Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Iceland - A Travel and Food Guide for Beginners



I know six days is a bit of an odd number of days to spend in a country, but if I'm being honest then it was actually 7 nights and 6 days and this was all down to when the cheapest flights were. My head is buzzing with information about Iceland so I thought it prudent to write it down whilst it's still fresh and worth something (perhaps) to somebody. I'd also like to one day be a travel blogger but money and work currently restricts that ambition (hint hint). 


Flights

We didn't book too far in advance (like we probably should have done) and so to avoid adding another £100-300 to our trip costs we decided to stay a little longer than the long weekend we had originally planned. You obviously could weigh this up against additional accommodation and living costs but we were excited to spend a little extra time in Iceland that we decided we could budget for the other days and perhaps eat out a little less. In the north of England your best bet for flights are from Manchester airport. There are two airlines to choose from: Easy Jet and IcelandAir. When looking at flights we noticed that both airlines had cheaper prices on differing days, we looked in to perhaps flying out with one and flying back with another. I've heard this can work but as it turns out when you're not booking a return ticket with the same airline that cheap outgoing/returning price is suddenly bumped up by approximately 25%.  In the end we chose to fly with IcelandAir as the cheaper option. There are a lot less hidden charges with IcelandAir than Easy Jet and you get 1 piece of checked luggage per ticket as standard with your economy ticket (you can pay for more if you need it), however with Easy Jet we would have needed to pay an additional charge for each checked in piece of luggage, bumping up the cost of our ticket. The flight from Manchester to Iceland is 2.5 hours, Iceland air give you free soft refreshments and there's a screen to watch movies/TV/play games/track your flight. Something I haven't seen on a short haul flight for some years. If you're desperate for internet access you can also pay 7 Euros for wifi. Iceland air felt like a bit of a luxury.




Accommodation

Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland and it's here that you will find most of the winter time accommodation. There are small towns dotted around the country with a lot of motels, hotels and campsites but Reykjavik is where most of the action is on an evening. It's a good hub, especially in winter when you're less likely to be traveling around and camping. So for now I'll concentrate on Reykjavik.



We booked through AirBnB; we've used AirBnB before and are comfortable using it. If you're new to AirBnB here's a handy article to give you some guidelines on how not to fall in to any traps. Prices in winter are halved compared to the summer, so although the rooms advertised might say £70 per night in reality during winter they might be coming in at £35 per night so be sure to put the right dates in when you're searching. AirBnB is a good choice if you want to go self catering; I personally prefer self catering as it allows you to make your own breakfast and lunches saving money to splurge on activities or evening meals. AirBnB often introduces you to someone local too, someone who can give you some insider tips and tricks and tell you about hidden gems.

If you're still not convinced by AirBnB then there are plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts and youth hostels to suit a range of budgets... Although saying this, we found our AirBnB apartment to be cheaper than all of the fore mentioned!

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik



Car Rental and Tours

Should you rent a car or should you just book on to a tour? Firstly, I guess, it depends on how long you're going to be spending in Iceland.

Airport transfers are going to cost from £15 per person each way, I'm sure you can do the maths but for two people for the trip this totals £60.

If you don't have a car you're going to want to book on a tour unless you want to spend all your time in Reykjavik and reduce your changes of seeing the Northern Lights. Basic tours come in around the below prices (as of winter 2016):

Golden Circle Tour (1 day, the main tourist route) approx £56 per person

Northern Lights Tour (3 hours) approx £35 per person

South coast Tour (1 day, in my opinion much more scenic than the Golden Circle) approx £75 per person 

West coast Tour (1 day) approx £75 per person.

If you want to get fancy with Super Jeep Tours you're going to need to double the prices on most occasions. You might also need to factor in transport costs to the Blue Lagoon as this is a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik but some tour operators will offer a package deal.

