The American tourist has found a new country to call her own for a week or two at a time, and it is Iceland. My wife, two kids, and I recently joined the over two million annual visitors to this altogether unique place. We were part of the throngs of tourists who took tour buses, camper vans, bicycles, and rental cars to see the countryside and the many natural wonders of this island which almost touches the Arctic Circle.
Whether or not it is a fad, the discovery of Iceland by tourists hailing mainly from America, Canada, Britain, France, and Germany has strained the capacity of this small country of just over 300,000 people to handle the influx. The popularity of Iceland among Americans is such that it rivals countries like Switzerland and Israel as a destination for those with a U.S. passport.
Little towns with a thousand or fewer people have become sought-after places for lodging, and the locals have been converting basements and constructing little cabins on their property to meet the demand. We rented, for fairly hefty sums, rooms seemingly in the middle of nowhere through online booking sites. One cabin we rented required a 20 mile drive off the main thoroughfare, along a dirt road on which we passed not a single residence. It was off the grid, Iceland-style.
The vistas were an amalgam of American landscapes, all packed into a fairly compact island. The rocky coast, the fjords, and the many peninsulas jutting into the ocean reminded me of the craggy Maine coastline near Acadia National Park. The long drives along cliffs and on the sides of mountains next to the sea seemed a bit like the Pacific Coast highway in California. The lava flows and the boiling sulfuric water and clay gurgling to the surface, and the fine, black soil made Iceland resemble its volcanic brethren, Hawaii. The massive glaciers and the icebergs calved from them could have been found in Alaska, which sits on the same latitude as Iceland.
The endless flatlands of grass and sheep and horses and cows and little else, where trees cannot grow unless planted by human hands, reminded me of the Midwest prairie where poor Almanzo Wilder struggled to plant trees on his homestead. The innumerable mountains, snow-capped in summer, were a scene from the Colorado Rockies. Waterfalls were everywhere, and rivers pushed massive amounts of melted glacier water over precipitous drops that rivaled the sights at Niagara Falls. The natural hot springs allowed locals to bathe as they do in the Big Sur of California.
And there were places in Iceland with no comparable analog in America. The loose gravel on the steep slopes of the mountains which ran up to the edge of the ocean and threatened to cover the seaside highways would have been called “scree” on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Iceland is not just another small country in Europe. Its natural wonders are without parallel, and we went there to see those wonders up close.
We did not spend much time delving into Icelandic culture and history in a way that a traveler to Paris would drink in the Louvre and sip espresso in street-side cafes. But on our road trip around the island, we got a feel for the place.
For the American traveling in Europe, including Iceland, much is the same. It is the same as America but scaled-down. There are the conveniences of dishwashers and refrigerators and automobiles, but they are all about 2/3-sized. Food is served in smaller portions—don’t go looking for buffets—because everything is more dear. Meat, fruits, vegetables, gasoline, electronics, books seem more like luxuries than the stuff of everyday life. A big department store we visited in Iceland, like the “hypermarches” I saw in France, offered seemingly everything, from groceries to clothes to bicycles, but it chose not to bombard the customer with the quantities of goods and rock-bottom prices the way our Walmarts and Targets do. Products were tastefully displayed as they were in our old downtown department stores, not stacked up, warehouse-style.
Iceland differed though from the other high-priced, small-car northern European countries I’ve seen. Much of Europe seems small, cramped, constrained. Constrained by a lack of space, constrained by a lack of natural resources like oil. In Iceland, there was a sense of abundance. Outside of Reyjkavik’s city center, the countryside seemed virtually empty, with hundreds of acres of land allocated to each living soul if it were distributed on a per capita basis.
Water, so carefully decanted and conserved elsewhere, was clean out of the tap and flowed without limit. Hot water, naturally heated by the Earth’s core, also flowed freely, with giant showerheads everywhere delivering great water pressure, including the hostel we stayed at. A multitude of rivers deliver plentiful hydroelectric power, and Icelanders use more energy, per capita, than any country on earth, over four times more than the average American. Alongside the subcompacts on the roads were monster trucks and SUVs capable of going into glacier country, sucking down the expensive gas as they rumbled along.
Iceland is a study in contrasts. It reminds the visitor of the wide-open spaces of America, and it is thoroughly European in so many other ways. It is less than six hours away by plane and well worth the trip.
– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.