A trip to Iceland is a popular choice on many people’s bucket list. It’s known for its volcanoes and stunning scenery, but it’s also becoming easier to reach as both Iceland Air and budget airline Wow are using it as a connecting point for flights between Europe and North America. So I caught up with Carolyn Bain, the author of the Lonely Planet Iceland Guide, to find out why so many people are visiting.
“Its landscapes overwhelm visitors,” Carolyn told me straight away. “It’s incredibly beautiful and raw. Volcanoes. Glaciers. Amazing birdlife.”
The capital city Reykjavik is likely to be most visitors’ first taste of Iceland. But Carolyn says you need to venture further afield to really understand the country. “I like Reykjavik. I think it’s a fascinating place for a country that size. But I think it’s becoming quite touristy,” she said. “AirBnB has taken hold and there’s lots of souvenir shops. Some locals say you won’t even hear Icelandic spoken there any more. A lot of tourists spend the majority of their time there, especially if they’re on a flight layover. But to get a true taste of the landscape you need to get out of the capital”
A popular one-day trip for people staying in Reykjavik is called the Golden Circle, taking in three sites along a 300km circular route. Carolyn explained, “It takes in Geysir, which of course is the original geyser water spout – all the others have been named after it. It’s close to a large waterfall called Gullfoss. And then there’s the national park called Thingvellir, where the first parliament was founded. It’s also one of the best places in the world to see where the earth’s tectonic plates are meeting.”
But to really appreciate the full beauty of Iceland, Carolyn says you should hit the Ring Road – the 1400km circular route around the whole island. 90% of it is sealed, so it’s easy to drive in summer although you need to take more care in the winter months. And Carolyn also recommends taking plenty of time on the tour. “A lot of people will try to drive the Ring Road in a week but I don’t think that’s enough time to experience the nature and also talk to the locals,” she told me. “If you’re driving all day you will miss the opportunity to hear the stories about what it’s like to live in that environment. People are very happy to chat and they’re really the kindest people I know.”
Carolyn recommends visiting the west coast, which she says is particularly stunning. “The west coast has a peninsula called Snaefellsnes. It’s known as ‘Iceland in Miniature’. It has really good beaches, horse riding, mountains and waterfalls. Spend a few days there and you’ll see some of Iceland’s loveliest attractions.”
“Beaches in Iceland?” I asked Carolyn. “Can you swim there?” The answer was a resounding no! “The water’s too cold. They’re beautiful to look at and there are some black sand beaches that are incredibly photogenic. But the locals all head to the geothermally-heated pools so that’s probably the tip you should take!”
Carolyn also recommends visiting a town in the east of the country. “My favourite spot is a place called Seydisfjordur on the east coast, where the ferry from Europe comes in. It’s a nice bohemian little town – lots of artists and lovely restaurants and guesthouses. And it’s in a spectacular setting.”
Another amazing sight can be found just off the Ring Road too. “Along the route is one of Iceland’s iconic images – the glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón. It’s where a glacier calves off and icebergs float out to sea. It’s absolutely beautiful. You can’t take a bad photo of this place.”
With all this driving and activity, it’s bound to give you an appetite, and Carolyn says you’ll find good food everywhere in Iceland. “The lamb and seafood are the specialties,” she told me. “The fish is incredibly fresh and you can get langoustine. You should also try the local yoghurt, called skyr.” But there are a couple of foods she warns you might want to steer clear of. The first is fermented shark! “It smells and tastes like ammonia and it has a burning sensation when you’re eating it. I can’t recommend it.”
Another more controversial food is whale meat. “A lot of tourists will try whale when they’re visiting, because Iceland still hunts whale. But a lot of locals don’t eat it, so I think tourists attracted by the novelty factor help keep this industry going.”
Carolyn’s top tip when visiting Iceland is to avoid the busy and popular Blue Lagoon and instead try a local thermal spa. “My tip is to go to a swimming pool instead of the Blue Lagoon, which is now getting very crowded and booking is required. The swimming pools are heated by geothermal activity and the locals will go and sit there after a hard day at work. It’s their pub or town square, where people gather and chat. It is a really nice taste of local life.”
Iceland is a popular destination for people hoping to see the Northern Lights, so I asked Carolyn whether you should take a tour? “I’m a bit sceptical about Northern Lights tours because if they’re happening and it’s a clear night you’ll see them,” she explained. “But the expert drivers will chase them and know where good weather can be found, so if you’re only in town a couple of nights it might be worth going on one.”
Iceland has a reputation for being pricey and Carolyn says the crash of the currency in 2007 hasn’t had much long-term effect. “Prices are climbing again now because demand is so great. You have to be aware that this is a population of 330,000 people accommodating 1.6 million tourists each year, so demand is pushing up prices. There’s not a lot you can do about it.” The demand means you should also book early, says Carolyn, especially if you’re planning to visit during a busy part of the year. “Accommodation is getting booked up very early in the season. If you arrive in June or July without a booking, you won’t find a bed for the night!”
Carolyn’s book, the Lonely Planet Iceland guide is available on Amazon.