Iceland for Beginners
Beginners might even not be the right word… maybe better make it “Iceland for non-believers”? Anyhow, my point is to write you a story about holidays in Iceland, seen through the eyes of someone who once made the deal with himself never to travel to places where it’s colder than at home.
How to decide to go to Iceland
How did I get it in my mind to even go there? Well, let me pass that question back to you… What makes men do unexpected things? Indeed, women.
At the end of last year, my girlfriend (to whom I will refer as Lindsay later on) and I were discussing our holiday plans. We both agreed to make a long trip to a far away, tropic country during summer holiday, but as we couldn’t wait another six months to go on holiday, we had to find a destination for a week or so in March. And then came the proposal “Let’s go snowboarding”… Now let me tell you, if there’s two things I
like to avoid at any cost, it’s snow and sports.
Combining them is in my opinion pretty much the closest to hell as I can get.
So there I had to try to make a deal. We decided to go to a country with snow but without skiing. As we didn’t want to go
to a different continent for only nine days, the choice of countries wasn’t that big, and the fact that the value of the Icelandic kroner decreased enormously because of the financial crisis, our decision was made.
How to get there
How do people travel to an island? Because the lack of very cheap travel (banana boats or something like that), flying there seemed the easiest way. Now you have to know that, while travelling, I don’t like to spend a lot of money on transportation, so the € 550 ticket from Brussels to Iceland and back was out of the question. We started searching the internet for cheaper alternatives.
Eventually, a stop-over in Copenhagen seemed the cheapest solution. This meant that we had to stay two days in Copenhagen, but hey… it saved us more than 200 euros and we’ve both never been there before. Brussels airlines would take care of the route between Brussels and Copenhagen, and from there we could count on Icelandair to bring us to Reykjavik and back. So there we found ourselves booking tickets to cities which we’ve never even considered looking up on the map before.
Planning the trip
When I thought about Iceland, following keywords came up to my mind: cold, dark, snow, wet, ice, more snow and Eskimos. The only thing that could prevent me from falling into a depression was a Google search on Iceland, hoping that it consisted of something more than what I expected. And luckily it did.
I found great pictures of hot pools, waterfalls, very strange looking birds called “puffins” (that word always make me think of huge muffins), mountains and complete emptiness.
I have to admit, I really got into it, and the dark thoughts soon disappeared.
For some reason, I didn’t find it necessary to get a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide, but instead I went to the library
and I rented the only travel guide I could find about Iceland: a Dominicus from 1999. When we returned from holiday,
I’ve put this on my “stupid ideas while planning a trip”-list. The Dominicus had quite some information about the history of Iceland, how glaciers are formed and that kind of stuff,
but that didn’t give me food and a place to sleep… Which is, in my opinion, a little more important in a country where you freeze to death if you sleep on a bench in a park.
So our good friend Google had to solve these issues. I figured that it wouldn’t be that hard to find low budget restaurants (stupid idea while planning a trip number two), I printed a list with hostels of Hostelling International and I was ready to set off.
So.. I guess you’re wondering why I didn’t look for any info on Copenhagen? After all, we did have to spend about 2 days there. Well, until this very moment, so am I. (stupid idea number three).
And there you go!
And there we went. Somewhere in the afternoon we arrived in Copenhagen airport, and we needed to get to a cheap B&B outside the city centre, which we found on the internet. I have to say, the airport is very well organized, and little later we were buying our metro tickets.
The ticket terminal only spoke Danish, so the only words we understood on the terminal was something like “30” and “kroner”. Well that’s a good price for a day ticket or a ten turns ticket we thought… Too bad it was only for one ride. For that price I expected at least some kind of roller coaster metro, but no… It wasn’t even a real metro, because most of the time it drove above ground. How do I hate expensive wannabe metros.
Oh well, relax, we are on holiday. So we checked in, took the damn metro again to the city centre and started to explore the
area. It was wet, dark and cold, and suddenly the story about “Des Esseintes” (novel by J.K. Huysmans) came up to my mind.
