Iceland: The Ins and Outs

I must admit the “Land of The Midnight Sun” in the Summer is the land of rain, clouds and beauty. We never saw the Northern Lights or the sky full of stars… big deal! The immense beauty of this place was reward enough.

The reason I love to travel, aside from the normal getting away and holiday? Experience.

Iceland did not disappoint. This land of stark contrasts is a photographers dream. I think if everyday were sunny and clear, you would somehow miss the hand of Mother Nature at work. Any good traveler will come prepared for the changing climate… and change it will.

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The end of the Summer months bring fog, misty rain, downpours, wind, clouds and occasional sun. The temperature is a perfect 45-60 degrees. Great for hiking and sleeping.

There are several modes of transport and visiting. You can pay for a room (150-1,000 USD/night) then travel out on daily excursions from Reykjavik. The tour companies are vast and tours range from $50-$1,000 USD or 4.900 to 110.000 ISK. You can climb glaciers, go 4 wheeling, dive in the continental divide, do the Golden Circle in a day, parasail, do a city tour, whale watching, and the list goes on.

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Second, you can rent camping equipment. This can be as simple as a tent and sleeping bag to fully self-contained travel trailers. We chose the middle of the road. We rented a camper van from KuKu Campers out of Reykjavik ($2300€). It came with bed space for 4 adults, running water and a sink, a propane single burner stove, an electric cooler, utensils and plates, bowls and cups for four. The bottom bed can be converted into a table with bench seating but we just left it as a bed. We are avid campers and Delta Medallion Skymile members, so we chose to bring our own sleeping bags, backpack sleeping pads, Jet Boil backpack stove, REI backpack chairs and table without worrying about checked baggage fees. This saved us about $350 US vs renting the same equipment. Note: you will read that you can camp anywhere in Iceland… I am here to tell you that unless you like sleeping on lava, you will take advantage of one of the 170+/- developed campsites ($12-16/pp) If you are in a camper, you must use one of these campgrounds.

Third, you can do a self driving tour. This is a pre-planned tour that makes you drive from point A to point B and stay in pre-arranged hotels. You can choose budget, comfort or luxury accommodations. You also have the choice of how much of Iceland you want to see. Choices range from the entire Ring Road (RTE 1), Northern Iceland or the Southern Coast. These tours range between $2,500 to $6,000 US/pp. this only includes breakfast, car rental and your room for the night. Segway into the next point….

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Food… OMG only the wealthy can afford to eat here. A hamburger with fries…$20.00. A bowl of fish or lamb stew…$25.00. Yes for a bowl of soup. The local favorites, hotdogs… $12.00. A beer…$11-14.00 USD. Petrol/Diesel 2.03-1.87 KIR/liter. We spent $85.00 and bought the staples we needed including hamburgers, produce, bread, milk, cheese, produce for sandwiches, lunch meat, pre-marinated locally caught fish and condiments. We ate on this plus pre-packed food we brought like spaghetti and sauce, canned chicken, backpacker meals, boxed milk and spices. We ate out occasionally and had major sticker shock but justified it by the mode of transport we chose and how much we saved by not staying in hotels. LOL…

We got the “touristy” stuff out of the way the first two days then ventured up towards the Snæfellsbær Peninsula and the West Fjords to escape the crowds and experience the cliffs, birds, oceans and waterfalls. There are hot pots, or hot springs as we call them, all over the island that have showers and toilets. There are swimming pools, which are geothermal which cost between $7-15/pp in just about every town you come to. Note: we never found a single “pit toilet” on Iceland. All facilities were extremely clean! There was very little trash anywhere, including the beeches.

Here are the must haves. Rent a GPS and laugh your ass off as she tells you to turn on Snafelsnesligur. Also rent a mobile WIFI to avoid major frustrations. We started our trip with only the GPS Garmin then three days in we rented the mobile WIFI too. We had 5 paper maps and guide books and a headache from trying to decipher the names and routes in tiny little print because all the road names where 15-25 characters long. Patience and the ability to roll with it will go a long way. Lastly… a good sense of humor and spirit of exploration will eventually get you to your destination.

I hope that this has been inspirational and informative. If Iceland is not on your bucket list, it should be. I would be happy to answer any questions anyone may have in planning your own trip. We did hours and hours of research and turned an otherwise expensive travel destination into an affordable one.

