When I was young, before wanting to go to Australia was hip, I wanted to go to Australia. I wanted it for what felt like forever but of course I had no money and it was a long way away, and I was young.
I remember very well a conversation I had in high school with another classmate:
“About how much would it cost to go?” she asked.
“Maybe $3000,” I said. (This was a very long time ago.)
“Is that a lot of money?” she asked.
She was a daughter of very wealthy parents.
At any rate, I put it out there that I wanted to go to Australia. The world knew. The universe knew.
Lo and behold, one day, then, a couple of years later when I was in my sophomore year in college, an announcement was delivered to everyone’s mailboxes. One of the professors was planning a summer excursion, a class field trip if you will, to Australia. Meet in the biology department on this date to find out more.
I met in the biology department. I found out more. Turns out I was right: it was about $3000.
By this time I’d been working a while and had saved all my money. I had the $3000.
And so I went to Australia, for four weeks. It was my introduction to travel and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever gone on.
And ever since then I’ve been wanting to go back.
And because I can’t think of anything else to write about today—or, at least, nothing else that I want to say in public, or that I’ve thought out well enough to write about—I’ll instead put this out to the world, to the universe: I want to go to Western Australia. Soon. For several weeks, or even months.
I’m making the plans. I have the time. Now, universe, all I need is the money or the means.
Make it so, universe. Make it so.
P.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!
If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.
Ages ago, when I first got cable TV, I got it for one reason: the Travel channel.
If you’ve watched the Travel channel over the years, you know it has … well, evolved. Or maybe “devolved” is a better way to say it.
This is one of the reasons I love public TV—PBS—so much. The travel adventures we are introduced to on PBS are pure, unadulterated, real. Untarnished by commercial interests. Authentic.
This includes Richard Bangs’ Quest series, which currently airs on the “Create” channel of my local PBS station (hi, KCTS!). Richard travels all over the world, but it was his exploration of Switzerland—my ancestral homeland—that made me think, “I need to interview this man!” His way with words is mesmerizing, almost putting viewers into a travel trance. You come away from his shows feeling you truly have, somehow, been transported along with him, traveling and exploring far away in some distant land.
Richard Bangs has often been called the father of modern adventure travel, having spent more than 30 years as an explorer and communicator, pioneering “virtual” expeditions on the World Wide Web and leading first descents of 35 rivers around the world. Richard has authored over 19 books, 1000s of magazine articles, produced a score of documentaries, and currently produces and hosts a series of public TV specials. He also is a regular contributer to the Huffington Post.
Thank you, Richard, for your time!
Pam Stucky: I am a big planner when it comes to travel, but I know people who look down their noses at that, thinking nothing beats spontaneity while on the road. What’s your philosophy on that debate?
Richard Bangs: Looking down noses is not polite. I think the answer to this is personal, and depends on how each individual approaches the travel experience. There are many who enjoy the research phase as much as the actual experience, and research is in itself a cerebral exploratory. There are others who prefer the “Man from Mars” approach, and do no pre-research so it is as though they have dropped in from outer space, and the experience is entirely personal, unfiltered through previous eyes and interpretations. I am a bit of a hybrid in that I prefer the freshness and surprise that comes from not knowing or expecting too much….imagine rounding a corner and seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time never having seen a published image…Wow! That would knock you back…same with Angkor Wat, the Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu, Victoria Falls, The Great Wall, etc., etc. Instead, because we have all been so overexposed to these icons, the actual experience is usually disappointing, as we witness the actual thing in less than the optimum photo rendition….it is harshly midday; it is crowed with tourists; hazed with pollution; it’s buggy, humid, and hawkers are hustling.
So, I prefer to parachute into a place with minimal background research, and few expectations, and I find I am almost always delighted and awed, and even if some place has been seen and dissected by millions before, it feels like my own discovery. I am not swayed by brochure copy, by overly vivid travel writers, or even well-filtered Instagram.
However, when I return, notebook full of my own impressions, emotions and conversations, then I usually go into research phase, diving into volumes that touch upon what I found interesting, and seeking answers to the questions raised through my travels. It allows me a deeper understanding of what I experienced, and it gives me the chance to make the journey a second time.
PS: Having reached midlife, I’ve lately been reading a lot of books about happiness and midlife and the like. One thing that stands out is that every researcher points to “purpose” as one of the keys to wellbeing and a good life. Therefore, the title of your show Adventures with Purpose is especially intriguing to me. What was the “purpose” you intended to highlight in the title?
