According to the Icelandic government website, on January 1, 2012 the population of Iceland was 319,575. That’s about the population of St. Louis, Missouri, spread over an area equivalent to the state of Kentucky.
In other words, it’s small.
And all I really knew about Iceland before I traveled there was:
1. They had a volcano that had erupted in 2010, the ash from which closed airports around Europe, and nearly cancelled a trip I had planned to the UK, and
2. During the 2008 World Banking Crisis, the Icelandic government had, unlike Ireland and other EU countries, let their banks fail rather than saddle their taxpayers with crippling debt.
Well, it’s 2012, and while no one can say the Icelandic economy is back to the boom years, Iceland is definitely open for business.
We arrived at Keflavik International Airport in the pre-dawn hours of the morning and discovered the first thing about being a tourist in Iceland. Things are expensive. The airport is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik, and you have 3 choices: rent a car, take the Flybus, or hop in
The rental was a non-starter as our tour plans did not require a car.
The Fly Bus was going to cost the 4 of us 10,000 Icelandic Krona (about $80 USD) for a trip to the Reykjavik Central Bus terminal, where passengers are off loaded to smaller buses which take them to their hotels. Somehow having to wait in various lines, and load and unload our luggage multiple times did not appeal after a sleepless overnight flight. So we opted for the taxi., which cost us $120 USD to the door of the Hilton Nordica.
In the taxi we learned our second and third Icelandic lessons: everyone in Iceland speaks passable English (though I wouldn’t want try to discuss Proust's use of religious imagery, or nuclear physics), and no one lets the weather slow them down.
The sky was still black as we settled in the back of the taxi. Fat, white snowflakes filled the path of the taxi’s headlights, obscuring everything but the blurry, red glare of the tail lights of the vehicles we followed.
Still the cabbie raced down the highway, slipping here and there as his tires lost traction over patches of ice. In reckless style that would do a Manhattan cabbie proud, our driver defended his lane from invading trucks and passed out the less stouthearted. Pretending nonchalance, my husband quietly pull his seat belt on, and the rest of us quickly followed suit.
Fortunately, we did not become Iceland's latest road fatalities, and after a nice shower and even nicer nap, felt ready to take on the capital city of Iceland.
Reykjavik is home to 60 percent of Iceland’s population, and is the world’s northern most capital city, but it’s still a small town.
Think Portsmouth, New Hampshire or Newport, Rhode Island.
There aren’t a lot of flashy or gimmicky tourist attractions to visit, although there are definitely the usual number of souvenir shops. The beautiful fleece lined Icelandic knit hat I bought was 33,000 Icelandic Krona. I nearly put it back on the shelf, until my husband reminded me that one Krona is worth approximately .08 US cents.
And there’s no tipping in Iceland. A friend (thanks, Mike!) had told us this before we left Boston, but coming from the land of the Free and the Home of the 20% gratuity, we still felt uncomfortable about leaving a table littered with dirty dishes but no coinage. So I flagged down our waitress at the Café Paris, and asked her if indeed we shouldn’t leave her a little something extra.
She was flustered by the question, but when I assured her that I wasn’t trying to be fresh, I just wanted to do the right thing, she relented and admitted that tipping was not expected and that the restaurant paid the waitstaff a living wage. My husband did notice that there was a tip glass near the bartender, but the few lonely bank notes in it were American currency – no Krona. It seems we weren’t the only tourists who weren’t sure of local custom – we were just the ones who thought to ask.
One of our two favourite tourist sites in Reykjavik was Hallgrímskirkju, the largest church in Iceland (Lutheran). The architecture was unusual, and the views from the Bell Tower were superb. I found it interesting that the interior space, unlike a European church of similar age, was simple and unadorned. But the clean lines reflect light beautifully, and in a country where there are months at a time with scant daylight, that seems like a very clever design choice.
(Click on photos to enlarge)
The other of our favourites was the National Museum. Well laid out and well labeled (in English!), it provided a history of Iceland through commentary and artifact that really helped World History ignorant North Americans understand how Iceland came to be what it is.
There’s one other museum I feel I must mention. My husband found a pamphlet for it, but sadly my daughters and I just never could find the time in the schedule to accompany him there. It was called
The Icelandic Phallological Museum,
and it is home to more than 215 male phalluses, from mouse to whale, including a number of homo sapiens specimens. The curator is described as
“a child of Nature, a hunter/fisher and a self-taught master chef.
As a second generation phallologist he is expected to set the
standard for phallology worldwide.”
I wish we could have found the time to stop by and ask the Curator how the specimens were harvested, but alas, we may never know. Perhaps it's better that way.
Our other two most favourite things to see are easy to choose:
The Blue Lagoon and Sólheimajökull.
I won’t even attempt to tell you how to pronounce Sólheimajökull. I never learned how, even though I tried, and am fairly good at wrapping my tongue around other languages. But Sólheimajökull is a glacier about 2 hours drive from Reykjavik, and it is well worth the drive.
We took a tour with MountainGuides.is. They showed us how to strap the crampons to our boots, handed us ice axes, and took us for a long glacier hike. The scenery was amazing, and when the sun broke through the clouds, the sky looked like a Renaissance painting of glories from heaven. A soul soothing activity!
If you have a late afternoon or evening flight, the Blue Lagoon is a perfect way to end your Icelandic holiday. The tour bus collects you and your luggage from your Reykjavik hotel about 9am. The tour company has a small, secure area at the Blue Lagoon to store your luggage while you soak yourself in Iceland’s largest thermal pool. It’s the one time in my life I was happy to be up to my ears in hot water, especially once I discovered the swim-up bar.
Live Blue Lagoon Webcam (remember they're 5 time zones ahead)
It’s pretty sweet to be holding a cocktail and letting the falling snow melt on the top of your head while the rest of you is toasty warm in the mineral water. Just beware of people whose faces are slathered in algae and mineral mud sneaking up on you. Spa gurus say it’s therapeutic and cures many skin ailments. I say it dried out my skin and made me look damn silly in the process.
Mid afternoon, once you are showered and wrapped snugly back in your warm parka, you are transported to Keflavik Airport to start your homeward journey.
So what have I learned about Iceland since I visited? Well, it’s still small. I hope the banks don’t fail again, and in all probability the volcano will erupt once more. But, for symmetry’s sake, two points:
1. I think I would spend less time in Reykjavik, and a lot more time in the country side. Iceland is all about breathtakingly beautiful scenery and glaciers and geothermal pools and volcanoes and riding the short shaggy Icelandic horses.
There are farm stays and kayaking adventures, and the food is very tasty, even for someone who prefers to eat meat, not fish.
2. Just because a place is small, and possibly less glamorous than
other parts of the world doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something new
to show us. We only need to slow down and enjoy the experience.