It's been a little while since I left the States (except for that quick trip to Canada) but now it's time for me to hit the road again. This time I'll be heading northward to Iceland, via Boston. My brother is currently a resident of Reykjavik, so I'll have a local (or close enough) to give me the inside scoop. I'll be relying on his local expertise to provide you with a city guide or two. However, we plan on doing a lot more than just hanging around in the city. From there, we'll head out into the tundra to explore as much of the Icelandic landscape as time allows. But first, let me bring you (and myself) up to speed on Iceland.
The 5-Minute History Of Iceland
Originally uninhabited, Iceland was the last European country to be settled. Until recently, it was commonly accepted that the first people to settle Iceland were Norse Vikings who left Scandinavia fleeing persecution, and due to land shortages that were arising. The consensus among historians is that the date of their arrival was in the year 874 A.D. At that time, Iceland was thought to be empty, so it was pretty much "up for grabs" for Norway. However, recent work by historians and archaeologists has revealed that these Vikings weren't alone when they first made landfall in Iceland.
It turns out that Gaelic monks from the Hiberno-Scottish mission (that's Northern Ireland & Scotland) had arrived in Iceland in roughly 800 A.D. It apparently didn't take long for these Norse Vikings to stumble upon their homesteads on the Icelandic tundra. This tiny society of monks, however, did little to hinder the dawn of "The Age Of Settlement" in Iceland. The next century saw as many as 20,000 immigrants come from Denmark/Norway to Iceland, and claim most of the usable land. This marked the beginning of the Icelandic Free State. When these settlers first arrived Iceland was roughly 25% forests, whereas today that amount has shrunk to less than 1%.
The Icelandic Free State pledged it's fealty to the old world kingdom of Norway, which at that point also included Denmark. However, when the Kingdom broke up into modern-day Norway and Denmark during the Napoleonic Wars (early 1800s), the Danes entered into a 25-year economic/political partnership with Iceland. After 25 years passed, Iceland became completely independent, although it pretty much already was. Since then, Iceland has been a friendly Nordic beacon of neutrality and diplomacy in the world of international politics.
Iceland Today & The Midnight Sun
Icelandic culture is pretty straight forward. In fact, it's one of the most well preserved cultures in the world! It's a small, homogenous population that is just over 300,000. That's pretty small, and a little more than a third of the population lives in the capital city, Reykjavik. Religiously, Iceland closely resembles the rest of Europe, with the Church of Iceland competing against secularism. Iceland is not a part of the European Union (EU), but it's a member of just about every other international council out there, such as the UN, NATO, etc. The official language is Icelandic, but Danish and English are also studied in schools.
Volcanoes, glaciers, and fjords define Iceland's rugged landscape. Despite it's proximity to the northern Arctic circle, even Iceland's northern shores remain ice-free in the winters (most of the time). Still, Iceland is extremely far north. It will be the farthest north I've ever been by a few thousand miles, and this comes with some interesting implications.
In my routine pre-travel Internet-surfing, I came across a huge amount of absolutely stunning photos of starry night skies and the northern lights. The photographer in me was stoked, so I eagerly learned what there is to be learned about astro-photography, even taking a few long midnight drives out to the country to practice. But to my dismay, I would learn that because of Iceland's northernly location, it has almost 24 continuous hours of daylight during the summer. Likewise, during the winter, there are times when they receive 24 hours of darkness. How depressing would that be? And I bet parenting during the summer is a freaking nightmare when your kids have to go to bed in the middle of the day.
Anyway, alas, there will be no starry skies or auroras for me during this trip. Instead I will be graced with the strange experience of a continuous week and a half of daylight.
*packs sleep mask*
The first and last stop of my trip will be Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. However, Iceland's international airport is actually in a neighboring city called Keflavík. It will be roughly an hour's drive from the airport over to Reykjavik. I'm already annoyed.
