Travel Jottings

My wanderings are urban as well as rural, and several have taken me overseas around Europe and to North America. All have needed at least some planning: knowing what to see and where to stay remain ever present needs. That and remaining ever open to new possibilities have contributed to what you find here. Everything builds up over time, and I hope that the horizons continue expanding to mean that I can continue to share new things with you here.

Iceland: Other Worldly Yet Accessible

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland

Once, I was poking around the BBC's iPlayer looking for episodes of BBC Scotland's Adventure Show and found one that was centred around an arduous fell race on the Scottish island of Jura. Of course, that featured its share of human drama, but there was another item included that showed just how dramatic a landscape can be.

That featured Iceland, and Cameron McNeish went there to undertake two very different outdoor activities. The first of these strayed away from his more customary hill walking and backpacking to take in some snorkelling. This was in an incredibly clear stream in the Þingvellir National Park, one within the rift between the European and American tectonic plates that is much favoured by scuba divers. That was followed by a guided hike through an area with boiling springs and mud pools before the pleasant experience of a dip in one of the island's many geothermal pools.

That televised incursion into Iceland showed how foreign the Icelandic landscape can be for visitors from elsewhere. Of course, you can set your quota of adventure to whatever amount you wish, and I did as much in a visit in July 2015. A day trip on a coach got me to that tectonic plate rift, a pair of geysers and a huge waterfall without adding any danger beyond a scalding with superheated water. The next day was spent among hills and highlighted that a GPS could have its worth given the low resolution of the scales of most Icelandic walking maps. Others may have gone further with long-distance trekking or jeep tours to the less accessible parts of the island, where active volcanoes and glaciers coexist.

Fire and Ice

Most of Iceland's drama comes from its situation on the mid-Atlantic ridge, also known as one of the Earth's biggest cracks. The European tectonic plate is drifting apart from its American counterpart at the rate of a few centimetres per year, with associated volcanism. That gives the island its fire, so there are geothermal springs being tapped for hot water and electricity generation, while steam with a faint smell of rotting eggs issues forth from the ground. There are warm pools for bathing too, with the Blue Lagoon in Rekjanes being among the better (if not best) known of these. There are geysers too, with one to be seen near Geysir, the origin of the general name for these gushers.

Two volcanoes erupted in 2010 and 2011, a different one for each year. The population of Iceland is small (around 300,000) with between one half and two-thirds of the total all living around Reykjavík, the country's capital city, so there were no stories of human calamities in the international news. Instead, the story was of disruption to international air travel around Europe and between there and North America. This especially was the case while the first of the volcanoes, Eyjafjallajökull (try ay-ya-fyat-la-yoke-urt-chee with the last part almost said with a click in a video that I found; Welsh "ll" are fast more straightforward than this), jettisoned large volumes of ash into the atmosphere. That would not mix with aircraft jet engines very well, so caution was exercised. Some questioned this, so restrictions were eased by the second time around, and I have a faint recollection that the eruption in 2011 did not last as long.

An Economic Upset

Before Iceland's geology caused the considerable travel disruption described above, there was another reason for the place hitting the news: it suffered a banking crisis and defaulted on debt during the lead up to the Great Recession that still bugs us today. Then, there were jokes made in Ireland about what befell that country that highlighted how alike the two places were in economic terms: six months and one letter separated the two.

After that, things turned out very differently. Ireland's being part of the Eurozone may have saved it from debt defaults and capital controls that were needed in Iceland, but there was a price to be paid in the form of externally enforced austerity. German fears about hyperinflation and currency instability persist and blight the Eurozone nearly a century after they first suffered that themselves in the 1920's with all that meant for world events thereafter. Some may look at what Iceland did with a certain amount of envy, but they probably suffered more than dented pride and may not have had the economic wherewithal to avoid defaulting on debt anyway.

Luckily, tourism is a major earner for Iceland, for they once were among the poorest countries in Europe, with farming and fishing being their main enterprises in a climate that is not so kind for either of these. Both still continue and the style of farming is traditional, so food prices can be high. It is just as well that the standard of living has improved over the decades, since this is not the cheapest of countries to visit. With prices in thousands and around 200 ISK to the pound sterling, it is all too easy for newcomers to get confused and overspend.

Visitor numbers have increased in recent decades and there is plenty to see. The geologically active countryside is dramatic and there are glaciers to visit due to the latitude. Thoughts of molten rock together with pools of scalding water and mud do give me pause for thought, but the level of adventure, and I was able to keep it within my comfort zone on the only trip there that I have made so far. There is plenty for everyone and that helps the Icelandic economy too, so everyone wins.

