Why on earth would you go to Iceland?”
It was 7 a.m. and there we were, tired and freezing, outside the Keflavik airport. For weeks, friends wondered aloud why my wife, Kristen, and I wanted to vacation in Iceland, and now it seemed like a fair question. Living in South Florida prepares you for many things (outrageous insurance rates, flying metal spears on interstates, old people driving cars into pools), but it does not prepare you for freezing at a bus stop.
But once the bus arrived, discomfort gave way to slack-jawed awe, at least for this Florida boy. A few reasons:
– The bus was plush and cozy, and the driver spoke English.
– The roads in such a hardscrabble land were smooth.
– The other drivers on the road were courteous.
And the bus, filled with people from everywhere staying all over Reykjavik, actually took us to our hotel in a timely fashion.
Kristen and I could barely speak.
Once at the hotel, we were allowed to check in at 9 a.m. Anyone who’s flown overnight knows the first thing they want to do on arrival is take a shower and lie down. In a matter of two hours, Iceland went from the land of pelting cold to the land of modern comfort.
Iceland seems a constant contradiction. It’s not covered in ice, that’s Greenland. There are days when the sun never sets, others when it never rises. There’s a volcano in the middle of a glacier. And the land, which is being driven apart by continental drift, was a key meeting site bringing Russia and the United States together during the Cold War.
Stopping the Cold War in Iceland!
Beyond the landscape and history, Iceland and the capital city of Reykjavik surprised us with its modern touches, exciting nightlife and engaging people. Despite the fact that our first day and a half was dominated by freezing winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole (yes, the tropics in Iceland), the fall weather was crisp and clear.
Reykjavik is the population center of Iceland, with almost 200,000 of the island’s 280,000 people living in or around the world’s northernmost capital. The city is relatively compact, and we were able to easily walk from one end of the town to the other in under an hour. The public transportation was also easy to follow and turned cold walks into simple jaunts.
It is off the street of Laugavegur (one of the easier pronounced streets) where the city’s heart comes to life. Commercial shops, restaurants and bars dot the thoroughfare.
It was the perfect place to find something to eat.
I have come to find that eating in a foreign land can be exciting and scary (Is ox tail chewy? Are chilled monkey brains like eating Jell-O?) We knew that Iceland, isolated as it was, would offer an unusual brand of food we would get nowhere else on earth. So we did what any other adventurous couple would do.
We had Mexican.
Traditional Icelandic fare, while exotic-sounding, is as appealing as the stomach flu. There’s svio, which is boiled sheep’s head; slatur (pronounced slaughter), which is sheep’s intestines; and the hard-to-pronounce sursadir hrutspungar, which is pickled rams’ testicles.
Yum. Who wants seconds?
Apparently, the Icelandic people aren’t too jazzed about their traditional fare either, because Indian, Chinese and yes, Mexican places were found in abundance. Reykjavik also has a nice selection of vegetarian restaurants (rams’ testicles will do that to you), and we stumbled upon an Andalusian tapas bar that featured excellent soup as well as flamenco dancing.
But we didn’t completely ignore Icelandic food. Fish is another one of the country’s staples, and we found a nice coffee bar that served a fish stew, which wasn’t really a stew at all. Served on toast and sprinkled with olive oil, the stew was essentially a cube of salty cod. It was a fine afternoon snack.
If Icelandic fare is what you crave, there are a few upscale restaurants that specialize in it. The best-known is called Naustid (which does not translate to All Things Sheep), and is the nation’s oldest restaurant, established in 1954. Aside from sheep innards, there is wind-dried haddock, cod, reindeer and the old favorite – smoked puffin. No word if it tastes like chicken.
Outside the commercial center, Reykjavik boasts funky, colorful neighborhoods; new, eclectic churches; and a host of museums and art galleries. Highlights include the Reykjavik Art Museum, an expansive building featuring twisting hallways and a permanent collection of cartoon-like art from Iceland‘s better-known painters. Across town is the Asmundur Sveinsson sculpture garden. A white-domed house is circled by various sculptures from the 20th-century artist, who sculpted women, children and deformed polar bears reaching for the stars.
But the hottest lure of Reykjavik is the nightlife. All-night clubbing is as traditional as, umm, rams’ testicles (OK, I’ll stop). “Sometimes when the sun doesn’t come up,” one of our cabbies said, “the people party all day long, too.”
We were fortunate, because our trip coincided with the Iceland
Airwaves festival, a five-day musical fete featuring more than 100 bands from around the world playing in venues all over town. The festival is dominated by Icelandic artists (no Bjork – she lives in New York City now), and this year included such international indie darlings as Keane (from London) and The Shins (from Albuquerque).
The performers run the gamut. The festival was officially kicked off by KK, an Icelandic folk singer who croons in both English and Icelandic, which is essentially eighth-century Danish Norse. But there were turntablists to see, female rappers, electronica masters, a ’70s-styled all-girl Swedish band, and a heavy-metal Icelandic band that was part Lynyrd Skynyrd and part Guns ‘n’ Roses.
The venues included smaller bars (for the DJs), as well as the city’s main art museum, which hosted the largest of the shows. One amazing aspect of the country’s mentality was that the museum’s exhibits were open for viewing during the concerts. Can you imagine the Norton opening its doors for a rock show, while leaving the art on display? That Picasso would go missing.
Yet that is what’s great about the people who live in Iceland, as well as the ones who vacation there. I left Kristen watching Keane in the art museum while I went to another bar to catch a different act. So while I was dancing to the Stills (an outstanding rock band from Montreal) with a group of Canadians, my wife watched Keane with some guys from Manchester, chatted with Icelandic women in line after the show, and later had a beer upstairs from the bar I was in with some New Yorkers. When I found her we were both wide-eyed.
Friendly is not Florida’s forte.
Which is why I can hear you grumbling. “There must be a downside,” you say. “Nothing is that great.”
OK. It’s really expensive. Since it is an island in the middle of nowhere, it costs quite a bit to import items. Which means a typical lunch will cost you $30, a paperback may cost you $15, and a pack of gum $2.50. Notice my wife only had a beer at the festival. It cost $10.50.
Fortunately, it’s not that expensive to fly there, and the hotel package deal we purchased made for a cheaper stay than at many European hotels. We flew on Icelandair, which offers flights from Orlando and is great about offering package deals that include hotels and excursions.
On our final night in Iceland, Kristen and I walked to an open field near the water a few blocks from our hotel hoping to see Northern lights. We were told they may be hard to see in the city, but we saw them nonetheless. A streaming green strand of light waves hovered just above the horizon.
It was then I realized: Iceland‘s just the coolest place on earth. Even the sky is envious.