Iceland Offers Nightlife, Deserts, Glaciers and a Lot More!
By Sandy Fox
Iceland–a stark contrast of glaciers and deserts, waterfalls and volcanoes, lunar landscapes and deep fjords, hot springs and cool geysers. Iceland is all of this and more. For the traveler who enjoys an abundance of activities, sights and adventure and travel at fair prices, this new destination might be just what you’re looking for.
A White Summer
From May to August there are 24 hours of daylight…a white summer, they call it…nothing to do with snow, just sun. My traveling companion and I, who spent five days and nights in Iceland, learned to go to bed by the clock, not by the sun.
In winter daylight only lasts four hours. An Iceland native I spoke to just shrugged about the situation and said, “We get used to it.”
Its part of a life they accept and expect…just as they accept the fact that many things in Iceland can be expensive if you’re not careful and willing to explore options, particularly the food.
In the U.S. we can get a rib eye steak in a restaurant for $20-25 at the most. In Iceland they will pay a minimum of $50 for that same piece of meat. A hamburger at McDonalds costs $5, a roasted chicken dinner between $30-35. Lots of fish and meats are available, but for those on a budget, a $20 pizza might suffice.
One can also get the Icelanders favorite fast food for the best price in town: “Baejarins bestu,” the hot dog stand, is in city center for no more than you would get a hot dog in the states. People have been lining up there for the secret-recipe hot dogs every day for decades.
Good restaurants can be found all over the city, but be prepared to pay high prices. You won’t go away without spending from $30-$50 per person for many local places. For seafood Prir Rankkar Hja Ulfari is excellent. Ristorante Italia serves not only Italian spaghetti, pasta and pizza, but some of the most exquisite lamb you can get in the city. Caruso’s is a very high-class restaurant serving light courses, pastas, meats and fish.
Many Mexican restaurants are in city center. But don’t expect the same type of Mexican food you are accustomed to. The special Iceland touch with sauces on very thick homemade dough makes this well-worth tasting. The Mexican fare is at reasonable prices, from $5 for a taco and up.
Earning a Living
How do they survive the high cost of living and low wages? With difficulty. Many have more than one job. For example, teachers with 20 years experience earn less than $30,000 as compared to teachers in the states with the same experience earning between $45,000-50,000.
One of our guides for the city tour is a teacher during the school year and guides the rest of the time. He lives in a three-room apartment and finds it difficult to make ends meet. For those who can afford single-family homes, costs range from $80,000 for a small 1-bedroom home to $300,000 for a 3-bedroom, 2-bath home. Location determines the cost, as it does in the United States.
The name ” Iceland ” is deceiving. Because of a warm gulf stream, Reykjavik, the capital, gets no more than a foot of snow in the winter with temperatures not much below freezing. Glaciers are to the North and East but not near the capital. In the summer, the weather is moderate—between 55-65 degrees most days.
The weather, though, can change many times during a 24-hour period from sunny to cloudy to rainy to windy, with a combination of all of these. Everyone layers clothing and wears jackets, but few use umbrellas because of the winds. We always carried our umbrellas and were marked “tourist.” That was okay; we kept dry most of the time.
History and Heritage
Nordic people settled Iceland in the 9th century. Tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingolfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavik now stands. Icelanders still speak the language of the Vikings, although the modern Icelandic language has undergone changes of pronunciation and vocabulary.
Ninety percent of the population belongs to the Lutheran National Church. The greatest holiday of the year is June 17. On that date in 1944, Iceland became independent from Denmark.
Iceland is of volcanic origin; the last big eruption was in February 2000. Small ones are happening every day and go unnoticed. More than 200 volcanoes scar the country’s rugged landscape.
The country sits on the boundary between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian, that are moving apart at the rate of two centimeters per year, creating large fissures. The drift causes magma to flow upward and creates earthquakes and volcanic eruptions all the time.
In previous centuries, eruptions have reached catastrophic proportions destroying much of Iceland ‘s livestock and farmlands…and it could happen again. These volcanic eruptions are not just for the history books. Iceland averages about one large eruption every five years. While the destructive forces are always bubbling under the surface, Icelanders know that these eruptions are what gave birth to their island.
Most of the mountains are covered with ash. Moss grows through the ash, giving the mountains a fertile look. Sadly, though, Iceland has almost no trees because of the ash. It is going through reclamation now, and they are trying to replant many areas to make the grounds fertile for growing not only trees but also fruits and vegetables.
Many sheep and cows can be found dotting the landscape outside the city, providing meat and dairy products for the population. Significant to my personal health, I learned that that milk in Iceland is good for diabetics because it contains no additives and no sugar as ours does.
An Island of Many Fisherman
Fishing is the number one way people earn a living. Most caught are trout and salmon. It is said that Prince Charles, successor to the English throne, likes to catch salmon in these cold waters.
Tourism is the second leading way Icelanders earn a living. Singer Eric Clapton and actor Kevin Costner like to visit from the states (four hours from the east coast) as do many Europeans (a couple of hours by air).