RB: I spent the early part of my career exploring the hidden crooks of the wilderness world, and was delighted to share the magic of these special places uncovered…but over time as I returned I couldn’t help but notice how these extraordinary spaces had been degraded, dammed, diluted, desiccated, or outright destroyed…I also knew that when folks found a personal connection with these places, they then treated them as though family, and would fight for preservation and integrity…..but, visitation numbers would always be low…figures inversely related to remoteness….so, I set out to reach a broader, influential audience, PBS, and moved forward with a series of specials that hopefully celebrate a destination, but also tells its stories in an evocative, emotive way, one that elicits connectivity, inspiration to visit, and to become involved….I believe it’s working.
PS: Clarify for me: what is the difference between your Adventures with Purpose series and your Quest series?
RB: I made the first descent of the Omo River in Ethiopia in 1973, and decided we should record the effort with the tools available, including 16 mm movie film. The result, The Omo River Expedition, ended up on PBS, so that began a long relationship. The current series is called Richard Bangs’ Quests, and is an evolution from Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, though the underlying mission remains the same….a quest to understand and celebrate the assets of a destination, and extract what lessons might be learned and applied elsewhere, from pioneering environmental practices to progressive policies to the unsung heroes who make a difference. I also, at the core, believe the best way to preserve a wilderness or threatened culture is through visitation, as then the place and its issues become personal, an emotional attachment is knotted, and a constituency is formed which will invest the time, monies, and resources to save that which is meaningful. I think this is achieved in a couple ways with the PBS series (and all media with which I am involved) in that I hope to inspire viewers to actually come and visit a place featured; and if they can’t, then at least I hope I can impart enough of the wonder and beauty virtually to entice support when the inevitable time comes.
PS: Why do you travel? What are you seeking when you travel? What do you find?
RB: I was inspired by the mythopoetics a generation before me. Once a province of the improbable, “adventure travel” was something seen in the pages of National Geographic, not available to the average Jane or Joe. The only adventure travel on Main Street was when a well-planned vacation went wrong. Then the likes of Edmund Hillary, Tensing Norgay, Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl and others of that ilk changed it all by showing it was possible, accessible, and with enough passion, practice, and will, it could be undertaken, and relished. I was a beneficiary of these pioneers, and enjoyed the confluence of airline deregulation, political borders smoking away, and a period of relative affluence which allowed a new generation to seek and delight in adventure travel. I started Sobek at this magical intersection, and, with alacrity, began to chronicle our explorations. What a magnificent ride it has been.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!
(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)
PS: Water shows up again and again in your travels and your writing. You are clearly deeply passionate about water. Tell me more.
RB: Here’s a story of how water crashed into my consciousness: My father never really cared much for the outdoors. He preferred a cozy chair and a fat book, a night at the movies, maybe a ball game on TV, certainly restaurant food. But one weekend when I was a small boy he took me camping. I don’t remember where he took me, but it was by a river, a swift-flowing stream, clear and crisp. I have a faint memory now that my dad had a difficult time setting up the tent, but somehow worked it out and he was proud of the task. With some soda pop and our fishing poles, we went down to the river to have one of those seminal father-son bonding experiences.
The air told me first that we were someplace special. It whooshed, delivering the cool message of a fast river on a hot summer day. Then a muffled sound came from behind, back at camp, and we turned around and could see through the trees that the tent had collapsed. My dad said something under his breath and started up the hill, then turned back to me and said, “Don’t go in the river!”
They were the wrong words.
At first I put my hand in the water to swish it around and was fascinated by the vitality, the power that coursed through my arm, into my chest, and up into my brain. I looked in the middle of the stream, where tiny waves burst into a million gems and then disappeared. It was magic, pure magic. I stepped into the river to my waist and felt the water wrap around and hug me and then tug at me like a dog pulling a blanket. Another step and the water reached my chest and pulled me down wholly into its vigorous embrace. I was being washed downstream.
Effortlessly, the current was carrying me away from confinement, toward new and unknown adventures. I looked down and watched as a color wheel of pebbles passed beneath me like a cascade of hard candy. After a few seconds I kicked my way to shore perhaps a hundred yards downstream. When I crawled back to land I had changed. My little trip down the river had been the most exhilarating experience of my life. I felt charged with energy, giddy, cleansed, and fresh, more alive than I could remember. I practically skipped back to the fishing poles and sat down with a whole new attitude, and secret.
When my father came back, he never noticed anything different. And I didn’t volunteer anything. The August sun had dried my shorts and hair, and I was holding my pole as though it had grown as an extension of my arm since he left. Only my smile was different—larger, knowing. I grew in that little trip, like corn in the night.
PS: You have a masters degree in journalism. What are some of the key lessons you learned that help you today in travel writing?
RB: I might say that the key lesson is that rather than report for someone else, or even do the bidding of an assignment, you should pursue your own passion, and along the way step on the cobblestones of understanding. I set out quite young, with few resources, to experience the world with a vengeance, a never-ending hunt for unwinding the unknowingness that always pricks at me. I found early on that chronicling these experiences gave me a double hit of enjoyment and enlightenment….I would experience the experience, and then sit down to distill it all and hopefully reach some deeper meaning and joy. That continues to this day.