Once in Reykjavik, we'll spend a few days exploring the city. I'd like to try some exotic Icelandic foods during my time there. Maybe we'll even go out to party in the Icelandic clubs. I've heard weird things about Icelandic nightlife, and I'm very curious to experience it first-hand. However, since Iceland will have 24 continuous hours of daylight, exiting these clubs at the end of the "night" is sure to be an off-putting experience.
Then we'll rent a car and get on the road. The wilderness awaits!
Iceland's desolate interior is a volcanic desert, which is basically uninhabitable, save for a few small oases. There are only three roads that traverse Iceland's interior, so, naturally, we're going to take the one that is most dangerous, and most remote. Sprengisandur Road runs through the heart of Iceland. In the olden days, it was fabled that Sprengisandur desert was home to giants, elves, trolls, and etc. I'll get into this later though.
Sprengisandur Road is only open in the summer, and is subject to flooding from melting glaciers. That means that we're likely to be faced with the task of driving through un-bridged rivers from glacial run-off here and there. Hopefully we can find a place to cross! We'll go from Reykjavik up into these highlands, and come out the other side in the vicinity of a tiny fjord town called Akureyri. We plan on stopping there for some rest. From there, we'll head west.
Our next stop will be in a province called (translated) West Fjords. Here we will enter the Hornstrandir Nature Preserve via the tiny town of Ísafjörður. Ísafjörður is actually the capital of the province, but it's still miniscule. We'll spend at least one night here, and take a ferry across the water into the nature preserve.
Pictured are the Hornbjarg cliffs. These are the real draw for me. The nature preserve as a whole is pretty huge, so since we're short on time, hiking all of it would come at the expense of pretty much everything else we're trying to do. This is the target in Hornstrandir, and then we'll move on. First we'll have to back-track to Ísafjörður, and then we can make our turn south.
Driving back down to Reykjavik, we are going to pass through a province called Vesturland, which translates to simply "West Iceland." There is a long, straight peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic that is said to be extremely beautiful. We'll take a detour from our journey southward to explore.
Almost at the very tip of this peninsula there is an iconic mountain known as Kirkjufell. We've decided that this will make a good destination, but we plan on stopping to explore along the way as well. After we have finished exploring, we'll make our way back to Reykjavik. Of course, this is all tentative, but if we're smart with our time, we should be able to see all this and more!
Our Iceland Map
Start To Finish
Logistics & Practicalities
We'll have a little less than two weeks to accomplish all of this, so we'll have to be smart with our time. Luckily, Iceland is barely bigger than my home state of Ohio, so the drive times won't be too terrible. And, unlike Ohio, the drives will be absolutely stunning! I can't imagine that driving across Iceland could ever be boring. And if we're falling behind schedule, we'll have continuous daylight to confuse our biological clocks and keep us going! It might be a stretch, but I think it's doable.
We'll be taking on some rough terrain, so we'll need to lock down a vehicle that is up to the challenge. In order to cross the highland desert of Sprengisandur, which is sure to come with some perilous driving, we'll need to rent a 4x4.
Renting cars in Iceland turned out to be ridiculously expensive. Most car rental companies have extensive inventories of vehicles that are almost exclusively brand new, and this costs extra money. To make matters worse, the trip was planned for the height of travel season to Iceland. When I saw how much it cost to rent a 4x4, just for a few days, I about shat my pants. Thankfully, I found a rental company called Sad Cars (such a funny name) that rents out used cars at an enormous discount. I, for one, am not above saving a few bucks on a used car. So I booked a Sad Car! The folks on the other side of the email address I've been corresponding with have been prompt and friendly so far. And they sent me this safety video for driving in Iceland. It's pretty entertaining...
Similar to Switzerland, Iceland is a wealthy European nation that is not part of the EU. As such, they do not use the Euro. They use the Icelandic Krona (ISK), 123.00 of which is currently worth roughly as much as 1.00 USD. Iceland is considered to be part of Scandinavia, and is thus quite expensive. I'm not looking forward to the hit that my bank account is going to take, but that's about the end of my list of "cons."