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Iceland, a country in Northern Europe, is a large volcanic island in the north Atlantic Ocean. It is a well-named territory, over 11 per cent of the country being covered by glaciers.

Quick Facts
CapitalReykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world
Governmentconstitutional republic
CurrencyIcelandic krona (ISK)
Area103,000 sq km
Population290,570 (end 2003)
LanguageIcelandic; English, Nordic languages, German widely spoken
ReligionEvangelical Lutheran 87.1%, other Protestant 4.1%, Roman Catholic 1.7%, other 7.1% (2002)
Calling Code354
Internet TLD.is
Time ZoneUTC

Towns

  • Akureyri - Capital of the North
  • Egilsstadir (Egilssta�ir)
  • Hafnarfj�r�ur - City of elves and an annual Viking festival
  • Reykjavik - The largest city and capital
  • Thorshofn (��rsh�fn)
  • Vopnafjordur (Vopnafj�r�ur)

Other destinations

Although most visitors don't stray far from the capital city, this is a shame as some of the most memorable sights of Iceland are further afield.

  • Blue Lagoon - very famous outdoor pool and health center

There are many excursions offered by tour companies and are readily available from any of the main centres such as Reykjavik and Akureyri. They will fly you around and take you on to the glaciers and to the big volcanos for a reasonable price.

  • Thingvellir (http://www.thingvellir.is/english/) - National Park and a Unesco listed site.

Interesting for a number of reasons. This is not only the site of the longest running parliament in the world (the name literally means parliamentary fields), it's also where the N-American and European continental shelf plates are being torn apart.

  • Gullfoss - the Golden Falls.

On the edge of the inhospitable Interior of Iceland, the river Hvita plunges down a double cascade to create what many people believe is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland

  • Geysir - geothermal area.

Geysir itself (from which the English word "geyser" derives) rarely erupts, but fortunately Strokkur next door goes off every five or ten minutes.

  • Myvatn

A lake near Akureyri in the North of Iceland, Myvatn has an unearthly appearance owing to special types of volcanic craters throughout the lake.

  • Skaftafell - National Park.

Offers many hiking opportunities.

Understand

Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Lava fields, lava tubes, plains of fractured rock, ice, fire and steam.

Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle (a small island to the north of the main island crosses it), the amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but it doesn't get fully dark before it comes back up again. In March and September, days and nights are about equal, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, forget about sight-seeing; it'll be too dark outside. Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild.

People

Iceland was settled by Nordic and Celtic people in the 9th century AD - tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ing�lfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavik now stands. The Icelanders still basically speak the language of the Vikings. Iceland maintains another Norse tradition: the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames (an Icelander's given name is followed by his or her parent's first name (usually the father's) and the suffix -son or -d�ttir, e.g. Gu�r�n P�tursd�ttir (Gu�r�n, daughter of P�tur). Members of the same family can therefore have many different "surnames", which can sometimes create confusion for visitors! Because of the patronymic last names Icelanders primarily use first names, e.g. phone books are alphabetised by first name rather than last name. This also applies when addressing an individual. Icelanders would never expect to be addressed as Mr. or Ms. J�nsson/-d�ttir no matter how important they might be.

Climate

Despite its name, Iceland is very mild for land at that latitude owing to the warming effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. The average June temperature is as high as 10C (50F). However the rapidly changing weather has given rise to the local saying: 'If you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes'!

Bits of Info

  • Exchange rate:
    • 1 GBP = 112 ISK (4.8.2005)
    • 1 USD = 63.4 ISK (26.8.2005)

Note: You will get a better rate of exchange if you buy and sell your Krona in Iceland itself.

  • Emergency Phone No: 112

Get in

By plane

Iceland is easily reached via air, the international airport is Reykjavik.

The airport itself is quite barren; if you have a lengthy layover you should make sure to bring books or other entertainment.

An airport transfer bus service (called the New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, Orlando, Baltimore, San Francisco and most major European (i.e. Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Helsinki, London, Oslo, Madrid, Manchester, Milan, Munich, Paris, Stockholm and Zurich) airports are available, especially since Copenhagen and Stansted (close to London) to Keflavik (with additional service during the summer month to Frankfurt Hahn, Berlin Sch�nefeld, Friedrichshafen, Alicante, Gothenburg and Stockholm Arlanda).

In addition to this British Airways will offer flights from London and SAS from Oslo starting in 2006.

The Icelandic travel search engine dohop.com (http://www.dohop.com) finds low cost flights to Reykjavik from 200 cities in Europe. Make sure you check out all prices as the so called "low cost" option may not be the lowest cost option at all.