PS: We are now a short-attention-span, sound-bite culture, but you tell stories in a way that demand attention and savoring. Do you think your way of unrolling a travel story is a lost art?
RB: Life and travel are richer than 140 characters.
I do like to share stories with depth and meaning, and though they may not be “snackable,” they are, I would like to believe, worth the time for the right audience, and the medium of the internet can certainly be a powerful platform.
With its power to break the tyranny of geography, to allow people anywhere in the world to virtually travel to wild places through the portals of their screens, and its capacity for information exchange and communications, the Internet can be a more effective tool than anything yet devised to preserve the wilderness through multi-media story-telling. The ledger is long of wilderness areas gone down because there wasn’t a constituency to do battle. Arizona’s and Utah’s Glen Canyon, entombed beneath one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, is the poster child. A basic problem is that wilderness areas are hard to get to, and the numbers who see them, experience them, fall in love with them, are too often too small to make a difference. That’s where the Net could be the instrument of awareness, appreciation and activism that no oversized nature book ever could. For the first time we can showcase the beauty and magic of a wild place to a global audience, and millions can participate in a journey through it, without ever breaking a branch or stepping on cryptobiotic soil. To a degree National Geographic has done this for over a century; and Discovery and others have done this on television and video. But those were passive receiver experiences, where a publisher, editor or producer added his or her own vision to the primary experience, passing it along to a quiescent audience. Now, for the first time, a worldwide audience can receive the data unfiltered from the primary reporter, in all its raw and brutal honesty. And members of that same audience can become players, become active on some levels, participating in the experience by asking questions, suggesting ideas, and sharing information.
The internet is the most powerful intercommunications tool yet, one that tears down the media power towers, erases the information filters of middlemen, and allows anyone to jump into the thick of things and asseverate a voice and opinion. I’m convinced that when the time comes for a call to action to stop the compromising of sacred and magic places, the patronage for preservation will be that much greater for the Web. A few years ago we lost a fight to save Chile’s crown jewel of a wild river, the Bio-Bio, from the concrete slug of a private big dam; but then only a few thousand had ever seen the river. Now more people than visit all the parks in the world, regardless of wallet size, physical abilities, age or weight, can be introduced to a far-away wilderness in a more immediate way, and that means that many more who can fall in love with a wild place, grasp its issues, and perhaps lend a hand when it needs many.
PS: I’m also particularly interested in the idea of “failure.” I think we’ve become too failure-averse, and therefore I’m interested in talking with successful people about their thoughts on failure. What’s your perspective on the topic? What is failure? What is success?
RB: I agree that we are, as a society, too failure-averse, and I see it especially in our schools and among parents who over-protect and over-reward their children. It is through risk and failure that we learn and evolve. I worked at Microsoft for a while in the 90s (helping to create travel products, including Expedia), and I absolutely loved Bill Gates’s mandate and the culture he created around it…it was to take risks, and not be afraid of botching up. Most companies punish failure, and that inhibits creativity and entrepreneurship. But back then, Bill encouraged us to try new things, and not be put off by the consequences of failure, because by trying, we all learned, and sometimes we made bold breakthroughs and discoveries. If a ship’s primary concern is to avoid failure, it would never leave port.
I’ve had many failures in my career, some catastrophic. One was an attempt to make the first descent of the Baro River in Ethiopia. A young man drowned, and it haunted me to the degree I almost left the field. But then I recognized a hard truth…that it is better to go forward and be in the ring and perhaps suffer the consequences than to never step at all and die on the inside.
In Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, Of the Sublime and Beautiful, he posits that terror “is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
If there is a common element to the code of adventure it is the frisson that comes from touching the maw. At the moment of plunge into a giant rapid we are febrile but also unlocked in a way that never happens in the comfort zone, so that the slightest tap makes us shiver to the bottom of our beings. It is then that we make our greatest discoveries about ourselves.
In Hemingway’s classic story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a milquetoast of a man finds an instant of bliss as he fearlessly (and fatally) faces a charging buffalo. I believe that pursuing your passion, tacking adventure, embracing risk, allows a lifetime deep and rich and connected, if only for a flash, and that it is better than the shelter and security of a dull and deadly existence.
Thank you, Richard! If you haven’t already discovered Richard’s shows on your local PBS station, be sure to check the schedule to find when he’s on air next!
Twitter can be an odd place. You might even say that sometimes it’s downright nuts.
And that’s just fine for the Banff Squirrel, who runs one of the most engaging and entertaining tourism accounts on Twitter. Tweets from @Banff_Squirrel, the account for Banff Lake Louise Tourism, are written by a squirrel that popped up–literally–in 2009 (see the photo, above, and story, below). The Squirrel’s bio lists him as the “Unlikely Spokes-Squirrel of Banff Lake Louise Tourism in Banff National Park, Canadian Rockies.”