Gullfoss Waterfall


If you want a bit more freedom or you're going for longer than a weekend I would suggest hiring a car. I wouldn't suggest hiring anything other than a 4x4 in winter, perhaps even in summer as some roads are marked that they are only suitable for 4x4's. We booked a Dacia Duster (eco) 4x4 for a week and it cost £300. We drove to and from the airport, round the Golden Circle, the southeast coast, the west coast, to and from the Blue Lagoon, in and out of town when it was tipping it down for a meal at night (I know we're lazy but 15 minutes walking in the pouring rain when you can drive in to the centre and enjoy free parking after 6pm... it is a no-brainer for me), night drives out to chase the Northern lights, plus a couple of trips to the supermarket. It's fair to say we got our use out of the car. As we chose an Eco friendly 4x4 diesel costs were low too, we had a full tank at the start of the week and finished with a full tank only spending £101.73 in diesel for the whole trip. Total cost for the car equaling out at £401.73 (if we exclude the bust tire that cost us £120 to replace, but I'm sure this won't happen to you!).

If we were to do all of the above in tours it would have cost us £542 not including taxi fare or a package deal to the Blue Lagoon, with an added extra of freedom to see what we wanted to on our own time.



We avoided the commonly known car rental companies such as Enterprise, Avis, Europcar etc and opted for a local company, in turn we received a friendly more tailored experience (the girl who sorted our check-in papers gave us handy tips on where to go and talked through carefully with us what we needed to be aware of when driving in Iceland and pointed us towards roads.is) and most importantly they were much cheaper than the larger companies. They were even really helpful when we had the mishap with the tire and helped get us to an English speaking tire garage. The company we used were Lagoon Car Rental. 

If you've decided to drive be sure to check Iceland's weather site and the road website road.is (as these often close in winter and sometimes even in summer) before any journey. (See weather below)

If you're not a confident driver I'd suggest booking a tour, the weather can change in an instant, from bright sunshine to driving hail and wind to snow showers that leave you unable to see whether you're driving down a dual or single carriage road.

Crashed landed plane DC-3 only accessible by 4x4 and not often visited by big tour buses due to accessibility



Cash and Currency

The Icelandic prefer card payments over cash. You can pay for almost anything on your card no matter how small the denomination, and let's be fair in Iceland this probably isn't going to be less than £6 as it ain't cheap in Iceland. 

I would highly recommend the Revolut card. We've used this in 5 different countries in the last year and had no problems so far. It doesn't charge you to top up the card or withdraw money; it changes the currency at the same rate banks do which is a better rate than the Bureau de change. We took £100 in cash and this was too much, we could have gotten by with £5 in cash as the only thing we needed to pay with cash for was a couple of postcards and stamps. 

Another tip, in Iceland they use 'dots' instead of 'commas' so 10.500 ISK is actually 10,500 ISK when 'translated', this can be confusing especially when you first see such large amounts and the expensive prices. 




The Weather

As mentioned above the weather can change in an instant. Iceland have a good website that will aim to predict the weather for the day, but it's so unpredictable even they can get it wrong. If you're hiring a car you need to keep your eyes on the road.is website, I can't stress this enough. During winter a lot of the mountain roads are impassable and some of the regular roads become difficult to drive. 

We learnt our lesson the hard way by not checking the weather or the roads when we left for a meal one night, looked at the sky saw a clear night sky filled with stars, then had food, presumed an hour later it would be the same and ended up in a mad snow storm on the main road where we couldn't see the road and ran over a piece of metal which bust our wheel. Be safe; always check the weather and road websites.

Basalt Columns at Gerdubery on the West Coast


The mountains/volcanoes and glaciers dotted around the island bring in their own weather climate. You'll notice in a lot of pictures that high peaks tend to be surrounded by clouds whilst below on the flat lands it can seem quite bright and calm. This is important to note when your route takes you around mountains or even through them, the road from Reykjavik to Selfoss (the one you'll take to Vik) can be a world's difference once you take on that mountain road. It's frequently closed in bad weather, so be sure to check before you try to attempt driving across it. 

I learnt the importance of layers whilst visiting Seljalandsfoss, if you're planning on walking behind it make sure your coat (and camera) is waterproof!


