Warm welcome in Iceland
EDMONTON – TRAVEL – As a travel writer I’ve visited numerous countries and destinations but none has sparked the kind of interest and curiosity from people upon my return than my trip to Iceland, a resilient nation of volcanos, glaciers, thermal hot springs, waterfalls and take-your-breath-away scenery.
“That’s so cool you travelled there,” said one friend. “How cold is it?”
“It’s on my bucket list of places to visit before I die,” said another pal. “What are the people like?”
“What’s (Iceland’s capital) Reykjavík like?” asked another fascinated friend.
The answer to the first question is it’s not all that cold, even though the capital city is situated at 64 degrees latitude, just south of the Arctic Circle.
The average winter temperature in the south part of the 103,000 sq. km island is about 0C because the country is warmed by the Gulf Stream.
That said, the mercury doesn’t exactly skyrocket in summer. Daytime highs in the south in July average 10C to 13C.
The people are warm, hospitable and I did not meet a soul who couldn’t speak English as well as their own mother tongue, Icelandic, a north Germanic language. Danish is also widely spoken as Iceland was part of the Danish monarchy until becoming independent in 1944.
Its violent crime rate is minuscule and Iceland has been ranked as the safest country in the world to live or visit.
Reykjavík, the northernmost capital city in the world, is a fascinating place that combines the seaside ruggedness of Newfoundland, with the feel of Banff or Jasper and the chicness of Scandinavia.
The capital city of 120,000 or so people is the cultural hub of the country, where entertainment and nightlife thrive and trendy boutiques offer homegrown designer products ranging from jewellery, to Icelandic wool sweaters, to fish leather.
Since the ninth century Icelanders have made a living from the sea: it was, after all, settled by Viking explorers. But, today, their innovation and technology ups the ante by producing fish leather that goes to creating the likes of salmon leather coats, perch leather boots and cod handbags.
These days Iceland is becoming very trendy in the travel world.
It’s almost certainly because of its creative response to two bad-news events.
The country made worldwide headlines in 2008 when all three major privately-owned banks collapsed. Iceland itself was on the brink of bankruptcy.
There was even more media coverage of Iceland when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and shut down air traffic over a huge swath of Europe for six days in April 2010.
But rather than wallow in their misfortunes, the plucky denizens of the Nordic nation took action.
They launched the largest tourism-attraction campaign in Iceland’s history, called Inspired by Iceland. The government partnered with more than 100 companies on the effort that included a big emphasis on social media. Celebrities like Eric Clapton were enlisted to help out and it’s said that one-third of the population sent out a promotional video as part of the effort.
Tourism and Creative Industries Director Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir said that “It was decided to keep working together under the umbrella ‘Inspired by Iceland’ and we now do so with well over 80 companies today, government and Icelandair being the largest partners.”
That effort has paid off. Iceland has weathered the financial storm and tourism now rivals fishing as the nation’s biggest economic driver.
It also doesn’t hurt that Iceland is now far easier to visit, especially for people in western Canada.
Regular Icelandair flights began in March between Edmonton, Alberta and Reykjavík.
There will be up to five flights a week between the cities and the airline offers a free stopover in Iceland if flying between Edmonton and continental Europe.
I was fortunate enough to be aboard one of the first flights to the island nation as part of an Edmonton trade and tourism delegation.
The first thing that struck me on the 40-minute journey from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík was the astoundingly rugged and bleak volcanic landscape in that part of the nation.
“Before the astronauts first landed on the moon (in 1969) they came here to Iceland to train,” said one of our tour guides. “Parts of Iceland are just like the moon.”
There are several distinct tourism regions in Iceland but the two that draw the most interest include Reykjavík and area and South Iceland.
Despite its relatively small size, compared to most other world capitals, Reykjavík is a modern, sophisticated and historic city that would impress the most discerning traveller.
Personal highlights include the harbour area that’s chock-a-block full of upscale restaurants, authentic pubs and shops offering a dizzying array of Icelandic designer goods.
Another must-visit – whether or not you’re taking in an event there – is the Harpa concert hall and convention facility, a stunning glass and metal work of art. It’s breathtaking.
It’s fitting it should have a world-class facility like this seeing as how Reykjavík bills itself as “Festival City.” It has a thriving arts and music community and a reputation for a lively late-night club/bar scene.
When we visited Harpa we were treated to the sight of a major chess tournament that was underway, the Reykjavík Open 2014. They take their chess seriously in Iceland.
In1972 Reykjavík hosted the World Chess Championships that saw Bobby Fischer of the United States beat defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in what was called the match of the century. Fischer later lived in Reykjavík until his 2008 death.
An architectural marvel in Reykjavík (that you literally can’t miss) is Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church whose concrete tower stretches 73 meters into the sky and allows visitors a stunning vista from its viewing deck.
Outside, standing guard, is a statue of Norse explorer Leif Ericson, renowned as the first European to land in North America (in present-day Newfoundland) nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
More can’t-miss sights? Take in the Reykjavík Art Museum. I was most impressed by its large, colourful collection of work by controversial pop artist Erró.
We were fortunate to get some time on our relatively short trip to get to the famous Blue Lagoon outdoor spa and to the Haukadalur geothermal area in the southwest, a land of hot springs and geysers. It was a foggy day when we had the good fortune to see Strokkur Geyser erupt, an awe-inspiring geo-thermal phenomenon that shoots off every five to 10 minutes.
The Blue Lagoon thermal spa has become a not-to-be-missed visit that’s a comfortable drive from Reykjavik and is reputed to have medicinal qualities to alleviate persistent skin diseases such as psoriasis.
Tourists flock by the thousands to soak their worries away in the spa, situated in a lava field in Grinavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
It’s an ultra-modern facility featuring high-tech gizmos like bracelets you wear to lock your locker and load with credits to use at the swim-up bar.
Bottom line? You can get a good taste of Iceland in the five days or so we were there, but to experience the breadth of the fascinating country, it could take weeks, especially if you’re heading into their highly-touted great outdoors to cycle, explore by horseback, snowmobile or go caving, birding, fishing, whale watching or mountain climbing.
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Kerry Diotte is an experience travel writer who has written about numerous world destinations. He is a partner at BenchmarkCreative.net.