Iceland

Iceland has broken my heart. This is the world’s most civilized country, with the world’s cleanest air. It is a living geology lesson and its history is alive and vivid. But now it’s spoiled it all by resuming whaling. I fear I’ll never go back.

I first learned about Iceland as a schoolboy from a penfriend in the north of the country. We visited twice a couple of years ago, once just to Reykjavik and once combining there with Akureyri in the north, and were making our plans for our next visits when the bombshell about whaling dropped.

We hope very much that one day we’ll be returning – it’s a special place.

Click for Reykjavik, Iceland Forecast

What’s good

Clean air
You step off the aircraft onto the tarmac and I swear the air there in the middle of Keflavik International Airport is cleaner than in the countryside near London. It’s so clean you can almost taste it – and yet one person we spoke to in Reykjavik apologised for the “poor air quailty” compared with his home town on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
Fantastic landscape
Geologically, Iceland’s still very new. This means the rough edges and the bright sulphurous colours haven’t yet been knocked off the countryside. If you don’t mind the prospect of being blown to Kingdom Come you can visit some of the world’s most spectacular sites.
Midnight sun
You can map-read and sight-see quite happily in the middle of the night in June should you wish to. It does terrible things to your sleep patterns and pushes up the suicide rate, but it’s quite an experience for all that.
Geothermically-heated open air swimming pools
Even the smallest settlements have their own swimming pools, and many are outdoors. It’s a very strange, but very pleasurable, feeling to find yourself bathing outdoors in steaming-hot water while surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

What’s not

Whaling
Iceland resumed whaling in 2003, supposedly for ‘scientific reasons’. However, as this dossier by the International Fund for Animal Welfare makes clear, the science doesn’t add up: “Genuine scientific research is undertaken to address particular questions. The questions being asked determine what data need to be collected. In the case of scientific whaling, the process starts with the desire to catch whales. A scientific justification for doing so is then thought up.”
High food / drink prices
So much is imported that you need to take out a second mortgage to eat out regularly, especially if you want to go within sniffing distance of the winelist. Local specialities include lamb and seafood, but don’t expect them to be any cheaper for being home-produced.
Whaling
Opposition to the resumption of whaling has been widespread, ranging from strong diplomatic protests by other nations, to the RSPCA suggesting a boycott of Icelandic cod. One of the main weapons has been the threat to the tourist industry, especially whale watching. You can find suggestions on how to protest at this campaign page compiled by my partner here.
Dark in winter
The flip-side of the midnight sun in summer is the midday darkness in winter. Insularity and depression are the consequences…
Did we mention whaling already?
For us, whaling has made it impossible to visit Iceland (or Norway or Japan). It’s an upsetting thing, but there you go. No-one in Iceland gives a hoot if I don’t agree with whaling, it’s their country not mine, and if I don’t like it, I should stay at home. Yes, fine, and that’s what I’ll be doing. But that’s every bit as hurtful as being let down by a good friend. And I feel very, very disappointed.

Where to eat

Galileo, Reykjavik
The single best meal I recall eating anywhere is the spaghetti allo scoglio here. It’s a house speciality, and rightly so.
La Vita é Bella, Akureyri
Italian restaurants, like Indian and Chinese, spread across the world with depressing inevitability. But they’re not all anonymously bland, and this one’s a gem – warm Mediterranean decor contrasting with the cold of northern Iceland outside.

Where to stay

Hotel Leifur Eriksson, Reykjavik
Cheap and cheerful (too much so for some people) with a great location by the Hallgrimskirkja and on the edge of the trendy 101 Reykjavik district – but a civilized distance from the nightlife. The succession of different people on the front desk regularly throws up a new and interesting face to talk to.
Northern Light Inn, Grindavik
In the shadow of the power station that created the Blue Lagoon, and looking suspiciously prefabricated, this ought to be shabby and bleak – but instead is friendly, comfortable, surprisingly attractive inside, and has a very talented chef.

Where to visit

Nowhere, until they stop whaling
And when that happens, everywhere

Where to avoid

Olafsfjorður, except to say you’ve been there
Or maybe we just caught it on a bad day…

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.