Iceland: bubbling with brilliance

The old adage I learned in grade school is that Greenland is actually composed of ice, while Iceland is actually green. While this is not completely accurate since there is ice in Iceland, the notion of Iceland being a cold and inhospitable place is equally inaccurate. The warm Atlantic Gulf Stream and countless hot springs and other geothermic activity actually provide Iceland with a much more moderate climate than you would typically find in a country located in the extreme north. During the winter time in the capital of Reykjavik, for instance, while it does get below freezing, it’s typically only a few degrees below, which is not what you’d expect from a country called Iceland.


These are all good reasons why avoiding Iceland would be hasty, but they do not address why Iceland is a great vacation destination in the first place. In short, the countryside is rugged and stunning in its beauty, a giant, rocky and volcanic hot tub that’s like nowhere else. Iceland is world renowned for ice trekking activities, and a host of other adventure activities as well. In short, Iceland has been up and coming on the world’s vacation radar because it offers an array of unique vacation experiences which travelers will find nowhere else.


Getting in, out, and about


Despite its distance from the rest of the European mainland, Iceland is considered a part of Europe, and the country is a member of the Schengen Agreement. For US travelers with a passport that has at least three months remaining validity, this means you can enter Iceland without the need for a special visa if your purpose in traveling is for tourism. Once in the Schengen Area, you can stay for up to 90 days within a 6 month period. Icelandic officials will require you to have a return plane ticket and demonstration that you have enough money to fund your stay while you are there.


Iceland’s health care system is excellent, and the country sees very little in the way of diseases that travelers should prepare for. The US Center for Disease Control recommends that all travelers are at least up to date on common vaccinations, such as those against measles, polio, and small pox. Depending on your vacation plans, you may opt to get additional vaccinations against Hepatitis A & B, and rabies. Before you finalize your travel plans, consult with your local doctor to see if any vaccinations would be appropriate for you. One important thing to note is that the tap water in Iceland is not only safe to drink, but it’s delicious as well.


In order to get around from town to town or site to site in Iceland, you have limited options. Bus travel is one such option, but keep in mind that it tends to be expensive. Nevertheless, you can minimize that expense by purchasing passes in some circumstances that give you unlimited travel on the bus system. Comparably priced, local air travel is the preferred method for Icelandic residents to get from city to city in Iceland. Since Iceland has an extremely low crime rate, hitchhiking is another option, but with this you have to be prepared for sudden and extreme weather changes that can put the unprepared in mortal danger.


Renting a vehicle to drive around Iceland is another viable option. In order to drive in Iceland, you must be at least 17 years old. A valid US driver’s license will allow you to drive in the country for up to 90 days. While this is a great way to appreciate the gorgeous scenery that makes up Iceland, there are many factors you need to know.


Iceland uses two types of roads primarily: well-paved and gravel roads. While car rental companies usually allow you to buy insurance, the insurance does not cover gravel damage to the car or tires. In fact, many car rental agencies will bar you from taking anything other than a 4 wheel drive vehicle onto the gravel roads, and even with a vehicle such as this, it is illegal to go off road.


Many of the mountain passes are barred throughout the year, with some only coming open during June and July. When they are not closed, you may be required to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle or snow tires in order to use that road.


Another important thing to consider is that the transition of a car from a paved to a gravel road can cause the driver to lose control of their vehicle if taken too fast. The same care applies when crossing bridges in Iceland, which are generally only one lane wide. If you do rent a vehicle in Iceland and plan on driving outside of the cities, you should make sure you have a working cell phone and plenty of extra food, water, and blankets in case you get stranded and the weather gets difficult.


Iceland is also a great place for hikers, but it can get dangerous. A good approach is to never go outside of the cities alone and to always leave information with someone in the city regarding your plans. Iceland never has terrorist attacks; instances of violent crime are low as well. The most frequent cause for danger to tourists occurs when they find themselves in areas where they are not prepared for extreme weather conditions.


