Difference between revisions of "Iceland"
Revision as of 01:00, 21 October 2006
Iceland , (Icelandic: Ísland) a country nominally in Northern Europe, is a large mountainous island in the north Atlantic Ocean, on the fault between Europe and North America. In a sense, it is a well-named territory, with over 11 per cent of the country covered by glaciers, but in another sense it is not, with a surprisingly mild climate and countless geothermal hot-spots. And of course the native spelling ("Ísland") is appropriate in English as well.
Map (Click to enlarge.)
Although most visitors don't stray far from the capital city, this is a shame as some of the most memorable sights of Iceland are further afield.
There are many excursions offered by tour companies and are readily available from any of the main centres such as Reykjavik and Akureyri. They will fly you around and take you on to the glaciers and to the big volcanos for a reasonable price.
Interesting for a number of reasons. This is not only the site of the longest running parliament in the world (the name literally means parliamentary fields), it's also where the North-American and European continental shelf plates are being torn apart. And if you think
On the edge of the inhospitable Interior of Iceland about 60 miles east of Reykjavik, the river Hvita plunges down a double cascade to create what many people believe is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland
A bit west of Gullfoss. Geysir itself (from which the English word "geyser" derives) rarely erupts, but fortunately Strokkur next door goes off every five or ten minutes.
A lake near Akureyri in the North of Iceland, Myvatn has an unearthly appearance owing to special types of volcanic craters throughout the lake.
The majestic glacier lake in southeast Iceland and is located near Hofn and on Route 1. Interior Iceland water runoff flows into Jokulsarlon lake which opens into the Atlantic Ocean.
Located in northwest Iceland, the westfjords are somewhat isolated but beautiful to see.
Europe's largest waterfall located in southern end of Jokulsargljufur National Park.
A Golden Circle tour is available from Reykjavik which will take you round the Gulfoss waterfall, geysirs, the crater, the Garden of Eden and the Mid-atlantic rift/ place of Icelands first Parliament. Although you dont get much time at each stop the guide does tell you about Icelands history and some general information.
Iceland offers many hiking opportunities. Hiking in Iceland is no easy business, strong walking boots which support your ankle are recommended as the terrain is usually craggy lava rock or springly moss with hidden holes!
Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Lava fields, lava tubes, plains of fractured rock, ice, fire and steam.
Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle (a small island to the north of the main island crosses it), the amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but it doesn't get fully dark before it comes back up again. In March and September, days and nights are about equal, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, forget about sight-seeing; it'll be too dark outside. Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild. The midnight sun is a beautiful sight and one definatly not to be missed. It is easy to loose track of time when the sun is still high in the sky at 11pm.
Iceland was settled by Nordic and Celtic people in the 9th century AD - tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavik now stands. The Icelanders still basically speak the language of the Vikings. Iceland maintains another Norse tradition: the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames (an Icelander's given name is followed by his or her parent's first name (usually the father's) and the suffix -son or -dóttir, e.g. Guðrún Pétursdóttir (Guðrún, daughter of Pétur). Members of the same family can therefore have many different "surnames", which can sometimes create confusion for visitors. Because of the patronymic last names Icelanders primarily use first names, e.g. phone books are alphabetized by first name rather than last name. This also applies when addressing an individual. Icelanders would never expect to be addressed as Mr. or Ms. Jónsson/-dóttir no matter how important they might be.
Despite its name, Iceland is very mild for land at that latitude owing to the warming effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. I went there once 10 years ago and the average June temperature was 10C (50F. It has been getting warmer and warmer by every year that passes and last time when I went it got to 23C. However the rapidly changing weather has given rise to the local saying: 'If you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes'! - some Icelandic people also believe that if the winter is hard and long then the summer will be good and warm.
If possible avoid a stop-over in the US as the extra security hassle is not worth it. Travellers with children should be aware that strollers and sandals may be x-rayed several times during a stop over. If you can fly to Europe and then to Iceland (on Iceland Express, for example) do that.
The airport itself is quite barren; if you have a lengthy layover you should make sure to bring books or other entertainment.