As a fan of both Banff Squirrel and the Banff/Lake Louise area, I contacted the Squirrel to see if he’d be willing to take time out of his busy schedule (winter is coming, you know, and there are nuts to be hoarded) to do a Q&A with me. Much to my delight, he agreed. Thank you to the Squirrel and to all the people at Banff Lake Louise Tourism!
Q: First, since it’s been a few years now, can you share with us the story of the “Banff Squirrel”?
A: Well, I was hanging out at Lake Minnewanka here and this adorable couple from Minnesota came down to the shoreline and set up a timer camera shot. The whirring of the timer thingy sang to me, so I investigated the camera–apparently drawing its focus my way and blurring the couple. It ended up being featured by National Geographic, then things got crazy. There were several kazillion views through the interweb and some fine photoshops of me onto different scenarios, like the moon landing or a Godzilla movie.
Q: Whose idea was it to create a Banff Squirrel Twitter account? Did you all have to audition to determine who could best mimic a squirrel on Twitter?
A: There is no mimicry here, Stucky. Banff Lake Louise Tourism left me a gift basket of legumes with a note to stop by the office, after that photo went viral. I brought a wolverine with me to help with the negotiations, which was counterproductive as he got into one of the servers in the IT room and destroyed it. I am still working it off…
Q: There are a lot of anthropomorphized animals and also structures (a lot of bridges!) on Twitter. Why do you think that is? Was the Banff Squirrel first?
A: *googling “anthropomorphized”* Interesting word, you must have gone to a fine school. I doubt I was the first non-human tweeting. But it was 2009 when we started this experiment, when twitter was still very young, so maybe. It might be that the personification of things like rodents and bridges is just funny, especially when they are given a voice. It is also a fun way to take advantage of entertaining incidents, like when the Bronx Zoo cobra escaped and showed up on twitter being really hysterical.
Q: What other wildlife might one encounter in the Banff National Park region? Are those creatures jealous they don’t have Twitter accounts?
A: There are 53 species of mammals here in the park, from the apex predator–the grizzly bear–all the way down to a pygmy shrew. Most of them are just too busy avoiding the grizzly bears to get too caught up in twittering. We also have some 260 species of birds, including seagulls, which always confuses me when I see them at 5,000 feet in the Rockies. I thought they were “sea” gulls?
Q: Do you think having a squirrel represent the area has had an effect on raising the tourism profile? How and why?
A: It is a different way to go about things than most destinations, but it has worked for us. A wee rodent is pretty approachable, so maybe people are more inclined to engage with us. I don’t know how much I may have affected it, but the number of visitors has been increasing. I do know that we have affected many people who were considering coming to the park, and hopefully introduced our neck of the woods to some others.
Q: Let’s talk about Banff and the region. Give us a brief rundown on Banff’s history?
A: In a nutshell, Canada was building the railroad across the country when, in 1883, three Scottish fellows stumbled upon a stinky sulphur smelling cave with a hot springs in it. A small park was made around it, which eventually grew to the 6641 square kms Banff is now. Nice views and hot springs are a good draw, they figured. With tourists now able to access this area (by train), investments were made–like the opening of the Banff Springs Hotel in 1888. Swiss guides came over and got us mountaineering, and the park started to grow in popularity to the present day 3+ million visitors a year. Of, course, there was lots going on before that. There is evidence of human activity around here dating some 13,000 years ago, when woolly mammoths were roaming around.
Q: What is the origin of the name “Banff”?
A: It is a funny name. There is a classic 1966 F Troop episode, with Paul Lynde playing a Mountie who is “ze burglar of Banf-f-f.” The park is actually named after Banffshire, Scotland. I believe the area reminded a couple high level railroad officials of their birthplace, with certain mountains also reminding them of Scottish castles.
Q: Banff was “created” as a tourist town. Does that make it less lovable?
A: I think not. The “town” of Banff is only a 4-square-km municipality within the 6641 square kms of the greater Banff National Park. Its commercial growth is capped, and there is pretty much no more new land available to be developed. There is also the hamlet of Lake Louise here, and three ski resorts, but otherwise the vast majority of the park is undeveloped and protected. The town of Banff was formed specifically to serve the needs of people who want to visit and explore the area. Tourism is our industry, so our efforts are mainly to provide amenities that people will want or can enjoy. I also think the locals are a very friendly and approachable group of folks. The Town of Banff is held to a high environmental standard being in a park, and we are seeing this with things like hybrid buses and solar-powered public washrooms. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a conundrum–we want to be able to share this beautiful area with as many people as feasible, but that takes infrastructure, which isn’t what some people want to see when they think of a national park.
