As round-the-world adventurer Nathan Millward continues his exclusive three-week Iceland adventure – on his own BMW R1200 GS – he’s started to find that things aren’t what he expected…
There’s lots of ice here
Sounds obvious but there really is a lot of ice in Iceland. Riding my BMW around the exterior – especially in the South – or through the interior (or even flying over it for that matter), reminds you of just how much glacial ice there is in Iceland. The size and scale of it is hard to take in when you first see it. There are even tours through tunnels bored into the glaciers you can now take, though controversy surrounds the tunnels, as many feel it’s against the preservation of nature.
It’s busier than I was expecting
Tourism is booming in Iceland. Between 2015 and 2016, tourism leaped 40% from 1.3 to 1.8 million; early figures for 2017 suggest that jump will be even greater for this year. Bear in mind the population of Iceland is only around 350,000, so the ratio of tourists to locals is much higher in the peak season between June and September. Most of the growth came after the volcanic eruption of 2010, with tourist figures for that year just half a million, then exploding once the eruption put Iceland on the map.
It can feel like a tourist island – there are a lot of rental cars, especially on the Route 1 ring road, and the main tourist attractions are crowded; it doesn’t feel like the last European wilderness you thought it might. Alternatively, take one of the quieter F roads or even one of the gravel peninsula roads and you’ll be the only vehicle there.
The sunshine makes or breaks it
Without doubt Iceland is a stunning country when the sun is out; it brings out the colour in the rock and grass. Even a moody sky with rays of light shining through brings the place alive, but it it’s dull and overcast then it can be a really bleak, without many places to shelter from the wind and rain – which can descend quite rapidly. It can be quite a challenge on a motorbike, especially for a pillion rider not used to being at the mercy of the elements. Summer temperatures range from 8°C to highs of around 20°C. You definitely have to come prepared for prolonged cold wet riding, or get lucky with the weather.
Tyres wear out a bit quicker
Probably due to the volcanic activity on the island, tyre wear does seem a little quicker than you would usually expect, especially if riding any of the extended gravel roads that can run to 100 miles or more in length. I get about 5500 miles out of a Michelin Anakee Wild back home, but here it looks like I’ll get about a 1000 miles less, hence an unexpected rear tyre change in Reykjavik.
The national dish is hotdog
It’s not officially hot dog, but it does seem to be the staple food of the petrol stations, which all seem to have a hot food counter as well. They cost around £3.00 and are like the ones you get at the cinema. You can either have them with fresh raw onions or dry cooked ones. They’re not substantial but do fill a hole. The same food counters also do burger and fries for around £12, pizza slices and other quick snack food. Away from Reykjavik there isn’t a huge choice of food options at a reasonable price.
Alcohol costs so much because supply is controlled by the government
The Icelandic government essentially acts as a cartel with regards alcohol on the island, with booze only available for distribution via their channels. High taxes and lack of competition mean a pint or a bottle of beer can easily be £8.00 or up. But hunt around in Reykjavik and you might find a bottle of Singha beer for around £4.00.
You can ride around Iceland in five days and still see plenty
They say it’s as big as England, but if you land in Reykjavik and take a bike (or car) on a five-day loop of the island on Route 1 – which is said to be around 850 miles – then you can still get to see plenty of the main attractions and even find time to detour off the main highway in search of quieter stretches.
When my wife flew in for six days, we spent five going around the island, averaging about 200 miles per day. The first day we went from Reykjavik to Akureyri, the second largest city on the island, found in the north. From there onto Eiðar into the east, then the east fjord town of Djúpivogur, a night in Kirkjubæjarklaustur on the south coast, before riding back into Reykjavik the next day. A whirlwind tour and maybe not enough time to really get a feel for the place, but it does give a good taste of what the island’s about.
Most communities have their own swimming pool or thermal pools
No matter how small a town, you can generally bet there’ll be a swimming pool or thermal hot pot to soak in. The water is heated by thermal springs and often smell of egg (it’s the sulphur). There are very strict guidelines on hygiene before entering a public pool, insisting cleaning of hair, armpits, genitals and feet – absent of swimming costume – before getting into the water. Some thermal pools charge, some are free. There are also less well-known thermal spas that might require local knowledge to find.
The island is alive
In certain parts, where the water is bubbling or steaming out of the ground, or where the plates of the European and American continents are still moving, you get the sense that Iceland is never settled and will always be in a state of flux.
The best parts are the farthest reaches
Given the boom in tourism, with much of that in Reykjavik and the Golden Circle (a loop of all the main attractions within a day’s ride of the capital) it’s fair to say that the further from Reykjavik you get, the quieter and more pleasant it is. The Eastern Fjords have been a highlight, so too the far North East, which had surprisingly few tourists… in my last week on the island I’m heading up to the Western Fjords, which are also said to be free of the tourist hustle and bustle. It perhaps suggests that if you did only have five days on the island, then you might be best focussing on one of these areas rather than trying to cover all of it.
