Expanding Worldviews: Iceland

One of the things that I like about traveling is the inevitable expansion of my worldview.  Invariably, I pick up little tidbits of information that I never would have had the reason to learn if I had not traveled to a new destination.

Here are some Iceland facts that learned along the way to whet your appetite for your Icelandic adventure:

Films made in Iceland

Life motto from Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Life motto from Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The mild climate, paired with long light-filled days, where sun sets for only a few hours in the summer, are only two of the many reasons that make Iceland the ideal filming location for movies and television.  Iceland also has a variety of settings, from the winter landscapes used for HBO’s Game of Thrones, to the black sands used to represent the beaches of Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers.  Iceland has waterfalls, other-worldly moonscapes, geothermal sites, beaches, idyllic countryside, volcanoes and glaciers.  Most recently, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty filmed in Iceland using different landscapes to represent the Himalayas, Afghanistan, Greenland and, of course, many points throughout Iceland, including the violent volcanic eruption scene.  Another big draw for film producers is the 20% rebate on production costs incurred while filming in Iceland that is offered by the Icelandic government.

Here are some films that were filmed, at least in part, in Iceland:

Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway due out in 2014

Noah, with Russell Crowe due out 2014

Oblivion (2013)

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Prometheus (2012)

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Batman Begins (2005)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Gay friendly

I took this for my daughter, Kiki
I took this for my daughter, Kiki

While en route to Iceland, I read in one of the guidebooks about Reykjavik Pride, Iceland’s annual gay pride event.  It said that the six-day festivities draw 100,000 people from all corners of the globe.  A little quick math made it clear to me that, being a country of just over 300,000 people, Iceland is very gay-friendly.  In fact, Iceland is home to the first openly gay head of government, former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurardóttir.  Registered same-sex partnerships have been legal since 1996.  In 2010, the Icelandic parliament passed a bill removing the “opposite-sex” distinction for marriage, allowing for same-sex marriage and thereby extending marital rights to same-sex couples.  Discrimination is prohibited by the constitution.

Reykjavik Pride
Reykjavik Pride


Icelandic Horses - photo from National Geographic
Icelandic Horses
Photo from National Geographic

Iceland has it’s own special breed of horse known (of course) as the Icelandic Horse.  All Icelandic horses are purebred descendants of the horses brought over by Nordic settlers over 1,100 years ago.  The Icelandic breed is shorter and stouter than horses that are commonly seen in the United States, resembling what might be considered a pony.  Because of its isolation from other countries, Iceland has very strict regulations to protect their horses from diseases that exist outside of Iceland.  Once an Icelandic horse is taken out of the country, particularly for championship horse shows in mainland Europe or North America, it can never return to Iceland.  Likewise, importation of any type of horse, Icelandic included, is prohibited.

 Labor unions

While traveling though the majestic scenery of Þingvellir National Park on our not so majestic tour bus, the tour guide explained that most of the little cabins that we were seeing were owned by Icelandic labor unions as vacation homes for their members.  She said that 80% of Icelanders belong to labor unions.  She said that the unions keep the workers happy with delightful perks such as vacation cabins and education benefits.  Although I couldn’t confirm her statistic, while looking into it, I discovered that the tax rate in Iceland is roughly 37%.  Union dues are 1-2% of wages and are paid by the employer.  Workers and employers are also required to pay into retirement and disability pension funds at 4% and 8% respectively.  Icelandic workers are also entitled to 24 days holiday, providing they have worked for for at least a year consistently, though not necessarily for one employer.

 Cashless society 

My grandfather lived all around the world throughout his life and one of the things that was passed down to me after he died was his secret stash of mostly mint condition paper money from each of the countries in which he lived.  Whenever I travel outside of the US, I bring home a little money to add to my grandpa’s collection.

