Difference between revisions of "Iceland"
Revision as of 15:27, 13 March 2010
Iceland , (Icelandic: Ísland) is a mountainous island nation in the north Atlantic Ocean, located between Europe and North America. Though not part of the continental mainland, the country is considered European. The name of the country - Iceland - may not be that appropriate: although 10% of Iceland is covered by glaciers, it has a surprisingly mild climate and countless geothermal hot-spots. The native spelling ("Ísland") is appropriate in English as well.
Cities and Towns
It's a shame most visitors don't stray far from the capital as some of the most memorable sights in Iceland are further afield. There are many excursions offered by tour companies, readily available from any of the main centres such as Reykjavík and Akureyri. They will fly you around and take you out to the glaciers and to the big volcanoes for a reasonable price. However, the cheapest option is to drive around with a rented car since none of these sites have entry fees.
Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle, 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 the March and September equinoxes, days and nights are of about equal length, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, it's almost 20 hours of gloom and darkness. 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 definitely not to be missed. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun is still high in the sky at 11PM. Early or late winter, however, can be surprisingly good times to visit. In late January, daylight is from about 10AM to 5PM, prices are lower than in the high season, and the snow-blanketed landscape is eerily beautiful. (Some sites are, however, inaccessible in the winter).
Despite its name, Iceland has surprisingly mild winters for a country at that latitude owing to the warming effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. Iceland enjoys a maritime temperate climate and the winters are often compared with those of New England (though the winds in winter can be bitter). However the rapidly changing weather has given rise to the local saying: 'If you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes!' It's the kind of place where it's not unusual to get rained on and sunburnt at the same time - some Icelandic people also believe that if the winter is hard and long then the summer will be good and warm. The summers are usually colder and windier than elsewhere at the same latitude (the effect of the ocean again) and 20 to 25°C is considered quite warm.
Iceland is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.
Iceland is easily reached via air and the international airport is Keflavík (IATA: KEF; ICAO: BIKF), in the southwest of the country about 40 km from Reykjavík. The airport itself is quite barren; if you have a lengthy layover you should bring books or other forms of entertainment.
As of January 2010, be prepared to go through a security screening immediately upon arrival in Iceland if you arrive from outside the EEA. This is before you go through passport control.
Since Iceland is not in the EU, you will have to go through customs on arrival in Keflavík, regardless of place of origin. (Interestingly, a duty-free store is present in the arrivals baggage claim area.)
An airport transfer bus service (called the FlyBus ) runs between the airport and Reykjavík bus terminal via various hotels (1950 ISK one way, 45 minutes). A return is 400 ISK 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 Reykjavík. (Netbus, )
For an extra 650 ISK (total fee 2200 ISK) you can purchase a Flybus+  trip which includes drop-off (and pick-up, if requested) at a select list of hotels in the Greater Reykjavík Area . Even if you're not staying at one of these hotels they might be within walking distance of where you want to go, so depending on your destination using the Flybus as a personal taxi service may be economical.
Be warned, a metered taxi from the airport to Reykjavík costs about 9500 ISK.
Nonstop flights on Icelandair  are available at the best value from the U.S. and Canada, with gateways in New York City (JFK), Seattle, Boston, Halifax, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Toronto, and Orlando (Sanford). Destinations beyond Iceland include most major European cities (i.e. Amsterdam, Bergen, Berlin, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Helsinki, London, Oslo, Madrid, Manchester, Milan, Munich, Paris, and Stockholm, with newly added cities Dusseldorf and Stavanger), with Icelandair's hub-and-spoke network connecting via Keflavík in Iceland. (Please note that some destinations are seasonal.) You can also have a stopover in Iceland en route to Europe at no additional airfare. That's two destinations for the price of one!
Another option is Iceland Express  which flies from Copenhagen and London (Gatwick) to Keflavik (with additional service during the summer month to Warsaw (Frederic Chopin), Frankfurt-Hahn, Berlin (Schönefeld), Friedrichshafen, Alicante, Gothenburg and Stockholm (Arlanda). New connections have been added in 2007 from Copenhagen directly to Akureyri and Egilsstadir.
In addition, SAS offers flights from Oslo and Stockholm.
Smyril Line  operate a weekly service from Hanstholm (Denmark) and Bergen (Norway) for most of the year. The ferry sails in two nights from Bergen to Seyðisfjörður, on the east coast of Iceland, via Torshavn, in the Faeroe Islands.
