No doubt I needn’t point out how much hype there is around travelling in Iceland at the moment; it seems every other person on my Instagram feed has taken a trip there in the past couple of months. Tourism has boomed in very recent years, with 1 in 4 people in the country being a tourist during peak seasons.
I spent roughly three weeks there, firstly working on a sheep and dairy farm, then hitchhiking and camping with a friend, then finally driving a rented car around with three friends, part-camping, part-airbnbing. So I have a little perspective on what it’s like to travel there.
Known as the land of fire and ice, the small but substantial country seems to have a lot to offer. I’d only ever heard great things from friends and relatives, including my brother who spent six summer weeks working there, and my grandparents (one geologist and one geographer) who claimed it was possibly the most interesting and special place they’d ever been to (and they’ve been to a lot of places). So my expectations were high. Maybe a little too high.. True, it’s an interesting country; probably particularly so if you’re into hiking and/or rocks. Don’t get me wrong, I love being outdoors, especially in environments which feel like the earth in its untouched, natural state, but maybe I’ve been spoilt in my 27 years because, in all honesty, Iceland didn’t blow me away like it seems to so many others.
It’s always good to get a broad perspective on things – to hear the good and the bad before you make your own mind up. So below are a few thoughts and observations on my time there.
As a born and bred Brit, I’m typically polite and wary of offending others. Icelandic people are aptly icy. Their kindness and generosity is only given when really needed, and comes without niceties or charm. They don’t go out of their way to make the lives of others easier, unless really necessary. You have to break through a cold outer shell to access the warm personalities underneath. Their humour is dry and subtle, and their historical and political interest rife. If you show yourself to be friendly, interested and open then locals too will begin to open up. Although they might not initially show it, they’re generally happy to converse about their homeland and wider topics, give advice and welcome you to the country.
It was refreshing to be in a place where hitchhiking was the norm. I personally think it’s a great option for getting around, and a real shame that it’s not done more often in the UK and most other countries. Admittedly, it’s neither a reliable nor quick way of getting around – it took my friend and I six hours to get from the Snæfellsnes peninsula to the Hafnarfjordur area of Reykjavik (a trip which takes roughly two hours in the car). But you meet people. In one day we were picked up by people of 7 different nationalities! We met other travellers, native locals and people who had moved to the country from elsewhere. We met a Hungarian chef, an Icelandic (female) priest and a bunch of fresh-faced surfers who had taken a trip away from Reykjavik for the weekend in search of waves/concrete/a glacier. My reluctance when it comes to hitching stems from me not wanting to ask anyone for anything for free. But if people don’t want to stop, they won’t, and those that do are understanding of the fact that it’s really bloody difficult to get around without a car.
Alongside farming, Airbnb seems to be the people of Iceland’s main source of income – every other person you speak to has at least one room in their house set up for guests. Often cheaper than staying in a hostel, it’s also a perfect way to meet locals and get to know the real side of the postcard country. I was always grateful to the guests who graced the farm where I was staying, as it meant I had fresh company to talk to and the breakfast spread was always significantly better than the one laid out only for farm workers!
One of the sweetest things about Iceland is its sea-creature-adorned currency; one of the worst things is how much of it you have to spend even on the most basic of items. Iceland is SO EXPENSIVE. Don’t underestimate this. Easily the most obscenely expensive place I’ve been; by the end of the trip I’d begun to feel quite piqued by it all. Not because I feel I have some sort of right to be able to travel anywhere I want to on a tiny budget, but more because there are some things which just aren’t worth that much money, and there’s clearly a premium being charged on everything in Iceland, because there can be. Goods are imported and the few that aren’t are considered a specialty. There’s barely any competition within the retail and services sectors, perfectly illustrated by the recent ‘Costco effect’ – the sudden drop in supermarket prices after Costco arrived in the capital, bringing with it new foods at (almost) affordable prices. It’s not unusual to pay roughly £8-10 for a coffee and slice of cake, so if you’re planning on holidaying in Iceland, be prepared to pay for any ‘luxury’ (i.e. strictly non-necessary) items. Be wary about being fooled into thinking that you can subsist on cheap supermarket food, what normally costs me around £15-20 in Lidl in the UK, cost over £40 equivalent in Iceland.
We were duped into getting excited about the weekend ‘flea market’ in Reykjavik, which is recommended by every travel book and website going. If you’re a second-hand shopper in the UK don’t expect to find many bargains – Icelandic jumpers at their cheapest were upwards of £90 (try ebay instead), and the local charity shops aren’t much cheaper.
Top tip: Most cafes and eateries offer refillable filter coffee for around £2.50-3.50. Great to remember if you’re travelling on a budget. And if you travel with a reusable flask cup then you can also cheekily fill up to-go.