Kronur for my collection
Kronur for my collection

The Lonely Planet Iceland guide had mentioned in its “money” section that, “Iceland is an almost cashless society where the credit card is king.”  I didn’t give that a second thought until late in the evening the day before we were set to depart.  I realized that I didn’t have any currency for my collection.  The guidebook was right.  We hadn’t needed cash in the four days that we had been there.  Everywhere we went accepted credit cards, regardless of the amount.

To remedy the situation, I stopped by an ATM in Reykjavik.  My currency conversion skills failed me however, and when I made my withdrawal I inadvertently took 10 times the amount that I needed.  Luckily, the shops were not averse to accepting cash and I happily ended up with a beautiful wool sweater AND some Icelandic Kronur coins and paper money for my collection.  In Iceland, there is no distinction between “dollars” and “cents.”  Kronur are what we would consider cents and as the prices go higher the numbers get astronomical.  There are no decimals, which is how I made my conversion mistake.  I was able to exchange the remainder at the airport without a fee.

Whale & Puffin on the Menu

Two of the things that I was surprised to find on menus in Iceland were whale and puffin.  Every locale has its regional culinary delights.  I had heard about the putrified shark “Hákarl” from Anthony Bourdain.  I had read about the fermented ram’s testicles and singed sheep head.  I had not anticipted the whale and puffin.

My entire exposure to puffins before arriving in Reykjavik was watching them splash around their enclosure adjacent to the walruses at the Point Defiance Zoo.  In Iceland, they are part of the culture.  Iceland is home to 60% of the world’s breeding puffin population.  It has the world’s largest puffin colony.  No doubt, because of their abundance they have found their way into the food culture of the Icelandic people.  I like to experience other cultures, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Like puffin, Minke whale can also be found in abundance in Iceland.  Whaling is a very controversial topic throughout the world and is not without controversy in Iceland.  Part of the controversy is whether or not whale consumption is an integral part of the culture or a tourist gimmick.  Many animal rights organizations suggest that if tourists would not partake in its consumption then the demand for whale meat would diminish and disappear.  I don’t like to take sides, but I skipped the whale, too.


Taking advantage of its natural resources, Iceland has used geothermal energy to heat greenhouses since 1924.  Despite the climate, Iceland produces crops such as potatoes, strawberries, bananas, cucumbers and flowers for domestic commercial purposes.

 Lazy town

Skyr + Lazytown = Frozen Treats
Skyr + Lazytown = Frozen Treats

The children’s’ show, Lazy Town, previously shown in the United States on Nickelodeon and Nick Jr., was created by Icelander Magnús Scheving.  He is the 1992 Icelandic Men’s Individual Champion in aerobic gymnastics.  Magnús portrays the show’s “athletic superhero” Sportacus. Fifty-two episodes were produced between 2004-2007, all of which can be blissfully viewed on your seatback entertainment system while flying on Icelandair.


Although Icelandic is the primary language of Iceland, while traveling in Iceland it is not likely that you will encounter anyone that does not speak English.  Denmark ruled Iceland for centuries thereby, Danish is also taught in schools.  Danish is unpopular among school children, having lost favor to the more practical English.

Patronymic Surnames

My first exposure to patronymic surnames was a few years ago while doing genealogical research in Danish records.  Patronymic names are derived from the father’s first name.  In my research, for example, Niels Jensen was the son of Jens Sorensen, who was the son of Soren Christiansen and so on.  In my experience, the system made family research very difficult.  Over time, Denmark and other Nordic countries instituted laws to create inheritable surnames.  Iceland’s patronymic tradition remains.  Boy children inherit the suffix “son” such as Jon Sigurdsson, son of Sigurd.  Daughters inherit the suffix “dóttir,” such as Björk Sigurdsdóttir.  Icelanders refer to each other, either formerly or casually, by first name.  The phone book is listed alphabetically by first name, and to distinguish individuals with the same name, occupation.

Nordic design

A lot of the places that we went in Iceland were reminiscent of being trapped in a life-sized Ikea.

