Arriving in Iceland, just as our plane was coming in to land in Reykjavik, the aerial view was overwhelming! The lyrics of David Bowie’s song “is there Life on Mars” pretty much sums up my initial reaction to the vast snow covered mountains and black lava rocks peeking up from under the snow. Land that was totally barren and not a tree in sight! (There are very few trees growing in Iceland because of the sulfurous volcanic terrain apparently). The land ahead of us, stretched for miles as we travelled by bus from the airport to Reykjavik. I was gobsmacked at the spooky moonlike appearance of the land and yet it was beautiful at the same time. There was certainly an Armageddon type feeling about the place. Not a live animal in sight either. The growing of plants and flowers is a huge challenge for the people living here (only 350,000 in total). Two thirds of the total population live in the greater Reykjavik area with the remainder living in other small coastal towns scattered around the coastline. No one lives outside of these regions and there is nothing living or growing outside of the small, sparsely populated coastal towns. Everywhere else, including the central part of the island is totally barren and mountainous with volcanoes splattered throughout.
We arrived in the city of Reykjavik by bus late in the afternoon in a blizzard of snow. The driver told us that we were lucky to be able to travel from the airport to our accommodation as there had been severe snow storms on the days previously which blocked all roads from the airport to Reykjavik and beyond. The view as we entered the city changed from the barren black landscape to fabulously designed buildings, a snow-covered harbour with huge fishing vessels from Greenland (the nearest neighbour), yachts and buildings covered in beautiful graffiti artwork, apparently done by a very famous local artist. Litter is non-existent and the city streets are quaint with cozy, brightly lit, colorful houses that wouldn’t go amiss in a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. The Icelandic connection with Denmark was severed way back in 1944 when Iceland secured its own independence and established its own Government. The local people are so knowledgable about the history of Iceland and will only be too delighted to educate visitors arriving in their country. It fascinated me that every Icelandic native that we met, young or old, was highly educated in every aspect of their country’s heritage, particularly about the history and geography of it and it is very evident and understandable that they are extremely proud of their country.
We stayed in a guesthouse pretty close to the centre of Reykjavik, the Alfholl (the Elf Hole) Guesthouse, run by a lovely young Icelandic native, by the name of “Hawk”. An extremely well read, educated man, Hawk was once a psychologist working within the prison system in Iceland and gave it up to run Alfholl Guesthouse. Interestingly, crime is pretty much non-existent in Iceland. It is one of the safest countries in the world to visit, and feels very much like that when you arrive. Safe! There are only about 150 prisoners in total housed in 5 prisons on the island, of which a minuscule number are for serious crimes.
Having struggled up the hill from the bus stop on compact ice and snow with our haversacks to Hawks guesthouse (Torville and Dean had nothing on the pair of us), we were delighted to arrive to a warm, clean house with a kitchen and dining area right next to our bedroom. Well, that was until just after 7 a.m. the next morning when the other guests began to arrive to cook breakfast in the kitchen . In fairness, we were so tired that we were only vaguely aware of the rattle of cups and cutlery and became accustomed to it as the days went on. The warmth and friendliness of Hawk and our fellow guests made up for the small inconvenience of the noise from the kitchen area. The accommodation was so cozy and comfortable that it felt like home away from home, and even better, it was great value for money. And so, it was naturally time to take my morning shower. Now, having a hot shower in Iceland is not for the faint hearted. Once the tap is turned, you really need to breathe through your mouth and try not allow the sulphuric smell from the water permeate your nostrils! If you can imagine a really bad egg smell, or maybe more like those stink bombs that we used to get from the joke shop and smash on the ground as kids. Well that’s the smell that hit me. After my first shower I complained to Colm that there seemed to be something wrong with the plumbing and we should tell Hawk about it immediately. And when we did we were assured that it came from the geothermal water system that is used in 85% of households here to heat the water. How innovative! They just pull it from under the ground and into their houses to use for underfloor heating and hot water and general household heating. So that’s the smell, it’s the naturally heated volcanic sulphuric water from under the ground! It’s how the Geysers work here. It’s cheap and free and the best demonstration of environmentally friendly heating I’ve ever seen. The locals don’t even smell it anymore and find foreign visitors reaction to it hilarious!
The next thing that hit us, albeit not unexpectedly as we had heard about this before we arrived, was the cost of food and alcohol! Folks, thankfully Hawk’s guest house had excellent cooking facilities, (and if you’re considering visiting this uniquely fantastic country you need to make sure that these facilities are available) because if not, we’d be home, broke, after a week of eating out and drinking here. To give you some perspective on the cost of food. A packet of cheese slices that we can get back home for about €3, is about €14 here. A single red pepper is approximately €3.50, for just one, yep, just the one! The cheapest pint of beer (outside of the happy hours that the pubs and restaurants put on to entice the likes of us) is roughly between €10 and €15 a pint. I kid you not! Even to buy food in the supermarket is crazy expensive. The supermarkets don’t sell beer/wine. There are state run off-licenses that are highly regulated where you can get alcohol at slightly cheaper prices than in the pubs and restaurants. They close at 6 p.m. on the dot! So, the only thing for it is to follow the bars that have happy hours and do a pub crawl basically til you run out of pubs and happy hours and money and slide home at a relatively early hour. It takes a bit of getting used to for sure.
