Iceland, the land of fire and ice, mountains and glaciers, ageless sagas, fables, mythology and unpronounceable names, uniquely positioned on an active volcanic island in the middle of the cold and blustery Atlantic Ocean. A rocky and craggy, wet and windy place, known for its wild seas and unpredictable weather, with all its historical Viking allure and endless amazing wonders of nature, had finally enticed me to visit. After countless years and efforts to attract visitors to Iceland, a tiny secluded island nation, some say overdue for a volcano eruption, population 350,000, through their very popular international ad slogan: “A Transatlantic Journey with a Stopover in Iceland,” I finally acquiesced and booked my trip. Since it was a stopover, ultimately my final destination would be Stockholm, Sweden.
Iceland reminded me of other “I” countries: Israel, India, Ireland, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia. They always seemed to fall into the loved it, cannot wait to return, or hated it, will never return, when speaking with other seasoned world travelers on do not miss, must visit countries of the globe. There is no better way to find out about a new place than to visit and discover what hidden treasures await there on your own. My immediate concern turned to my injury and travel needs. How would they treat me there, how would accessibility be for city streets, public transport, restaurants and hotels and, most importantly, would I be able to access the timeless peculiar beauty and infinite splendor of the island whilst in a wheelchair? Well, it did not take long after I arrived to find out just what made so very extraordinary Iceland and its people.
Most times before I visit a country, especially since in need of some occasional physical assistance, everything would be incredibly and meticulously planned beforehand. But sometimes the world and its daily stresses do not allow such taken-for-granted securities into consideration of schedule, instead requiring you to be a voyager, on a self-discovery, wild pilgrimage of sorts: Doing the Dirty Dishes of life – living with your heart and eyes open again. The reservation process, as far as an injured person goes, was more than difficult with the biggest and best travel websites offered. It would be new and unknown exploration, wrapped in intrigue, encased within an adventure. The magic of the trail was sure to be upon me. What scary and unknown situations could I throw at the universe to see what awesome memories would result. I was ready.
After arriving at Keflavik airport, located about a forty-five minute drive from the city of Reykjavik, it was not long before luggage and immigration were sorted and I was in need of local transport. I queued for a bus company that went to my hotel and had a fair price. Iceland is a bit way expensive of a country to visit. Normally I would pay for the convenience of a taxi because of my injury and wheelchair but at $250 USD one way, I decided to take my chances with a tour bus company. After paying $60 return, they directed me over to a bus waiting close by with a line already in place. After about ten minutes or so a smaller slender man appeared and asked me if I was ready. Before I could tell him where to grab me, he had me in the air as he attempted to lift me onto the bus. Safely up the stairs, onto the bus, he plopped me down into the first seat. I knew I was in a special place, with exceptional people. Chair safely secured below in the cargo hold, we were on our way – let the adventure begin.
The ride was unlike any other bus-to-city ride I have ever taken. The foreign terra was filled with so many new shades of greens and browns, mountain landscape and hot spring vistas as far as the eye could see, with snow, ice and water mixed throughout. There was no doubt – I was in a supernatural place. Soon I would arrive at my hotel, the Hotel Cabin. As the bus parked curbside in front of the hotel, the scrawny driver grabbed me once again, placed me over his shoulder, and as his small frame shakily carried me off the bus, pointing out along the way my luggage sitting safely to my left, softly dropping me in my chair, he said “welcome to Iceland,” and then off he went. He had other injured to carry up and down bus stairs.
I would find the same level of willingness to help strangers at the hotel as well. In fact, I found this to be the case with the whole country, whether native or newly emigrated; those I met were always on the ready to lend a helping hand. The three gentleman shuffling hours at the front desk of my hotel were out of this world helpful: Aiwa, Arkadiusz and The Conductor. The Icelandic manager at the front desk was so incredibly helpful. She took one hour from her day, telling me every local hot spot to visit and eat – the best gems not found on any tourist maps. Claus-in-Iceland was the best photographer-disguised-as-a-museum-guide one could find. The Portuguese lady and others at the front desk, as well as all the Polish staff at the hotel, were absolutely the best. I later found out the driver of the airport transport bus was also Polish.
Seven days of my three weeks visiting Iceland were spent with an old friend, Sunita. We had met over twenty years previous while I was living in Tokyo. She was in Japan on a work visa, from Nepal, patiently waiting and trying to find a way to America. Presently married, with a gifted and beautiful teenage daughter, Hazel, she is a RN manager, currently living in Boston – just a short hop, skip and jump to Reykjavik. We spent our one week together in a rental car traversing every part of the island reachable via day trip. She was a godsend in more ways than can be written here, but especially as she was my rescue after arriving in Iceland from Sweden with a wallet emptied of cash and all cards. They had been stolen after being drugged and robbed in Stockholm three days prior. I will forever remember her experiencing her first Northern Lights far down a dirt country road, nestled in between dark rural farm fields, under a pitch black sky. I am sure she will not forget either – they are a cosmic atmospheric orgasmic cornucopia of lights and colors that everyone should witness at least once in their lifetime.
