I knew very little about Iceland and had no particular interest in seeing it until the idea of a family trip popped up during one of my early morning meditations. Go figure.
The idea occurred to me in late October; a month later, we were there. What we saw in our week of travels was fantastic. But learning more about Iceland was fascinating as well. Here's a rundown of Iceland factoids:
Climate: I packed for Antarctica. What I found was a climate not much colder than Washington DC's, although late November in Iceland was perhaps more like January here.
The Gulf Stream makes the climate there much milder than one would expect. The downside is that the milder Atlantic air mass collides with the colder arctic air mass, creating changeable, often windy conditions. DC is also known for changeable weather, and I lost two trees in a windstorm -- our "derecho" -- this past June.
The Iceland tourist bureau likes to point out that in January 2010 the daily average temperature in Reykjavik was 2 degrees Centigrade, contrasted with a -1C in New York and Berlin.
The spread between daily highs and lows isn't as great in Reykjavik. I just checked the Weather Channel and for this Wednesday, and the high/low spread for D.C. is predicted to be 47-30, while in Reykjavik it's 38-34. I noticed that for several days in the coming week the prediction calls for only a one degree change from high to low in Reykjavik.
Daylight: This feature wasn't the problem I'd expected. Although the official time for sunrise was close to 10:30 am, we had enough light by 10 to set off on our journeys each day. We wouldn't have wanted to leave any earlier: the hotels offered huge complimentary breakfasts, and our group ranged in age from one to 83. Darkness fell by 5pm, like here, so there was plenty of time for touring.
The Iceland tourist bureau boasts that Iceland has an average of 14.9 hours of daylight each day, more than most places in the world, and about two hours more than sunny Miami! Of course, Iceland gains more daylight in the summer -- with its famous midnight sun -- than it loses in winter.
On December 21, the winter solstice, the sun rises at 11:22 and sets at 15:30 -- about 4 hours of daylight. On June 21, the sun rises at 02:54 and doesn't set until 24:04, over 21 hours of daylight.
One of the many things that surprised me was that the sun didn't make the overhead daytime arc I'm used to. Instead, it stayed about 25 degrees above the horizon and slowly moved from East to West.
The Northern Lights: I've joked that this is a myth concocted by the tourist bureau since we saw nothing, and my friends the Montwielers (who did the same tour a few weeks earlier) said they might have seen a faint glow. Turns out, I now find, the brightest aurora borealis is usually seen in spring and autumn, not midwinter. Most frequently, it's visible from about 21:00 to 1:00 at night.
The aurora borealis is caused by electrically charged particles emitted by the sun interacting with the earth's magnetic field. Colliding with the upper atmosphere at great speeds, the particles cause the air to glow in the beautiful colors of the aurora.
Iceland is in the middle of the aurora zone where the phenomenon is most frequently seen. The tourist bureau says "some aurora can be seen on almost every clear night in Iceland when the sky is dark enough, but its intensity is extremely variable." Thus sayest the tourist bureau.
At most hotels, you can sign up at the reception desk to be called if the Lights make an appearance during the night. Our phones never rang.
Very little documentation exists about the early settlement of Iceland. The primary source is the Icelandic document, The Book of Settlements, which was probably written in the 12th century. It recounts how the first settlers were Vikings who had been blown off course and that the name Iceland was given by a Norwegian Viking.
Seems the Vikings often were blown off course. In open ships with one sail, they navigated mostly by the position of the sun and stars and the flight of seabirds. A Viking who was blown off course when trying to sail from Iceland to Greenland caught sight of a forested land but didn't attempt to land there. In the year 1000, Leif Ericson, having heard the report, went off to find this land. He discovered an area he named Vinland, a land of "mild climate, self sown wheat and grapes."
The Vikings landed there, with evidence of settlements in Newfoundland and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But after three years, hostile Indians drove them off.
DNA testing of today's Icelanders show that over 80 percent of the males show genetic links with Norsemen. But over 60 percent of the females have Celtic genes. The supposition is that the Vikings sailed from home as single men and then spent some time in Scotland and Ireland, where they married local women before journeying to Iceland.
Clean Air and Water and Eating Fish Pays Off
Icelanders have one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. The drinking water is one of the purest in the world. The cold water from the tap is pure spring water without any additives, like chlorine. The hot water is of geothermal origins, making it excellent for bathing but not drinking. It's recommended that you let the cold water tap run for a while before tasting to ensure that no hot water is mixed in.
In general, air quality in Iceland is good . . . as long as volcanoes aren't erupting. There's typical vehicle pollution in Reykjavik, as in any city. The widespread use of studded tires, for reasons I don't fully understand, adds to the pollution. Both of the cars we rented had studded tires, which we appreciated on one particularly icy morning.
