Taking the Plunge in Iceland
Monday, March 7, 2005; 1:00 PM
Hi everybody, thanks for joining me to chat about Iceland today. Thanks for so many positive comments. There are already a lot of great questions, so I'll jump right in.
I would personally travel to Iceland at any time of the year. But I'm strange and I like it in January when it's dark for most of the day and snowy. And I also like the fall when the countryside is full of farmers rounding up the sheep for the winter. The summertime, however, is the most glorious, with sunshine for nearly 24 hours during most of June and July. My story, incidentally, takes place in May--and it snowed--so you always have the chance of dealing with crazy weather of some kind in Iceland. But even if it's snowing one hour, then next the sun may come out and it will be brilliant.
Iceland is idyllic for me, and I don't see any glaring downsides at all to travel in Iceland. I mean, you can't go there expecting great beaches or Italian or French caliber cuisine, so I guess it's not for everyone. I don't know if the dead of winter when the weather can be brutal and it's dark for much of the day would appeal to someone who's used to a warm Caribbean island. But for adventurous traveler, I'd have to say it's a must visit.
I've never spent more than a month or two at a time, but I think it was the sheer number of visits--a dozen or more over a period of three years--that got me branded eccentric. But those people had never been to Iceland. And they were a little judgmental anyway.
For a first visit, I'd say go in mid-summer or the fall. Touring in the summer is great because the days never end. You may find yourself hours away from your destination at 9 pm, but who cares? because the sun is shining like it's noon.
On the other hand, the fall is special--September is a time of the year when I've regularly seen the Northern Lights, particularly in the north, near Akureyri.
Dear Mr. Wilson:
I believe these trips can be arranged through the Icelandic Tourist Board. Bless!
It's strange what Iceland does to people who visit. I've met a lot of Americans who've not just been there once, but return over and over again. And none for the same reason.
Thanks. I don't have a lot of experience with the Icelandic horse, but I've seen many of them in my travels, and it's an amazing animal. I think it has a fifth gait that other horses don't have. From what I understand, they run wild in the pastures for most of their youth, for several years, and then are rounded up and trained.
But you most certainly know more than me. I unfortunately have an illogical fear of horses and I can't ride them...it's my only fear in life...
I think it's a bit of statistical anomaly. Obviously, the great writers in Iceland publish more than one book and many people publish none. But Iceland does publish, by far, more books per capita than any other country in the world (I'm grabbing for the number but can't find it at my fingertips! sorry) And if you couple that number with life expectancy you end up with something like 1 in 10.
But Iceland, with a population of less than 300,000, leads the world in almost any random category "per capita": Most DVD players, internet connections, newspaper subscribers, Speedo bathing suits sold, Coca-Cola consumed, credit card usage, etc etc.
Once, I was at a fireworks display in Keflavik, and it was mildly impressive. But afterwards my friend smiled and turned to me and said, "You know, that was the most fireworks ever shot off in one night. Per capita."
I'm not sure how many, but plenty of Americans (and British) do live there, mainly in Reyjavik. Prices of things like food and beer and liquor are VERY expensive. It's an island nation with very little produce grown and so everything is imported. A basic beer in a basic local bar, for instance, can cost over $7. But I've heard that apartments real estate there are affordable.
Maybe you could try going to www.icelandreview.com? That's an Icelandic magazine published in English.
I really like Cold Fever! In fact, I always recommend it to someone who's interested in seeing what Iceland is like. It's a nice road movie and the setting becomes an important character in the story. Another good film by that director (Fridrik Thor Fridrikson?) is called Children of Nature.
I like the Blue Lagoon. Sure, it's touristy--I think it's the biggest tourist attraction in Iceland. But I like touristy places as well as off-the-beaten path stuff. I wouldn't be creeped out at all, by the way, about it being next to a power plant. The water, and the mud on the bottom, is supposed to be great for your skin.
Yes it was--in fact I mention that in the article.
Answer to question one: Yeah, people in Iceland are extremely friendly and trusting--though you must keep in mind that traveling with an Icelandic person probably helped ease things along.
Answer to question two: At the risk of covering material thoroughly explored by the nation's finest men's magazine...yeah, they're unbelievably hot.
That sounds like a great trip--I can see why you'd fantasize about moving to Iceland.
I think the University of Iceland has an intensive Icelandic language program for foreigners that you might consider, but I don't know any in the DC area.