It’s easier than I thought
Maybe it’s the way it’s been presented by other riders who have been, but the impression you might have before landing is of an extreme motorcycle adventure paradise. Lots of trails ideal for dirt bikes, and up to your waist in water crossings. Of course that’s all there if you want it, but in the main the island is easily accessible, with good roads, excellent sign posting, good facilities such as fuel, and enough accommodation choices to make it a really easy option for someone wanting to come and roam around on a regular road bike. If tourists in rental cars can do it, then so can any biker.
There’s no off-road riding in Iceland
In a bid to preserve their natural environment there is a very strict rule on off-road riding, with stiff penalties and fines if caught. Obviously you can ride the F roads, which are the unpaved roads across the interior and other parts, and that are often like trails we might normally associate as being off-road, but it is strictly against the island’s rules to stray off the designated route and make your own tracks. Ride off the ferry on a bike with knobbly tyres and you will be reminded of this by a policeman with literature to give you on the rules; rules that islanders – and the police – take very seriously!
Most petrol stations have a free car washing bay
This is a simple pull in, wide enough for three vehicles, with three hosepipes with brushes on the end. They’re free to use and are a great way of getting all the crud off your bike or car. I used them on the bike after a few of the dirt roads, where salt had been mixed in with it, creating a heavy salty paste that isn’t going to do the bike much good if left on.
The main industry, other than tourism, is fishing
Riding around the island is a reminder that the vast majority of people live in Reykjavik, the rest are generally in small fishing communities dotted around the coastline. Most have harbours and fish processing factories on the quay – many have a smell of fish in the air and fishing is generally the biggest local employer. The island has had its fair share of ups and downs with regards to fish stock; from the Cod Wars with the UK, to the boom and bust days of the herring catch.
It’s harder to wild camp than I was expecting
The notion of camping in the wilderness, away from civilisation, was often talked about in regards to Iceland. I’d gathered there was a freedom to camp anywhere – within reason – much like Scotland, but in recent years it seems the Icelandic government has tried to deter it, with signs forbidding camping on certain spots, and the fencing off of much of it making it difficult (though not impossible) to slip off the road and out of sight. For the cyclists and hikers it’s much easier (and clearly legal), but for motorised vehicles, not so, as well as being potentially illegal for motorcyclists (it is for cars and campers).
It’s quite a lot like Scotland
Scenery wise, Iceland is at times very reminiscent of Scotland. Sometimes it’s not as picturesque, and if you’ve been looking at Iceland thinking you really should get there, but haven’t yet done Scotland, then I’d say do Scotland first. Bar the volcanic action and steaming hot springs, you can get much of the experience of Iceland right on your own doorstep. That’s not to deter anyone from coming to Iceland – it’s a great place – more to remind that you don’t have to come all this way and spend all this money to have a good bike trip in a landscape of fjords, mountains and highlands. It’s already right there on our doorstep.
The country has a heavy American influence
In 1944 Iceland won its independence from Denmark. It had previously been occupied by the UK during the Second World War but in 1951 was offered protection by the US on behalf of NATO. This meant American military personnel and infrastructure was stationed on the island and the influence has been there ever since. Expect to see old and modern American cars, and in Reykjavik the ubiquitous American fast food chains such as KFC, Taco Bell and Subway. In 2006 the US pulled out its troops and infrastructure, but the influence still remains. Away from Reykjavik you would otherwise never know it.
There are museums everywhere
No matter how small the town or community, you can almost guarantee there'll be a museum of some description. From folk museums, fishing museums, agricultural museums to even a motorcycle museum in Akureyri. I'm currently writing this in the café of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavik. Costs are around £6 and the museums seem a good way of learning a bit about local culture, history, and also getting out of the elements.
What’s your dream destination? If there’s somewhere you want us to send Nathan, in order to give you the full low-down, tell us in the comments…
Do you need travel insurance for a trip like this?
Just like any holiday, a trip on a motorcycle – be it in the UK, Europe or beyond – can be ruined by delays, lost documents, illness and more. There are plenty of travel insurance options, but you need to make sure you get a policy that includes riding motorcycles, and if it does, that it's for bikes of the engine size you'll be riding (many only cover up to 250cc). At its most basic, you should look for insurance that provides cover for the following:
In addition though, if you’re taking a motorcycle (or you're renting one while you’re away) be sure that your insurer will cover you for any medical expenses, should you have an accident. You must also think about where you’re riding – some policies won’t cover you if you’re trail or enduro riding, or if you’re on a race track. Remember – this isn’t about your bike being covered, it’s about your medical expenses, should the worst happen.
If you're only going away once, a single-trip policy will likely be all you need, but also consider an annual policy, which could extend to cover your family holidays too (a good insurer should also be able to offer cover for your whole family).
BikeSocial’s parent company, Bennetts, has a motorcycle-specific travel insurance policy – find out if it suits your needs by clicking here.