Iceland

View from the airplane of Reylkavik through the clouds

View from the airplane of Reylkavik through the clouds

Iceland Air allows passengers traveling between the US and Europe to extend their layover in Reykjavik for no extra charge. We jumped at the chance to spend a few days there on our way to Sweden.

Iceland is beautiful. Everywhere you look are signs that this is a young land with a lot of geologic activity: tectonic plates moving apart form giant cracks in the ground, earthquakes happen in the thousands, volcanoes by the dozens. There are enormous lava fields, huge glaciers, fjords, mountains, plains, lakes, and rivers. Iceland has very few trees so views are sweeping with all topography visible.

Us enjoying the summertime weather in Iceland.

Us enjoying the summertime weather in Iceland. The warmest day topped out in the low 60s while we were visiting, which we were told is pretty typical summer weather.

The first inhabitants were a few Celtic monks and hermits. The first settlers began to arrive in 870 and found no signs of the earlier monks. These settlers were male Vikings from Norway with female slaves they picked up in Ireland on the way. For a long time, Iceland had a few people living in very small communities. Reykjavik was founded in 1786 and had only 10,000 inhabitants at the start of WWII. A tour guide told us that people today are able to read a hymnal written in 1200 without modern translation because the language hasn’t really changed much in 800 years!

View of Reykjavik airport, which was built by the British and Americans in  the 1940s. Jim's father flew in and out of this airport hundreds of times as an air transport command pilot for the US Army Airforce during WWII.

View of Reykjavik airport, which was built by the British and Americans in the 1940s. Jim’s father flew in and out of this airport hundreds of times as an Air Transport Command pilot for the US Army Air Corps during WWII.

The British set up an allied occupation in 1940 and soon handed the task over to the Americans; Iceland was important to controlling traffic in the North Atlantic. As happened in the US, the war brought a booming economy to Iceland. People moved to the city of Reykjavik (in a large part due to the introduction of improved technology that allowed agriculture to be less dependent on manpower), industry jobs were created, and infrastructure was built. Iceland modernized with the new money and exposure to contemporary technology. Most of Reykjavik was built after 1950. The first paved road was constructed in 1966. Today two-thirds of the small population (320,000 total) lives in greater Reykjavik.

Street view of Reylkavik. Buildings are colorful and usually 2-3 stories tall in the town center.

Street view of Reylkavik. Buildings are colorful and usually 2-3 stories tall in the town center.

Reykjavik is a small bustling city. Heat and electricity come from geothermal power and are cheap. It is full of great pedestrian/bike paths removed from streets and we saw many cyclists. The city is clean and felt very safe. The country is intentionally shifting the economy to tourism. In the summer, people come to experience the long days and enjoy the warmer weather. Even though we were there a month after the summer solstice, the days were long. Sunrise was at 4:50am and sunset at 10:15pm with about 90 minutes of twilight on either side. In the winter, they come to see the northern lights. Our Airbnb host said one benefit of tourism is an increase in the quantity of high-quality restaurants in the last few years. It was easy for us to get around as almost everyone speaks English.

We were interested to hear that Reykjavik rarely gets below freezing in the winter, especially in the last decade. Ski areas in the southern part of the country have seldom had enough snow to open for the entire season for the last ten years. Apparently Icelanders who want a ski vacation book tickets to go overseas! The climate has been moderated for a long time by the Gulf Stream but this warming is a recent trend.

Where we had lunch one day. Note the summer attire on the local going in (it's August). We found many cafes served you food and expected you to pay at the counter after your meal, telling them what you ate. It seemed to be an honor system.

Where we had lunch one day. Note the summer attire on the local going in (it’s August!) We found many cafes served you food and expected you to pay at the counter after your meal, telling them what you ate. It seemed to be an honor system.

Iceland has about 170 public swimming pools; they are in pretty much every small community. We visited two different pools while there and they are very different than public pools in America. First, they are heated geo-thermally. Many of them are outside and are open all year; hours are from early in the morning to late at night, even midnight. In addition to the pool, there are hot tubs (up to 5 of them in a range of temperatures) and a steam room and/or sauna. There are clean orderly locker rooms with everyone given a locking locker. You bathe fully before entering the pools and dry yourself in the shower area before re-entering the locker room so the floor stays dry. These pools are incredibly popular and often full of regulars. One of the tourist publications we read said a visit to the pool is a common second date. They are wonderful and in the budget.

