The Secret Lagoon in South Iceland

A happy couple at the Secret Lagoon in Iceland

What can you expect from a visit to the Secret Lagoon in Iceland? How does it differ from other spas and hot springs around the country? Read on to learn more about the many joys that come with bathing at the Secret Lagoon in Iceland. 

In Icelandic, the Secret Lagoon is known as Gamla Laugin, meaning Old Pool

It is aptly named, being the first artificially-made outdoor swimming area in Iceland. The first incarnation of the pool was built in 1891, smack in the centre of a geothermal area known as Hverahólmi. It was quite the change given this space had historically been used for washing clothes. 

Since opening, it has become a tradition amongst local people to enjoy bathing in these gently simmering waters. Swimming lessons were held there from 1909 to 1947, at which point the original pool fell into disrepair. 

It was not until 2005 that the pool was given a second chance. On the 7th of June 2014, the Secret Lagoon officially opened its doors. Holiday-makers have been flocking to it ever since. 

When can you visit the Secret Lagoon?

Entering the Secret Lagoon
Photo: Secret Lagoon – Gamla Laugin

There really is no best time to visit the Secret Lagoon. Summer visitors can enjoy the lush beauty of the surrounding nature, as well as the omnipresent sunlight. Winter travellers can expect a welcome source of heat from its waters, helping to break up their day exploring the local area. Opening hours for the Secret Lagoon are as follows:

Winter season

*from 1st of October to 31st of May

Open daily from 10:00 to 19:00

Summer season

*from 1st of June to 30th of September

Open daily from 10:00 to 20:00

 

Where is the Secret Lagoon?

Gamla Laugin
Photo: Golden Circle — Platinum Tour | Small group

The Secret Lagoon is located in Flúðir village, in South Iceland. Home to little more than 800 people, the village is known for its abundance of greenhouses and gorgeous surrounding scenery. Travelling by car is a 1 hr 25 min drive (104.7 km) from the capital city, Reykjavík.  

Thanks to its proximity to many other notable attractions, Flúðir is often included as an extra stop on the Golden Circle sightseeing route. 

 

Why should you visit the Secret Lagoon?

Bathers at the Secret Lagoon
Photo: Private Northern Lights Tour – With Secret Lagoon and Dinner

Visiting the Secret Lagoon allows you to experience the soothing warmth of Iceland’s geothermally-heated water. Slipping under its twinkling surface, you’re sure to feel your troubles melt away. 

Thankfully, there are no seasonal restrictions, meaning you are free to visit during the winter or summer. Each has its benefits; the Northern Lights may very well decorate the night sky for those stopping by between September and March. The Midnight Sun offers eternal light for summer travellers, allowing you to stay out later and fit more into your day.  

A visit to the Secret Lagoon also provides a brilliant opportunity to observe the steaming fumaroles and hot pots that surround the pool itself. Some even have names, such as Vaðmálahver, Básahver, and Litli Geysir, the latter of which is known to erupt every few minutes, offering guests a small spectacle in its own right. 

A steamy fumarole
Photo: Secret Lagoon – Gamla Laugin

In between bathing sessions, step out and take an enjoyable stroll around these fascinating natural features – but don’t step too close! These miniature springs are incredibly hot. This brings us to our next point – not only do these hot springs offer interesting surroundings, but they have a practical purpose too, feeding into the Secret Lagoon, naturally filtering its water and keeping it at a pleasant 38-40 Celsius throughout the year.  

As mentioned, the Secret Lagoon also happens to be the oldest outdoor pool in the country. With that in mind, it is pleasing to know you are taking part in an activity – relaxing in nature – that many Icelandic have done throughout the years prior, adding a real sense of authenticity to your visit. 

 

What amenities does the Secret Lagoon offer? 

A guest at the Secret Lagoon
Photo: The Ultimate Golden Circle Tour with Lunch at the Tomato Farm & Bathing at Secret Lagoon

The Secret Lagoon is more simplistic in its aesthetic and its amenities than many other spas in Iceland. Towels and swimwear are not included in the basic admission, so must be rented separately at 1000 ISK each. Make sure to spend time packing the essentials before visiting to avoid any unnecessary expenses. 

We highly recommend booking your spot in advance, especially during the busiest times of the year. However, it is also possible to buy tickets at the front desk should you decide to stop by on impulse. The ticket prices are as follows:

Adults: 3600 ISK

Children (14 and under): Free 

Seniors (and disabled): 2500 ISK

 

 

There are showers and changing facilities on-site, kept much the same as they always have been. Note that showering before entering the lagoon is mandatory, as it is with all pools in the country. Chastisement can be expected if one tries to skip this step, as a pre-entry shower is considered a foundational aspect of bathing culture in Iceland.

There is also a bistro that serves up refreshing drinks and a variety of delicious snacks. However, the bistro does not serve hot meals, so it is best to stop by the lagoon before or after you’ve had lunch. (We recommend Restaurant Minilik, an Ethiopian eatery nearby.) Exceptions are made when bigger groups make arrangements in advance. 

 

What attractions are near the Secret Lagoon? 

