Culture

Here's What You'll Encounter If You Visit the Intriguing Island of Iceland

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Anyone who hasn’t been to Iceland or who knows little about it has a picture of a frozen wasteland. While there is much of the country that is barren, it is often warmer than many of our northern states in the winter due to the thermal activity that underlies this island in the North Atlantic.

For the cognoscenti of Icelandic tidbits, Iceland has been known for its lovely women and almost treeless landscape. Some of the training for the moon walk was done on Iceland as large areas of it are barren and convoluted, and it was felt by the experts to be more like the moon’s surface than anywhere else on earth.

It is an island of few inhabitants, with Reykjavik as its largest city. To offset the barrenness of the island, the city’s houses and buildings are painted in pastel-like colors.

Many genetic studies have been done because of the purity of the Icelandic people, resulting from the island’s remoteness and consequent intermarriage of its inhabitants. Its language is also very pure and has few loan-words from other languages. Icelandic women are very independent and take their last names as their fathers’ daughters, e.g. Jóhannsdottir. They are somewhat casual about marriage and long term relationships as well.

Some of the original settlers were from Norway. Then the Irish monks came to Iceland to convert the heathen, so you’ll find many a redhead in Iceland, as well as those of Norwegian ancestry.

Iceland is also the home of the oldest parliament in the world. Founded in 950 A.D., the heads of various factions of the country would come together in June in a body called the Althing, where the elected head of this assembly would sit on an outcrop of rock to preside. The elected official, called the lawspeaker, would preside for three years. Icelanders are very proud of this heritage and because of it consider themselves one of the most civilized countries in the world, and they are probably right. You can visit this site, which is in the Southwest area of the country.

You don’t have to worry about learning how to speak Icelandic here as most Icelanders speak impeccable English. It’s a good thing they do, as some of their words are almost unpronounceable to English speakers. It’s also great to be a tourist here as tipping is not the norm. Icelanders, on the whole, are also friendly and quite intelligent. They are very proud of their country and their specialness.

Iceland is known for two other famous things: its special Icelandic ponies and its wonderfully thick and warm sweaters. When I was there I bought an Icelandic sweater in a shop, something like our Goodwill shops, for only twelve dollars. They were selling in the states at the time for ninety dollars.

Icelandic ponies, so sturdy and no nonsense looking (like the Icelanders themselves), once they leave Iceland, are not allowed to return, as Icelanders want to keep the breed pure. My son, David, rode a racing pony on an Icelandic farm and was subsequently thrown from the pony. Visitors can now join guided tours on Icelandic ponies. 

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Icelanders are big on smorgasbord meals, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Though I didn’t find the cuisine that remarkable, I thought that the coffee I had in Iceland was the best that I’d ever tasted. Icelanders are also big on cod liver oil and even serve it for breakfast!

Because of the hot springs, there are a number of outdoor pools that are completely heated by the springs and the most famous, the Blue Lagoon, exudes steam from the water. The steam is so thick that people in the pool literally cannot see someone who is a few feet away.

Along with Icelandic sweaters as souvenirs, there is the beautiful glass that is made from volcanic lava. It is almost ethereal in its sheen and comes in lovely natural colors like a deep cerulean blue.

Since part of Iceland crosses the Arctic circle, the summer days are long with the sun not setting many days; the winters are dark and gloomy with the sun rising about nine a.m. and setting at about four p.m.

Flying across Iceland, even in the summer time, you can see miles and miles of snow-capped landscape. It’s chilly, even in the summer, and I had to buy my son a wool hat to wear in the summer while I purchased a lovely thick, long Icelandic wool skirt for ten dollars at the same thrift shop. I was in shopping heaven.

There is a lot of volcanic activity on Iceland, which is what accounts for the lava output. In fact, Iceland has about 130 volcanic mountains. It also has the greatest concentration of geysers in the world.

Iceland is about pure, raw nature in a pristine setting. The island is sparsely settled with the majority of people concentrated in Reykjavik. For tourists who love nature, this means a number of special activities, like a visit to Gulfoss, the powerful 105-foot high waterfall in a canyon. On sunny days visitors can see rainbows above the shimmering, cascading waters. Since snow is also in abundance in areas of the country, snowmobiling tours are also offered.

Iceland, for a small country, also offers snorkeling in one of the clearest bodies of water in the world in the Silfra Fissure, and also one of the rarest experiences anywhere: views of the spectacular Northern Lights in winter time.

Iceland now offers a number of adventure tours for its visitors, some you can experience nowhere else. You can descend 120 meters into a volcano to raft in its rivers or go spelunking in its caves; there is whale watching, touring in an ATV vehicle, hiking on a glacier, and mountain fishing. Iceland is even so modern in its activity offerings that now you can tour in a Segway. This is all a wonderful offering of things to do that weren’t around when I visited the quiet and sleepy capital city some time ago.

Icelandair is the country’s official airline; airtime from New York is only five hours. A trip to this remote, interesting, and very unusual island can easily be combined with a visit to the rest of Europe for a delightful vacation.