Q: How many people live there year-round?
A: Around 8,500 people live here year-round. It is a great place to live, in that regard. People go to the grocery store and end up having fifteen different conversations with other locals.
Q: Lake Louise is really blue. Why is it so blue?
A: It is that colour, which blows a lot of people’s minds. What happens is that the numerous glaciers in the area are in motion. Really, really, slow motion. And they are heavy. So this movement grinds up the rock underneath the glaciers, pulverizing it into a fine powder, or “rock flour.” This rock flour makes its way to the lakes through creeks and rivers. Once in the lake, the rock flour settles just below the surface of the water, reflecting up those green/blue hues. A lot of people think we paint the bottom of the lakes from time to time, which always makes me chuckle.
Q: Does Lake Louise have a monster? Like Loch Ness in Scotland or Lagarfljót in Iceland or Okanagan Lake in British Columbia? If not, have you thought about getting one?
A: Nothing like Nessie or Ogopogo, but we do have a Mermonster in Lake Minnewanka. A lake long respected by the First Nations people of the area, some thought parts of the lake were a portal to another dimension. When the wind comes up and howls across the crevices along the lakeshore, it is haunting. Banff’s Norman Luxton used the legend to promote his boat tours in the early 1900s, even buying a “monster” he “caught” in the lake, which you could view if you took the tour. It looked like a monkey sewed to a salmon.
I have talked to Sasquatch out here a few times, but I don’t consider him a monster. Just shy.
Q: What are the most popular activities in the region?
A: Depends on the season. In winter, we have three ski resorts with 8,000 acres of runs, plus all of the backcountry skiing opportunities. The snow also welcomes cross country skiers, skaters, dog sledders, snowshoers or people that just like crisp fresh mountain air. There is a bit more variety in the summer, with more hikes than anyone could complete, lakes to paddle, horses to back, bike trails and roads, fly fishing hotbeds, and lots that I am forgetting. As when the park was first formed, hot springs are always a year-round draw.
Q: Banff and Lake Louise are fantastic destinations for active people. But what if a person has less mobility, what activities might they enjoy?
A: There is still a ton to do here if your mobility is limited. There are three sightseeing gondolas, and we have other cool attractions like the Glacier Skywalk that are easy to navigate. We have some beautiful museums and historic landmarks to explore. Some trails are wheelchair accessible, like Johnston Canyon. I like to think there is something for everyone.
Q: Does Banff have fun activities for younger kids?
A: Well, all of that nature-y stuff is super for the whole family. Shorter hikes, bike rides, float trips, camping, wildflower treks are all great. We also have an indoor waterpark (at the Douglas Fir resort), a bowling alley, golf simulators and a movie theatre. Parks Canada also has entertaining and informative programs and performances they run that are great for the whole family.
Q: Talk to me about travel logistics. How can people get to Banff? What’s the nearest airport? Do trains come through Banff?
A: All of the action in Banff was started by the train coming through town. The Banff station just got a beauty facelift (and is the newest and least busy info centre for trip planning help from Parks Canada and Banff Lake Louise Tourism), and Lake Louise has another historic station. Impressive trains like the Rocky Mountaineer come through, but not really as an airport transit–they are more like vacations unto themselves. Most folks fly to Calgary (YYC) and then it is about a scenic 90-minute drive to the town of Banff. Lake Louise is another 57 kms west, within the park. You can rent a car from YYC, or use one of the airporter services that run often and daily.
Q: If a person doesn’t drive there him/herself, what’s the best way to get around? Are there car rentals available in town? Buses? Trolleys? Moose-back rides?
A: Getting around the town of Banff is pretty easy–as I said, it is not that big and we have local public buses, buses to Canmore and taxis. There are also summer shuttles to Mt. Norquay and the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, as well as shuttles in the summer in Lake Louise. I ride my bike most of the year, everywhere, even in winter. During the ski season, the ski hills run buses that frequently go to/from area hotels to the resorts, which is nice–especially if your forte is après-skiing. You can also rent a car in Banff or Lake Louise, including from the major brands like Avis, Budget, and Hertz.
Q: What are some resources where people can find out more about Banff?
A: We have me tweeting at @banff_squirrel, and I am always ready to answer any questions you might have, or just talk about stuff. There is sweet Instagram page at @banff_lakelouise for inspiration and we are on Facebook at banffnationalpark. If you search #mybanff, you will see a lot of cool stuff on Instagram and Twitter.
The banfflakelouise.com website is loaded with great info and trip planning ideas, along with info on local events festivals, and the best rates on hotels here. You can also buy your parks pass online through the website.
Well, I have to go now, Pam–there is a pika territory dispute at Helen Lake that I need to moderate before someone gets nibbled on. Thanks for the questions and have a splendid day.
