Have Wheels Will Travel
We arrived in Reykjavík on June 17 after an overnight flight from JFK in New York. After clearing customs, we were met by a representative from the car rental company, SADCars, that we had booked online. In our research we discovered that this company was the most affordable in Iceland, and, when we saw our rental, we understood why.
Our tiny 2006 Toyota Yaris looked like it had been to Valhalla and back. We had to keep from laughing when the agent checked off the obvious pre-existing flaws on the exterior. It was missing two rear hubcaps, had two sizeable dents, pockmarked wheel wells and plenty of scratches and rust all over. And that was just the exterior!
Really now, what more could we do to this poor vehicle over the next month that they would actually make us pay to get repaired? Nevertheless, it was to be our mobile home for our Icelandic adventure, and, with a small prayer, we put it in gear and headed the 50 km from the airport into the capital.
Celebrating Independence Day Icelandic Style
June 17thwe found out, to our delight, is Iceland’s Independence Day. After finding the local campground, setting up our tent and logging a quick nap, we headed into the center of town to check out the festivities. What we discovered was a pleasantly tame, family-oriented event that included live music on an outdoor stage, group line-dancing in the town square and an astonishingly high amount of cotton candy consumption by all the locals who strolled the streets.
The center of Reykjavík is quite small, just a handful of narrow streets lined with cute cafes, intriguing art galleries, lively bars and international restaurants. After taking a look around and checking out a few of the live bands from the comfort of the grassy hill opposite the stage, we made our way to the immense and imposing Hallgrímskirkja, a modern concrete church that sits atop a hill overlooking the center. An elevator to the top of the 75m tower affords 360 degree views of the city and the beautiful mountains and ocean surrounding it.
We ended our Independence Day celebration by ducking into a pub for our first taste of the local Viking Lager. An acoustic duo was singing American favorites, and, although they were entertaining, we were quite distracted by the daylight. Even at midnight, we could still see direct sunlight hitting the tops of the buildings across the street!
First Stop: The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
After stocking up on groceries and gas, we hit the road north to Borgarnes where we visited the highly-recommended Settlement Center. Two exhibitions with an audio tour in English provided an excellent introduction to early Icelandic history and the famous sagas of the Nordic settlers who decided to make it a go here in the 9th century AD.
From there we headed to West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula, famous for its lush fjords and volcanic landscapes all crowned by the Snæfellsjökull icecap. This place was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it is easy to see why he thought this other-worldly landscape could be a portal to the depths of the Earth.
Each small village (often just a collection of a few well-kept houses) has a tiny, isolated church, each one more charming than the next. One of our favorites sat in an immense field of purple lupine with the snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.
We were also introduced to Iceland’s fascination with modern architecture with some of the quirky churches found on the peninsula.
We hiked a stunning 2.5 km coastal trail between Arnarstapi and Hellnar that passed cove after cove of ice blue clear lagoons and dramatic bird cliffs. The highlight was spotting two orcas from the shore just after midnight.
Iceland has lots of quirky, specialty museums including the Shark Museum outside of Stykkishólmur. We saw this recently on an episode of The Thirsty Traveler and could not resist the opportunity to check it out for ourselves. The novelty here is hakarl or “putrid shark meat,” which happens to be a traditional Icelandic delicacy consumed mostly on special occasions. Hakarl is produced by burying hunks of shark flesh in the ground for four to six weeks before hanging it out to dry in an open-air shed for several months. Turns out that the meat of the Greenland shark is toxic to humans when fresh, but “edible” after undergoing this process. We read that it tasted like a sponge dipped in ammonia, and Matt concurred after being brave enough to try a sample—not an every day snack, perhaps, but worth it for the experience! Check out this video to see for yourself:
Camping: Iceland on the Cheap
Iceland has a reputation for being a very expensive place to travel. While this is certainly true, one way to limit the damage to the pocketbook is to camp. It seems that Iceland has quite a thriving camping culture. Every town has a municipal campground with a minimum of a flush toilet, a sink for dishwashing and perhaps even a picnic table if you are really lucky. Even in the capital of Reykjavík there is a first-class campground a mere 2 km from the center of town, complete with piping hot showers, a kitchen facility, reception lounge and shelter.
In smaller towns, you will often find campgrounds attached to the local swimming pool or near the gas station. Many of the inns and farmhouses offer camping adjacent to the property for a small fee. In more remote areas, some of the campgrounds are free. You can even “wild camp” on beaches and public lands in less-populated areas. While not always as comfortable as your own bed in a hotel, it’s a great way to stretch the budget, meet fellow travelers and trade valuable tips on travel.
Hot Pools or How to Meet an Icelander
Even in the summertime, the weather here is quite cool. One great way to warm up and experience a true Icelandic pastime is to take a dip in one of the country’s many hot pools. As a hotbed of geothermal activity, Iceland has an abundance of natural hot water. Every town and village, it seems, has a pool that you can visit for a few hundred krónur ($3-4/person).
Upon entering the locker room, a sign instructs each bather to take a shower without a suit and give the undercarriage as well as all other potentially offensive areas a good scrub. A handy picture points out everything just to be sure that there is no issue with the language barrier.
Just as you would expect, the facilities are quite clean, the pools are toasty warm and the locals are very friendly. Within minutes of climbing into a steaming hot pool, it is inevitable that a local Icelander will strike up a conversation asking you where you are from, where you are going and how you are enjoying their country. There are also less formal pools, called “hot pots,” found along the roads. These are often nothing more than open-air pools fed by hot water pouring out of the rock, and they usually come with an incredible view to boot.
Anyway you try it, the pools are a great way to experience a slice of Icelandic life. If you go to Iceland, be sure to give the hot pots a try. Check out this video for more: