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You should go to Iceland

August 29, 2009
photo: Irene Ying

Photos: Irene Ying

If somebody asked you which country the United Nations ranked as the best place to live in the world, where would you guess? More pertinently, would you want to visit?

If so, pack your parkas: you’re going to Iceland.

Make the trek and you’ll find that the name Iceland is actually a bit of a misnomer; although the Nordic island is home to vast glacial sheets, the average winter temperature is a moderate 0.5 degrees Celsius with summer temperatures reaching the mid teens.

More recently, tourists may have been put off from visiting Iceland due to its precipitous economic and political collapse – apparently riot police don’t take good vacation photos.

Having recently spent ten days driving around the island however, I can corroborate at least two facts with confidence: Iceland is one of the most gorgeous places on the planet, and the tales of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

For my time there, I elected to book a six-day driving tour through Icelandic Farm Holidays. The package included car rental and five nights of bed and breakfast lodging at predetermined locations – essentially a drive-it-yourself tour.

We booked airfare independently through IcelandAir, which seems to have a virtual monopoly on the route. Prices range depending on time of year, with July and August being the high time for tourism.

Plans in hand, three companions and myself arrived at Keflavik international airport early morning (local time) and were in a very comfortable rental sedan within the hour, hassle free, on the road towards Reykjavik for some breakfast.

The half-hour jaunt from the airport to the city proved foreshadowing, with the road twisting and undulating along Iceland’s western coast. You see the ocean crash against jagged lava rocks as foreboding mountains dominate the horizon. In between, desolate black plains pockmarked with moss nestle under a dense, grey fog. It is an unearthly sight.

iceland3

For the next six days we roughly followed our tour itinerary, driving a few hundred kilometers per day with frequent stops.

The most jarring facets of Iceland are plain to see from inside a moving car. Mountains, rolling hills, barren desserts, plains of geometric rocks, grassy pastures and black sand beaches all fly by the window.

Highlights include Iceland’s famous geothermal geysirs (from which the English word was derived), spewing fountains of simmering sulfuric water. Two of the country’s most popular waterfalls, the spectacular Gullfoss and roaring Dettifoss, were also scheduled stops on our itinerary.

Perhaps the most memorable images of Iceland however are its myriad glaciers. Visitors can traverse the frozen fields either on guided hikes or from the comfort of specially modified jeeps. In the East, the Jokülsarlon lagoon (created by sub glacial volcanic eruptions) is a must see phenomenon; a serene body of water resting at the foot of an ice-sheet, giant frozen chunks floating close enough to touch from the shore.

Indeed, being able to touch nature is one of Iceland’s most unique draws. Unlike the gaudy tourism of North America, visiting a natural attraction in Iceland means nary a park ranger or police officer in sight. There aren’t even any guardrails at most places.

This hands-off approach provides an intimate and unique experience; one feels like an explorer, personally discovering and seeing each natural wonder for the first time. If you are wary of unsteady footing, steep climbs or have small children with you however, be forewarned: there is literally nothing but common sense stopping someone from falling into a waterfall.

iceland2

During our six-day road trip, we met very few people in the Icelandic countryside. This is likely because the capital city of Reykjavik is home to nearly two-thirds of the island population.

There are some incredibly trendy stores, eateries, bars and museums in Reykjavik, all within a two-kilometre radius of the downtown core. One or two days is more than enough to explore the nooks and crannies of this idyllic ocean side capital.

Due to the recent collapse of its government and economy, there is noticeable inflation when shopping or eating in Iceland. A meal will run anywhere from $20-60 Canadian, but the prices include both taxes and gratuities.

For foodies in particular, Iceland is an excellent experience. Even small cafes prepare their plates with pride. Ingredients are surprisingly fresh and it’s worth splurging at least once on local specialties such as puffin, minke whale and hákarl (literally, rotten shark meat) when available.

Known for its bustling nightlife, local bars serve well into the Reykjavik morning, with hip locals jumping from venue to venue, spilling onto the streets in large inebriated numbers.

Shopping, eating and socializing, one would never realize Iceland is a country that went entirely bankrupt last fall.

“We had some riots,” recalls Christine, a student at the University of Iceland and a fast friend we made at a bar. “But we just threw Skyr (a tasty, unpasteurized yogurt product) at the parliament building. We suck at rioting.

“It’s really bad,” continues the bio-medical engineering student. “I’m probably not going to get off this island for another 10 years.”

With that she nonchalantly pulls a can of beer out of her purse, cracking it open and pouring it into her glass. When I ask her incredulously where she got the beverage from, she just laughs contagiously.

“Times are tough!” Christine shrugs before smiling and offering me half her drink.

I’m inclined to agree, but after my Icelandic sojourn, believe me when I say this: if tough times means being stranded in the best-place-in-the-world-to-live, I’m first in line to sign up for another recession.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jesse permalink*
    September 1, 2009 3:02 pm

    I’m just reading this now. Wicked photos. Absolutely gorgeous there.

  2. Anupa permalink*
    September 2, 2009 2:07 pm

    Is this where the Ice Hotel is?

  3. Simon permalink*
    September 2, 2009 2:50 pm

    No, strangely it never gets below -5ish up there. I think the two big Ice Hotels are in Quebec and Sweden.

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