One popular activity in Iceland is whale watching, which you can do year-round in Reykjavik. This goes hand-in-hand with one of Iceland’s biggest industries: whaling. While whale meat may be part of the culture in Iceland, it is illegal to bring into the US. Any attempt to do so, no matter how innocent, can put you at risk for an extensive fine upon your return to the US.


The traveler’s tongue


Iceland’s official language is Icelandic. It’s most closely related to medieval Norse, although Icelandic speakers can read other Nordic languages such as Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish with little difficulty. When spoken however, Icelandic is wildly different than the other Nordic languages. Nevertheless, most people from Iceland speak Danish as a second language as well. Another widely spoken language in Iceland is English, and you will find that most people speak English with varying degrees of fluency. While you may not have to know Icelandic in order to get by in Iceland, learning a few words and phrases will put you in good stead with your hosts.


Money matters in Iceland


Iceland uses the Icelandic króna as its currency. On international currency markets it’s abbreviated ISK, but when written as a price, the abbreviation kr comes first, followed by the numerical price. When writing out numbers in Iceland, people use decimal points and commas in the exact opposite way that we do in the US. For example, 10.000 in Icelandic means ten thousand, whereas 10,000 means ten.


Tipping is unnecessary in Iceland and rarely practiced. You can tip the change for exceptional service, but Icelandic service workers get paid much better wages than their counterparts in the US so that full tipping is rarely necessary.


The no-tipping culture in Iceland is fortunate because the country can get expensive. For example, hostels start out at about $22 USD, but most range from $30 to $50 USD for 1 person per night. A moderate three star hotel can be around $175 to $250 USD per person per night. You can find many additional options for accommodations between hostels and hotels such as bed and breakfasts and short term rental accommodations. These are often either cheaper than hostels or they give you more bang for your buck. Food prices can get expensive in Iceland as well. For example, a hamburger can cost you around $17 USD. If you travel on a budget typically, it’s a good idea to plan your travel expenses and book things in advance of your arrival.


Highlights of a vacation to Iceland


One interesting effect of Iceland’s subarctic location is the experience of the sun at midnight during the summer months, while in the winter, you only get a few hours of sunlight altogether. Leave the cities during the winter time and you have a good shot at seeing the aurora borealis, the famous northern lights. Here are a few highlights of a vacation in Iceland:


  • Reykjavik. The capital of Iceland has a good public transit system, but the city has also been designed for walking. A path for pedestrians and cyclists encircles the city and offers many fantastic views. Two iconic buildings that you must see are the Harpa, an oddly shaped glass and steel concert hall, and the Hallgrimskirkja Church. In addition are numerous parks, galleries, museums, and hot springs pools.
  • Caving. If you like to go underground, Iceland has many stunning ice caves and lava tubes that make the country’s underworld a unique experience. Check out Búri cave, which is filled with ice sculptures during the winter, or Thrihnjukagigur cave inside a volcano, or numerous others. Many are near the city of Reykjavik, so you can use the city as an embarkation point. Icelandic natives will also remind you to be on the lookout for the Huldufólk, the elves that live secretly in the underworld throughout Iceland.
  • Adventure travel. Whether it’s hiking, rock climbing, ice trekking, snowmobile racing, white water rafting, or exploring the wilderness in an off-road 4×4, Iceland features plenty of activities for those who crave the rush of adrenaline. While you cannot go off road yourself, you can hire licensed guides who will take you. Horseback riding is another popular activity when you come to Iceland.
  • Golden Circle. This is a popular tourist route that stretches for about 300 kilometers. Here you can see the great waterfall, Gullfoss; the geothermal hot spot of Haukadulur, with its active geysers; and Ϸingvellir National Park, where you can see the beginnings of the Mid-Atlantic ridge that stretches all the way down to Antarctica.
  • Blue Lagoon. Because of all the volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs, Iceland is filled with numerous places to take a dip and relax. No place is more popular for that than the Blue Lagoon spa located in the midst of a lava field in the town of Grindavik.


The entire country of Iceland is filled with waterfalls, deep rocky canyons, fjords, volcanoes, and hot springs, which all conspire to give the country a kind of haunting beauty that’s unlike nowhere else. Start making your plans today and come see stunning Iceland.