Iceland gets much of its heating from geothermal activity; this coupled with electricity is the basis for their energy supplies. Their utility bills are very cheap. At Akureyri, we saw the large metal pipe that runs uphill alongside the road. This pumps hot water into the houses for heating purposes. A pity I didn’t take a snapshot. I thought a pipe a boring thing to take a photo of but later realised that it was a good example of Icelandic life. While these cheap energy bills sound wonderful, let’s not forget they do have a cold climate for most of the year although it is far milder than many expect, but changes quickly. All four seasons can be experienced in one day (so not entirely unlike Britain). They also live with the threat of volcanic activity. At the time we were there, they were awaiting another ‘event’ anytime ‘soon’. During the summer, they have very long days, and during the winter very long nights. During our visit, the sun was setting after midnight and rising about three hours later.
The landscape is one of bleak but fascinating lava fields — there’s a
reason many refer to it as a moonscape — and bright green verdant
rolling hills up into the mountains. Just to make this clear: Iceland is
green. Greenland is ice. Iceland is second in size to Britain as the
largest island in Europe, situated roughly 235 miles off Scotland. The
land area is approximately 40,000 square miles. Not all of their small
off-shore islands are inhabited. The island of Surtsey appeared in 1963
owing to a volcanic eruption, which lasted four years. Largest of the
glaciers, Vatnajokull, is eight times the size of Mount Etna in Sicily
with ice half a mile thick in places. The coastline consists of numerous
inlets and fjords.
There are no trees to speak of. The first settlers made the mistake
of not realising their native species were very slow growing and they
cut down all their forests. They are making headway into the replanting,
but the trees are still young and small. There’s a saying in Iceland:
if you get lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up.
Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world,
and the only capital city in Iceland, holding around one-third of the
population of approximately 300,000. Everything in the city is modern —
it’s the main centre of government, industry, culture and commerce. The
oldest building (originally a storage shed) dates back to 1752. Most
places of historic interest can be found in the ‘old’ sector, and the
city is overlooked by Mount Esja.
We also visited nearby Halnarfjordur — a town situated on an ancient
lava flow. Kleifarvatn Lake is one of Iceland’s deepest and is on the
way to the Krysuvik geothermal fields. Here bubbling pools of water and
mud, and jets of steam blip and hiss away from a red and grey landscape
more suited to a science fiction setting. While visiting the site, the
advice is stick to the paths. The ground can look solid where it is not
and every year they have incidents of tourists not paying attention or
thinking they can go where they like only to sink their feet into acid
or boiling water over 200 degrees. This will mean the loss of skin and
in some cases even amputation.
The Blue Lagoon is a famous natural hot pool situated on the
Reykjanes peninsula near the village of Grindavik and can be visited
both to view or to bathe in. We chose not to bathe, but the view of the
surrounding lava fields and nearby geothermal power station adds to the
feeling of this being an alien landscape. The waters bubble up from
5,000 feet below the earth’s surface with, it is said, excellent
therapeutic benefits. The products made from the geothermal mud are
extremely pricey. The water looks very pale blue, even blue-grey.
At the Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar), you can stand in an
authentic replica of a Viking ship, Islendingur. The exhibition has been
produced with the co-operation from the Smithsonian.
Isofjordur (population 3000) situated in the
Westfjords is the largest town of this remote and beautiful region.
Indeed, it’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in Iceland with a
total of inhabitants numbering under 10,000, and with less than 5% of
cultivated land. The town sits on a curved inlet surrounded by towering
Taking a boat from Isafjordur, we were ferried over to The Abandoned Village of Hesteyri,
instantly falling in love with the peninsula that many mistake for an
island. It is possible to get to Hesteyri by other means, but a boat is
the easiest if one does not wish to hike. Back when Hesteyri was
occupied a local said he did the hike from the nearest inhabitants in
three hours. More recently some extremely fit hikers planned to break
this record and took five hours to complete the same walk. The people
who originally occupied the area were extremely hardy.
The people lived here without telephone, electricity or roads. They
made the united decision to leave in the late 1940s, and the village has
been abandoned since 1952. Life here was difficult. There was little to
live on — some livestock the people brought with them, ‘sea cabbage’
(aka seaweed), and what little they managed to grow. However, there used
to be a herring factory — today only the tower can be seen standing —
but the herring has a habit of ‘moving house’. When the herring went
away, so did the industry.
There is a cemetery on the headland with the last person to be buried
here in 2006 — an original resident who loved it so much she wanted to
return even in death. There are other stories like hers, including the
one where a cow that was taken from there immediately stopped milking.
It’s said the owner returned with the cow and even before reaching land,
the cow jumped out of the boat, swam to shore, and immediately began
milking again. Whether there’s any truth to the story, it’s easy to see
how people could fall in love with the place. It’s simply beautiful,
peaceful, and memorable. As our guide said, take a moment to enjoy the
silence. Travellers stopping there today are guided by the descendants
of the original inhabitants who still own the houses and end their visit
with coffee and pancakes at the former doctor’s house. The sand here is
Akureyri is 272 miles from Reykjavik and is a
thriving centre of commerce. It’s only 60 miles from the Arctic Circle,
yet is surprisingly warm in summer and boasts much in the way of
industry — a freezing plant and shipyards among others (and an airport
landing strip) — with what some would claim a superior economy and
sophistication in its selection of shopping, culture, entertainment and
sporting facilities. It is here that a large silver pipe can be seen
running along the side of the road — this pumps hot water into houses
Husavik Harbour sits at the base and length of the pretty town and
houses the award-winning Husavik Whale Centre. We often find many
museums in Europe quite peculiar; however, this was educational and
interesting. It’s also home to many whale skeletons obtained from
washed-up and stranded whales who have died. We found these quite
surprising — they were very ‘prehistoric’ in appearance, something we
would not have discovered had we not visited.
We stopped for a meal in a local seafood restaurant here — just a
white fish and rice dish that was delicious. Not sure what the fish was
but we were being careful as we had been warned in Iceland they
(rightly) waste nothing, so dishes with offal are not uncommon and even
broiled puffin can be found on some menus.
The highlight of Husavik was Whale Watching. The area boasts a high
chance of seeing whales with over half of the world’s thirty-six species
to be found in Icelandic waters. On the day we went out, we were told
we had a 98 or 99% chance. We witnessed the rare sight of breaching
humpbacks. Then the most amazing OMG extremely rare moment of ‘follow
that whale’ — yes, the ‘captain’ of the boat did as good shout we were
going to follow that whale when he spotted the air spout from a distance
and ‘went for it’ because what he had seen was a blue whale. We saw not
one, but two blue whales that day — very uncommon. Though the true
heart plummeting moment arrives when you realise how difficult this is
to capture on film, no matter how good your camera.