On my first trip to Iceland, almost ten years ago, I was told in all good faith by elderly Scottish ladies that there were indeed no trees in Iceland. I took their proclamations as gospel and got on my plane to Reykjavik. Of course, within a few hours of walking the streets of this fabled city, I did indeed find many trees. In a city. Subsequent trips would show me boundless forests. And many waterfalls.
At the end of next month (at the time of writing) I am jetting back off to Iceland, with far fewer of these odd preconceptions hanging around my neck. I have spent the last ten years visiting the place quite often, and I have made my way, with my trusty partner, around much of the south-west of the island, from mini-Iceland Snæfellsness, in the northwest, to the black beaches of Vik, in the south.
I can order food in restaurants, I know the difference between milk (Mjólk) and probiotic yoghurt (AB Mjólk), if only by disasterous misadventure. That is why, this time around, we are being more adventurous than ever, hiring a robust car, and taking ourselves out in to the wild (but still on real roads) without the benefit of a lovely comfy coach, or its well-informed tour guide leading the way.
I’ll miss that. The last time we were there, and unknowingly pregnant with the daughter whose first visit this will be, we took many trips with several firms. Admittedly, many of them told us precisely the same information on each trip – something which we are eager to pass on to our daughter. The care we were shown by the tour guides – including the irrepressible Hussy – made the trips for us.
Instead, we will be thrown in to the world of Icelandic car hire, via the superb Lotus Car Rental. We have read such horror stories about car hiring experiences in Iceland – enormous bills for the tiniest of scratches; additional mileage charges – that we were surprised to find a firm which appeared to actively choose to give its drivers a better experience of renting a car in Iceland. I’ll let you know.
Getting around Iceland by car is a breeze: the road system is as fresh as a new coat of paint and many of the roads – especially in and around Reykjavik – have three lanes in each direction. That is until you get off the beaten track. The F-Roads will take you up mountains, deep in to forests and up to the lapping tongues of glaciers, but they are free-flowing gravel, and require a good 4×4 vehicle.
Another thing to change from my first trip to Iceland is the airline: on my first visit I flew with the superb Icelandair, through Glasgow. One of those experiences was delightful, and it wasn’t Glasgow airport: my bags were rifled, and my duty free was stolen, along with a handful of change. The staff at the airport were unhelpful beyond words, and I’ve refused to use the airport ever since. Instead, we’re using easyJet, through Edinburgh Airport. Edinburgh is an airport I have never experienced any difficulties with, and it has been our chosen hub for any number of our international adventures.
Like I’ve said, this is the first time my daughter will have been to Iceland. That will be a problem. Not her precisely, but the decisions we’ve made for her. You see, my partner and I are more than a little obsessed with Iceland, to the extent that we named our first born with a happyish Icelandic name. Imagine it translates to something like “Beautiful”, “Joy” or “Wonder”, and you’re in the right ball park. Now imagine my incredibly precocious four year old running up to everyone in the country, and saying to them “Hello. My name is “Wonder”. What’s yours?” Silly hippy parents, looking shy.
Something we are very much looking forward to is the food and drink of Iceland. We only have a day or so in Reykjavik before we make our way out in to the countryside. We have already chosen to eat our favourite hotdogs, our favourite soup, and in our favourite Icelandic restaurant of all time. To say that we’re looking forward to it is like saying a convict is looking forward to getting out of prison.
Moreover is the drink on offer. I understand that my partner and I are on our own in our enduring love for Iceland’s finest non-export, the black death. Not that people really call it that, except in silly blogs like this. We know it as Brennivin, and it is a uniquely Icelandic spirit, made by the purveyors of many of Iceland’s best drinks, both soft and hard. You really should give it a go; it’s really great stuff.
Another Icelandic treat is Skyr: I’d imagine you’ll have seen all of the adverts, featuring big men with bigger beards, describing a life fuelled by Icelandic yoghurt. It’s not that one; that’s a German rip off. True Icelandic Skyr is far far better, and can only really be found in Iceland. And Switzerland. It is a source of huge pride for Icelanders, who will fight over the freshest tubs. Or they’ll make it at home.
Iceland has changed such a lot since I first visited; the banking crash saw to that. The first time I was there the prices were sky high, and all of the buildings were smeared with the names of now defunct banks and financial institutions. When I went back a year later, they had tumbled, and so had the costs. Where we had struggled to afford a half litre carafe of house wine with our cheapest-on-the-menu main courses one year, we dined on lobster and flagons of beer the next. Never before has the misery of others tasted quite so delightful. Misery, however, brings with it many opportunities.
Tourism has never been the main focus of Iceland. I mean, people have visited for centuries, and they have always been afforded a very warm welcome. However, survival has been the chief focus for the islanders: farming, seafaring and a great deal of hiding from the weather. The crash forced that to change: Iceland’s name was all over the news, and its face was all over the travel blogs. Foreigners turned out in droves, just as the natives were afraid of being turned out of their homes. Why have one job as a teacher when you can have a further three as a tour guide? It’s one way up.