A beginner’s guide to Iceland
Iceland’s fortunes are looking up. Almost five years on from the volcanic eruption that resulted in flight chaos throughout the northern hemisphere and post-economic crash, Iceland is fully open for business and not the expensive destination it once was. I’ve recently published a Kindle guide to Iceland for Unanchor.com. It’s now on sale at Amazon here:
How to get there from the UK
Flights with Icelandair, the national carrier, depart from London Heathrow to Keflavik (KEF) the airport nearest to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. It’s also possible to use Reykjavik as a stopover destination on your way to North America, making it possible to combine an Icelandic break with a trip to New York, for example. Budget airlines also serve Keflavik. WOW air flies daily from London Gatwick, easyJet offer a daily service in winter from London Luton and a thrice weekly service from London Gatwick with fewer flights in the summer, whilst Flybe can take you from Birmingham three times a week until March.
Getting from Keflavik airport into the city centre
The simplest and cheapest way to get to Reykjavik is to use the FlyBus. This bus will take you from the airport to either the bus station or to a wide range of hotels. To find out whether yours is served, see this list from the FlyBus website: https://www.re.is/flybus/flybusplus – check Google maps if yours isn’t listed to identify which listed hotel is closest. Single fares to the bus station are 1950 ISK (about £10) and to your hotel 2500 ISK (about £12.50). The journey takes 45 minutes, there’s free Wi-Fi on board and tickets are flexible, so if your plane is late, you just take the next available bus.
If you are travelling as a larger group or further afield, you may prefer to hire a car. There are several car hire companies at the airport. Note that you’ll need special insurance if you plan to drive off road or on some of the interior’s gravel roads (the latter are closed during the winter anyway).
If you’ve chosen not to hire a car, then have a look at the publicity materials branded “Iceland on your own” which provide information on how to get around using buses run by Reykjavik Excursions. Many of the country’s major destinations are served, the notable exception being the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west. You pay just for transport, passes are available and you pay your entrance fees when you reach your chosen destination as and where appropriate. A map showing summer bus routes can be found here: https://www.re.is/media/iceland-on-your-own/IOYO_Full.jpg. In summer, Reykjavik Excursions run an extensive range of day trips from Reykjavik incorporating all the main tourist attractions of the south and west of the country.
The Icelandic capital is charming and a good base for the first time visitor. Pay a visit to the unusual Hallgrímskirkja church; it’s only 400 ISK to go up it and take in the views of the city. Also great for the views though a little out of the centre is Perlan; it has a good but expensive revolving restaurant which is popular but a bit of a tourist trap. I preferred the Icelandic Gourmet Feast at Tapas Barinn, seven courses featuring puffin, minke whale and lamb for 6990 ISK (about £34) – every one of them mouth-wateringly delicious. Check it out for yourslef on their website here: http://www.tapas.is/en/Menu/Icelandic_gourmet/ The area around Tjörnin lake is worth a stroll if the weather’s good; it’s not far from the main drag and is popular with joggers. Down by the harbour there’s a cool structure known as Sun Voyager or ‘Sólfar’ which is worth making the effort to visit; walk past Harpa, the city’s concert hall and along to the Old Harbour for a pleasant walk. In the opposite direction, you’ll come to Höfði House where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 to begin the process of ending the Cold War.
It is possible to do your sightseeing on organised tours if you do not wish to drive and there are a number of day trips that depart from the capital. These are my suggestions for what to visit outside Reykjavik, covering the area of South and West Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon
Expensive but unique, this spa consists of a large pool fed by geothermally-heated water. It’s possible to book massages and other treatments. There’s also a bar if you’d like a drink whilst relaxing in the warm water. Pots of white silica-rich mud are yours to try out – spread it on your face and body for an enriching treatment. Tip: in cold weather, turn left on your way out and enter the pool indoors before swimming out – it’s warmer than making a run for it from the main door. It’s possible to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from Keflavik airport and lockers large enough to take a suitcase are available. The Blue Lagoon is situated on the Reykjanes peninsula where the North American and European plates meet. With your own transport you can stand on a bridge that straddles the two – but be warned, it’s one of the windiest places in the country.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle comprises three of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring attractions: Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur and Þingvellir, the site of the original Icelandic parliament. One of Iceland’s many dramatic waterfalls, Gullfoss is the spot where the Hvítá river rushes south and plunges into a chasm where the water explodes into a maelstrom of white water and eroded rock. At nearby Haukadalur, the original geyser, Geysir, has long since given up erupting, but the plume of water that spurts from nearby Strokkur is impressive and conveniently frequent. The Alþingi, or parliament, met at Þingvellir from 930 to 1798 and thus the site is important culturally and historically in addition to its stunning physical characteristics. The three sites are usually combined into a morning or afternoon tour departing from Reykjavik, but it is worth spending more time at each than the tour allows.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is ignored by many but is a worthwhile day out. It’s a remote peninsula with a dramatic coastline perfect for a scenic drive. Its expanses of countryside are punctuated by small fishing villages including the charming Olafsvik. The Hollywood film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed here, focusing on the village of Stykkishólmur. Another highlight is the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn. There you can find out how the Icelandic delicacy of hákarl is created and, if you’re brave enough, try a cube of this dried rotted shark flesh for yourself. It’s a bargain at 1000 ISK per person. Find out what happened when I tried it here: http://theitin.com/places/europe/iceland/bjarnarhofn-shark-museum/grasshoppers-for-lunch-shark-for-dinner/
The south coast
Take the southern ring road towards Vik and you will come across two impressive waterfalls. Skógafoss waterfall has an impressive 60 metre drop, but for sheer drama, my choice is the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Climb up the wooden staircase to the right of the falls as you face them and the path takes you behind the curtain of water. You will get wet but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re fascinated by the eruption that created an ash cloud large enough to clear the skies of planes, then the Eyjafjallajökull visitor centre is a must. Discover the stories behind the eruption and the causes of one of nature’s most disruptive events. Find out more on their website: http://www.icelanderupts.is/ On a secluded ash-grey beach only accessible by 4×4 is the wreck of a plane. Near Vik, the DC3 crashed back in 1973 with no loss of life, and the plane has been there, abandoned, ever since. You can clamber inside (at your own risk!) or role play at being plane crash survivors à la “Lost” (though that was filmed in Hawaii, of course).
Situated on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, itself a fun destination if you’d like to try out snowmobiling on Europe’s largest glacier, Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lake in the south west of Iceland. As the Breiðamerkurjökull calves into the lake, icebergs travel the short distance to the Atlantic Ocean where they bob about on the waves, washed on and off the beach until they finally melt. It’s a magical place; though the lagoon itself can get crowded, fewer people walk down to the beach which is a photographer’s dream. In summer, it’s possible to take a tour on an amphibious vehicle on the lake amidst the icebergs. If you think you’ve heard of it before, you might have seen it in a movie; Jökulsárlón has been a setting for several Hollywood blockbusters, most famously the Bond film, Die Another Day.