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Does Iceland Live Up to the Hype?

Over the past few years, Iceland has had a meteoric rise in tourism. With its proximity to North America and Europe, lots of low fares, and the free stopovers offered by Iceland Air, it’s an accessible destination with major cool factor. It seems like everyone I know has either been to Iceland or wants to go. And once they visit, they can’t stop posting incredible photos of their trip or talking about what an amazing experience it was. Even Roland Neave, owner of Wells Gray Tours, lists it as his favourite international destination! But does Iceland live up to the hype?

This fall I surprised my husband with a trip to Iceland for his birthday. I was a bit concerned that Iceland would be a let-down after hearing all the gushing reviews and seeing all the gorgeous photos. But we loved every second of our trip and have now joined the people who sing its praises. We’re even planning our next trip! Here are a few reasons I think Iceland lives up to the hype and a few photos from our trip.

Breathtaking landscapes

The landscape in Iceland is very dramatic and unlike any other place I’ve ever been. It was even more impressive in person than in all the photos I had seen. Around every turn there was another breathtaking view of a black sand beach, a towering snow-capped mountain, or a rushing waterfall. I’ve never wanted to pull over and take a photo so many times in my life! Hollywood obviously agrees; The unusual landscape of Iceland has been the star of many films and TV series including Game of Thrones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and James Bond: Die Another Day.

The stunning kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, made famous by Game of Thrones, was definitely worth a stop.

Amazing light all year long

No matter what time of year you visit Iceland, the light will be surreal. We visited in November when the short winter days created the feeling of a golden sunrise blending right into an equally beautiful sunset. But if you visit in the summer, you’ll experience the magic of the midnight sun with almost 24 hours of daylight, so there’s really no wrong time to visit. These otherworldly lighting conditions make Iceland a photographer’s dream regardless of the season.

Even on our mid-day hike, the winter light was like a golden sunset.

Connection to ancient traditions

Settled by the Vikings from Scandinavia and the Celts from the British Isles, Iceland has a fascinating history that has been extremely well preserved. Each place you visit has an ancient story about the land and the people who inhabited it. It feels like things haven’t changed that much over hundreds of years, with many Icelanders still living off the land in the remote landscape and closely protecting their traditions. The Icelandic horses dotting every hillside are direct descendants of the horses brought over by the Vikings, protected by law from outside influence since 982AD.

This charming black church is a reconstruction of the original built in this spot in 1703. A nearby “witch store” run by two real Icelandic witches specializes in traditional Icelandic herbs, spells, and magic trinkets.

Geothermal hot springs galore

Icelanders know there is nothing better at the end of a long day than soaking in a hot spring, and they’ve made it an integral part of their culture. There are swimming pools (most of them naturally heated with geothermal energy) in almost every town in Iceland. Ranging from rustic hot springs in the middle of nowhere to the uber-chic Blue Lagoon, there’s a hot spring for everyone! We visited several on our trip and we loved them all.

The Blue Lagoon was magical in the mid-morning light
The more rustic Secret Lagoon was another one of our favourite spots

Delicious food

With the recent surge in tourism, the culinary scene in Iceland has taken off. We sampled lots of delicious options ranging from local lamb and fresh seafood to rye bread, skyr, and fresh cheeses. Even the hotdogs in Iceland were seriously delicious. Made with local free-range lamb and dressed with raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and a creamy remoulade (a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs) it was the best hotdog I’ve ever tasted. The craft beer scene has arrived in Iceland in a big way and is making up for lost time after beer was legalized in 1989, so you’ll find some delicious local brews in restaurants and pubs. Iceland is also a black licorice lover’s dream and you’ll find it in a variety of forms including candy, chocolate bars, ice cream, and alcoholic beverages.

One of the best things we tasted was this elegant smoked fish starter at Hotel Budir
Even Iceland Air showcases local delicacies. The Jola Gull Christmas beer was very festive and the licorice-filled Drammur chocolate bar was surprisingly delicious.

Friendly people

All the Icelanders we encountered on our trip were friendly and helpful. Staff at hotels, car rental agencies, and restaurants were professional and spoke perfect English. Even the manager of one visitor information centre who was meant to be closing up in the middle of a hurricane force storm took time to chat amiably with us about the local area and travel conditions.

This friendly local magically appeared on one of our hikes and joined us for the return trip!

Safe, clean, and efficient

Iceland is consistently ranked as the safest country in the world by a variety of indexes. Violent crime is almost non-existent, and the police don’t even carry guns. We felt very safe driving ourselves around the countryside and exploring Reykjavik late at night. It’s also spotlessly clean and things seem to run very efficiently everywhere you go.

Were there any downsides?

No destination is perfect and Iceland has struggled to keep up with the massive surge in tourism. It can get busy in Reykjavik and at some of the major tourist attractions on the nearby Golden Circle, but if you venture further afield you’ll find yourself almost alone. We spent a few days on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and walked the most beautiful deserted beaches for hours without seeing a single soul. The other issue is the high cost of everything in Iceland. Because of its location, many products have to be imported and then add the sales tax which ranges from 11-24%. On average the cost of living is almost 50% higher than Canada, so you should expect food, accommodation, gas, and everything else to cost more.

Experience Iceland with Wells Gray Tours

We are thrilled to be able to share this fascinating country with you in 2021. Join us on our newly released tour, Natural Wonders of Iceland this June. We’ll travel the Ring Road around the the entire country, taking in all the major attractions and many secret gems. Soak in the famous Blue Lagoon hot spring, walk on the black sand beaches, admire the power of Europe’s largest waterfall, sail among huge floating icebergs in a glacial lagoon, and see the adorable puffins. Find out why everyone is crazy for Iceland!

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Writing and photographs by Pam Jensen