Thank you, Banff Squirrel! I hope to see you soon!
In 2013, I visited the town of Akureyri in Iceland’s far north, and had the honor of chatting with the town’s Mayor Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson for the travelogue I was writing at the time. When I saw that Lonely Planet recently named Akureyri as one of its “Best Places in Europe 2015,” I wrote the mayor again to ask him to share more thoughts about his fabulous town, and he graciously agreed.
From my own experience, I agree that the north is a gorgeous place, and largely under-visited, as many people stick closer to Reykjavík on their travels. But getting to Akureyri is easy (see below), and it’s a fantastic base for a longer visit in the north. You can read even more about Akureyri and the surrounding area in my book, Pam on the Map: Iceland.
Thank you again, Mayor, for your time!
Q: What is Akureyri’s population? General location? Demographics?
A: The population is about 18,200 people and the municipality stretches over the Arctic circle, because the island of Grímsey (population of about 100) is a part of the municipality and so is the island Hrísey (with a population of about 150). Akureyri lies at the bottom of the longest fjord in Iceland in the north part of the country. We put high emphasis on family values, since we have lots of young couples with children and also many students who move to our town from the neighbouring municipalities to get education — Akureyri is sometimes referred to as “the school town” in Iceland.
Q: I had a heck of a time learning to pronounce Akureyri. Can you give us some tips? How is it pronounced?
A: Maybe it is easiest for you to think of the words “accurate,” “ray” and “riff” and put them together like this: accu-ray-ri. 🙂
Q: Do people who want to visit need to worry if they can’t speak Icelandic?
A: Certainly not. Almost everyone in Akureyri speaks English and many also other Scandinavian languages, plus German and French.
Q: When I visited, I took the long way there, driving the Ring Road counter-clockwise through the south and east before cutting over to Akureyri. I know there are faster ways to get there! How can people get to Akureyri?
A: Yes, you probably took the longest way to Akureyri! If you drive through the west of Iceland from Reykjavík, the trip will take you about four to five hours, depending on how many times you stop to stretch your legs. It’s about 380-kilometer drive. Then we have scheduled buses driving from Reykjavík to Akureyri two times a day and that trip takes a bit longer, since the bus stops in a few villages on the way. The domestic airline Flugfélag Íslands has scheduled flights from Reykjavík to Akureyri six or seven times a day and the flight takes 45 minutes. [See also this page for more transportation/travel info.]
Q: If a person flies in from Reykjavik, are car rentals available in Akureyri?
A: Yes, all the biggest car rentals in Iceland operate in Akureyri the biggest one in Iceland is Bílaleiga Akureyrar (Akureyri Car Rental) — Europcar.
Q: Are there any companies that offer day trips from Akureyri?
A: Yes, there are a few of them and more are coming into business every year. Of course, you understand that I can’t mention any of them because then I would have to mention all, but you can find information about companies offering day trips on our web page.
Q: Akureyri is pretty far north — just a little farther north than Fairbanks, Alaska, and even farther north than Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. Tell me about the weather? What can a person expect in summer? In winter? Is Akureyri accessible in winter?
A: Akureyri is accessible all year round. We have long dark winters and short bright summers, truly an Arctic kind of atmosphere. The summer is rather short, maybe about three or four months, and then you can expect temperatures from maybe 12 to 24 degrees Celsius [53 to 75 Fahrenheit], and often we have sunny days. But you should note that the Icelandic weather can be pretty unpredictable. Icelanders tend to believe that Akureyri is one of the best places in Iceland during summer to enjoy camping and the nice weather. We have fairly harsh winters. Then the weather can be very cold and every winter we have a few beautiful snow storms. That’s just positive since Akureyri is the ski capital of Iceland with a magnificent ski resort in Mt. Hlíðarfjall just ten minutes drive from the city centre.
Q: What are some of the top highlights of Akureyri for visitors?
A: Like I mentioned above, during winter it’s the ski resort in Mt. Hlíðarfjall, but all year we have many interesting museums, a folk museum, a renowned art museum, aviation museum, museums commemorating famous Icelandic poets and so on. The botanical gardens are always a great attraction for foreigners visiting our town and so is our beautiful church on the hill above the city centre, designed by one of Iceland’s most famous architects. Our geothermal swimming pool is one of the best in Iceland, with hot tubs and sauna, and then you can take short trips to watch the sunset, enjoy the bright summer nights, see the northern lights during winter, go hiking in the steep mountains, or take a trip to Hrísey Island to see he shark museum and Grímsey Island to see the puffins during high summer. We have a lot of great restaurants and eat delicatessen from the Icelandic nature. I could go on and on, but for visitors it’s best to visit our Tourist Information Centre which is open every day to get some tips and what to do and what to see. You’ll find information on opening hours of the Tourist Centre on our site and there you can also read about the many attractions in town and some fun things to do.
