Iceland – the very word conjures up images of frozen wilderness, awesome glaciers, the surreal natural light phenomenon – Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and an expedition like setting.
This country of amazing extremes in the North Atlantic is also home to one of the world’s most blessed people. Icelandic folks have shown to the rest of the world, what it means to have a high quality of life viz-a-viz democracy, gender equality, health care, education, Internet penetration and what have you!
In the hindsight, it must also be said that Iceland is not for everyone. At least not for the faint-hearted. Not for those with conservative temperaments and certainly not for those who expect luxury at their doorstep while holidaying. Iceland is and forever will be for those who travel in search of experiences that defy the stereotyped human tendencies.
Even today, there are a whole lot of travellers who wouldn’t even venture to the icy Icelandic periphery in the winters. But there are those brave souls, numbers are few though, who wouldn’t stop visiting this amazing landmass on planet earth even when winter has set in. Iceland is an all-season destination and every season offers hush-hush secrets, which are discovered by those who dare to venture and confront the icy and often glacial environs.
Iceland is located close proximity to the arctic circle, and believe it or not, half of Grimsey’s land-mass, (island to the North coast) lies in the Arctic Circle. Countries neighbouring Iceland are Greenland located at a distance of 286 km (180 miles), The Faroe Islands – 420 km (260 miles), Scotland – 795 km (495 miles) and of course Norway located at a distance of 950 km (590 miles). You can reach Reykjavik from New York in five hours by flight and in three hours from London.
This country has earned the epithet of – “The Land of Fire and Ice”, courtesy of the geological presence of some of the most awe-inspiring glaciers and some of the planet’s most active volcanoes. This one country where the ethereal pay of mother nature’s light phenomenon consisting of light and darkness, characterized by long summer days (24-hours sunshine) are compensated by short winter days with barely a few hours of sunshine.
The landmass in Iceland is typically divided into eight regions – South Iceland, East Iceland, North Iceland, Westfjords, West Iceland, Reykjanes, Reykjavik and the Highlands. And needless to say, each region is uniquely mesmerizing in terms of culture and topography.
The Icelandic coastline is all of 4,970 km, and the icing on the cake is the country’s exclusive 200 nautical-miles special economic zone, which makes it feasible to drive along the island’s mesmerising coastal route should you decide to embark on a road trip. Iceland’s highest peak – Hvannadalshnjúkur, which soars to 2,119 m (6,852 ft) above sea level is a favourite among visitors.
If you are a visitor from China or India, the sense of space and freedom is what baffles you, with 80% of Iceland being uninhabited. The rugged terrain consists of not just high mountain peaks but also plateaux and fertile lowlands. There are countless fjords and glaciers and the landscape is conspicuous by amazing waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and one-of-a-kind lava fields.
Iceland’s landmass comprises of glaciers (12,000 Sq.km), Lava (11,000 Sq.km), Sand (4,000 Sq.km), Water (3,000 Sq.km), and Pasture Land (1,000 Sq.km). You can now imagine the kind of topography that you will encounter once you set foot in Reykjavik. The most intriguing aspect of Iceland’s landmass is that it is growing by 5 centimetres every year.
Language, Culture & History
The Icelandic language, which dates back to ancient times, has bred a rich literary legacy. Today, visitors to Iceland listen with rapt attention to the tales of bravery and of those fiercely fought battles that Icelandic folks fought for their survival.
Did you know that in terms of per capita book publishing, Icelandic authors publish infinitely more books than any other country? Sounds astonishing? Aint it?. But it’s true. What is more, for those contemporary connoisseurs of culture who vouch for all things modern, Iceland’s music scene is booming, a film industry at par with the best the world has to offer and Icelandic design, which is gradually evolving on the world scene.
Legend has it that way back in the late 9th century A.D., when the first Viking invaders made their presence felt in Iceland they found this piece of land uninhabited. Today, apart from Iceland’s frozen wilderness, most visitors are also awestricken by the rich virile past of this country, which is visible if only you have your eyes open.
For instance, consider Althingi – the oldest Parliament in the world, which dates back to 930 A.D. Here in this hallowed premises local heads of the clan would assemble and pass judgements for the welfare of the society. Legislations were passed and legal cases too were considered and amicably settled. This national shrine of Iceland – Pingvellir, ideally located to the northern periphery of Lake Pingvallavatn is today a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.
