Iceland Holidays Through the Eyes of Zegrahm’s Native Guide, Dagny Ivarsdottir
Iceland is about as far from a secret in the international travel scene as a country can get.
Over the past 15 years, the number of annual Iceland holidays has skyrocketed. The country’s bounty of beautiful volcanic landscapes and glacial formations has made the remote island an eco-tourism hotspot. There were nearly 700,000 Iceland tourists from the US in 2018, which is twice the Nordic country’s total population. The total count for foreign visitors to Iceland eclipsed 2.3 million.
The most popular Iceland tours follow a route known as the Golden Circle. This highway loop covers about 200 miles and includes three of the top Iceland attractions: Gulfoss Waterfall, the geysers of Haukadalur, and Thingvellir National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Other stops along the Golden Circle typically include a volcanic crater, geothermal power stations, and numerous historical sites. The route begins and ends at Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city and home to over half the country’s population.
Aside from the Golden Circle, trips to Iceland may also include a combination of other natural highlights. There’s the world-renowned Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa. There are several glaciers to visit, including Djupivogur (Europe’s largest) and Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake. Seydisfjördur is renowned for its singing waterfalls, and Westfjords is home to native wildlife and craggy coastlines. The Mývatn region is a lava landscape with a lake and wetland area that is home to a diverse array of unique waterfowl.
In addition to its natural splendor, Iceland is a Nordic island with a rich history that includes Viking settlements and centuries-old fishing villages. Today the republic (which is just 75 years old) is a land of progressive creatives, with more poets per capita than any other place in the world.
The financial collapse of 2008 hit the country very hard, but it famously held bankers accountable and made a significant recovery. Due to the recession, Iceland became an inexpensive destination, and tourism has played an instrumental role in that recovery. But the influx of Iceland travelers has become a bit of a double-edged sword.
OVERTOURISM IN ICELAND
Though locals are keenly aware that tourist dollars have helped to reboot Iceland’s economy, the effects of mass tourism have begun to weigh heavily on Europe’s most sparsely populated country. Hordes of tourists attracted by cheap travel deals are notorious for inexorably altering destinations, as well as negatively affecting the locals who are not involved in the tourism industry.
Despite the positive aspects of the country’s growing numbers of visitors, over-tourism in Iceland has become a problem. When tourists arrive in throngs and all vie for a selfie spot in front of a particular waterfall or glacial lake, little by little it erodes the natural balance that once made the place special.
In a country like Iceland, which has more space than people, the infrastructure of cities are not set up for receiving millions of tourists each year. For Iceland this is even more of an issue because it’s primarily a summertime stop, meaning most of those visitors are packed into three to four months of the year!
Iceland’s government has initiated plans to implement airport taxes and toll roads to help fund conservation and infrastructure improvement. There has even been discussion of capping the number of tourists allowed in the country per year. Ultimately, like other remotely located Nordic countries, Iceland will also prove that it isn’t a “cheap destination.”
Unfortunately, these changes and solutions are coming too slowly for many Icelanders. The young artists that keep the culture vibrant are losing their apartments to AirBnB rentals. National treasures like the Blue Lagoon have become too overcrowded for locals to enjoy them. Another problem is that Icelanders—who are known for being welcoming and authentic—are increasingly wary of their beloved country being perceived as a Nordic theme park.
Fortunately, there are ways for those of us who are intrigued by the country to still visit Iceland responsibly. That starts with simple things like respecting our hosts, caring for their national treasures, and supporting sustainable initiatives. Rather than joining the onslaught of mega cruise lines and weekend warriors, we can dive deep into Iceland and appreciate its many lesser-known attractions.
THE BENEFITS OF ZEGRAHM’S ICELAND CRUISE
Zegrahm Expeditions’ Circumnavigation of Iceland expedition is a great way to experience the glory of the Golden Circle, but also explore many nooks and crannies of the country that other tourists rarely experience.
This is a 13-day small-ship cruise with a maximum of 135 guests. Not only do participants get to explore Iceland’s most iconic hotspots but the ship (Le Bellot) sails around the entire island, popping into ancient fishing hamlets and sending out Zodiacs to remote natural refuges. Expert guides provide background on the area’s geology, wildlife, and history to make it all the more meaningful.
Dagny Ivarsdottir, a native Icelander and Zegrahm tour guide for the Iceland cruise, took a moment out of her busy schedule to explain what makes this trip different, both through the eyes of tourists and the eyes of locals. She also brought to light some of the wonderful extras that come from traveling on small ship cruises that are well-staffed with experts.
What makes small ship cruises less impactful?
“Small ship cruises are more favored by the locals, as it is less invasive for the local town/harbor. Smaller ship cruises tend to be able to have more intimate experiences with both nature and locals. While tourism is very important for us, and in fact the biggest industry today, many of our countryside towns and villages are quite small, with basic infrastructure. They’re best enjoyed with fewer people around at a time. Smaller ships help us provide a higher quality and less crowded experience for everyone.”
Small-ship cruises are inherently a much kinder way to explore other countries than large ships. Rather than having 2,000+ passengers invading a local town at once, Zegrahm’s cruise allows a maximum of 130 people to visit Iceland at a time. This creates a friendlier experience for both the residents and the visitors. Villages don’t have to change their lifestyles to accommodate huge crowds.
