The best thing in my suitcase as I arrived in Iceland was the stretchy cleats that attached to the bottom of my boots. Even though temperatures this past week in a country far out in the North Atlantic were in the 30’s, the nights are colder, precipitation came and went, hence lots of icy spots. If there is one thing you don’t want to do on vacation is slip and tumble, not so much to avoid breaking a bone, but you don’t want to ruin a vacation to one of the trendiest places on the planet right now. When I say, “how hot is Iceland?” I’m not referring to global warming, but to Iceland’s crazy popularity right now with discounts all over the internet. It’s a mere five hours from New York, three from England, so very easy to get to from points east and west. My daughter and I took advantage of a Groupon discount, and just returned from the country that is roughly the same size as Kentucky, with a population of around 330,000, equal to some of our smaller U.S. cities.
View of Reykjavik from the tower at Hallgrimskikja, the Lutheran Cathedral, and at 74.5 meters high, one of the tallest structures in Iceland.
The intent was to check off another item on our bucket lists: the elusive Northern Lights. Surely, I thought, we’d see them one night during our three-day stay. However, clouds ruled the skies, with on and off light rain, sleet, hail and snow, with patches of clearing. Did that stop us from enjoying this unique and magical country at a time of year with the least amount of daylight? Six hours. Not in the least. Since tourism and fishing are its two biggest income producers, it was the number of travelers arriving on its shores during the 2008 crash that kept the island on its feet.
Reykjavik, its capital city, is where most of the tourists are heading. It’s also a quick ride from the airport with a very organized and timely bus transit system. We opted for two of the most popular day trips: The Blue Lagoon Spa, and The Golden Circle Tour of Thingvellir, a world heritage site; the Gullfoss waterfall; and two geysers: Strokkur and Geysir, which included distant snow-covered mountain vistas that were truly picturesque.
There is a great sense of humor in the city, and the Big Lebowski Bar, that pays homage to the cult classic.
Words sometimes fail when trying to describe experiences that are, frankly, out of this world. The Blue Lagoon Spa is one of those times. After a 45-minute bus ride, we arrived for a 5 p.m. entry (times are staggered for crowd control), and in the dark with pelting sleet hitting our faces, we headed towards the warm and dry entrance. Inside, we were given a plush robe, towel, slippers and wrist band with multiple purposes: to click shut the locker, and to make purchases – smart. We showered, pulled on bathing suits, and followed the line through the door, and out into the wintry night, slowing sinking into soothing 100-degree blue mineral waters. The pool, at its deepest, couldn’t have been more than three to four feet, so very comfortable for swimmers and non-swimmers alike; little ones are allowed, and we saw a few wearing life vests. The lagoon is a mix of freshwater and seawater sent up from 2,000 meters below the surface via a geothermal power plant and along the way the waters pick up silica and minerals. However, for those not into earth science, just know that this is the most heavenly experience one can have on earth.
We stayed in the comforting waters for a good hour, sipping Icelandic drinks, and letting the complimentary mud facial mask do its work. Hesitant to leave, we knew we’d gotten pruney enough, and had worked up an appetite. So, it was back to the locker rooms, and back to reality while blow-drying our hair. While there is an on-site restaurant and snack bar, we choose to pace our expenses by getting dinner back in Reykjavik.
Northern Lights Exhibition – The Northern Lights Center
Prices for eating out are on par with fine Manhattan restaurants as many supplies need to be imported, but all of our meals were four stars. All sorts of fish are available, like tusk and char, with other local favorites like whale meat and ram’s testicles (you heard me right.) While my daughter went for everything fish-related, I went for burgers and pasta, and was never disappointed with price, taste or presentation. Every restaurant is unique, and there’s an old-world charm and graciousness, with every meal.
Each day we eagerly awaited word about that evening’s Northern Lights bus tour, and each day we were disappointed that it had to cancelled due to clouds, and impassable roads. (Note: to avoid this, you may wish to take a boat excursion to the Northern Lights, or with a private guide so that more options of destinations are possible.) To save the day, the Northern Lights Center, about a five-minute walk from our Center Plaza hotel, offered a permanent exhibition on the lights as well as a seven-meter-wide screen showing a 25-minute film loop of the lights. We learned how the lights form, and why they show up at earth’s north and south poles, and the myths and legends that sprang up over the centuries. At a very reasonable $16 per person, it was a very enjoyable alternative since viewing the real thing was not going to happen.
Even Iceland’s city streets can’t escape artful graffiti.
Speaking of myths, a story about Iceland would not be complete without a mention of the hidden people, elf-like creatures that have been dwelling in the mountains since time began. The story goes that Adam and Eve were hiding their unwashed children from God, and so God said something like, “if man hides something from God, God will hide something from man.” If you think it’s just myth, there is a story on Iceland’s news blog about how just recently, the hidden people, in protest of a drilling project, caused mishap after mishap for the crew. A representative from the company mediated with the people, forged a peace, and the drilling resumed without any further delays. (If you think I am kidding, check out the link below.)
With our trip ending, my daughter and I were already making a list of what we would do on our next Icelandic visit. For such a little country, there’s great big charm, beauty, and experiences left to explore.