Two months ago, I went on holidays to Iceland. I spent two weeks there, driving around the country, and I had a plan of writing sort of a “travel diary”, describing what I did day by day, with photos, maps etc. I would publish that, but it would also work as a “memory enhancement” (helping me remember the trip).
I think by now I should resign myself to the fact that this is not going to happen, but I still feel like I should write something about the trip. So, here goes.
From Sydney, you can either go west and fly through southern Asia and Europe, or go east and fly through the USA. The distance is essentially the same in either direction. I went east mostly because it was less expensive; I flew with Virgin Australia to Los Angeles, then with a small airline (Frontier Airlines) from there to Denver, and then with Icelandair to Reykjavík. It was a long trip, but really not that bad. The flight back was the same thing, reversed.
As I mentioned, I spent most of the time there driving around the country. I booked a “self-drive tour” with a company called Touris – you choose from a set of itineraries, they book the car and all accommodation for you; your job is to fly there and to drive yourself from one hotel to the next. They even picked me up at the airport, which is when they gave me ridiculous amounts of material for the trip: a 400-page road guide, several maps – personalised maps, with the itinerary and all hotels marked very clearly – plus all vouchers for all hotels. They were very helpful, starting way before the trip, while I was still deciding what to do – they would respond to e-mails with questions very quickly and helpfully. The whole experience went as well as it possibly could.
I should probably mention that, in preparing for the trip, one of the most useful sources of information was a blog called I heart Reykjavík, which has information not only about Reykjavík but the whole country; particularly, the girl who writes the blog did an “around the country” trip just like mine earlier this year, and her descriptions were very useful. That blog is the only reason why I visited Seljavallalaug, and it was a side road worth taking.
Iceland is a very small country, with a very small population – and, just like Australia, most of the population lives near the coast, because the interior of the country is not very hospitable. There is one main road – aptly named Ring Road, Hringvegur (sometimes also Þjóðvegur 1, National Road 1) – that encircles the country, and that’s where I spent most of my time. Reykjavík is on the west side of the country, and I drove from there in the counter-clockwise direction (starting towards the south and east).
Observant souls will have noticed that I went there in the middle of autumn (mid to late October). My intention was to “avoid the crowds”, as most people (understandably) visit Iceland in the summer; it meant fewer people around and cheaper flights and hotels, but it also meant that there was a good chance the weather would not be as good as I’d like. In the end, I was very lucky; other than some rain in the first few days (while I was driving on the south coast) and occasional snow and ice on the ground, most of the time the weather was just great. It was cold, of course, and a heavy jacket and gloves helped a lot in some areas, but at times it was nice enough that a sweatshirt was all you needed. And the days were not as short as you might expect: when I arrived, sunrise was around 8.15am and sunset was at 6.10pm (almost ten hours of daylight); on the day I left, sunrise was at 8.52am and sunset at 5.30pm (a bit over eight and a half hours of daylight). By the way, it feels like sunset and sunrise last forever; the sun never rises too far above the horizon, so the light is always very slanted and it feels like it’s always late in the afternoon. The “golden hour” loved by photographers lasts for most of the day.
“Fewer people around”, however, also meant that lots of places (and even roads) were already closed for the winter. On three stops I was the only guest at the hotel I was staying in (two of them were reasonably large hotels, the other one was a large guesthouse), and in smaller towns the choices of places to eat were quite limited. Visitor centres at some attractions were closed, and even some of the possible itineraries for the tour were not available. Also, many sea birds had already flown away – so, no puffins around. I still think I made the right choice, though; I got to have some taste of the icy side of Iceland (driving through the mountains in the north) and even the major tourist attractions were not full of people at any time. Even Reykjavík seemed like a very quiet country town. I would seriously recommend going either very early (March, April) or very late (September, October) in the season.
Icelandic is a Germanic language, so there’s some similarity with English, but you’d only notice that in writing, if at all; it sounds nothing like English (or even German). Thankfully, most people there do speak English very well (and some like to show it; a school-age girl – maybe seven or eight years old – approached me while I was trying to read a poster at a historical site and started explaining to me what the poster said), and even street and road signs are often in English. But not always, and the farther you get from Reykjavík the less English you’ll see (and the better the chance of running into someone who doesn’t speak English).
A few months before the trip I bought a book, “Beginner’s Icelandic”, that came with CDs with dialogue and pronunciation guides. I spent several hours studying that and, while I absolutely can’t speak Icelandic and I could not understand a word of what I heard on the radio or TV there, what little I learnt was very useful for understanding road signs, restaurant menus and similarly small bits of text here and there. And Google Translate helped me understand the manual that came with the SIM card I bought.
I did not try any of the most unusual Icelandic dishes (seriously, fermented shark meat is not something that attracts me). I did have skyr, their yoghurt-like cheese that is sold everywhere in much the same way yoghurt is sold here, and it is pretty good. I also had lamb, of which they eat a lot, and some types of rye bread that tasted amazing. Other than that, I can say that the burgers from the Hamburger Factory in Reykjavík are really, really good.
Roads are pretty good most of the time, but a small section of the Ring Road on the east coast is not paved; still reasonably good. I had to drive on gravel roads a few other times as well, and they’re usually ok (if a bit scary when icy). Pretty much all bridges have a single lane, so you have to give way if someone else is already on the bridge (another benefit of going late in the season: only once in the whole trip I had to wait to use a bridge). My car was a 4-wheel drive fitted with snow tyres; because it was late in the season, the tour company strongly recommended getting this kind of car, and I think it was a good idea. Fuel is kind of expensive, around A$2.30 a litre, but at least the price didn’t change all that much even in the more remote areas, and finding places to refuel was never a problem.
You can see every possible type of landscape there, from glacier-covered mountains to geologically-active mud flats (and many, many, many waterfalls). Which reminds me: that is a very geologically-active country, and the whole country smells vaguely of sulphur (I’m not exaggerating; I wish I were). Particularly, hot water is always from geothermal springs, and it definitely smells when it comes out of the shower.
But, back to the landscape, it is a very beautiful country. I stopped very often by the side of the road to take photos or just to look at the sights, and in many places I wish I could have stopped but there was nowhere to. Although, to be fair, in most places I could probably have stopped the car in the middle of the road and walked out to take photos with no problem at all (as I said before, there were not many people around).
Speaking of photos, I came home with nearly 1,400 photos and a few videos. A small selection of photos (130 or so) are in my Google+ page: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Many of the photos are geo-tagged, so if you click on “photo details” on the right you’ll see where they were taken. And, if anyone wants to see the other 1,300 or so photos, let me know.
And that’s it. I really, really enjoyed the trip, and I would very much like to go back again (although that probably won’t happen for a while, Iceland is a bit far from Australia). Next time I wish I can do it in a different season; I’d love to see what the country looks like in spring, when it’s waking up after winter. And, to be honest, even winter sounds like an interesting time to visit.
Well, next time.