The Keflavik airport is beautifully modern.  It is sleek.  It is functional.  It is clean, albeit crowded.  It is the only place in the world where I have seen hand dryers built right into the bathroom sinks! (Check them out here!) I think that is pretty fantastic.

Find the flusher…

Our Icelandair hotels, both recently remodeled repurposed mid-century buildings, were refreshingly simple.  I love simple!

In fact, our toilet was so simple that I couldn’t find the flusher, but that’s another story.

My American ignorance had prevented me from realizing right away that the modern design that I was seeing everywhere was a direct result of Iceland’s place in the world as a Nordic nation.  Scandinavian influence is everywhere from the breakfast buffet, to the gregariousness of the people to the architecture and the furniture.

On one of our last days in Reykjavik, as I was taking in the panorama of the city from the clock tower at Hallgrímskirkja, I had a déjà vu feeling.  I hadn’t actually lived that moment before, but I had seen the colorful red roofed buildings silhouetted by the ocean, cloudy skies with fishing boats in the harbor.  I had seen this scene in the countless hours of Rick Steves shows on Denmark, Norway and Sweden that I had watched.  Taken into perspective, I could see the Scandinavian family resemblance and it made me love Iceland just that much more!

It is these little bits of a culture that feed my desire for travel.  While traveling, I never know what new morsels that I will learn that will be the breadcrumbs that lead me to my next adventure.

And so I end with this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes,

Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea

Go out, explore and find new ways to expand your mind, your worldview.

Why Iceland?


When I told people that I was going on a vacation to Iceland they invariably said, “Why Iceland?”  The most direct answer was that Jeff, the kids and I had flown through Iceland on the way to Europe on two occasions.  Icelandair offers the best prices to points all over Europe.  The catch is that you have to go through Reykjavik to get where you “want to go.”  We were curious.  We wanted to see more than the rugged rocky terrain that we could glimpse from the airport windows.

When Icelandair sent me an email about a “Northern Lights” package way back in March, I knew this was our chance.  I quickly booked the trip to secure the screaming deal that they were offering and, life having caught up with me, I didn’t think any more about it until we were somewhere over Greenland.  I had no idea what to expect.

Those that know me well know that I tend to be meticulous in my planning.  (Jeff would say “over-meticulous.”)  When I am preparing for a big trip, I typically do months of research to educate myself, and my kids, about our upcoming destination.  What was there to know about Iceland?  I didn’t think that there was any research to be done.  There was certainly no time to do it.  So I didn’t.  I imagined that we were bound for the North Pole.  (Isn’t that what you picture when you hear “Iceland?”)  Come November, I packed my bag, throwing in a few last minute Iceland guidebooks from the library, and we were off to see the Northern Lights.

First let me say, Iceland is misunderstood. It is an island nation born from the divergence of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. It is literally being born, just as the Hawaiian Islands are, growing out of the fissures of the planet. Knowing nothing about it, we assume many things: that it is cold, unlivable, uninteresting, not worthy of our time.

First off, the climate is nothing like the North Pole.  During our stay in early November, the average temperature in Reykjavik hovered around 32° F.  In the northern town of Akureyri, where went to search for the Northern Lights, it was snowing quite heavily but the temperature didn’t dip below 15° F during the two days we were there.   In the summer, the highs don’t even touch the 70s, mostly hovering in the mid 50s.  The mild weather is a result of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream current.  I was glad I packed my long underwear, but I didn’t need anything more than I would on a chilly day in the Northwest.

The whole of Iceland falls just south of the Arctic Circle, yielding short winter days and long sun-filled summer days (and nights).  During the time that we were there in early November, the sun rose around 9:30 am each day and made its way over the horizon just before 5 pm.  This was ideal for the dark skies we needed to see the Aurora Borealis.  In the height of summer, the sun stays above the horizon for 21 hours or more.