Between mid-June and late August, the ferry usually calls at Scrabster, on the northern tip of Scotland. Scrabster is easily accessible from the railway station at Thurso, and the sailing time to Iceland is only one night. Service to Scrabster was suspended in the summer of 2009 due to the severe economic conditions, and the company has not announced any return of service in 2010.
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 entering one of the fjords like Akureyri.
Scheduled service to nearby destinations, including Greenland and Faroe Islands, is provided by Air Iceland .
A car offers the most flexibility for travel around Iceland. Numerous agencies rent vehicles, and ferries allow individuals to bring their own car with them. Rental prices are high - expect to pay at least ISK4000 per day for a two wheel drive vehicle, and upwards of ISK12,000 per day for a four-wheel drive vehicle; these prices include basic car insurance, but additional insurance may be purchased to protect against damage from gravel or other common mishaps. Read the fine-print however, because the things that usually break (windshield, tires, bottom of the car) are usually excluded. Travelers can see the majority of Iceland's sights with a two-wheel drive vehicle, but those interested in venturing into the interior or to places such as Landmannalaugar will need four-wheel drive - and long experience at the wheel - as roads are rough and rivers may need to be crossed. In some locations it's best not to travel alone due to the difficult terrain and weather conditions. Be aware that renting a four wheel drive vehicle may require reservations made several months in advance as these vehicles are in high demand. In addition, renting cars on-location is almost never cheaper than doing so in advance, and car rentals, including at the airport, are not open around the clock.
Driving in Iceland is on the right side of the road. Headlights and seatbelts for all passengers must be on at all times. There is one main highway, Route 1-Ring Road, that encircles the country.
Gas can generally be obtained 24 hours at self-service stations using a charge or credit card, but you will need a PIN number for that card. Alternatively, most stations sell prepaid cards that can be used to buy gas after-hours. If traveling around the country, the gas tank should be kept near full because stations can be 100-200 km (62 to 124 mi) apart. Petrol costs (as of summer 2009) are around ISK185 per litre. Because of Iceland's ever-changing 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. The general speed limit on Icelandic rural roads is 90 km/h on paved surface and 80 km/h on gravel, in urban areas the general speed limit is 50 km/h. There are some exceptions from the general limits that are specifically signed as such (the limit is never higher than 90 though) but be aware that the general speed limit is usually not indicated by signs. Speed cameras are posted around the country, and fines can easily reach ISK 50,000 - 130,000. The DUI limit is 0.05%, with a minimum fine of ISK 70,000 - don't drink and drive.
Drivers in Iceland should familiarize themselves with road signs and be prepared for Iceland's unique driving conditions. The roads in Iceland are of a high quality, typically made from slightly rough black basalt. Crossing rivers can be very dangerous, particularly if it has been raining, and should be done with great caution. Driving on gravel can be a challenge, and loss of control on cliff-side roads can easily be fatal. There are two signs in particular 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.
If you are travelling by road a great site to check is the Iceland Meteorological Office  who have an excellent set of pages including the Icelandic Road Administration  on all of the main roads.
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. The BSI tours to the interior, in special 4x4 buses, are a much cheaper and more relaxing alternative to driving and serve most major locations (e.g. Landmannalaugar, Thorsmork, Aksja etc). Tours to the interior are only scheduled for the summer months.
Some of the largest day tours and sightseeing companies include Iceland Excursions - Gray Line Iceland  and Reykjavik Excursions . They operate tours all year round and bus routes all over the West, South and East part of the country, while SBA-Nordurleid  operates routes all over the North and East of Iceland.
If you are interested in nature and wildlife one company, Gavia Travel, is specialized in that offering day tours from Reykjavik to both Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Reykjanes Peninsula during the summer months .
A Golden Circle tour is available from Reykjavík which will take you round the Gulfoss waterfall, geysers, the crater, the Garden of Eden (a souvenir shop and restaurant) and the Mid-Atlantic rift/place of Iceland's first Parliament. Although you don't get much time at each stop the guide will tell you about Iceland's history and some general information.
Cycling is a good way to experience Iceland, and provides a very different experience to other means of transport. You should bring your own touring bike, as buying a bike locally can be expensive. 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. However, if going self-supported, considering the weather and conditions, it is strongly advisable to have a previous touring experience.
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 drivers who do give rides is high, especially in the off-season. However, low traffic in areas outside Reykjavik makes hitchhiking in Iceland an endurance challenge. Even on the main ring-road the frequency of cars is often less than one car per hour in the east. 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 travelling.
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 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, Swedish or Faroese will be able to puzzle out many written words, but are unlikely to understand the spoken language.