Des Esseintes was a nobleman, who used to go nowhere. But on a day he decided to go to London. Because had to wait in the Paris train station, he went to an English pub, to get in the mood. There he drank thee, he ate English food (fish and chips, I guess), and he looked at English women. Then he thought to himself: “I’ve seen and done everything I expected from England. Going there could only make this image worse”. So he took his bags and went back home. Do you see where I’m going?
Copenhagen looked an awful lot like how I pictured myself Iceland. But hey… even if it’s bad, at least I wanted to see it with my own eyes. So the next day we found ourselves on a plane to Reykjavik. No, actually to Keflavik, ‘cause some genius had the incredible idea to build the international airport 50 kilometers outside of the capital city.
Luckily there was a good bus connection to Reykjavik. Unluckily, this connection cost about 2500 kroner for a one way ticket. 2500 Icelandic kroner makes about 16 Euros, or 22 USD (I’m trying to make a point here, and I don’t want you to miss it) for only a one way ride from the airport to Reykjavik city. Country in crisis… sure!
You can imagine Reykjavik as a big town. The city centre consists of regular houses with colored roofs and a garden, and of lots of green. We also didn’t manage to find one McDonald’s, does that say enough? It’s a pretty place, and it could even have been cozy, if it wasn’t too cold to sit down on a bench for more than two minutes. So after half a day in the city, we had more or less seen it.
The next day we went to a car company to get ourselves some transportation. We wanted to be like real Icelanders, so we rented ourselves a monster jeep… Yeah, I wish… actually, we asked for the cheapest vehicle which had a four wheel drive option. This turned out to be a shiny red Suzuki Jimny.
Feeling like Vikings we also needed a quest, and since the quest for the holy grail had already been assigned to King Arthur, we went for the “Quest for the Aurora and the Puffins”. Time to hit the road!
Hitting the road in Iceland
One day or another, you find yourself with your girlfriend and a tiny jeep in the outskirts of Reykjavik, wondering where the hell you should go, with only a book from 1999 and a free map from the hostel to guide you.
We chose for the easy way: The Golden Circle.
If you check the tourist websites of Iceland, the Golden Circle is the one thing you’ll always find back. It consist of a town called Pingvellir, a place called Geysir (guess what you’ll find there…) and the Gulfoss waterfalls. We skipped Pingvellir, because in the pictures it looked like an ordinary town, which you find by the dozen where I live, and more important, because the road was closed. So we headed directly to Geysir. When you follow the road signs, Geysir isn’t difficult to find. And as soon as you come close, you can see Strokkur, the most active geyser, spitting it’s boiling water up for meters high.
We parked the car on a parking place near a restaurant/shop, took our wallet to pay the entrance fee and prepared ourselves to the boring time waiting in the queue. But! There didn’t seem to be a queue… neither did you have to pay for
entrance and, best of all, we were more or less by ourselves. Now that’s what I call a culture shock. It’s a great site, with pits of boiling water and the Strukkur geyser spitting every
few minutes. With only a couple of other tourists.
I have to admit that at first, Strokkur looked to me like just a pretty fountain. My mind needed some time to understand that it was a natural wonder and not something built by humans. But when I was that far, it was pretty amazing! The situation in Gulfoss was more or less the same, it’s a damn great waterfall (actually one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen), and there’s no entrance fee, no busloads of tourists, nobody selling little key ring waterfalls to tourists for ridiculous prices. It’s was only nature and us.
You can’t imagine how small that made me feel (a feeling that I would have a couple of times a day in the near future). Like some kind of extra, there was also a very slippery path where you could watch the few other tourists fall and try to get up again. I think I can say we had quite some laughs over there.
Laugarvatn was a rather big dot on our map, but still the smallest town I had ever seen in my life. To give you an idea: without a map of the town or any guidance, it took us less than five minutes to find our hostel.
Except for the gas station a.k.a grocery store a.k.a hamburger joint, there was not much to do, so the next morning we’ve hit the road again. Destination: Vik.
As it had snowed the whole night, it took us almost a day to drive the 200 kilometers from Laugarvatn to Vik. This is with only a few pee stops, and a long stop at some kind of great waterfall, of which I can’t really remember the name.