An airport transfer bus service (called the FlyBus) runs between the airport and Reykjavik bus terminal via various hotels (1100 Kr, 45 minutes). A return is 300 Kr cheaper than 2 singles. Another great option is to take the bus which stops at the Blue Lagoon either to or from the airport, then continues every half hour or so to Reykjavik.
Be warned, a metered taxi costs about 9500 krona (roughly US$140).
Direct flights from New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, Orlando, Baltimore, San Francisco and most major European (i.e. Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Helsinki, London, Oslo, Madrid, Manchester, Milan, Munich, Paris, Stockholm and Zurich) airports are available, especially since Icelandair uses Keflavik as a hub (note that some are only during the summer months).
Another option is the low cost airline Iceland Express which flies from Copenhagen and Stansted (close to London) to Keflavik (with additional service during the summer month to Frankfurt Hahn, Berlin Schönefeld, Friedrichshafen, Alicante, Gothenburg and Stockholm Arlanda).
In addition to this British Airways will offer flights from London and SAS from Oslo starting in 2006.
The Icelandic travel search engine dohop.com finds low cost flights to Reykjavik from 200 cities in Europe. Make sure you check out all prices as the so called "low cost" option may not be the lowest cost option at all.
Getting to Iceland by boat takes longer than by plane but has the advantage of allowing you to take your own vehicle.
In the summer, Smyril Line's MV Norunna sails to picturesque Seyðisfjörður in a week round trip from Hanstholm in Northern Jutland (Denmark) via Tórshavn (Faroe Islands), Lerwick (Shetland Islands) and Bergen (Norway).
The website is slightly vague on the costs and doesn't show many special offers, so it's worth calling their friendly sales office in Shetland. In July & August 2005 a return ticket from Lerwick could be had for ~£50.
Aircraft in Iceland are like buses or trains elsewhere - they're the main form of internal travel other than the roads. Be warned though, that the ride can be a bit bumpy if you're coming into one of the fjords like Akureyri.
Scheduled service to domestic destinations, including Greenland and Faroe Islands, is provided by Air Iceland.
Driving in Iceland is on the right-side of the road. Headlights and seatbelts for all passengers must be on at all times. There are excellent car hire desks from Hertz and Avis in the airport, as well as a local company, Alp. Hiring a car can be extremely expensive, especially for four-wheel-drives. Renting cars on-location is almost never cheaper than doing so in advance.
Be aware that car rentals - also at the airports - are not open around the clock.
There is one main highway, Route 1-Ring Road, that encircles the country. If traveling around the country,the gas tank should be kept near full because stations can be 100-200km apart. Also, because of Iceland's everchanging weather, one should keep extra food and know where guesthouses/hotels are located in case of a road closure.
Most mountain roads are closed until the end of June, or even longer because of wet and muddy conditions which make them totally impassable. When these roads are opened for traffic many of them can only be negotiated by four wheel drive vehicles. The roads requiring four wheel drive (and possibly snow tires) are route numbers with an "F" prefix, e.g. F128.
Icelandic roads are adequate or at least tolerable if you are driving in populated areas. The interior of the country is a different matter and a good four-wheel drive vehicle is essential even if you stay to the "roads", you might have to cross many rivers and fords, some of which can be over 4 feet (1.2m) deep - especially if it has been raining.
A word of warning is in order: With the growing number of tourists on the Icelandic roads it has become evident that the roads are dangerous for the visitors. Please be careful! The number of drivers that lose control of hired cars on the gravel roads is disproportionately high. And the accidents are sadly too often fatal.
There are two signs that foreigners should pay attention to. First, "malbik endar" means that the road changes from a paved road to a gravel road. Slow down before these changes, for one can lose control easily. Also "einbreið brú" means that a one-lane bridge is approaching. Arrive at the bridge slowly and assess the situation. If another car has arrived at the bridge first allow them the right-of-way.
The DUI limit in Iceland is 0.05%.
Driving in Iceland is an amazing experience - the changing landscapes are unlike anything else in the world. Pay attention to the driving rules and you will have a wonderful time.
