Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Iceland: Land of the Great Norse Outdoors

A view of the beautiful Gullfoss Waterfalls

Gullfoss Waterfalls
 Photo: O. Palsson


To get an idea of what Iceland looks like, try to imagine the surface of an inhabited moon in the future. It’s a land of volcanic mountains, of awesome beauty, of Norse legends, and thinly populated villages. Parts of the island resemble the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” but without the naked children. Suffice it to say, this is a rugged country. It’s like a sporting goods company opened up a country. You’ve got to have a strong will and a certain amount of toughness to last very long against what nature has in stored up there, but what else would you expect from the folks of Thor and Odin?

 

Access

The only way in and out of Iceland is to fly through the one international airport. Sorry to those looking for a cheaper alternative but this is a secluded island.

 

What’s To Be Expected

View of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland

Reykjavík, The Capital
 Photo: Christine Zenino


Iceland can be a very intense country with cold and rainy weather. The language, Icelandic, is one that has not changed very much in the past several hundred years. The culture is tied up in nature and its Norse mythological history. The residents of Iceland are open, gregarious, and among the nicest hosts of any country I have visited. Even if the majority of them still believe in the prevalence of gnomes.

This is a country best tailored for those who adore the outdoors. This doesn’t mean the casual hiker, but rather the dedicated hiker and the extreme sports enthusiast. There are plenty of excursions and activities for the more casual and sane outdoors types, but those who love to challenges of planet Earth on a one-on-one battle, this will be in heaven.

There is not much offered on In Iceland in the realm of refined city life. Reykjavik is the capital city, the world’s most northerly capital. It is more like a large country town than a city. There are a few interesting shops and monuments, but there are several great record stores, various beautiful public murals, and a slew of pubs, bars, and clubs that are responsible for the city’s highly-touted nightlife reputation (which is to be expected considering this is the stretch of earth that spawned Björk).

 

The Rugged Frontier

You can take one of several organized excursion, you’ll even be picked up at your Reykjavik hotel and returned at the end of the day.

Among the excursions are windy and wet whale watching tours, dark and scary cave diving trips, and a trip to the separation line of the North American and European tectonic plates is rather cool. You can take a horse-riding trip on the country’s prized breed of horse, the same lineage and breed that was used by the ancient Vikings themselves. So serious about preserving this breed are the Icelanders that no horse is allowed to enter the country and any horse that chooses to leave is forever banished.

Those who love space and have a lust for danger can visit the foothills of Eyjafjallajökull to get a sense of what it’s like on the surface of the moon, something NASA astronauts did before actually being launched into the heavens. However, be warned that this mountain is still very much an active volcano, as the world saw in 2010. Visitors there will only have a twenty-minute warning to get to safety should it erupt.

A view of the Aurora Borealis as seen one night in Iceland

The Aurora Borealis in Iceland
 Photo: Victor Montol


Those looking more leisurely activity can spend a day or more at the world-renowned Blue Lagoon hot springs and spa.

 

Do a Little Research

Any trip to Iceland should be carefully researched before arrival. After all, it would be unfortunate to be surprised to learn (like I had- at the last minute) that the prime goal of one’s trip, to see the aurora borealis, (or the northern lights) had already ended for the year. A shame since just a week earlier the lights were brilliantly visible throughout the island.

And one would not be pleased to find that Lundey Island, home to ninety percent of the world’s puffin population, is home to those beautiful birds for only a short while during the year. Some advance research could have gone a long way towards this traveller’s enjoyment, if he had known the birds already moved on from Lundey Island. Especially as he had to travel on a three hour boat ride through the choppiest sea in the world to see said puffins. It could be said, the boat rock-and-rolled but he heard no music. Alas, he was wrapped around a toilet in the mens room, followed soon after by said disappointment, and then had to experience another three hours on the return trip aboard the same boat while the overly amused Icelandic boat hands slurped yogurt and eggs.

Always research where you plan to visit and time your trip accordingly.

 

Fish and Lamb

Icelandic cuisine can jump between deliciously different dishes than you’ve probably ever had and the sort of things found at a Renaissance Faire. Shark and Brennivín (the country’s signature liquor) is something of a paired specialty but is mostly a novelty dish, although the booze is still common. Being an icy northern island, most fish will be excellent and fresh. The meat on the other hand will either be imported and thus extremely pricey or will be a very cured local meat, most likely lamb. Going local is the best way to go but the sweet, salty flavor of cured Icelandic meats are very Scandinavian and they are an acquired taste.

The local bread, a sweet and somewhat bubbly (you’ll understand when you try it) concoction, is, well, another acquired taste. The beloved yogurt drink Skyr is delicious and makes for a great breakfast or snack.

 

Where to Find Shelter

A lovely waterfall in Iceland

Svartifoss Cascade
 Photo: Vicmontol

Hostel selection is thin in Reykjavik, but there are many middle and luxury range hotels. The one main hostel that most student travellers stay in is a thirty-minute walk into town. There are a handful of other budget stays out there but they are all an even further distance away from town to the point that going to town on foot is not an option.

 

An Impressionable Island

For a country with such extreme weather that merely walking down the street can give you brain freeze, it’s surprisingly enjoyable to be outside. The natural beauty of Iceland is so awe-inspiring, you really will not see anything like it anywhere else in the world. The eeriness of the landscape is so haunting and lovely that at times you won’t even be sure you’re still on the same planet. It’s a country full of sights and sounds and experiences that are astonishing. Whether you’re a cave diver, horse enthusiast or simply a connoisseur of the eccentric, you’ll find this island unforgettable.