Most Icelanders speak English, but it doesn't hurt to know your 'please and thank you' to make things go a little more smoothly. Many people have basic knowledge of German, the Scandinavian languages (Danish in particular) and some Spanish and French too. At college level, Icelandic students choose a "third language" to study, often between Spanish, German, French or Italian for example. Many students also opt to study a fourth language. Danish and English are taught at an elementary school level.
Consult the Icelandic phrasebook for more information.
A bus  from the Main Bus Station in Reykjavík takes 40 minutes and costs 3000 ISK, including admission to the Blue Lagoon. They have a fantastic system in place at the Blue Lagoon. When you pay your entry you can rent swimsuits and towels. You are given a bracelet with chip technology that you use to operate the lockers in the changing rooms, and also records the amount of anything you wish to buy while you are there - lunch, drink, souvenir, disposable camera - and when you turn in the bracelet as you leave you then pay for the day's fun. You could easily spend an entire afternoon, or this makes a great stop on the way to or from the airport.
For an out of the way drive rent a car and travel along the southern part of the ring road to the town of Vík with its magnificent black sand beaches, rock outcroppings, glaciers, and lava fields.
South-central Iceland, easily accessible by car or tour from Reykjavík, has a number of sights;
The rest of Iceland also has amazing sights;
The local currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK), and its value collapsed quite dramatically during the 2008 economic crisis. As of March 2010, it trades at around 1 EUR = 175 ISK. This has also made local prices more affordable for the visitor, although the prices of imported goods have risen rapidly.
You will get a better rate of exchange if you buy and sell your króna in Iceland itself. Just about every establishment in Iceland will accept a credit card, including taxis, gas stations, souvenir stands, and even the most remote guest house, so it is not necessary to carry large amounts of Icelandic currency. However, due to the currency's instability some credit cards are still wary of króna transactions, so check with your bank before you go and don't rely entirely on plastic.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, foreign trading in the króna has been restricted, so you may struggle to get króna notes in your home country. As at March 2009 we found the only method was to find old stock at Bureaux de Change which carried it in stock, such as Marks & Spencer.
Getting to Iceland can be done very cheaply: Icelandair and Iceland Express both offer many excellent fares and promotions. However, as soon as one steps off the plane the situation changes quite drastically - prices in Iceland can be vastly higher than in other parts of the world, particularly for items such as food and alcohol. The difference in prices between Iceland and the rest of Northern Europe is much less; petrol is cheaper, for example.
Useful discount card schemes exist for tourists, the two most significant being Norden Voyager Card, operated by the Norden Association of Iceland, and Reykjavik City Card, operated by the City of Reykjavik.
When shopping for food or other necessities, look for Bónus or Krónan shops, as they offer considerably lower prices than the others. This is at the expense of quality, of course.
Expect to spend around 600 to 800ISK on a beer or a glass of wine, 2500ISK on a pizza for one person, or 270 ISK on a city bus ride.
Cigarettes cost around 850 ISK for a packet of 20. Be aware that the law in Iceland states that cigarettes may not be on show in the shop, however most gas stations, supermarkets and newsagents will sell them.
Typical Icelandic products that make good souvenirs include:
Icelandic cuisine has changed a lot in the last few decades from involving mainly lamb or fish in some form or other, as the popularity of other types of food has increased. A vegetarian diet is more tricky to maintain but there are several vegetarian restaurants in Reykjavík and vegetarian dishes widely available at other restaurants.
Distinctively Icelandic foods include:
Iceland is famous for its whale meat, being one of the few places in the world where it is possible to eat Minke whale. Whilst many westerners may have strong feelings about the morality of the hunting and eating of whale, it is advisable to read up on both sides of the arguments before making your mind up. Whaling has long been a tradition of Icelanders and is a proud part of their heritage, so do not rush to judge. Most restaurants that cater to tourists will sell whale meat, and if you are feeling a little more adventurous some places will serve grated puffin with it if you ask.
During the Þorri season (late January-Early February) many Icelanders enjoy Þorramatur, a selection of traditional Icelandic cuisine which usually contain the following: hákarl (putrefied shark cubes), Sviðasulta (head cheese made from svið), Lundabaggi (Sheep's fat) and hrútspungar (pickled ram's testicles). Þorramatur is usually served at gatherings known as Þorrablót. If you find yourself invited to a Þorrablót do not be afraid to (politely) refuse some of the more unpalatable delicacies, as many Icelanders chose to do so as well. Don't worry about going hungry, though, as many of the more "normal" foods mentioned above are almost always available too. If uncertain which is which, do not be afraid to ask the caterers for assistance.
