7 things I didn’t expect in Iceland (and 3 I did)

Iceland blew me away.

I knew it’d be different somehow, but it surpassed my expectations and I know it’s a place I’ll return to someday, even though it seems to be the opposite end of the earth from Australia.

I have so, so much to tell you about Iceland, and I want to start with what surprised me and what didn’t. Some good, some bad. (Mostly good, or just kind of oddly surprising.) So here goes.

7 things I didn’t expect in Iceland

7 things I did not expect about Iceland

1. Nobody told me there are flies in Iceland

Down here in Australia, we think we have a monopoly on annoying flies. It’s true to say that, particularly in summer, we have a LOT of flies and they’re utterly irritating and won’t leave you alone, and that’s why the stereotypical picture of an Aussie in the bush features a hat with dangly corks hanging from it to shoo away the flies.

Suffice to say, I did not pack such a hat for Iceland. Because nobody told me there’d be flies everywhere when we were out in the countryside! I had absolutely assumed it’d be too cold for flies. And it was cold, but the flies still swarmed!

Now, it’s a little hard to research this topic because mostly Google wants to tell me about fishing flies, but from what I can find, perhaps I was just exceedingly unlucky (they’re not around every year, and only in a few places, and often only for a week or two) but do tell me if you’ve also encountered flies in Iceland. (I did find a fellow sufferer of Icelandic flies on TripAdvisor, at least.)

2. Horses are Iceland’s third most important industry

(A subset of this unexpected thing: that I would fall in love with Icelandic horses. I’m not a horsey person!)

I had heard of Icelandic ponies. I learnt while in Iceland that they’re actually Icelandic horses (oops), and I also learnt that these horses are Iceland’s third most significant industry after fishing and tourism.

Icelandic horse and foal at Icelandic Horseworld

One of the mare and foal pairs I met at Icelandic Horseworld near Hella

Even for non-horsey people, I thoroughly recommend taking time to meet some Icelandic horses. We went to a really great farm called (somewhat misleadingly, as it’s much more local and simple than it sounds, in a good way) Icelandic Horse World. Although we just opted for a tour around the place (including meeting lots of simply amazing horses) and morning tea (delicious apple cake), they also organise pretty much any kind of horse riding experience you want.

I learnt so much of interest here and the fact I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen is that Icelandic horses are special because no other horses have ever been allowed into Iceland – and (somewhat sadly) if you take your Icelandic horse out of Iceland (e.g. for a competition), you can’t bring it back, it has to stay abroad for the rest of its days. Cut throat but effective!




3. You don’t need cash in Iceland

I absolutely literally only *needed* to use cash one time in Iceland, when I had to give an Airbnb host some extra money to rent linen. (But since I’d paid him online for the actual accommodation, we probably could have figured something cashless out if need be.)

Icelanders use their bank cards All. The. Time. And yes that might be just 400 ISK (Icelandic kroner) for a hot dog (about $4) at a tiny hot dog stand on the side of the road (yes, they have the machines!). And you know what? It’s fabulous! They are by far the closest I’ve ever encountered to being a cashless society. So absolutely don’t stress about getting Icelandic kroner before your trip (but get some to use while you’re there, simply to get a collection of their cool coins, all of which feature some kind of sea creature).

Famous Icelandic hot dog stand in Reykjavik

The famous Icelandic hot dog stand in Reykjavik – you can pay by card, of course

4. Hot dogs are difficult to find in the countryside

Rural Iceland was as empty as I’d expected, I guess, and yet still, I thought it would be easy to find the famous Icelandic hot dogs I’d heard so much about. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places, plus several of our brilliant Airbnb cottage stays were in exceptionally isolated spots (which was perfect, except for the absence of hot dogs). In any case, we didn’t encounter any until we returned to Reykjavik towards the end of the trip, but this was probably a good thing as once I’d had one, I couldn’t stop eating them and they’re not exactly a health food!

5. Fish, fruit and vegetables are expensive and not as great as you’d hope

I’d read enough to expect that the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables might be an issue out in rural Iceland. (As a fruit and veg lover, this was somewhat excruciating – sad wrinkly apples from South America that were perhaps picked last year if I was lucky, for example.)

But I have to say that on average, the produce even in Reykjavik left a lot to be desired. Disclaimer, though, as I brought this up with the Vietnamese family who run my local fruit and veg shop here in Perth: they say that here in Australia, our quality of fruit and vegetables is exceedingly high, we’re utterly spoilt, and nothing we find can stack up. Possibly fair.

Skyr - Icelandic yoghurt

Most of our fruit consumption was in the form of skyr … Iceland’s answer to yoghurt.