BSI Travel Runs regular bus service to most parts of the country, especially around the Ring Road (Route 1).
Special offers include 1-4 week unlimited bus travel round the Ring Road (optionally with travel round the West Fjords); one time-unlimited breakable journey around the Ring Road in either direction.
Some of the largest excursion companies include Reykjavik Excursions which actually operates bus routes all over the West, South and East part of the country and SBA-Nordurleid which operates routes all over the North and East of Iceland.
Cycling is a good way to experience Iceland, and provides a very different cultural experience to other means of transport. You should bring your own touring bike; don't buy locally, unless you really have too much money to spare. Traffic in and out of Reykjavík is heavy, otherwise, it's OK. You can cycle safely on the Ring Road, or take the bike on the buses (which are equipped with bicycle racks) serving the Ring Road and do side trips.
Hitchhiking is a cheap way of getting around in Iceland. The country is among the safest in the world, people are quite friendly and the percentage of cars who do give rides is high, especially in the off-season. However, low traffic in areas outside Reykjavik makes hitchhiking in Iceland an endurance sport. Even on the main ring-road there is quite often less than one car an hour in the eastern parts. Nearly everybody speaks English and most drivers are interested in conversations.
Hitchhiking into the interior is tough, but everything works if you have enough time - calculating in days, not in hours. For longer distances or less touristic areas be prepared with some food, water and a tent or similar. The weather can be awful and sometimes spoils the fun of this way of traveling.
The official language of Iceland is Icelandic (íslenska), which remains very similar to although not quite the same as 13th-century Norse. Icelandic writing uses the Latin alphabet, but with two unusual characters long ago lost from English: eth (Ð, ð), pronounced like the voiced th of "them", and thorn (Þ, þ), pronounced like the unvoiced th of "thick". Materials in English often substitute "dh" and "th" respectively, so eg. Fjörður is written Fjordhur and þingvellir is written Thingvellir. Loanwords are shunned and new words are regularly made for concepts like computers, known as tölva ("number-prophetess"). Speakers of Scandinavian languages like Danish, Norwegian or Swedish will be able to puzzle out some written words, but are unlikely to understand the spoken language.
Most Icelanders speak English, but it doesn't hurt to be aware of your 'please and thank you' to make things go a little more smoothly. Many people have basic knowledge of German, Danish and/or Swedish, and some Spanish and French too. At college level, Icelandic students choose a "second language" to study, often between Spanish, German, French or Italian for example. Many students also opt to study a third language. Danish and English are taught at a elementary school level.
Consult the Icelandic phrasebook for more information.
The local currency is the Icelandic 'krona (ISK). Sample exchange rates (mid 2006): 1 GBP = 134,37 ISK, 1 USD = 71,64 ISK. Note: You will get a better rate of exchange if you buy and sell your krona in Iceland itself.
Iceland has a huge number of great little craft shops that sell everything from musical baskets and wonderful weird porcelain sculpture to paintings, glasswork, and jewelry. An interesting note is the National Galleries tend to carry the same artists work in the gift shops rather than the usual mass marketed product carried at so many other museums.
Icelandic wool goods (hats, gloves etc.) are soft and warm; don't just buy them for other people if you plan to visit the interior.
There is also a plethora of interesting local music CDs (beyond just Björk) worth hunting for. Obscurities worth picking up include Hera, Worm is Green, Múm, Sigur Rós, Singapore Sling, and Bellatrix. Be warned that many of these CDs are often available back home as imports for much lower prices. CDs tend to cost around 2,500 Kr (~$42) here. The best place to find true rarities is 12 Tonar, which is in downtown Reykjavik. This Icelandic institution also serves as one of the country's major record labels.
Beware of the fact that almost everything is very expensive in Iceland. Specifically, fresh vegetables (especially organic, if you can find them) and beer (minimum 500 Kr / pint = US$6.86).
Most Icelandic cuisine involves lamb or fish in some form or other, so a liking for one (or both) of these is an advantage. A vegetarian diet can be tricky to maintain and veganism will require you to self-cater (although there are two vegetarian restaurants in downtown Reykjavík).