A similar event to Þorrablót is Þorláksmessa, celebrated on 23 December each year. During this day you might find yourself invited to skötuveislur where cured skate is served. As with Þorrablót, you can politely refuse to partake in the skate (other type of fish is usually served alongside it for the less adventurous). A word of warning though, the pungent smell that accompanies the cooking of cured skate is very strong and sticks to hair and clothing very easily. Do not wear formal (expensive) clothing at these gatherings, especially not clothing you intend to wear during Christmas.
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.
Food prices are particularly high in Iceland - the following sample prices were accurate as of summer 2008:
Tap water is safe to drink in Iceland and it is one of the countries with cleanest water in the world. Coffee is easy to find and is comparable to what is found throughout Europe. Juices are generally imported and made from concentrate.
Alcoholic drinks are very expensive compared to the UK and USA - as an example, half litre of Viking beer in a bar will cost approximately ISK 600. Liquor can be purchased at licensed bars, restaurants, or VinBud , the state monopoly. The local Icelandic drinks such as Brennivín ("Black death") contain a fairly high alcohol content, so pace yourself while at the bars.
The local beer brands are:
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! Be sure to not exceed the allowance which is 1L strong alcohol and 1L light wine (less than 22%) or 1L strong and 6L of beer. The strong alcohol can be exchanged for either 1L light wine or 6L beer.
Drinking age in Iceland is 20 for all alcoholic beverages.
If you're visiting in summertime you won't regret bringing an eye mask with you. During the height of summer there is no actual darkness and in the north, the sun might just dip for a few minutes below the horizon.
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 be 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. 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 Reykjavík.
Guesthouses are between hotels and hostels in prices and services. At some times if travelling 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.
The members are farmers who offer accommodation to travellers in their homes, guesthouses, country-hotels and cottages. The association was founded in 1980 and from 1990 Icelandic Farm Holidays has been a fully licensed Tour operator and a Travel agent. The accommodation is diverse; made up beds in four different categories, with or without private bathroom, sleeping bag accommodation, cottages and camping. Some of the farms offer also various recreation; horse riding, fishing, hunting, sailing, swimming, glacier tours, golf, etc.
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 sleeping bags are essential and an inner, I would also highly recommend thick pyjamas and a warm hat! A bedding roll is also useful as you may end up sleeping on very rough ground...and that's just not very comfortable at all! Don't wait until last minute to find a place to camp. Campers and mobile homes have become immensely popular among Icelanders and they take up a lot of space. You could arrive at a large camping ground that's so filled up with campers and mobile homes that you'll have no place to pitch your tent.
Don't bother attempting to sleep in the Keflavík Airport overnight. It's far better to find a hotel in Keflavík or Reykjavík before arrival.
Unemployment in Iceland is rising and the wages are crashing, right now Iceland is not a place to come in hopes of finding work. Work permits are required for citizens of most countries. The exceptions are citizens of the Nordic Countries (Greenland, Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Åland 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 aforementioned countries, as 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 in labour unions.
A great resource is the Directorate of Labour  website.
Iceland is among the safest places in the world, so there is almost no chance of getting robbed or harassed. This, however, excludes Reykjavík, which has recently begun to suffer of some petty theft, and monthly news of night-time rapes and beatings downtown. Also, use common sense when visiting the night life, partying in down town Reykjavik can get pretty wild and mixed with alcohol, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of arguments and fights. If you see this happening, if anything just alert the next police officer you see, and don't be a hero. There is a certain group of Icelanders who aren’t very keen to foreigners since Iceland is experiencing the largest immigration wave ever. However this usually only applies more to the younger xenophobic generation, but nevertheless, bear in mind a little caution, but don’t let it prevent you from having fun.
Iceland is a country where nature is the supreme ruler. Always do what the signs tell you to do. If there are no signs, be aware of cracks in the lava you are walking on, that the weather changes very rapidly, and that the sea is a cruel mistress and might sweep you away, even if you're just standing on a beach. Also, be wary of volcanic eruptions, althought this is less likely than the other dangers.
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. Since the roads are very quiet and the distances between settlements great, some Icelanders abuse this by speeding considerably. Sheep sometimes roam near the roads or even on them, so always have your eyes open and be on the look out for sheep. Check out the following website for up-to-date road-condition information: .
The Icelandic Narcotics Police has a very strict policy on drugs; minimum fine for possession of under 1 gram (3/100 of an oz.) of any illegal substance can result in a fine of over 30000 ISK ($373/€237/£188 in June 2008).
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 especially 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 Arctic Circle) which has been tried and tested by Icelanders in rough conditions for 80 years. Exercise extra caution in geothermal areas.