1. After spending five days in Iceland my command of the language improved immensely. I was given helpful tips by a high school boy. Icelanders, I learned, are very proud of their language, which is practically unchanged since the Middle Ages. They want to help you not butcher it.
“Where will you be going during your stay in Iceland?” asked my new friend, who speaks English (and Danish) flawlessly.
I opened my map and pointed.
“Ahh, a beautiful place,” he said. “Snæfellsjökull. Snhigh fellsh yo kull.”
“No. Listen closely. Snhigh fellsh yo kull.”
It only got better from there. By the end of the trip, people were mistaking me for a local.
Aside: When traveling, etiquette dictates that one should ask locals if they speak English because you know what happens when you assume… But in Iceland, we felt it would actually be insulting to ask. Everyone, and I mean everyone, speaks English and they learn from the time they are wee tots. In fact they don’t just speak English, they are fluent, able to talk politics, pop culture and tell jokes (most of which have been gleaned from Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Simpsons as far as we could tell).
Second Aside: Jules Verne wrote about the Snæfellsjökull volcano in Journey to the Center of the Earth where travelers would find the famed passageway at the rim of the caldera.
2. During the summer, Iceland is the land of the midnight sun. It never truly gets dark. It barely becomes dusk. The sun heads toward the horizon, skims along the rim and then comes right back up. It’s easy to get into a lot of trouble when, upon looking out the window of the local bar and seeing bright daylight, you think nothing of having another round. Or two. Or three.
This is about three a.m outside the parliament building. Seriously.
Aside: So the drinks flow in Iceland, and they are quite expensive (though I understand since the country’s economic collapse, things have gotten cheaper – for tourists at least). Food is also pricey as most everything has to be imported. But for someone from New York, it was about right on target.
3. What can I say about a place that is one giant hot tub/waterfall/steam room? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Blue Lagoon: a geothermal spring.
Aside: Because Iceland is a hotbed of geological activity, in some areas steam rises up seemingly from nowhere. It’s spooky and otherworldly, and it smells like you’ve just walked into a giant bag of rotten eggs. The sulphur is cloying. And since the country’s homes are heated geothermically, the smell comes right into your shower. I suppose you get used to it, but it always turned my stomach a bit.
4. One of my favorite parts of the trip was meeting locals and other tourists. Surprising, I know, because in Iceland it’s all about the scenery (and you know how I feel about people and small talk). The landscape is gorgeous at every turn. From the off-the-beaten path of the Westfjords to the more touristy areas of Geysir and Gullfoss (waterfall), it would be hard to decide which sight was most breathtaking. But I really enjoyed talking to people. The Icelanders were warm and welcoming. This was true of everyone we met.
Author of many funny and interesting travel essays such as Pecked to Death by Ducks and Pass the Butterworms,Tim Cahill said, “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” In that case, I would say our journey was huge success considering that some of our new friends from the Netherlands left us 2 Heinekens on our rental car’s windshield.
Aside: Apparently it’s not unusual for Icelanders to take a sip of your beer even if they don’t know you very well. So if you go, keep an eye on your glass.
5. Have you ever been to a national park and gotten really close to the local fauna? So close that you felt you could reach out and touch the animals? In that respect I’ve never been anywhere that could compare to the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs. To say that it is a little remote is like saying Oprah Winfrey has a little money, but it was well worth the hours of driving over dirt roads in a tiny Toyota Yaris to get there. Every summer puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, and razorbills nest on impossible ledges on the side of these cliffs that drop off into the ocean. Their nests are in some sort of bird hierarchy with the puffins closest to the top and the arctic terns near the water. We had to lean out in order to see the birds on the sheer cliff face below, who were minding their nests mere feet away and sometimes even less. A once in a lifetime experience.
Aside: At the bird cliffs, there are no entry fees, no souvenir stands, and no signage. Oh, and no guard rails either. We learned after the fact that a German tourist fell over the edge a few weeks ago.
An amazing trip and we wished we had stayed even longer. Here’s a little clip from Geysir, the geyser after which all others are named. Hope you like my fancy editing.