By Natalie Neusch
Iceland’s rise in popularity among lesbian travelers in the last decade isn’t a fluke—my own drive around the Golden Circle which I recounted for Out Adventures stands out as one of my all-time favorite trips. The jaw-dropping landscapes and breathtaking vistas are enough to make anyone pinch themselves, locals included.
I had the pleasure of chatting with our Iceland Lesbian Summer Escape tour guide Sigrún, aka Ziggy, via Skype to get an insider’s perspective on this magical country and the culture that also makes it so special. A veteran guide of 8 years, Ziggy dishes about Iceland’s powerful women, the country’s “wow” factor and her career guiding in The Land of Ice & Fire. We also discuss Reykjavik’s lesbian scene that’s less a “scene” and more the everyday norm.
To start off, tell me a little bit about yourself – where you grew up, and how you ended up being Out Adventures’ lesbian Iceland guide.
I was born in Iceland, but have also lived in New York and Australia. I’ve been happily back home for 13 years now.
What led you to be a tour guide?
I’ve always been very keen on the outdoors of Iceland. My family traveled a lot, so we did a lot of camping and touring around the country. We spoke about the nature, and the culture, and Mom and Dad read stories to us that were about the mountains and that. After completing my degree in Australia, I wanted to come home and work with adventure-based therapy. It was sort of an accident I got sucked into guiding.
What is the first thing people usually ask you when they hear you are from Iceland?
I think it’s changed a lot. After the tourism boom came 10 years ago, people have become much more aware of Iceland. They want to know what it is like living near the volcanoes—people are obsessed with the fact that we have volcanic eruptions every year.
But 15 years ago people had no idea what Iceland was. They asked about the igloos, they asked about the penguins. There’s a very different take on it now. The Northern Lights of course is a huge question, people ask if they’re a phenomenon that only the tourists go out and visit.
So you still go check them out?
I love it, I still find them to be amazing.
I’ve never seen them. It’s very upsetting—I drove around the Golden Circle about five years ago. I was in Vik, and there was a high probability that they’d be visible, so I camped out in the cold—by myself, three cameras around me—and I sat there for hours, and nothing, not even a glimmer! So. Mad.
The forecast can be amazing then nothing happens! That’s the tricky part, whenever my guests come to check out the Northern Lights, I say they are your bonus—come here for the food, come here for the nature—if you see the Northern Lights, that’s literally just the bonus.
What do you think is the most special thing about Iceland?
Of course the landscape is unlike anything else. After I started guiding, I love the fact that I’m always getting people’s first impressions, I’m always hearing the “wow” factor. In a matter of two days you can see such crazy contrasts. You can see everything from the glaciers to the volcanoes—and sometimes the volcanoes have just been erupting, and you can see the smoking ash right next to a glacier, for example. And also the changing seasons—don’t come once, come again, come during the summer, come summer and winter, summer and spring—just how things change quickly in a short amount of time.
I was really impressed with how the landscape changed from kilometer to kilometer, it was really mind-blowing.
For example, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is often called a mini Iceland because it has a volcano, it has an ice cap, it has farmland and beautiful waterfalls, then between the farms you’ll see a beautiful trail of lava fields running right through. All that and how quickly it changes is my favorite, I’d say.
What excites you about being a tour guide?
It is definitely seeing my guests’ first reactions. I love people that actually express their feelings, people that say, “Whoa.” I love taking them to secret spots, opening up a bottle of champagne when they least expect it, and then just sitting there where no one else is. We have a lot of these hidden places.
Right…don’t publish those spots!
No we don’t, we don’t! We don’t put it on the map, we just go there and we say, “Don’t geo-tag this spot, we want to keep this as ours!”
Is there anything culturally you think people don’t know and are surprised to learn about Iceland?
People are often impressed with how empowered women are in Iceland—the powerful women we’ve had in office, like the first female president and the first lesbian prime minister. Also, by law, you have to pay equal wages to men and women in Iceland. People are impressed by these extremely powerful Icelandic women, and how we just see them as a powerful person.
