Well, dear reader, you already know the title of our blog is “Next Stop, Who Knows?“, and that implies there’s a certain amount of mystery about our travels and destinations.
Actually that’s more true than you may imagine, because often our destinations are a mystery even to us, until it’s almost time to head off on our next adventure.
Much as we love the excitement of jetting around to exotic destinations with little forethought or planning, it does make things difficult sometimes. Possibly it could be true that the more exotic the destination is, the more sense it would make to plan ahead a bit.
There are few places that could compete with Iceland for being exotic—it’s a land of volcanoes, glaciers, elves, and puffins—so it’s probably one of those places that should definitely be included on our “to do” list.
For numerous reasons (mainly that Eric, our friend and fellow travel writer, won’t stop babbling about how amazing it is), we’ve been giving a lot of thought to making this our next stop.
Don’t worry, we’re not completely abandoning our tried and tested formula or rushing head-on into bizarre adventures (which so far have included getting squirted with poo by Ecuadorian bandits, crashing a motorbike in Vietnam, and taking an involuntary swim in Laos).
We’ve learned a lot from the crazy world of travel, and those are lessons we had to learn the hard way. Still, there’s not a lot we’d take back. Except maybe the poo incident, because that was just a bit too extreme, even by our standards.
Anyway, based on our research so far, we have faith that it’s extremely unlikely we’ll be accosted by bandits in Iceland. Elves, now that might be a different matter, and we’re almost hoping we’ll see one. Nothing boosts a blog like a good elf story!
Now we’ll tell you a bit more about Iceland and why you might want to add it to your itinerary. A screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may help put you in the mood, as some of the movie’s best scenes were filmed in Iceland and nearby Greenland.
If that’s not really to your taste in movies, Iceland was also featured in A View To A Kill, Die Another Day, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Interesting Facts About Iceland
- Iceland is not very big, is not covered in ice, and is mostly green. Greenland, on the other hand, is very large, is almost completely covered in ice, and has very little greenery in the scenery.
- You couldn’t legally buy beer in Iceland between 1915 and 1989. That’s the longest continuous period of prohibition in a non-Islamic country since the start of the 20th century. Luckily for those of you who enjoy a beer or two, it’s widely available now. And yes, they even have Guinness.
- One of the more unusual statistics is that Iceland has the highest per-capita consumption of Coca-Cola in the world, yet their obesity rate is still relatively low. It’s slightly lower than that of Ireland, and almost two-thirds lower than the rate in the US. We must find out their secret!
- There’s no need to pack mosquito repellent, because Iceland is one of the only two countries in the world that doesn’t have any of these little blood-sucking nuisances.
- Iceland is also one of only a handful of nations not to have any military forces.
- Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice” because it has glaciers and active volcanoes. It’s one of the best places to witness a volcanic eruption, and as long as you take sensible precautions, you shouldn’t have reason to fear.
- The geothermic activity under the surface is used to provide energy to homes and businesses throughout Iceland, making it green in spirit as well as in nature. Icelandic water is so pure they pipe it straight to houses without adding any chemicals.
- Iceland is the only European country that grows bananas in commercial quantities. The long stretches of daylight in summer and heat from geothermic activity make it possible to grow bananas in glasshouses.
Things to See & Do in Iceland
What you get to do in Iceland depends very much on the time of year you go there. The most popular time to visit, of course, is during summer. This is because there’s plenty of daylight and it’s warmer.
During winter, it’s dark most of the time and more cold, but not as much as it should be, thanks to a combination of warm ocean currents and geothermic activity in the heart of the island.
Probably the most difficult thing to get used to would be the very long days and nights. Imagine seeing the sun set at midnight, and rise again just a short time later. And because the sun doesn’t stay set for very long, it doesn’t actually get to full darkness at all. The sky, apparently, is amazing to look at during this whole sunset period.
Some of the top excursions in Iceland to do in summer include:
- Iceland’s most popular summer attraction is whale watching. It’s quite possibly Iceland’s biggest industry, thanks to abundant whale populations in the area. If you go on one of the whale watching tours, it’s almost certain that you’ll also get to see other oceanic wildlife including seals, dolphins, sea lions and more.
- When you’ve seen enough of the wildlife, you could turn your attention to one of the other natural wonders: the glacier fields. One of the best places to visit, so we are told, is Skaftafell. Here the landscape is so strange, it almost seems like being on another planet.
- After our experience in Laos, there are mixed feelings about whether we’ll give it a go or not, but white water rafting is also a popular attraction for adventurous types.From the photos we have seen, you certainly won’t have a chance to get bored during this activity. If we do decide to take the plunge, the one thing you can be sure of is we won’t be taking along any expensive electronic gadgets with us.
- If you want to see the place where the glaciers give birth to icebergs, head out to Jökulsárlon lagoon. Nearby there is an ice cave to explore, so you can have the experience not just of seeing the glacier or walking on top of it, but being inside it as well.Of course if you want to experience something like that, you’ll need to go with an experienced guide, because even a normal cave can be a potentially dangerous environment. One made of ice would have to be quite a bit more risky, I would think.