Iceland is not unlivable either.  It was settled by Vikings in the year 874 and has been consistently inhabited ever since.  In fact, there are 320,000 inhabitants.  That is just enough to earn Iceland the distinction of the most sparsely populated country in Europe.  To put that into perspective, at 635,000, Seattle has roughly twice the population of the entire country.  Two-thirds of the population lives in Reykjavik and the surrounding areas in the southwestern region.  Ironically, that is also the area where the Vikings first settled.  They found a good spot and stuck it out – for 1,100 years.  Akureyri, on the northern coast, is the second most populated city in the entire country with around 17,000 people.  That’s about the size of Port Angeles.  It reminded me a lot of Port Angeles, too (if you replace the Fjord Eyjafjordur with the Strait of Juan de Fuca).

When examined more closely, you quickly discover that Iceland is worthy of your time.  It is interesting.  In actuality, it would require several trips to experience it fully.  In the short amount of time that we had to explore, I learned a myriad of interesting things that only left me wanting to come back for more.

Iceland is exotic.  It is rich in history.  It is picturesque.  From Seattle, it takes a short 7-hour flight to transport you to another world.  A world that I hope to see again soon.

Why Iceland?  Why not?



Iceland: Day Six

November 9, 2013


Refreshed, we popped out of bed to catch our last breakfast buffet at the hotel. We definitely had enjoyed the daily smörgåsbord of Nordic breakfast treats.  (Who doesn’t love cheese and bread for breakfast?)

After checking out and stuffing our luggage into the luggage storage at the front desk, we set out for another frigid walk. This time it was to Perlan, “The Pearl,” on a hilltop above Reykjavik, to take in the view.

View from Perlan
View from Perlan

Perlan is a complex built around 6 water tanks that houses a fancy domed rotating restaurant.  It also has an expensive cafeteria and The Saga Museum,  dedicated to the Sagas (traditional stories) of Iceland. From the city center, Perlan looks like a giant glittery boob (a la Barbarella), especially at night when it has a spot light shooting out of its nipple. We enjoyed the varying views and rested with some coffee and pastries in the cafeteria.  The Saga Museum didn’t open for another hour, and we had one more attraction to see, so we ventured back out in the cold (it was 32 degrees).

View from Hallgrimskirkja
View from Hallgrimskirkja

Set right in the middle of town and visible from almost everywhere in Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja is an immense concrete church built between 1940 and 1974. We rode the elevator to the top of the clock tower for more views of the city. After the clock tower, a peek inside of the church revealed an impressive 5,275-pipe organ.  Jeff liked the horizontal pipes that looked like “t-shirt cannons” and suggested (to me) that they shoot confetti for the Xmas service. I concurred. We made a few more off-color religious jokes (to each other) and stepped outside.

Leifur Eiriksson at Hallgrimskirkja
Leifur Eiriksson at Hallgrimskirkja

In front of the church, we found a statue  of Leifur Eiriksson, aka Leif Ericson, a gift from the United States for the 1000th anniversary (yes, that says one thousand) of the Icelandic National Assembly, the Alþingi.   He looked like a tough dude, but for the life of me I cannot figure out how these tough guy Vikings did not freeze their butts off. I would’ve taken one look at that “smoky bay” in Reykjavik (it was actually steam) and said “sail on!”

Apparently, Leifur did just that because he is commonly recognized as the first European to arrive in North America, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

After meeting Leifur, our time in Iceland had sadly come to an end. We walked back to the hotel, caughtt the bus to the airport and now we are flying somewhere over the northern territories back home again.

I am already planning what I want to do the next time I come back!

Bless, Island! (Goodbye, Iceland!)

Sunset at Keflavik Airport
Sunset at Keflavik Airport

Iceland: Day Five

November 8, 2013


We had a great time in Akureyri, but it was time to head back south to Reykjavik. We boarded an early morning flight with our tour mates, who had now become our comrades.