We spent the hours on the road driving (duh!), being astonished by the great nature, enjoying the emptiness, regular pee breaks, more regular fuel breaks, a couple of breaks to write our names in the snow, and most of all: trying to find a decent radio channel. It seemed to us that Iceland had only 2 radio stations: Belgyn and R.I.V, and most of the time you can
find only one of them, or none.
Another impression we had on Icelandic radio is that each radio station only seemed to possess about 5 CDs. After a couple of hours we knew the whole text of Lily Allen’s “The fear”, and Lindsay was suffering a headache from me singing along the
whole Best Of cd of Queen. I probably also have to mention that I didn’t hear any Sigur Rós song, nor a Björk song (although we did pass three towns that called Björk), and only one Emilia Torrini song.
Vik is a pretty town, it’s larger than Laugarvatn but it’s on a hill, so from everywhere you can see the rest of the town. Actually, I guess I can say that this was the town we enjoyed most. Everywhere you looked, you saw either the hills, or the beach, or both. It has a pretty church, on a separate hill, and a magnificent black beach. If I would ever have to make publicity for Iceland, it will certainly be with Vik in mind. Every book will tell you that the surroundings of Vik are the best place to spot puffins. Well, we tried very hard, but we didn’t see a single one… Okay, it’s wasn’t that disappointing, we were only half way of our trip, and at least we still had both quests.
So we went for our next destination: Höfn.
Höfn is pronounced “Hub” in Icelandic. This is totally useless to know, because nobody understands what you’re saying when you talk about Hub, but anyway, it’s nice to show off with to fellow travelers. When you’re driving road number one from Vik to Höfn, most of the time you have the Vatnajökull glacier on your left. We stopped at the Skaftafell national park to get a close look at one of the glacier tongues. This is where we learned that “close” is a very relative term.
We parked our car, looked at the tongue and it was almost as if we could touch it. Then we walked for about three kilometers, and it looked like we hadn’t made any progress at all. In the end, the closest we could get was still a couple of hundreds of meters away from the ice. Can you imagine the grandeur?
Driving further to Höfn, we had the weirdest experience. Suddenly the mountains started slowly to disappear, even though we were still driving next to them. Before us, after us, at the left and at the right, everything turned into a white haze… and then it started snowing… This experience was both amazing and horribly terrifying at the same time. It was something like a tunnel effect. Everything around us was white.
The only way to distinguish the road from the surroundings were the yellow sticks at the side of the road. It felt like we had an accident or so, and we were now driving the Suzuki Jimny through the white tunnel to heaven. This only lasted for ten minutes or so, but when the sky cleared and the mountains appeared through the fog, we were exhausted of concentrating. Because of the snow storm, we’d lost a lot of time, so we drove straight to Höfn.
Höfn ended up to be larger than expected. With its 1500 inhabitants it’s still smaller than the regular town in Belgium, but hey, it had a separate gas station, grocery shop and even a restaurant. But besides of that, there wasn’t much to do. Actually I didn’t like Höfn very much, there were no nice views, no pretty beaches, no high hills, no picturesque churches. It was “just a city”. It did have a harbor with some fishing boats, but that couldn’t catch my interest.
I guess that if we’d landed in Höfn instead of Reykjavik, I’d probably liked it a lot more. But after some days of falling from one astonishment into another, Höfn just seemed a quite boring place. A place like millions of others in the world.
The next day we were half way of our trip, which meant we had to get back. We found it quite a pity that we didn’t have the time to drive all the way around the island, but we had discussed this before that it’s better to see the same thing twice than to drive like a lunatic and don’t see anything at all.
Because of the snowstorm the day before we also figured that there were certainly things we’d missed, so we turned the car, back to Vik. Jökulsárlón was an example of a thing we’d missed on our way to Höfn. The guidebook described it as a glacier lake, with huge piles of ice in it. Well that didn’t sound very spectacular, but we found it enough to stop and have
A small icy country road took us to a small parking, and a bit further we saw a lake. So we parked the car and walked over to the water. Suddenly I heard a strange sound. It certainly came from animals, and if I didn’t know any better I would have guessed it came from a cow. And then we saw them, hidden behind the hills, a whole bunch of seals were sunbathing on the edge of the lake.