A couple at geysir geothermal area
Photo: Golli. A couple watches Strokkur explode!

On average, visitors tend to spend around 1.5 – 2 hours at the Secret Lagoon, leaving plenty of time to check out points of interest in the area. Fortunately, there are many worthwhile sites nearby that are worth slotting into your schedule. 

The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular sightseeing route, covering approximately 300 km (190 mi). It boasts three star attractions; Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal valley, and the powerful waterfall, Gullfoss, as well as other extra sites like Kerið volcanic crater and Friðheimar tomato farm. Almost all visitors to Iceland will want to make time to discover the beauty of this exciting drive. There is no better way to close it off than with a little bathing. 

If you were to head in the other direction, you would find yourself on the picturesque South Coast. This lovely journey showcases an eclectic mix of landscapes, from ancient sea cliffs to black sand deserts, craggy shorelines, and sweeping green meadows. Attractions on the western side include the waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, while exploring further will take you to the dark beach, Reynisfjara.

Visit Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in South East Iceland 

Jökulsárlón glacier lake in South Iceland

Whereabouts is Iceland’s famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, and why is it considered a staple stop during the classic Iceland vacation? How much time should you spend at this beloved lake of ice, and what stops can be seen en route? Read on to find out all there is to know about Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. 

Over the years, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon has been bequeathed with a rather regal nickname –  the ‘Crown Jewel of Iceland.’ It’s not difficult to see why. As one of the star attractions within Vatnajökull National Park, this gorgeous lagoon sits at the base of Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier. 

 

A Glacier Lagoon Like No Other


Arriving from the Ring Road, travellers will find themselves in a place quite like no other. Behold a placid lake of aquamarine water, host to thousands of varieties of icebergs, each floating harmoniously with the majesty of their environment.

Often, writing about Iceland’s bewitching locales leans towards the flowery and hyperbolic, but in this case, Jökulsárlón truly is a slice of heaven. 

Despite its gorgeous surface-level appearance, Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland. It stretches down to an amazing 248 m (814 feet). Overall, this sparkling water body covers 18 sq km (7 sq mi), making it four times larger than it was in the 1970s. 

An aerial views of icebergs at Jökulsárlón
Photo: The Elite Private South Coast & Glacier Lagoon. Icebergs at Jökulsárlón.

The reason for this growth is somewhat troubling. With climate change becoming an evermore tangible threat, Breiðamerkurjökull glacier tongue diminishes in size with each passing year, its meltwater feeding into the lagoon. Just over the last century, the outlet glacier has receded by 5.6 km (3.5 mi.)

In that sense, Jökulsárlón will continue to change in future. But that’s hardly a reason to stop international guests from enjoying it today. Jökulsárlón is not just one stop along Iceland’s spectacular South Coast – it is often the final destination; the very site that visitors are looking to arrive at, while making the most of other detours along the way. 

Unsurprisingly, Jökulsárlón has been an in-demand shooting location for Hollywood. Many blockbuster movies having filmed there. Such classics of celluloid include Thor: The Dark World, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Tomb Raider and James Bond: Die Another Day. Camera in hand, you too will, no doubt, feel the compulsion to capture this lake yourself. 

Where is Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon?

 

 

As mentioned previously, Jökulsárlón is located within the UNESCO World Heritage site, Vatnajökull National Park, in south east Iceland. 

Specifically, it is 380.2 km [380.2 mi] from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, sitting between the towns of Vík í Mýrdal and Höfn. 

Nearby to Jökulsárlón is another, smaller lagoon named Fjallsárlón. Less famous, but no less beautiful than its nearby neighbour, Fjallsárlón is far less busy, allowing space for guests to nurture a more personal relationship with the site. 

How to get to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon? 

The bridge at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Photo: Glacier Lagoon Private Tour

Jökulsárlón is approximately 5 hours drive from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. It is off the Ring Road – the one major route that circles the entire island. 

Jökulsárlón is about as far as one can go from Reykjavik and still make the return journey back to the city in a single day. For this reason, visitors often struggle with whether they should attempt this journey in one swoop. Another option is to split their time on the South Coast into a couple of days. 

Understand, this loop is not recommended for most people as it requires an entire day of driving, upwards of 11 hours. However, if you’re prepared to skip over some of the South Coast’s sites, or are quite content to spend plenty of time in the car, there should be no advising you otherwise. 

For those who are not interested in driving themselves, there are plenty of South Coast tours available that will take you from the city to the lagoon.

Countless buses and Super Jeeps make the journey each day, so long as the weather allows for it. Naturally, those wanting a more intimate and luxurious ride through the region can opt for a Private Tour

What season should I visit Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon? 

A mighty glacier in South East Iceland
Photo: Glacier Lagoon Private Tour

It is quite possible to visit Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in both seasons. But, if one were to be pressed for a definitive answer – the wintertime!

It is during Iceland’s coldest months  – from November to March – where Jökulsárlón is at its most spectacular. This is for the simple reason that only then are its floating icebergs at their largest, and therefore, most dramatic.