A Pristine and Safe Environment
Besides sheep and cows, we saw many bird species including puffins, gray geese, kittiwakes, snow buntings, fuillemots, petrels and skuas. Some 75 species come to Iceland year after year to nest. Whales can also be seen during the summer months; tour boats will take visitors out into the deep waters for viewing.
Iceland prides itself on having very pure, unpolluted air. No insecticides are used; therefore, the food is fresh and natural. It is also a country where people feel safe. There is no army, less than 300 in the police force, very little crime and only one jail.
Geothermal Activity Heats and Comforts
The country’s main attraction for its population and its visitors is the natural geothermal waters, used both for pleasure and living conditions. It is a way of life for Icelanders and a place to socialize.
Not only does everyone go to the famous Blue Lagoon to swim and relax in the warm, naturally heated waters from below the ground and to partake in the skin conditioning provided by natural scrubs from the sediment of these mineral waters, but also these hot waters provide the electricity, home heating and even heating of some of the sea water for swimming. This is for most of the 280,000 inhabitants, half of whom live in Reykjavik. Life expectancy of Icelanders is among the highest in the world: 76.2 years for men and 80.6 years for women. With this type of lifestyle, a visitor can see why.
Upon arriving in Iceland we headed straight for the Blue Lagoon for swimming, relaxing, and using the natural scrubs. Cost to get in is around $20 and you can stay as long as you like. This is one of the highlights of Iceland. We could have gone there every day, but had much we wanted to see and do in our limited time there, so did not have a chance to participate again.
Reykjavik is not a large city, yet it offers what one would find in most of the world’s major cities: a diverse cultural life, hot nightlife and great restaurants serving healthy, delicious meals made from natural ingredients. And you’re never more than a few minutes away from Mother Nature at her best. Residents are well educated and most speak English, plus other languages.
We took a walking tour of the city but saw very few people on the streets. They save their energy for night activities. We visited the historical city museum, which depicts better than any guide book, how the country evolved through both volcanic eruptions and wars between Vikings, Norway and Denmark.
An interesting historical fact I saw listed is that Iceland takes credit for having discovered America 500 years before Columbus, when they landed on the east coast of Maine. They called the area “Vineland.” We do not acknowledge that in our school history books.
Summer accommodations in Reykjavik range from the expensive ($250 per night) Grand Hotel grand.is to less expensive two star hotels (around $100) like the Hotel Edda chain hoteledda.is plus hundreds of guesthouses. Camping is even available in the city park as well as all over Iceland for those on a tight budget (prices average $5-7 per night).
Less expensive accommodations can also be found in farmhouses, country hotels, separate houses or cottages farmholidays.is. Youth and family hostels, 26 in all around Iceland, offer budget accommodations and are open to people of all ages hostel.is.
We stayed at the Guest House Sunna email: firstname.lastname@example.org for $150 per night, which included a full breakfast, en suite, and all taxes. It was not cheap, but for the comfortable beds, good service, great food (they baked their own bread every evening and the smell was delicious to the senses), we felt it was well worth the splurge. Cheaper guesthouses in the summer months go for $70 per night. Prices are generally lower in winter months.
Late Night Socializing
Icelanders socialize late at night, I was told, beginning with intimate ‘house parties’ before coming out of their brightly colored corrugated steel houses (no trees, no wood) into the dim but always present sunlight during those summer months.
Many doors in the downtown area lead into the pulsating hub of activity at a cafe, chic bar, nightclub, disco, dancehalls for seniors, piano lounges, Irish pubs, French wine bars…and so on. Live concerts by popular Icelandic funk band, Jaguar, at one of the clubs can be heard some nights.
Partying can go on in these clubs or in the streets and homes until 7 a.m. the next morning. “It’s a carnival-like atmosphere,” says one resident. If you are an early riser and out by 10 a.m. the next day, chances are that no stores and very few restaurants will be open. If interested in a tour, most are in the late morning or early afternoon.
Seeing the Sites
We took some day trips to cascading two-tiered waterfalls, shooting geysers, the ancient parliament house, a greenhouse community, volcanoes and Europe’s largest glacier. On the northern coast one can take a boat tour of the icebergs that have broken off from the glacier behind it. Seals in the area pay no attention; they are too busy frolicking in the sunlight between the white chunks of ice.
The fjords on the eastern coast were reminiscent of those in Norway and Chile. On our southern day trip, pristine black sand beaches, the fertile agricultural countryside and farmlands dotted the landscape.
Adventure seeking individuals who like lots of sports, hiking, biking, skiing, bird watching, camping, golfing or water activities will have no trouble finding a lot to keep them busy and at little or no cost. Hiking paths can be found throughout the country. Bikes can be rented.
Golfing is particularly interesting to both the golfers and spectators during the summer months in Reykjavik, as they do not have to stop golfing until way past midnight. The 900-mile ring road will take you around the entire island to enjoy these activities.
Icelandic horses, which can be seen throughout Iceland, are smaller than can be found elsewhere in the world, but they are beautiful to watch and ride. The Vikings brought them to this country 1,100 years ago for farm work and transportation. Now they are used for recreational riding. It is, in fact, the Icelandic number one leisure activity.
Sandy Fox writes from Arizona.
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