Very soon there will be a new class of tourism. You’ll be picked up by the self-driving Uber and driven to the airport where the self-piloting airplane will fly you somewhere that allows you to hire a car from 2016 and have the pleasure of actually driving yourself. That ‘somewhere’ will be Iceland. A ring of smooth black asphalt runs around the entire coastline feeding a network of gravel arteries that run deep into the varied wilderness. Driverless cars are a solution to the hours lost to endless gridlock in badly planned city centres. In Iceland you can drive for half an hour without passing another car. It doesn’t need Googlecars. You might be headed towards somewhere in particular, but when you get there you just want to keep on going. The journey itself is the the destination. At least in summer. In winter I’d imagine even the shortest journey is terrifying. Especially if the car is driving itself.
That should give you some idea of whether you’ll love it or hate it. But if you need more convincing then read on. Just remember that I’m not a travel blogger so it’s more a stream of consciousness and some photographs.
5 FACTS ABOUT ICELAND
I’ll happily admit that I thought I knew about Iceland. I knew it was fairly small and I could probably get round it in a day or two maximum. That it was permanently under a layer of ice and snow. That it was flat, rocky and barren. That it had shit coffee. I was right about the coffee.
1. Iceland is Europe’s second largest island
It’s 25% bigger than Ireland. So you can forget about getting round it in a long weekend. All that space and only 320,000 people living there. Definitely enough room for the 1m+ foreign visitors that come here annually. For the moment.
2. Iceland is warmer than it should be
Given it’s latitude, Iceland is actually relatively mild. That doesn’t mean it’s warm - even in summer it barely reaches 15 degrees - but the Atlantic currents keep its average temperature well above that of the Scandinavian countries.
3. It has a total prison population of 147
And most of those are in low security or open prisons. 15% of them are foreign prisoners anyway. To put it into context - there's 45 prisoners per 100,000 people. In the UK it’s 148 per 100,000 and in the US it’s 737. There was very little graffiti. There was no litter. We didn’t see any homeless. It just felt…calm. People seemed happy. And you’re 70% less likely to be murdered than in the UK. I have no idea what that means, but it definitely sounds like a good thing.
4. Only 1% of Iceland is covered by trees
You really notice that there are hardly any trees. By comparison the UK is 12% forested plus Zayn Malik. Most of mainland Europe is around 37% forest. But that doesn’t mean Iceland isn’t green - there’s lots and lots of grass. I’ve never been to the prairies but I bet they look a lot like Iceland does in places.
5. Iceland produces the most bands in the world per capita
And some of them are even good. I have no idea how you’d even begin to measure this, but it struck me that I could name more Icelandic bands than from probably any other European country. I mean the Swedes are still banging on about ABBA for fucks sake.
Day 1 - Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon and Ion Hotel
From what I’ve learned from bloggers it’s customary here to say how cool Reykjavik is and how amazing Blue Lagoon is. Reykjavik is possibly the least interesting capital city in Europe. On a ‘things to do’ scale it’s right up there with Wolverhampton. If you’re going to Iceland just for Reykjavik then I’d recommend you go to Stockholm instead. Or even Helsinki, which is saying something because I didn’t particularly find Helsinki that interesting either. Go to the church (Hallgrímskirkja) - a magnificently bleak piece of post war architecture that perfectly reflects the brutal natural landscape. Have the eggs benedict at Kex. Then leave.
The Blue Lagoon is just genius marketing. It will almost definitely be on your ‘go to’ list if you’re visiting Iceland through the sheer weight of social media content. You might even have found yourself arranging a trip to Iceland just to go to the Blue Lagoon without really knowing why. Their marketing strategy really is that good. In reality, it’s like an episode of The Walking Dead set in a pool. Lots (and I mean LOTS) of disembodied tourists lurching aimlessly around the post-apocalyptic landscape in a pale fog waving GoPros, their faces appearing to fall off as mud masks melt. Yes it’s quite novel to get veruccas outside rather than inside, but basically it’s a milky pond full of people whose hygiene levels you know nothing about. Iceland is generally very expensive, but Blue Lagoon creates a whole other level of WTF when converting ISK to GBP. It took me three attempts in Google before I finally believed that yes, it really was about £120 for two people. And that was only a ‘Comfort’ package. There were two full levels of optional extortion above that. It seems Iceland’s unemployed bankers found a fun new way to screw the world.