Jeff's view from plane
Jeff’s view from plane

The view from the plane as the sun rose over the surrounding fjords and glaciers was heavenly. Literally. It looked like how heaven is depicted in every painting that I’ve ever seen.  It was over quickly though. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, we started making our descent.  Jeff didn’t enjoy his view too much, because it involved the back of my head.

Tjörnin Pond, Reykajvik
Tjörnin Pond, Reykajvik

When we arrived back to our hotel in Reykjavik, our room was not ready so we stored our luggage and hit the pavement. Again, literally. The hotel is near the domestic airport but not exactly convenient to the downtown area.  The bonus to walking was that as we wandered through the cold, we came upon the city pond, Tjörnin. It was frozen over and dotted with swans, geese, seagulls and ducks. We happened upon a young girl and her father feeding the birds. It was super cute and made me miss my girls. One of the guidebooks called it “the world’s biggest bowl of bread soup.”  As we watched, one of the city’s many stray cats stalked the birds but was never brave enough to go in for the attack. Those swans were easily five times the size of your average cat!  Adjacent to Tjörnin was city hall.  Ráðhús Reykjavíkur was a concrete moss-covered love-it or hate-it structure built in 1994. Before that, Reykjavik had no Ráðhús. Can you believe it?  It looked like a big block of frozen moldy cheese.

Next, we visited The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavik 871+/-2, an interesting museum that gets its name from the year that it is believed the Vikings settled in Reykjavik. The museum is situated around an actual 10th century Viking long house that was excavated by archeologists. They built a building right on top of it and created a museum around it. Super cool. The museum had interactive displays about the the Viking settlements in Iceland ranging from 871+/-2 through about the year 1000.  I learned lots of cool Viking facts for upcoming party conversations. There was also an active excavation site across the street, but we skipped it and headed to Icelandic Fish and Chips for lunch.

Icelandic Fish & Skyronnaise
Icelandic Fish & Skyronnaise

In Iceland they are absolutely giddy about this yogurt type cultured dairy product, “Skyr.”  It has been part of Icelandic cuisine for over 1,000 years. The restaurant had a half dozen “gourmet” skyr based sauces. We tried mango (my favorite), basil garlic (too heavy on basil, not enough garlic) and tartar (yawn- needed relish). Jeff had wolf fish and I had cod. No fries though. We had quartered “crispy potatoes” and greasy onion rings. Swanky, but it should have been called “Icelandic Fish and Skyronnaise” because there were no “chips.”

From lunch, we headed to Volcano House, a theater that shows two short documentaries. One about the 1973 eruption on the Westman Islands and another about the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in South Iceland.

The 1973 eruption occurred in the town of Heimaey when a fissure in the volcanic island burst open unexpectedly in the middle of the night. Really! 5,000 people, the entire population of the island, were evacuated immediately using the island’s fleet of fishing vessels- which were miraculously in the harbor due to high winds the previous day. The eruption grew into the volcanic cone coined Eldfell. It spewed ash and lava for several months before, in an effort to save the harbor, which was close to being buried by the lava flow, islanders came up with the genius plan of dousing the angry volcano with sea water. They pumped it from the sea firefighter-style. The plan worked and the flow cooled and stopped before the harbor was destroyed.  The residents returned, dug out their town and went back to fishing. Awesome.

Eyjafjallajökull is most well known for its ashy eruption in April 2010. The glassy airplane-engine-unfriendly ash shut down European air traffic for six days at a cost of $200 million per day. Frankly, I was tired and slept through most of this film. It was no where near as devastating as Mt. St Helens and I don’t care about air traffic unless I have a flight scheduled. Presently, the eruption makes a good tourism gimmick for selling t-shirts and magnets throughout Iceland. Win for Iceland.

Feeling refreshed after what Jeff calls “our $40 nap,” we headed for the main drag in Reykjavik. Jeff found a bar for what I call his “$10 beer” and I cruised the shops. Things began to close up around 6 pm so we met back up and took a frigid walk back to the hotel for an overpriced dinner in the hotel restaurant. Once we were back in the room, we stuffed everything into our suitcases and, because we couldn’t figure out how to turn the TV on, went to sleep.

