The good news is the new direct service from Toronto and Halifax with Icelandair. The bad news – depending on your taste – is Björk. A channel playing all Björk, all the time, can be tuned in on the in-flight entertainment. That alone might make some passengers want to skip Reykjavik altogether and use the airline for the handy hop to get to the continent. For me, it was inspiration. Those wacky, haunting sounds from the pixie waif are the perfect appetizer for visiting this wholly unusual island in the mid-Atlantic.
To outsiders, Iceland has something of an identity problem, which partly comes from being wrongly named. Blame the island next to it – the one with all the ice called Greenland. Though there may not be much ice in Iceland, it is definitely one cool place to visit.
Reykjavik famously cultivates a hip, alternative scene and the nightlife lives up to the billing. Stroll the streets near the waterfront past countless bars and clubs that don’t really get going till sundown (that’s about 1 am in summer) for a taste of Icelandic party life. There are also many fashion-forward places to stay. Hotel Borg combines a sense of contemporary Scandinavian design with its original Art Deco details and has a pulsating bar and club off the lobby. Unfortunately, the equally famous high cost of living out on Europe’s fringe means a pint will cost you about $10 a pop.
If you think about what life must be like on the Arctic Circle in Canada, it’s hard to believe Reykjavik shares the same latitude. There are bubbling fountains, outdoor cafes and pedestrian streets that encourage you to stay outdoors. The Gulf Stream and oodles of geothermal hot springs keep things mild. Swimming is the national pastime with a dozen outdoor thermal pools open year-round, including Nautholsvik Thermal Beach, a whimsical summertime ritual where hot geothermal water gets pumped into the frigid Atlantic Ocean.
Stir your inner Viking on the 8-hour Golden Circle Tour, a day trip into the black, treeless moonscape of lava rock, geysers and thundering waterfalls. If you have more than a few days, the 1,500-km. round-the-island drive is a fascinating excursion to volcanoes, cracking glaciers and remote fishing villages. Breathe in that pure arctic air and take in the vast nothingness of it all.
A great way to see the island up close – and not too far off the ground – is to saddle up on one of Iceland’s legendary horses. Just don’t call them ponies. These diminutive trotters are descendants from the Viking era and unique in the world. So protective are the locals of their own breed that no other kind of horse is allowed into Iceland and should one leave, they can’t come back home. Over the centuries, the horses developed their own gait to navigate the rough and rocky terrain with a surefootedness that buffers a rider’s passage. There are a number of stables near Reykjavik to give it a try.
Iceland isn’t known as an epicurean hotspot and that’s a pity, considering what delectable treats lie in store for hungry visitors. Head to the small fishing village of Stokkseyri to sample the best prawn-sized Icelandic lobster around. The scrumptious crustaceans at Fjorubordid restaurant are well worth the hour pilgrimage. Moreover, Iceland’s local lamb is the best I’ve ever had, tasting of the herbs and grasses they munch in summer pastures. And greenhouses deliver fresh veggies – even bananas.
Next to Fjorubordid is a kitschy kind of tribute to an enduring part of Icelandic culture. Locals believe in elves and trolls. They see these little people as protectors of the Icelandic spirit. The Icelandic Wonders museum tells their tale and has another floor dedicated to local ghost stories.
Iceland is full of marvels and unlike anyplace else. The best way to contemplate your otherworldly surroundings is to slip into the Blue Lagoon. This popular geothermal spa bubbles with mineral-rich seawater heated at the earth’s core and fills a mammoth man-made lagoon. Wade through the steamy mists until land and sky are lost in the fog. Smear your face with the nourishing white silica porridge found in these waters and just float. Out of doors, on the cusp of the world, you can truly revel in it all.