Why everyone’s obsessed with this place, despite the food

 

MOUNTAINS. Glaciers. Geysers. Hot springs. Volcanoes. Waterfalls. And the world's greatest hot dog.

Iceland is a veritable theme park of natural attractions, and there's a lot to love.

But Europe's most sparsely-populated country (there are just 340,000 people spread across 103,000 kilometres) is becoming a victim of its own popularity.

Thanks to Hollywood productions like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Interstellar, Journey To The Center Of The Earth, Die Another Day, and The Fast and The Furious - to name a few - more and more people are curious to check out the otherworldly landscapes that location scouts have long been clued in on.

Kirkjufell Mountain featured in Game of Thrones. Picture: Supplied/ BlackTomato
Kirkjufell Mountain featured in Game of Thrones. Picture: Supplied/ BlackTomato

In fact, so powerful is the Hollywood effect, it's been credited as a key factor behind the extraordinary swell in annual tourist numbers - from 566,000 in 2011 when it premiered, to an estimated 2.3 million visitors by the end of this year.

Earlier this year, after three flights between Sydney to Reykjavik - totalling 36 hours without fresh air - I became one of them.

Here's what it's really like over there.

 

IT'S REALLY, REALLY FAR AWAY

It may sound obvious, but I really can't overstate this: the flights from Australia to Iceland are a killer.

When you get to Heathrow Airport - after more than a day in transit between Australia and the UK - and realise you have yet another security check, a three-hour wait, and a three-and-a-half hour flight ... the world suddenly seems very grim.

 

IT'S ABSOLUTELY BREATHTAKING

The first thing I noticed as I stepped outside Keflavik Airport - other than the icy November temperatures - was that it looked like another planet.

The countryside appeared to be an endless stretch of greens and browns, with snow-capped mountains framing the view from my taxi window for the entire drive to Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.

 

More than a third of the country’s population lives in Reykjavik.
More than a third of the country’s population lives in Reykjavik.

 

Like most other Aussies, I've spent a fair bit of time hopping around the European hit list of destinations, and one thing that quickly struck me about its Nordic neighbour was how very different everything looks.

Its complex geographical history and position is behind the wildly contrasting landscape - full of volcanoes, geysers and Europe's largest glacier.

And with so much to take in, it's probably kind of weird that one of the most spectacular things I saw was, essentially, some fancy mud.

In the fields of Hverir - in Iceland's north - a volcanic expanse of orange rocky ground stretches out endlessly, punctuated by bafflingly aquamarine-coloured hot mud, which emits huge plumes of steam.

The entire effect is truly mind-blowing, but be warned: it absolutely stinks, thanks to the heavy presence of sulphur.

 

I may look happy, but I was literally gagging from the rotten-egg sulphur smell.
I may look happy, but I was literally gagging from the rotten-egg sulphur smell.

 

IT'S EYE-WATERINGLY EXPENSIVE

Before you pack your bags, there's something you need to know: Iceland is insanely expensive.

I mean it. Planning a trip in 2030? Start saving.

The country may be beautiful, but you're definitely paying for the privilege of taking it in.

Case in point: A standard taxi from the airport to the city - 48 kilometres - was $228.

But as much as a holiday there may hurt your wallet, spare a thought for the full-time residents: Iceland is the world's fourth most expensive country to live, according to Numbeo.

Or, to put it another way: The cost of living there is more than 48 per cent higher than in Australia.

 

BY PRESIDENTIAL DECREE, IT HAS THE WORLD'S BEST HOT DOG

There's a story Icelanders love to tell, and it's fuelled a humble and tiny hot dog vendor's meteoric rise to stardom.

As I learned from some locals, Bill Clinton dramatically changed the life of business owner Guðrún Kristmundsdóttir when he happened across her hot dog stand - Bæjarins Beztu - in 2004, while visiting Iceland for a UNICEF conference.

The small, no-frills outlet had always been popular with locals, and when one staffer spotted the former US President walking past, she took a chance and shouted out an offer to try "the best hotdogs in the world", prompting him to break away from his group.

A photo was taken as he happily munched away, and the Clinton seal of approval was forever established.

Bill Clinton and Maria Einarsdottir at Iceland's famous hot dog stand. Picture: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Bill Clinton and Maria Einarsdottir at Iceland's famous hot dog stand. Picture: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur

Since then, the stand has attracted plenty of celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Ella Fitzgerald, members of Metallica, the Game of Thrones cast and Ben Stiller.

By the way, I also tried one and can confirm: it was delicious.

 

THE OTHER FOOD IS, ER, INTERESTING

Hot dogs aside, Icelanders offer up some pretty experimental dining options.

Think whale. Rare slices of whale, in the style of a sashimi dish.

After someone at our table described the purply-pink flesh as looking "like a wound", I politely declined. But I was in the minority. Whale meat has a reputation as a local delicacy, compelling many tourists to give it a try.

It's important to note at this point: Iceland has come under fire for refusing to recognise the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling, largely due to the fact that hunters are unwilling to ignore the massive demand for whale meat - driven by restaurants specifically catering to tourists.

So - not interested in eating whale? Then maybe try the famous Icelandic "lamb fry" - although allow me to give you a pre-warning not extended to our dinner group: it's fried lamb testicles.

Otherwise, you can go for Iceland's most famous dish, Hákarl.

Translation? Rotten shark meat.

Bon appétit!

 

IT LOOKS LIKE WESTEROS

Where on earth do you go to film a show that doesn't look like anywhere on earth?

It's the pickle Game of Thrones producers once found themselves in: they needed a place that could appear as a frozen wasteland, inhabited by "wildling" tribes and the deadly Undead.

Enter Iceland.

Over the past six years, Thrones creators have filmed key scenes at locations across Iceland.

These have included Lake Mývatn and the ethereal lava fields of Dimmuborgir in the north, the Höfðabrekkuheiði hiking area near Vik, on the island's south coast, the Svínafellsjökull glacier near Skaftafell and Thingvellir National Park near the country's capital of Reykjavik.

As a result, as soon as you arrive in Iceland, you feel like you're on the set of the show.

Even better: there are plenty of tours available to guide fans through all the filming locations - and given that a lot of them are a little off the beaten track, it's well worth the effort.
 

They also filmed at Goðafoss, aka ‘Waterfall of the Gods’, but the scenes never aired. (By the way, this photo was taken at 11am — it looked like late afternoon.)
They also filmed at Goðafoss, aka ‘Waterfall of the Gods’, but the scenes never aired. (By the way, this photo was taken at 11am — it looked like late afternoon.)

 

YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO SAY THE NAMES OF ANY TOWNS

Other than Reykjavik, don't bother trying to say the names of the places you go - our Aussie tongues struggle to wrap themselves around any of them.

Don't believe me? Give these ones a go: Sauðárkrókur. Reyðarfjörður. Þorlákshöfn. Hafnarfjörður. Good luck!

 

Fun fact: Justin Bieber filmed a music video at this waterfall.
Fun fact: Justin Bieber filmed a music video at this waterfall.

 

Bronte Coy travelled to Iceland as a guest of HBO and Promote Iceland.



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