In April 2011 we visited Iceland, Europe’s most sparsely populated country, for a long weekend (5 days). Tickets were dirt-cheap because of the financial crisis, and we had always wanted to go there.
From Reykjavík International Airport it’s just 10 minutes by taxi to the city centre, where our hotel was located. The city has 120,000 residents (more than one third of the country’s citizens), roughly the size of Cambridge, England, or New Haven, CT, but probably feels slightly smaller. It is the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state and the economic, social, and cultural centre of the country. We had known a little bit about Iceland before we arrived, so weren’t surprised, but it is quite clear from the first moment, that these people are pretty well off, and that’s despite the fact that they had narrowly escaped a complete wipe-out of their economy just a couple of years earlier.
We’d have to lie to say that the city centre was impressive, it wasn’t, the architecture rather un-exciting, not much in terms of pedestrian zones, shopping, restaurants, parks or other attractions, compared with other capital cities, but it has a pleasant, relaxed, cosy, outdoorsy vibe to it, everyone is very friendly and seems to enjoy life. There are a few nice restaurants in the town centre and we liked everything we tried.
What we found most impressive about Reykjavík is all the locations you can reach from there within anything from half an hour and a few hours’ drive.
We started out by taking part in a half-day whale-watching boat trip, which was great fun, even though the only whales we saw were porpoises, not quite as impressive as a blue, fin, or sperm whale, but overall a really great experience.
We unsuccessfully tried our luck with a Northern light tour on the evening of the first day, which also didn’t produce the expected results/sights (and slightly less pleasant, as we didn’t catch much sleep that night, but never mind, worth giving it a shot).
The following days we did day-trips each day and visited some of the greatest places we’ve been to. The nature is just amazing on this island, there was not a single dull moment, we were either staring out of the window of some 4-Wheel-Drive or following a guide on a walking or hiking tour.
The highlights were Thingvellir National Park, where the ancient parliament used to meet, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysi (with its geysers, that often spit out sulphuric steam up to 20m high and more), Skógafoss Waterfall, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, the famous Blue Lagoon, and, to top it all: Sólheimajökull Glacier, a glacier that reaches all the way down to sea-level (not like in the Alps, where you have to be 2,000m+ up in the mountains).
On one of our day-trips we passed by a giant banana greenhouse plantation that was heated up by geothermal energy. We were told that it was back then the biggest banana plantation in Europe (didn’t find any evidence on the internet, though, so seems likely to be wrong). Banana greenhouse agriculture started in Iceland in the 1940ies but appears to have been gradually phased out with only a few greenhouses remaining.
The urban myth that says that Iceland is currently Europe’s largest producer of bananas has been spread through various books and even Stephen Fry’s BBC quiz programme QI, but according to FAO statistics, the largest European banana producer is (and has been for decades) Spain with a market share of around 90%, while Iceland imports nearly all its bananas.
We will come back to Iceland soon. This time, we’re planning to focus more on the North of the island and to combine it with a one-day trip to Greenland. We were looking into doing another trip (maybe two days, two nights) from Iceland to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen/Svalbard, but there do not appear to be any reasonable flight connections.