Iceland had been on my wish list of countries to visit for quite a while now. Inspired by stories from friends that had been there and all the jaw-dropping photos on the internet I was expecting a country offering sweeping landscapes and stunning views. So when it presented itself, I took the opportunity to visit the southern part of the country. The thing with expectations though, is that when they are high, this rarely leads to anything good. At best, they are met, but making the oh-my-god-this-is-unbelievably-beautiful effect impossible. At worst, they are not met at all and either way, you will never be surprised. I am the first to admit that I am a spoiled traveller, but thinking about everything I saw and experienced in Iceland I realise that in the end the expectations leave me a tad unsettled. It is not so much that I am dissatisfied but I have a strange feeling that I saw something very different from what I was expecting. Not in a bad way, just different. Nevertheless, the sweeping landscapes and stunning views were there and I enjoyed them thoroughly. The interesting part is that while great expectations may not always have been met, the trip was full of unexpected experiences that make this country more than worthwhile to visit.
Everything in and about Iceland is small. The attractions such as the geysers, the houses Icelanders live in, Reykjavik’s historic old centre, it was all tiny, tiny, tiny. Maybe this should not come as a surprise. Iceland is a relatively small island, with a population of 360,000 persons (about as many as live in my city, Utrecht). Maybe they just like mini. The main attractions such as their smoky waterholes and the lovely puffins are also sort of miniature. Many times we would find something interesting in our travel guide, for example a geothermal park with geysers and fumaroles, only to discover that it was the size of a post stamp. Icelanders live in in tiny, one-story, houses. The Netherlands being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, we are used to having limited space available. It is difficult to believe that Icelanders do not use more of the space to build larger houses, given that Iceland is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Estimating from the outside, I think the average house is about 50m2. And that is all, as they rarely have a second floor. By the way, there is one exception to the miniature rule: cars. We drove around in a modest Toyota Yaris, but many cars are 4WD and their tyres alone were already about the size of our car!
Do not judge a book by its cover
They funny thing about Iceland is that, though it can look quite run-down, non-descript or plain ugly from the outside, what is on the inside will surprise you. Capital Reykjavik has a lovely old city centre, with colourful houses and unexpectedly large gardens. However, this city centre only comprises a few streets and soon enough you are walking through streets with buildings that desperately need either some fresh paint or a bulldozer. Nevertheless, I have learned that in Iceland you should never judge a book by its cover. No matter how grisly things look from the outside, most buildings are rather classy on the inside. In the Netherlands we have the concept of ‘gezellig’ which is a combination of cosiness, fun and good times. In Danish they use ‘hygge’ to describe a similar concept. I am not sure whether a word for this exists in Icelandic, but they got it down. Interiors are classy and cosy, with warm lighting, warmth in general and lovely furniture. In other words: gezellig. To add to this, Icelanders are extremely friendly. Everywhere we went, no one seemed to be fed up with tourists, service in restaurants was excellent and in general people were very welcoming.
Wet waterfalls and gracious glaciers
To be honest, I am not sure why the country is called Iceland, Waterland would have been just as appropriate. In Iceland, water is everywhere. Often in the form of rain, but it can also take the shape of rivers, waterfalls, free bottles of water in restaurants, hot springs or warms showers smelling like sulphur. It is a good thing I like water. I loved all the waterfalls popping up everywhere when driving to the east, with the ocean on the one hand and hills and mountains on the other side. The one I found most impressive was Gulfoss, a two-stage waterfall that is both wide and deep. I have seen quite some waterfalls (though none of the big ones like Victoria or Niagara Falls) but Gulfoss definitely made it straight to the top of the list.
The icy part of Iceland is mainly reflected in its glaciers and icecaps, covering 11% of the land. I once walked a glacier in Austria, which was quite the adventure. But I have never seen anything like the numerous glacier outlets in the south east of Iceland. Glaciers coming down from the mountains, ending in glacial lakes filled with icebergs, eventually flowing out into the ocean. This was by far the most impressive piece of nature I have seen on this trip. The vast amount of ice sloping down, the endless shapes the ice takes after decades of movement caused by its own weight, it is a sight you do not often get to behold. Humbling and breathtaking at once.
