It started out innocently. After sweltering through an incredibly warm vacation on the west coast of France in August, I had specific instructions for planning spring break: someplace where it wouldn't be hot. Surfing the web, I found something that would fit the specification by definition: Iceland. A package called Midweek Madness would allow us to leave Minneapolis late Monday, arrive in Iceland early Tuesday morning and return home Thursday afternoon for under $400 per person, including hotel and breakfasts. Midweek madness indeed.
Iceland has a unique Scandinavian culture and history, but it is easy for a North American to operate without suffering any culture shock. The people are friendly and well-educated. The social glue of the place is something akin to a large family -- 95 percent of the people are even nominally the same religion (which is Lutheran, by the way). In fact, the population of Iceland is so homogenous that it provides an attractive test group for various studies where genetic variables are best minimized. Adding to this 'family' feeling is that essentially everyone in Iceland is on a first-name basis. The 'last names' of native Icelanders are formed by adding 'son' to the father's first name for male children and 'dottir' to the name of a female child, for example: Leif Pettursson or Gretchen Pettersdottir. In this system of 'patronymics' women do not change their names if they marry. (Have you ever seen a telephone directory arranged by first name?).
An illustration of the "family-like" culture? Well, they do have a prison in Iceland for the occasional incorrible individual to contemplate his deeds and a couple of years ago, they noted that several individuals had escaped. Suffice it to say that this prison is not exactly Alcatraz and making a break for it is not exactly the same as in other locations. If you escape in Iceland, the chances are very good that you will soon run into someone you know. In evaluating this escape problem, the wise Icelanders came up with a solution which was implemented and subsequently cut down on the escapes dramatically. They hired a new cook for the prison.
Students generally become fluent in at least two languages in addition to their native Icelandic, the ancient Norse tongue which they frequently use between each other. It's a culture with some interesting history, heroes, folklore and superstitions -- yet it is, above all, a modern, Western society with a higher percentage of internet and cell phone penetration than the U.S. Although the seafood industry remains a dominant part of the economy, the employment situation is consistently far better than other European countries.
Iceland is a comparatively young land mass and it is the most geotherally active place on earth. Earthquakes, hot springs and the occasional volcanic eruption are all part of the environment in the place that sometimes calls itself 'The Top of the World.' The landscape is sometimes bleak, but it can be breathtakingly beautiful as well. Trees are scrubby in the few places they're found and vast lava fields seem to stretch endlessly. Much of the interior is uninhabitable and inaccessible, but if you enjoy the prospect of a natural hot spring spa, a fabulous display of the Northern Lights and a look at more stars than many city dwellers ever thought were in the sky, then a trip to Iceland will be an adventure you will cherish.
The capital city of Reykjavik and its immediate vicinity are home to the majority of Iceland's populution, which totals around a quarter million people. On the shortest day of the year, the sun rises around 11 a.m. and is setting by mid-afernoon. But the days lengthen rapidly; we had 14 hours of daylight by late March, with hours-long twilight periods prior to sunrise and sunset tacked on as a bonus.
The air is incredibly clean, not only because of the small population, but also because the great majority of the buildings are warmed with geothermally heated water from the earth, eliminating the need to burn heating fuels. This resource is piped around Reykjavik and it is truly a remarkable asset for homeowners and businesses alike. (You can see some ingeniously designed water storage tanks for this purpose on a hilltop across from the Hotel Loftleider. They form the exterior of a shopping center that also houses the Pearl Restaurant). Geothermal energy also generates the electricity. A half-dozen outdoor swimming pools are open to the public year-around and there are many other places where Icelanders enjoy a dip in the mineral-rich, warm water. (Pick up a guide in town and the pools will be clearly marked).
Despite being within 300 miles of the Arctic Circle and having some propensity for high winds and rain, Reykjavik's climate is not really all that extreme. To compare it to the weather in the north central U.S., add around 20 degrees of warmth to our lowest average winter temperatures and then deduct about the same from the warmest average summer temperatures. a typical winter day in Reykjavik would see the high temperature hover near or above the freezing mark in the mid-30s, with the night time lows only a few degrees colder. Mid-summer might find the mercury struggling into the low 60s. Even though little snow accumulates in Reykjavik during the course of the winter, the clicking of studded tires through the shoulder months is a constant reminder that weather conditions can change rapidly here.
Reykjavik is filled with wonderful restaurants and interesting shops. Dining can certainly be pricey, but service standards and quality levels are high, as well. Seafood and mountain sheep are two excellent choices. As for ethnic specialties, be very sure you understand what you are ordering. (For example, one dish that the locals are known to enjoy is putrified shark meat...) Breakfast at your hotel is likely to be a little different than many people are accustomed to as well, with many meat and cheese specialties. A morning Icelandic dish to certainly try is skoor, which is something on the order of yogurt.
Iceland works hard to develop its tourism and you will easily find many guides, maps and resources available to you around Reykjavik and the hotels. Despite that, tourism does not dominate the local scene the way it does in some popular destinations. Thousands of people visit Iceland each year -- but not millions.
For those whose idea of a good time is a night on the town, you will find plenty of company until all hours on a Saturday night in downtown Rekjavik. Icelanders are known for their hard work and hard partying -- perhaps an aspect of their isolated, island life but an undeniable part of the culture. Like many places in Europe, people tend to dress up a bit more for an evening of dining or visiting clubs. Don't miss the opportunity to meet the wonderful people of Iceland -- but if you care for something a little less rigorous, you will find many people in the coffee shops as well.