The morning I landed at Keflavic Airport in Iceland, I wondered what had possessed me to leave behind beautiful warm summer weather in Montreal to end up in pouring rain and 9C temperature barely five hours later.

However, by the end of my 4-day stopover, I wished I had more time (and more cash) to explore this unique and unusual destination.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast

To give you an idea of what I mean, here are 15 things you probably didn’t know about Iceland.

Renewable energy

About 85% of all houses in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy. Renewable energy provides around 99% of electricity production, one quarter of which comes from geothermal power and the rest from hydropower.

Water

The hot tap water has a slight sulphuric smell due to its geothermal origin. The cold tap water comes from a separate source and consists of pure spring water without any additives such as chlorine. It is one of the purest drinking waters in the world.

Population

The population of Iceland is only 330,000 people, of which nearly two thirds live in the Greater Reykjavic Area (city of Reykjavic plus four surrounding towns). Icelanders will tell you that they value quality over quantity. ūüôā

From rags to riches

A little more than a century ago, Icelanders were scattered around the island, lived in turf huts and fished only for their own needs. Illiteracy was common and industry and urbanization practically unknown. Today, Iceland’s standard of living is among the highest in the world.

Skyr

Skyr, an Iceland dairy specialty

“Skyr” is a unique Icelandic non-fat dairy specialty available in every supermarket. Looking and tasting somewhat like thick yogurt, it’s actually a type of fresh cheese. It comes in many flavours including blueberry, apple, and passion fruit.

Increasing self-sufficiency

Iceland produces 30% of the food it consumes, and this percentage is growing.

What’s in a name?

Most Icelanders still follow the ancient tradition of deriving their last name from the first name of their father. For example, the last name Eir√≠ksson means “Eir√≠kur’s son” and Haraldsd√≥ttir means “Harald’s daughter”. Women keep their own last name after they get married. This results in parents, brothers, and sisters in the same family all having different last names.

Northern lights

The brightest aurora borealis (northern lights) are usually seen in spring and fall, rather than mid-winter. They are most frequently observed from about 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM.

Disappearing trees

While 30% of Iceland was originally occupied by trees, that percentage is now only 2% due to sheep grazing and logging over the years. The fact that the land is mostly covered by volcanoes, glaciers and lava fields doesn’t help either. In fact, there are more trees in towns than in the countryside! The purple Alaskan lupin that you can see in vacant fields is preparing the soil so that more trees can be planted in the future.

A park in Reykjavic, Iceland

A park full of trees in Reykjavic

Not so cold

Iceland enjoys an oceanic climate warmed up by the Gulf Stream. Despite the fact that summer temperatures rarely rise above 15C, winter temperatures do not often dip below -5C (although frequent winds may make it feel cooler). Iceland’s average winter temperature is actually higher than many more southerly cities such as Berlin or New York.

Mosquitoes

Iceland doesn’t have any!

Fire and Ice

Iceland sees a volcanic eruption at least once every five years. Many volcanoes lie under glaciers, creating a lot of steam and ash when they erupt, as was the case with Eyjafjallaj√∂kull in 2010 when flights in and out of Iceland were cancelled for days. Most volcanic activity is never publicized though. Another eruption in 2014 was the largest since the 17th century, yet the rest of the world didn’t hear about it.

Glacier-covered Eyjafjallajökull volcano, Iceland

A farm below glacier-covered Eyjafjallajökull volcano

In addition to volcanic eruptions, the country suffers hundreds of small earthquakes every week. For example, I just found this article, published the day after I left Iceland!

Democracy

Iceland’s Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament¬†in 930 AD at a site called¬†√ěingvellir,¬†now part of the popular Golden Circle tour.

Beating Columbus to the Americas

In the year 1000, Leifur Heppni (Leifur “the lucky”) was the first European to set foot in North America, 491 years before Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean.

Late independence

Iceland has only been an independent country since 1944, having first been a colony of Norway and then Denmark.

This is just a small sample of the oddities found in Iceland. Sometime over the coming months I’ll be writing about my day trip to the South Coast, which included stops at two waterfalls, a black sand beach with basalt columns, and a glacier!


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