Well, yeah, America has a ways to get there! Speaking of culture, can you tell me a little bit about Iceland’s lesbian scene—is there one? How accepting is the general population?
Of course there is a huge scene—during the Pride parade in August, about one-third of the nation shows up, so that’s a pretty high turn-out. We only have one gay bar, we have Kiki Queer Bar, and then there is one just opening called Curious. But in most bathroom stalls in regular cafes and pubs, there will be signs that you can’t be discriminated against because of your gender or sexuality. And you can approach a staff member and get these people thrown out if they do.
We have a union that was formed in 1978 that looks after gay rights, they have seminars and speeches at schools for children after 10 years old. And it’s a small nation, so everyone knows someone that’s gay, I think that’s the main point of it. Everyone has an uncle or a niece or a friend.
So there’s one gay bar but it’s kind of mixed?
Yeah it’s a big mix. And the word “queer” is very freely used in Iceland. It’s not derogatory. It covers the whole umbrella. We have to explain this especially to our elder gay and lesbian travelers that this is a good word, we’re trying to reintroduce it as a positive.
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your experience coming out.
I came out in 2001, I had to fight my own demons coming out of the closet…
Don’t we all…
Well that’s it, then I was so happy I was gay! I had been struggling, I was a tomboy when I was a kid. And when these feelings had suddenly came up, it was one of the reasons I moved to Australia, I needed that space to actually accept myself. And when I came back home, it was very easy. It was an easy transition, coming into that community. My friends all accepted it, my family was fantastic—I don’t know, it was easy coming out after those years away.
So are women generally happy with the status quo in Iceland?
Yes, we are, there’s a huge feminist community within Iceland. We’re very strong, fighting women—we stick together, we look after each other. We have the Women’s March every year— it’s something we’ve done since 1975—and the women of Iceland walk out at 2pm.
Let’s talk about Out Adventures’ lesbian Iceland tour. How is this itinerary unique?
Because it’s a female-only trip, we put a huge emphasis on female-owned and run hotels, restaurants—even a brewery. We go on a glacier hike with a female guide, and we promote female artists. It’s a very feminine-focused approach to the tour. And it wasn’t even hard finding the places for the itinerary!
What kind of experience can travelers expect on this tour?
It becomes a very close-knit group, it’s a small group, it’s an intimate group—we do a lot of adventure activities where they have to rely on each other. It becomes a group of friends.
You think people will keep in touch?
I can almost guarantee it. We make the most effort to get everyone together—during the evening we have dinner together, we mingle afterwards, breakfast brings people together. It’s a very inclusive journey.
What’s your favorite part of the tour?
Day 5 we go into what’s called the Paradise Valley. And we’re going to go and check out some amazing waterfalls. We’re going to go check out the gorge, and that’s a place I was checking out for the first time this year and it is a mind-blowing area.
So you had that “wow” factor?
I had that wow factor! I’ve been sending people ever since. It’s unlike anything in Iceland, sort of like an oasis, that area.
What is a memorable or funny story from one of your trips?
I had a lesbian couple from India that both lived their straight lives back home, but were able to travel together through their jobs to foreign countries. After spending three days in Iceland enjoying a helicopter ride, hiking on a glacier, visiting countless waterfalls and riding snowmobiles through the highlands, I asked them what their most memorable moment was. They answered without a doubt it was being able to walk down the main street of Reykjavik, holding hands, and not one person gave them any attention or turned their heads.
What’s one tip you’d offer someone who’s joining our Iceland Lesbian Summer Escape?
Be prepared for the unexpected. The change in the weather for example. Be well prepared dress-wise: layers, layers, layers, we usually say. Even though the trip is in August, we could get snow.
Natalie Neusch is a Director of Content and freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. Share her penchant for travel, eating everything, and Pomeranians – @natalieneu and @outofherebuhbye.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.
All photos courtesy of Pink Iceland.
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