By boat

Getting to Iceland by boat takes longer than by plane but has the advantage of allowing you to take your own vehicle.

In the summer, Smyril Line (http://www.smyril-line.fo/)'s MV Norunna sails to picturesque Sey�isfj�r�ur in a week round trip from Hanstholm in Northern Jutland (Denmark) via T�rshavn (Faroe Islands), Lerwick (Shetland Islands) and Bergen (Norway).

The website is slightly vague on the costs and doesn't show many special offers, so it's worth calling their friendly sales office in Shetland. In July & August 2005 a return ticket from Lerwick could be had for ~�50.

Get around

By plane

Aircraft in Iceland are like buses or trains elsewhere - they're the main form of internal travel other than the roads. Be warned though, that the ride can be a bit bumpy if you're coming into one of the fjords like Akureyri.

Scheduled service to domestic destinations, including Greenland and Faroe Islands, is provided by Air Iceland (http://www.airiceland.is).

By car

Driving in Iceland is on the right-side of the road. There are excellent car hire desks from Hertz (http://www.hertz.is/) and Avis in the airport, as well as a local company, Alp (http://www.alp.is/). Hiring a car can be extremely expensive, especially for four-wheel-drives. Renting cars on-location is almost never cheaper than doing so in advance.

Be aware that car rentals - also at the airports - are not open around the clock.

Icelandic roads are adequate or at least tolerable if you are driving in populated areas (see this map (http://www.vegag.is/vefur2.nsf/Files/bundidslitlag2003/$file/busl_2003.jpg) of paved roads marked red). The interior of the country is a different matter and a good four-wheel drive vehicle is essential even if you stay to the "roads", you might have to cross many rivers and fords, some of which can be over 4 feet (1.2m) deep - especially if it has been raining.

A word of warning is in order: With the growing number of tourists on the Icelandic roads it has become evident that the roads are dangerous for the visitors. Please be careful! The number of drivers that lose control of hired cars on the gravel roads is disproportionately high. And the accidents are sadly too often fatal.

If you are travelling by road a great site to check is the Iceland Meteorological Office (http://www.vedur.is/english/) who have an excellent set of pages including the weather and driving conditions (http://www.vegag.is/vefur2.nsf/pages/fu_fv_faerdogvedur_eng.html) on all of the main roads.

The DUI limit in Iceland is 0.05%.

By Bus

Icelandic phrasebook for more information.

Buy

Iceland has a huge number of great little craft shops that sell everything from musical baskets and wonderful weird porcelain sculpture to paintings, glasswork, and jewelry. An interesting note is the National Galleries tend to carry the same artists work in the gift shops rather than the usual mass marketed product carried at so many other museums.

Icelandic wool goods (hats, gloves etc.) are soft and warm; don't just buy them for other people if you plan to visit the interior.

There is also a plethora of interesting local music CDs (beyond just Bj�rk) worth hunting for. Obscurities worth picking up include Hera, Worm is Green, M�m, Sigur R�s, and Bellatrix.

Prices

Beware of the fact that almost everything is very expensive in Iceland. Specifically, fresh vegetables (especially organic, if you can find them) and beer (minimum 500 Kr / pint).

Eat

Most Icelandic cuisine involves lamb or fish in some form or other, so a liking for one (or both) of these is an advantage. A vegetarian diet can be tricky to maintain and veganism will require you to self-cater (although there are two vegetarian restaurants in downtown Reykjav�k).

Distinctively Icelandic foods include:

  • smoked lamb sausage
  • skyr, a yoghurt-like dairy product available in flavoured and unflavoured varieties all over the country
  • hardfisk, dried fish pieces eaten as a snack with butter (also good with coleslaw)
  • fish
  • fish
  • fish
  • hakarl, is the famous putrefied shark cubes alleged to be a delicacy.

Food is no problem for Westerners in the cities; there is the usual compliment of eateries and restaurants for your delectation. Some of the hotel restaurants are very good indeed but if you're looking for a bite to eat on the move you can't really beat a 'Subway' or a very long bag of chips (fries) from the drive-through cafe near the airport in Akureyri. They are fabulous! (NB. Icelanders usually don't use ketchup as a condiment with chips, but rather use an unholy cocktail of ketchup and mayonnaise that they call kokkteils�sa. Make sure you try this)

Any Icelanders' first choice of fast food is usually the pylsa or hot dog. It is usually served with a choice of fried onions, fresh onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade. It is cheap compared with other fast food staples at around 170 kr, and is sold in every one of the small convenience stores/eateries/video rentals/sweet shops that litter Icelandic towns.