Hey, thanks for recognizing! I've actually written at length about traditional Icelandic food in piece called "Dining Out in Iceland" that was published in the 2001 edition of the Best American Travel Writing. Let's just say that traditional Icelandic cuisine involves ram's testicles, lamb smoked in dung, sheep's heads, whale, puffin, rotten shark that has been buried in the sand for several months and diced. And many other interesting dishes.
However, in the past few years there are a lot of good local restaurants opening in Reykjavik, with lots of young Icelandic chefs learning in NY and Paris and elsewhere and then coming home to use the amazing local ingredients--the best lamb in the world, incredibly fresh fish, etc. You can get a very good meal in Reykjavik these days.
Of course, it may cost about the same as a down payment on a car...
I have a three-year-old and I would definitely bring him. People in Iceland are very child-friendly, and you'll see lots of moms pushing strollers around downtown Reykjavik.
I think any child would love being out in countryside, hiking around and seeing the geysers and waterfalls and hot springs and picking wild berries, etc.
To me, any traveling with the child has more to do with the patience of the parents...
If you stick with staying in the more reasonable guesthouses and eat in the more modest restaurants, I don't think it ends up being that much more expensive than anywhere else in Europe right now--especially since Iceland doesn't use the Euro, but the krona.
Middle of winter is obviously the cheapest. I think, though, that you can still find decent last-minute deals on the web. Icelandair is however your only choice of airline...
It's true. I think Icelanders may be less inclined to chitchat as small talk as we Americans are, but they are outgoing and personable all the same. Basically, there's no way to generalize about a nation's personality.
Though I can say that if you are doing the pub crawl around Reykjavik after 1 am on a Friday or Saturday, you will end up with lots of new friends who are very talkative and outgoing.
No, not really, except in a friendly way. Frankly, I think there's too much hand-wringing among American travelers about this issue. I've found that many times, it's simply a topic that's brought up because someone really wants to speak with you. I always see it as an opportunity to give someone fresh perspective about what "being an American" is.
I'm selfish, too, but I think it's way too late to worry about Iceland being discovered! The Icelandic tourist board already does a huge amount of promotion, especially in the DC area. Still, there are plenty of parts of the island where very few tourists ever go.
I liked Reykjavik 101 by Hallgrimur Helgason--it's funny novel about a slacker named Hlynur and his adventures in the nightlife of Reykjavik. It give a youthful picture of contemporary Iceland. It was made into a great film a few years ago as well.
They do have downhill skiing--there's a place fairly close to Reykjavik, but I can't remember the name. But Iceland is not a winter sports paradise like some of the other Nordic countries. I'm sure there are places to cross-country ski, too, though I've never been.
I've had so many quirky experiences like that myself in Iceland. Once, I stopped at a licorice factory that was operating out of an old schoolhouse in the remote East Fjords on this beautiful blue fjord. The sheep farmers out there in that area had decided they weren't making enough money with sheep, and so they'd started making licorice instead. The people were so nice and gave us a tour of the factory and then bags and bags of black licorice for our trip
This is very true for those among us who are clumsy as well!
Yes it is. That's because Icelanders take their father's first name as their last name. So if your name is Halldor and your father is Gunnar, your name is Halldor Gunnarsson. And if your name is Ingibjorg and your father is Gunnar, your name will be Ingibjorg Gunnarsdottir. And women never change their last names when they marry. So it is therefore possible for a family of four (with son and daughter) to have four different last names.
You should see how pages of Jon Jonssons and Gunnar Gunnarssons there are in the phone book.
I like the winter, too. The temperatures really aren't much different than New York. The only difference is there's maybe more chance of freezing rain, snow, high winds, etc. But the weather changes so many anyway that you're bound to have some relatively temperate days.
yes, there are very active volcanoes in Iceland.
That is true. Thanks for mentioning that. Icelanders are extremely gracious about speaking English to visitors--not just Americans, but everyone. And the average Icelander's English would put many of us to shame.
I think if you eat fish, you will be more than fine. The fish in Iceland is outstanding and you can eat it at every meal, including herring for breakfast if you'd like.
And, by the way, sheep's testicles is generally only eaten at one time of the year--during a mid-winter feast called Thorablot.
Thanks everyone for all the wonderful questions. I appreciate the nice comments people sent on my article. I'm sorry I wasn't able to get to everyone's question. But I hope those who want to go to Iceland get to do it someday soon. It's an amazing place.