Five features about Iceland I didn’t expect
Iceland is the original land of fire and ice. We visited in the Spring, and while everywhere else in the world the flowers are blooming and bunnies and chicks are hopping around being adorable, we were so cold that we ended up impersonating the Michelin Man with the many layers of clothes we were trying to wear at once. We spent way more time than necessary standing next to the piping hot geysers coming through the volcanic rock just because it was the only place we could keep warm!
The frigid biting wind that seemed to be able to drive through any number of layers we put on wasn’t something I had exactly planned for. Here are a few more things that you will encounter in Iceland that you may not read about in your usual travel guides
Something I really did not expect or read about at all before visiting the island was that the non-drinking water is geothermal – so in other words, it smells like eggs when you shower. It’s actually not as unpleasant as it sounds, and thanks to the amazing wonders of the human nose, you don’t notice it after a while. The important thing is that the sulphur-rich water is safe and natural (as long as you don’t drink the shower water) and no you won’t end up smelling of bad eggs yourself!
Can’t see the road for the views
Although Iceland is a small country, there are great distances between the astonishing natural attractions of the thunderous waterfalls, the dramatic geysers and simmering hot springs.
The vistas you get to view from your car seat are just magnificent. Jagged white crusty mountains serrate the long horizons under pretty blue skies. The undulating lava fields of old look like a swell of the ocean forever locked in time.
Sometimes the views from the rear-view mirror were so stunning that you could momentarily forget you were driving!
Don’t expect a walk in the forest
As we chewed through the many miles, I actually found myself longing for something to break up the landscape. That’s when I realised there were hardly any trees.
The country’s lack of forests actually makes sense if you think about it. The island is largely volcanic rock and tundra, and there generally little in the way of soil beyond gravel and sand. But that’s a large part of the attraction.
We did see a lot of green covering the rock though, and at one point I jumped out of the car to see what it was. I gingerly poked at it, and discovered it was a thick, spongy mountain-heather. I found out later that it’s everywhere you look because it’s about the only thing able to survive the high winds and heavy moisture and thrive.
Occasionally we encountered meadows of flat grasslands on the lowlands where the land was a bit warmer and dryer, but that green, spongy mountain-heather accounts for more than half of all the vegetation in Iceland.
In some sheltered inland valleys where it’s not so windy, we did see a rare patch of stunted birch trees which had managed to huddle together to form the closest thing to a forest the island could manage. But generally, most of Iceland is only sparsely vegetated.
Keep the lights on
So it can seem at first that the natives are a bit over the top about driver safety. There are signs and messages literally everywhere. But once you get out on the road and experience the weather and the landscape, you can understand why. The huge mountains and flat plains that lay between them make ideal conditions for unpredictable and changing weather. In fact, the weather can change several times in one day.
With no trees and bushes to keep the landscape stable, roads can also easily become impassable or damaged with flooding or ice. Not all roads are suitable for all vehicles especially in the mountains. So if you’re renting, make sure you plan what kind of car you will need for your particular adventure and check ahead for road closures every day.
One road rule to rule them all in Iceland is to always have your headlights on… at any time of the day and in ALL conditions. If you ever forget to do so, you will have every car that passes you flash their headlights at you until you do!
Packing more in
If you travel to the country between May and August, the days are seriously long.
I hadn’t appreciated that Iceland is almost within the Arctic Circle, so it experiences the ‘midnight sun’ over the summer. “Awesome!” I thought, “more time for adventure!”
This was great in principle, but I soon discovered that I seemed to have this inbuilt instinct when the sky became a certain hue or when the sun was low enough in the sky, that it was time to head back to shelter before it got dark. I had to constantly ignore this urge to get home, as twilight could actually last for hours and hours, leaving plenty of opportunity to drive a little further and see another attraction before heading home.
Also, despite the sunshine, it is still late in the day and you will find your body does wants to sleep even if you are miles away and still willing to explore. I remember being so tired on the drive back home one time and wondering why I was so sleepy so early in the evening, until I realised it was actually 11pm! If you can stay safe and swap drivers often enough though, you will definitely get a lot more sight seeing out of your days.