Gullfoss Falls

Gullfoss Falls

We spent one day on a bus touring the countryside in a popular loop called the Golden Circle. We saw steam vents, lava flows, cracks in the ground, rivers, and snow-capped mountains as we drove around. We were able to walk around a large waterfall called Gullfoss. We visited an area with many geysers, including one named Geysir that is given credit for the word by which all others are named. We saw an enormous glacier at a distance. We saw several of the 80,000 Icelandic horses. Icelanders are proud of these shaggy small-statured horses; we learned they are smart, have five gaits, and are able to survive outside in the winter on natural forage without shelter. The highlight of the trip was visiting Thingvellir National Park. It is the site chieftains chose around 930 to hold their annual parliament for two weeks every June. This meeting, in which rules were written or changed and disputes were settled, continued at this site until 1798 when it was moved to Reykjavik. It is reported that the first chieftains were pleased with the site and rerouted a small river to provide water to the area. In addition to the historic significance, it is a place where you can see the North American Plate moving away from the Eurasian Plate at 2 cm each year!

We were such a startling sight, these people lined up to take our picture. Oh no, they are actually waiting for the geyser to erupt.

We were such a startling sight, these people lined up to take our picture! Oh no, they are actually waiting for the geyser to erupt.

Three days was just long enough to whet our appetite for future travels in Iceland, as we dreamed of more swimming pools, hiking to hot springs, seeing fjords in the North, getting up close to the large glacier that covers 8% of Iceland, and exploring more of the beautiful country.

More pictures from our trip on the  “Pictures” link at the top of the page. Note that we made some changes to how the photos are arranged. When you click on the link, it will show you a list of all our photo galleries and you’ll need to select Iceland. Or you can just click here.

Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church in Reykjavik. We went up to the windows at the top to overlook the city.

Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church in Reykjavik. We went up to the windows at the top to overlook the city.

One of the oldest buildings in Reykjavik town center, which means it was probably about 100 years old. There is very few buildings over 100 years because it was a small-scale agrarian economy.

One of the oldest buildings in Reykjavik town center, which means it was probably about 100 years old. There is very few buildings over 100 years because it was a small-scale agrarian economy.

3D map of Iceland in City Hall. It took 4 men 4 years to build this map.

3D map of Iceland in City Hall. It took 4 men 4 years to build this map.

Megan was able to connect with Rachel, her old yoga teacher from Portland. Rachel and her husband relocated to Iceland a year and a half ago.

Megan was able to connect with Rachel, her old yoga teacher from Portland. Rachel and her husband relocated to Iceland a year and a half ago.

One of the many steam vents we saw as we drove by.

One of the many steam vents we saw as we drove by.

Bananas have been grown in these greenhouses (they leave the lights on 24/7 in the winter), fully heated and powered by geothermal energy. it is the furthest north bananas have been grown, just shy of the Arctic Circle

Bananas have been grown in these greenhouses (they leave the lights on 24/7 in the winter), fully heated and powered by geothermal energy. it is the furthest north bananas have been grown, just shy of the Arctic Circle

Gullfoss Falls. We were told in spring floods, water can cover where the tourists are standing and fill the lower canyon.

Gullfoss Falls. We were told in spring floods, water can cover where the tourists are standing and fill the lower canyon.

Another waterfall with fish ladder on the left

Another waterfall with fish ladder on the left

How many wild geese can you spot? (We counted four.)

How many wild geese can you spot? (We counted four.)

Thingvellier National Park. One of the cracks formed by the increasing rift between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate

Thingvellier National Park. One of the cracks formed by the increasing rift between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate

Thingvellir National Park. This is thought to be the site of the Parliament meeting that began in 930. They seemed to use the space between the cliffs to gather with one speaker at a time elevated on a rock outcrop.

Thingvellir National Park. This is thought to be the site of the Parliament meeting that began in 930. They seemed to use the space between the cliffs to gather with one speaker at a time elevated on a rock outcrop.

Geysir, the original geyser, is so old it is now retired and just steams. It does not please the tourists they way it used to.

Geysir, the original geyser, is so old it is now retired and just steams. It does not please the tourists they way it used to.

A pool of very hot water bubbling from the ground.

A pool of very hot water bubbling from the ground.

View of the Glacier Langjökull beyond the mountains and fading into the horizon

View of the Glacier Langjökull beyond the mountains and fading into the horizon

View from the airplane of Vatnajökull, Iceland's largest glacier.

View from the airplane of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier.

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7 thoughts on “Iceland

  1. This is my favorite installment of the planb tour by far (not counting the successful surgery report of course)! Those waterfalls are astounding! Thanks so much for sharing. Wishing you safe travels – Laurie

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