Tag Archives: Eyjafjallajokull

Top Ten Tips for Iceland

Iceland Cover

I have been posting here since 2009 and for the first time in six years I have had a request.  My blogging friend Sue from Travel Tales of Life has asked me to put together of top ten things to do in Iceland and I am therefore delighted to offer these suggestions.

Reykjavik

This may seem rather too obvious to mention but I do so because some friends of mine recently visited Iceland and stayed in Kevlavik.  The man at the hotel gave then some useful travel tips but bizarrely suggested that it wasn’t really worth going to Reykjavik because it is just a city.  Now, I would guess that unless all you want to see are whales and puffins then a visit to the capital of the country is on everyone’s itinerary.  If you ever stay in that particular hotel then I urge you to ignore the ‘don’t bother with Reykjavik’ advice!

So, some top things to do in Reykjavik:

Discover the Vikings

Lief Ericson Statue Reykjavik Iceland

On the seafront along a granite boulder promenade you will find the Sólfar Suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side.

Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the story goes that the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the comforting plumes of hot steam that were escaping from the nearby hot springs.

Climb the Cathedral Tower

Hallgrímskirkja, Reyjkavik Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja is the Lutheran Cathedral and the tallest building in the city which took nearly forty years to build and was consecrated in 1986.  The design is said to be based on a geyser plume or a lava flow but if you ask me it looks more like a space shuttle about to blast off.

The main purpose for visiting the cathedral is to take the lift to the observation tower at the top of the seventy-three metre tall tower.  It cost 700 krona (about £3) and it was worth every one because from the top there are glorious uninterrupted views in all directions, to the sea in the west, the glaciers in the north, the islands in the south and the ragged coastline to the east.

The Penis Museum

Icelandic Penis Museum Reykjavik

I am confident to declare the Penis Museum the oddest in the World, even more bizarre (although I haven’t been there) than the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in the USA, the Dog Collar Museum in the UK or the Toilet Museum in New Delhi, India.  If anyone has any alternative suggestions by-the-way then I am happy to consider them for inclusion in this list!

“…collecting penises is like collecting anything. You can never stop, you can never catch up, you can always get a new one, a better one a bigger size or better shape…”  Museum owner, Sigurður Hjartarson

Beyond Reykjavik…

Search for the Hidden People

Little People Elves Iceland

The hidden people are called Huldufólk and are special here and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders. What makes seeing them difficult is that they are invisible and Icelanders prefer big people to be careful in case you accidentally step on one and they even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible people.

These are said to be thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the Icelandic people  and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist and if you only need one reason to visit Iceland then that must surely be it!

See the Northern Lights

Northern Lights Iceland

Unfortunately the sighting of this natural phenomena cannot be guaranteed, it is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is assured to see them (unless you happen to be Joanna Lumley making a television programme that is) and many people leave disappointed.

“Always travel in hope, rather than expectation, of seeing the Northern Lights. For the best chances of seeing the lights, head north – but not too far. ”     Alistair McLean, Founder of  The Aurora Zone.

Gulfoss Falls

Gullfoss Falls Iceland

“No waterfall in Europe can match Gullfoss.  In wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagra Falls in the United States”                                                                                      From the Travel Diary of two Danes in the retinue of Frederick VII of Denmark (1907).

The falls are where the wide Hvítá river, swollen with melt waters from the nearby glacier rush southward and about a kilometre above the falls turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide curved three step staircase before abruptly plunging in two stages into a crevice thirty-two metres deep with a thunderous roar and unstoppable force.

The river is wild and untamed dashing madly over rocks and advancing like a cavalry charge racing to the precipice and the final crevice which is about twenty metres wide, and is at right angles to the flow of the river which results in a dramatic water plunge and an atmosphere full of hanging mist which leaves no one in any doubt about the wonderful power of nature.

Visit the Geysers at Geysir

Stockur Geysir Iceland Geysir Golden Circle

The original great Geyser erupts only infrequently now so you could be a long time hanging around waiting for a show.  Apparently people used to encourage it to blow by pouring soap powder into the borehole as this was a generally reliable way of encouraging it to perform but eventually this stopped working because the residue of the soap clogged up the underground vents and geologists now believe that it requires a dramatic event such as an earthquake to set it off again.

Luckily the nearby geyser Strokkur erupts much more regularly every five minutes or so to heights of up to twenty metres (that’s the equivalent of about five London double decker buses).  Crowds of people gather expectantly around the glassy pool waiting for the translucent blue water bubble to foam and then dramatically break through the surface forcing many gallons of boiling water and hissing steam into the air. 

Þingvellir National Park

Iceland Car Hire Volcano Damage Insurance

This is the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly.  This was called the Althing and was an open-air assembly that represented the whole of Iceland that was established in the year 930 and continued to meet for eight hundred and fifty years or so after that.

