An Iceland trip has been on my bucket list the past few years – and it kept rapidly moving up the ladder of importance on that [long] list. I may have been drawn to Iceland because I’m a Sigur Ros fan, and hearing their music and that of other bands coming out of this small country intrigued me about the destination that inspired that creativity. But my interest probably goes further back that that: As a child I was a Viking fan, (the marauders, not the football team), and was the oddball in class that chose to wite about the Viking’s discovery of America when the assignment was about Columbus, much to my teacher’s chagrin.
Many destinations we crave to visit have a mystery about them and that we seek to unveil and discover by visiting. This year I had the opportunity to attend a travel conference in Reykjavik, and combine that with some days on either end. Both the drawback as well as the allure was that the conference was in February – in the “dead” of Icelandic winter.
Being a Southern California boy, the drawback, of course, was the cold weather that lay in store. During my visit the temperature stayed in the temperate high 20's, save for one day we had a blizzard and the wind chill didn't make it pleasant outdoors. The allure, however, was winter is the best time to experience the Northern Lights. As that was certainly my desire to witness, I spent 6 days in Iceland and did see the Northern Lights on one clear night. I can’t wait to return to tour Iceland, in a different season and see it in a different light.
Perhaps unfortunately, I’m not in the minority being on that bandwagon (about Iceland). The growth of tourism has been astounding. From the US alone, in one year visitors grew from 150,000 to over 250,000 last year. Keep in mind, the entire country has about 322,000 residents.
The question I have is at what point will this huge tourism increase catch up and impact the country. No doubt it has already in the summer season. Iceland will have to confront significant issues in terms of accommodating continued growth, and the impact that has on its infrastructure, the friendliness of the people, and its amazing natural sites.
For travelers used to luxury, Iceland is largely bereft of 5-star hotels, but that scene is changing. There are a few hotels that now have converted their top-floor rooms into suites, as well as residences or apartment-style accommodations that might suffice the luxury traveler. A new, reportedly 5-star hotel is being built now in Rejkyavik. The bulk of the current hotel rooms would be classified as 4-star Scandinavian style, in other words, clean and simple, more utilitarian than ostentatious. In Reykjavik, a few of the hotels are in main city center, and most seem to be within walking distance of the main part of the city. You won’t find high-end hotels here like in Paris, London or Rome.
Being a socialist country, perhaps elitism is frowned upon when it comes to over the top personal luxuries. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the 4-star hotels. If Iceland lacks in hotel facilities, however, it doesn’t seem to lack in whetting one’s gourmet appetite. While some may wonder what cuisine to expect in Iceland, and while there are a few local “delicacies” one might prefer to avoid (or not), I have to admit I never had a meal that didn’t impress in some way, in taste or creativity. And there’s always a reindeer burger, bbq ribs and darn good fries if you prefer to avoid excellent seafood, or puffin (which is best not eaten as not being very PC), or shark jerky (an aquired taste). i had the luxury to spend an afternoon with a guide we use enjoying some of Reykjavik's culinary treats.
While Reykjavik as the capital and main airport draws the most visitors, there’s much to be said about getting out of town. Not surprisingly, you need to do so to see the best of Iceland's natural sites. You can drive the Ring Road that encircles most of the island (more or less) in less than a day of straight driving – not that you would see much worthwhile doing so. You probably need 7 to 10 days to do justice to the sites. I'm also assured the more remote Westfjords are an oft-missed special part of the country, which alone would require about 3 days of touring. If traveling in summer, I can't imagine the traffic on the narrow road, full of tourists trying to figure out where they're going.
Regardless, while a self-drive Iceland vacation is appealing, you could base yourself in the capital and take day trips. There are a few domestic airports, and the longest domestic flight is under an hour. One day I flew to the furthest one from Reykjavik, Egilsstaðir, and spent a day on the eastern coast, visiting a quite interesting World War II Museum and a new Wilderness center at a farm where the road ends. We trudged through snow up to our thighs, and watched wild reindeer jog alongside the roadway for a spell.
The Icelandic horse is an interesting breed to learn about, and you see the horses frequently driving about the country. In winter these horses grow a coat of hair, and they are quite comfortable outdoors in the winter snow. They are friendly and nuzzle. Where New Zealand is known for its cattle and sheep that outnumber residents, that's not the case in Iceland, but over 80,000 horses is still quite a lot.
I had mixed feelings about joining the crowds at the Blue Lagoon, perhaps the most famous of Iceland's attractions. Because it's on the way between the main airport and Reykjavik, it's a popular excursion before flying out of the country -- and well worth the sidetrip. It was, in the middle of winter, a bit of heaven. Indeed, sitting in the warm geothermal lagoon with a cocktail in hand, with nationalities from all over the planet smiling and being friendly, steam rising in the cold winter air, I thought this was what the afterlife might be like. (Tip: avoid purchasing the Blue Lagoon cosmetic products there if you're so inclicned, as you can get them at the airport duty free and save quite a bit).
Planning an Iceland vacation is getting easier for Southern Californians. While there are no non-stop flights at this time, the good news is Wow Air begins non-stop flights from Los Angeles this June. Otherwise, from New York it's about a 5 1/2 hour flight, and 7 1/2 hours from Seattle. So pick your waterfalls, pick your geothermal pools, pick your glaciers and mountains, and head to Iceland. Planning in advance is also good advice, and we're more than happy to oblige and help plan your visit.