I definitely do like to seek out the obscure, lesser known gems in the world. In part I think that has to do with my dislike of crowds; if I’m surrounded by too many people I get anxious and fidgety and distracted by all the human activity, and I have to leave. I think that happened at Gullfoss, for example. There were hordes of people everywhere, and I didn’t stay long. Looking back, I wish I’d stayed longer. As it turned out, I grossly overestimated how much I could get done in that one day, and couldn’t have stayed much longer anyway, but it’s a beautiful site.
There’s also the fact that I feel like the more popular sites (in any country) don’t necessarily give me what I want out of a country. There’s a section in my book where I discuss what you get out of a bus tour vs. what you get by venturing out on your own, and it has to do with seeing, as I put it, the “best of” a country vs. seeing the soul of a country. I’m interested in getting to a country’s soul, its heartbeat. Certainly you can’t fully do that on one visit anywhere, but you get closer to it by exploring farther afield, letting yourself be surprised and delighted by the unexpected.
So. How did I decide what I wanted to see, then? Good question. I talked to people, I read blogs, I read books, I searched on “Iceland trips” to see what came up. I searched through images of Iceland, and when I found pictures that intrigued me, I investigated further to learn more about where they were taken. I found Kirkjugólf (“church floor” stones) that way, for example, as well as Grenjaðarstaður (turf houses). Anytime I had a difficulty finding information about a place, or locating it on the map, I knew that might be a place I wanted to go!
As I learned more about Iceland, my route started to take a more definite shape. Once I decided where I was going to stay overnight, and for how many nights, I then was able to dig in deeper. As I said, I definitely was trying to find some obscure places to go, so I did a lot of reading and research.
That said, nothing I explored was too far off the beaten track. I had a 2WD car and therefore wasn’t allowed to truly take the road less travelled. Everything I visited was quite accessible, at least in summer!
Did you have any advice from anyone about your trip, and did you use a travel agent?
I didn’t work with a travel agent, but I did chat with one who is also a friend and had been to Iceland recently. That was early enough in my planning that all the Icelandic place names she gave me still sounded completely foreign, and I had to ask her to spell everything out! I talked to a couple other people who had visited Iceland, but most of them stayed around Reykjavík, so for places further afield I had to do the research myself. I read a lot online!
As you found, the roads in Iceland are sometimes gravel, or around mountain passes and other challenging terrain. In hindsight, would you have chosen a 4×4 rather than a “standard” car?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure I know the answer. I’ve read that in many cases people who get 4x4s end up with a false sense of security and get themselves stuck, and have to be rescued. I suppose that has more to do with the driver than the car, though. I’d absolutely love to go in to Landmannalaugar, and the roads to get there require 4x4s. Same with some areas near the Diamond Circle up north (Hljóðaklettar, Jökulsárgljúfur, Gloppuhellir cave, and more) – I wanted to go in but wasn’t allowed with my car. However, having driven the roads into and out of Dettifoss (NOT the new and nicely paved road, but the 864!), on which 2WD are allowed, as well as the gravel roads out in the west, Hwy 59 for example, I am a little scared of what the “F” roads (4WD-only roads) must be like! I can only imagine those roads must be awful. Especially if I were going solo again, I would be scared of puncturing a tire and being lost in the middle of nowhere hoping for someone to come along before I starved. After I returned from my trip, I learned of some day tours that I think could get me where I wanted to go – with someone else driving. There are ways. Still, I wouldn’t rule out a 4×4. There are places I’d like to see.
Pam’s trusty car
Another alternative, perhaps preferable, would be for the Icelandic government to work on improving roads. Tourism is Iceland’s second largest industry, but the infrastructure is challenged. I spent a lot of time grumbling in my mind about the Icelandic tourism board, how they’re promoting Iceland but not mentioning that when you get there, the infrastructure (particularly roads and rest stops) is lacking. Then it finally occurred to me that the tourism people are just doing what they’re supposed to do – promote the country. If Iceland wants tourism to be a viable industry, then the government needs to step up and support that by providing accessible roads and stopping points. It’s a tricky discussion, because Iceland’s ecosystem is fragile, and further, no one wants to ruin the peace and beauty – the embodiment of Iceland – with swarms of people. Still, I think there’s room for some improvement. I talk about this a little bit in the book, but I know I’m no expert in any of those fields. It’s a challenge, for sure.
I liked that you always included a section on what you would do differently for each day of your trip. Did you have in mind a target audience of other first-timers to Iceland?
Not just first-timers to Iceland, but anyone who wants to travel around Iceland. I’m sure there are many people who aren’t first-timers, but nonetheless haven’t gone to the east coast or up north. They could get something out of my book, too, I hope.
Of all the countries I’ve researched for travel purposes, I’d say Iceland was the most difficult to research so far. (By no means have I travelled extensively, yet. I’m sure there are many other countries on which information would be hard to come by.) I ran into roadblocks frequently in my research. I’d be trying to get information about a place and only could find it through obscure references. There was one place – what was it?? I think it was Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon – I saw pictures of it and it looked spectacular, but for the life of me I couldn’t get Google’s online map to acknowledge that it even existed in the world. I finally found it mentioned on a website, complete with directions on how to get there.(4×4-only road, so I didn’t get there!) By including whatever I could about the places I found, I at least have given people a starting point to know that these places exist. I thought about putting all that together in a chapter at the end, but decided that including it with each day’s information gave more context about where in Iceland a person could find these places.
