Friday, January 30, 2015

Iceland Insights

If you read my previous post, you'll know that I spent a few days in Iceland and Denmark at the end of January, limiting my sports viewing to a single hockey game in Reykjavik. Iceland is mostly famous for going bankrupt in 2008 and then having a volcano erupt in 2010, creating havoc with European air travel for a couple of weeks. But it really should be known more as an out-of-the-way tourist destination. Iceland Air offers free stopovers when booking a return ticket to Europe and during the winter, it is quite economical, as many probably think that the country is ridiculously cold as there are only around 5-6 hours of sunlight per day. In fact, temperatures in the capital hovered around freezing, and the only really chilly experience was experienced was at night while out chasing the Northern Lights. Food here is outstanding, although a bit costly but nothing more than New York, especially considering tax and tips are included in the menu price.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

So if you are looking for a slightly different trip, Iceland is a pretty good place to go. Here are a few tips.

1) Rent a car and pay for the navigation system. You can do this at the airport upon arrival, but we waited a day to familiarize ourselves with Reykjavik before picking up a car at Sixt near the harbour. Having a car gives you the freedom to avoid group tours and set your own pace to see the sights. Gas is very expensive ($5.75 a gallon) so get a car that is decent on mileage. We drove about 400 miles over three days and the gas bill was around $80. The navigation system will help you with some of the tricky spots and is particularly useful the further you get away from Reykjavik, as well as when returning to your hotel should it be located downtown. If you plan to head off-road, make sure the car you rent is capable of driving through difficult terrain.

One of the many views from Ring Road

2) Stay at least one night outside Reykjavik. The main Ring Road (Highway 1) is easy to drive when weather permits and you can certainly do day trips along the Golden Circle or to Vik and back. But I would try to relax and stay in Vik or even further south or east and enjoy the amazing scenery on offer by stopping every once in a while. There are waterfalls dotted here and there such as Seljalandsfoss below and you don't want to rush through them all if you can avoid it.

The picture below is taken just a few feet away from the picture above, just by turning 180 degrees.

3) See The Golden Circle. This collection of three sights is on every to-do list in Iceland and rightfully so. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet (if you stretch, you can touch two continents simultaneously) and the Icelandic parliament used to be held several hundred years ago. It is more stunning in the summer, but still an impressive place to visit in the winter.

Continue to the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geyser Strokkur (above, about to erupt), before venturing another 10 minutes or so east to Gulfoss (Golden Falls), the most beautiful waterfall in the country (below). All of this can be done in half a day, but I recommend taking the full day and stop and really enjoy it.

4) Swim in an outdoor pool. Iceland has a number of geothermal pools that allow you to swim outdoors in the winter without getting cold. There is one in Hveragerði, about 45 km east of Reykjavik along the Ring Road, that charges the equivalent of $5 for a swim and another couple of bucks to rent a towel. Few tourists stop here, so it is a more authentic experience than the overhyped Blue Lagoon near the airport.

Those are just a few of the things you can do in Iceland. If you have more time, consider driving around the entire country (as my wife and I did in 2016).



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