The site is still incredibly beautiful in the summer, especially as the ice glints with the light of the Midnight Sun. Be aware, however, that Skua birds live in the area during this time, and are infamous for being extremely protective of the nests they build all around the lagoon. 

As such, it is a common sight seeing people run for cover as these proud, winged parents divebomb aggressively from above. You have been warned! 

How long should I spend at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon?


The amount of time one wants to spend at Jökulsárlón is very subjective, but there should at least be a couple of hours allocated to enjoying its ethereal ambience. 

Stop by Diamond Beach 

An iceberg washed ashore at Diamond Beach in South Iceland.
Photo: Golli. An iceberg at Diamond Beach.

Extending one’s time at Jökulsárlón is rather easy thanks to the close proximity of another, yet lesser known natural attraction – Diamond Beach. This stretch of black sand shoreline is famous specifically for the contracts created by icebergs beaching themselves against the black sand shoreline.

Unlike Reynisfjara, further west on the South Coast, Diamond Beach is a safe place to walk by the water, marvelling in the ambience. 

Just like Jökulsárlón, Diamond Beach is a brilliant spot for photographs, as well as nature lovers in general. Guests to the lagoon need only walk for five minutes to the coast to arrive at this graceful strip of ice-laden pebbles. 

What tours are available at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon? 

A boat tour on the glacier lagoon in South Iceland
Photo: Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon & Boat Tour

While it is quite lovely watching the ice from shore, some people can’t help but one to get closer. Hence why boat tours are the most popular option at Jökulsárlón. 

There are two types of boat tours available. The first, and most exciting, is the zodiac tour. This sees guests climb aboard a small, rigid, and inflatable vessel capable of picking up high speeds. By taking a passenger seat on one of these small crafts, visitors are able to get as close to the icebergs as safety allows. Zodiac boat tours are a particularly good option for families and small groups looking for a more personal experience. 

The second type available is boarding an amphibious craft. This type of boat is just as capable of traversing the land as it is the water. Amphibious crafts provide an added novelty to your adventure, but they do allow for more customers on board. 

Whichever boat tour you choose, the operator will provide you with an inflatable life vest and warm overalls to help keep you safe and comfortable atop the water. 

Conclusion 

Glacier ice breaks away into the lagoon
Photo: Glacier Lagoon Private Tour

For those with only a short amount of time in Iceland, the desire to see Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon might add some unnecessary stress to their vacation. This is especially true when so many other beautiful sites can be found further to the west. However, with one or two weeks in the country, this otherworldly lake should be considered an absolute must-see. 

Golden Circle Driving Itinerary

Gullfoss waterfall Iceland

One of Iceland’s top-rated and most popular attractions is the Golden Circle. As the name implies, it is a journey that takes visitors on a circle from and to Reykjavík, stopping at three locations along the way. 

These three stops are Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Each location has its own wow factor, whether due to its rich history or captivating nature. 

The whole route is just over 230 km [145 mi], which can be driven in about 3.5 hours without stops. Needless to say, each location should be enjoyed and explored, taking in nature’s beauty, making it the perfect full-day trip from Reykjavík city. 

 

First Stop: Þingvellir National Park

The journey’s first stop is Þingvellir National Park, a captivating sight, rich in Icelandic history ranging beginning in the 10th century. 

The drive from Reykjavík’s centre to the National Park is about 45 km [28 mi], taking approximately one hour to drive. 

The National Park’s historical richness comes from the general assembly, or Alþingi, established there around 930, which continued to convene until 1798.

Þingvellir National Park is also an incredible natural sight, standing on the continental divide between North America and Eurasia. Therefore, the area is divided between the two continents, and visitors can easily walk between them. This divide is due to Iceland sitting on two tectonic plates, leading to a crack forming between the continents, creating a no-man’s land in a way not belonging to either continent. This crack formed Silfra fissure, a spectacular sight and a popular diving and snorkelling spot. 

 

How Much Time Do I Need at Þingvellir National Park?

In order to explore Þingvellir National Park’s main sights, 1 to 2 hours is recommended. That way, visitors can walk around, explore the fissure and the park and soak in its history. 

 

Second Stop: Geysir Geothermal Area

The second stop is the famous Geysir geothermal area. The drive from Þingvellir National Park to there is just over 45 km [28 mi], which also takes about one hour to drive. 

The famous Geysir belongs to the geothermal area, which is also the home to its more active counterpart, Strokkur. Strokkur usually erupts every 6 to 10 minutes, and its height can reach 40 metres. However, it usually goes up around 15 to 20 metres. 

The area’s erupting geysers and bubbling mud pots create an environment so unique it resembles another planet but is, in fact, just one of Iceland’s unparalleled locations. 

 

How Much Time Do I Need at Geysir Geothermal Area?

The geothermal area in itself is not very large, so walking around the main sights takes little time. However, as the geyser eruptions are a fascinating experience, visitors might want to stick around and see the hot water explosion a few times. Therefore, spending around one hour at the Geysir geothermal area is recommended.