Iceland's food comes from local fisheries and from family farms, not industrial farms. The Icelander's diet, the website Food&Wine says, may be the secret to why "Icelanders are among the planet's healthiest, happiest people." The editors explain:
Iceland's geographic isolation—plus strict government environmental regulations—helps it produce some of the purest foods on the planet. Grass-fed cows with a lineage that goes back to the Norwegian herds brought by the Vikings in 874 AD make milk that's high in beta carotene, creating exceptional butter and cheese as well as the yogurt-like skyr. Family farms sell tender meat from lambs that have grazed in the mountains all summer on moss, scrub and wildflowers. Fish farmers raise arctic char without chemicals or antibiotics in eco-friendly saltwater tanks.Reykjavik
Iceland is sparsely populated, with only about 320,000 inhabitants. The only real urban area is the capital, Reykjavik, and its suburbs, where two-thirds of the population live. No one would have believed it 30 years ago, but today Reykjavik is viewed as "the capital of the North," an international arbiter of hipness, especially in music and nightlife.
One of the city's traditions now is the "Friday night pub crawl," as mobs of young people go from pub to pub. Many of the pubs feature live music. Since the final night of our tour was Friday in Reykjavik, Jessie, Dan and Colin made the scene, lasting until 2 or 3 o'clock, unlike the locals who party all night.
These wild nights are apparently confined to the weekends. During the rest of the week, it seems fairly subdued compared to London, Paris, or Berlin.
Reykjavik recently became the fifth city in the world to earn the title "UNESCO City of Literature," joining Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, and -- ready? -- Iowa City. Go figure. Reykjavik is the first non-English-speaking city to receive the honor.
Icelanders, with Norwegians and Finns, buy and read the most books per capita. On average, Icelanders buy about nine books per year. This year, 1500 book titles will be published in Iceland, amazing in a county with only 320,000 people.
I spent some time in two multi-story book stores within a few blocks of each other in the center city. On the plane ride home, I read Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason, the Icelandic author whose crime novels are consistent best-sellers in Europe and -- lately -- the U.S.
Dining in Iceland
This seafood lover packed on four pounds during our week in Iceland. The lavish breakfast buffets were my downfall. The breads and jams were great. And how can you resist heaping salmon and pickled herring on your plate?
When out in the countryside, we had our suppers in the hotels. The meals were fine, and the gourmet evening buffet at the Laki Hotel, which I described in an earlier post, was superb.
I also described our first dinner in Iceland, the fun evening at the "Laundromat" restaurant. When we returned to Reykjavik at the end of the week, we had an absolutely terrific meal at the Fish Market, one of the city's most popular restaurants, and deservedly so. The chef and co-owner has her own TV program. The cooking is an inspired mix of Icelandic seafood and Asian spices. The Fish Market is the restaurant featured in the video that started this post.
At first glance, the menu's price seemed pretty steep. But then I remembered another thing I love about Icelanders -- they don't believe in tipping in restaurants or taxis! Unlike other places where a "service is included" charge of 15 percent is added to the bill, the price you see quoted for your menu choice is all you are billed for. Deducting 15 or 20 percent from the price listed made the bill seem much more reasonable.
Jessie and Dan and the kids opted for a pizza parlor that night. I'm sure Kaylee and Kenzie liked that much more than they would have the Fish Market.
But we all agreed on our favorite Icelandic food:
Pylsa -- Iceland's Hot Dog
This is the all-time favorite Icelandic fast food, called Iceland's national food. Bill Clinton is just one of many visiting dignitaries who have sampled the Icelandic hot dog.
The best place to buy one is at this small red and white stand near the harbor, only a few blocks from our hotel:
This stand has been in business for 60 years. The queue you see here gets much longer in the evenings, when patrons pour out of the pubs and clubs.
The sausages are a mix of pork, beef and lamb. Here's how the "world's most popular hot dog" was described in a recent Huffington Post blog:
The meat is sweet, salty and rich. Then there are the sauces. The first is a stripe of ketchup. The second is a special lightly spiced mustard the colour of tree bark. The third is remoulade. It's a mayonnaise that's been punched up with gherkins and capers.
But the real heroes are the onions. Their pairing of a sprinkle of some that have been crunchy fried with the prickle of others that are raw is a stroke of ingenuity.After hearing the rest of the family rave about these hot dogs, I finally found the stand on the way back to the hotel on our last day. It was the coldest and windiest day of the trip, and I ended up devouring my pylsa while huddled in the doorway of a nearby building.
The next day as we were loading up the cars to leave for the airport, the big debate was whether we had time to swing by the hot dog stand. Unfortunately, we ran out of time.
The story of my life these days -- so much to see and do, so little time.