Sadly, the recent snow storms have hampered our chances of seeing the Northern Lights and doing our tours to the famous geysers and waterfalls, as many of the roads have been blocked with every nights new snow storm. But it has given us a much needed opportunity to relax, and dare I say, chill. We’ve heard that they have to bring food and supplies to people in a nearby town through an underground tunnel when storms like this happen, so we don’t feel too hard done by when we hear about their isolation with snow storms. When we get even the smallest fall of snow back home, children are quick to be outdoors building snowmen and having snowball fights. I didn’t actually see any snowman built anywhere here which was very different to back home, but given that we were in the city area, that may well explain it.
The Blue Lagoon is one place that we had so longed to visit and thankfully we got to do that on Monday evening. We were so thrilled that it hadn’t been cancelled even though the snow was still pelting down and roads were pretty dodgy with the build up of snow. So, the visit to the saltwater thermal spa (heated again with natural geothermal springs) didn’t disappoint and was a truly magnificent experience. Outside, in swimsuits, bathing in minus 6 degree freezing cold with snow pelting at our faces and we were so cozy and warm under the thermal water. We looked amazing in our Algae face masks, and could sip a beer at the bar in the middle of the pool. Oh my, what a sight to behold!
In a nutshell, would I recommend this place for a holiday? Absolutely, yes. I would come back in a heartbeat. The place has a uniqueness about it that I’ve never quite felt or seen in any other country i’ve visited. It’s exquisitely beautiful with such a touch of class to everything that it offers. It feels extremely safe (apart from the icy paths). For every degree of coldness here, the local people make up for it in abundance with their genuine warmth and friendliness and their eagerness to make our stay the best it possibly can be given the current weather conditions.
For example, we dropped into a local indoor hot-dog stand on one of our days out walking and happened upon a local guy who was also having one of Reykjaviks famous hotdogs. He started chatting to us and on discovering that we were Irish chatted to us about DNA tests that are carried out by a pharmaceutical company here in Iceland. Icelandic’s apparently can avail of these DNA tests for various medical reasons, including genetic testing which is a whole other discussion in the context of pregnancies and illnesses that they are trying to identify within families etc. but it is also used for exploring genetic heritage. He was delighted to tell us that he had had the test carried out a few years ago and discovered that he was 52% Irish. Given that he had red hair and sported a red beard we were kinda convinced he was telling us the truth. Before we had a chance to finish our hot dogs he was excitedly beckoning us to come walking with him around the city so he could tell us some more about the history of it. We followed and then en-route he swung by his house and invited us in. His house was once the only funeral parlor in the city. It was eerily magnificent with giant stuffed Polar Bears greeting us as we walked through. Now, under normal circumstances, there is not a chance that we would take the risk of taking a stranger up on an invitation into his house, but for some strange reason we followed him. When we spoke about it to each other afterwards about how risky it was, we both said that we felt in our gut that this guy was a genuinely good guy, and again the feeling of safety we had sensed since we arrived may have lulled us into that sense of security. Lucky for us (and for him – remember, he was bringing us, strangers, into his home too), he was an absolutely fantastic and wonderfully colorful character who shared some really interesting local stories with us. It turns out as we followed him around his house that he was a well-known Icelandic ship designer and builder. To our surprise he took out the Icelandic equivalent of our Hello magazine and showed us his photo on the front of it, and it quickly dawned on us that this was no ordinary tour guide showing us around. He was an absolute breath of fresh air to listen to his stories about his life experiences, his time spent in Greenland as a fisherman many years ago, about his country etc. We ended up heading to the local Irish pub with him (where the happy hour was on of course) and spent a few more hours chatting to him. The Seanachai was definitely evident in him and on leaving him we exchanged numbers and contact details and have now gained a new Icelandic friend who we will certainly be meeting up with in the future. He will be no doubt one of many that we’ll make as we travel around the world.
Iceland, I was delighted to discover, is also one of the leading countries in egalitarianism, which in today’s world is a rare find! This is the country where it is great to be a woman. Women are highly respected for their contribution to society both inside and outside the home. Out of 144 countries in the world, it ranked number one in political empowerment of women. Their political leaders and Presidents have been mainly women and almost half of board members of listed companies are women. It also ranks number one for closing the gender income gap. Parental leave here is divided equally between men and women, with both parents being able to avail of 80% of their salary while on leave. Research has shown that this has resulted in men being significantly more involved in child care and domestic duties. Women make up 66% of graduates from University, and hold almost half of the countries parliamentary seats. Now that’s what we need to aspire to in Ireland! The health care system here is also one of the top health-care systems in the world. A visit to a GP costs no more than €10 compared to to €50+ back home.
Finally, while the continuous snow storms have hampered our travel plans, these have been an experience in themselves and created different, unexpected events which have been just as fantastic. Before starting our journey we resigned ourselves to the fact that no matter how tightly we plan each part of the trip, it will take us where it will, and we just have to weather the storm so to speak. That’s part of the beauty of the trip. The uncertainty and sense of adventure when you’ve no idea after arriving in a country what’s going to happen and where it will lead you.
And so, the Irish granny takes her leave of this beautiful country of Iceland and heads for yet another snowy adventure in Toronto and Hamilton in Canada. See you there soon