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We’re back from a refreshing June visit to Iceland. I can recommend a visit to this gentle country to anyone and without reservation. If you’ve traveled in other parts of Europe, there will be no surprises; if not, the cultural shock will be minimal. Driving the paved roads is a breeze, traffic control minimal, everyone speaks English and credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere. The unit of currency is the Icelandic Krona or ISK. As of today the exchange rate is 122.85 ISK to the dollar. Gasoline was in the neighborhood of 208 ISK per liter, so gas seems a bit spendy to an American. I would compare the prices one will encounter as a tourist to be in the range of a visit to NYC or Boston.
Flight arrival happens at the town of Keflavik (KEF) southwest of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is a half hour drive north from the airport. The famed Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið) spa is a short drive south from Keflavik. Be warned, reservations are required and the earlier the better. Our experience was that they would not allow walk-in visitors to gain or even schedule entry. Online registry is done exclusively. This spa is an artificial body of geothermal hot spring water that has its source from the adjacent geothermal plant Svartsengi.
Iceland is a country with 330,000 inhabitants, 200,000 of which live in Reykjavik. The population density is low. It is like taking Boulder county, Colorado, and plopping the population onto an area the size of Kentucky. We saw none of the garish tourism blight in the form of signage and souvenir shops so ordinary in the US. While folks back home were sweltering in the heat we enjoyed the benefits of North Atlantic climate, namely 55 °F temperatures and drizzle.
The only bit of unpleasantness for us was getting through US customs in Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) on the return trip. We arrived at MSP within a day of an explosion at an airport in Turkey. Consequently the TSA sphincter had already slammed shut at American customs and passport control entry points and security theatre had gone full Hollywood.
From Denver the total flight time on Delta to Keflavik was about 8 1/2 hours. We arrived on the summer solstice so for our 8 days in country there was effectively no darkness, just a few hours of twilight.
Our experience with accommodations was positive. Most nights we stayed in a guesthouse. These are essentially a B&B arrangement, but the proprietors were not resident in the same building as may be the case in other countries. Breakfast is optional so be sure to select it when booking a room. I used Booking.com and had not a speck of trouble with it. However, once in country I did notice that the guesthouse options were much more extensive than what appeared on the Booking.com website.
There are several ways to explore Iceland. There are numerous day tours available from Keflavik and Reykjavik as well as more extensive guided bus tours. A colleague took a 12 day self-driving tour through an agency called Nordic Visitor. They drove themselves from point to point around the Island on the ring road. Nordic Visitor pre-arranged for accommodations and excursions like glacier hikes, etc., along the route.
We took a chance and planned our own tour with a rental car. Not knowing the scale and drive times between places of interest was problematic. Highway speed was 90 kph at it’s greatest and often 40 to 70 kph in many locations. In town the speed was usually 30 kph. I took a conservative approach and stayed within what turned out to be about 7 hours from Reykjavik. Really, this was too conservative and prevented exploring the eastern side of the island. On the positive side, this approach prevented us from spending all of our time driving.
Iceland is a geologist’s paradise. It arose from the divergent drift of the Eurasian and North American plates at the mid-Atlantic ridge – a global feature that dominates its geology today. The island has many active volcanoes as well as glaciers. Many of the volcanoes are actually under a glacier. When they erupt there may be large floods as the ice melts from the volcanic heat.
The volcano Hekla near the south coast of Iceland is part of 30 volcano systems on the island. The picture above was taken from the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands. These islands make up this volcanic archipelago. Incidentally, nervousness about the state of Hekla lead our car rental agency (Budget) to offer volcanic ash insurance to it’s customers. I’ll admit- I bought it.