Photo Highlight: Winter in Vestmannaeyjar

My father was from a tiny island on the south coast of Iceland where men proudly call themselves the first and most original Icelanders, since Iceland is their biggest colony. My father was born January 7th 1952 and both my grandparents were born January 11th, so January seemed like the best time to go and visit their communal grave. The cemetery in Heimaey is always lit up with festive lights until January 23rd, the anniversary of the 1973 volcanic eruption start date. If only everyone could Rest In Peace in such a paradise as this.

Another Icelandic summer comes to an end

The definition of summer in Iceland isn’t very defined. Summer is when its not winter. Its when the grass is greenish, the moss turns neon, and the leaves are alive. It’s a time when the temperature can go higher than 10 degrees (but not necessarily). The sun shines and its rays actually give off heat (and a tan!). The average temperature in June is only 11 degrees. Anything over 18 degrees is kind of a heat wave, and Icelanders lose their clothes as easily as we lose the nights. This year, summer came in May, when the countryside dethawed and it stopped getting dark.

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls with my best friend Moli

This is a time when Icelanders seem to come out of hibernation. After 8 months of winter, holed up in that thing called ‘real life,’ then people come out to play. Then the days revolve around hiking, horsebackriding, summerhouses, camping, fishing, barbeques and no need for much sleep. And much more than that, summer means festivals.

on horse tour in Mývatnssveit

Now that summer is gone, we start looking forward to those holidays and festivals next summer. Iceland is probably the only country I know of that actually has a national public holiday for the first day of summer, and this year it was April 20th. For some reason other than religious ones, Ascension day (May 25) is the first long weekend where traffic jams to get north out of town can build up from the Hvalfjordur tunnel all the way to Mosfellsbaer.

Menningarnótt with my sister and oldest friend from Canada

Downtown Reykjavik is a family friendly party ground, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and Arnarholl, on only a few days a year. June 17th, Independence day, is the first major summer event. Ironically, the Gay Pride parade has higher attendance, and rainbow coloured balloons and confused gender identities make people of all ages happy. Menningarnott in mid August is the most drunken and dancy festival, and at this time of summer, short nights have started to reappear and it’s the first time that lighting fire works makes sense. Its also around then that the first northern lights show up, making tourists very happy that they don’t have to return to Iceland in midwinter to check that off their bucket list.

Herjólfsdalur filling up for Þjóðhátíð

The most defining part of summer for me, and many other Icelanders, is unquestionably Þjóðhátíð. Literally translated, this just means ´the nations holiday,´ and is held all around Iceland around the end of July/beginning of August, but the biggest one is always in Vestammanaeyjar. My father is from Vestmannaeyjar, which makes about 24% of the population my aunts, uncles and second or third cousins. This sleepy island on the south coast has a year-round population of around 4,000, but during Þjóðhátíð, it can swell to 16,000, perhaps even as many as 20,000 this year.

seaswimming beach days in Reykjavik… not as warm as they look but still an important part of every good summer

You know summer is coming to an end when the next festival people are gearing up for is Airwaves, which happens annually at the end of October. Airwaves is even bigger than Þjóðhátíð, but doesnt quite have the same ´Icelandicness´ to it with all those tourists and international bands… and lack of lopapeysas (hand knit sweaters with Grandma´s typical patterns and barn colours). The countdown to summer 2018 has officially begun.

The Icelandic Staycation – why traveling around our own country has become cool

Iceland’s tourism industry has been booming recently, since Icelandic vacations have been on sale ever since 2008 when the kronur exchange rate took a nose dive.

Iceland’s typical tourism appeal include all the clichés of “The Land of Fire and Ice” and our world famous northern lights, but some visitors take Icelandair’s offer for a free stopover in Reykjavik just to see the airport, the Blue Lagoon, the nightlife, and, perhaps the Golden Circle on a guided tour. The more adventurous or spendy come for a week or two, bike or horseback ride crazy places, climb mountains, hike spewing volcanoes, or snowmobile across the largest glacier in Europe, and end up seeing more of Iceland than many natives have ever seen.

Many locals in Reykjavik are born and bred city folk, who actually don’t travel around the country that much, but so many have taken a cheap flight to London or Copenhagen, or a holiday in Spain or New York more frequently than getting up north to Akureyri. However, with the “kreppa” and our crappy kronur, the “Stay-cation” is becoming an attractive alternative. The ecological footprint of Iceland is already pretty big already (renewable energy can’t cover us all), so instead of taking another carbon heavy flight a few hours to Europe, perhaps this article can inspire you to just take the bus/car/ferry a few hours to a magical corner of Iceland.

I’ve been traveling around the world for the last few years, and 63 countries later, I’m still most excited to come back to Iceland and travel at home. Here’s a list of my top five Icelandic destinations, and what to do when there, in hopes of giving passer-by’s and Reykjavik locals an idea of where to go next.

1.Flatey

The old homes in Flatey, depicting typical turn of the 20th century architecture in Iceland

one of the many shipwrecks surrounding Flatey's shallow coast

Between the wonderous Snæfellsness Peninsula and the West Fjords is Flatey, a tiny Island in Breiðafjörður – a 2011contendor for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. In the long winter months, its almost totally deserted, with only a few resident farmers and their sheep, but in the summer its a bustling little tourist town when all the locals inhabit their summerhouses and run a few restaurants, shops and accomodation services out of their 100+ year old homes. Get there with a Baldur ferry from quaint little Stykkishólmur, or Brjánslækur in the north. Sailing through the archipelago in Breiðarfjörður is definitely its own highlight. Best thing to do there? Take a walk around the Flatey Nature Reserve bird watching, or, if you´re feeling polar worthy, go sea swimming in Stykkishólmur when you´re waiting for the ferry.

