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Iceland: Breaking Tradition at 66° North

Iceland

Iceland by Kay Dulay

Christmas 2014 was a strange one for me. Normally, I would be in 30°C Manila, binging on food, movie marathons, and laughter in the company of family and friends. Last year, I broke tradition to go on a solo trip to Iceland. The breaking tradition part was a matter of timing. My friends and I had time to go on a trip together during the period between Christmas and New Year. The Iceland part was a matter of opportunity. High solar activity in recent years made conditions particularly ideal for viewing the northern lights, an experience that sat firmly on top of my lifetime travel goals for some time now. The solo part, however, was a matter of circumstance. In the end, everyone else had to cancel, and I suddenly had to plan an entire itinerary for myself. Fortunately, Iceland was an easy sell as a travel destination and there were more than enough options on what to see and do there.

In case you need more prodding, just imagine that you can breathe in the same space where they shot scenes from Interstellar, Game of Thrones, and Life of Walter Mitty. If you’re more into literature, the characters in Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne began their journey in Iceland as well. If that still doesn’t work, perhaps you’d like to find out what inspires music by Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men?

Whatever your reason to consider flying to this island in the middle of the Atlantic, here are five things I’d like to share about my experience:

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#1 Iceland is not as cold as you think, but you have to dress for the weather. Any weather!

Maybe it’s the name, but people seem to expect Siberia-like conditions in Iceland. However, if you stay mostly along the southern portions (where Reykjavik is located), the average winter temperature is just around 0°C. Cold, but not hostile. When you’re touring Iceland, you’re probably spending a lot of time outdoors, whether you’re riding an Icelandic horse across snowy fields, hiking in glaciers, ice caves, and lava tubes, dipping into outdoor geothermal pools, or gazing at the northern lights late into the night. You need to protect yourself from the cold, the wind, and the rain, but you also have to keep yourself from overheating under layers of clothing.

Karlaroundtheworld Skaftafell Ice Cave
Ice Cave in Skaftafell

If you’re a tropical girl (or guy) like me, then you definitely have to do your research on sensible clothing for cold, windy, and possibly wet conditions. Avoid cotton at all costs. Items from brands like Columbia and North Face will give you an idea of what to look for, but frankly, these are expensive investments if you won’t be experiencing winter on the regular. Personally, I went to Uniqlo for thermals and fleece, Muji for wool, Mango for a lightweight goose down jacket, and SM Surplus Shop for a waterproof/windproof outer layer. Make sure your boots are also waterproof and have decent grip. If you’re already in Iceland and you find yourself underdressed, local brands like 66°North and Cintamani will save your skin. Better poor than frozen to death, right?

While you’re there, you may be tempted to pick up a traditional sheep wool sweater called Lopapeysa, which are worn by locals and tourists alike. It makes for a cool souvenir and can totally take the place of your ugly Christmas sweater, if White Christmases are your thing. But again, it only makes sense to purchase if you live in a place that gets cold enough!

#2 The pictures don’t lie. The views are as jaw dropping as they appear.

As a place with high volcanic activity (Say or spell it with me, folks: Eyjafjallajökull), abundant natural wonders (Glaciers! Waterfalls!), and low population density (~320,000), Iceland features a mysterious, otherworldly landscape that makes you want to believe in elves and hidden people.

Church Mountain Iceland Karlaroundtheworld
Kirkjufellfoss, or Church Mountain

This makes Iceland both a paradise and a nightmare (For the more optimistic among us, a challenge) for any camera geek. Beyond pointing and shooting, many of the sights are ideal for long exposure photography. For starters, you would want to bring a tripod and a remote trigger to nail that aurora shot. More serious landscape photographers would invest in ND filters (or a piece of cloth!) to create dramatic, dreamy images. Frankly, I wasn’t as successful as I hoped to be in that department, because timing and setting up these shots can be difficult on a standard day tour. If you want full control of your itinerary, your best option is to rent a car and drive around the island via the Ring Road. That is, if you’re up for driving in the winter and possibly getting stuck in the snow!

And the northern lights? When I was there, they were bright enough to be seen from Reykjavik. All I had to do was look up, or notice people stopping at the street to look up. Every time they made an appearance, I was torn between frantically setting up a tripod and just marveling at the display. My best opportunity to take the shot came during an overnight tour to the east of Iceland, where there was less light pollution and structures to block the view. Since I was taking long exposures for a good hour or so, I had time to both take those photos and soak in the fact that my travel dream had finally come to life.

Northern Lights Karlaroundtheworld
Aurora Borealis

#3 Reykjavik does not look like your “typical” European city.

See enough cities in Europe and you will probably get a feeling of sameness in those historical, cobblestoned streets. Reykjavik, on the other hand, looks more like a small town than a capital city. Most of the activity seems to be concentrated in the compact downtown area, where you will be hard pressed to spot brands that you can easily recognize. No McDonalds, Starbucks, or H&M in sight! There was a Domino’s beside my hostel, but that was it. And to be honest, I hardly missed them.

 Reykjavik with Mount Esja Karlaroundtheworld
Reykjavik with Mount Esja

Everyone will tell you that Reykjavik is a small town that likes to party hard. You may want to reserve some energy after a day of sightseeing to see what the fuss is all about. Kex Hostel, where I stayed, hosts a lot of live music events. If you go out on a Saturday night, practically everyone is in the bars downtown with no intention to come home until the next morning. Locals may come and talk to you. Or you can go and talk to them first. After all, tourists, by default, are the freshest faces in town. One young redhead had no trouble inviting complete strangers (i.e. us) into his house, and his mom who happened to be saying goodbye to him at the door did not seem to mind either. But that’s just one guy, right…?

