Before you travel to Iceland, read Family Travel Forum's visitior's guide. Brush up on your history and learn how to get the most out of your trip.
In 1783 the Laki volcano in this glacier-covered country erupted in a violent and prolonged paroxysm, killing a fifth of the country’s population. For 10 months, 30 billion tons of lava and sulfuric acid belched forth, creating a noxious haze that killed crops and livestock in Europe as it wound its deadly way west. Some experts say it was this eruption that led to crop failures in distant France, setting the stage for the French Revolution.
In 1996, Icelanders held their breaths, as did much of the world, while a volcano under the vast glacier Vatnajokull (vat-na-ya-schkul) erupted, melting the ice and creating a powerful underground lake desperate to break free. When it finally burst through the surface, it was violent and awesome, washing away bridges and roads, leaving a menacing sight of quicksand formed by suddenly saturated earth, which twisted like ribbons.
There are still active volcanoes in Iceland. The spring 2000 eruption of Mount Hekla has generated a lot of media attention, and tourist interest has followed suit. Four-wheel-drive Jeep tours are currently running to the volcano, offering stunning views of the eruption area, free of risk from the fumes.
Icelanders Live On The Edge
And yet, in what is surely a testimony to the wondrous ironies of life, Icelanders voted themselves the happiest people on the earth! They are fiercely loyal to this “Land of Ice and Fire,” however unsettling it may be to live here. In part, I suppose, such devotion has to do with the stunning physical beauty and purity of the land, and a deep if homogeneous culture that ties and binds the Icelanders into a tight community of survivors.
Steam rises eerily from the ground, a sign of the vast geothermal energy trapped in the earth. In 1930, Icelanders cleverly piped this energy to nearby towns to heat their homes and water. Today, Iceland burns no fossil fuel (there is virtually no pollution) and many cities are heated by these geothermal springs.
Then there are the vast, white-blue glaciers that cover the entire country, except for the coast where most of the country’s 302,000 people live. 50 percent of the population lives in or around the capital, ReykjavÃk (“Smoky Bay” in English).
Iceland seems forever misty and moody, with fast-moving clouds, wheeling gulls and a silence that is almost unsettling. It’s a nature lover’s paradise. The land is hauntingly beautiful and, in the classic Western sense of beauty, so are the people. Taller than the average European, they are strikingly blonde with very blue eyes and finely chiseled features – befitting their Viking heritage. Honest to a fault, reserved and very taciturn, Icelanders still use the patronymic name system. The surname is the father’s name with son or dÃ³ttir (daughter) added to it. Thus the former Icelandic president (the first woman elected president in a Democratic society) is Vigdis FinnbogadÃ³ttir, or Vigdis, daughter of Finnbogi.
A Small-Town City
Iceland is well worth a five- to seven-day visit. The country is easily accessible, very simple to navigate, and really quite unique. Flights leave directly to Keflavik airport from Boston, Halifax, Baltimore or New York or Orlando – about a four-hour flight from Boston via Icelandair. When you clear customs, it’s embarrassingly easy – grab the Flybus in front of the tiny airport ($15 U.S.) and enjoy the moonscaped, 40-minute ride to ReykjavÃk. U.S. astronauts practiced for their moon walk on these lava fields. The reason is quickly obvious.
ReykjavÃk itself is a Lilliputian city. Everything is small scale with a distinct, charming, village feel. But don’t let that fool you. It’s a sophisticated city and an expensive country. Because Iceland is an island, everything costs more than anywhere else, it seems. A hamburger and a beer could cost you $22. The portions are very small, but the food is artfully prepared and the service almost painfully caring. Lamb and fish are the staples of the Icelandic diet (supposedly there are more sheep in Iceland than people). Don’t get talked into trying the Hakrl and Brindivin – rotten, ammonia-scented shark meat washed down with an Icelandic spirit called Black Death. I’m still recovering from my macho “double dare” involving the deadly duo.
You can walk the town easily. Walk around the little pond, check out the pocket-sized Parliament building, the National Theater, and the symphony hall. For such a small and young country (no humans had set foot in Iceland when the Parthenon was already 800 years old), Iceland has several theaters, a national ballet company, a symphony orchestra, and a dozen or so galleries and museums.
English is spoken everywhere. But listen closely to the rich Icelandic language, a language unchanged for centuries. Visit the National Library and the Arni Magnusson Institute. Both contain copies of the famous Icelandic Sagas, those sprawling, Homeric, dramatic accounts of early Icelandic history that captivate young and old alike. The Njalla Saga is the most famous; and if you persist politely, one of the staff in either place might read a part of it to you in the deep, resonant, rolling Icelandic language.
Useful facts for travel to Iceland
Official Name: The Republic of Iceland
Government: Republic run by president, prime minister and parliament
Main City: ReykjavÃk
Languages: Icelandic. Some knowledge of English is almost universal and most people speak Danish or another Scandinavian language. French and German are also quite commonly spoken.
National Holiday: June 17, the anniversary of the establishment of the republic in 1944.
Religion: The established church is the Evangelical Lutheran Church. There is a Catholic church in ReykjavÃk and a number of churches for other groups.
Currency: The Icelandic monetary unit is the krÃ³na, comprised of 100 aurar. The coins and notes in use are 5, 10 and 50 aurar; 1, 10, 50 and 100 krÃ³nur coins. The notes being 100, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 krÃ³nur. Foreign exchange is available at all bank branches around the country. Also, the Tourist Information Centre and McDonald’s in ReykjavÃk. Travellers’ checks widely accepted.
Airlines: Icelandair (1-800-223-5500). Flights are available out of Halifax twice a week; out of Boston, five times a week; and out of New York, seven times a week. There are also limited flights available out of Baltimore/Washington DC, Orlando, and Minneapolis. Schedules vary seasonally. Offers packages for two-night hotel stay, daily breakfast and airport transfer. Lowest off-season fare is around $370 round trip; high-season (summer), around $1000 round trip. Flying time is 4 to 4-1/2 hours on Boeing 757-200s.
Visas: None for U.S. citizens.
Best Books to Buy: For historical and cultural interest, Iceland 4th Edition by Insight Guides, Langenscheidt, 1999. For the more curious, Lonely Planet Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands, by Deanna Swaney, Lonely Planet, 2001.
Dress: In the summer, bring lightweight woolens, a sweater or cardigan, a rain-proof coat and sturdy walking shoes and your swimming suit. Campers will need warm underwear, socks, rubber boots and sleeping bags.
Climate: Because of the Gulf Stream, Iceland enjoys a cool temperate ocean climate – damp summers and fairly mild winters. However, the weather is very unpredictable and tourists should be prepared for the unexpected.
Natural Resources: Fish, hydropower, geothermal power, diatomite
Meals: You can go to local cafes and have an excellent meal for lunch or dinner for $10. An extravagant meal can cost up to $100. Liquors of any kind are expensive. Tipping is not customary in Iceland – service is invariably included for restaurants, hotels, taxis, hairdressers, etc.
Hotels: There is a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from first-class hotels of international standard to inexpensive guesthouses, B&Bs, and youth hostels.
Communications: Iceland has modern communications, including direct dialing via satellite to all four corners of the world.
Useful Number: The Iceland Tourist Bureau (212/885-9700).
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