2.Vestfirðir

If you take the old way to Isafjordur, you'll drive this dirt road and arrive into the West Fjords with the most beautiful view

fishing boats docked in Bolungarvik

Most of us know about Ísafjörður, and one way to get there is to fly into the death-defying runway that convinces all the passengers on board you´re about to crash into the side of the mountain. The other way is to drive, since the road has just recently been paved all the way and shortened by a few kilometers. This way you get to see a few more of the tiny fishing villages and farmer towns along the way, my favourite being Bolungarvík at the end of the road. Best things to do when roadtripping in the West Fjords? Stop at all the natural hot pots hidden along the side of the highway and romp around the empty country side naked. Or just go fishing.

3. Grímsey

Puffins perching along the volcanic rock columns forming the steep cliffs around Grimsey's coast

This is the only part of Iceland truly in the arctic, with the northern tip of it crossing the 66th parallel. Like Flatey, you can walk around the whole thing in an hour or so, and the jagged cliffs forming the coastline are home to many nesting birds. There is a huge puffin population, infinitely outnumbering the 100 human inhabitants living in Sandvik. Take the ferry from Dalvík (with connecting bus service to Akureryi), and if you want to do as the locals do, harness yourself in some rope and scale the cliffs to pick seabirds eggs. What to do then? Eat one, raw.

4. Jökulársalón

Glacier Heaven - Jokulsarslon

By far the most picturesque place in Iceland, be dazzled by Vatnajökull glacier breaking off and melting into a ´glacier river lagoon.´ You´ll feel like you’ve reached Antarctica, and the water is so blue it rivals the Blue Lagoon. What to do there? Hike a glacier. Or just take a glacier cruise. And stay in nearby Skaftafell, a beautiful national park comprising part of the glacier and actually boasting real, wooded forest.

5.Vestmannæyjar

Haimey, last May, with the dark and destructive ash cloud of Eyjafjallajokull looming uncofmortably close

Vestmannæyjar are a group of spectacular islands sticking out of the sea, huge and steep, topped with lots of green grass (no trees, of course) and white fluffy speckles (sheep). The new harbor in Landeyahöfn means Herjólfur ferry only takes 20 minutes to cross the often sea-sickening journey, instead of the old 2 hr crossing, so its more accessible than ever. What to do when there? Smoke a puffin. Just don’t get stuck there next time Eyjafjallajökull erupts and covers them in a cloud of ash again.

While most of Iceland’s population is in south west Iceland, there’s so much more to see beyond that, and the amazing thing is it´s still a small enough country that you could actually see it all. Here’s to more  travel around this beautiful country!

Thjodhatid, aka Þjóðhátíð

I said coming back home to Iceland after 2 months in Africa was coming back to reality, but Thjodhatid is anything but real life. Its one of the biggest parties in Iceland every year, with some 15 or 20 thousand people arriving in Haimey, one of the Vestmann Islands whose resident population is only 4,000. For three nights and three days there is a stage and a bunch of white tents in the Valley between this massive mountain ridge, and planes, helicopters, boats and ferries work around the clock to bring everyone there. People sleep in tents either in the valley or on the lawn of a friend or relative, and all of a sudden there are more tents than houses scattered around town.

disco party on the boys hands

disco party on the boys hands

One of the main sponsors, or maybe just advertising campaigns, was by the phone company Nova, and they set up a shop that was basically a dj stand blasting funky music, giving away lanyards and waterbottles of all colours, and selling disco ball gloves. This resulted in everyone in the valley matching with nova décor. Many were also wearing 66 degree north waterproof gear, usually in the form of big fishing overalls in neon orange or yellow. Most people wore cool sunglasses, many had matching clothes and dressed in teams with just their last name differing one sweater from another. Everything was sparkly and bright, and even though some complain the music is horrible, everyone was dancing and having a great time on the muddy ‘brekka’, the natural grassy slope creating the audience holding area.

the brekka, full of people

the brekka, full of people

Every night something special happens, and the first night a huge bonfire was lit, giving heat more than 200m away. Near the end of the night when the fire was basically a massive pile of coals, me and my friend Bjorgvin hiked to the top of it before being told no one was allowed there and almost died on the steep, slippery decent away from our slowly melting butts. On the second night was an amazing fireworks display, and me and Bjorgvin again decided to hike to the top of the rise and only accidentally planned it so perfectly that the moment we peaked, turned around and sat down to rest, the firework show started and we had the most spectacular view of the sky being lit up and the valley below it, full of screaming people and a building, eerie fog.

on top of the mountain looking down on the valley, the tiny stage and firework smog

on top of the mountain looking down on the valley, the tiny stage and firework smog

I actually missed the last night, also the biggest and best night apparently, which involved some cool light show on the brekka, but I also missed the only  rain fall and instead took the last ferry back to the main land, where Thordur, the horse god, met me to take me away on horse back for the next 4 weeks. Not a bad way to have to leave, I guess, but still too bad I missed Sunday night so I guess Ill just have to go back to Thjodhatid next year.