This history and the powerful natural setting of the assembly grounds has given the site iconic status as a national shrine and on 17th June 1944 thousands of Icelanders flocked to this place for the historic foundation of the modern independent republic of Iceland. 

This is also a place where the land is literally tearing itself apart in a sort of messy divorce settlement as the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet and are in continual conflict with each other as they are drifting slowly apart at a rate of 3mm per year, which may not sound a lot but in geological terms is almost as fast as Usain Bolt!

Finally – Take a Swim in the Blue Lagoon

Iceland Keflavik The Blue Lagoon

This place is horribly commercialised and wickedly expensive but having travelled all this way it is stubbornly on most people’s ‘to do’ list.

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The steamy waters are part of a landscape constructed by lava formation with warm waters that are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and are used as a skin exfoliant. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages a very comfortable 40° centigrade all year round.

If anyone is put off by the absurd €40  basic admission price (a premium spa and treatments package costs a wallet busting  €430) there are a number of alternative geothermal heated pools in Reykjavik without the marketing hype for only a fraction of the price (but also without the location).

So, that is my top ten Iceland suggestions.  There are other things to do of course like whale watching, pony trekking, hiking and land rover safaris to the glaciers but I haven’t done any of those. Yet!

Sue also suggested a list of things not to do in Iceland and I can only think of one – Don’t get too close to an active volcano especially if you haven’t taken out the additional volcano damage insurance on the hire car!

Iceland Volcano

Postcards from Iceland

Iceland Cover

Iceland Volcano

Þingvellir National Park Iceland

Reyjkavik Iceland Northern Lights

Iceland, More About Car Hire Volcano Insurance

Iceland Car Hire Sixt Volcano Damage Insurance

As we drove along a perfectly maintained asphalt road I congratulated myself on my earlier decision not to fall for the volcano damage insurance trick but very soon after that I was glad of the fact that I had agreed to pay the gravel damage insurance scam.

Eventually we came to a sign that told us that the tarmac road was about to end and we about to join an unpaved road full of lumps and bumps, potholes and significant gravel damage danger so I was glad that we had taken out the additional insurance especially when cars approaching from the other way inevitably sent a shower of stones towards us as though we under machine gun fire aimed at our little vehicle which, quite frankly, was totally unsuitable for this sort of journey which made me think again about car hire companies and their underhand tricks.

Earlier in the year I hired a car in Italy (again from Sixt) and despite signing up for comprehensive insurance I was then told that this didn’t cover the roof, the windscreen, the tyres, the floor or, most bizarrely of all, the clutch.  Comprehensive means comprehensive in my book and not one that is qualified with lots of exclusions and ‘get out’ clauses.

A few years ago I had another unpleasant extra charges experience with Sixt at the car hire desk in Karlsruhe-Baden in Germany.  There was a pleasant young man on duty called Herr Schmidberger and he examined my hire details and then sighed and furrowed his brow and adopted a concerned demeanour, “You have a booking for a vehicle without the winter tyres” he said, “are you sure you want a car without the winter tyres?”  I had no idea what he was talking about and must have given him my best blank expression because with that he rolled his eyes so far back into their sockets that if had laser vision he would have surely fried his brain.

The winter tyres were an extra €55 and I was beginning to detect a well rehearsed scam so we took a while to consult with each other on the proposal of paying the extra and this started to test his patience.

I enquired why I might consider going to the unnecessary additional expense and although this was his opportunity to inform me that since May 2006 German motorists have been required by law to use the most appropriate tyres for the weather conditions and that driving on snow covered roads is permitted only if a car is equipped with winter tyres, but instead he became even more theatrical and said “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!”  

Sixt Winter Tyres

Obviously I could see the snow but I still failed to understand why he was so insistent (unless it was a scam and I was becoming more and more sure of that).  He could have told me that in Germany motorists are obliged to make sure they have correct tyres to suit the winter weather conditions and if a vehicle becomes stuck because the tyres are unsuitable drivers are liable to an on the spot police fine, and furthermore if the vehicle causes an obstruction or aggravation to other traffic, the fine may be doubled.  Instead he gave a look that suggested that I was the craziest customer that he had ever dealt with and that driving without winter tyres in snow was madder than wrestling with alligators, swimming in shark infested waters or sky-diving without a parachute.

I asked about the weather forecast and whether he thought it might be snowing in the Black Forest (which at over a thousand metres was an absolute certainty and a really dumb question) and then his eyes started to swivel from side to side like the symbols on a fruit machine and he was clearly losing his patience with me now.  He might have explained that winter tyres use a tread rubber compound that is softer and a tread block pattern which are specifically designed to retain flexibility in low temperatures and give good braking and traction performance on snow and ice covered roads but instead he just keep shrieking “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!”  