Day Six: Hiking the Highands of Iceland

I am sure that there is a whole lot more of Iceland we have yet to discover, but our time has come to an end. Today we took a hike in the Highlands in a town called Husafell. It took us to the confluence of two rivers, one a crystal clear glacier river and the other a silica laden river that was the color of ash. The two remained separate until the silica river overcame the crystal river and turned both grey. Oh, and yes, there was a small waterfall…

Last night we soaked in a mineral hotpot, as hot springs are called here. We didn’t have the right method of payment and the people at checkin let us in on our word we would come back and pay in the morning. To keep good karma, we showed up at 13:00 and they had forgotten that we were coming back to pay the $25 or so dollars. The people in this country are so friendly, accommodating, and trusting, we couldn’t, in good conscience, not pay the 2.700 kir for our entrance.

We are off to our last campsite in Reykjavik. It is always sad when a trip comes to an end. I love everything about this country. It’s people, the scenery and the peacefulness. As we drove along the highways back to Reykjavik we traveled from the inland and back through the coastal mountains. The storm that had blown out of the highlands had not broken its hold on the coast yet.

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The incredible sights of the clouds shrouding the mountains and pouring over the tops like waterfalls was awe inspiring. The clouds would pour over and swirl back up to the heavens creating a graceful wave. It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. The wind was blowing over these mountains and blasting down the slopes and across the road making it a two handed drive all the way back out to the peninsula.

Siri took us right to the campsite and we checked in. These campsites are a brilliant idea. If I had a country to run I’d model the common areas as campsites. The people that come to them are from all over the world. The commonness is the desire to discover new worlds, share experiences and knowledge. There are shared kitchens, bathrooms, showers and of course WIFI. We all claim our space and go about our own experience in the common spaces. If you are open you can meet some very interesting people. It is a broadening of ideas by like minded people.

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I think this is the way to experience Iceland. At every camp, those that are ending their adventure leave all sorts of treasures; half empty fuel cans, jackets, tarps, unused food items, toiletries, blankets and various other sundries. For those traveling on a tight budget these are gold mines. We contributed our half used fuel cans, food items like condiments, to the one here at our last camp just as we took similar items from the camp when we started our trip.

Camping in Iceland is a caring, sharing, and multi-cultural event.

Day Four: Iceland The West Fjords

We woke today to rain… imagine that. We parked our camper van in a field at the campground in Vik, that was already saturated when we arrived. Overnight, however, more campers arrived and have turned the field into a soupy mess. We are planning our exit strategy so we don’t end up axles buried in mud. If and when we get out of here we are heading north west, back along the Ring Road to the beautiful West Fjords.

 

We planned on stopping back at Ku Ku Campers and seeing if they had a mobile WIFI available, since they were out when we left and I have a perpetual headache from trying to read the maps, yes plural. After driving through Reykjavik and getting horribly lost, we went into the gas station we knew had free wifi and googled directions. We were in luck and picked up the small device and we were PLUGGED IN!

So the biggest problem with driving through Iceland is the beauty. OK… beauty is a problem? Oh yes… There are so many waterfalls, cliffs and quaint little homes built right into the sides of mountains with dirt and grass covering the roofs. There are rock formations, crashing waves, black sand beaches and bird colonies. The thing that has struck us the most is the cleanliness. The roads are beautifully paved, although quite narrow. The little towns have horse farms, fluffy lambs and each home has its own waterfall. The mountains bleed waterfalls.

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We took out time and enjoyed little unplanned stop-offs. We drove through a three km tunnel under the ocean and onto an island. We had Siri telling us the way (ok Garmin) as we entered each little town and crossroad. The immensity of this little island just can’t be understood until you are actually exploring her byways.

We arrived at camp pretty late and settled in. The rain had finally let up and we saw blue sky. We had one of those fire logs and lit it and pretended we were having a fire. Then off to bed.

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Day Two Iceland: Doing Things the Old Fashion Way

Eight am… two am… I tell my brain it’s eight, my body and brain argue with me for half the day then finally my stomach settles and my brain clears itself of the jet lag fog.


Chris and I desire to head to two tourist spots today. This is totally out of sorts for us. We visited a place that two continental plates come together. Iceland experiences 100 tremors a day… maybe that’s why I feel sea sick? This was the place of the first parliament in 930 AD. There was a cool waterfall and a huge lake. If the wind and rain weren’t so bad we might have been able to see the immensity of this lake.