There are quite a few places where you can go on a boat trip to get a closer look at the icebergs. The number of icebergs in the lake differs almost on a daily basis, depending on how many flow out into sea and how much ice breaks off from the glacier. When we were at Jökulsárlón, there we not that many, but it still interesting to see them up close, checking whether they recently flipped upside down or not. Due to the outbreak of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 (remember air traffic being shut down for a couple of days due to the risk volcanic ashes pose to airplanes?) most of the glacier ice is no longer pristine white, but blackish. Not related, but another boat trip we took was around the Reykjavik bay area, looking for whales. I would have loved to write an awe-inspiring story about whales and how impressive they are, but unfortunately they were hiding from us so we did not see any…
Fish, lamb and other delights
One of the most pleasant surprises during the trip was the great food. I had mentally prepared for eating raw fish and skyr for breakfast every day, but it turns out Iceland has all sorts of exquisite food items to offer. The fish is amazing of course! Fresh out of the ocean I enjoyed the local specialty, Atlantic char, and other dishes including lobster, haddock, salmon and tuna. As can be expected, the sushi was one of the best I have ever had. But there is so much more! It was unknown to me, but apparently, lamb is Iceland’s other signature dish. It definitely explains all the sheep you see walking around in an otherwise fairly abandoned landscape. Furthermore, Icelanders looooove pastries and have become quite skilled at baking delicious muffins, carrot cakes and other pastry delights. Having a sweet tooth, it was wonderful to have a selection of pastries to choose from every morning. One hotel made my day by serving waffles for breakfast. Besides the food being very tasty, Icelanders also go out of their way to present it in a tasteful way. I loved how my pulled lamb was presented on a lamb-shaped cutting board. I guess the considerate presentation of the food is a reflection of Iceland and Icelanders in general. Wherever you go, whether the Blue Lagoon or a random supermarket, things are very well-arranged. Processes run smoothly, despite the often large number of people there is hardly any unnecessary waiting and whichever attraction you are looking for, clear signs point you in the right direction.
The bad is not so bad
It is interesting to realise that, though Iceland has its downsides, you kind of easily accept them. Yes, there áre a lot of tourists in Iceland. Heaps of Americans, Asians and, oddly enough, Spanish people flock to the geysers and waterfalls. Not that many Dutchies, perhaps they find it too expensive and cold compared to France or Italy. Because yes, a trip to Iceland ís expensive. A dinner for two, with just a main course and a glass of wine will easily cost you €75. It helps that the food is good, even in the most touristy areas. And yes, Iceland ís cold and wet. But somehow, all these things that would normally bug me, are not so bad in Iceland. Perhaps because I had kind prepared myself for it. I knew there would be a lot of tourists, especially in the southern part. You hardly see any Icelanders or hear any Icelandic. When looking for a place for lunch in Reykjavik, we entered a restaurant in the historic centre. From the outside, it felt like we were stepping into a tourist trap, like you know you are just like when you pick a restaurant on Times Square or beneath the Eiffel Tower. Once we entered though, we realised we had chosen the most popular lunch place for Icelanders. Together with an Indian family, we were the only tourists. It was nice to see they actually existed. When it comes to the other downsides: I knew things would be crazily expensive. And I most certainly did not expect 25˚C and sunshine. As long as you keep this in mind, Iceland will treat you well.
Things I would do differently next time
We had a beautiful journey around the southern half of Iceland. I would love to return one day and explore the northern half and inlands of this fascinating country. A few things I would do differently then. I would rent a 4WD, namely because the north and particularly the highlands (inland Iceland) are not accessible with a regular car. We were 500 meters away from the gorgeous canyon where Justin Bieber shot his music video, but were not allowed to go any further in our little two-wheel drive Toyota. Also, what excuse do I need to fulfil my lifelong dream of driving a huge-ass Landcruiser once again anyway? If driving through rivers it not your cup of tea, at least make sure you rent a car with cruise control. The roads are pretty much all one-lane, 90 km/h and pretty empty, so cruise control will make your life much more bearable. I would also further improve the waterproofness of my outfit. I walked around on my sneakers, but when the heavens open (and rest assured, they will at one point or another) it is nice to wear waterproof shoes, trousers and a waterproof coat (the latter I had). We were actually quite lucky that every time we got out of the car the rain more or less stopped. However, inevitably, when we visited one of the glaciers, we got soaking wet within two minutes of leaving the shelter of the car. There is also a lot of wind, but with the waterproofness, that is usually also taken care of.
All in all, a trip full of met and unmet expectations and many tiny surprises. In a country with such an otherworldly landscape the disappointments were few and far between, despite the expectations. I would love to return one day to explore the other half of the island. But first I need a few years to hoard all the warmth I can find to be able to survive spending another summer holiday in a country where it never gets warmer than about 15˚C. I was definitely not built for such a climate.