I had seen seals before in the zoo, but seeing them there, relaxing on the ice gave me a great feeling. Most of them were sleeping or making cow sounds, and some were playing in the water. These are views we’ve all seen hundreds of times on National Geographic Channel, but I tell you, when you’re standing there, surrounded by snow and ice, and you see the seals playing in a pale blue lake, it makes you quiet. Very quiet. We probably stood there for more than 15 minutes, just saying nothing and watching the seals do their thing. If I would ever make a list of “feelings I can’t describe but I’ll never forget for the rest of my life”, this one will certainly be in it.
On our way further to Vik we also experienced another one of mother nature’s “wonders”: The snow-sand-storm. Which is like a sand storm, but then with snow.
The wind was very heavy, and it didn’t snow the day before, so the snow on the ground was very granular, almost like sand,
and because it’s that small, the wind could easily blow it up.
In the beginning, you see the snow crawling from the one side of the road to the other, like they’ve put big smoke machines next to the road, so you’re driving over a white curtain. This was all very nice and pretty, until the wind started to blow harder and the snow started to come higher. At a certain moment we couldn’t see a single thing anymore.
This is totally different from the snow storm, where we could at least see the yellow sticks next to the road, now we couldn’t see a single thing. It was like a very thick mist. And it freaked us out. Luckily the roads are straight forward almost the whole time, so you just have to make sure that you stay on it, but still it felt like driving with your eyes closed.
On previous travels I’ve been in buses that almost fall apart, only centimeters away from the edge of a ravine, driven by bus drivers who were too drunk to walk. But that didn’t scare me as much as driving through the snow-sand-storm on the way from Höfn to Vik.
Probably the storm only lasted for less than 15 minutes, but it felt like forever. Luckily we arrived in Vik in one piece.
To get rid of the stress that the trip brought us, we decided to go swimming. The hostel owner told us that Vik has a small local swimming pool, so there we went. The changing room was one big room (one big room for men and another big room for women that is), where you switch to your bathing suit, and at the other end there’s a door with a sign saying “swimming pool”. So I went outside of that door, and there I was, in my swimming pants, outside in the snow. We had to walk a couple
of meters through the snow before we got to the swimming pool. Afterwards I’ve been told that indoor swimming pools don’t really exist in Iceland… If I’d only known that before… No, that’s a lie, actually it was great. The water was nice and warm and there even was a hot tub. And the best of all is that everywhere around you, you see the snow covered hills. Quite an experience.
Back in the hostel, it came to mind that we were one day away of the end of our journey, and we still had two quests to fulfill. So we decided to ask the hostel owner for help. First of all, we wanted to know where we could find the puffins. That was quite a bummer… Puffins are only in Iceland between May and August. I’d read about puffins on a lot of websites, and none of them mentioned this, so here’s some valuable advice: If your quest is to see puffins, don’t go to Iceland in March!
This meant that we had one quest left: Seeing the Aurora. The hostel owner told us that she didn’t see it for the last month, but that night was very clear, so chances are that it would appear. The best place to look at it was the church on the hill. So that night we found ourselves, together with another couple we’d convinced to stand in the blistering cold to experience the amazing Aurora. And cold it was!
After half an hour, we saw a green fog appearing in the sky which danced from one side to the other. Now I need to tell you, it’s not that great as you think. If I hadn’t known about the existence of it, it could have been that I just passed it by. It’s like a green shine in the air, and that’s it. After all the great things we’d seen the last days, it was actually quite disappointing.
I would say it wasn’t worth waiting for it in that cold, but I’m not totally sure about that. Now at least I saw it with my own eyes, and I can brag about it at home, and everyone who hasn’t seen it yet will think it was amazing!
Have you ever noticed that summaries are always at the end of a story, when you’ve already read the everything?
Well, I will make it short. If you’re trying to make yourself an image of Iceland, take the parts of my story which you enjoyed the most, multiply this by thousand and then you might have a bit of an idea what to expect.