Alcohol is relatively expensive in Iceland, and there is one store holding a monopoly of its sales in the country. That’s probably good news for people who don’t want to miss out on sightseeing or accidentally walk into a geyser the next day. Sip slowly.

#4 Your food options can be as adventurous as you allow them to be.

Near the Reykjavik bus station, people line up for lamb-based hotdogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Translation: The Best Hot Dog in Town). It’s the quickest way to fill your stomach and also to smear your gloves with ketchup and mustard. If you’re a fan of yogurt, you will probably love their Skyr, which you can easily pick up from the supermarket. Lamb, chicken, and fish seem to be more commonly served than other meat, but there are enough burger joints to provide your beef fix.

Iceland Karlaroundtheworld
Photo of Skyr

Merry Skyr.ismas!

 

Some restaurants will offer more controversial choices, like Minke whale and puffin meat. Apparently, the latter is a more traditional dish than the former, which is largely supported by tourist demand. For the adventurous palate, I tried sviðasulta, or sheep’s head jam, but opted out of the infamous hákari, or rotten shark (offered to us with a shot of vodka).

If you’re suddenly craving for Asian cuisine, you may be surprised to see a bunch of noodle shops and Thai restaurants in Reykjavik. Apparently, Thais are the second biggest Asian minority group in Iceland as of 2014, with a staggering 531 residents of Thai origin, representing an overwhelming 0.16% of the total population.

What is the biggest Asian minority group you ask? Filipinos (558, 0.17%). I don’t know how we got there either. So when is Jollibee opening an Iceland branch?

#5 The Christmas spirit is alive and well in this Viking land.

I doubt that other countries could top the Philippines for its months-long Christmas cheer, but Icelanders definitely keep their own traditions alive.

 Hafnarfjörður Karlaroundtheworld
Hafnarfjörður

Reykjavik and nearby Hafnarfjörður hosts some Christmas markets, where you can pick up some trinkets and homemade delicacies. On the night of the 23rd, I walked down Laugavegur and joined a throng of last minute shoppers. At some point, I spotted some funny looking Santa-like creatures going in and out of stores. They turned out to be Yule Lads, trolls from Icelandic folklore who are known to lick your spoon, peep through your window, and gobble up your Skyr (No! Everything but the Skyr!).

If you’re more religious or maybe just curious, you can hear mass in the lovely Hallgrímskirkja at 6pm of the 24th. The service is solemn and full of Lutheran hymns in Icelandic. There’s also a Catholic cathedral, which I never got to see, unfortunately.

Hallgrimskirkja Karlaroundtheworld
Hallgrimskirkja

As you would expect, Christmas is largely a family affair and many shops are already closed by noon of the 24th. From the 24th to the 26th, tours are more limited than usual so you may want to schedule something in advance. The same goes for eating out. If you want a Christmas dinner, you have to either book reservations or stock up on supplies. My fellow travelers and I learned this the hard way. By the time we agreed to cook something at the hostel together, the supermarket was already closed. Luckily, we pitched in our personal supplies and still came up with a pretty wicked setup in the end. Christmas is saved!

I left right before the New Year festivities, which involves bonfires and a massive amount of fireworks I heard. That was a bit of a regret on my part, as much as my wallet disagreed! I didn’t even know where I greeted 2015 because I was fast asleep on a plane back to Asia.

Christmas last year was definitely one for the books, but I also missed the warm familiarity of the holidays back home. This year, I’m definitely going back to my roots. If you’re reading this, I’m probably at home raiding the dinner table and having a Star Wars movie marathon with my family. Having said that, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year at +8 GMT!

34 thoughts on “Iceland: Breaking Tradition at 66° North

  1. Karla, I know I shouldn’t be wishing this 18 month career break away but I can really looking forward to 2017 as I fully expect a honeymoon trip to Iceland – So exciting!!

  2. iceland looks like lots of fun! my friend went and saw the Aurora Borealis recently, told us it was really cold! haha, i got a little shocked when i read you said temperature is “just 0 degree celsius” too. hahaha, well, i’m a tropical country girl. anything single digit is friggin’ cold to me already. 🙁

    1. Dressing for cold weather sounds really daunting at first, but you just have to research on how to layer your clothes efficiently. One common mistake among tropical people like us is to pile on 6 layers of thick clothing. If you select the right fabric, that’s hardly needed! 🙂

  3. I am so jealous!! Would love to visit Iceland, too. Looking at the photos, the place is comparable to the cold Northern part of Norway. It is a paradise to behold! Good luck on your future travels!

  4. Iceland is such a beautiful place, without a doubt! I love the views especially the caves and the night events! I wish to go here someday, if time would permit.

  5. Aaaah, this sounds like fun. This is the second post that I read today about spending Christmas outside PH. I’m considering doing it in 2016 but I’m not sure if my Mom would let me. I bet it would truly be a great learning experience. Your photos are beautiful and they sure do make me want to visit Iceland a-sap.

    1. Thank you! Yeah, Christmas is a really big deal for us Pinoys so it’s rather unthinkable to spend it without our family. I made up for it by celebrating with them before going to Iceland 🙂 That, or take them along with you, haha!

    1. It was actually rainy when we went to the ice caves so the hike going there was slippery! Water was dripping inside the cave so we had to protect our cameras as well. I heard they collapse and re-form as the seasons change.

      Oh gosh, I had a lot of moments where I just went, “Is this real life?” while I was there. Probably the closest I felt to space travel, ha ha!

  6. Definitely a destination for me and my family to check out one of these Christmases. Thanks for the clothing and food recommendations. Will be checking these out again when that magic chance to travel comes by.

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