Strokkur geysir erupting in the geysir geothermal area Iceland
Photo: Golli. Strokkur erupting

 

Third Stop: Gullfoss Waterfall

The journey’s last but certainly not least stop is the Gullfoss waterfall. The drive from Geysir geothermal area to Gullfoss is a short one as it is only 10 km [6 mi], which takes about 15 minutes. 

The waterfall cascades down two tiers, where its upper waterfall has a drop of 11 metres [36 ft] and the lower one 21 metres [69 ft]. Gullfoss derives from Hvítá river and plunges into a deep canyon. The waterfall’s name means golden waterfall, describing the golden-toned mist that can often be seen glazing over the water. 

From the car park, a short path leads visitors to a viewing platform, allowing them to enjoy the view over the breathtaking waterfall. The glory of Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjökull, can also be enjoyed from the viewing point. 

 

How Much Time Do I Need at Gullfoss Waterfall?

To enjoy the breathtaking views of Gullfoss waterfall, factor in about 30 minutes up to one hour. 

Gullfoss waterfall in the Golden Circle by summer
Photo: Golli – Gullfoss waterfall

 

Other Golden Circle Activities

Besides the three main Golden Circle stops, many attractions and activities are around.

Laugarvatn Fontana and the Secret Lagoon offer a spa-like experience for visitors to enjoy Iceland’s warm, geothermally heated water. Laugarvatn Fontana is located by Laugarvatn lake where visitors can also jump into the cold water before enjoying a warm sauna. The Secret Lagoon is located in Flúðir village and is Iceland’s oldest swimming pool. Either lagoon is perfect to include in the itinerary, possibly at the journey’s end, before heading back to Reykjavík.

 

Skálholt is a historical place in Iceland, a former school, monastery, cathedral and dormitory for over 700 years. Today, it serves as a Lutheran church and an education and information centre for the Church of Iceland.

 

Kerið is a stunning volcanic crater lake and is truly a hidden gem. The crater is one of Iceland’s youngest volcanic craters, only 6.500 years old, formed by a collapsed volcano. 

Kerið Crater seen from above
Photo: Golli. Kerið Crater

 

Where to Eat When Driving the Golden Circle

When driving the Golden Circle, there are many spots to enjoy a good meal along the way. 

Geysir Restaurant is located in Geysir geothermal area in Hotel Geysir. The hotel and the restaurant were designed to blend the building into the environment by using materials reflecting the surrounding nature. The restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes, ranging from lighter dishes to Icelandic seafood and international dishes with ingredients sourced directly from regional farmers.

 

Located in the Bláskógabyggð region is Friðheimar, a restaurant and tomato farm. Friðheimar is a family-run business that grows delicious tomatoes year-round and serves guests tomato soup with freshly baked bread. Stopping at Friðheimar would be convenient after visiting Þingvellir before heading to Geysir.

 

Efstidalur is a farm, cafe and restaurant offering a variety of products straight from the farm, such as ice cream, skyr and feta cheese. The restaurant also offers beef from the farm and other local food. Eftidalur is conveniently located on the way from Þingvellir to Geysir, making it a perfect stop on the way.

 

Farmers Bistro is located in Flúðir village and is Iceland’s only mushroom farm. It also encompasses a restaurant serving food made from ingredients grown on the farm. The restaurant is located by the Secret Lagoon, so visitors can conveniently combine the two at the journey’s end before heading back to Reykjavík.

 

How Long Does the Golden Circle Take?

Driving the Golden Circle takes about 3.5 hours in total, without stops. Therefore, including stops at each location, visitors should factor in at least 6 to 7 hours to get the full experience. More time should be factored in if other activities are added to the tour, such as visiting the Secret Lagoon or others.

 

Can I drive the Golden Circle on My Own?

Yes, travellers can undoubtedly do the Golden Circle route in their own car. It should always be kept in mind that driving conditions can vary depending on time of year and weather, so driving with caution is essential. 

However, many Golden Circle tours are offered where visitors can enjoy the convenience of experienced guides and a driver, taking the group to the main attractions. Many tours combine other activities, such as snorkelling in Silfra fissure, visiting Friðheimar tomato farm, entering the Blue Lagoon or others. 

Available Golden Circle tours can be seen here.  

Kerið: A Volcanic Crater Lake in South Iceland

iceland tourism private land

Kerið is a volcanic caldera in the Grímsnes volcano system in southern Iceland, formed as a result of an inward collapse of a volcano about 6,500 years ago. The caldera is about 270 m [886 ft] long and 170 m [558 ft] wide, with a depth of 55 m [180 ft]. Its lake’s depth varies between 7-14 m [23-46 ft]. Kerið is known for its visually attractive palette. The lake has a distinct teal colour due to the soil’s minerals. Its surrounding hills are composed of low bushes, moss and red lava; the red colour is due to the oxidation of the magma’s iron (hematite). 

Visiting Kerið

Kerið is located on a private property owned and managed by Arctic Adventures. As of 2024, the entry fee is ISK 450 [$3.25, €3], and it is open all year. Swimming or drinking the water is not allowed. It is one of the destinations on the famous Golden Circle route, which includes stops such as Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur geothermal area and Þingvellir National Park. 