Knowing that fruit and veg might be somewhat lacking, I had been hoping to indulge in a reasonable amount of seafood while in Iceland. I did a couple of times, but it was fairly astronomically expensive (out of proportion, often, even compared to the relatively expensive nature of Iceland) so it was a rare treat.

6. Vitamin supplements are everywhere in Iceland

If I’d thought this through, I could have guessed, but I hadn’t expected it – in every supermarket I visited (and I visited many – because I love them, and because we were largely self-catering, too) there was a rather large vitamin supplement section and it was often in one of the most prominent spots. (Kind of where we’d usually have the fruit and veg in Australian supermarkets, actually!) I guess that’s how Icelanders survive.

7. Icelandic road markings are crooked

Who would expect such a thing? The main highway around Iceland (known as the Ring Road) is now fully asphalted, but it is not quite perfect – many of the white paint markings showing the centre of the road are haphazard and off centre! It’s the oddest thing. Iceland seems pretty organised and modern, and yet, somehow, these white marks appear crooked, and random in length, and generally kind of odd to look at. I guess it adds character, though.

Icelandic road markings and amazing scenery

Icelandic road markings can probably get away with imperfections because everyone’s watching the scenery

3 things I did expect in Iceland

It’s nice, though, when some things turn out just as you expect.

1. Rural Iceland is not famous for fresh, lovely fruit and vegetables

I must concede that I was able to buy the occasional punnet of Icelandic-grown baby tomatoes and that they were great. And that the quality of the lettuce exceeded the defrosted salad leaves I ate in Finland a decade ago. But the carrots that were all black and rotting, the apples with fully wrinkled skin and the cucumbers that sagged as I picked them up were not the kind of things that ended up at the checkout with me.

2. In Iceland, you need thermal underwear in summer

Like most other tourists, we chose to visit Iceland in the height of summer. Or what they refer to as summer. There were occasional “warm” days, by which I mean, I could wear the kind of clothes I wear in a Perth winter and not freeze. But for about half of the days I added thermal underwear under my clothes, which is something I have never done in Perth, ever, in the depths of winter. It is honestly a strange kind of country when this kind of weather is what passes for summer.

Glacier fragments at Jokulsarlon in Iceland

When you’re cruising at the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon it’s never going to be warm!

3. Volcanoes can freak you out in Iceland

Before I went, plenty of friends joked about me getting stuck on Iceland thanks to an ash cloud. Ironically, several of these friends ended up stuck on Bali because of an ash cloud. So we may not have had much volcanic activity during our Icelandic stay, I still managed to freak myself out, because reminders of volcanoes (the things themselves, or their lava) are everywhere. One night, I read an article about the new early warning systems for volcanic activity, and how they alert everyone via text message, even visitors with no data plan. We were staying in a rather isolated spot that night and the next morning, the people at the next farmhouse had all gone out, and after looking for a good half an hour from my hilltop vantage point, I couldn’t find any traffic or signs of life. And I’d had my phone switched off so it couldn’t receive any emergency messages. My mind started to play games, I tell you! I was genuinely relieved when I finally saw some cars moving around in the distance and we didn’t have to evacuate to avoid streams of piping hot lava.

Hit me with your Iceland questions

As I said, I’ve got plenty more to tell you about Iceland, so to make sure you find out what you want to know, let me know below what your questions are about this weird and wonderful land.

Comments

  1. Yes those hotdogs! I loved them and I am NOT a hot dog eater in the U.S. at all! And that great little stand in the parking lot — so glad you found it!
    I was told that the markings on the highways are not even to avoid drivers getting mesmerized by them (a sort of hypnotic effect I suppose when they are perfectly spaced?) and that it helps prevent accidents. Not sure if that is true or maybe the painter was just drunk on Brenivin!)
    Loved seeing all your photos — makes me want to go back to Iceland for a visit!

    • Oh that’s so interesting about the road markings – who told you? They might have a point as we were always watching them!
      And although I knew about the famous hot dog stand I hadn’t checked where it was and Mr5 and I stumbled across it by accident, we were so excited (we recognised it from photos). So cool and SO tasty!

  2. I love it when a destination is full of surprises. Wonderful images!

  3. I would be devastated at the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Hong Kong is the same and funnily enough NZ’s quality isn’t as good as ours. We are spoilt, I agree x

    • I’m amazed about NZ Rae! I would have imagined it is fruit and veg heaven!! And yes, I found it hard to deal with in Iceland, any longer and I would have come down with scurvy I reckon!!

