Is Iceland “Bucket List” worthy? From the tallest volcano in Iceland I scream YES!
It’s called The Land of Fire & Ice for good reason, this island country is dotted with 130 volcanoes with 30 of them active! Even though much of the island is covered with a permanent ice cap, the Summer months are intensely green with fields filled with purple flowers thanks to the warm Gulf Stream waters that moderate the countries climate with average winter temperatures of 32 degrees. Iceland has more than 10,000 waterfalls, more than any other country in Europe. You’ll experience some of the most dramatic, goose bump generating cascades you could ever imagine. This dramatic landscape makes Iceland a Hollywood favorite with “location” shoots for Game of Thrones and Vikings, and in the movies with Batman, Star Wars, James Bond, and Lara Croft to name a few. This is the most spectacular scenery I have seen in my travels and most definitely bucket list material.
Getting to Iceland is easy with IcelandAir, they offer low fares with allowed stopovers of up to 7 nights without fare adjustments. The best time to travel is a matter of opinion, with June-August being the Summer high tourist season. Spring & Fall provide better value with a higher risk of snow as you get closer to the Winter months. If your goal is to see the Northern Lights you’ll want to visit Mid March through April or October to mid November. You’ll need a clear sky to see the Northern Lights, but keep in mind the weather doesn’t always cooperate.
Reykjavik is the Capitol of Iceland and main population center, an excellent base camp for exploration of the West and Southwest of the country. If you are interested in the Northeast areas you will need a car rental and hotel reservations well in advance of your trip. Three day tours from Reykjavik stand out and can be easily duplicated if you prefer a self guided tour with a car rental.
The Golden Circle Tour: Includes Thingvellir National Park for a hike between North American and European Continental Plates , Gullfoss the most photographed Icelandic waterfall, Stokkur geyser in the Haukadal Hot Springs and Faxafoss waterfall.
The South Shore Tour: Includes an optional hike behind the Seljalandfoss waterfall, the thundering Skogarfoss falls, Solheimajokull Glacier, and dramatic Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and basalt cliffs. A hike to the wreckage of a US Navy DC-3 that crash landed in November 1973 on Solheimasandur black sand beach can be visited for those opting for self guided exploration.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula Tour: Includes exploration of this stunning coastline with a visit to the Arnarstappi coastal basalt cliffs, black sand beaches and lava stacks at Djupalon, views of the Snaefellsjokull glacier. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is a microcosm of everything Iceland.
Iceland’s Ring Road: Route 1 circles the island covering over 800 miles. A 4 wheel drive vehicle is recommended if you attempt this trip November – March, be sure to have your accommodations booked well in advance. Hotels outside of Reykjavik can be extremely rustic. The city of Akureyri, Iceland’s second city makes the perfect base for exploring the north. Camper vans are available if you don’t mind sleeping in your vehicle with most equipped with fold down beds, sinks with running water, a cooler and gas grill, and electric heaters. Solar panels power the electric appliances. Gas is expensive, but readily available in most towns but extremely limited in the country so fill your gas tank when you have the opportunity. With so many sights to see it’s important to assemble a detailed list that is broken down geographically. You will need a minimum of 7 nights to explore Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the top tourist attractions in Iceland. The volcanic activities superheat underground water reservoirs providing electricity generation, heating and hot water to the island nation. The Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant releases a continuous flow of hot water after power generation into the lagoon. The water, naturally rich in silica, give off a milky blue color and is said to have therapeutic with rejuvenating properties. For a once in a lifetime experience, indulge yourself at the luxurious Retreat at Blue Lagoon opening April 2018. 62 elegant guest suites, restaurant and spa built on an 800 year old lava flow on the south shore of Blue Lagoon. Soak in the 100 degree waters, sipping your favorite cocktail while you watch the Aurora Borealis in the night sky!
Icelandic cuisine is built around 2 major components seafood and lamb. The fertile North Atlantic waters provide an abundant supply of cod, haddock, and langoustines.
Kjotsupa or “meat soup” is Icelandic comfort food made from lamb and root vegetables. This hearty soup is found in most restaurants but more surprisingly is a staple of many convenience stores, gas up your car and have a bowl of meat soup! Hakarl, is an Icelandic delicacy and considered a national dish. This is fermented shark, some call “rotten shark” with it’s strong ammonia flavor. While it’s a favorite of Iceland’s old-timers it’s more of a curiosity to visitors and doesn’t seam to fit well with American palates. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur which translates to “The best hotdog in town”, is the favorite of locals and tourists alike. A typical hotdog bun is opened and dressed with crispy fried onions, raw onions and ketchup, a tight skinned all lamb dog is on top with a smear of Icelandic mustard and a squirt of a mayonnaise based remoulade. This is the best hotdog in all of Europe, and shouldn’t be missed. A perfect anytime snack but especially good after a night of bar hopping, Brennivin shots and beer drinking in downtown Reykjavik.
Prohibition hit Iceland in 1915, banning all alcohol. The ban was first amended to allow wine in 1922, and again in 1935 to legalize all alcohol except beer! Beer was finally legalized on March 1,1989, and is celebrated annually as Bjordagur (Beer Day). The anti beer policy was politically motivated because at the time Iceland was peacefully fighting for it’s independence from Denmark. Beer was a major component of the Danish culture as well as a major export for the country. To put the whole thing in a nutshell, you could say beer was illegal because it was unpatriotic to support the Danish culture. Fast Forward to today. Bjordagur is celebrated by diehard Icelandic locals, but the main beer event, The Icelandic Beer Festival is held the week prior on February 22 – 24th, 2018. Micro breweries are scattered throughout Iceland with several in the Reykjavik area, most offering tours and tastings. I’ve found the best way to explore the micro breweries is with the help of a local guide, one tour offered an interesting combination of white water rafting and brewery tour.
Brennivin is the signature spirit of Iceland, affectionately known as “Black Death” is usually sipped from a chilled shot glass straight up. With a subtle flavor a caraway seeds it seems to go well with traditional Icelandic delicacies like fermented shark. I’ll pass on the shark, and sip mine along side an Icelandic craft beer. A version of Brennivin is produced at many of the Icelandic distilleries with the most recognized green bottle with black label produced by Olgeroin Egill Skallagrimsson. The Olgeroin Brewery is a must do and offers one of the best tours with tastings in Reykjavik. You’ll find micro distilleries all over Iceland, with many offering tours and tastings. The Eimvark Distillery, makers of Floki Single Malt Whisky, is located just 15 minutes south of Reykjavik and offers tours by appointment only.
The Sagas of Iceland are a written account of Icelandic history. The original stories were passed orally including folklore, then later transcribed to written form. The discovery of Iceland could be debated but one such Saga describes the discovery of this magical Island by Vikings in the 800’s. The Viking influence is obvious, and should be explored. You’ll love this “Bucket List” destination with it’s unspoiled beauty, you’ll feel like you’ve found Valhalla!
The Beer-Centric Traveler writes for Play Harder Tours… Please email Bill@playhardertours.com and start your travel planning today! For a complete list of recommendations please email with “Iceland” on the subject line. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.