By now we were beginning to understand that he thought snow tyres were a very good idea so finally agreed to the additional charge and he immediately calmed down and set about allocating us an appropriate vehicle for the conditions.

We quickly found the bright blue Nissan Micra hidden under a blanket of snow, cleaned it down, examined the tyres which, at this time not understanding about the special rubber compound, looked quite normal to me and fairly soon after setting off I was certain we had been scammed.  And we had been of course because at €13.45 a day I calculate that if they are on the car for a third of the year that is an extra €1,600 or €400 a tyre and I could not believe that they can be that much more expensive than a regular tyre.  And of course they are not because when I got home I checked and they can be bought for as little as €40 each.

Iceland Car Hire Volcano Damage Insurance

But, I digress, so let’s get back to Iceland where Sixt seem to excel themselves at ripping people off and I found this from a victim on Tripadvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g189964-i4363-k5758239-Sixt_rent_a_car_Keflavik-Keflavik_Southern_Peninsula.html):

 “After a lovely week in May of this year we dropped our hired Chevrolet Spark off at this same office where it was thoroughly checked and deemed to be fine. Two days later we received an email saying that they were sorry but sand damage had been found and they had taken over £2500 from my credit card.”

A representative from Sixt responded with this rather lame excuse:

“I would like to assure all Sixt customers that Sixt Iceland tries to handle all damage cases with great care and do not charge customers for damage lightly. There are times when damage cannot be seen until after cleaning and in such cases we contact the customer to let them know about the damage found. We gather all information we can to prove all damage. By taking photos and with an estimated repair cost from an independent garage we are able to provide the renter with a good proof of damage.”

What is that funny smell?

Interestingly, even if you take out the volcano damage insurance this only limits liability to repair costs exceeding €1,500 and that is a staggeringly large excess liability!  I don’t think I will be hiring a car from Sixt again, especially in Iceland!

Thankfully the gravel road experience didn’t last very long and soon we were back to tarmac for the final ten kilometres or so of the journey towards Þingvellir.

Iceland Volcano

Iceland, Car Hire and Volcano Damage

Iceland Volcano

As a sort of postscript to my previous post I started to think about other dangerous volcano areas that I have visited and where it may not be a good idea to take a hire car if there is a genuine threat of paint stripping damage.

Firstly Mount Vesuvius near Naples in Italy:

Vesuvius the crater

Mind you, you would probably consider yourself spectacularly unlucky if the thing went off while you were on a tourist visit to the top of the crater.  But then don’t forget that it is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years and that was in 1944 when it destroyed a handful of communities and an entire United States bomber squadron, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just take off and go somewhere else!

Second, Timanfaya or Fire Mountain on the Spanish Island of Lanzarote:

Parque Nacional de Timanfaya Lanzarote

When I visited this volcanic site we arrived at the visitor’s car park and that was as far as you could drive into the park and there I tagged on to some coach party trips and watched several demonstrations by a sun gnarled old man with a face of weathered leather and  hands with knotted knuckles of ‘how hot‘ the area is because temperatures just a few metres below the surface here reach between 400°C and 600°C!   First of all he threw dry brush into a harmless looking hole in the ground and it immediately caught fire, while water poured into a bore hole erupted seconds later in the form of steam – like a mini-geyser and he finished this off by demonstrating a natural gas vent that doubled as a BBQ!

Also in the Spanish Canary Islands on nearby Tenerife there is the still active volcano Mount Teide  which I visited in 1989:

Mount Teide Tenerife

The summit of Mount Teide at just over three thousand, seven hundred metres is the highest point in Spain and the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic.  At 7,500 m from its base on the ocean floor, it is the third highest volcano in the world and its altitude makes Tenerife the tenth highest island in the world (although to be fair this is another of those biggest, largest, highest statistics to be wary of). It remains active: its most recent eruption occurred in 1909 from the El Chinyero vent on the north-western Santiago rift. The United Nations Committee for Disaster Mitigation designated Teide what they call a Decade Volcano because of its history of destructive eruptions and its proximity to several large towns.

Finally and probably the most dangerous of all, Yellowstone National Park in the USA:

Yellowstone is a super volcano called a caldera (which is Latin for cauldron) that are so explosive that they just burst open and blow everything away in one almighty blast of truly biblical proportions.  And this event would be so huge that it is the reason why previous eruptions have not left behind a classic volcanic mountain, like say Vesuvius or Mount Etna.

The Yellowstone caldera measures nine thousand square kilometers and the crater is almost sixty-five kilometers across, so as you can probably imagine that would have been one almighty explosion!  Luckily these super volcanoes don’t go off very often, the last time was six hundred and thirty thousand years ago, but if it did explode you would definitely want to stand well back because one thing to be sure is that nothing for thousands of miles around would survive and the paint stripping insurance for the hire car would be completely irrelevant and a total waste of money.