In addition to easing the stress on the local human population, smaller ships are a lot less intrusive to local wildlife and less destructive to natural coastlines. Large ships require much more space and create much more pollution. For them to dock somewhere, they require a lot more infrastructure, which often disrupts the local ecosystem.
In Iceland, these spaces are fragile, yet amazingly remain largely intact. We, as responsible tourists, should prioritize protecting that.
What highlights does Zegrahm’s cruise offer that typical Iceland tours don’t?
“When you travel on a ship around Iceland, you’re experiencing a lot of things you can’t fully appreciate while on a land-based tour. With a ship, we’re able to explore the dramatic coastlines and fjords and get a sense of the thrill, adventure, and views that Vikings would have had. We get to smell and feel the rich waters surrounding Iceland, which make it such an ideal habitat for sea birds and marine mammals. Our naturalists and bridge team are always on the watch for wildlife, and on this cruise, we get to visit many of the small islands and bird cliffs that most land-based tours never get close to.”
Circumnavigating Iceland puts travelers bobbing and weaving in the seas that surround the island, where the warm Gulf Stream and cold Arctic currents meet.
The shorelines and islands are home to throngs of seabirds, including nesting spots for colonies of Atlantic puffins. The tides are familiar feeding grounds for a dozen different species of whales, as well as dolphins, porpoises, and seals. The Zegrahm tour includes sailing by Látrabjarg to see millions of birds, exploring the Lake Myvatn region to see a renowned waterfowl breeding spot and several evenings of high-probability whale watching.
From the ship’s deck, guests get to appreciate a view of Iceland most travelers never see. They relax with sunsets over the water. They look deep into the fjords, which cut icy blue inlets into the mainland. They see freshly-formed islands (Surtsey was created in 1963 from an underwater eruption), basalt columns, sea stacks, and caves dotting the coastlines.
Zegrahm passengers even get to cross into the Arctic Circle while visiting the far-flung Grímsey Island, “home of one hundred people… and one million seabirds.”
How are interactions with Icelandic locals and culture different on Zegrahm’s expedition?
“On our circumnavigation, we will visit some of the least visited towns and get an intimate view into Iceland’s past and present life in the countryside. We will visit more places with a rich history of seafaring, and learn about how the Icelandic people thrived and adapted to life on a very isolated land with a relatively harsh climate. We have had to adapt and pick up a lot of skills in order to survive here. One of our classic sayings translates into, ‘A naked woman will learn how to spin thread quickly in an emergency situation.’”
Iceland has a history wrought with extremes and exploration. It has a nautical past and present that derives from the deep nether reaches of earth—geysers and volcanoes—and a population that pushes to the far edges of the planet. There are still some places here that very few others will ever venture.
Not only does Zehgram go to some of these sites, but voyagers get to mingle with folks (and folklore) you’ll only find by traveling beyond Reykjavik and the quickie tour routes.
A stop at Siglufjördur introduces visitors to the Herring Adventure, which helped the Icelandic economy establish independence and take steps towards gender equality via the Herring Girls. At Raufafhofn, the northernmost community on the mainland, discover more fishing history.
You’ll also find the “Arctic Henge,” which looks ancient but was actually built beginning in 1996 and was inspired by the Norse poem Völuspá – The Prophecy of the Seeress. On Heimaey Island, the tour visits a town established way back in 650 A.D.
What makes the expedition team for Zegrahm’s Circumnavigation of Iceland cruise noteworthy?
“Zegrahm has a unique team of extremely experienced and knowledgeable individuals. Not just in their respective fields of expertise, but also in terms of working in and around Iceland specifically. We all have a passion for sharing information with others. You’ll get to see that through conversations with us or by attending lectures, where we do our best to convey knowledge in a fun and informative way.
I was born and raised in Iceland, (and) I’ve worked as a naturalist/cultural expert on ships in Iceland for five seasons now. Expedition leader Brent Stephenson has led tours and worked in Iceland many times before. Marine biologist Madalena Patacho has spent the last couple of summers exploring Iceland by ship. And the list goes on…”
With respect to the negative press about over-tourism in the area, why should conscientious tourists still feel motivated and excited about a trip to Iceland?
“Because, thanks to the tourist boom, there is now a political incentive to protect our natural pearls and create nature reserves.
Before the tourism industry in Iceland became our biggest source of income, aluminum smelting was high on the priority list, because we can provide very cheap energy here. However, in order to create ‘cheap’ energy, we have to dam our beautiful rivers and canyons and flood fragile wetlands. Thanks to tourism being so successful, there finally seems to be political motivation to preserve and protect our untouched nature.
Aside from that, even though we have lots of visitors to Iceland, you will still be blown away by the landscape, people, and culture. You may find some of the most famous places a bit crowded. But if you look at the whole experience, there are still plenty of places where you will feel totally off the grid and alone in the world. There is a good reason why Icelanders are such a happy and creative nation. We are extremely in tune with our nature and heritage, and the best way to understand that is to come and visit us!”
A 30th Anniversary Signature Voyage, Zegrahm’s 13-day Circumnavigation of Iceland expedition departs on June 10, 2020. There is also an option to extend your Iceland holiday by including a preliminary tour, Hiking Iceland’s Interior. As always, space is limited. –Jonathon Engels
BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.