Q: Are there annual festivals in Akureyri (or nearby) that people might enjoy? What are they?
A: We have many annual festivals, some say too many! You can read about them on the web page I’ve mentioned, but the biggest festivals are probably the family festival held on “Verslunarmannahelgi” (Commercial Workers’ Weekend) when there’s a general holiday the first Monday in August and then there is the Akureyri Wake at the end of August, on the weekend closest to the day the municipality was founded in 1862, which is the 29th of August. Both of these festivals put strong emphasis on the family, music, dancing and outdoor fun.
Q: Akureyri is not just a great city, but also a great hub for people who want to visit the area for a few days. What are some other points of interest?
A: Akureyri is like a “little big city” with many museums and all the service you need, for example, international hospital service. For that reason and because of its location in the middle of north Iceland, it is a great base for those wanting to see all the natural gems in the close vicinity. It takes you about an hour to drive to the beautiful Lake Mývatn with all its diverse bird life and hot springs and lava. Then you can go to Húsavík which has become a kind of capital for whale watching in Iceland (although you can also go whale watching from the docks in Akureyri). I could mention the old turf house in Laufás twenty minutes or so from Akureyri and to the west, the Icelandic Emigration Centre in the village of Hofsós and the very popular little fishing village of Siglufjörður. And you can also go horsebackriding on different farms in the neighbourhood.
Q: What are some hidden gems of Akureyri or surrounding areas that you think visitors too often miss?
A: In town I could mention the geothermal swimming pool because I think tourists are not well enough aware of its healing powers and the cleanness of the geothermal water and the hot tubs. It is very popular with the locals, but visitors often seem to miss it, although that has been slowly changing. Also I could mention the river Glerá which runs through town and has beautiful gorges to explore. I would like to mention the reserve area at Krossanesborgir which consists of many rock formations made of basalt which is about five to ten million years old. And don’t forget our beautiful islands of Hrísey and Grímsey. Then I would also recommend that our visitors try to stay up all night (at least for one night) to experience the bright Icelandic summer nights.
Q: How many days do you think a person needs to really get the full measure of Akureyri and the north?
A: To really get the full measure of Akureyri you would have to move there! But for a person visiting I would recommend four to five days, one or two days exploring our sights and then taking trips to the natural treasures nearby. Once again I point you to our official visitors home page.
Q: When we spoke before, we talked about the heart-shaped stoplights in Akureyri. Can you tell me the story again about the origin of these hearts? And there was a heart on the hill, too?
A: The hearts appeared as a consequence of the financial crash in Iceland in 2008, when there was a need for some positive thinking and to put emphasis on what really matters. Since then the red hearts in the traffic lights are visible, as well as plenty of red hearts made of the flower “forget me not” decorating windows, cars and signs throughout the town. The huge heart that “pounded” in Mt.Vaðlaheiði opposite the town on the other side of the fjord was made by a private initiative of an electrical company in town together with other supporters. The heart was the size of a football field and was made of about four hundred bulbs.
Q: Why do you think Akureyri is a “can’t miss” destination in Iceland?
A: Akureyri is an easy-going town with a very friendly atmosphere. It is relaxed and in that way very different from the hustle and bustle in Reykjavík. Almost everyone in Iceland thinks Akureyri is one of the most beautiful towns in this country and I think visitors can agree with that. Some say the capital has become overcrowded with tourists and so Akureyri is a great option for those wishing to visit a friendly place which offers everything you need and is a great base if you want to explore the wonders of the north.
Iceland. What used to be a rare destination is now all the rage, and with several airlines offering nonstop flights from many cities around the world, getting there is easier than ever.
If The Land of the Midnight Sun is in your travel plans this summer — or if you just want to make a date with Iceland and your traveling armchair — I invite you to check out my book, Pam on the Map: Iceland. It’s a travelogue-style book (with an easy, blog-esque flavor) in which I detailed my own travels to the small island country in the summer of 2013.
Many of the Iceland travel guides I’ve found focus on the same points — the Golden Circle, the south, Reykjavík — so in my own travels I tried to find some lesser-known spots, further from the beaten path. Even with all the research I did before my trip, though, there were still destinations I missed. Therefore, at the end of each chapter I noted what I would do differently if I visit again. Make that when. Iceland is a destination that seeps into your psyche and stays with your soul.
The following excerpt from Pam on the Map: Iceland is from the opening chapter, “Arrival.”
Finally, I see a young man coming through the door, looking rushed, a placard in hand. Is that my name on it? … YES! My Route 1 knight in shining armor. He has arrived.
