I recently enjoyed eight days in Iceland. What I'm posting is a condensed version of a 30-page travel log so if anyone reading this wants the full log, please leave me a note on the Contact page.
I'd wanted to visit Iceland for some time and knew that there was an annual Iceland Writer's Retreat. I decided to combine time at the conference with some touring. So, I booked the conference, made the flight reservations with Icelandair, and flew out on April 4th.
When I arrived in Reykjavik after an overnight flight through Toronto, it was snowing and there was slush on the highway from the Keflavik (International) Airport to the Icelandair Hotel Natura. I had pre-booked a seat on The GrayLine for $34 Canadian--it's a one-hour trip, and a taxi would have cost about $180 Cdn.
Reykjavik is the capital city, population 121,822; the total population of Iceland is 329,100. Iceland is a land of barren rock & sand, glaciers, lava fields, lakes, and only about 20% has vegetation cover. In short, Iceland is unique, and I've never been anywhere like it.
Travel is expensive in Iceland--a meal with dessert, but no drinks, at most hotels is about $80 Cdn. That's partly why I combined the touring with a conference as the cost was more reasonable for accommodation and food. April is still 'winter' season as well so the number of tourists--which has increased to an estimated 2.4 Million in 2017 from about 400,000 in 2010--is more manageable outside of the main tourist season from May-September.
The first four days of my stay were focused on workshop sessions. There were about 140 of us from 20 countries, and the 11 workshop leaders were high profile authors from 6 different countries. The workshop topics were diverse, and I attended the non-fiction ones.
The conference wasn't all work though. On our first evening, coaches took us to Bessastaðir, home of the President of Iceland. I was surprised to learn that Eliza Reid, one of the conference organizers, is actually The First Lady of Iceland. Her husband, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, was elected in 2016. The president has similar responsibilities to our Governor General of Canada--without a Queen to report to of course! We toured the residence and enjoyed a reception.
One afternoon I caught a cab downtown and went on a pre-booked City Walk: https://citywalk.is Tomas, who lead our group, had many interesting facts and a few stories to share. I enjoyed browsing through a bookstore after the walk and had a snack at the café on the third floor--books and tea/snack--great combination! Every person who spoke to me started in Icelandic and then switched to English. I was told that I look like an Icelander.
As part of the conference, I went on a day-long Golden Circle Tour. Our first stop was at Skalholt, established in 1056 which still operates as the information center of the Lutheran Church of Iceland. Next, we visited the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall. We learned that the falls were saved from being dammed by a young woman who walked to Reykjavik--some stories say barefoot--which is about 120 km to convince the parliament to not let a developer dam the falls for hydroelectric power. She even threatened to throw herself into the falls if development was allowed. Fortunately, she didn't have to do that!
For this part of the tour, we were on a section of the Ring Road--a highway that circles Iceland which many tourists drive in about six days or take a bus tour to explore. There were several tourists at the Strokkur--one of the country's most famous geysers which erupts approximately every 5 minutes. As well as watching the geyser erupt a couple times, I noted that the ground bubbles and steams in this entire area.
We left the geyser area and drove to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. On the way, we saw a few of the approximately 500,000 sheep that live in Iceland. We also saw several Icelandic horses which are known for their five gaits.
Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a place of historical, cultural, and geological significance. Iceland's national parliament, the Althing, was established here in 930 and used until 1798. There were amazing views on our walk from the upper parking lot where we got off the bus to the lower parking lot. The rock formations are fascinating.
We next visited Gljúfrasteinn which is the former home of Halldór Kiljan Laxness, a 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. He wrote over 60 books, and the house was donated to the Icelandic state in 2002 by his widow. It's now a museum. After touring--I've never seen so many books in one house--and listening to a local author read from his work, we boarded the bus and returned to Reykjavik. I highly recommend the Golden Circle Tour. Check http://www.visiticeland.com for tourism information.
I'll include some brief notes on the history of Iceland. Iceland is about 60 million years old and was formed by an eruption under the sea. There were no Indigenous people in Iceland. The first Icelandic settler was Ingolfur Arnarson, who arrived from Norway in 874. People also came from the British Isles, primarily Scotland and Ireland. DNA studies show that 60% of the women came from the British Isles while 80% of the men came from Scandinavian countries, mainly Norway. There is an excellent BBC You tube documentary titled Viking Sagas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taVsvYWp1UU that's about an hour long and tells the history and family stories of Iceland.
Icelanders are a very literary people. One in ten Icelanders is a published author. Everywhere you look, there is print--even cups on airplanes are labelled 'Flying drinks.' The Icelandic language, based on the Old Norse language, is similar to what was spoken in Norway a thousand years ago. The language brought by the original Vikings to Iceland didn't change because of their limited contact with other countries. It will be interesting to see if the massive number of tourists now descending on the island will change the language.
Iceland has a Book of Settlements so Icelanders can trace their family history back 30 generations. I thought I was doing well being able to trace my family back 4-6 generations! On a more practical note, this data base can be used to find out how distant or not distant your potential girlfriend/boyfriend is so you don't marry too close of a cousin! Apparently, there is even an app for that!
My last two days were spent at Egilsstadir, a town of 3,454. I went by Iceland Air on a small plane from the Domestic Airport which had NO security. No machines, no searches, we just scanned our own boarding passes, an attendant glanced at our ID, and we walked out and boarded the plane. It was clear enough that I had a great view of Central Iceland--ice, snow, the odd peak of what they call mountains here, some of which are probably volcanic since there are 130 volcanoes, 30 of which are active in Iceland. All I could think was, "Propellers keep turning because no one wants to go down there!"
I enjoyed myself in Egilsstadir and visited the East Iceland Heritage Museum with displays on The Old Rural Household (including the living room of a turf house) and the Reindeer in Eastern Iceland. I also walked down to the Lagarfljot Lake hoping to see Iceland's Worm Monster--sightings have been recorded since 1345. No 12 meter/39 feet long worm was visible, but it was a nice view of the lake with mountains in the background. East Iceland even has TREES! Most of the trees--a type of birch, rowan (mountain ash), and tea-leaved willow--were cut for timber in the early years of settlement. There are great reforestation plans in place, but it takes trees a long time to grow in these conditions where there isn't much land that will grow anything!
I was very well treated at the Icelandair Hotel Herad, and I would recommend staying there and touring East Iceland if you have a chance. I had the best meals--the first evening I had trout with almonds, asparagus, and baby potatoes. The second evening I had lamb with root vegetables. Both evenings, I had crème brulee with wild herbs from the mountains along with a scoop of banana ice cream with cookie crumbles.
I flew from Egilsstadir to Reykjavik to Toronto to Calgary on April 11th, arriving home at 1:30 a.m. on April 12th. Icelandair chose to wait for over an hour in Reykjavik for five passengers on a flight from Paris, and then when we got into Toronto, security wouldn't let us off the plane for about 20 minutes because Customs was too busy. As a result, several of us missed our connecting flights. Fortunately, there was another WestJet flight that night. Missing the connecting flight--and therefore being awake about 26 hours by that time--was the only negative of my trip.
My only regret is that I didn't take more time to tour while I was there. I would have liked to have visited some of the fishing villages on the fjords. I had booked such a tour out of Egilsstadir, but it was cancelled because I was the only person booked. I would also have liked to have flown to North Iceland as it is supposed to be very unique terrain there as well.
Don't wait for the next volcanic eruption--go to Iceland soon.