Saturday, May 14, 2016

Inside the icy terrains of Iceland

Since I was a teenager, I have dreamt of catching a glimpse of Northern lights which is why I have been planning and saving for a trip to Iceland. When someone asks me about my favourite destination, pat comes the reply, it is Iceland. I want to visit the place for two reasons, to watch the northern lights and see the midnight sun. Yes, you heard it right, in Iceland the sun stays awake until as late as 11 PM, which is only visible in summers. If you're travelling to the place especially to see the Aurora Borealis or northern lights, then winters are the best time. Most tourists pay a visit from mid-June to September mainly to indulge in outdoor activities like horse riding, snow mobiling etc.

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The number of daylight hours can have unanticipated emotional and mental effects and this should be taken into consideration before timing the trip. 
The temperature is cool in summer and remarkably mild in winter, all thanks to the Gulf stream and the lowest temperatures in New York is surprisingly lower than that in Reykjavik. The weather is violently volatile and once can sometimes experience four seasons in one day.  
If you're looking to discover the country side and participate in outdoor activities then September is the ideal time to visit. Experienced horse riders can get to see the countryside and participate in the Icelandic farming ritual that will tell you about the lifestyle and culture followed by  dwellers in the tiny hamlets outside the capital city.
If Aurora Borealis is in your list of "To do things" then mid-September to March is best suited for a visit. However one must also brace themselves up for disappointment, because the freaky weather can be a hindrance to the view. If you want to see this electromagnetic phenomenon, make sure that you stay for more than a week in Iceland. You can opt to stay in the city and from there head for a guided tour of Aurora Borealis or the more adventurous option is to stay near the forests in a warmed bubble made of perspex that will provide a scintillating view of the Artic sky.

How to get there?
You need a valid passport and visa applications in India are processed by the Embassy of Denmark. More information can be found on the website of Icelandic Directorate of Immigration
There are no direct flights from India to Iceland. Most flights consist of one to two stops with the most cost efficient tickets taking an extra travel time of seven hours in comparison to the priciest picks. See as to what suits you and you can make an informed choice about what you will go for.  Etihad Airways offers you pocket friendly deals while Lufthansa Airlines will provide comfort and save time.

Krona is Iceland's monetary unit and dollars, euros and pounds can be easily exchanged for Krona. The most practical and reliable way is at the ATMs or currency exchange desk. Avoid exchanging money at hotels since they charge exorbitant transaction fees.
Visa and Mastercard are most widely accepted. Icelanders are in love with plastic money and whip one out for the smallest of transactions. 

Getting around
Due to the erratic weather and serpentine roads dotted with blind spots and no guard rails, driving around is a tough challenge. To add to the woes is the glare which is a common hazard due to the sub-Artic sun and livestock that roams around aimlessly on the roads especially in the countryside. It is safe and advised to travel by bus which covers most towns and some interiors areas during summers. A "full circle pass" is good enough for one full trip around Iceland on the Ring road with an option to hop on and off. If you are on a guided tour around the place then moving around the place shouldn't be an issue. Rental cars are also very popular with tourists.Due to high winds and unpredictable weather, flights aren't preferred. Ferries or boats are another important mode of transport used by tourists which is again safe and won't pinch the pocket.

Accommodation and Food
Hotels and guesthouses are usually expensive while camp sites accommodations and mountain huts are open to tourists only in summers. Booking online is the best way to save money on boarding and lodging. Travelling during off-season will also greatly bring down housing charges.
Try and book a room that has access to the kitchen since restaurants in Iceland are expensive.
Apartments and family rooms are another option by which one can save money on accommodation.
Icelandic guesthouses could quote exorbitant prices to a travel agent, so be sure of checking it out on your own. 
One can also save money by paying for the lunch and cooking their own dinner, since dinner prices are much higher.
Convenience stores have inexpensive salad bars, so that can be a great way to beat hunger. 
Fast food is available in almost all gas stations especially near the countryside where food cannot be found easily.
Special interest vacation packages that allow you to take up short term courses in geology, hydropower and Icelandic culture are also available. One can learn Icleandic or participate in environmental clean up programmes during their stay in Iceland.

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Healthcare and Safety
If you fall sick, consider calling up or showing up at the nearest hospital or health care centre.  Iceland has very high quality medical care and almost all doctors can speak English.
Most pharmacies are open from 9 am to 6 pm.
A medical travel insurance will come handy if you have health issues.
Carry an eye mask to help you sleep in summer.
Sunblock, lip balm and glares are necessary to protect from the harsh sun.
Always be armed with insect repellents if you're travelling in summers, to ward off midges, especially found in interior regions.
First aid kit, map, compass and a GPS unit are useful for emergencies.
Always carry warm and water proof clothing even in summer.
In you best interest,  make sure to thoroughly study the potential dangers of an outdoor trip before setting out. Organized trips with professional guides are your best bet as they are safe and will always have a well-informed person to lead you.

Iceland is a great place to fly solo with a wide variety of guided adventure tours to choose from. If you're travelling on your own, you can avoid paying for a single person's accommodation by rooming with other solo travellers. You can also split travelling costs and make new friends during your stay. For families, hotels, guest houses or farm accommodations are the ideal choices. Always be sure of checking for discounts on transportation, tourist attractions and accommodations.  Making a booking online or through the phone will help save a lot of money on staying and travelling around the place. Whale watching, horse back riding and bird watching are the most common activities of interest for families.

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Tips for vegetarians
Icelanders are heavy meat eaters but fresh vegetables are easily available if you are planning to cook for yourself. Pasta dishes are common and most vegetarian restaurants are concentrated in Reykjavik and Akureyri.

Staying connected
Public phones would loosen the strings of your purse and so is calling from hotels not advised. International calling cards provide better rates and can be found in gas stations and convenience stores. Pre-paid GSM cards are available from two main companies, Vodafone and Siminn. 
Free wifi is widely available else high speed internet cables for laptops are provided by hotels. This makes it a good place to take your own computer. Due to low crime rate, you will not have to worry about your laptop getting stolen.

Advance planning can save you a lot of grief and money particularly from mid-June through August when accommodations are overflowing with guests. Rental cars are convenient as public transport doesn't reach every nook and cranny of the country. Sharing the costs with fellow travelers is advised and guided tours are the best and safest to explore the rocky terrains of the country. Consulting a tour company or travel agent will give you an idea about how to plan a wonderfully satisfying trip around this nature's icy marvel. 


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