We took our time on back roads to avoid the huge tourist buses. Off to Gullfoss and the most visited waterfall in Iceland. It is an experience that slowly unfolds itself. Now me, I love geology and the history of the earth. It amazes me that a glacier can melt into a river… that river carves away through the earth to expose, on this island, thousands of years of geological evolution. Unlike home where we have ancient bones, this island is relatively new in geological terms… and still evolving.

Here-in lies the fun part of the day. Twenty five years ago, Chris and I took off and drove 27,000 miles, covering 22 states all using old fashion maps. Today we can use Google Maps, the Internet and Garmin to get where we need to go. That’s all good… IF you know where you are going. On this island, you can’t pronounce a single towns name. We have bought three maps and books because we were not able to rent a mobile wifi for our camper van. We are totally disconnected in a day and age were we “google” everything. We have to read about the island and try to find the points that go un-touristy. We do have a Garmin. She, however, always seems to give us the choice of two routes. Hello… if you don’t know where you’re going… how can you decide?

 

Oh… Its Just Another Waterfall

When one talks about Iceland and points of interest, one must speak about waterfalls. Iceland has around 120 well known, named waterfalls… and thousands of smaller ones that are located on the river gorges,lava fields and underground springs falling over huge basalt cliffs. Some seem to come right out of the ground, others are the product of meandering streams and huge rivers.

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Throughout creation, water has been one of the biggest natural forces on our little blue ball. Iceland has one of the biggest concentrations of these powerful wonders. In Iceland a waterfall is called a “foss”. They range from small wispy ribbons of water, to raging rock crushing torrents. Some cascade peacefully over the basalt and disappear deep into a crevasse, others thunder over tall cliff faces waging war with boulders and flame colored rock. Every year new waterfalls spring up from glacier melt and highland snowmelt

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The Gullfoss is the best known and most visited falls, located on The Golden Circle Road. Glymur is the tallest named falls (122 meters) and can’t be seen without a pretty strenuous hike. The list goes on and on. Each new waterfall has its own character. Each plays a vital roll in the ever changing landscape of this little island known as Iceland.

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Icelandic Horses: A Breed of Its Own

A small island deserves a small horse! The Icelandic ponies are actually horses. Though short in stature, usually between 13 and 15 hands, they are registered by breeders as a horse. This small horse is a very hardy breed and suffer from far less diseases than a mainland horse. The law does not let these small guys to be exported and no other breeds to be imported. If one ever were to leave the island, they are never allowed to return, ensuring the purity of this majestic breed.

The Icelandic horse has even been a focal point in many Norse Myths. They were thought to be a symbol of fertility so they often were sacrificed by early Norse settlers. The horses were revered by warriors during the Medieval period and were often made to fight each other for breeding rights. A warrior killed in battle would often be sent to Valhalla with his Nobel Steed by his side.

Natural selection often played a role in these stallions lives. In the early medieval times the horses would starve or succumb to the brutal winter winds and cold. Exposure to the elements, notwithstanding volcanic eruptions, famine and sacrifice, often became the end to whole herds. The breed was once thought descendent from the Shetland, Faroe Pony and the Norwegian Fjord horse. In the early 9th century, the Icelandic Parliament prohibited the inbreeding of outside horses. This act in 992 AD lead eventually to a pure breed. For over 1,000 years the Icelandic horse has been a pure breed.

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The characteristic flowing mane, short legs, well proportioned head, incredible weight bearing capacities, muscular shoulders and slightly sloping long backs, make this an incredibly valuable prized possession. The breed has an average life span of 30 good years, with recorded life spans of over 50 years. They are known for having two distinctive gaits, the Tölt, which is a four beat stride good for comfortably covering great distances at explosive accelerations. The second is called flugskeið or “flying pace”. This is a fast and smooth gait used to pace the horse during a race. This is mostly used for short bursts but not a long distance run. An amazing breed indeed.

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A trip on the back of an Icelandic is a great way to explore the terrain of Iceland. The horse is sure-footed and fearless, yet comfortable to ride, even for the beginner. There are numerous farms that offer guests this pleasurable past time. There is nothing like getting up into the wilds of the highlands on the back of one of these majestic steeds.

When in Iceland, search out a farm offering tours and ride one of these wild and adventurous horses. These are treasured companions and loyal servants. They have earned their place in the past and future of Iceland.