Dyrholaey, with Reynisfjara in the background
Really, though, my thought process wasn’t that in-depth when I was including those sections at the end of each chapter. I was just relating my own experience, and trying to do it with honesty. That means including my regrets (I wish I’d done this, I wish I’d known about this, this looked great but I didn’t go there) as well as my triumphs. Travel isn’t all about, “I did this amazing thing and my whole trip was amazing.” That’s sugar-coated. Real travel has hits and misses. When I write about travel I always want to be honest and to give realistic expectations. I think too much of travel writing these days is about serving the sponsor – catering to the tourist board, the magazine, the country, in the hopes of getting free trips and kick-backs – and not enough about serving the traveller. I want to earn people’s trust, and being honest is the only way to do that. I want people to read my books and know I’m not going to say something was fantastic when it wasn’t. I want people to know what I would have done differently, so they can make a choice about following in my footsteps – or forging ahead where I didn’t go, and reporting back to let me know if it was worth it! I would love to hear from people who do the things I wish I’d done! And for sure, when I return to Iceland I’ll use my own book to plan the trip.
What were some of your favourite and least favourite things about Iceland?
Least favorite is easy, because there’s really not a lot not to love about Iceland. As already mentioned, the infrastructure was probably my least favorite. The roads, and the lack of shoulders on the side of the roads or places to pull out for a few minutes. The lack of rest stops, toilets, along the road.
Most favorite – so many things! In terms of the landscape, I could name a dozen favorites easily. Jökulsárlón was breathtaking – I literally gasped out loud the first time I saw it. All of Snæfellsnes was spectacular, and I could see myself settling down for a long stay, with Hellnar as a base. (From there I could visit the Westfjords, which I did not get to, unfortunately!) I was drawn to the northwest (including but not limited to Skagaströnd) and would love to go back and explore more. And the waterfalls! The ones I was looking for were fantastic, but the ones I loved best were the ones I came across unexpectedly. Gorgeous, isolated, secret, peaceful, powerful waterfalls, everywhere, just everywhere. I could stare at waterfalls for hours.
And of course, the people. I had the chance to talk with a lot of people, and they were all so friendly and interesting. I spent an hour or two talking with a gentleman I call “Ice Cream Ragnar” (because (1) he took me on a “traditional Icelandic ice cream car ride” and (2) I can never remember how to spell or pronounce his last name), and he was so fantastic to chat with! I’m more or less an introvert, but people’s stories and views of the world fascinate me enough that I love to connect and ask questions. It’s easier when it’s a scheduled interview, but I still managed to get up the courage to talk to a few strangers along the way, too. All those conversations were definitely among my favourite parts of my trip.
Any advice for other first-time visitors?
Definitely visit, and definitely try to get out from Reykjavík to see more of the country. Don’t try to do the Ring Road in two weeks like I did! That doesn’t give you enough time to really explore an area. The weather is pretty fickle, so allowing yourself a few days in an area gives you a better chance of having a good day while you’re there in which to see it at its best.
After I got back, I was pondering the challenges of tourism in Iceland. I got to thinking that specialized trips, tours targeted to people’s interests, would be a good idea. I researched and found that there are tons available. If a person can afford it, I’d recommend looking into one of those. That way you can engage more deeply and meaningfully with people and places and activities that are of interest to you. Alternatively, I’d recommend just staying in one area for a while and giving yourself the time and opportunity to explore and discover. The south, the northwest, Snæfellsnes, anywhere; there’s plenty to discover wherever you go. I don’t recommend trying to see too much in too short of a time. I drove more than 1600 miles in nine days, and was absolutely exhausted at the end of my trip! On the other hand, now I know what I’d like to do next time.
Why did you want to spend time doing interviews rather than more travelling?
My favourite memories of every trip I’ve ever taken have been of the times I connected with the people who lived there. People I met on buses or trains, people I talked to in bars or from whom I asked directions. The landscape creates the beauty of a place, but the people bring it to life. So this time, travelling with a book in mind, I reached out in advance to several people and arranged for some interviews. I was lucky enough to chat with Jón Gnarr (mayor of Reykjavík), Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson (mayor of Akureyri), authors Ragnar Jonasson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and of course “Ice Cream Ragnar,” Ragnar Thorvardarson, who used to work with the Reykjavík Chamber of Commerce. I also had informal chats with other people around the country – a couple people at a Visitor Centre, a young woman who worked at a café, even the gentleman who aided me in getting my rental car. Chatting with them all gave me such great insight into the people and minds and ways of Iceland, that I could not have possibly gotten just by looking at magnificent glaciers. Taking the time to talk with people enriches my travels exponentially.
Where are you off to next?
I can’t say definitively, because just when I think I’ve decided for sure, something will come along to change my mind. For now, though, I think the next destination is Croatia. Croatia has been on my mind for a while now. I think that may be it. That won’t be for a while yet, though – I have to rebuild the bank resources – but in the meantime I’m contemplating some local (to me) trips to write about, for shorter books (the length, approximately, of the Ireland and Switzerland books in the Pam on the Map series). Some possibilities are Vancouver/Victoria B.C., a Seattle book, the Olympic Peninsula. The world is big; the possibilities are endless!