Distinctively Icelandic foods include:
Food is no problem for Westerners in the cities; there is the usual complement of eateries and restaurants for your delectation. Some of the hotel restaurants are very good indeed but if you're looking for a bite to eat on the move you can't really beat a 'Subway' or a very long bag of chips (fries) from the drive-through cafe near the airport in Akureyri. They are fabulous! (NB. Icelanders usually don't use ketchup as a condiment with chips, but rather use an unholy cocktail of ketchup and mayonnaise that they call kokkteilsósa. Make sure you try this)
Any Icelanders' first choice of fast food is usually the pylsa or hot dog. It is usually served with a choice of fried onions, fresh onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade. It is cheap compared with other fast food staples at around 200 kr, and is sold in every one of the small convenience stores/eateries/video rentals/sweet shops that litter Icelandic towns.
Vid fjorubordid is a gourmet restaurant located in Stokkseyri by the south coast of Iceland specializing in lobster. Stokkseyri is about 40 minutes drive from Reykjavík
Alcoholic drinks are very expensive compared to the UK and USA. Liquor can be purchased at licenced bars, restaurants, or VinBud, the state monopoly.
There are three local brands of Iceland beer: Egils, Thule, Viking.
Each year on Beer Day Icelanders celebrate the lifting of prohibition on March 1st, 1989.
Visitors arriving by air should note that there is a duty free store for arriving passengers where they can buy cheap alcohol (at least cheap compared to Iceland). To find the duty free store just follow the Icelanders. No Icelander in their right mind will pass the duty free store upon arrival.
Because of the high cost of alcohol in bars and restaurants, you can save some money by purchasing alcohol at a Vínbuð or duty-free shop, and enjoying a few before going 'out on the town'.
-Also make sure you try a drink called "ópal" http://b2.is/?sida=tengill&id=141546 (Tarantino spent his new years 2005-2006 there and tells all details about partying there! very tempting and interesting)
-Also taste Brennivin or Black death
If you're visiting in summertime, you won't regret bringing an eyemask with you. During the height of summer there is no actual darkness and in the Northern part of the country the sun might just dip for a few minutes below the polar circle.
The hotels are usually fairly basic around the island but you can usually get a room even in August just by phoning them up and reserving it before you get there. They are very clean and well maintained, light and airy with nothing at all that could even remotely considered 'dingy'. They are expensive though.
Fosshotels is a chain of tourist class hotels. The chain focuses on friendlier atmosphere. Fosshotels are situated all around Iceland, close to the island's most treasured nature spots.
Inns of Iceland feature low priced guesthouses in Reykjavik.
Icelandair Hotels which include the Edda summer hotels and the Icelandair hotels. Icelandair Hotels are upscale, Scandinavian style hotels located in most major cities of Iceland. Most notable is the Nordica on the outskirts of downtown Reykjavik.
Outside of Reykjavik, one of the best hotels in Iceland is Hotel Budir on the Snaefell Peninsula.
Guesthouses are between hotels and hostels in prices and services. At some times if traveling in groups the guesthouses can be cheaper than the hostels. Guesthouses will usually have more space than a hostel with a shared bathroom that is cleaner and less crowded.
Domus Guesthouse is one of the better guesthouses in Reykjavik. Their winter season lasts longer than others so their prices in May are cheaper than the Salvation Army hostel and the HI hostel outside the city. It is conveniently located near Laugevegur (the main street for shopping and bars) and the owners are very nice.
Iceland has many hostels throughout the entire country. They can be found on Hostelling International Iceland.
If you're travelling on a budget, camping is your best bet. There are sites located throughout the country, especially at places you'd want to visit. They range from fully-equipped (hot showers, washing machines, cooking facilities) to farmers' fields with a cold-water tap. Expect to pay 500-1000 Kr per person per night.
If you intend to camp in Iceland you must be prepared for the cold, 3 season sleepingbags are essential and an inner, I would also highly recomend thick pjamas and a warm hat! A bedding role is also useful as you may end up sleeping on very rough ground...and thats just not very comfortable at all!