Make it a point to embark on a Golden Circle Tour of this outstanding neighbourhood.
The Norse settlers were known to have worshipped the pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses like – Þór, Óðinn, Freyr, Freyja etc. Christianity too wasn’t an unknown entity.
Icelandic folklore has enough evidence of the first settlers having embraced Christianity before migrating to Iceland. DNA analysis of Icelandic folks indicates that 60% of the female population be of Celtic blood and those who intruded to Iceland as slaves also were predominantly of Celtic origin.
Not many are aware that Iceland is also one of the safest countries in the world. In this part of the world crime rate is low, extremely low and when it comes to medical care, Iceland simply is the best.
However, a word of caution to first-time travellers – “Be Careful” since the vagaries of nature in Iceland makes it almost mandatory to be on guard, especially while travelling since the weather can change dramatically in a matter of moments.
So, while Iceland is beautiful, it can also be pretty unsympathetic and unpredictable. The wise thing to do is have a few extra holiday options and be flexible with the itinerary. If you fall into difficult situations, there is always help at hand courtesy – The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue that offer intelligent solutions.
If for instance, you are travelling to the Highlands in the winter months, it would be wise to get in touch with The Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA).
Needless to say, if you are an avid adventure freak, always carry suitable equipment. For instance, Hiking requires tailor-made equipment, glacial exploration another and outdoor safaris yet another. There is a useful Icelandic web portal – www.safetravel.is that lists equipment for different types of outdoor activities.
Another thing to bear in mind is that it is extremely important to let someone know about your travelling schedule well in advance. To facilitate hassle-free travel through Iceland, you can shoot your travel plan to – www.safetravel.is and also ensure that you leave a plan behind with your localhost. Most travellers to Iceland are armed with maps, a compass and a GPS, which can be particularly useful in secluded areas.
When it comes to Ice climbing & hiking on glaciers, Iceland offers 4,500 Sq.Miles of glacial terrain. Glacial climbing is a year-round phenomenon and the Sólheimajökull and Svínafellsjökull neighbourhoods are much preferred by visitors. Day trips are also available from Reykjavík.
An increasing number of visitors to Iceland also opt for driving expeditions and if you are game for this, always check with local authorities about the road condition as well as the vehicle that you hire. A 4×4 drive vehicle is indispensable in the highlands, where you will come across rugged terrain. Please be aware that all Highland roads are off-limits during winter months and the weather conditions might also necessitate other roads to be closed. For the latest information about road conditions the IRCA’s website – www.vegagardin.is could be particularly useful.
While in Iceland, the first thing on your mind should be to save the Emergency number -112. There is also a very helpful APP – The 112 Iceland app that makes it possible for local authorities to locate you if there is trouble.
Northern Lights & Photography
The magnificent Aurora Borealis draws inspiration from the Roman goddess of Dawn – Aurora and the Greek name “Boreas” for the northerly wind. Every year from September to April, Iceland is abuzz with activity, aka Photography for this one-of-its-kind light show on Planet Earth.
The Northern Lights is a natural phenomenon and it occurs at a time when the sun’s rays intermingled with the Earth’s atmosphere in the magnetic field. This causes energy to be released, which causes an unusual luminous green stripe on the sky above.
On clear wintry nights, visitors are offered sightseeing trips to view this amazing light spectacle. The certified Icelandic guides are so well versed with the light conditions that you can rest assured of reaching the most suitable location for sighting the Northern Lights.
Although there is no guarantee that you will see Northern Lights during your trip to Iceland, there are high chances of sightings in locales that are away from populated areas, away from the light pollution of Reykjavik, the capital. In the Icelandic countryside, there are hotels that offer Northern Lights wake-up service calls. What an amazing way to get up in the morning, ain’t it?
For a vast majority of the travellers to Iceland, sighting the Northern Lights is a Once-In-a-Lifetime opportunity and needless to say most come armed with the best cameras that money can buy.
The First priority for sighting is off course clear skies. If this condition is fulfilled, you are very much there. You can rely at all times on the Icelandic Met Office Website – check the weather pattern and cloud coverage report and accordingly plan your Photography mission.
A far as photography equipment are concerned, most nature-based photographers make it a point to carry a tripod and a cable release so as to escape the anxiety of the “Shaken Photo” syndrome. Unfortunately, if you don’t come with a cable release, it would be wise to set your self-timer to two or ten seconds shutter delay, just in case that option is available.
