Jenny and Charlie traveled to Iceland November 9-15, to see the Northern Lights.  We did not, but this trip was fun anyway.  See our separate post on what we learned about seeing the Northern Lights.

The country

Iceland is small – 338,800 people (the entire country has fewer people than most American cities, half the population of the state of Alaska) and ranks 175th in the world, with an area of just under 40,000 square miles (108th largest).

The official language is Icelandic, but EVERY person we talked to spoke fluent English.  Their TV has many American programs with no subtitles nor dubbing, interspersed with commercials in Icelandic – a shock if you are watching your favorite show, but perhaps that is where they developed their English skills with American accent.

The use of credit cards is quite universal (but be sure they are chip cards, and occasionally you will be asked to enter your PIN).  (Some Nordic countries no longer use checks. There is a rumor that some of the Nordic countries will discontinue cash completely in the next few years, and will use “plastic” for everything.)  We did not carry any Icelandic Kroner (equal to about one cent, similar to the Japanese Yen).  Only two issues arose… when they passed the plate in church, I didn’t drop in my credit card – I figured they could handle American cash.  And one restaurant would not allow the tip to be added to the card (“but we can take cash in any currency”).  Even the pay toilets accepted credit cards (US$1.93 for each of us – yes things are expensive there.)

How much to tip?  Believe it or not, it was a waitress that said “you are not expected to tip in Iceland.”  But there were tip jars near many cashiers, and most restaurants would add a tip to the bill upon request, so if they don’t expect anything, then I figured 10% or more would be good.

The Countryside

Winters are long nights and short days, Summers are long days.  When we were there in  mid-November, sunrise was about 10 am and sunset was 4:20 pm, and still a month away from the shortest day (December 21 this year) when the sun rise is 11:22 and sunset is 3:20 for a day length In Reykjavik of just over 4 hours.  If you visit in the summer, be sure to take a sleep mask, because the night is that short, and not all rooms have blackout drapes.

My camera tells me that this picture was at 953 am. Yes, the days are short

The Keflavik international airport is on a peninsula about 30 miles or 45 minutes from Reykjavik (which has a separate domestic airport) .  That Reykjanes Peninsula  has many features that we enjoyed.

Lighthouse Cafe
The first night we drove out to the northern tip of the peninsula, and found this “Lighthouse Cafe.” We never found the cafe part, but it was in a place that was appropriate for a lighthouse.

The Blue Lagoon is a famous tourist destination.  For about US$50 you can swim in the pool, and for an extra charge can use the swim up bar, cafe, or restaurant that overlooks the pool, or for a major extra charge can get a massage.  We just looked, and later found that it was all man-made, not even based on a natural hot spring.

Blue Lagoon
Yes, that is Jenny, wrapped up standing on the snow covered deck of the 100 degree pool.

Not far from the Blue Lagoon is one of the places that the North American Continent touches the Eurasian continent above ground.  The have built a bridge from one side to the other, so you can run back and forth between Europe and North America in a few seconds.  The continents are drifting apart at the rate of about 2 cm per year, so I figure in my lifetime I am now 5 feet farther from Europe than when I was born.

Bridge between continents
Yes, that is me standing under the bridge, not sure which continent I am in at the moment.

Along the coastline (I would not call them sandy beaches) you can see steam venting from the ground.  Most of the houses in Iceland have hot and cold running water, and heat their homes with the hot water from underground, no hot water tanks or furnaces.

The shoreline is not suitable for swimming, even in the summer, because of rough currents and rocks.

Although there are lots of outdoor activities (in season), casual cross country (off trail) hiking is not one of them.

Southern tip of the peninsula

In this general area are some thermal wells that are used to drive huge electric generators – the water comes out of the ground at 300 degrees Celsius (about 575 degrees F), and at high pressure (still liquid, not yet steam) and is used to drive turbines.  The visitor center was only open in the afternoon, and we were there in the morning.  From the outside they are just large industrial buildings venting steam.

Most of the larger trees have been harvested long ago; the impression we got was that, if you didn’t count trees obviously planted as a windbreak, there were no trees.  The “natural” evergreen trees we saw were so few and stunted that they couldn’t have supported a Christmas tree sale.

Note the “forest” along the ridge line.  Look closely at the left.

Our hotel (formerly on a US military base, probably a BOQ) had what I would have called a decent stucco finish, but while we were there, they were adding insulation on the outside, covered with corrugated metal.  I always considered corrugated metal cheap looking, but in Iceland it is upscale.

We did our usual museum thing, at the National Museum of Iceland.  Or as they would say, the National Museum of Þjóðminjasafn Íslands .  Some joke that if you can properly pronounce the name of the Island (not just Iceland), you may qualify for citizenship.  Hint:  Þ is the capital  letter “Thorn” and ð is the letter “Eth.”