Becoming Introduced

When it comes to finding out about the place, it is handy that English is so widely spoken in Iceland that it can be considered the country's de facto second language. It means that any visitor information websites get both Icelandic, which remains the primary language that the locals use for everyday conversation, and English versions at the very least. When you realise how many visitors come from North America, then this makes a load of sense, and at least one tourism portal caters for other languages too.

For a good general introduction to the country, the website looks to be a good place to begin, and both the Government of Iceland and the University of Iceland have their own websites too for anyone wanting to go deeper. When it comes to planning a visit, the national portal Visit Iceland cannot be overlooked, and we also have Guide to Iceland, Be Iceland, Stuck in Iceland, Iceland Magazine and Iceland Naturally for other perspectives. As these were not enough, a local blogger and tourist guide has created I Heart Reykjavík to celebrate not only the country's capital city where she lives, but also the island that she loves. Reykjavík also is a UNESCO City of Literature, so there should be something for bookworms here too. To compliment all these, there is a swathe of regional visitor information portals too: Reykjavík, Visit West Iceland, Westfjords, North Iceland, Visit East, Visit South Iceland and Visit Rekjanes.

Given how special Iceland's landscape is, the presence of three National Parks should come as no surprise, and there were four before 2008. The remaining ones are Vatnajökull (try "vatna-yoke-urtchee" with a click in the last part) in the south, Þingvellir (try "thingvitler") in the middle and Snæfellsjökull (try "snae-fitl-yoke-urtchee" with a click in the last part) in the west. The first of these dates from 2008 when it was formed from two predecessors, and it is claimed to be one of the biggest in Europe, not such a surprise when you see the scale of the thing on a map. The second is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since it hosted the Althing, the Icelandic national assembly, from 930 to 1798, and being the site of a rift valley where the American and European tectonic plates meet. Þingvellir National Park is also the only one of the three not to contain a glacier, so you get some sense of the latitude where Iceland is to be found, even if the Gulf Stream helps to warm things up a little compared to counterparts like Canada.

Beyond the National Parks, there are other special places and the Vatnajökull National Park has the Jökulsárlón glacial lake abutting its boundary and Sellalandsfoss is not far from another section of that boundary either, even if the lake and the waterfall are well separated from each other. Moving to the southwest, Rekjanes near Reykjavík has its allure and the local geothermal energy company has its own website section (in English) about walking through its part of the area. Continuing southeast, Fjallabak Nature Reserve is another honeypot for walkers, with Landmannalaugar (try "land-mann-ah-loo-ar") being a destination in its own right thanks to the colours of the mountainsides around there. It also is a starting point for the Laugavegur long-distance trail, so there is a mountain hut, campsite and other facilities in what otherwise is an isolated spot. Kerlingarfjöll is another part of the Icelandic highlands with similar attributes, and it has huts where you can stay close to walking trails and hot springs among the surrounding mountains. There is a good deal of choice as long as you do your homework in advance.

Getting More Adventurous

Television programmes often celebrate what is exceptional about somewhere, so Iceland's mix of active volcanoes, boiling mud pools, steaming vents and gushing geysers could be what you have seen and there are extensive glaciers too. All this may cause you to wonder if it is a destination only for the more adventurous among us, and some of the photos on or even what is offered by a tour operator like Extreme Iceland may do nothing to assuage that.

Nevertheless, there are gentler pursuits like seeing the Northern Lights, so long as you are wrapped up for the cold (down jackets sound more than suitable). Though the relative youth of the landscape means that wildlife is not as diverse as in other parts, birdwatching is another possibility and there is a conservation organisation called Birdlife Iceland that runs its own nature reserve as well as campaigning for species protection. Also, there is a Birding Trail in the northeast of the island. Photographic tours are offered by Wild Iceland so you can make your own images of the place under instruction too.

Driving around Iceland can bring its share of adventure, since not all roads are tarmac and not all rivers have bridges over them. Some of the country's roads, in fact, are little more than gravel tracks, so conventional hire cars are banned from using them and there are fines for doing so. The act also invalidates insurance, so you need to hire out an appropriate vehicle if you fancy driving into Iceland's highland areas. Suzuki's Jimny is a commonly available option, and daily rates increase when you start looking at either the likes of a Toyota Landcruiser or even a Land Rover Defender.

