Wednesday 16 August 2017

More than "fire and ice": 10 reasons to love Iceland

The more I travel, the bigger the world gets. Even after travelling professionally for more than 20 years, there are plenty of places I haven't been and Iceland was one of them, until a few weeks ago.

A brooding Icelandic landscape
I was embarrassingly ill-informed about Iceland before my trip. I knew about Bjork of course, and their pre-GFC banking crisis in 2008. I'd heard about the 2010 eruption of that volcano whose name few newsreaders could pronounce.

Last year I even read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a brilliant novel about Iceland in the 1800s (written by an Australian, go figure), and saw a short film about the trials of being Iceland's only pro surfer: called The Accord it's a 40-minute blast of creativity and wild weather (you can watch the trailer here).

So THAT'S how you say it...
I also knew it's in the middle of a massive tourism boom, expecting 2.3 million visitors this year (mostly from the US). That's huge for a country with only 330,000 people.

A few weeks ago I found out why it's so hot right now, when I spent 10 days circumnavigating this island nation on a Lindblad Expeditions ship (a minnow by cruise standards with only 148 passengers) and hanging out in Reykjavik for a few days. In short: Iceland is amazing.

I love trips like this: by the end of them, you feel as if you understand the world a little better, or at least another jigsaw piece of it.

To be honest, Iceland is so spectacular, quirky, wild and curious I'm still getting my head around it.

So for now, 10 of the things I loved about Iceland:

Gudafoss, Iceland's Niagara
1. The water. I love anywhere that has great drinking water and Iceland's is possibly the best water I've tasted, coming as it does from glaciers that locked up precipitation long before the Industrial Revolution - so it's free of invisible, untastable nasties, not to mention chlorine and fluoride. 

2. Icelanders love swimming. These are my kind of people. Sure, the weather there doesn't always (or ever) make you feel like stripping down to your "togs" (that's Aussie, not Icelandic); I was there in mid-summer and the mercury rarely raised itself above 10C. But the good news is that swimming pools in Iceland - and there are a lot of them - are geothermally heated to about 28C.

It's not everyday you get to swim
watched by men in storm gear
I did a few laps in an outdoor Olympic-sized pool in Reykjavik then soaked in one of the smaller outdoor hot tubs alongside it - some of them filled with water heated to 44C, mmm. (Blue Lagoon is the most famous, and crowded, pool in the entire country, and worth visiting, but it's a turquoise mega-bath for soaking rather than actual swimming.)

One of the highlights of my expedition cruise was getting a chance to take a (brief) dip in the North Atlantic. The water was a chilly 9 degrees, but it was great to make contact with the water we'd been cruising on for more than a week.

The herring town of Siglufjordur,
on Iceland's north coast
3. Nature is king. For a small country, Iceland is pretty big, which puts humans back in their rightful place - not lording over everything as we like to do, but puny in the face of powerful natural forces such as volcanoes, glaciers, ice caps, steam vents and massive waterfalls. Wherever we went, we saw tiny colourful houses cradled by gigantic U-shaped glacial valleys, and heard about how it is to live with avalanches, eruptions, icebergs and long, dark winters. Respect.

4. Reykjavik. The northernmost capital in the world is a great city: small, walkable, full of cafes and outdoor shops (one brand's tagline is "Keeping Iceland warm since 1923"). And it's not as expensive as you think. Actually it is, but there are ways to cut costs: great hostels (I stayed at this one), free walking tours, Happy "Hours" that last all day and the Reykjavik City Card that gives you discounts on museums and public transport. 

5. Icelandic cinema. Going to the movies is another thing I love to do when I travel. Bio Paradis in downtown Reykjavik is a funky independent cinema just up the road from a vegan cafe and record shop (Kaffi Vinyl; Reykjavik is hipster heaven). It screens Icelandic movies with English subtitles (a win-win for locals and tourists) including one of the most beautiful and powerful films I've seen for a long time: Heartstone, a sort of Icelandic Stand By Me. 

Silver casts of the members (ahem)
of the Icelandic handball team
6. It's quirky. Iceland is odd, in delightful ways. It has the world's only penis museum (surprisingly impressive, see pic at left), beard beanies, wallets made of fish skin, a widespread belief in "hidden people" such as elves, trolls and changelings (roads and houses are even built around them).

Then there are the Yule Lads (Icelandic Santas), 13 wicked mountain trolls with names such as Spoon Licker and a cat that eats children who don't receive new clothes for Christmas. See what I mean?

7. It's clean and green. Almost all Iceland's electricity comes from two renewable sources: hydro and geothermal areas. And Reykjavik is aiming to be the world's first carbon neutral city by 2040. (Ironically, tourism is bumping up Iceland's carbon emissions because of the increasing number of cars and campervans on its roads.)

Viking humour
8. Vikings. I'm sorry to say I'm not a Game of Thrones fan, but Iceland makes you want to be - if you squint a little you can see men and women living brutal lives in big landscapes. And there are references to Vikings everywhere.

8. It's safe. Forget Nordic Noir dramas such as Trapped, which is set in Iceland (and is on SBS Ondemand). This is one of the safest countries in the world. Low unemployment helps, and high literacy, a small gene pool (everyone is related to everyone else), close-knit towns that keep people honest and almost-constant daylight in summer. So Iceland's police force keep busy by posting to Instagram (and have 162,000 followers! The population of Iceland is only 330,000).

It's impossible not to love puffins
9. Puffins. I first saw these harlequin-beaked birds in Norway, but they're synonymous with Iceland, which has an estimated 10 million North Atlantic puffins. Souvenir shops are even called "puffin shops".

10. Gender equality. Iceland had the first female president, in 1980, and the first lesbian prime minister, in 2009, and regularly tops the World Economic Forum's gender gap index. In fact it's the best place in the world to be a woman (according to an article in The Guardian last year). It didn't happen accidentally - Iceland's women have fought for equality (exhibit A: a protest in 1975 when almost all of Iceland's women went on strike for a day). But it's a start, and an inspiration to the rest of the world.

And I haven't even mentioned the friendliness of the people or the fact that they all speak English (as well as several other languages) and are welcoming to tourists (which is surprising when we have so swamped their country). There's just so much more to Iceland than "fire and ice".

Big thanks to Lindblad Expeditions for getting me to Iceland for their incredible 10-day Circumnavigation of Iceland voyage that has given me more to write about than any other recent trip. Iceland is that fascinating. To plan your trip there check out Inspired by Iceland (Iceland Tourism's website where you can sign the Icelandic Pledge to travel responsibly - if only more countries were like this).


  1. Sounds utterly amazing Lou! X

    1. Thanks Katherine, you'd love it there, so wild and such an interesting culture.

  2. great blog Lou. But, its not fair. its just so not fair. it was my idea to go there years ago but every man and his pet marsupial has gone and i havent. yet. soon. A

    1. Thanks Andrew and yes, you've got to go. Seeing it through a geological lens would be fascinating. Fingers crossed for Iceland 2018!!

  3. I'm going soon Lou! You just posted this the day after my sisters and I purchased tickets. Thank you! I will not be able to follow your footsteps exactly but some great tips!

    1. Fantastic! Hope you enjoy it, JB. And hopefully it'll be less busy than it was there in July :-)