He is a lovely young man, dark haired and bright eyed, but when he tells me his name I am still flushed with the excitement that he’s arrived at all, and it doesn’t register in my brain. I can’t guess his age, either, other than “young.” I’m not good at guessing ages anymore. I always assume everyone is about my age, but I keep getting younger (don’t you?), so it’s hard to tell. People my age look so old! I don’t look that old, surely. Neither does he. He just finished his first year in law school, that’s about all I know.
When he drives me from the Placard Zone to the Route 1 office, Car Rental Guy (as I shall now call him) explains that “We don’t have an office, really. We have a WAN.”
Really? They have a wide area network? I am confused.
“You have a what?”
And then, it dawns on me. A VAN. V for van, pronounced like a W by some Icelanders. I know this because in preparation for my interview with Reykjavík’s mayor, Jón Gnarr, I watched several videos of other interviews he’d given previously. In one, he talked about the “Wikings” that came to Iceland. And I’ll tell you, it’s a good thing I heard him say “Wikings” before meeting him, because I am certain I wouldn’t have been able to suppress a giggle if I’d first heard him say it in my interview.
So Route 1 does not have an office but a wan. Car Rental Guy and I go to the wan, sort of a camper wan, really, where he gets me all hooked up. When I made my reservation online, I had declined all the extra types of insurance a person can get — gravel insurance, ash insurance, Super Duper Extra Insurance, etc. — but in my weary state, Car Rental Guy talks me into gravel and Super Duper. Who knows. He does say he doesn’t really think ash insurance is necessary, although I swear to you instead of saying “ash,” he said “ass.” At any rate, my ass is uninsured for the duration of the trip.
Car Rental Guy gives me a very thorough rundown of the car and the insurance and my rental, and then he pulls out the Big Map. (This is not a euphemism; it’s really a map. It’s a big map, and right on the front, it says, “Big Map.”) He then suggests places to see, circling them on the map as he goes: Grindavík, Fimmvörðuháls, Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón. In the north, he circles Dettifoss, Húsavík, Ásbyrgi, Mývatn. On a scrap piece of paper, he writes “Places: Silfra at Þingvellir, Kerið.”
He mentions Lagarfljót in the east, to which I reply, “home of the worm!” Car Rental Guy looks at me with a bit of surprise and a bit of delight.
“Not many people know about the worm,” he says with what I’m sure was a touch of admiration. The Lagarfljót Worm is Iceland’s Loch Ness Monster; it’s said to be a football field long, with many humps. It’s been noted in literature since the 1300s. So it must be real! Supposedly sightings of The Worm portend natural disaster, so I guess I’m hoping not to see it. But I’ll drive by on my route. I nod as he writes down: Lagarfljót.
And then, with no great hug or anything to commemorate the intimate time we’d just spent together, the thoughts on Iceland we’d shared, the moments we’ll always cherish, we parted ways.
A few thoughts about car rental: When I first started thinking about coming to Iceland, I investigated car rental prices and was a bit shocked at the cost, but I mentally prepared myself and added it to the budget. Then, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t make my reservation. When I finally got around to it, at the beginning of June (for an end of July/beginning of August reservation), the prices seemed to have doubled. Ack! I about had an apoplectic shock at that time. It then occurred to me that a place like Iceland, where tourism is growing, has a finite number of cars, and when they’re gone they’re gone. I realize that’s true of all places, but in my mind it makes sense, right? I mean, if you’re in Washington, there could be cars coming and going from Oregon or Idaho or even Canada. But Iceland is pretty isolated. What it has is more or less what it has. (The rental companies do note you may not take their cars out of Iceland. I found this quite amusing until they mentioned the ferry to Norway. Okay, check, not planning to go to Norway, and not planning to drive into the ocean, so we’re good.)
Read more in the book, available in both print and ebook!
Pam on the Map: Iceland
From setting off a hotel fire alarm, to getting a luxurious in-water spa massage, to going on a “traditional Icelandic ice cream car ride,” to interviewing Jón Gnarr, “the most interesting mayor in the world,” Pam experienced it all on a two-week summer journey that took her all around the outer edge of Iceland. Armed with a two-wheel drive car, a persnickety GPS, and a goal to discover the heart and soul of the country, Pam broke out of the boundaries of Iceland’s popular Golden Circle to travel the full Ring Road (the road that circles all the way around the country), and beyond.
In Pam on the Map: Iceland, Pam brings readers along on her trip as she discusses all things Iceland, including the restrooms at Keflavík airport, the Ring Road and travel infrastructure, the treacherous gravel roads and Highway 939, the omnipresent waterfalls, hot dogs and fermented shark, and the history and culture of the country and its people. Pam stops to talk with locals about their views and opinions on Iceland, tourism, writing, the economy, soil erosion, and happiness.
Filled with wit and wanderlust, Pam on the Map: Iceland offers one woman’s perspective on traveling around this tiny island in the far north Atlantic Ocean.