1) There were once a lot more trees in Iceland!
When the first Viking settlers came to Iceland 1100 years ago, the island was a lot more forested. These were cut down to build homes and boats. Iceland is finding it hard to regrow their forests because of the harsh weather and because of the sheep which graze all over the island causing erosion and making it difficult for trees to establish.
The landscape of Iceland includes a lot of wide open spaces, windy barren vistas, the evidence of volcanoes like old lava fields, black beaches, geothermal areas, geysers, waterfalls and moss. It’s so unusual, distinctive and in parts, truly spectacular.
2) The hot water out of the tap smells like sulphur!
As Iceland is situated at the meeting point of two tectonic plates, it has an abundance of geothermal energy which manifests in the landscapes as volcanoes, hot springs, boiling mud pools, steaming ground and geysers. The locals put all this energy to great use for home heating and hot water, generating electricity, the heating of greenhouses to grow food and for bathing.
When you turn on the hot water tap in an Icelandic home, the hot water has a strong sulfurous smell which is very strange. The mindset towards home heating is very different to other countries due to the low price of the energy. When we checked-in to an Airbnb, we were told that the windows were cracked to allow fresh air in. It was about 3C outside! The home was heated so well that it was comfortable to wear a t-shirt inside and the window was left slightly ajar for ventilation! Coming from London with the high cost of heating, this was utter madness!
One highlight of the trip was a visit to Friðheimar, a restaurant along the Golden Circle where guests dine in their geothermally heated greenhouses. It was such an wonderful experience eating amongst the tomato plants. The atmosphere was toasty warm due to the geothermal heating.
3) Everyone is actually family!
Iceland is an island and for centuries before affordable plane flights, the population was very isolated. Amazingly, the genetic code of the entire population has been recorded. This is a dream data set for scientists but is also critical for the locals looking to start a family. When two Icelanders go on a date, they check a mobile app which identifies not whether they are related but how closely they are related. Basically everyone with Icelandic heritage is related! They can then use this information to decide whether to progress their relationship.
4) Tourism is big business in Iceland
Covid aside, tourism in Iceland has boomed in recent years. There are numerous distinctive, natural sights to see, no personal safety issues, excellent infrastructure and services. There are volcanoes, geysers, glaciers,waterfalls, stunning rugged landscapes and a fascinating history. All things combined to make Iceland a fabulous destination albeit a little pricey.
Note: Unfortunately, Iceland’s tourism outlook may change with the recent volcanic activity on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
5) The Weather is the Highest Risk Factor for Tourists
The biggest danger to tourists in Iceland is from underestimating the unpredictable weather. Drivers are advised to check road conditions daily and to avoid driving. The authorities have rescued many tourists who insist on driving to keep to their inflexible holiday schedule rather than staying put to avoid the hazardous driving conditions.
When venturing out for some sightseeing, it is necessary to prepare to cope with all types weathers in one day. It can change dramatically from hour to hour. In October, we found the wind chill to be particularly insidious! We found it almost always necessary to have an extra layer on than the temperature would indicate to cope.
The number of daylight hours change depending on the time of the year. It is important to account for this when planning the activities for the day. In October, we could feel the darkness closing in on our days as our holiday progressed.
For tourists, it is worth getting some cheap rain pants for your trip. They are useful not only when raining but to stop the wind and for walking near or behind waterfalls which is an Icelandic highlight. Even if you don’t intend to walk behind a waterfall, the wind tends to pick up the water and you will get damp with a mist of water even approaching a waterfall. Nothing worse than damp jeans on a freezing cold day! Don’t deprive yourself of the experience of feeling the power of a waterfall up close by not coming prepared with rain pants.
Ensure you also have a waterproof and windproof jacket and sturdy grippy shoes.
6) Icelandic Horses have more Gaits than Other Horses!
It was a delightful surprise to discover that in addition to the usual horse gaits of walk, trot and canter/gallop, Icelandic horses have two extra gaits. These are tölt and flying pace. These short and robust looking horses can be seen in paddocks all over Iceland. They were first brought over by Viking settlers in the 9th century and their bloodlines have remained pure as horse importation in prohibited in Iceland. They are a tough sort living outside in the harsh Icelandic weather!
7) A Hot Soak to Help Get Through the Cold Dark Winter
Spa culture is an integral part of Icelandic culture aided by the abundance of geothermal energy on the island. There are local bathhouses in the various towns as well natural hot springs dotted around the island. Before getting into the hot mineral waters, it is mandatory to have a thorough shower naked to ensure cleanliness in the communal pool.
For most tourists, the ultimate place for a hot soak is the famous Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is the classic photo of Iceland that draws the tourists in. Second to the Blue Lagoon is the slightly cheaper Sky Lagoon. It is a magical experience soaking your body in hot water whilst overlooking the ocean and feeling the cool of the outside world on your head.
The cheapest package for Sky Lagoon at about 9790ISK ($107AUD) enables you to use the hot pool and the cold plunge pool. Using the icy cold plunge pool is an act of true bravery!
I thought that the Sky Lagoon was very touristy. Locals clearly favour their local pool at a more reasonable price and probably a calmer vibe. The hot pool was filled with tourists from all over the pool and not particularly serene.The amenities were aimed at making the tourists comfortable e.g private shower cubicles. On the day we were there, there was a contingent risking highly expensive camera gear to take photos of a couple of models, a bunch of influencer-type with full make-up trying to get the perfect shot and a whole bunch of people carefully holding their precious phone aloft out of the water.
A tip for soaking in the mineral baths is to avoid wearing silver jewelry as it will tarnish quite significantly. Luckily, your jewelry can be easily restored with the use of aluminium foil, bicarb and vinegar.
8) Catching the Northern Lights is a Lottery!
You might go all the way to Iceland in winter with the hopes of seeing the Northern Lights but there is no guarantee. Firstly, the sky has to be clear, which does not happen often in the rainy winter. Then, you need to be away from the city lights. Thirdly, you need to wear layers of clothing and leave your toasty warm accomodation to go out in the freezing cold weather to actually see it!
I didn’t see them as the nights were cloudy except for the first. On the first night, being only few minutes late outside due to my reticence in having to rug up for the cold meant that I missed them. I would like to think that they were a little underwhelming except for hardcore photographers with the right camera gear.
9) Iceland is an Expensive Travel Destination
It is expensive to travel in Iceland but you do get a very high level of quality and service for the price. Unless you are wealthy, I would advise some consideration of the costs and prior planning before going to avoid being shocked when you get there. For some examples of prices and money saving tips for holidaying in Iceland, check out my other post.
Iceland is blessed with so many stunning waterfalls. One of the biggest waterfalls and hence one of the most popular tourist attractions is Gullfoss. Photos do not do it justice. Unless you are there hearing the thundering water, seeing the width of it and feeling the cold wind and water spray on your face, you cannot conceive of the size and power of this waterfall.
Another spectacular waterfall is Skogafoss. Climb to the top of it and hike behind it to find many more jaw-droppingly spectacular waterfalls. Check out my other post on this.
Iceland is a beautiful travel destination. Is it on your list to visit?