Accessible Iceland, part two

This is part two of a series on Accessible Iceland. You can read part one of my interview with Jón Gunnar Benjamínsson, the CEO of Iceland Unlimited, here.

Further to the 2009 ATV tour you mentioned previously (video here), do you have any more big adventures planned that you can tell us about?

Coincidentally I and my friend were just thinking about revisiting the highlands in the summer of 2014 and do another ATV tour. This time starting in Reykjavík on the west side of the island and ending up in Egilsstaðir in the east. This would be a slightly longer tour then in the one we did in 2009 but hopefully just as enjoyable and adventurous as the previous one. I love the highlands of Iceland. This plateau of burned lava fields, towering mountains, black sand deserts and shiny white glaciers is mesmerising and constantly dragging me towards it, even though I don’t have the opportunity to go there as often as I would like.

Do you hope to inspire other people in a similar position by showing them that it’s still possible to have these great adventures?

Yes, that would be a very satisfying feeling for me. I am in the unusual position to have a younger brother that has also suffered spinal cord injury in an accident and has been using a wheelchair for 11 years. He inspired me as he never gave up and overcame extreme difficulties through his ordeal. My family and friends were also my inspiration. I felt that I owe it to those people to get through my difficulties. I still get phone calls when the rehabilitation unit receives recently injured people, asking me to come and talk to them and share my experience. If I can inspire anyone with what I’ve done during those 6 years since my accident, I’m happy to do it but it has to be done in good time and not too soon. You have to get some time to grieve for the loss of your mobility in cases of spinal cord injuries. When you’ve gone through those emotions, it’s time to move on and adapt to your new situation and that’s when you’re ready to receive encouragement from your peers.

What advice would you give someone who may have just had a life-changing accident as you did, and is adapting to their new life in a wheelchair?

Take some time to grieve but don’t dwell on it. You will find out who your acquaintances are and who your real friends are. Grow the latter friendships as the former will slowly disappear. Take care of your body and eat healthy. Whatever you do, don’t smoke! If you do, stop it. Everything will be ok. You just have to believe it yourself.

How accessible is Reykjavík for someone in a wheelchair?

It could be better and it could be worse. I and my brother who’s also in a wheelchair have been fighting for improved accessibility to both official and private establishments here in Reykjavik and Akureyri (the largest town outside the greater Reykjavík area) for a few years now. We have thankfully been successful in our battle but these things move very slowly so this is an ongoing battle and something that will take a long time. Iceland Unlimited is now the first local travel agency that offers accessible travel in Iceland and something we will put more focus on in the coming months.

How do you feel accessibility compares in other countries you have visited outside Iceland?

The most accessible country that I’ve visited is USA and that’s due to the ADA act or so I’m told. I’ve travelled quite a lot in Europe since I started to use a wheelchair and I found that accessibility in Spain was of much higher standard than what I expected. I was pleasantly surprised. The Nordic countries were of similar standard as I’m used to here in Iceland

Do you think the growing tourist numbers put pressure on not only tourist sites but restaurants and hotels to improve accessibility in Iceland?

Yes, absolutely. That and the fact that there is now a company that caters to disabled travellers is also encouraging hotels/guesthouses to do better when it comes to accessibility in their facilities. We always inspect new hotels/restaurants or other tourist facilities with regard to the accessibility and send them our “verdict” or comments afterwards. If there is something that needs improvement we are not shy to tell them so. But we also compliment the owners when things are done the right way. I feel it is very important not just to complain about the negative but also give praise about the positive.

Have there been any particular sites where you have noticed a lack of facilities?

Good question. Yes, absolutely and it‘s kind of a disgrace for the authorities that in Snæfellsjökull National Park, there are absolutely no accessible facilities for disabled travelers. This should not be allowed to remain unchanged, year after year in one of our most spectacular National Parks. The authorities are charging a special 100 ISK per each sold hotel/guesthouse bed per night and this tax was supposed to be used in the maintainance and build up of facilities in our national parks. This seems to have failed to a certain degree but hopefully it will change in the coming months.

Finally, what do you like to do outside of work?

I’m an avid fly angler. I love to fly fish and I do it as often as I possibly can. Again, my way out there is my ATV. I also enjoy hunting for geese and reindeer but fishing is my main hobby. I really enjoy travelling abroad and fortunately my fiancée shares that with me. Last year we travelled as far as Hawai’i where we spent two weeks, swimming with sea turtles, jet-skiing, taking helicopter tours and driving around in the jungles and coffee fields of Maui and Kauai. It was fantastic. I also really enjoy cooking for my friends and family, especially if it’s something I have hunted or fished myself.