How to get to Kerið

Via Route 1 and Route 35, Kerið is a 67 km [42 mi] drive from Reykjavík city centre. From the capital, drive south on Route 1 for about 55 km [34 mi] before turning left on Route 35 towards Laugarvatn lake. Drive for about 13 km [8 mi], and you will see the parking area on your right. Kerið is right by the parking lot, so hiking is not required; however, there is a 1.4 km [0.9 mi] trail around the caldera for added vantage points.

 

Deep North Episode 60: Boom Town

iceland immigration

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten.

And along with the tour boom, the community in Vík has grown in recent years as well. Here’s how this South Iceland community is making the best of it. Read the story here.

Drinking Water Pipe to Westman Islands Damaged Beyond Repair

Heimaey, Westman Islands

The pipe that transports drinking water to the Westman Islands has been damaged beyond repair. While the pipe is still fully functional, it could break at any moment, leaving Heimaey island’s 4,523 inhabitants without water. The pipe was damaged ten days ago when the trawler Huginn VE unintentionally dropped an anchor on it, which then got stuck on the pipe.

Pipe must be replaced

A notice from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management states that the damage to the pipe stretches across a 300-metre [980-foot] section. Underwater pictures taken to assess the damage show that the pipe has shifted significantly from its former location. “This situation makes the possibility of a temporary repair difficult,” the notice reads. “The only permanent solution is a new pipe.”

The National Police Commissioner and the Chief Superintendent of the Westman Islands have jointly declared a “danger phase” in effect for the Westman Islands due to the situation. Íris Róbertsdóttir, the local mayor, told RÚV that a response plan is in the works to lay down new piping, which she insists will need to be done by next summer at the latest.

Town will not be evacuated

For the time being, there is no need for Westman Islands residents to save or store water. The town’s water tanks store 5,000 tonnes of drinking water, which could last anywhere from several days to over a week if the water pipe does break fully. The local heating is also dependent on the water supply. Westman Islands’ Chief Superintendent Karl Gauti Hjaltason stated that if the damaged water pipe does break, the town would be able to continue heating homes and buildings for up to two weeks with its stored water.

If additional water is necessary, the current plan is to transport it to the Westman islands rather than evacuate residents. The town authorities are, however, reviewing evacuation plans.

Boom Town

vík í mýrdal

The drive into Vík í Mýrdal from the west is one of my favourite stretches of the Ring Road. Just past the turnoffs for Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara, the flat plains of the south coast narrow and rise into a brief but beautiful mountain pass, windy in both meanings of the word. Before you know it, the town opens up below: to the left, its iconic, red-roofed church on a hill, watching over a slope of low-lying houses. To the right, a cliff leading out to the sea. Ahead, a plain on which the growing town stretches east. 

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten. 

vík í mýrdal

As elsewhere across Iceland, the booming tourism industry in and around Vík needs workers, and most of those who have come to the town in recent years are immigrants. While across Iceland, some 18% of the population are foreign citizens, in Mýrdalshreppur that figure is 60%, making it the only Icelandic municipality in which immigrants constitute a majority. It’s a reality in which both the opportunities and the challenges brought by immigration and multiculturalism in Iceland are magnified. I’m here to learn more about both.

icewear vík
tourism in vík
tourism in vík

The Mayor’s office

In Einar Freyr Elínarson’s office, a big screen hangs on the wall, featuring a photograph of goats frolicking in a field. “It’s taken on my farm,” he explains. “I’m the sixth generation of my family to live there. I’m a country boy, as deeply rooted in Mýrdalshreppur as I could be.” For years, the family farm has also had a guesthouse and a restaurant, and before becoming mayor last year, Einar was involved in the family business. “I have a background in tourism, and like everyone who works in tourism here, I’m used to working with foreigners. Since I was ten, there have almost always been some foreign people living with us at home, so I sort of grew up in that environment.”

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“In the youngest division of the preschool, most of the children are from families of foreign origin. Most of them don’t speak Icelandic. If we don’t address this, it could lead to certain social problems in 10-15 years. We have an opportunity to prevent that.”

Since Einar’s childhood, however, the tourism industry in Mýrdalshreppur has changed dramatically, expanding from a seasonal industry to a year-round one. “Back in 2010, people were hiring staff for two or three months over the summer, but there was nothing to do over the winter. Around 2017, that started changing very quickly. There started to be a lot of traffic over the winter, which meant tourism companies could hire staff year-round. I also think that’s why we’re leading in tourism in this area: we have such quality staff.” 

tourism in vík

When the pandemic brought tourism to a near-complete halt, it really sunk in for Einar that many of the foreigners who had come to Mýrdalshreppur for work were not just here temporarily. “I was on the local council at the time. When companies closed and had to lay off their staff, we thought the municipality’s tax income would collapse. What we hadn’t realised is that there were a lot of people who had lived here long enough that they had earned the right to unemployment benefits. The municipality got local tax income through those benefits, and its income didn’t drop quite so much. That’s when I realised: OK, people are starting to settle here. They’re not leaving.” 

