Around 3 weeks ago a friend and I made a slightly last minute decision to head off to Iceland for a week. I had been there around 18 months ago at the start of the Icelandic summer but wanted to return to see the landscape in the frozen winter and maybe get another view of the Aurora Borealis. After my trip to Norway in December, the Northern Lights shot to the top of my memories of amazing sights and, given that 2013 is the solar maximum, this seemed like a great opportunity to see them again. I’ve decided to write a two part post about this holiday, with the first focused on logistics and general info for anyone looking to travel to Iceland and the second with more detailed location info.
So anyway, flights booked, accommodation sorted in a rush and hire car organised, we headed off expecting freezing winds and piles of snow. More on that later.
Many photographers I have spoken to dream of going to Iceland but deem it inaccessible, expensive and tricky to navigate. In reality this is far from the truth. You can now get a flight from gatwick for £230 return from Gatwick, or less if you’re prepared to go to Luton and fly easyjet.
In terms of transportation, both times I have visited I have had a car from www.Bluecar.is. I can’t recommend these guys highly enough. Their prices beat everyone else by quite a distance, their cars seem very well maintained and the staff are friendly and accommodating. The first time I went to Iceland we were delayed at the airport for 36 hours by the Grimsvotn volcano being stupidly inconsiderate and deciding to erupt. No problem for Blue Car. This time we got caught in a blizzard on the way back to the airport and returned the car in a bit of a state, half empty and 30 mins before our flight. Again the staff at Blue Car rushed about sorting everything to make sure we got what we needed and made the flight.
Driving around once you get there is fine. The Icelandic road authority have very conveniently placed lots of waterfalls, huge mountains and glacial lagoons right next to the road, which was very good of them! If you don’t fancy too much off-road roughness you can see a hat-full or amazing things without leaving tarmac. Even if you have to get a tiny bit adventurous, there are short dirt tracks to various glacier faces, waterfalls and lagoons that will test an ordinary 2WD, but are unlikely to cause serious issues as long as you’re sensible. We hired a small 4X4 Suzuki Jimny (called Jimmy from then-on) who was more than up to the task of taking us anywhere we wanted to go. No doubt Jimmy would have struggled with river crossings and the like, but for the ring road plus a few dirt-tracks and mountain passes he was great. So a 4X4 isn’t necessary, but a nice little extra if you prefer peace of mind, especially given the unpredictable weather.
What else? Ah, the general costs. There is a common perception that Iceland is freakishly expensive. Let’s say this is now a misconception. Prior to the mid 2000s this was probably true, with Iceland ranking highly with places like Norway in costs for travellers. When I went to Norway in December, during the transfer at Oslo I ended up paying £12.50 for a chicken sandwich and a coke. Unbelievable. Luckily this is no longer the case in Iceland. The economic crisis from several years ago, that had some of my friends scrambling to get their money out of Icelandic banks, has taken its toll. Prices in the country are now similar to the UK, so still expensive, but certainly not prohibitively so. Hostels cost around £20 per person per night, petrol is a bit more expensive than the UK, food is much of a muchness. We ate out a decent cafe/bar in Reykjavik the first night paying £10 for a decent sized main course and £4.50 for a pint of the local brew. On the other two occasions we ate dinner in a restaurant we ended up spending about £75 for two, but both times involved multiple courses plus drinks at pretty decent places. All in all, not too bad! The food quality was awesome in all three cases. Outside of Reykjavikian restaurants you’re limited for choice though, unless you head to one of the expensive hotels dotted around the country. The hostels are great as you can cook your own food, or your other best bet is the grill located at most petrol stations when you can get a burger and fries for around £10.
When travelling about accommodation is pretty simple to organise. If you’re like me then you’d be doing Iceland on a bit of a budget. I try to get as many holidays a year as possible, so don’t often splash out on fancy hotels that I am just going to sleep in. More money = more holiday! There are hostels placed in very convenient locations almost everywhere you go. The quality is decent with private rooms available. There was only one hostel I didn’t like which was in Hofn on the east coast, however this was mainly due to the fact that it was absolutely dead, making it feel a bit creepy. The only other guy staying there smelled pretty bad when we bumped into him whilst waiting for the receptionist…and he looked like he was planning on removing my gall bladder with a rusty fork whilst I slept. Alternatively, you can camp pretty much anywhere you like in Iceland, so if you’re adventurous and don’t want to run the risk of bumping into a maniac then you can save a bit more money that way. I’d have to recommend the hostels in both Grundafjordur (Snaefells) and Vik as great places to stay.
One other thing that’s really great about Iceland is the natives. They’re awesome people. At first you could be excused for thinking they couldn’t care less if you’re there or not, as they’re not the most expressive of people (something that I am particularly guilty of myself!). After a quick chat though it’s obvious that it’s just their nature. I found them all to be really friendly, down-to-earth people who will often go out of their way to help you out, all whilst speaking perfect English. If you’re in Reykjavik you’ll notice that they’re super-fashionable too. Beards and moustaches a plenty!
Well hopefully this has provided the reader (i.e. you) with a bit more info about the country from a general logistics position, and now you’re wondering if you should cancel that trip to Tenerife as you can go to somewhere far more interesting for the same money…with less heat…and more horses…and ice.