13 Unexpected Things About Iceland

Praying our site isn't down too long!
Praying our site isn't down too long!

Hugfanginn.

Pronounced hoo.fahn.kinn, it means “to be enamoured by something special,” which travellers to Iceland will be many times every day. You can anticipate blogs about our hugfanginn experiences but our first takes a different turn—the things that surprised us.

1. Warm, dry weather

…Iceland more than most places is a country that forcibly has been made to recognize the weather as the dominant, essentially unpredictable presence that influences the outcome of all things on the island.

“Take lots of layers and plenty of socks,” MaryAnn and Barney advised after holidaying in Iceland this summer—one of the coldest on record. The country’s average temperature in June was the lowest in 30 years and in July, Reykjavík’s high was only 15.9º.

Lucky us. We arrived August 24, the day after Iceland’s kids returned to their school desks, and stayed until September 12, a week after winter is said to begin—the first Sunday in September! Many days the temperature reached 17º according to Alfa Hundur,  (Alpha Dog) and pronounced alfa.hoon.diff, the name we gave our Dacia Duster 4×4. Only one day did sunbeams hide behind the clouds and rain lash across the wide valleys—the day I bought rain pants that, like our long underwear, were never worn. Often while hiking, we were stripping off a sweater, a toque, photography mitts…I even wore my hiking skirt.

As the country’s tourist website says, the chilliest thing about Iceland is its name. It’s really more solar than polar thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream that provide a temperate climate year-round. It’s the wind, Iceland’s most influential weather element, that you need to be prepared for—Icelanders have 156 words describing wind; take cover when you hear it’s a rok (gale).

2. Incredible roads, predictable drivers

Pavement so smooth and dark it looks like it was laid down last week, white lines crisp as hotel sheets, yellow reflective pegs every ten metres on mountain highways: Iceland’s roads, though narrow and without shoulders, are in perfect condition. Even the gravelled ones we drove on were recently graded.

Speed is limited to 90 km/hr, 80 km/hr on gravel and, unlike in Canada, drivers dutifully obey. Enforcement is effective compared to EU countries.

And here’s the thing: Icelanders own more than a car each. At the end of 2018, there were 311,118 vehicles registered in the country, while only 272,559 people were old enough to drive.

Iceland’s number of fatalities per million inhabitants has improved over the past twenty years and is now the least of  all EU countries. In 2019 only 6 people were reported killed in Iceland in traffic accidents, equivalent to 17 per million inhabitants. (Croatia, Poland and Romania are the worst and are all above 75 per million inhabitants.) In fairness, per thousand square kms, Iceland has only 27 km of roads, while EU countries average 942 km.

One more thing. Been on a road undergoing construction lately? Here in BC, you’re likely to see more flaggers, truck-sitters and supervisors than workers. Not in Iceland, where the entire (small) crew is at work, and no one is halting traffic because they expect you to use your wits and proceed when it’s safe.And the ferry we took had a quarter of the staff one would see for a similar-sized vessel in BC.

3. Outstanding museums/galleries—in number and quality

Iceland, a country with ~365,000 people, has about 100 museums, some of them so quirky that there’s a book titled The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums.

Our three faves: Vatnasafn/Library of Water, in a beautiful old library, a mesmerizing art installation of 24 floor-to-ceiling cylinders each containing water from one of the 24 glaciers of Iceland. The Herring Era Museum, winner of the Luigi Micheletti award for the most innovative museums in Europe. And Ásmundarsafn, Ásmundur Sveinsson’s curvaceous sculptures, the building itself his magnificent work of architecture.

4. A helluva lot of waterfalls

Incredulous I thought, overhearing a guide say Iceland had more than 10,000 waterfalls.

He was right.

“Waterfall,” I’d announce each time I saw one while driving across the moors and mountains—which meant I repeated the word every few minutes.

5. The best lamb we’ve tasted

First off, you should know that lamb is our favourite meat.

I’d read that the flavour of Icelandic lamb is reminiscent of turf, but nothing prepared us for how much more delicious it is than the excellent lamb we’ve eaten from Alberta, BC, New Zealand and Oman. Iceland’s lambs free range all summer, feeding on grassy highlands, wild herbs and berries. The result is lean meat with a rich herbaceous taste that’s neither gamey nor fatty. Lamb shanks, lamb ribs, lamb chops, smoked lamb, lamb soup, lamb ghoulash—more please, except for raw Hangikjöt.

6. A love of coffee

In the great Icelandic novel Independent People by Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, everyone at a peasant wedding drinks, not pints of ale or glasses of wine, but four or five cups of coffee.

Icelanders are obsessed with coffee. Per capita, they rank fourth in the world for coffee consumption. They sip their first cup as soon as they get up and continue drinking coffee throughout the day. Good coffee, too.

Readers of this blog know how early we’re up, long before Icelandic breakfast buffets begin, so we often started the day with the instant coffee provided in our hotel rooms—and even that was tasty.

7. Limited signage

It took us a day or two to realize why driving in the countryside was so pleasant. Unlike in North America and much of Europe where multiple signs announce the distance to the next two or three towns and billboards shout out upcoming hotels, restaurants and attractions, Iceland has very limited signage.

8. Great respect for their past

Did any Icelandic family in the last two centuries ever throw anything out? Gift shops have memorabilia in upstairs lofts, bakeries display handwritten pages from old recipe books, hotels are furnished with castoffs like paintings, tables, sofas and the like from local residents.