I head to the Icewear wool shop to meet one such settler, who came to the town years ago and never left. 

vík black sand beach

Icewear

The Icewear store in Vík is more than a store, it’s an institution. A sea of coats, socks, knitted hats and sweaters, stuffed toys and souvenirs fill its vast, two-storey floor plan. Even on this weekday morning in early November, tourists are wandering the aisles, picking up a puffin-emblazoned scarf or a hiking shoe for closer inspection. “Summers are crazier, but the winters are catching up,” Tomasz Chochołowicz, the store’s energetic manager, and the chairman of the town’s English-language Council, tells me.

icewear in vík Tomasz Chochołowicz

“At first I thought local politics were beyond my reach, that they were more for Icelanders.”

Tomasz moved to Iceland in December of 2015. “I came straight to Vík. It was different than it is now. A year or two earlier, the hotels were closing down over the winter. I was unemployed for a month, I had debts. It was tough. Then I met a woman who lived here and she helped me find a room. I stayed with a guy who was working at Icewear. He told me to leave my CV here. I got a position because I already had housing; it was such a hard thing to get. Then I lost it one week later.”

Tomasz eventually settled in, and shortly afterwards, his girlfriend (now wife) joined him in Vík. Eight years later, he has climbed the Icewear ladder to become the store’s manager. He has a house and a three-year-old son. “There are challenges. But if you compare it to life in other places, it’s just crazy good.” He admits, however, that for residents arriving now, it’s more difficult to enter the real estate market. “We have many young people working here, between 20 to 35 years old. Very often they stay for three, four years. It’s a challenge for us to try to keep them here. To give them a carrot, so to say.”

Víkurskáli

One person looking for such a carrot is Irene, a cashier I meet when I pop into Víkurskáli gas station. Irene came to Vík two years ago, relocating from an Athens she describes as “overpopulated.” I ask her how the town is treating her. “I love it here, but it’s not for everyone,” she answers. While settling in wasn’t hard for Irene, “it’s after that it gets harder. Then it’s in Óðinn’s hands, or Þór’s,” she quips.

“I love it here, but it’s not for everyone.”

When I ask Irene about the challenges of living in this small, South Iceland community, she lists off many issues that small communities across Iceland share: the health clinic, which also serves as the community’s pharmacy, is only open from 9:00 AM-1:30 PM on weekdays. There’s a lack of housing, and most new buildings are “built for the tourists, not for the people who live here. They’re trying to build more housing, but it’s too slow.” Many of the issues, she recognises, are not necessarily reflections on the municipality, but the government. “The big heads seem to forget there’s a strong community of people here behind the touristic town that really try to stay long term. But we don’t have a hospital, post office, or school big enough to accommodate a town of nearly 1,000 people.” Irene wants to stay in Vík, but she doesn’t know how long she can under the current conditions. “There are not a lot of career opportunities for people who would like to work on their career path.”

The English-language Council

Over the past few years, as Mýrdalshreppur’s transformation was taking place, the issues facing foreign residents were not immediately apparent to the local council. That changed in the lead-up to the 2022 municipal elections. “When we were preparing the candidate lists for the election, Tomasz came to the meeting,” Einar tells me. “He took the stage and explained that a very large group of people within the community felt that they didn’t have a real opportunity to make an impact. So we had a very honest discussion about that and the idea of forming an English-language Council emerged.” 

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“It’s because of the work of these new residents that the municipality is in a good financial position.”

There was one specific development in 2022 that helped Vík’s foreign residents be heard. An amendment to Iceland’s election legislation meant that foreign residents could now vote in municipal elections after having lived in Iceland for three years (previously it had been five). In Mýrdalshreppur, this meant that suddenly, 42% of all eligible voters were immigrants. “The number of foreign residents on the electoral register quadrupled,” Einar reflects. “It was a whole different game. Suddenly this group could make demands of the municipality for services that were important to them. Building a new gym became a campaign issue, something that no one was thinking about eight years ago. The biggest demographic among foreign residents is 20-40 years old, this is a service that is really important to them.” 

polish immigration iceland

Once he became mayor, Einar quickly saw that to gain residents’ trust, he needed to make sure his involvement in the council was hands-on. “I decided that I would attend all the English-language Council’s meetings. I go to every single one and I give them a report on what’s happening in the municipal council. And it’s been really good for me as well to get their perspective on things. The issues we discuss in the municipal council affect all residents, including foreign residents.”

Doctors, drones, and dialogue

As Tomasz reviews the issues the council has discussed over its inaugural year, I can see they range widely: bringing more doctors to Vík, regulating drone flying within the town, preparing welcome brochures for new residents, and making Icelandic language education more accessible. Local residents often work long hours and finding the time and motivation for Icelandic classes can be a challenge – especially when their jobs mostly involve serving foreign tourists in English. “If you want to have true access to Icelandic society, learning Icelandic is key,” Tomasz says. “I had the idea that the municipality could hire a teacher who could be available at different times to accommodate shift workers. The problem is how to frame it since no one has done it before. But it’s also exciting, because why not? Let’s see where it takes us.”

