Hera Gunnarsdottir, 32, was born and raised in a small town outside Reykjavik, Iceland. I contacted her to talk about the country, it’s development and what not to miss when visiting.
Visiting Iceland is a dream to many. Growing up in the country is unimaginable! Prior to my own visit I reached out to Visit Iceland, the official tourism organization designed to attract visitors from all over the world. Through them I got in touch with Hera Gunnarsdottir who is the project manager in Tourism & Creative Industry at Promote Iceland, a company with a very self-explanatory name. Who better to answer my questions than someone who has grown up locally and works in the tourism industry?
In this interview we talk about Iceland’s leading political position, what it’s like to grow up in the country, and what you should and shouldn’t miss when visiting.
Read an Interview: I’m curious about your name, both first and last. Is it common in Iceland and where does it come from?
Hera Gunnarsdottir: Well, my first name is out of the blue, there were very few Hera’s when I was growing up. I think around 8-10, but nowadays it’s become quite popular.
Hera was a Greek goddess, the goddess of women and marriage, but I don’t think my parents gave me the name because of that – they just liked it.
My last name, Gunnarsdottir, means that I’m the daughter of Gunnar. “Dottir” means daughter. My father’s name is Gunnar and all women have their father’s first name as their last name. Today it’s also allowed to take your mother’s first name. I would then be called Viktoriudottir as my mother’s name was Viktoria,
RAI: You grew up on Iceland. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and what it’s like growing up in a place a lot if people can only dream of visiting?
HG: I was born and raised in a small town called Mosfellsbaer, about 15 minute drive from Reykjavik, with around 5000 inhabitants at that time. It was a small town with the atmosphere “everyone knows everyone”. I spent my days attending school and playing outside with the neighbouring kids. In the winter time I went skiing and during the summer vacation you could stay outside playing well into the night because the sun never went down.
My family also took a lot of road trips to visit family around the country which I loved. The nature in Iceland is beautiful and it really is all around you. When you’re growing up you feel it’s normal to have all of this natural beauty around you but when you grow up and travel to other countries you realize how lucky you are to have it right by your doorstep.
HG: I would say it’s probably quite similar to the Scandinavian countries. The biggest difference is probably how small Iceland is, which makes everything a bit easier.
RAI: Politically, is there anything you’d like to change about your country?
HG: Yes, I think it’s hard to find a country where you don’t want to change anything.
RAI: Like what?
HG: I don’t want to go into politics.
RAI: Fair enough, but I do have another political question: Iceland got some attention in the news back in 2009 when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the world’s first lesbian head of government. Is Iceland a more accepting country than the rest of the world?
HG: Iceland is one of the most gay friendly countries in the world! And we are very proud of it!
“Reykjavik is very proud of its LGBT community and has become quite the beacon of rainbow coloured light in the past few years. Apart from being the first country in the world to elect an openly gay head of state, all LGBT people in Iceland enjoy the same rights as everyone else regardless of their sexual orientation, including the right to marry.” – From the tourism website Visit Reykjavik.
RAI: What’s a typical misconception about Iceland?
HG: There are a few. That everything is really expensive in Iceland, for example. After the financial crisis in 2008 the value of the currency dropped so now it’s much more affordable for people to travel to Iceland.
Another one is that Iceland is freezing cold all the time. Our winters are mild with general temperatures around 0 degrees and our summers are also mild but we can get 18 degrees plus during the summer.
Also that it’s far away, when in reality it’s only about a 3-4 hour flight from Europe and 5-6 hours from the US.
HG: Probably Björk – she’s just so cool!
RAI: This is a question that has been on my mind for a while… How large and well equipped is the Icelandic army?
HG: There is no army in Iceland – and never has been! The US army did have a base in Iceland in 1951-2006 but we’ve never had an Icelandic army.
RAI: We all know Iceland is beautiful and that there are several typical sites tourists should go to. But what are your favorite hidden gems?
HG: Yes, Iceland has these typical sites most tourists go visit but there are so many hidden gems all around the country! The Inspired by Iceland campaign actually did a specific campaign on the secret places of Iceland. We asked the people of Iceland as well as people who have visited Iceland to tell us about their secret place in the country.
Click here to view a map of hidden gems in Iceland.
A personal hidden gem is the small town of Djupivogur in the East of Iceland. It’s a charming small fishing village with 500 inhabitants with unique tranquility and magical beauty like a black sand beach and a pyramid-shaped mountain of basaltic strata called Bulandstindur.
RAI: If I’m going on a road trip to Iceland for five days, what’s your advice?
HG: Be prepared for any type of weather! Take your time, don’t try to cram too much into your trip. Five days isn’t that long – you’d need around ten days to drive around the country – so I’d focus on an area of Iceland, like the West and the Westfjords or the South and East and then come again and visit the other parts you didn’t have time to visit. Each part of Iceland is unique and worth visiting.
And always be safe.
HG: The Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon are typical tourist attractions that most people visit but I’d recommend going off the beaten track, be independent and not do what everyone else is doing. There is so much other stuff to see and do all over the country!
You can stand on a bridge between two continents in the Reykjanes Peninsula, visit the largest bird cliff in Europe at Látrabjarg, take a dip in a natural hot pool in the Westfjords, visit the Nature Baths in Mývatn which is similar to the Blue Lagoon, see reindeers in the winter in the East and hike on a glacier in the South.
RAI: Do you prefer guided tours with everything included or exploring on your own? What are the advantages?
HG: Both has their advantages. If you like to just relax, enjoy and have a guide tell you about the history a guided tour is good but if you are an explorer it’s easy to rent a car and drive around the country by yourself. Then you can better control what you want to do and for how long you want to stay in each place.
RAI: Last chance to advertise – why should people come to Iceland?
HG: Iceland is one of those places you just have to visit at least once in your lifetime. Although most people who come here want to come again and again. There’s just something about this country that’s hard to put into words. You can find everything here, whether you’re looking for tranquillity and nature or a lively city full of culture and colour.
Thank you Hera for the time. Photos courtesy of Iceland.is.