From there we drove to Ion Hotel. I love a good hotel, and Iceland is woefully short of them so spending at least a few nights at Ion was a given. From Reykjavik we turned our rented Suzuki with 150,000km on the clock along a short cut onto a road with a friendly sign warning us that imminent death was highly likely if we carried on. So naturally we carried on. This is what holidays are for. The road (Route 435) basically followed a large menacing pipe for mile after mile across a flat moonscape as far as the eye could see. We hadn’t passed a single other car, house or person on the 30km route. The only sign of any human existence at all was the pipe. Towards the end of the road - when we were beginning to quietly beginning to relax and congratulate ourselves on successfully negotiating what was basically a very straight road with a very well maintained surface - the mountains started to loom out of the fog. Big, grey and covered in snow. They were much closer to us than the hotel meaning that we'd have to go over them. The words from the sign were burned in my mind. To add to the fog it was getting dark. The road started to climb. Steeply. Ice and snow encroached across the perfect tarmac. Walls of ice at each side and a ceiling of thick clouds. It started snowing. New roadsigns indicated vertical ascents with equally vertical sheer drops to each side. We inched up the pass feeling tiny in the presence of so much big. As we reached the top Iceland once again opened out below us on a vast scale. We pulled over, took some photos then dropped down the final 2km to Ion.
The next morning we noticed the sign at the end of the road had been removed. It was 1st May and apparently the road was only dangerous until 30th April. Not knowing this the day before had made it the best non-event ever. We'd felt like Scott of the Antarctic but were probably about as close to any real peril as Lenny of the Premier Inn.
Ion had a certain charm. It looks like the best prison in the world. If you go, make sure you have the cauliflower starter. It is to carnivores what bacon sandwiches are to vegetarians.
Day 2 - The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is basically how the Icelandic keep most of the tourists from cluttering up the rest of Iceland. Four or five natural attractions all handily accessible from a tarmac loop that takes roughly a day to get round with its own Trip Advisor page. Think the M25 but instead of a Welcome Break every 25 miles you get a geyser and a waterfall. The end result is similar though - big car parks full of tourist coaches getting off for a wee and a photograph. Lots and lots of people buzzing up and down well defined pathways into ‘nature’. Not knowing any better at this point, the Golden Circle was nice enough but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was on the Small World ride at DisneyIceland. A taster menu of geological phenomenon that appear elsewhere on the Island on a much grander scale but with the trade off of being less accessible. Iceland lite. Still - we took a lot of photos of waterfalls and geysers and lakes. Everybody took a lot of photographs. People stood in long lines taking photographs. I took some photographs of people taking photographs because to be honest, it was more real than a geyser with a rope around it and lots of people creeping into the frame. Trying to make each attraction on the Golden Circle look ‘remote’ is really hard work given the fact that half the population of Florida is stood just out of shot on a layover to Europe. If you’re wanting to shoot Iceland properly you need to be there early. Or, in summer, very late after the coaches have gone as sunset is after midnight and the golden hour is four times as long as anywhere else.
One highlight of the Golden Circle is the Secret Lagoon - it dispenses with the gloss of the Blue Lagoon and gives a much more relaxing hot spring experience for a quarter of the price. It had locals in it when we went - in fact the locals have been using the spot since the early 1900's. I think the most local person we met in the Blue Lagoon was from Alabama. It's probably secret because they don't have wifi and it's resolutely unphotogenic. Nobody wants to waste their time at somewhere they can't share.
I’ll conclude the trip in my next post. If you’ve got this far you deserve a rest. And I can drive more traffic with two posts about essentially the same event. I’ll explain why Iceland is on of my favourite places on the planet and why I feel homesick for a place I’ve only spent 5 days in. To do that we need to leave Reykjavik, The Blue Lagoon and The Golden Circle in the rear view mirror.