Reykjavik, a city of 120,000 people, charming and inviting, settled in 871 when Ingolfur Arnarson arrived on its shores, is a must see. When he landed, steam from the various hot springs caused him to refer to the settlement as “Smokey Bay” or modern day Reykjavik. The city is filled with distinctive landscapes, brightly colored Skandinavian homes and endless unique architecture, including Harpa, Hallgrimskirkja Church, The House of Parliament, City Hall, Austurvollur, Hljomskalinn and Hofdi House, among the endless amount of world renowned art galleries and historical museums. It was very easy to get around the city in a car, and there was ample parking for those in need. I highly recommend the waffle stand by the big church – or any other Icelandic tasty eats or delicious snacks you can find in the streets. The city also offers whale, volcano and glacier tours, hiking and camping, scenic city and flight tours, buggy and snowmobiling, as well as tons of seasonal events and festivities for every type to see and experience.
It is only but a short drive to get out of the city and into the heartland of Iceland, where one can find the true beauty of the island. Springs can be seen often on the side of the road, warm and steamy, tempting one to their warmth and earth-bubbling healing properties. Sunita and I especially loved the Blue Lagoon spa. One does not have to look too far to see natural landscapes that take your breath away – until the next turn on the highway causes your breath to go away again – and then again. Endless mountain peaks filled with snow, mixed in with green and brown grassy cratered hilly meadows and waterfalls, await your every turn – causing one to be very careful while driving – the island and its optical treats are that overly luscious. They will fill your eyes in awe, with pause of the natural world, of God’s cathedral. The list of must see places would not suffice in this blog. I visited in October, the start of Northern Lights season. The glaciers, hot springs, beaches, mountains, continental divide, waterfalls, and countless hills with farms and sheep all await your own personal page.
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. — Saint Augustine
Iceland was surprisingly much more injured and wheelchair friendly than expected. Leave it up to Viking ingenuity and Skandinavian pragmatic living in order to make it all make sense for those in need of public assistance. All public buildings I visited, such as Reykjavik Public Library, where a copy of my book can be found, were all easily accessible. It was definitely possible to have your own little wheelchair adventure obstacle course once you left a public building, in order to reach another but wherever possible, it was noticeable they took time mitigating any possible stumbling blocks in the way. Although, it would have been much nicer if Icelandair would have allowed me the use of my own wheelchair while in transit, rather than the confusing mess that occurred, resulting in damages to my chair. Of course, once you went off the beaten path, very easily accomplished, you were on your own; all nearby public areas were accessible however, albeit rough gravel. I would certainly challenge you to put on your creativity cap, strap up your boots, Buttercup – and, as I so aptly state in my book, Unbreakable Mind, go forth into the world to live and experience life again: Teeth to the Wind!
One cannot speak of Iceland without speaking of the magic of the land and its people, but also its amazing food and drink. Whale, liquorices, lamb, horse and various cold water fish (Arctic char and Halibut) are all local specialties, found with their own unique recipe from village to village. Reykjavik has a great nightlife scene, replete with trendy bars and restaurants, with no lack of tasty community craft beers or ancient cocktails. One cannot forget to mention the amazing baked goods and other tasty treats on the island as well. Pylsa (Icelandic hot dog), Flatkaka (Unleavened flat bread, recipe from 9th Century), Humar (Icelandic lobster) and Kleina (Icelandic twisted donuts) will make your mouth water for more; all which has also caused some people in recent times to refer to Iceland as a foodie’s heaven. I would agree.
Which brings me to my beef with Iceland: Stop pulling the wool over unsuspecting travellers’ eyes by baiting them to your island with a stopover which is not a true stopover – it is actually two separate flights, resulting in additional travel leg(s) and unnecessary exorbitant costs to the traveler. On your Icelandair website you state: “Travel across the Atlantic via Icelandair and add a stopover in Iceland to your journey, at no additional airfare.” It is not correct – and, in fact, is ripping off naïve travelers who know none the better. Your island is beautiful enough; surely there is no need to lower your country to trickery, smoke and mirrors, to increase tourism. With your real estate industry in another bubble, an economy slowing, tourism numbers decreasing, while rapid development on a large scale continues unabated, with banks continuing lending freely, one national airline already bankrupt and the other teetering on the brink, considering the lessons of 2008 financial crisis, and the fact that your GDP is heavily dependent on tourism: Hættu þessu kjaftæði, Iceland (Stop the bullshit)!
Let me take a minute to explain how a true stopover works. With a true stop-over, or extended layover, a traveler would only need to pay the taxes to exit the airport (for however many days they want to stopover on the island to visit (most countries have a limit on # of days)); whereas Icelandair does not do that – you end up being charged for two separate flights – a victim of a well orchestrated international bait-n-switch scheme – basically, absolute bullshit. So, instead of a round-trip flight to Stockholm, with a true stopover in Reykjavik, costing me $704 + local airport taxes to exit Keflavik (most countries are $36-90) into Iceland, it now cost me $1108 return flight to Sweden. I would think that is a wee bit more airfare, save any additional taxes. Number Forty-three would call that fuzzy math. Nu er nog komid, Icelandair (Enough is enough)!
It was eventually time to get back ‘on the road again,’ the journey of life was calling out my name – she was singing me home – as Willie Nelson’s melody softly played in the back of my head, slowly I packed my bags – Iceland and its people securely in my heart. It was also not long before the tour bus would come by to scoop me up, literally, again. Another skinny Polish driver would play Hercules. It should be duly noted that there are innumerable tour companies that will pick you up at your hotel for everything from northern lights to local island and harbor boat tours. My time in Iceland was memorable to say the least. Iceland is an astonishingly beautiful country – truly a supernatural land – an island of intrigue and mystery all its own – with a friendly people and interesting history – and with untold delectable treats and potent potables to boot – a place I will visit friends again, just hopefully next time it truly will not cost me any additional airfare. I need to save it for the taxi rides and horse carpaccio.
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