English is so widespread, I wondered why they bothered with Icelandic, until I learned of the depth of the culture … for example, Christianity was adopted about 1000 AD, so they translated and printed the bible in Icelandic before Gutenberg invented movable type.

Church Counters
These wooden counters were used by priests hundreds of years ago to tally how many people made their confession or received communion

Of course we had to visit the Lutheran church – Hallgrimskirkja – the largest church and one of the tallest buildings in Iceland, built 1945-1974.  The design was to suggest the volcanos.  The statue in front of the church is Leifur Eriksson, a gift from the United States before the church was built.  Eriksson discovered North America about 500 years before Columbus.

Lutheran Church
Hallgrimskirkja church. If you ask a local for the Lutheran church they will not know what you are looking for until you say that name.

Reykjavik built a concert hall, “Harpa,” with great views from the inside and colored glass so it glows blue at night.  The reviews made it sound like they were hoping it would become a landmark like the Sydney Opera House.

Harpa concert hall
During the day Harpa is not impressive, so we did not tour it.

Golden Circle

The golden circle is a combination of three natural attractions that practically every tour group offers, typically for US$100 per person or more.  We took our rental car and saw the three attractions, and a lot of the countryside, for far less money and more fun.

The Þingvellir National Park was the center of  culture and government for centuries, where the various tribes met (during the summer) before there was a constitutional government.  It is also another place where the North American and Eurasian geological plates meet above ground.

This is a path down the split. It was cold and the ramp was slippery. This is as far as Jenny wanted to venture. But remember that this split is moving apart at 2 cm per year, 5 feet in our lifetime.
Earth Split
We were able to drive around to a parking area at the bottom of the split. This is where we would have come out if Jenny had continued down the ramp.

Gullfoss is an amazing waterfall.  In numbers I don’t know how it competes with Niagara Falls, but it is comparably impressive.

We met a couple girls from Canada, and took their picture, so they took ours. Even they admitted it was bitterly cold.
Most of the falls was flowing water but some of the edges were frozen. It was a wonderful sight to see. We drove to the top where the Tour buses parked, but it was a long walk from there to the view.  At the left is a shorter water fall that leads  to an island from which there is a second waterfall (the center of the picture)

Geysir Geothermal Area is named after the largest and oldest, but now largely dormant, Geysir (from which the name Geyser originated and is used worldwide.)

Geysir has become a boring bubbly hot tub. One of the signs says the water is really 100 degrees Celsius (boiling). Don’t test it with your finger; you will be burned. The nearest hospital is 50 miles away.
Hot Springs
The area has countless springs, boiling mud pots, and steaming pools, not just the geysirs for the tourists.  It was odd to see boiling pools surrounded by ice.

Strokkur has taken over the duty of entertaining the tourists.  It erupts about 100 feet every few minutes, for a few seconds.  If you don’t like your picture, you will have another chance in a couple minutes.

Strokkur had a crowd watching despite the cold. I can’t imagine how big the crowd would be in the summer
Another Strokkur eruption
Litil Geysir
I think it is meant as a joke, but there is a tiny boiling pot that bubbles occasionally, named Litil Geysir.

Generally we felt that Iceland was flat (in part because of the way the “wind kept whipping over the plains”) but we know it is not.

Yes there are hills in Iceland, that I bet would be beautiful in season. There are even volcanoes that erupt occasionally, but not in the part of the country were we were.

We saw a large number of horses.  The Icelandic horse has a heavy coat, are small (almost the size of a pony), and have five gaits – the usual walk, trot, and canter/gallop, but also a tölt (described as a four beat single foot gait (which hopefully means something to a horse expert) and a flying pace which allows these small horses to reach 40 mph.

Icelandic horses
In horse areas, there were pasture after pasture with these horses.

Avis provided a map with Iceland driving rules (like headlights on, day and night, year around)  It also showed an area, about half the total area of Iceland, in the center and southern part of the county, where all the roads are closed.


The people are quite friendly and welcoming.  The language is no problem – everyone also speaks English.  Food and beverages are expensive – expect to pay US$5 for a soda, US$10-15 for a beer, US$20 and up for a pizza.

Driving is routine EXCEPT most roads are two  narrow lanes with no shoulder, have names that you cannot remember (way too many letters), and change names and directions too often.  We thought we could use paper maps and not bother with a SIM card for our phone, but we spent an hour or two looking for our hotel – which was never more than 10 minutes away.  We then bought a prepaid SIM card for one of our phones (US$20), and either Google or Apple maps kept us happy.  If your phone is locked, use an iPad or other wireless device that works with a SIM card.

Iceland was interesting in the winter, but I hear it is beautiful in the summer (and I bet half the roads would not be closed).

Author: Charlie Plesums

Retired from a teaching and consulting career in computer science, to build custom furniture and travel

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