 

Iceland: History, Myths and Fairytales

Back in 1970 a famous band sang a song about Iceland. Got it? Yep LED Zeppelin wrote:
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

Hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new land.
To fight the hordes and sing, and cry.
Valhalla, I am coming. LZ

This song congers up visions of volcanoes, geysers , great fields of glaciers etching their way through the lava fields, and great crashing waves. A land that the Vikings called home.

Iceland was named to deter outsiders from coming to this volatile, lush and a very temperate and tectonically active land. It’s counterpart Greenland is actually covered with more ice and snow than is Iceland.

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Considering Iceland’s history began pre 1000 AD, and was a lawless land of Vikings and later Norwegians looking for new lands, it is noted for one of the first parliaments and one of the worlds oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Pretty good for an island of just under 40,000 square miles.

Around the tenth century, the christians came to the island. By the twelfth century its Commonwealth dissolved and it was drawn into the Nordic Union then by the fifteenth century it fell under Danish rule. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the island fell into a combination of hardships, poverty and natural disasters. By the end of the First World War, Iceland finally gained sovereignty yet remained under Danish Monarchy until, WWII. It was a neutral state in WWII but was peacefully occupied by British forces to stop a Nazi occupation.

In the twentieth century it succumbed to the financial troubles of the European economy even though it stayed out of the European Union. Iceland was a founding member of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Trade Organization. Its economy grew rapidly largely through fishing, although this was marred by conflicts with other nations.

Ok enough of the history lesson… the island of Iceland is home to the meeting point of the European and North Atlantic tectonic plates. It is home to 130 volcanoes, of which 60-70 are still active. It is a land in progress. It has the ability to wipe out most of its population. On average it records 100 tremors a day. It is home to the worlds youngest island, Surtsey, which took just under three years to form from a series of underwater volcanic eruptions. It has become a Petri dish for scientist to study how life evolves from primordial events.

Another interesting fact is the climate is considered subarctic! Sitting between latitude 63 and 64 degrees N, it sits completely inside the arctic circle. It is warmed by the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current which puts its overall climate similar to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The “Summer” months are from May thru early September. This is also the time of the Midnight Sun. In late June through early August the sun barely slips out of sight making approximately 17 to 21 hours of daylight at the Summer Solstice. Likewise the “Winter” months of late November through early February sees only 4 to 7 hours of daylight. The winter and summer solstices vary in daylight by 17 hours.

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Myths and Folklore of Iceland are just as cool as the landscape. Rooted deep in Nordic Viking traditions and lore. Of course I own a “fairy’s steed”. It is believed that the Corgi was used by Fairies to ride into battle. Descendants of the Swedish Valhound they played a big part in folklore. Even though the original inhabitants of Iceland were thought to be thugs and barbarians, Icelanders are considered one of the most civilized peoples on the planet. Their culture is steeped in folklore, Elves, Fairies, Trolls and other interesting sorts. They are strong believers in all things Supernatural. Those include the ones that go bump in the night… the Huldufolk.

The Huldufolk are believed to be the protectors of the land. They comprise mainly of Elves and Fairies. They also can bring misfortune to any household that angers or displeases them.

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Next are the Trolls or Giants. If this sounds like the land of Lord of the Rings… you’re not far from the truth. The Trolls are brought to life in the town of Vik were I have read that three Trolls stand frozen in the Ocean. Actually they are wind and sea carved basalt formations. Trolls are believed to live in the dark grottoes and caves formed in the earth. They are also not too friendly. There is an entire set of books read to Icelandic children growing up. Most Icelanders, if asked, will take you to see a Troll on their property. It is said if they get caught in sunlight, they turn to stone.

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What culture would be complete without SANTA Claus. The Yule Lads, or Yulemen are liken to SANTA and his Elves. Yule Lads are thirteen in number and are responsible for putting you on the naughty or nice list. They put rewards or punishments in the shoes of children who leave them on their window sills during the thirteen days of Christmas. These punishments are normally in the form of rotten potatoes.

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One of the most sustained myths is that of the Alfhol. These are small houses that Icelanders build to house their Elves. These small houses are built with love and great care so their Elves will be happy and not bring any mis-adventures to them. There is even an entire street call Elf Street/Hill. The story goes a street was being built across a lava field and the crews were plagued with constant mishaps.  Equipment failure, accidents and such.  The road was moved a few feet and all the happenings stopped.

Witches, Mermen, Sea Monsters and such are also steeped deep in lore. Kings, Princes, and great Vikings also round out the great tales of Iceland.