This has been a very enlightening topic for me. Unless you have a disability or are travelling with a disabled person, it is all too easy not to think about these kinds of issues. As always I welcome your feedback and any thoughts you may have on accessibility in places you have visited in Iceland.

Accessible Iceland, part one

When I was on holiday in Iceland in 2006, one of our tour guides was Jón Gunnar Benjamínsson. His life changed forever in 2007 when he was involved in a car accident  that left him with a spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the waist down. Not one to feel sorry for himself, he has since set up his own travel agency and is now the CEO of Iceland Unlimited. They have received great reviews for their tours. Although they cater for all types of tourist, they have a particular interest in accessible travel and tours in Iceland. I recently interviewed Jón Gunnar about his own story which I find quite inspirational, and about some of the issues and realities for disabled travellers in Iceland.

You were working as a tour guide before your accident in 2007. Did having a goal of returning to guiding help you to get through your rehabilitation?

Good question. I think it took me a full year to realize that I would actually be able to get back on track in life and become useful to society again. At first when you’re lying in your hospital bed, not even able to sit upright, you don’t think about returning to work again, you just think about surviving and getting through this storm. When the fog lifted and I started eying a return to “normal” life I decided to go to France and stay at a training facility for a full two months. That was my first step back to independence, so to speak. I was away from my family and friends and had to rely on myself for everything from cooking, washing my clothing and taking care of myself. That was a good and necessary experience. I think it was there that the first thoughts of starting my own company evolved although I never considered going back to guiding a real option due to my disadvantage. This was in late 2008, one year and two months from my accident.

You crossed the interior of Iceland by ATV to help raise awareness of the inaccessibility of some of the mountain huts, and in fact some changes were made as a direct result of your journey. Can you tell us more about this trip and did it play any part in helping you decide to set up your own travel company?

In the spring of 2009 I was sitting at a café in downtown Reykjavík and browsing the internet when I saw an ad from 66° North outdoor clothing manufacturer. They were advertising grants for “Good Deeds”, grants to help people do some good in society and where their brand would become useful. I decided to apply for this grant and my idea was to cross the highlands of Iceland on my ATV (All-Terrain-Vehicle) and on the way I would research how accessible highland facilities for tourists were for disabled travellers. After a month I got the news that my project was chosen as the winner. First price was part monetary and part clothing and outdoor equipment sponsorship from 66° North. I gathered 3 good friends to help me do this project. I and another friend were riding ATVs and two friends came on a follow up 4×4 vehicle behind us with fuel and other supplies.(You can review a video from this tour by clicking here) The trip was a great success and got good exposure in the press.

In the weeks that followed, I was able to get another grant from the official Iceland Tourist Board to fix accessibility in three main highland facilities that are open for tourists in the summertime. That made the project worthwhile and this is something I’m very proud of. Right after this project was over, I started to work on Iceland Unlimited. I was full of confidence after this highland trip and felt that I was ready to make my move towards setting up my own business. I got into a facility that supports start-up companies to take their first steps. It was a very creative and energetic environment to be in and good to show up there every morning and keep the mind occupied.

Does it take more time for you to organise holidays for customers who require special access?

No, not any more. Now we’ve done this so many times and we’ve designed the itineraries carefully so that they are ideal for disabled travellers. We also know which of our partners to contact right from the start and we have our own hand controls for the rental cars so everything is ready.

Is there a growth in demand for travel to Iceland from disabled customers?

Yes, we receive more and more requests from disabled travellers every year. We want to make this service more visible on our site and push it on the social media to get the word out there that accessible tours are something we are offering. I’m confident that this will play a much bigger part in my business in the years to come and Iceland Unlimited is ready for it.

What do you like about working in tourism, and what are the challenges?

Right from the start I liked working in the tourism industry. Firstly, I love my country very much. This unbelievably beautiful yet rugged and fragile nature that surrounds us lucky enough to live here has defined the person that I am today. I’ve been spending time in the outdoors since I was a little boy, fishing and hunting, hiking and crossing the highlands and lately, travelling wherever the road takes me on my trusty Polaris ATV. Introducing Iceland and all it has to offer to my guests is something I take pride in and enjoy very much. Secondly, I like to believe that I’m a people’s person. I like meeting new and interesting people and that is indeed the case in this business.

Do you have any goals for your business over the next few years?

