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Reykjavik

Iceland didn’t feel exciting to me at first. Disembarking to a wet runway at Keflavik International Airport not long after sunrise, at what felt like 11:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, I thought it was flat, barren, and colorless. I worried I was at the southwest corner of a small and uninteresting island, adrift between continents.

But after spending almost two weeks circling the perimeter of the country, I’m grateful for my uninspiring introduction to the country. Iceland is a cold bath and a hot tub all at once, both alarming and comforting, best eased into slowly. Only hours after that initial misreading, everything about Iceland was surprising to me, and to extents that I’d never experienced in my life before then.

Turns out, Iceland is pretty exciting.

I began my campaign to convince my fiancé to take a vacation to Iceland with me a year ago. He hadn’t yet proposed, and I told him that regardless of his plans to do so, I didn’t want it to be our honeymoon — I wanted to go soon, and I wanted to go with him, and I wanted to go somewhere less arctic for our honeymoon anyway.

Why Iceland, though? No good reason seems to satisfy some people. I feel as though part of being an American is holding the belief that if you didn’t learn about somewhere by eighth grade, it’s not worth seeing in your lifetime. I knew literally nothing about Icelandic history until I traveled there, much less its Mona Lisas, Shakespeares, or Sphinxes.

But I liked that about it. Uncontroversial Iceland, with its otherworldly landscapes, an enviable national cuisine of lamb and fish, and a general lack of people, seemed appealing for a getaway. And I wanted to see the Northern Lights.

It so happens that 2013 is a peak year in an 11 year cycle for solar storms, which means that it is a peak year for solar winds to blow out into the earth’s orbit and interact with ions in the atmosphere over its magnetic poles, which, under specific circumstances, means that it is a peak year to view the dancing wisps of colored light in the night sky over the Arctic and Antarctic.

Most tourists visit Iceland between May and August, but at the summer solstice, the sun sets at midnight and rises just three hours later, not giving visitors much of a nighttime in which to see the lights. Winters bring up to 18 hours of total darkness, and also thick cloud covers, winds, and blizzards. If we went in mid to late September, we might have enough nighttime to actually see the lights, and we might be able to narrowly evade the inclement weather and road closures that come with the early onset of the Icelandic winter. (It was also an okay time to be absent from my job.)

Tip: While there are a number of hotels in Reykjavik, I recommend using Booking.com to find an apartment for overnight lodging. You’ll enjoy a bedroom, kitchen, and living room for the same price as a hotel, if not less. Just remember to bring your own shampoo (or a hat).

We picked up a good-looking Chevrolet SUV from Sixt Rent a Car just a minute’s shuttle ride from the airport, with minimal hassle, and set off for nowhere in particular with the aid of a Garmin GPS equipped with a European map card. We weren’t due to check in to our apartment in Reykjavik until mid-afternoon, and it was only 8:00 a.m. Guide books mentioned a popular move was to go to the Blue Lagoon after arriving to Keflavik, and we figured we could pass two hours just touring around the Reykjanes peninsula before the attraction opened.

We were tired but too nervous and excited to acknowledge it. We set out on a paved coastal road and drove through a couple of small villages, taking pictures of everything and nothing — abandoned churches, lichen-covered lava flows, steam from geothermal power plants. We drove perhaps an hour without seeing another car on the road. The sky stayed on the cusp of rain throughout. We soon came across a historical marker next to a large field of geothermal steam vents, with an attractive lighthouse off in the distance, and we decided to explore.

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Gunnuhver, and a geothermal power plant in the distance.

The site is a field of steam vents called Gunnuhver, after a young teenage troublemaker. History has it that, about 400 years ago, a priest condemned her to the site, and her angst leaks out through the hot ground. Gunnuhver, I should mention, was a ghost.

Icelandic history can take some getting used to, because to an American, it doesn’t quite seem like history. The major historical text, the Icelandic Sagas, mostly concerns the actual Vikings who settled the island and their hardships, feuds, and discoveries (not least of which was Vinland, better known to us as North America). But there are supernatural elements as well — namely, the existence of trolls and ghosts. I’m not suggesting that US history books or religious texts are immune to exaggeration or fabrication, as we lend a significant amount of credibility to giants and miracles, but trolls and ghosts are apt to raise eyebrows.

While it’s easy to be cynical about Icelandic history and folklore, it’s more fun to play along. Further along the path at Gunnuhver, we came across a pit filled with especially strong vents, and I could just imagine a bunch of farmers standing around it cursing an undead teenage girl.

The path was minimally roped-off, which was surprising, given that you could burn your hand off your arm in seconds if it found itself in a vent. The area reeked of sulfur and occasionally felt warm in places; at one point, passing a large vent, the wind blew hot, salty-smelling steam into my face. It was hard to mind — it was raining lightly, off and on, and I wasn’t smelling so great myself after a full day of travel.

After driving down a few more unmarked gravel roads, it was finally time to head to the Blue Lagoon.

For an attraction that sells itself on being relaxing, the process of actually getting into the lake is stressful. We arrived just a minute or two after its 10:00 a.m. opening and already long lines had formed just inside the entrance. We didn’t even know if we were in the right line. Admission is expensive — we paid about $75 USD per person for entrance, a towel and bathrobe rental, a locker, two face mask samplers, and a drink ticket for the swim-up bar. The locker room was chaotic, and I fumbled with my electronic wristband that opened the locker and served as my “tab” at the bar. I felt really uncomfortable, too, being so dirty and cold and wet in my flight clothes and winter jacket, and having to exchange that for a bathing suit. It felt like 3:00 a.m. to me, and I didn’t have the mental clarity I wanted.

