What North America can learn from Iceland

Emily! Do you want to go to Iceland? Those were the first words out of Nicole’s mouth when I answered the phone in the middle of the winter last year. Flights: booked.

Not long afterwards, we picked up another travel partner, Hilary.

After months of postponing planning, we decided on two things: 1. rent a car and 2. figure it out on the fly.  Three girls, an SUV, a must-see list and a draft outline drawn on a map is all we had planned for our week-long trip in July.

There are a lot of great things to see and do in Iceland – glacier hikes, waterfalls, volcanos, helicopter rides, off-roading, scuba diving, luxury spas, culinary experiences, and Reykjavik, the nation’s capital, is a blend of history, business and culture.


We decided to drive both the Golden Circle (short circuit just outside Reykjavik) and the Ring Road (main highway all around the island). Here’s what I discovered about Iceland and what we, as North Americans, should take away from this country.

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Iceland hasn’t always been so lucky. It suffered a lot from the 2008 financial crisis and the major volcanic eruption in 2010. The value of the krona collapsed and the prices of goods remained expensive – it’s not easy transporting items to a remote island in the North after all. For a tourist, the cost of food and goods is still quite expensive so it’s worth spending your time and money on adventures.
Some say their tourism spike is thanks to agreements with major airlines that use Iceland as a stopover from North America to Europe, some say that it’s because the millennial generation is looking for that picture perfect background – either way, Iceland’s getting back on their feet… In a sustainable way.
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Locals pay very close attention to the ecosystem and the environment. There are no forests in Iceland – certainly not like you’d see here on the East Coast of Canada. Moss – basic green moss – can take upwards to 5-10 years to grow. Needless to say, when we stayed in a bubble in the middle of the “woods” we were sheltered by a few skinny trees that provided barely enough privacy for us to run to the outhouse in the middle of the night!
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Icelanders will not put up with your North American bullshit – they don’t have time for it and they want to have an environment to go back to once this tourism boom starts to downturn. Play by their rules or stay away. It’s a very fragile environment so be sure to respect the boundaries set out by the tourism bureaus, park officials, the governments and the locals – otherwise you will be ridiculed… a lot and by everyone.
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The majority of Iceland’s power is fuelled by renewable energy such as hydroelectric and geothermal. Iceland is full of volcanic activity that makes geothermal energy easy to access – essentially, they don’t have to dig too deep to find it. In fact, they love geothermal energy so much that they built one of the nicest spas in Iceland directly beside the plant. Tourists are literally bathing in the by-product from the plant – and it’s awesome. Silica and sulfur are so good for your skin that companies have started to bottle the product in hopes to make a profit.
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Hydroelectric = waterfalls. There are so many waterfalls in Iceland, I’m pretty sure we saw a different one every day! Hilary was on this photographic kick where she tried to capture the perfect milky waterfall – so we spent a lot of time visiting them…. and saw them from many different angles. It was totally worth it. There’s something soothing about watching waterfalls. Especially knowing that the governments and business leaders of the day were smart enough to realize that the force from the water could power the majority of the country’s energy requirements. (Gee – I wonder how much 160 billion tonnes of water twice a day could power *hint hint* Bay of Fundy…)
One more thing that I learned about Iceland: they have a very unique breed of horses. Icelandic horses are said to have been preserved by isolation – there has been no cross-contamination between these horses and other horses from around the world. I really don’t know much about horses, but I can say I literally fell in love with a short, shaggy haired Icelandic horse named Dorri. I seriously think this horse either had some cognitive issues or he was just simply just a klutz – whatever it was that made Dorri special, we were meant to ride together.  While Nicole and Hilary looked oh so graceful on their horses, Dorri and I bumbled along like YouTube compilation of “People walking into things”.
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All in all – Iceland is absolutely worth visiting. My advice: rent a camper or SUV and travel around. We stayed in some pretty cool spots along the way, but there are many different ways to travel this beautiful country – budget conscious to top-of-the-line luxury*.
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 *Side note: we had a brief moment of luxury when we pulled into a swanky hotel/restaurant for dinner with our new American friends. I had a nut burger – most delicious thing ever. If I didn’t like meat so much, this would have definitely convinced me to try vegetarianism.
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With shared content from Nicole Rowan and Hilary Brown