Good night, Reykjavik.

Iceland: Day Two

November 5, 2013

Arrival in Keflavik airport.  No issues except a grumpy old lady on the bus to hotel. Lots of grumpy old people. I’m beginning to wonder if I got on the bus to Shady Pines instead of the modern European hotel that I am expecting. Hopefully it’s not the prison bus either, but if it is I will so take on that lady on the inside.

We arrived at 06:30 and it is now 08:23. My impression of Iceland so far… dark. Sunrise is supposed to be at 09:21, but for now black as midnight. There are a lot of people out on the roads going somewhere in the dark. Hopefully it’s not to the same hotel that I’m going to because, then we may have a problem.
We arrived at the hotel and thank baby Jesus (or Thor?), they let us check in. We dropped off our luggage in the room and came down to the restaurant for breakfast. After breakfast, we signed up for an afternoon tour and settled in for a few Zzzzzzs. Lake Þingvallavatn
Our “Golden Circle” tour had us load on a bus to see some of southern Iceland’s “natural phenomena.” About an hour outside of Reykjavik we came upon Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thingvellir in English). Þingvellir contains Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. As we drove by, we could see the fresh water springs bubbling up around the perimeter of the lake. The area is part of a fissure zone situated on the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Gullfoss "Golden Waterfall"
Gullfoss “Golden Waterfall”

We were able to get off of the bus and explore the rock formations before moving on to the Gullfoss “Golden Falls” a bit further down the road. Gullfoss is a two tiered waterfall in the canyon formed by the Hvítá (meaning “white river”). I’m guessing it’s called that because it is a river made of ice. Brrr. As we stood to capture our selfies in front of the raging falls, we could feel the ice spray coating our faces. Double brrr.
Next stop: the Geysir region.
Geysir literally means “geyser” and is said to have been derived from the Old Norse word for “to gush.” Iceland was originally settled by the Vikings in the late 9th century and there are many things to remind you of that while exploring around Iceland.
The largest of the geysers in this area is Geysir and reportedly because of earthquake activity in the area, it does not erupt as often as it once did. We were able to see the slightly smaller, Strokkur geyser (meaning to churn), spew it’s boiling “fart” water, rife with sulfurous mineral deposits, several times before hypothermia began to taunt us. Although the temperature gauge on the bus claimed that it was 8° Celsius (46°F) the wind was ripping and it was COLD.
Once the sun finally came up, what I saw of Iceland looked a lot like Maui if you turned down the thermometer…waaaay down. More thoroughly, start with cold Maui, particularly the backside where they threaten to void your car rental contract, add in some Craters of the Moon National Park, a splash of Yellowstone (geysers) and a tiny dash of The Badlands National Park. The terrain is meandering with roads (sometimes single lane sometimes double) that crisscross around in no particular pattern and are devoid of any discernible traffic signs.
The sun set at 4:52 chasing us back into the tour bus for the ride back into Reykjavik where we learned many interesting cultural tidbits from the knowledgeable guide.
After returning to the hotel, Jeff and I hit our second wind and caught a cab into Old Town Reykjavik to have a “culinary tour” of Iceland at the Fish House RestaurantFiskmarkaðurinn. We had selections of dishes from different regions of Iceland, including salmon, cod, lamb and skyr, an Icelandic yogurt type food. It has been part of Icelandic cuisine for over one thousand years. I felt like we were the food tasters for Top Chef, as everything was so delicately put together and more than a few times we were saying, “What IS that!?” And after referencing the menu saying “oh, OF COURSE that’s lobster foam” or “sorrel pesto” or “caramelized beetroot.” It was all delicious and Jeff was satisfied because I was finally forced into eating lamb. Baa.
After a cab back to the hotel, we repacked our bags for an early morning flight to the second largest populated area in Iceland, the northern town of Akureyri, population 17,000.