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The Blue Lagoon.

But the water was heavenly. Its warmth, milky blue color, and sweet clay aroma made me feel safe and calm. I liked scrunching my toes in the volcanic sand and watching steam blow across the surface, sometimes creating nearly opaque curtains of vapor. The water was never so deep that my head was submerged, so I could alternate between slow strides and a leisurely breast stroke. Our natural bathtub was surrounded by rolling hills of lava flows, with a clean-energy power plant puffing steam into the air just beyond. And every five minutes, there was light rain, or hard rain, or a sun so bright we had to keep our backs to it.

Tip: Bring a hairbrush, conditioner, and a cozy change of clothes to the Blue Lagoon with you. While the water does wonders for your skin, it makes your hair feel like wet tangled yarn. And the last thing you’ll want to do is put your touring clothes back on. Treat yourself to loungewear afterwards.

We eventually wandered toward one of the several stations along the water’s edge for applying silicone masks made from volcanic rock from the site. You used a metal scoop to remove a handful of the pale gray putty from a bin and applied it to your face. The bins were above the water, so the masks were the same cold temperature as the air, and they felt exhilarating to put on. I loved the fresh linens smell and exfoliating sensation as it dried, and ended up doing a few applications throughout the morning. It made for an unforgettable sight–tourists all around me, appearing out of steam clouds or disappearing into them, with their faces painted white. A cold glass of strawberry sparkling wine from the swim-up bar only heightened it.

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Milky water and chalky faces at the Blue Lagoon.

We spent two hours at the Blue Lagoon (it hardly felt like it) then drove on to Reykjavik. I was so eager to see Reykjavik and eat lunch, but my body clock was taking over. I kept falling asleep then immediately coming back-to as my guy asked me questions or pointed out things of interest along the route. It took all of my strength — and a cup of black tea — not to pass out with my face in my bowl of lamb stew at Cafe Loki.

We checked in to our 37 Apartments suite on Laugavegur, a complimentary upgrade, and gasped over the modern art and the design and the size of it before collapsing into long naps, with the bustle of the main street three stories below not even threatening to wake us up.

I reluctantly gave in to my alarm a couple of hours later, though, and enjoyed a long, hot shower. It was late afternoon, and I knew that businesses would close soon, so I woke my guy up and tried to energize him. We had read that dining out was expensive in Iceland, so we wanted to get to a grocery store and wine shop before they closed at 5:00 p.m. for snacks and aperitifs.

We soon learned that alcohol sales are regulated by the government. The wine shops are called Vinbudin and operated by the State Alcohol and Tobacco Company of Iceland (ÁTVR), and they all sell the same limited selection of wines to both consumers and restaurants–some with even smaller inventories than others. Liquor is prohibitively expensive, and wine is not that much better. A bottle that would go for $50 at a restaurant might sell for $12-$15 at a wine store, which is fairly consistent with American pricing but still frustrating, as much of it didn’t seem to merit their over-$10 price tags. After a few so-so mid-range bottles we purchased at that first Vinbudin in Reykjavik, we warmed up to the less expensive mass-produced labels.

Tip: Icelandic restaurants and bars are really expensive. Save money by picking up snacks from grocery stores and adult beverages from the state-run liquor stores, but don’t wait until evening to go. Grocery stores open at 10 or 11 in the morning and close by 6. Liquor stores’ hours are even more restrictive, and they might be closed altogether on certain weekdays.

Back at our apartment, we relaxed over wine and cheese and BBC programming, researched restaurants and bars, and took pictures of our ocean view from the large private patio we had barely even noticed on arrival. Our plan for the night was to have an authentic Icelandic dinner, then see how long we could last at bars afterwards. Most of the dining and nightlife in Reykjavik is on or around Laugavegur, so we were well situated. It was Thursday, not a big night for going out among locals, so we didn’t feel as though we would miss out if we didn’t. On Friday, though, we’d have no excuse. Laugavegur would be overtaken by stylish locals and travelers drinking their way toward dawn in the infamous Icelandic party tradition known as the Runtur. We needed to save our energy.

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Our living room at 37 Apartments.

Our research into restaurants brought us to 3 Frakkar, which translates to three brothers. The restaurant has been open for 24 years, and it is still run by its original owners. The interior is small, with nice tablecloths, lace curtains, a single long-stem rose on each table, and maritime accents around the bar.

We shared an appetizer of smoked puffin, which was dark red, and its gaminess and smokiness were well complemented by a bright honey mustard sauce. For my entree, I had monkfish and lobster in lobster sauce, rich and buttery and tender. I haven’t had monkfish in about 8 years, since working for a French restaurant in college and getting to enjoy leftovers; I’d missed it. My guy ordered the peppered whale steak. It was really two large steaks, both thinly sliced to about a centimeter thick, cooked to an agreeable medium temperature. When I tasted it, I immediately described it as purple. It was like red meat, plus. Lean and tender, but intense, and even regal. My guy agreed. Fin whale isn’t endangered or even close, and there’s a strict quota on the annual hunt, but we struggled with the decision. I did some reading in advance to gauge the ethics of it, and I would call it barely passable. Icelanders defend it in the name of tradition, but it’s not even that popular among locals — and they actually carry a surplus. Horse was also on the menu; we did not consider it.

We ended our evening at B5, a coffee shop by day and bar by night, and enjoyed nightcaps and covers of some of the greatest American songs ever written, belted out by two young guys with guitars. It was very strange to have them sing in perfect English then speak in Icelandic between songs. We’d barely heard an Icelandic word all day.

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