A big mistake we made was to think that we could be flexible and spontaneous with our travelling. We’d done some planning and prep before heading out there, but wanted to speak to locals and other travellers along the way and get tips and recommendations as we went. Spontaneity is possible, but only if you have your own vehicle and accommodation (i.e. tent). There are buses between most places – but sometimes only one a day, and not necessarily every day. They’re also expensive (surprise), with an hour bus journey costing about £15. Within Reykjavik, city bus tickets cost 440 IKR for a 1hr 15min travel ticket. I’d recommend getting as much travel info as possible from Tourist Information or a transport ticket office asap when you arrive, if you’re travelling without a car.
If I were to go again, I would hire a 4×4 (standard hire cars aren’t insured on a lot of the gravelly roads) with a roof-box tent. That way you have your transport and accommodation accessible at all times. The alternative would be driving a camper van around, which would also be really great (although might restrict the areas you can access).
There are hostels dotted around the place, but in peak seasons these fill up in advance, and cost upwards of £50 per night (in a shared room).
Landmarks & Geology
Iceland is beautiful, there’s no denying that. Its varied landscapes offer snow-peaked mountains, lava fields, waterfalls, rolling hills, vast green valleys, rock columns and other fancy geological formations. Coming from Wales, I suppose I’ve been spoilt when it comes to beautiful scenery. Iceland’s natural landmarks are impressive, especially the mid-Atlantic rift and the Hálsanefshellir cave, but nothing else really made me think “WOW, this is unlike anything I’ve seen before”. I have beautiful mountains and greenery for miles right on my doorstep, and I’ve been lucky enough to hike a volcano and swim in waterfalls in other parts of the world. At times Iceland felt like travelling on the moon, but the advice I would give to fellow UK travellers wanting to see some breath-taking scenery would be: go to the Highlands. If you’re nerdy about rocks and know more than the average person (or are interested in reading lots around the subject) then it’s probably worth taking the trip to Iceland; I can’t confidently give an informed opinion on this.
Reykjavik is very hip, happening & cool, I felt really creatively inspired during and after the three days I spent there. There’s a plethora of interesting shops, art galleries, street art and stylish cafes to explore and it’s a people-watcher’s dream. Surprisingly, when I was planning this trip all I had in mind in terms of priorities was being out in the natural environment, walking mountains etc, but when the time rolled round I was really excited to spend a few days in the little but lively capital city, and it didn’t disappoint.
Overall Impression, Thoughts & Tips
Overall, I’m glad I took the opportunity to go to Iceland. I’ve wanted to go for a while, and I’ve now ticked it off my long bucket list of travel destinations. My advice for any potential travellers would be:
In Summertime: Hire a 4×4 with a rooftop sleeping compartment.
In Wintertime: Hire a 4×4 and make sure you do plenty of planning in advance to secure Airbnb accommodations.
Drive the whole ring road and, if you have time, through the middle of the country too. The island is small but varied, and each corner offers something different.
Pick up hitchers! (you’ll make someone’s day)
To live like a local, seek out the nearest public swimming pool. It typically costs about £5-7 entrance fee, but all have hot tubs as well as the main pool, and many have a sauna. It’s a particularly good resource if you’re camping, as you’ll get to have a proper shower! Locals tend to go to the pools to socialise, so they’re often pleasantly busy. Most are outdoor and have soothing views of the surrounding area, and there’s something kind of refreshing about sitting in a 38°c hot tub whilst it’s raining around you.
Save up a lot of money and come to terms with the probability that you’ll spend it. It’ll give you freedom to really embrace the place, enabling you to go on all the cool excursions like whale-watching, glacier-hiking and horse-riding.
Do as the Icelandic do – shed any overly-polite tendencies, don’t be afraid to be blunt and, within reason, do as you want to do until someone tells you not to. If you’re travelling on a budget, being coy won’t do you any favours.
Iceland has its good points, but my overall feeling was that everything I gained from the locals, the scenery, the one city, I could have gained elsewhere. It may have been due to the way I travelled (mostly without a car and on a budget), and the restrictions that came with that, but suffices to say the country didn’t make it on to my list of all-time favourite places, and for now I can’t see myself returning in the near future, at least not until I have a driving licence and a healthy bank account..
One of my favourite things about Iceland, alongside its money, is the subtle yet intense beauty of its natural colour scheme. The artistic side of my brain was melting with delight at the sublime scenes of muted greys, pale greens, hues of purple and splashes of yellow. There are some ways in which mother nature just cannot be outdone. Below are some images which I hope have captured an essence of Iceland’s serene make-up.