My goal from the start was to provide personal and exceptionally good service to my customers so that after their tour, they would leave Iceland with nothing but fond memories of Iceland and Iceland Unlimited. Slowly, word started to spread online that my tours were of good value and quality and I received more and more requests. Our growth has been steady over the years but not too fast for us to cope with it and so we have always been able to stay true to that initial goal of Iceland Unlimited Travel Service.

You can read part two of this interview here.

Which type of Iceland tourist are you?

Iceland is a pretty small and niche market for visitors, so you might think that the tourists that visit are all very similar. If you look closer, you will see that we come in many different forms…

The hipster. Went one year for Iceland Airwaves, and has returned every year ever since. Primary interest is Icelandic music. Other identifying characteristics are glasses and artfully messy hair.

The excited-first-timer. Has extensively researched their first trip, viewing thousands of photos of the same waterfalls. Looking forward to seeing the Northern Lights, elves, whales, and meeting Björk all in one trip.

The scared-first-timer. Has done no research and is now panicking about their two week road trip in February. Worrying about the weather, the car, volcanoes, the food and the prices. Most likely to contact Iceland bloggers in desperation.

The never-again. Usually only in Iceland to accompany a friend/partner who was passionate about visiting. Spends trip dying of boredom in the car, appearing windblown in photos and wondering where all the “things to do” are. Counting the days until they can go home.

The cruise ship day tripper. Comes for a few hours and spends a lot of money. Easily herded and just happy to be off the boat. Could this be the perfect tourist?

The cheapskate. Has come to Iceland determined not to spend any more money. Stubbornly existing on crackers and living in basic campsites or the side of the road. Particularly objects to high prices in the countryside. In extreme cases can also be found on tour buses that have come from the ferry packed with imported food and alcohol.

The foolhardy. Put themselves in easily avoidable dangerous situations. Think that their superior survival skills can easily handle Icelandic nature. Then require volunteer rescue due to storms, no sense of direction, and/or lack of common sense.

The addict. Visits Iceland over and over again because they haven’t found anywhere else they like as much. They are doomed to keep circling the Ring Road eating hot dogs for the rest of their lives. Goes to Iceland for the shopping instead of the normal way around, therefore also has no money.

The majority. Visits a combination of Reykjavík, the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. Goes home raving about how unspoiled and quiet these places are.

I confess, I have fit into one or two of these stereotypes myself. I wanted to make this a list of 10 rather than 9, but just couldn’t think of one more.  Am I missing any stereotypes that are unique to Iceland tourists? Which one is most like you?

10 free things to do in Reykjavík

Iceland is expensive. I won’t kid you, even if you take budget flights and camp out, it’s hard not to spend more money than you want to. But even in the big city of Reykjavík, there is quite a lot you can do for free! It was surprisingly easy to think of 10 good things to do.

All of the  activities below are outdoors except for the last three, and some involve walking up to 30 minutes from “downtown” (a good way to get away from the lazier tourists!).

I’ve included links to other pages where I’ve written about some of these in more detail.

1. Watch/feed the birds at Tjörnin – one of the most popular places for tourists to go is “the pond”, it’s centrally located and full of interesting birds at any time of year.

2. Ásmundur Sveinsson outdoor sculptures – arranged outside a museum of his other works, these weirdly modern and smooth sculptures date from the 1930’s.

3. Walk around the harbour – some interesting sights lie around the main harbour area – the large exhibition hall Harpa, all kinds of boats, the flea market and some really scenic views across the bay.

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4. Viewing deck at Perlan – there is a viewing platform here that gives you a panoramic view from high above the city.

Maybe not on rainy days, though

Maybe not on rainy days, though

5. Hólavallagarður – historic cemetery with interesting graves, also unusual in Iceland for having many trees.

6. Nautholsvík – how would you live to visit a beach with golden sands, geothermically heated water and hot tubs? Such a paradise exists in Reykjavík, although small and man-made it’s worth a visit!

7. Solfar sculpture – this must be one of the most photographed bits of Reykjavík, and can normally be found with tourists draped over it in interesting formations!

8. National Museum of Iceland – this is only free on Wednesdays, and only during the quieter months of the year, so it’s worth double checking this before you go.

9. Harpa – love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. There are guided tours of the building, but you can also walk around quite a lot of the inside for free. The many windows and interesting light make it popular with photographers.

10. Hallgrímskirkja – you have to pay to go up to the viewing platform of the-church-at-the-top-of-the-hill, but can walk around the church itself for free. Someone was playing the huge pipe organ last time I did this, which was quite amazing to hear.

And of course, people watching and window shopping are always free and can also be fun ways to pass the time in Reykjavík.

Have you done any/all of the above? What great things have I missed off this list?