Vid fjorubordid is a gourmet restaurant located in Stokkseyri by the south coast of Iceland specializing in lobster. Stokkseyri is about 40 minutes drive from Reykjav�k

Drink

Alcoholic drinks are very expensive compared to the UK and USA. Liquor can be purchased at licenced bars, restaurants, or VinBud (http://www.vinbud.is/), the state monopoly.

There are three local brands of Iceland beer: Egils (http://www.egils.com), Thule, Viking.

Each year on Beer Day Icelanders celebrate the lifting of prohibition on March 1st, 1989.

Visitors arriving by air should note that there is a duty free store for arriving passengers where they can buy cheap alcohol (at least cheap compared to Iceland). To find the duty free store just follow the Icelanders. No Icelander in their right mind will pass the duty free store up on arrival.

Because of the high cost of alcohol in bars and restaurants, you can save some money by purchasing alcohol at a V�nbu� or duty-free shop, and enjoying a few before going 'out on the town'.

Sleep

If you're visiting in summertime, you won't regret bringing an eyemask with you. During the height of summer there is no actual darkness and in the Northern part of the country the sun might just dip for a few minutes below the polar circle.

Hotels

The hotels are usually fairly basic around the island but you can usually get a room even in August just by phoning them up and reserving it before you get there. They are very clean and well maintained, light and airy with nothing at all that could even remotely considered 'dingy'. They are expensive though.

Chains of hotels are run by Icelandair Hotels (http://www.icehotels.is) which include the Edda (http://www.hoteledda.is/EN/) summer hotels and the Icelandair hotels. and there are lots of small, family-run guesthouses around. Others include the Foss Hotel chain.

Outside of Reykjavik, one of the best hotels in Iceland is Hotel Budir (http://www.budir.is) on the Snaefell Peninsula.

Hostels

Iceland has many hostels throughout the entire country. They can be found on Hostelling International Iceland (http://www.hostel.is).

Camping

If you're travelling on a budget, camping is your best bet. There are sites located throughout the country, especially at places you'd want to visit. They range from fully-equipped (hot showers, washing machines, cooking facilities) to farmers' fields with a cold-water tap. Expect to pay 500-1000 Kr per person per night.

Mountain Huts

Trekkers will need to use some of the mountain huts, either government or privately-run. These range from dormitory accommodation to fully-staffed facilities. Booking ahead is likely to be necessary at popular times of year (and they may only be accessible in summertime).

Sights

The Blue Lagoon (http://www.bluelagoon.is) is a geothermal spa. For passengers departing on afternoon flights Reykjavik Excursions (http://www.re.is) offers airport transfers which include a visit to the Blue Lagoon (from 3400 ISK). A bus (http://www.bustravel.is) from the Main Bus Station in Reykjavik takes 40 minutes and costs 3000 ISK, including admission to the Blue Lagoon.

For an out of the way drive rent a car and travel along the southern part of the ring road to the town of Vik with its magnificent black sand beaches, rock outcroppings, glaciers, and lava fields.

South-central Iceland, easily accessible by car or tour from Reykjavik, boasts a number of sights: Gullfoss, the largest-volume waterfall in Europe, is quite spectacular; Geysir, the namesake of all geysers, and its neighbor Stokkur which erupts every five minutes or so; and Thingvellir, a beautiful landscape of water-cut lava fields, which is historically important as the site of Iceland's parliamentary government circa 930 AD.

In the colder months, one may frequently get stunning views of the Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. Northern Lights (http://www.south.is/northernlights.html) anywhere away from city lights.

Active Travel

BSI Travel (Vatnsm�rarvegi 10) rents mountain bikes. Reykjavik has a fairly extensive network of bike paths (http://www.rvk.is/upload/files/stigakort_reykjavik.jpg)

Tour Companies

Blue Biking (http://frontpage.simnet.is/bluebiking) (+354 565-2089) offers day tours from Reykjavik and multi-day biking and hiking tours.

Ultima Thule Expeditions (http://www.ute.is/index.html) (+354 567-8978) provides sea kayak and ski day trips from Reykjavik and multi-day trips for groups. No scheduled individual tours.

http://www.vegag.is/vefur2.nsf/pages/fu_fv_faerdogvedur_eng.html

Stay healthy

The medical facilities in Iceland are good and available free to European Union citizens with a valid E-111 form or it's replacement ID card. Scandinavian citizens must show valid passport and medical insurance to be treated.

Infectious diseases aren't a problem in Iceland. Inoculations aren't required except if you are arriving from countries that suffer from infectious diseases like cholera.

The biggest threat to your health is likely to be accidental injury or bad weather. Always make sure you have more than adequately warm and waterproof clothing. Exercise extra caution in geothermal areas.

Respect

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