As the weather is so interchangeable it's important that you get clothes right. Take a warm waterproof jacket, lots of layers so that you can quickly strip off or change in to them. A hat, it get's quite blustery and the wind cuts at your ears. Gloves, my finger tips went numb from taking pictures so make sure to buy those gloves with the touch screen finger tips or mittens that convert into fingerless gloves. By the end of the holiday I was wearing the touch screen gloves under my fingerless mittens so I could give my finger tips extra insulation when I wasn't taking pictures. 


The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights is a natural phenomenon. As with all things in nature they aren't reliable, don't expect that going to Iceland is going to guarantee you a sighting. There are so many variables involved that we didn't even consider until we got there, such as the moon's brightness (there is evidence out there that a full moon won't hinder a northern lights sighting but the night we went out searching for them the moon was lighting up the whole sky and no one was going to see it that night). Clouds, sodding clouds. It has to be a clear sky for you to see the northern lights and the changing weather brings in a lot of clouds, clouds of rain, clouds of snow and clouds of hail. 

The Icelandweather website has an aurora check which will tell you the estimated aurora activity over 5 nights (this can change daily/hourly) and the cloud coverage. What you're looking for is areas with white coverage as this is clear skies, the darker the green the cloudier it's going to be and the lower your chances are of seeing the northern lights. 

There are tours which will take you out to view the Northern Lights, they don't guarantee that you will see them (as noted above it's a natural phenomenon that won't always play game) but if you don't see them they'll take you out the next time. If you don't see them through the entirety of your holiday then most will let you come back within a year. The main tour operator Reykjavik Excursions publish on their Facebook site from 4pm onwards whether their tour will be running. The tours essentially follow the aurora map and look for a break in the clouds; you could do this yourself if you have rented a car.   

Sadly we never saw the Northern Lights, but it's a great excuse to go back!


Language

I didn't come across anyone in Iceland who didn't speak perfect English; it's taught in schools and has been for some time so you'll struggle to find anyone under the age of 30 who doesn't speak English. The Icelandic spoke English so well it was often hard to distinguish an accent until they pronounced Icelandic names (places, locations etc). 




Water

Don't buy bottled water. The cold water from the taps is renowned for its mineral qualities; they have an abundance of fresh water. I've never tasted tap water quite like it, it was like having Evian on tap. Plus, if you're buying bottled water you're essentially buying tap water don't do it, save yourself some money, Iceland isn't cheap remember. 

Iceland's energy is 100% supplied by renewable energy sources which is very applaudable and I wish England would follow suit, however the water is often heated by the lava lakes deep underground which can leave a slight sulfur smell when you run the hot water tap. It's perfectly safe just a little stinky. The lava steams under Reykjavik will eventually tear the city apart they just don't know when, hopefully it won't be any time soon.

Skogafoss on the South Coast is one of the most breath taking waterfalls you'll see. On a sunny day a rainbow shines across it.



Food

The food in Iceland is amazing, it's not cheap but it's amazing. I've done full posts on each individual restaurant we visited but below you will see a summary of where we ate with a link to the post should want the full story. Click on the title (link) to view the full post with more pictures. 



Hidden away this establishment can be a little hard to find, the door isn't especially advertised and you have to creep up some steps to reach them. So called because the menu presents pizzas with no names, they simply list their toppings. The food is good, the pizzas are imaginative, the fries are s surprising delight and the beer is on tap. Be prepared to be welcomed with a smile and leave with tired eyes as you stare and ponder at all the interesting and amusing decorations. Upstairs you'll find Mikkeller and friends with plenty of craft beer choices and even more eye pleasing decor. 




Primarily a coffeehouse by name and by function but later in to the day you can took in to homemade delights and drink coffee turn alcohol through in to the evening. Expect to see mobile home-workers with their iMacs, mothers with their babies (if they're not chilling outside in their prams, don't be alarmed they're perfectly safe and warm it's normal practice in Iceland), couples, business meetings and the odd tourist. The food menu changes every day and you have to ask what is on offer but don't let this defer you as they make a smashing omelette and avocado on toast. Coffee is supplied by Reykjavik Roasters (see below). 