Trekkers will need to use some of the mountain huts, either government or privately-run. These range from dormitory accommodation to fully-staffed facilities. Booking ahead is likely to be necessary at popular times of year (and they may only be accessible in summertime).
The Blue Lagoon  is a geothermal spa. For passengers departing or arriving on afternoon flights Reykjavik Excursions  offers airport transfers which include a visit to the Blue Lagoon (from 3400 ISK). A bus  from the Main Bus Station in Reykjavik takes 40 minutes and costs 3000 ISK, including admission to the Blue Lagoon.
For an out of the way drive rent a car and travel along the southern part of the ring road to the town of Vik with its magnificent black sand beaches, rock outcroppings, glaciers, and lava fields.
South-central Iceland, easily accessible by car or tour from Reykjavik, boasts a number of sights: the Gullfoss waterfall Europe is quite spectacular; Geysir, the namesake of all geysers, and its neighbor Strokkur which erupts every five minutes or so; and Thingvellir, a beautiful landscape of water-cut lava fields, which is historically important as the site of Iceland's parliamentary government circa 930 AD.
Vatnajökull glacier is located in Southeast Iceland and is Europe's largest glacier. Jökulsárlón, the largest glacier lake in Iceland, is located off Route 1 and part of Vatnajökull glacier.
In the colder months, one may frequently get stunning views of the Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. Northern Lights anywhere away from city lights.
BSI Travel (Vatnsmýrarvegi 10) rents mountain bikes. Reykjavik has a fairly extensive network of bike paths
Blue Biking (+354 565-2089)  offers day tours from Reykjavik and multi-day biking and hiking tours.
Ultima Thule Expeditions (+354 567-8978)  provides sea kayak and ski day trips from Reykjavik and multi-day trips for groups. No scheduled individual tours.
Icelandic Mountain Guides (+354 587-9999)  offers a variety of hiking, ice climbing, and ski tours.
Ishestar Riding Tours (+354 555-7000)  has a variety of day tours around Reykjavik or multi-day trips.
Icelandic Travel Horses 
Iceland Total (+354 591-1020)  offers tours, travel- and vacation packages.
Unemployment in Iceland is low and wages high. Work permits are required for citizens of most countries. The exceptions are citizens of the Nordic Countries (Greenland, Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Aland Islands, Finland) and EU/EEA countries. As of May 1, 2006 there are no restrictions on the latest entrants into the EU.
Work permits can be very difficult to get if you do not come from any of the aformentioned countries. Iceland has a relatively strict immigration policy.
Beware of offers for contracted work in Iceland. Your wage levels may be lower than average and your rights may be affected. Iceland is a highly unionized society with over 90% of the workforce members in labour unions.
A great resource is the Directorate of Labour website
Emergency Phone No: 112
Driving around Iceland can be difficult or even dangerous. Inform yourself on local conditions and make sure your vehicle and driving skills are up to the task. Be aware that many roads (even parts of the main country road) are unpaved and can turn into slippery mud during the summer. There have been a number of instances where foreigners, unprepared for "Icelandic roads", have been in accidents, some of them fatal. Check out the following website for up-to-date road-condition information: http://www.vegag.is/vefur2.nsf/pages/fu_fv_faerdogvedur_eng.html
As mentioned earlier, Iceland is among the safest places in the world, so there next to no chance of getting robbed or harassed.
The medical facilities in Iceland are good and available free to European Union citizens with a valid E-111 form or its replacement ID card. Scandinavian citizens must show valid passport and medical insurance to be treated.
Infectious diseases aren't a problem in Iceland. Inoculations aren't required except if you are arriving from countries that suffer from infectious diseases like cholera.
The biggest threat to your health is likely to be accidental injury or bad weather. Always make sure you have more than adequately warm and waterproof clothing. Selection of appropriate clothing is escpecially important in Iceland and can even be a matter of life and death. The most known Icelandic outdoor wear brand is 66°North (the latitude of the Artic circle) which has been tried and tested by Icelanders in rough conditions for 80 years. Exercise extra caution in geothermal areas.