9. Expensive, but bearable

As Magellan says, you don’t go to Iceland to save money. It’s the ninth most expensive country in the world to live in. Labour is expensive and there’s a lot of mandatory overhead. Farming is tightly regulated, importation of many agricultural products is forbidden, farm machinery has to be imported and there are price controls on farm products. So, food costs are high.

A lamb shank dinner might set you back 69,000 ISK, about $65 Canadian. But there are three things to consider. 1. Iceland has a no-tipping policy—the tip is included in the price.  2. Taxes (11%) are also included. 3. Portions are large, so you could easily split a main course.

We never did visit their state liquor stores, the Vínbúðins. In most restaurants wine and beer by the glass were a little pricey and the selection was limited, but as with the food, with the tip and taxes included, it wasn’t unreasonable. Wine by the bottle was no more than you’d pay in BC for comparable quality.

Museum prices were lower than in North America. Ditto for parking.

There were exceptions. Like 22,000 ISK for cello-sandwiches made the previous week, but without them we couldn’t have completed a stunning hike with 25 waterfalls.

10. Free car washes

One day after Alfa Hundur worked his way over a gravel track through a lava field in a mizzle for 30 km (and back), there was so much red-clay mud on him that you couldn’t open the doors without getting your clothes soiled. “Do you know where there’s a carwash?” Magellan asked a guy outside a grocery store where I was buying blueberries and skyrr for breakfast. “Right over there,” he said, pointing to three large brushes attached to hoses. And they were free! You can also find them at some gas stations.

11. Better food than anticipated

Unlike our trips to Norway, Newfoundland and New Zealand where we rented a motorhome and cooked for ourselves, the breakfast I mentioned and crackers-and-cheese lunches were the only “cooking” we did in Iceland.

Their fish soup, be it a broth based on cod, fennel or langoustine, was always excellent. We had the best fish & chips we’ve ever eaten at Vegamot, the only restaurant in the Westfjords town of Bildudalur (pop. 238). Then there was the bread at Geyser, the cod at Matur og Drykkur and the chocolate and skyrr cakes at the tiny Hrafnseyri Café, which serves only coffee and tea and these two sweets.

12. Depressing and unattractive campgrounds

Maybe there are campsites with views of fjords or glaciers like in Norway, but not that we saw. Which is surprising because while there weren’t many motorhomes on the roads, there were lots of 4x4s, Defenders, Range Rovers and the like with rooftop tents. Many tourists camp in the unappealing campgrounds near urban areas along the Ring Road, whereas locals and adventurers migrate deep into the Highlands.

13. Very little police presence

If you’ve watched the TV series “Trapped” you’re familiar with the big repurposed Land Cruisers with Lögreglan (Police) emblazed in blue. We saw more police cars in 10 minutes on that show than we did for our entire three-week holiday.

Radar cameras are used throughout Iceland and late in 2021, they started adding speed-averaging cameras. Unlike traditional speed cameras, the new ones calculate the average speed of a vehicle between two points.

Speeding fines in Iceland start at 30,000 ISK  (~$300 Canadian) and range up to 150,000 ISK or more. And it appears tolerance is far less than the 10% leeway prevalent in Canada.

Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, with a very low crime and the lowest murder rate in Europe. The number of reported cases of sexual violence is high compared to other European countries, but it’s said, “this may also be a sign that Icelanders have a higher trust in their criminal justice system, and there is less social stigma attached to the victims of sexual or domestic abuse.”

Where else would you see, outside a bakery on the main street in the capital city, a baby parked in an unattended pram, the carriage laden with shopping bags?

Navigation

Greene, A. Kendra. The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. New York: Penguin, 2020.

Horn, Roni. Vatnasafn/Library of Water. Germany: Artangel and Steidi, 2007. The opening quote on weather is from Roni Horn, the brilliant artist who created Vatnasafn/Library of Water.

Laxness, Halldór. Independent People. Translated by J.A. Thompson. New York: Vintage Books, Originally published in two books in 1934 and 1935. An epic masterpiece from a Nobel laureate born on Shakespear’s birthday that reminded me of Don Quixote in his sympathetic portrayal of struggling characters that symbolize the determined aspirations of Icelandic people toward independence from Denmark. I enjoyed it so much that I also read Salka Valka, which is equally engaging.

12 Responses

  1. The library and coffee stories were highlights for me. Many thanks!
    Didn’t you ride the Icelandic ponies?

    1. Nope. We’re not horseback riders. Though it is a component of their tourism industry. I did, however, get some gorgeous photos way up north near the Arctic Circle so watch for those.

    1. You, Mark, Alex and Aaron would love the place. There is a lovely book called Two in One (it was on the coffee table at one the places we stayed) that juxtaposes images of Iceland photographed from the same viewpoint in summer and winter. It’s difficult to decide which season is more amazing…

    1. We had the perfect location for the only two nights that aurora happened where we were staying. Plus, it was warm and not windy between midnight and 2 am when we were out. And not jammed packed with people. Magical.

  2. Interesting story and informative local information on their food roads and scenery. Nice to see laws being enforced and less signage is also a bonus. Your camper unit would be right at home in Iceland.
    Sounds like a common sense type of country although the prices do seem elevated, even with gratuities and tax’s included, in my opinion.
    Cheers

    1. No doubt, prices are high, just not as wild as we thought all things considered. Inflation is hitting them, as is happening in so many countries, Canada being right up there.

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