BoomerCafé specializes in stories of, by, and for baby boomers. And that includes the kinds of vacations boomers like to take. That’s why our publisher and co-founder David Henderson stopped off in Iceland on his way to Europe. And why he thinks you deserve the straight scoop on a country that might not be quite ready for your visit.
Stepping off a flight from the U.S. at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, we are greeted by a sea of tourists who seemingly have overwhelmed capacity at the not yet completed new international terminal. Hordes of tourists from all parts of the world, Russia to North America, are exploring Iceland. A good many appear to be graying baby boomers.
We are on our way to attend a wedding in England and have stopped in Iceland for a few days to learn what all the tourism excitement is about on this tiny and somewhat sparsely populated country that sits atop ancient former lava flows and amid snowcapped mountains.
The best way to tour Iceland in a limited amount of time is via tour bus, jeep, or hired car … or, rent your own. We decided to do that, and drive ourselves.
Tip – if you rent a car in Iceland, make sure to add full insurance coverage. Sudden changes in weather can cause road problems and damage to vehicles.
Despite preparing in advance by ordering detailed Iceland tour books and maps online, little of the information on those maps seems to match up with the actual road signs that are only in Icelandic, a seemingly incomprehensible alphabet and language. There are 32 letters and characters with acute accent marks in the Icelandic alphabet … symbols I had never before seen … such as “jɔð̠” and “ʰjɛ.”
The first thing we learned was that the airport is on a remote peninsula about 40 miles from Reykjavik, the main city and nation’s capital. Once in Reykjavik, we could not determine how to reach the center of the city. No signs in English, no symbols, not even a giant puffin statue pointing the way.
Tip – Icelanders eat puffins, those cute little sea birds. Puffin is served in restaurants. Nothing personal toward Icelanders, but you gotta wonder about people who would eat those cute little photogenic birds.
Reykjavik is an old, small, and densely built city. Narrow streets, limited parking. We had booked an Airbnb accommodation at Ránargata 23 Street. We found the place on a small map but actually weaving our way through the maze of small streets was another story. It was by sheer luck that we drove by the address and my wife said, “That’s it!” We had one floor in a small old house, and it was not a good experience – the owner and her family were noisy.
The external was covered with corrugated sheet metal, perhaps remnants from World War II. The steps were wood, rotten though. The inside looked nothing like the photos on Airbnb. Actually, it looked more like a large storage shed. Our first Airbnb experience was not as advertised and will be our last.
There are two things to see in Iceland during a short visit: Reykjavik and The Golden Circle. The city is worth no more than a half day of visiting stores that sell tourist items, key chains, and stuffed puffin dolls. The Golden Circle requires a full day and is not-to-be-missed.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a series of two-lane roads that hit some of Iceland’s most-popular and scenic tourist attractions. Most places charge no admission although food and souvenirs are pricey. The drive takes about seven to eight hours including stops.
There is Gullfoss, an enormous waterfall that has been cut over centuries in a high meadow. Along the road is Geysir, a steaming geyser that erupts about 30 feet into the air every few minutes. The story is, every other geyser is so named because of this one in Iceland.
Tip – It rains often in Iceland and temperatures are cool-to-cold much of the year. Skies are frequently gray and overcast. Dress in layers to keep warm … at least a fleece and rain parka.
Best place during our tour, in our opinion, was Þingvellir National Park. The significance of Þingvellir is one of those “WOW” moments in life. It’s the place where the first parliament in recorded history met. That was the summer of 930. Island chieftains gathered – some walked for weeks to get there – to form their new commonwealth. Þingvellir has always been regarded as a spiritual place.
There is a natural phenomena within Þingvellir National Park where the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge can be seen and touched. It is the only visible place on earth where the massive American plate of the earth’s crust meets the equally enormous Euro-Asian plate.
Tourists can walk between the giant continental plates that are constantly moving and shifting ever so slightly although not perceptibly. Movement is no more than a few millimeters a year.
Surrounding the Golden Circle drive are many volcanic steam vents, a constant reminder that Iceland sits atop a multitude of active volcanoes. In fact, a series of new and active eruptions started in 2014 and is continuing.
A tour of The Golden Circle and a walk around Reykjavik were highlights of a three day visit. For far more active and conditioned outdoor enthusiasts, there are extensive drives around the island and hiking exploration of remote glaciers, fiords, and mountains, treks that require a couple of weeks.
Tip – Don’t take a good digital camera on a whale-watching ship. Rough seas and waves can quickly soak everyone and ruin cameras.
My impression is that Iceland is growing far too quickly as a tourist mecca. The island lacks the tourism infrastructure to handle the flood of visitors. An aggressive and glitzy advertising campaign unquestionably has captured global attention. An actual visit to Iceland is in some ways rewarding, but considerably less exotic.
We were happy to depart Iceland for England where they don’t eat puffin.
[All photos by Kit Bigelow and David Henderson.]