I’d long dreamed of one day getting to the very volcanic island of Iceland for a spot of sightseeing, trekking and leisurely driving. I’d heard great things from friends and colleagues, seen some awesome pics of the scenery there, and heard some of the island’s music, but only recently did I finally find myself spending a few days there after doing some business in the country.
Sweeping, grandiose, lush, monumental – just a few of the adjectives that spring to mind when attempting to describe this island after having been there. And now, IMHO, I consider it to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet; and as you know, I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places on the planet. Of course the weather and climate situation here can be difficult, but that’s to be expected when the polar ice cap isn’t that far away… And anyway, it’s a minor drawback given the awesomeness of the island’s volcanoes, geysers and hot springs, glaciers and waterfalls, tectonism (a new word in my lexicon; will tell you more about it later on) and other natural beauty.
So stock up on the popcorn, for today and in coming days a series of photo-textual-travelogue posts is coming your way. For starters, a small selection of photographic masterpieces highlighting some of the best bits from the trip.
Sooo. What’s the best way to take in the ‘greatest hits’ of Iceland?
Actually, it couldn’t be easier. You need to go round the island in a vehicle in a ring hugging the coast – on the aptly named Ring Road, aka Route 1, plus you need to travel inland a few times for a few non-littoral places of interest. I say easy; there’s just one catch – you need two weeks to fit everything in. We, on the other hand, were on Iceland for less than four days. All the same, we did get to see a wonderful slice of Icelandic life and landscapes in that time, in namely the south and southwest of the country.
Iceland has long been promoting itself – rather successfully – as a tourist destination. Not that its economy is tourism-only. It’s also very proud of the fact that despite its harsh climate it’s practically self-sufficient and imports next to no foodstuffs (besides tea, coffee, kangaroo meat and other such exoticisms). They even grow tropical fruit with hydroponics in greenhouses. Iceland also has an abundance of practically free-of-charge geothermal energy, which incidentally also helps nourish the island’s aluminum production (its second largest export after fish). Not bad for a country with absolutely no useful minerals in the ground.
Anyway… Now back to tourism.
The nation’s airline, Icelandair, actively advertises stopovers in the country en route from Europe to North America and back. “Flying intercontinentally? Then stop the night on the way in Iceland! One night in a hotel – paid by the carrier!” It’s a real cunning strategy, since once folks get just a little taste of the place, well, they’re back for a full banquet of Iceland in a flash (as will be their friends too after being told all about the OMG-ness of Icelandic scenery!). It’s also a real hit with natural beauty addicts plus those preferring comfortable euro-eco-tourism. Small wonder then that the tourist sector of Iceland is forever on the up of late, having become key to the economy of the country.
Icelandair’s ‘belt up, turn off, shut up’ vid is pretty well done in a subtle way. Check it…
A few words about the overall levels of service, comfort and neatness in the country…
…The levels? There’re off-the-scale incredible! Everything ironed, cut, painted and properly designated. The roads are all impeccable tidy, smooth, Rolls-Royce standard, the tourist centers are numerous and genuinely useful, there are always plenty of parking spaces, also a good selection of hotels and guest houses, and they’re all just kinda nicely done. And the restaurants… they feed you not simply to satiety but ‘to explosion’! Amazing.
And the views through the windows of your lodgings?…
A little annoying are the ropes cordoning this or that off: ‘Don’t walk any further’ (when walking further – to the interesting bits – is just what you want to do!). But they’re not everywhere, and if you really can’t hold off with your desire you can always hurdle the ropes… Naughty!
And here it is. The famous – infamous – volcano no one can pronounce! Eyjafjallajökull!
There are all sorts of different tourisms in Iceland.
There are the obvious, like glaciers and waterfalls, in doses, of course. There’s also plenty of trekking to be done too – along valleys and up mountains and volcanoes (alas, we didn’t have time for any of that). There’s plenty of water-tourism too: whale-spotting on ships, plus rafting down rivers and boating along canyons.
The rafting’s great fun. A must-try if you’re ever here. So good I’m going to help the rafter guys out with a shameless plug. These guys deserve more business!…
Upon arrival in Iceland after a long flight, what should you do first off? Here’s what not to do: head to your hotel. Here’s what to do: head straight to some hot springs…
The most famous – almost ‘cult’ – hot springs are those situated 40-50km from Reykjavik (20km from Keflavik airport) at a center called ‘Blue Lagoon‘. A hugely enjoyable hot lake plus other spa features. It’s here.
Interesting, invigorating, and of course healthy, allegedly. Five stars awarded by moi. I wasn’t expecting this though: it turns out the lake formed out of waters emitted from the local geothermal power station! [Splutter-cough…] WHAT? Yep! You can see it here on the horizon:
Another great bit of geothermalness in Iceland – geysers. And you can’t get more original and genuine geysers than those in Iceland… The English word ‘geyser’ comes from ‘Geysir‘, the name of a massive Icelandic hot spring of particular merit.
Alas, Geysir ‘erupts’ very rarely; the last time was in the year 2000. Before that – 1930.
It’s a shame Kamchatka geysers aren’t better known about. Its Velikan (Giant) in the Valley of Geysers isn’t listed here but it’s 40 meters higher than Geysir! But it’s not just Russia the Icelanders ignore. New Zealand’s Waimangu – said to have been the world’s largest geyser – also gets no mention (At the start of the 20th century it shot boiling water up 400+ meters high! Good grief. But alas – it’s already been sleeping a good 100 years; and most probably has actually died :(. )
But not all thermalnesses are lazy or sleeping or dead. There’s Strokkur, which is most active and sporty – doing its jig every five or ten minutes. Active… but not all that impressive. It spits a single blast up just a few meters high. Nothing like the spurts that shoot up for minutes at a time several storeys up in Kamchatka and NZ (I’ve yet to get to the Yellowstone geysers).
And on that incongruously underwhelming note regarding Icelandic geothermalness, I close for today. But I’ll be back soon with more tales from up north :).
All the Iceland photos are here.