- See the geysers and volcanoes. Whether you get the chance to see a volcano doing its thing or not is completely up to nature, but you should definitely have the chance to see some geysers erupting. If you are watching a volcano, that’s best to be done from a safe distance, and being mindful of any local warnings.In that situation, it’s a good idea to put something protective over your camera lens. It may affect the quality of your pictures slightly, but that’s better than having your expensive lens covered in scratches as volcanic ash blows across its surface.
Arriving in winter, you may think there’s not much on offer, but it’s actually not as dormant as you may expect, and as a bonus, with less tourists around, you’ll have a bit more space.
Speaking of expectations, you can’t leave your camera at home, either. There’s still a lot to see, even in the dark:
- There’s always plenty of partying and fun going on in Iceland, but of course during winter everybody parties extra hard because the nights are extra long. Nightlife in Iceland is reportedly quite unique and something that has to be experienced to be believed.
- The famous northern lights can be seen from many places on Earth, but Iceland is one of the most incredible places to see and photograph them. Combining this with an ice cave tour—which you can still do in winter—can add that extra ounce of magic that makes you think thoughts like: “What the hell? I’m in an ice cave under a glacier watching the northern lights!”
- Winter whale watching would be almost as popular as summer whale watching if people knew you could do it. Huge schools of herring migrate down to the warmer southern waters, and the whales come to prey on them. Consequently there may be even more whales to see than during the summer.Photographing them in the low light on a moving boat is going to be the challenge there. But just to see them in their natural environment would have to rate as one of life’s great experiences.
Food in Iceland
It should be fairly clear by now that we are big-time foodies, and love nothing more than discovering some new exciting food that we never knew existed. We’re so looking forward to discovering something amazing in Iceland.
Now you won’t find too many Icelandic restaurants scattered throughout the world, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own signature cuisine.
I’m not sure yet how we’ll face up to some of the more hardcore traditional Icelandic foods, which include seared sheep heads, soured ram testicles, grilled whale, and fermented shark.
Then there’s perhaps the toughest challenge of all, because one of the strangest twists in the Icelandic tale is that those adorably cute little puffins are apparently also exquisitely tasty.
Should we? Could we? We’ll have to wait and see where our journey takes us.
Fortunately there are plenty of other foods on offer that are more “normal”. Some of the foods that come highly recommended include:
- Skyr: This is a dairy specialty exclusive to Iceland that you can eat at any time with just about anything. It’s apparently delicious and similar to yogurt in taste and manufacture. It is naturally super low in fat and high in protein, making it a kind of super food in this region.
- Kjötsúpa: This translates approximately as “meat soup”, but apparently if it is made really well, it should be more like a stew than a soup. Often served in bowls made from hollowed out bread, it’s supposed to be delicious. It’s made from lamb, carrots, turnips, onions and potatoes. Rice is sometimes added as a reducer. Vegetables (except for potatoes) and rice are expensive ingredients in Iceland, where most non-meat food ingredients have to be imported.
- Hangikjöt: After reading the translation for Kjötsúpa, you probably already figured out that Hangikjöt means “hanged meat”. It’s usually smoked lamb or mutton (but make sure you ask, because it could be horse, and in Iceland that means one of those lovely, majestic Icelandic ponies).It’s traditionally regarded as festive fare, normally served at Christmas, sort of like ham. It’s usually served with a potatoes, beets, peas, and a creamy sauce.
- Fish and seafood: These are certainly not exclusively Icelandic, but there’s an amazing variety and it’s all going to be fresh and delicious.
- Pylsa: This is the famous Icelandic hotdog, which is made with lamb and has been described as having a “bouncy” texture. It’s usually served with a great mixture of condiments and ingredients, which is probably the best way to order it, because Bill Clinton was once famously mocked in the local media for ordering one with just mustard.Perhaps the funniest thing about that incident is that, of all the things a US President could be mocked for, they settled on his taste in hotdogs.
- Pönnukökur: These are sweet crepes served with jam. According to our well-informed sources, most Icelandic people really love their sweets.
On the same topic, we discovered that Iceland has a lot of candy shops, filled with all kinds of decadent indulgences, but the main offerings are chocolate and licorice.
We were told we can sample anything, except—and this warning carried all the weight and determination of a warning not to feed a mogwai after midnight—we shouldn’t even think about trying the salt licorice.
Surely it can’t be that bad? Can it?
I guess no article about Iceland would be complete without a mention of Hákarl. This is a traditional Icelandic food which is essentially shark meat fermented with urea.
Back in ancient times people would simply pee on the shark, but fortunately they now use more modern methods. The whole disemboweled shark is either buried or sealed up, then left to ferment.
Hákarl was described to us as having a smell somewhere between bleach and Windex, which doesn’t sound very encouraging to start with. But then we heard that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once described hákarl as the worst food he ever tried. We will try to be brave for you, readers, but I can’t promise to a certainty that we’ll manage to get any down.
Sounds Like a Plan!
In true “Next Stop Who Knows?” fashion, we haven’t firmly decided anything yet, but a break in Iceland is sounding more and more like the kind of adventure we crave. One thing that’s certain: if we go, you’ll be sure to hear a lot more about it. Especially if any of those elves decide to make an appearance.