In its role as an advisory body, the council has made proposals that are followed up on by the municipal council. Although the English-language Council technically does not have any executive power, Tomasz argues that soft power can be even more effective. “If we ask something of the municipal council, we cannot be ignored. We definitely have influence. I think this soft power is better when you’re trying to convince people of something, you create connections. If you push too hard, you create more divisions in the community.” 

Housing

When I ask Einar about the biggest issue facing Vík, his answer is clear. “Housing. Whatever housing goes on sale, employers buy up immediately, because they want to grow their companies. And in order to grow their companies, they need to hire people, so they buy housing so they can rent it to their staff.” In contrast to the capital area, most workers who have settled in Vík live in housing provided by their employer, Einar explains. “And the municipality is no exception there. We’ve had to buy a lot of apartments in the last few years just to be able to hire people for the office and the schools. And we’re in the same position as the companies: we can’t continue to house someone if they stop working for the municipality.” It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not ideal for any of the parties involved, Einar explains. “It’s a bad situation for the worker, who is completely dependent on their employer for housing – they’re stuck working for the same person. And the companies would also rather invest their money back into the business or pay out dividends.” By building more rental housing, Einar hopes Mýrdalshreppur can change this system. New rental apartments have come on the market recently and the municipality just signed a contract to build 200 more units over the next ten years.

vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal

More secure housing independent of employment contracts will also help reduce resident turnover, Einar suggests, which could in turn help diversify the economy. “A lot of the new residents in this area are highly educated. They could easily do something totally different from working in tourism if they weren’t at risk of losing their housing.” Another important factor is ensuring good services. “Foreign residents are lacking a big part of their support network here. If they have kids, they need to know there will be space for them in the preschool, because Grandma and Grandpa aren’t around to watch the kids if something comes up.”

housing construction in vík

The preschool

When I enter the preschool, it’s naptime. I tiptoe through the hallways in search of its director, Nichole Leigh Mosty, hopeful that she, at least, is still awake. Originally from the United States, Nichole has been living in Iceland for over 20 years. Much of that time has been spent working in the fields of diversity and inclusion, in both Reykjavík and Ísafjörður (the Westfjords) and directing organisations such as the Multicultural Information Centre and W.O.M.E.N. in Iceland (the Women of Multicultural Ethnicity Network). Nichole took on the position of Vík’s preschool director last June. The immigrant community here differs from the others she’s gotten to know.

preschool in vík

“The other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we?”

“In Reykjavík, there is a lot of diversity among immigrants. There are university-educated people who are working in their field; there are people like me, ‘two-decaders´ who have settled in, and not necessarily around a particular industry; there are people who receive refugee status who settle there because that’s where the services are. In Ísafjörður, there are immigrants who have been there for a long, long time. Here, it’s a whole different reality: there are a lot of people who are newbies, fresh to the country.” While the length of time most immigrants stay in Vík may have lengthened since 2015, Nichole still sees a lot of turnover. “And maybe that’s OK. Maybe we need to also think about short-term inclusion. Not necessarily just integration, but inclusion: how do we include people who come for a little while? Because there’s a lot of wealth in having young people here with new ideas,” she observes.

The fact that most of Vík’s new residents work in the tourism industry presents specific challenges when it comes to integration. “I have families here who work very hard in the summer and then take their vacation in the winter. So I’ll lose children out of the preschool for six, seven weeks. That might be great for the family, but it’s a huge gap in language development.” The preschool recently elected a new parent’s council, where two out of the three members are of foreign origin. “I’m really happy they came to me and asked if they could be involved. I want it to be a learning opportunity for them about how things work in the local community, but also for us, to learn what they’re thinking. Like, for example, why they still go to the doctor in Poland.”

Nichole Leigh Mosty

“I’m here because I believe something really special can happen in Vík if we all look at the community we have, look at the community we want, and work together to make it.”

As for the English-language Council, Nichole sees it as a good first step towards greater integration and inclusion in Mýrdalshreppur. “People are proud of the fact that it’s here. People are proud to be a part of it. And that’s a really important first step. But as for the next steps: how do we get the community more involved in the council? And how do we bring what happens in the council back out to the community?” Nichole stresses the importance of the council being involved in shaping policy within the municipality, particularly a policy on integration, which is still lacking.

When I ask Nichole what motivates her to continue to fight for inclusion, her optimism is apparent. “After the Women’s Strike the other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we? There are so many possibilities to get it right.” Nichole points out that the changes in Vík benefit long-time locals just as much as Iceland’s newcomers. “The town is booming. Everywhere you walk, they’re building something.” The preschool is no exception: it will soon be housed in a new building, the first phase of which is set to be completed by December. “Growth is happening. The question is, what do you do to include these new people in the community that they are basically funding and keeping alive?”