Like most other countries, Iceland's roads are numbered and those for the aforementioned highland gravel roads get prefixed with the letter F (for fjall in Icelandic, meaning mountain in English) so they are discernable from any road map. With conditions for river crossings being variable even for walking in comparatively less adventurous places like the Scottish Highlands, it is hardly surprising that they are a hazard for vehicles in the Icelandic highlands. That is how gets a dramatic photo of a rescue of a stricken vehicle following a failed river crossing.

The remit of the website is not limited to motorised traffic accessing parts of Iceland that are only accessible for part of the year, for it covers other outdoor activities too. Walking and cycling are more obvious candidates and the list even includes water sports like swimming, diving and kayaking, so it is quite comprehensive. As ever, good practice is promoted so you have advice about leaving your travel plans with someone else, so the alarm can be raised if there is a late return. The number of the rescue services, 112, is another useful piece of information. The advice is sensible, so the website is worth consulting, even if it is only for a refresher.

A website with a name like Nordic Adventure Travel may suggest a continuation of the theme, but it includes golf and angling as well as hunting, so there is an eclectic mix on offer. Hiking trails are mentioned too, so that brings me to the Icelandic Touring Association and Útivist. Both organisations look after a number of huts on the island for those walking long-distance trails, and they offer guided treks too. With the available route descriptions on the ITA website, I get the impression that self-guided hiking is also a possibility.

When it comes to going for walks or other outdoor pursuits, you need to know about the expected weather and this is where the Icelandic Meteorological Office comes into its own, especially with six-day forecasts for selected locations and all-island weather maps. The same agency also monitors geological activity, a useful thing for a country where volcanic eruptions are not uncommon. Iceland's Environment Agency also provides useful general information that should be heeded, and I spotted a mention of the gases given off after the 2014 eruption. This is a country where geology can be as active as the weather.

More on Travel Options

The vast majority of visitors travel to Iceland by air, so Keflavik International Airport is where you will be arriving. From there, it is a 45-minute drive to Reykjavík by coach or by car. Icelandair, easyJet and WOW air all connect Iceland with the U.K. with the first and last of these also serving a range of European and North American destinations, with the second on the list also covering Swiss airports. In contrast, SAS focuses on Scandinavian flights and Delta on U.S. ones.

Iceland has its regional airports too, and it may be faster to get about the island by air when it comes to more distant destinations like Akureyri. While Icelandair does offer the chance of a connection to the latter from Keflavik, nearby Reykjavík airport may be best for more regular flights for the incoming visitor. Isavia manages all Icelandic airports, so their website is worth a look to see flight timetables while getting a sense of what is available. Mainly, you will be flying with either Air Iceland, Eagle Air or Norlandair. The last of these is based primarily in Akureyri and serves Greenland as well as Grimsey Island, which is crossed by the Arctic Circle, and other destinations in Iceland, offering a mix of scheduled and chartered flights. Eagle Air also offers chartered and scheduled flights but only within Iceland, and there are scheduled air tours on offer too. Air Iceland also offers the latter in addition to its regular scheduled flights within Iceland and beyond to Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Air travel is not the only option for getting to Iceland, since Smyril Line sails there from Denmark and the Faroe Islands, where the company is based. With sea travel taking longer, this is an option that needs time, with a one-way sailing taking several days and an out and back trip taking the most of a week. It is not a cheap way to travel either, with a return fare of at least €715 for a foot passenger during August 2015. Taking along a car too has its uses, so this looks like a possibility that needs a few weeks away from work to make the most of it.

Car hire is not so cheap in Iceland, especially if you want one that can travel on gravel surfaced F roads (£100 a day is not untypical) and manage the associated river crossings. In many ways, it allows the most flexibility in a country with no rail system, but there are bus services that can be used and Straeto looks like a good place to start when planning journeys. However, you may find that several changes are needed on some journeys, so checking with Reykjavík Excursions, Trex, SBA-Norðurleið and Sterna Travel (the latter also has for details of long-distance travel options and guided tours may make the best of your time. Of these, both Reykjavík Excursions and SBA-Norðurleið are part of the Iceland On Your Own (IOYO) network for those needing more freedom when doing their exploring and there are various flexible tickets in the Passport series available too. Gray Line is another company that provides guided tours together with a coach service between Reykjavík and Keflavik Airport. Reykjavík Excursions also operates airport coach services on the same route, so that is another option.