Wow, tourism really did dominate the landscape of debate here in 2014, didn’t it? We here at Grapevine have spent more time experiencing, arguing, analysing and pondering the effects of tourism on Iceland than maybe anything else. And there was some serious food for thought amongst it all. Are the tourists trampling our puffins and eating all our shark? Are we all going to wake up with a bulldozer outside the house about to raze the building to the ground to build new hotels? Is Gullfoss going to LITERALLY EXPLODE FROM ALL THIS FOOTFALL?
Amidst the much-needed and overdue conservation talk, hundreds of thousands of holidaymaking individuals came and left Iceland. And most of them seemed to have a pretty great time. It was fun for us to sift through the stories they submitted to our TOURIST OF THE YEAR comp.
Here are some honourable mentions:
- The Hodson family, who had a valuable camera go missing from under their many noses, only to have it returned in a mysterious fashion that could only have been those pesky elves carrying out their mischief.
- Maria Freestone and her friends, who expressed their admiration of the landscape by dancing on it wherever possible, and filming themselves doing so (ronk-a-donk).
- Kristen Read and her friends, who hired a car in Keflavík, and quickly discovered a flat tyre, and then a flat spare tyre, but didn’t let it stop them: they drove around the country anyway.
- Brendan Canty (unfortunately not the Fugazi drummer as far as we can tell) made a great film from lots of shaky handheld footage that we felt really captured the essence of an Icelandic road trip.
Of the multitude of reasons folks cite when attempting to explain that peaceful trance Iceland exerts on its visitors, we noticed that for many it’s the small things that make their trip special. Brendan Abbott remarked that when he bought a hand-knit sweater in a far-flung rural craft store, the shopkeeper knew Lóa, the woman who’d knitted it, and told him some small facts about her for a truly personal touch. Observations like these display a mindful and keen-eyed approach to travel, and we enjoyed them the most, perhaps.
Bearing that in mind, we were particularly taken with Kara Deniz’s account of her search for a moment of peace amidst the busyness of everyday life.
Kara didn’t find her most memorable moments drenched in the roaring of Seljalandsfoss or soaking up the party chaos of Kaffibarinn. She found them sitting on the rocks of Reykjavík’s harbour, taking an early morning walk through empty streets, listening to the silence of her guesthouse bedroom. Kara came to Iceland not demanding an experience—not to tick things off a pre-determined wish list—but with a blank canvas: open minded, attentive, and curious about what she would find here.
Kara also pulled off some pretty great writing in her submission. You can read her story below.
So. After much deliberation, we decided to name Kara our TOURIST OF THE YEAR. Congratulations, Kara. You get a free trip to Iceland, for you and a buddy!
“I’ve always felt interested in Iceland,” says Kara, after we told her over the phone of her winning entry. “I don’t remember what sparked it. So when the opportunity came to travel to Europe, I suggested an Iceland stop. I spent time downtown, sat in Kaffitár, and watched the people walking by, watching how they spoke and interacted. I really wanted to get a sense of the people, that’s how I travel. We went running along the harbour and I sat in the rocks and looked out and just absorbed it all. We went around the bar scene. Our outward flight was early, when it was still dark—it was over quickly, but it made a big impression.”
“I do like to pick off the hot spots when travelling, but they never entail the most memorable things that happen—those tend to be more observational. One such time was getting up on a Saturday or Sunday morning, when the shops and cafes were still closed and nobody was really awake yet. I stumbled across the sculpture garden by Hallgrímskirkja [at the Einar Jónsson Museum]. There was just one other person there, who sat on a bench. I took pictures of each sculpture and the plaques. To me those small moments are the most memorable. I am somewhat introverted by nature, and I feel like I need space and time to just be and think. Iceland gets that—there’s a sense of real calm. It’s a unique culture.”
“My one regret is that I haven’t had the opportunity to travel outside of Reykjavík. The city is wonderful, but I feel like the tourism advertising Iceland as a stopover is ironic, as it’s more of a destination in itself. It’s fitting with my style to rent a car and just get out there and discover things for myself—to interact with the space and nature a little. I think I’d like to see it in person and get a sense of what the rest of the country looks like.”
So, Kara: now’s your chance to get out there! Enjoy the trip, and thanks for your mindful approach to tourism and your thoughtful account of your time here. Now you’ll get the chance to get out of the city and find some more peaceful moments out there in the wilderness.
Now, read her winning essay.
I haven’t picnicked on an iceberg or searched for my own lost self. I was perhaps a rather boring tourist, from an outsider’s perspective. I didn’t flirt with death by nature, and I didn’t lose myself.
I did find something, though, that I hadn’t been looking for. I found in Iceland something rare in our modern world.
I found: silence.
I found it in 2009, the first time I visited Iceland. As I sat on the harbour, breathing in the clean air and looking at Mount Esja, I felt it. It was the stillness I’d never felt before. I became aware then for the first time that silence wasn’t the absence of sound. It wasn’t the absence of anything. It was the presence of peace. The world was calm and I was, too, for the first time in a long time.
After that, I never heard the silence again. Since 2009, I’d travelled to Istanbul, Amsterdam, London and Lisbon. I’d gone into the woods in the United States and sat by still ponds, but there was always that something—a cricket, a bird. There was the sound in my mind of the phone calls unanswered as I took time to walk in nature, or the voice of my relatives or friends. I needed that silence. It completed something in me in a way that I hadn’t felt before.
Years went by, and it seems the world became more stressful for everyone. As technology expanded, it made the world smaller, and brought us together while pulling us apart. The phones and emails flooded. Everyone’s lives became busier. The world became even more rushed.
Just when I felt at the end of my rope, by fortune a stopover on a work trip in 2014 brought me back to Reykjavík. I didn’t have time to go to the glaciers or Gullfoss. I wanted to visit the Goat Lady, but that took time I didn’t have. I was in a hurry. I never did get to experience the geysers, or to ride a horse. At the Blue Lagoon I was hardly a special tourist, more of a cliché. I lost count of all the other American accents I heard through the steam, clutching plastic cups with beers in their hands.
On my second day, I sat on the rocks near Harpa, looking out at the mountains. I focused on the still water and waiting for that silence, that silence I craved for so many years, and which I felt in that same spot five years ago. Just then, a Caterpillar construction truck ploughed by me, putting rolls of grass into the openings in the cement. The workmen yelled at each other while the engine roared. The silence was lost before it was found.
What if I would never experience it again? What if Iceland had lost that singular quality? Since I’d been there before, there was considerably more construction going on, and more noise. I mean, come on, the place now even had a penis museum!
That night, as I sat in my guesthouse room on Gunnarsbraut, which faced the garden in the back, I finally felt it. The moment was full, of peace, serenity. I was calm. I would hope that other tourists to Iceland experience the same thing, but even if it’s my own personal connection, I appreciate it nonetheless, or maybe even more. The silence was there and it lasted until I absorbed all of it, enjoyed it for all that it was. I smiled and continued reading The Reykjavík Grapevine. Örvar the cat was found! The Icelandic sense of whimsy was strong as ever. The painting of puffins and white horses stared at me from the wall.
I may not have done anything wild and wonderful like hike a mountain, get lost on the North Atlantic or discover elves, but I’d like to think I’ve discovered something truly special about Iceland. And it’s more than I need to keep me coming back.
The Grand Prize
A trip to Iceland for two, including air travel provided by Icelandair, plus three nights at the stylish Reykjavík Hotel Marina (and drinks at GV HQ)—was provided in collaboration with Inspired by Iceland. “Honourable mentions” each get a bunch of Icelandic goodies.