Iceland adventures part 1: general impressions

Landscape at the Blue Lagoon

I went on holiday to Iceland over new year. I stayed in Reykjavik for four nights overall. The other three nights I stayed in a remote part of south Iceland.

I have plenty to write about, but this first article looks at my general impressions of Iceland as a country.


Landscape at the Blue Lagoon

Getting hold of money

I have very little negative to say about Iceland, so it is a shame to start off with a negative point. But it was my first impression, and it was quite an important one.

Iceland has held back the supply of its currency, making it difficult to get your hands on Icelandic krónur in the UK. So I landed in the country with a wallet full of sterling. The problem was that the bank in the airport was closed when we landed, meaning long queues at the cash machines.

But there was yet another problem. The cash machines were rejecting everyone with a debit card. It appeared as though only credit cards were being accepted. This left a lot of people unable to get their hands on any Icelandic krónur, at a very late time on Boxing Day.

I am not sure if there was some technical problem that caused this (the machine displayed a message to the effect of “failed to receive a response from the bank”), or if it is policy. When I tried at another cash machine in Reykjavik a couple of hours later, I encountered the same issue.

Luckily, I had pre-paid for everything I needed to last me until the morning, and I was able to borrow some money from a friend as well. Another plus point is that almost all Icelandic businesses happily accept plastic as payment.

Weather

Hestheimar

The climate of Iceland is not as different to Scotland as some people might think. Iceland is very far north, but it is also warmed up by the Gulf Stream. In rural areas, I think temperatures were mostly around −3°C or −2°C. In Reykjavik, it was a little above 0°C.

For the duration of our trip, there was substantial snow cover in the country, and lots of ice in the quieter parts of Reykjavik. I understand that this is not always necessarily the case. It is entirely possible to visit Iceland at Christmas and not see any snow.

We saw almost no precipitation at all (there was one slight dusting of snow over one night). So I’m guessing there was a big amount of snow some weeks before our visit, and it just never got warm enough to melt.

Transport

Hlemmur bus station

I had to make my way around Iceland using public transport. On my first night, I stayed in Reykjavik by myself. The following day I was to make my own way to where my friends were, 90km away near the town of Hella.

I had researched the options in advance, and I checked online with Iceland’s bus company, Strætó. I had my own little timetable printed out, and I knew what buses I had to get. Nevertheless, it did worry me. These buses are obviously not intended for tourists, and the journey also involved a quick change at Mjódd, a bus terminal on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Getting the bus in central Reykjavik, I encountered my only real problem trying to speak to an Icelander. I had read in my guidebook that the only time you encounter communication barriers is if you try to speak Icelandic, because Icelanders are so unaccustomed to it. (Sure enough, whenever I tried to speak Icelandic it was met with blank stares.)

However, my bus driver appeared to have zero English. Eventually the conversation turned into: “Mjódd?” “Mjódd?” “Mjódd?” By that time I was fairly confident that, yes, this bus would take me to Mjódd.

On arrival at Mjódd, I was expecting to see my next bus, which was to take me to Hella. But it wasn’t there. I examined the timetables around the terminal, but I couldn’t make much sense of them.

I found a similar bus, but it terminated at Selfoss, almost 40km away from Hella. I spoke to the driver and asked if his bus was going to Hella.

He looked at his watch and said, “There are no buses to Hella today.”

I am not sure if it was because of the weather or the time of year, or some other reason. But this information conflicted with what I was told by the website.

Luckily my friends were able to pick me up from Selfoss, but it would have been a major inconvenience if not. This is why you should hire a car if you’re going to explore Iceland!

The journey back a few days later was almost as exciting. I had asked locals if I would be able to get the bus from Hella, and I was told that there were buses at 10am and 5pm. So I got dropped off at Hella at just before 10am.

I should point out also that it was pitch black at that time. Sunrise was not until around 11.25am.

I waited and waited, and the bus didn’t come. There were bus schedules at the stop, but they bore no relation to either what I had been told, or what was playing out for real.

I asked a very helpful person at the petrol station in Hella. He consulted the bus timetable in his own shop window, which appeared to show a completely different set of times! He told me that the bus would arrive at 10.17am. That was very interesting information, because I looked at my phone to see that the time was now 10.19am! I hot-footed it back to the bus stop, and fortunately the bus was in fact running slightly late as it eventually arrived.

At first I had the bus to myself, which was nice — although it became very busy at Selfoss with people catching the morning bus into Reykjavik. These buses had wifi as well, so I was able to do all the internets in the almost two hour long journey to Reykjavik.

Friendly people

View from Hallgrímskirkja
Things were not always straightforward even when I was using a tour bus. But the kindness of the Icelandic people saw me through.

I’d booked a bus from my hotel to the Blue Lagoon, to leave at 9am. As I was eating my breakfast in the hotel, I saw a minibus arrive. Was this my bus? I overheard other hotel guests saying that the minibus picks you up before 9am, and takes you to the terminal, where the real bus leaves at 9am.

Panicking, I rushed to finish my breakfast, headed back upstairs to pack as quickly as I could and get the bus. But by then it was gone.

I decided to make my own way to the bus terminal, which was only a 15 minute walk away — still just enough time. So I legged it down unfamiliar icy streets with my luggage. When I arrived on the bus the man told me that my ticket was with another company (whoops), but he’ll let me go anyway (yay!).

I am not sure how many Icelandic people I actually encountered. Reykjavik reminded me a lot of Edinburgh in its spirit — it is full of tourists. But in general I found Icelanders to be friendly and helpful, and this character got me out of a hole more than once.

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