  4. Susan Dunn says

    Amanda, that all sounds just perfectly Icelandic! (If there is such a word!) I loved Iceland, but wondered at their ability to have any fresh food at all, coming from a farming background. Did you see the hothouses? One of my wonders was the hot water and geo thermal power. I loved the always hot water, and the countryside. I could go on for ages! And yes, their ponies are a delight too! (I am not an animal lover at all). It is a really unique place, for sure.

    • You’re right about the hot water, that was so divine! And yes did see some hothouses which must have grown the tomatoes I had, the only decently fresh stuff I found. And yes, it was so perfectly Icelandic, I know exactly what you mean!

  5. My friends live in Iceland at the moment and the stories have been fabulous. One of my favourites is when she was sent home from work because it was too hot work. It hit 20 degrees celsius.

  6. Fascinating! I love that you took it for what it was – freezing summer but flies, what a unique place 🙂

  7. I never would have expected flies to be a problem there, how strange! Great tip on not needing cash, that sounds like such a convenience, wish it was like that everywhere.

  8. It’s nice to be surpised isn’t it …but flies and cold weather…

    Sounds like an amazing place in so many ways.

  9. We were there in the winter and it was oddly disconcerting that is was still pitch dark hours after you had been up and traveling. The sun would rise hours later. Lack of sunshine is another reason they need all those vitamins!

    • Oh yes, very true, they would need heavy-duty vitamin D in winter! I spent a Christmas in northern Finland so I’ve also had that very disconcerting dark-nearly-all-the-time experience – OK for a short trip but I definitely couldn’t live that way!

  10. For some reason I’m finding it incredibly sad to think about the poor Icelandic horses who can’t ever go home once they’ve left the country! So weird about the vitamin section instead of the fruit and veg section… The best fruit and veg I’ve ever seen was in the south of Spain, slightly away from the touristy areas. And so cheap! Anyway, this was a really interesting read. So many things I’d not considered!

    • Glad you enjoyed it Rachel – apart from the sadness of the Icelandic horses – I totally agree – they said it’s really hard to decide to go to international comps and which horses to take.

  11. Welcome back!

    What was the night sky like in rural Iceland, was it amazing?
    What do Icelanders do for fun? Is there a national sport?
    What do they eat for breakfast?
    If you want info about far North Queensland, fire away. 🙂

    • Thanks Jac! To answer your questions …
      1) No idea, it was still daylight at midnight. Which was amazing in itself.
      2) Believe it or not – go swimming. (More on that to come!)
      3) Skyr. (I reckon.) (That’s their very delicious version of yoghurt.)
      So envious of your FNQ pics at the moment – enjoy!!!

  12. You can get a surprising number of flies in Scotland in the summer when either near farm animals or strangely in the coniferous pine forests –
    How about midges – were there any of those? They can be murderous in both Scotland and Scandinavia!

    • Ah, interesting! The Icelandic flies just seemed to be absolutely everywhere, all the time, in the countryside. Didn’t come across midges although my Googling did suggest they are sometimes around too. So perhaps just having the annoying flies only was lucky!

  13. Sea creatures on their coins? I want to see that! What a great article, it was more like 10 things I didn’t know about Iceland! Well, maybe I did know about the weather 😉

  14. Great info, Amanda. Sounds like you had a fab time in Iceland. I’m heading their next year – in Summer – so I look forward to reading more about your trip. Sounds like a need to pack a hat with corks and some thermals!

  15. Looking forward to discussing Iceland with you soon, Amanda. I’ve signed up for another of your UWA courses.
    I was in Iceland last year. My travel blog is on Traveller’s Point

    http://faybee.travellerspoint.com/

  16. You’ve intrigued me! These are the sort of things that I wouldn’t have thought about. Few fresh fruits and veggies, wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Flies? In all that cold, wouldn’t have thought! Ponies? Ahh, you had me at ponies. Now I definitely want to go. Great offbeat post about the not so ordinary.

    • Jo, you HAVE to. It’s fabulous! And you will love the horses. (Apparently, although they’re quite small, they are Icelandic horses, even though we always think of them as ponies.) (One of the many things I learnt there!)

  17. Amanda,
    My boyfriend and I have been considering moving to Iceland for quite some time now, so I’m glad i read this. I once saw a documentary that mentioned some people there who use greenhouses to grow produce. Did you happen to come across any of those while you were there? I only ask because not having produce is a deal breaker for me, but if I could grow my own I’d be in heaven!

    • Hi Julia – YES! – there are greenhouses. In fact, we actually had some really nice Icelandic-produced tomatoes from greenhouses. I’m sure it’s still not easy (and perhaps impossible through winter) but I wouldn’t call it a deal-breaker. It was hard when I was travelling rurally to find fresh fruit and veg but if you lived there, I’m sure you could find a way (and if you live in Reykjavik it’s probably easier to find them too.). Good luck!

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