Reykjavik Roasters without a doubt make the best cup of coffee in town. It is a coffeehouse and roasters combined in to one and only a short walk away from Hallgrimskirkja (the big church). The coffeehouse is quite small so you may need to share a table or wait around a little to have one to yourself but I can guarantee that it is worth the wait. So good we even brought a bag of coffee home with us.




Have I mentioned that Iceland isn't cheap? When you've forked out for coffees, museum entry fees, brunch, lunch, hotdogs and whatever else has taken your fancy you might be on the lookout for something relatively cheap to ensure you're not entirely broke by the end of the trip. Noodle station is a small chain in Iceland (I saw two in Reykjavik), the service and menu is basic with you essentially being dished out noodles in broth with meat or vegetables of your choice. It's basic but it's good.




This small hotdog shack near the harbour in downtown Reykjavik has attracted international fame as the Guardian declared it as one of the best hotdogs in Europe. Even Bill Clinton has had his mouth around their sausage. Another cheap eat and a great snack if you're toddling around Reykjavik during the day or at night.




An extensive menu with your regular starters, mains and desserts as well as a small plates option this restaurant can certainly cater for all. We opted for the small plates menu and weren't disappointed by any of the dishes. No bookings are taken but your name is added to waiting list and you can either go away and come back or wait at the bar, be warned it gets busy at the weekend with around a 45 minute waiting time so arrive early and hungry. 




Possibly one of the nicer restaurants we visited. On a Saturday night the locals get dressed up to the nines but you won't be turned away wearing your jumper and thick socks. The desserts are there to tempt you as soon as you walk through the doorway, leaving a lasting impression you'll be sure to try and squeeze one in later. Apotek (as the name suggests) was the town's apothecary and cocktails are aptly named 'Painkillers' although the prices will probably cause you more pain than cure... but it is Iceland after all. 


A small unpresuming cafe come restaurant from the front you'll be surprised at the size once you walk in. Attached is a delicatessen selling specialty and Icelandic ingredients; plus a further dining room to the back to ensure they're not turning eager mouths away. These guys are passionate about their food sourcing the finest ingredients and producing dishes of love. The menu changes seasonally, although we dined on Reindeer this goes in and out of season and in turn on and off the menu. This isn’t a bad thing. 




In my mind this is the typical tourist cafe (or trap) with its quirky take on the local cafe/restaurant (combining both launderette and burger joint) and waiters who don't really give a damn. Go for the novelty not for the food. 




A cafe by and bar by night the Swiss Hot Chocolates are a perfect belly warmer, expect servings of soup and paninis for lunch and beer for dinner. With each coffee you can enjoy a free refill of filter enough to keep you whizzing at your laptop all afternoon. 




This is where Iceland meets Spain with traditional tapas dishes and Icelandic influenced plates. It is here you can find the famed rotten shark, puffin and whale and what's more ideal than serving them in small portions... you know 'just in case'. Bookings are advised as although it has a substantial dining room it's a popular place and is situated in prime position in downtown Reykjavik. Microbar is just a stumble away for a post meal tipple. 



Supermarket - Bonus

Why am I adding a supermarket to the list? Well if you're self catering I'd recommend you buy your food from Bonus. It's the cheapest supermarket around and you'll find them dotted around everywhere.


Black sandy beaches at Vik if we could change one thing it would be to stay here for a night


Drink (Bars)  


My favourite bar that we visited, it's small, unassuming and full of locals. Kaldi is Icelandic beer that is brewed in the North, it's cheaper to sup than other imported beers but when in Rome why would you drink anything else? 

Micro Bar 

If you've read any guides you've no doubt have already heard about this bar. There is a wide selection of beers which are available in thirds on beer flights; if you're not drunk by the time you leave Microbar you're doing it wrong. 


Hidden away with the Pizza Place With No Name you enter by side staircase and unassuming door, stay downstairs for pizza and head upstairs for beer. 


The bar with the underground sign and they're not quite sure why or how it happened. Expect live DJs jamming in the corner and guys. If you haven't finished your drink by closing time rather than chugging it down your neck they'll offer you a plastic pint glass to take it away and merrily drink it all the way home. 




I hope you enjoy your trip to Iceland and I hope that my guide has helped! 


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