The running track

As I step out of the preschool, I wander to the running track at the edge of town. Two women are strolling around it, one pushing a baby carriage. During the pandemic, this municipality had one of the highest birth rates in Iceland. I think about how Einar framed his hopes for the future of Mýrdalshreppur. “I want the municipality to invest because it’s in a good position to invest right now. Many of the new residents are paying full taxes but they are young people without families, which means they are using very few services. As people settle here and have children, they go to school, the operations become more costly. The opportunity to build for the future is now.”

vík í mýrdal

I wonder what others in Iceland can learn from the developments in Vík: both its challenges and the enthusiasm and vision of its community leaders. I hope they won’t wait until immigrants become the lion’s share of voters to ask these questions. If they do, they’ll lose valuable time. As I return home to Reykjavík, Nichole’s last words to me echo in my head. “People should watch what happens in Vík.” I know I will.

60 Years Since Start of Surtsey Eruption

Surtsey island

Today marks exactly 60 years since the start of the eruption that formed Surtsey island, off Iceland’s south coast. The island, which has been closed to the public since its formation, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The opening of a photographic exhibition to mark the anniversary has been delayed as Iceland awaits a potential eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, where one town has been evacuated.

The Environment Agency had planned to open a photographic exhibition on Surtsey in the Westman Islands today, November 14, but a notice from the agency says the opening will be delayed. “In light of the serious situation that has emerged, we don’t consider it appropriate to celebrate this milestone at this moment,” the notice reads.

While the exhibit’s opening party has been delayed, the photo exhibition itself remains open to visitors. It features the work of Iceland Review’s principal photographer Golli, who received rare permission to accompany a scientific expedition to Surtsey this past summer. His article and photos from the expedition, Island in the Making, are available to subscribers on the Iceland Review website.

Iceland’s First Cacao Fruit Made Into Chocolate

Iceland cacao fruit

The first cacao fruit ever grown in Iceland was harvested and made into a chocolate bar recently, RÚV programme Landinn reports. It took 10 years of cultivation at the Horticultural School at Reykir for the cacao plants to mature and bear their first fruit. The dark chocolate made from the fruit at Omnom’s chocolate factory tasted surprisingly like coffee.

Unclear how cacao flower was fertilised

“Cacao plants start to blossom when they become mature around 7-10 years of age. We got the first blossoms three years ago, and since then the plants have gotten more and more blossoms. But it really surprised us when we saw the first fruit this summer,” Guðríður Helgadóttir, a horticulturist at the school told RÚV. “As far as we know, this is the first cacao fruit that has fully ripened in Iceland.”

The cacao seeds were planted at Reykir, located near Hveragerði, South Iceland, in 2013. In their natural environment, cacao plants are fertilised by tiny flies. “The flowers are tiny, and you can see that regular bees couldn’t do the job,” Guðríður explains. Since no such flies exist in Iceland, it’s not clear how the flower that grew into Iceland’s first cacao fruit was fertilised.

Smoky coffee flavour

“It’s really exciting,” said chocolatier and Omnom co-founder Kjartan Gíslason. “There are somewhat fewer beans than I’m used to seeing in a fully-ripe fruit, but considering that it’s the first cacao fruit that has grown in Iceland, it’s very normal that it’s not totally perfect in the first go, but we can definitely do something with it.”

The beans were fermented for nine days, and then taken to the Omnom chocolate factory, where they were roasted and hand-made into small dark chocolates. Guðríður was invited to taste the chocolate. She agreed with Kjartan’s analysis that the flavour was somewhat smoky and reminiscent of coffee, but said the chocolate was “really good!”

Expert Proposes Ban on Hunting Puffins

puffins iceland

The South Iceland Nature Research Centre proposes a full ban on puffing hunting in Iceland in a new report. Iceland’s puffin population has been below sustainable limits for a long time and its outlook is poor. The Centre’s Director and a Doctor of Biology Erpur Snær Hansen told RÚV that changing hunting regulations would take political will.

Around 20% of the global population of puffins nest in Iceland’s Westman Islands, with other, smaller colonies across the country. The average puffin population in Iceland has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The change is attributed to a scarcity of food for the birds caused by rising sea temperatures. Hunting, of course, causes the birds’ numbers to decline even further.

Population set to keep decreasing, even if hunting is banned

Erpur says The total puffin population in Iceland numbers around 3 million nesting pairs. If puffing hunting is banned, that population is expected to decrease by over 10% over the next decade. If hunting continues to be permitted, however, the population is expected to decrease by 30% or even as much as 50% within that same period.

“This is not sustainable hunting, and the Wildlife Act clearly states that it should be,” Erpur explains. He adds that the current regulations around puffing hunting mean that not all puffins hunted are reported, so the impact on the population could be greater than projected.

Political will needed to ban puffing hunting

Erpur goes on to explain that, unlike ptarmigan or reindeer hunting, for which quotas can be set and changed yearly by inserting a provision into the regulation, puffing hunting is subject to a different set of laws. In order to ban puffing hunting, the Minister of the Environment would need to change that law. “Maybe it can just be said that the political will to do something about it was not strong enough, or that the pressure from interested parties was therefore greater,” Erpur mused.

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir received criticism for imposing a temporary ban on whale hunting this year, a decision that also caused tension within the governing coalition.