Veteran photographers are unanimous in their opinion that there just isn’t any single setting that will guarantee a great picture shoot. With manual options, you can experiment with a variety of combinations and exposures. Past Photography experts to Iceland are of the opinion that if the ISO setting hovers between 800 – 3200, the Aperture between f/2.8 – f/5.6, and the Shutter speed between 15 seconds to 30 seconds, one can rest assured of a good capture.
The Gastronomic Scene
Iceland’s wilderness is such that it supports the growth of vegetables and since there is no paucity of fresh water, a variety of fish-based menus are ready for offering the discerning world traveller a truly sumptuous gastronomic experience. Indian visitors can lay all their fears of synthetic manures to rest and look forward to relishing vegetables that are grown locally and are 100% organic.
Today, Iceland is a name to reckon with in Europe’s Gastronomy landscape with exciting new recipes, which the outside world can’t stop devouring. Icelandic Chefs conjure of mouth-watering delicacies and have over the past few decades been very innovative with the use of traditional ingredients. Needless to say, they draw inspiration from the now established Nordic Cuisine, where seasonal ingredients are the most sought after culinary custom.
Just like the Bengali and his Fish are inseparable, so is it with the Icelandic folks where the staple food is freshly caught fish. Some of the world’s biggest fishing grounds are located in close proximity to the coast of Iceland. Here the water temperature and congenial ocean currents create an ideal living condition for fishes to flourish. Fishing has been the cornerstone of Iceland’s economy for centuries together and continues to be the lifeline of this amazing nation. No wonder the streets of Reykjavik and the countrysides are choc-a-bloc with speciality fishing restaurants.
Apart from Fish based delicacies, Iceland is famed for its lamb. It’s one of the commonest sights in rural Iceland to herds of sheep grazing in the open countryside. Icelandic lambs are in huge demand worldwide and praised by celebrity chefs globally.
The Street Food scene in Iceland is pretty upbeat and Iceland’s signature snack is the Pylsa (hot dog). Just utter the word – “Eina Med Ollu” to a roadside vendor and you will be served with a plate of hot dogs audaciously topped with crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet mustard, and Icelandic Remoulade sauce.
For those who dare to experiment with native culinary traditions, a traditional Icelandic menu is easily available. Icelandic folks still savour age-old recipes like smoked fish, fermented sharks and pickled Ram’s testicles.
Come to Iceland, take the Icelandic Pledge and let the world salute this Last Frontier. This Online Pledge kicked off in June 2017 and so far close to 35,000 visitors have signed the pledge with the sole intention of keeping Iceland clean and unspoiled.
When I explore new places,
I will leave them as I found them.
I will take photos to die for,
Without dying for them.
I will follow the road into the unknown,
But never venture off the road.
And I will only park where I am supposed to.
When I sleep out under the stars,
I’ll stay within a campsite.
And when nature calls,
I won’t answer the call on nature.
I will be prepared for all weathers,
All possibilities and all adventures.
Traveller’s Fact File
Iceland offers the discerning traveller a wide variety of accommodation options ranging from budget to the truly luxurious. Reykjavik, the capital has its share of top-rate hotels, hostels and comfortable campsites.
VAKINN is Iceland’s official quality management benchmark and offers Iceland tourism quality tourism solutions. Only those companies that adhere to the highest industry standards and meet the assessment criteria are offered the privilege to showcase the trusted VAKINN logo.
VAKINN is administered by the Icelandic Tourist Board in association with The Icelandic Travel Industry Association, Innovation Center Iceland and the Icelandic Tourism Association.
The Leifur Eiríksson International Air Terminal in Keflavík, which is located at a distance of 48 km from Reykjavik is your gateway to Iceland. The airport is open 24 hours. All retail sales outlets and services are located within the duty-free zone and are, both duty and tax-free.
Some of the world’s leading brands have outlets at the Leifur Eiríksson Air Terminal. The Duty-Free Stores are much preferred by discerning travellers and far more competitive in comparison to other European aviation hubs.
There is a dedicated bus service that links Reykjavík, the capital and Keflavík International Airport. Buses to Reykjavík leave approximately 2.5 hours before the flight departures and is about a 40-50 minutes ride. The airport is well served by routine flights operated by over 25 leading airlines.