Saturday, July 02, 2016

Post Card from Iceland

"We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow."
- "Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin

It was always difficult to say where you were in Iceland.

We came out of the Reykjavik airport (actually located 45 minutes away, in Keflavik) shortly before 1 a.m after a 5-1/2 hour flight from Toronto and the usual wait for customs and luggage. The sky looked like twilight - dark enough to put on car headlights, but light enough so that objects could still be seen in the distance.

It took some time for the bus to fill up with fellow visitors, and then the vehicle dropped off a few people along the way before arriving in Reykjavik at about 2:15. Along the way, we came to the realization that it was getting lighter outside.

Welcome to Iceland, late June edition.

Whenever we mentioned that we were headed to the North Atlantic country, the first question from others centered on the midnight sun. Yes, we did not see darkness for the entire nine-day trip. The day we were in Akureyri on the north coast, sunset was at 12:50 a.m., and sunrise was at 1:25 a.m. So it never became completely dark. That made it important to make sure the curtains in hotel rooms covered up as much of the windows as possible. On the other hand, walking down a fully lit street after 10 p.m. is a unique experience.

We took a bus tour of Iceland with 19 others that covered more than 2,000 kilometers over the course of a week, seeing a couple of cities, a few towns or villages, waterfalls, deserts, glaciers, mountains, hot springs. and sheep - lots of sheep. I will post notes on individual locations (with pictures) on my travel blog when I get to them. Here are some observations, with the help of some members of the group who turned from strangers to friends in much less than a week:

 * One of the odd parts of a trip to Iceland is that a look at the words of an Icelandic location provided no clue to English-speaking people on how to say it. There are 36 letters in their alphabet, and some combinations of letters produce unknown sounds to English speakers. When we were in Egilsstaoir (missing a squiggle under the o), no one had much of an idea about how to say it - so we didn't. The volcano that blew up in 2010, causing air travel problems for the world, is called Eyjafjallaokull. There are YouTube videos with instructions on how to say that one. T-shirts spell it out phonetically - AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuuti-uh. And good luck.

Names are no better. Our bus tour guide said her name once, but she thankfully said to just call her Steffi. The bus driver's name was the same story but he provided no snappy nickname. After he introduced himself on the bus, I let out a stage whisper, "Let's call him Skip." It got a good laugh, and the name stuck for some through the trip.

* We figured the bus tour would be tiring, as we had to change hotels every night for five straight nights, and it was. It led to a feeling of "If it's Sunday, it must be Reykjahlio" at times. But there were plenty of stops along the way to break up the drives, so we saw a lot and no one collapsed. No complaints here.

* Looking for a trip to a foreign country where communicating is easy? Iceland is your place. Just about everyone speaks English. All of the major signs that tourists see have both languages printed on them - along the lines of Canada's use of English and French. However, all of the television outlets from Iceland used Islandic, and a daily English newspaper didn't seem to be available anywhere. Therefore, it was tough to keep up with the latest news of the host country. Interestingly, a  Presidential election took place early in our stay, and we had no idea who won until an Internet search produced a result. (There were no roadside signs for candidates, either, come to think of it.)

* We did happen to be visiting when Iceland had its "Miracle on Grass" moment. The national soccer team had qualified for the Euro soccer tournament for the first time, causing a bit of a frenzy, and then advanced to the round of 16. There mighty England awaited, but Iceland came through with a 2-1 win. England's population - 51 million; Iceland's - 330,000. We could hear fireworks from our hotel in East Iceland. How embarrassing was the loss? The coach of the English national team immediately resigned after the game. Soccer has grown in popularity in Iceland as more and more fields have added artificial turf.

* There were English stations on cable television - mostly from the BBC. They devoted much air time to the Brexit vote. That result dismayed our new British friends who were traveling on our tour, and not just because they had to watch the trip become more expensive by the day as the pound suffered a beating in international currency trading. 

* A quick note on weather is required. It rained a little every day, but usually only for a short time. Temperatures were in the low 50s under mostly cloudy skies. Apparently that rare 70-degree day sends everyone running to the beaches (just to relax, not to swim in the freezing waters), but none of that took place while we were there.

* The hotel rooms were on the small side by American standards. They were missing top sheets, meaning we slept directly under a nice quilt, and clocks. The showers were a little claustrophobic, which was surprising in a place where people shower naked together (men and women are in separate rooms, for the record) before heading into the hot springs. One of our rooms did not have a bar on the floor to prevent shower water from flowing all over the bathroom - causing a small flood. The room did come with a squeegee, though, which was a first.

A native gives me advice on what to see in Iceland. He was a little stiff.
* Speaking of missing, there are no good sweatshirts in all of Iceland. Anywhere. I looked. There are a few clever t-shirts, including one that used the quote at the top of the story. But sweatshirts didn't get more witty than the one that read "Iceland." There were no long-sleeve t-shirts, either. Say, isn't this country right below the Arctic Circle? We told Steffi that she should quit the tour business and sell sweatshirts and flower seeds (none of those around either). "Steffi's Shirts and Seeds" would clean up.

* Iceland is an expensive country to visit. Just about everything but wool (remember, lots of sheep) has to be imported, which adds up after a while. Lunch for two was in the range of $35 unless you had a couple of tasty Icelandic hot dogs (they add a bit of lamb to them). A small soft drink was at least $3. Salads were relatively scarce on menus, and pricey when found. A 1,000-krona note is worth $8.16, at least as of this writing, which caused some mental mathematics whenever we looked at prices. One other point about prices - tipping is more or less not allowed in Iceland. Natives consider it a handout, so it is included in the price. You'd be surprised how helpful that is for tourists.  

* Driving can be an adventure in Iceland, as few roads outside of Reykjavik have more than two lanes and the rural areas feature many dirt roads. As a result, collision shop owners do well there. We had thought about renting a car and driving around Iceland outselves, but letting Skip do the driving proved to be a good decision. If you are interested, the country is slightly smaller than Kentucky.

* Iceland is a place for serious photographers. We saw several people at the major attractions with large cameras and plenty of extra equipment, such as tripods. Last year on our European cruise, we saw a far greater percentage people using tablets - which, at least to me, shouts out "amateur." I will say, though, that some phone cameras are good enough to take quality photographs these days. 

* Someone asked about the lack of wildlife on display in parks, shorelines, etc. Then we all realized that most animals never could migrate to Iceland. There are plenty of birds, though, including the cute-as-can-be puffins. The island also is home to about 100,000 horses - one for every three people, more or less.

* For what it's worth, there was a surprising amount of graffiti in Reykjavik - more than you'd think in an area with less than 250,000 people. We asked a few people about it, and we got answers ranging from drugs to immigrants.

* The "Buffalo is the center of the universe theory" was proven a couple of times on the trip in casual conversation. (As you may know, there's always some connection to Buffalo, no matter where you go.) We were chatting with a couple of Americans when I mentioned I was from Buffalo. "Oh, one of my best friends works for the Buffalo News." After a few stories about co-worker Sue Schulman, we became pals in no time. And Steffi trained at Roswell Park Cancer Institute during the 1970s, spending several years in Buffalo. Amazing.

Iceland has plenty of natural wonders scattered around the country, and people - native and visiting - are welcoming and friendly. It made for a fine vacation.

It's always nice to return home - or at least to the Toronto airport.
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