Iceland Travel Overview, Part 1

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First, why visit Iceland in the first place? This is an interesting question, as tourism to Iceland has skyrocketed in the last few years. FYI In 2010, Iceland welcomed about 300,000 visitors. Last year, the country welcomed 2.1M, almost 10X the volume in just 7 years.  The travel industry now represents a major part of the Icelandic economy. There is no question that the rapid growth of tourism has put a strain on Iceland, its infrastructure, people, and its hotel stock. And if you were to visit in the middle of summer, with one or two big ships in the port of Reykjavik, popular attractions and sites will be crowded and you will see armies of tourists wielding selfie sticks. But, having said all of this, put this growth in perspective, so please consider the following:

  • Iceland is roughly the size of the US state of Virginia, so there is plenty of space to explore. Last year, Virginia Beach alone welcomed 17M visitors, so put this in perspective against the 2M visitors to Iceland in total
  • Most visitors to Iceland come during the peak season June to August. From September 1 to May 31, the number of visitors drops dramatically.  September, early October, late April and May are great times to visit, with plenty of light, fewer crowds, lower prices at hotels.
  • Most travelers concentrate in an area called ‘The Golden Circle’, roughly the loop that includes Geysir, the Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss, Skogafoss, and the Blue Lagoon, as well as Reykjavik to a certain extent. Once you step outside this circuit, the number of fellow travelers drops dramatically.
  • In the last few years, Iceland has added hotel rooms, restaurants, attractions, roads, facilities to accommodate the growth. The country has done a superb job with the conditions of highways, facilities, restaurants, and the main airport.

If someone tells you that “Iceland is over”, don’t believe them. With proper planning and the right support on the ground, you can still find untrammeled and pristine wilderness all over the country. There are a number of places where you are the only person on the trek/glacier/hike/walk/black sand beach/hot spring/waterfall.

10 Top Reasons to Visit Iceland:

Natural Beauty
There are few places in the world that offer the rugged beauty and stunning landscapes found in Iceland. The country sits on top of one of the world’s ‘hot spots’, including 24 active volcanoes, geysers (from the Icelandic word Geisir), bubbling mud pools, lava fields, hot springs, and many other unique natural features. Iceland has a number of glaciers, countless waterfalls, dramatic fjords, desolate plains, green fields, moss covered lava fields, black sand beaches, and much more.  If you love nature, Iceland is Nirvana.

Natural Beauty

Activities
There are countless ways to explore Iceland. A few options: hike, snowmobile, paraglide, sail, kayak in a lagoon filled with icebergs, race on an ATV, swim in a geothermal pool, walk up to a waterfall (or behind it), horseback ride, trek into a lava tube or into a volcano, zip around islands on a zodiac, walk across a glacier (or inside a glacier cave), and if you are brave – snorkel (with a dry suit, you can see tectonic plates separating underwater).

Activities

The Northern Lights
You can see the famous Aurora Borealis anytime between September and April. However – the lights are elusive! You need enough clear sky and the right conditions to see the lights. If you see them, hooray for you. if not, Iceland is still stunning and well worth seeing.

Northern Lights

Unique Places to stay
Iceland’s hotel stock has grown dramatically in recent years, offering you more options than ever. In Reykjavik – stay in a luxury apartment on the top floor of an office building (Tower Suites), a beautiful design-forward hotel (ION City, a SIG partner hotel), or in a classic property like Hotel Borg. Outside of Reykjavik, stay in a working farm (Skalakot Manor, in the SW), a modern design hotel in the countryside (ION Adventure, a SIG hotel), an ultra-luxury hotel on a hot spring (The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon),  a luxury tented camp (contact Nordic Luxury for details), or in a private home/villa.

Hotels

Icelanders
As a people, Icelanders are known for their resilience, work ethic, friendliness with visitors, pride in their unique heritage, can-do spirit, hardiness, and command of the English language. Many Icelanders also speak Danish, a remnant of their colonial past, and sometimes one additional language such as French or German. The national motto is “fetta reddast’ or roughly, ‘it will all work out OK”.

People

Dining
In the last decade, Iceland has become a destination for gourmets and gourmands. There are many excellent restaurants in Reykjavik showcasing the best and freshest ingredients from the country’s farm and seas. The lamb, seafood dishes, as well as the seafood soups and lobster bisques are tops.

Cuisine

Marine & bird  Life
If you visit during the summer  (June to August) months, take advantage of whale & dolphin watching cruises off the coast and don’t miss the puffins!

Bird and Marine

Infrastructure
Overall, impressive road conditions (especially highway 1 which circles the island), facilities, and the main airport in Keflavik. Iceland has invested heavily in recent years in improving its infrastructure, and it shows.

Infrastructure

Icelandic Horses
A distinctive breed, Icelandic horses were brought from continental Europe by Vikings over 1,000 years ago. The horses are smaller than horses in other parts of the world, but they are hardier, have fewer diseases, are more gentle, and live longer than other breeds. If an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it may never come back, to protect the purity of the breed. Take time to see them during your stay.

horses

Safety
Iceland is a very safe destination. Many Icelanders do not lock their homes or their cars. There are no snakes or bugs or nasty crispy critters to worry about. You can drink the water out of the tap, or drink from a stream/glacier.

1st of  Travel Series on Iceland
BY IGNACIO MAZA