai style noodle soup at the Noodle Station), American, when I felt the least adventurous (loved the pancakes at The Laundromat Cafe), and plenty else. The vast majority of my meals in Iceland included pylsa (hot dogs), ice cream, or both. The exchange rate from USD to ISK has since improved, but during my trip it was terrible and I primarily ate hot dogs and pizza to soften the blow to my wallet. It is worth noting that cold weather doesn’t seem to deter Icelanders from enjoying their ice cream. It certainly didn’t keep me from doing so; I must have hit Eldur for ice cream at least four times. Reykjavík also has lots of trendy stores (my favorites included Myconceptstore clothing and accessories, hrím design, and Kaolin ceramics), museums and galleries, and I loved having time to devote to soaking in some culture before sightseeing. I suggest establishing a budget before visiting, as Reykjavík is notoriously expensive.
If you’re willing to sacrifice certain creature comforts, Iceland’s countryside is somehow even more amazing than Reykjavík. Ring Road (or Route 1) is a highway that encircles the country (excluding the Westfjords), and by driving Ring Road in its entirety you can get a taste for what Iceland is like outside of Reykjavík. Ring Road will take you through a few other Icelandic cities (most of which feel like towns), but for the most part the drive consists of mountains, sheep, horses, ocean, snow, and silence. During the first week of my trip I was able to enjoy some of Iceland’s spectacular sites just outside of Reykjavík on a Reykjavík Excursions Golden Circle tour (including the site of the tectonic plate divide at Thingvellir national park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the geysers). The tour provided details regarding Iceland’s history, but left me wanting to explore. Renting a car my second week lifted the restrictions imposed by relying on tour buses and Iceland’s limited public transit options. I rented a goofy old Toyota from SADcars, Iceland’s least expensive and most quirky rental service, and my boyfriend and I went for an ambitious tour of the countryside in four days. Driving in Iceland can be challenging depending on the weather (never assume the weather in the rest of the country will be the same as in Reykjavík), but the drive was worth it as we got to see parts of the country harder to access via tour bus. My favorite spot was Jökulsárón on the southeast coast, where glacial fragments gather in a lagoon and along the shore, and you feel very suddenly like you’ve been transported to Antarctica.
I’m confident that I packed as much into this first trip as I could have, but there are certainly things I’d have done differently had I known better. For instance, I’d heed warnings that Icelandic weather can be intense and fairly unpredictable, and splurge on a rental car with four-wheel drive. You never know when you’ll hit icy or rocky roads. I would also have liked to know to check for road closings (www.vegagerdin.is), so as not to get stuck on a snow patch on a remote, mountainous portion of Ring Road. Last but not least, I’d get gas at every opportunity to avoid that desperate, running on empty sensation 20km from the next gas station. Iceland’s gas stations are few and far between. The thing about Iceland that eased my nerves in instances throughout my trip during which I might have otherwise panicked was the fact that Icelanders seem to be overwhelmingly prepared, and never far behind. Parts of Iceland, particularly far north, can feel eerily isolated, but in reality you’re never more than ten hours from Reykjavík. Iceland has an incredibly diverse landscape with hot springs, volcanoes, grassy fields, and beaches, all of which made it seem larger to me than it is in reality. However small the country, it seems to me that living in Iceland outside of Reykjavík would require strength. I found Icelanders to be hardy, stoic folk. Rather than letting weather dictate progress, Icelanders prepare for dramatic conditions with vehicles that resemble monster trucks, sheep’s wool sweaters, and impenetrable confidence. They seem to have achieved a mastery of the elements, which has enabled them to thrive on an inhospitable Island for over a thousand years.
Iceland’s weather in the spring is similar to winter weather in New England. New Englanders pride themselves on their perseverance in spite of obstacles posed by harsh winters, as do the people of Iceland. The major difference I observed that sets the people of Iceland apart is a uniquely cheerful attitude. Icelanders are up against 24 hours of darkness in the winter months, but it’s almost as though that’s just a detail, and, “What of it?” I’m a born and bred New Englander, most of my friends and family are as well, and if I had a dime for every time I heard someone complain about snow every winter, I’d never have to work a day in my life. By no means am I implying this lacks justification; it seems perfectly reasonable to me to be miserable when it’s cold and wont stop snowing. That is exactly what strikes me as unique and admirable about people in Iceland: weather isn’t a constant focus. Some other fun facts about Icelanders include their affinity for heavy metal music, the fact that the young people barely seem to sleep in the summer when it’s light around the clock, and almost everyone in Iceland speaks English.
I loved Iceland, and plan to find many more excuses to visit. Because Iceland is a popular layover spot between America and Europe, and the cost of flying isn’t any higher when you stay a few extra nights in Reykjavík, it’s a relatively affordable, very convenient, and completely beautiful place to visit. During my adventure I found excellent accommodations, met people I’ll always remember, witnessed otherworldly beauty, and began believing in elves. Please let me know if you have any questions, and look into my day-by-day specifics if you’re curious about details. If ever you can, visit Iceland!