2010 has not been a great year for Iceland. Icelanders are still reeling from the effects of their nation’s economic collapse which sent shock waves through financial markets worldwide. The volcanic ash plumes from Eyjafjallajökull this past May paralyzed large swaths of European air space. Anthony Bourdain, famously known for eating anything and usually liking it, pronounced Iceland’s national dish, fermented shark, the worst thing he had ever eaten.
In spite of Mr. Bourdain’s disappointment in the local cuisine, there are a host of reasons why you should visit Iceland. The countryside is a panorama of glaciers, geysers, fjords, waterfalls and volcanic lava formations. These vistas are dotted with herds of Icelandic ponies and clutches of sheep. Drive along the shorelines and see throngs of wild swans and pink footed geese. Get on a boat and go whale watching and see puffins and dozens of other native seabirds. You can fish, ride a pony, hike around a volcanic crater, relax in a natural hot spring or drive a four-wheel drive through the interior. If you want a road trip where you can have a little peace and solitude, you will find that on much of Iceland’s Highway 1, the Ring Road, the miles tick by without meeting anyone else.
Here are some useful things to know in advance.
1. Ow and Yeow. When you hear Icelanders saying these two words to each other, they are not reacting to someone punching or pinching them. They are merely saying Yes. You can learn some basic Icelandic before you arrive by using the University of Iceland’s free on-line course at icelandic.hi.is/
2. Expeditionary Gear Optional. Unless you plan to climb a glacier upon alighting from your plane, you do not need to wear all of your hiking gear when you arrive. Casual dress is fine in Reykjavik, but wearing your hiking boots and walking with hiking poles downtown will make you an object of Icelandic scorn.
3. Food. While restaurants tend to be on the expensive side, most foreign visitors agree Icelandic fresh-caught fish is always an excellent value for the price. Many cafes feature standard pub fare or pizza if you want a break from fish dinners. Local eateries also offer a daily special of a hearty vegetable soup with bread for a reasonable price, and you can always upgrade to a tasty lamb stew if you want something more substantial. When you can’t find a restaurant to your liking, you can always hit an N1, Iceland’s most popular chain of gas station/cafes. N1’s are open late and, if you are lucky, they will sell you an outstanding bacon-wrapped hot dog. On the plus side, Icelandic restaurants do not add sales tax to your bill and tipping is not expected.
4. What’s with the Supermarket Hours? With few exceptions, most grocery stores in Iceland limit their hours to timings which seem ridiculous to visitors who are accustomed to everything staying open late. Keep this in mind if you want to buy a few items for a picnic or if you want to self-cater your breakfast in the morning.
5. No Drinking and Driving. If you are driving around the Ring Road in Iceland, understand that there is zero tolerance for driving under the influence. Even one beer can affect your blood alcohol level enough to get you into trouble with the Icelandic police.
6. Alcohol is Expensive! Restaurants, bars and the local Vinbudins (Liquor Stores) charge extremely high prices for beer and hard liquor. The Keflavik International Airport has a duty-free store where you can pick up your own supply of Icelandic beer and other spirits at cut-rate prices compared to buying them on the economy. Even if you do not usually buy duty-free liquor when you travel, this is the one place in the world where it makes economic sense to do so.
7. Learn About the Sagas. Iceland has excellent museums and most Icelandic towns have comprehensive tourist centers which provide useful information about local cultural events and activities. For example, a few hours north of Reykjavík, in Borgarnes, you can get a crash course on the history of the settlement-era Icelanders and in particular the poet-warrior Egill Skallagrímsson, the eponymous hero of Egill’s Saga (www.sagadb.org/egils_saga.en). There are no billboards as you motor through the Icelandic countryside, so pick up a guidebook or two to help you plan your stops.
8. Iceland Review and The Reykjavík Grapevine. There are excellent online and printed publications in English for visitors and expats. The Reykjavík Grapevine (www.grapevine.is/Home/) is published twice weekly and contains entertaining commentary about daily life in Reyjavik. The Iceland Review (icelandreview.com/) focuses on Iceland generally.
9. Watch Your Speed. Upon renting a car at the airport and setting out, foreign visitors often wonder at Iceland’s maximum speed limit of 90 kilometers per hour. Difficult road conditions are only part of the rationale behind this limit. Massive numbers of free roaming sheep can be found on and near the roadways at all times of the day and night. Sheep generally move in threes, so if you see two sheep on one side of the road you can bet that the third will be trotting across the road in front of your car any minute. Enterprising Icelanders sell a popular souvenir tee-shirt containing the message, “Icelandic Killer Sheep”. Yes it’s funny but be careful out there. In fact, sheep collisions are frequent enough that many Icelandic drivers purchase supplemental sheep insurance.
10. Hang Loose. Icelanders do not stand on ceremony and will help you if you ask. Most Icelanders who are in tourism- and hospitality-related jobs know enough English to communicate with foreign visitors. However, Icelanders take a lot of pride in being self-sufficient. A byproduct of this national characteristic is that things that would be exhaustively explained in other countries are often left for visitors to figure out for themselves.