There is something to be said about Iceland that some of the best places to visit are the gas stations.
Anyone driving for any length of time will probably end up eating at one and when you’re driving for several hours with nothing else to stop at, they really become a welcome haven for both tourists and natives.
The Iceland Road Atlas helpfully indicates where all the gas stations are located. This is only semi-helpful in reality because a station could be an all-singing, all-dancing beauty with an ice cream bar, pizza, hot dogs, burgers, garden implements, knitting materials, full grocery store, etc. This is because in some places the gas station is really the only store for a very long way and so has expanded to sell just about anything.
OR, they can be a tragic pump with nothing else by the side of the road. I’ll let you guess which type I prefer.
Anyhow, the decision of where and what to eat through the day is quite often dictated by where these stations are and what each one has on the menu, so getting to know them is pretty crucial. This probably sounds bizarre, but it is very rare to find a stand-alone restaurant on the Ring Road in Iceland and if you do it’s probably expensive. I wish I had marked the atlas so as not to have to go through the anticipation of “does this one have food or not” ever again. There are some unexpectedly good finds (really good pizza and reindeer burgers if you’re feeling adventurous at Shell in Egilsstaðir) and disappointments.(anything anywhere near the “Golden Circle” area sells overpriced crap)
We actually went without food one night when the only station near us was closed for a private function, and there was nowhere else within an hour’s drive, and having spent the day in the car we couldn’t be bothered to go that far. This was a low point – it was tempting to crash the private function. Or beg for a takeaway pizza.
Generally, although few and far between, Shell seems to have the best food and are worth holding out for. But N1 often had the biggest and most spectacular “extras” shop.
When I first discovered the hilarious TV series Næturvaktin, I was really excited that it was set in a gas station. I imagined it to be one of the big countryside ones which would have all kinds of potential for mayhem (you know, lost tourists, bumbling farmers wondering when their fertiliser was going to arrive, that kind of thing) and was surprised that it was set in a Shell on the main street of Reykjavík. Trust me, it is still hilarious, but I think they missed a trick. Just sit in one of the more remote ones for a while and you will see every facet of life unfold in front of you.
On a practical note, here is some Icelandic gas station etiquette that isn’t particularly obvious as a tourist:
Bigger stations have washing equipment to get the mud/lava/bugs off your car. If you are using the equipment on the left side of the wall you essentially have right of way over the person on the right side of the wall. I’m not sure why this – feel free to comment and enlighten me if you know!
Most stations are self-service (you pay at the pump with a credit card or pre-paid station card, hence why some stations can be unmanned). BUT, beware, some also have full-service pumps, where you will pay extra because someone is going to come out and pump it for you.
Do other remote places in the world have gas stations as their central hub, or is this uniquely Icelandic? Have you bought anything weird at one? Share your funny/horror stories…