A couple months ago, my editor in chief popped in our cubicle area and said, “Cheap tickets to Iceland! Who wants to go?” Later she told us that she was sure we would decline. We all stared at her with those half smiles that come from thinking, “No way, this awesomeness cannot be happening,” And after a little bit of thought, we collectively decided that, yes, this would actually happen.
So last weekend five of us took a $250 flight across the Atlantic to this little country of 320,000 people. We landed in the capital city of Reykjavik (rake-yuh-vick), which holds about 60% of those people. In four days, we took in the natural wonders, the food, the nightlife and the culture. Now we all want to go back again for longer trip, and here is why:
1. Incredible Landscapes
The picture above is from Thinghvellir National Park, the first stop on our Golden Circle Tour outside of Reykjavik, Iceland. As soon as you pass out of this little capital city, you are almost immediately surrounded by golden-hued mountains, moonscapes of black lava rock brushed with moss, and silvery lakes, all topped by a vault of temperamental sky that can change from moody and gray to angry and hailing to optimistic and bright blue in the space of a half hour. Bring your camera!
Our tour guide with Reykjavik Excursions was utterly charming. This grandfather-type teacher would prattle on about this and that, spouting such wisdom as, “Sometimes we hike up the mountains, and we don’t have anything to do, so we count lava layers!” Every time he wanted to get our attention he would say, “Yaya, my friends!” So cute.
2. Amazing Food
You wouldn’t think of Icelandic cuisine as a reason to visit, but I assert that it is. Iceland skyr yogurt puts American and even French yogurt to shame (if you want to sample it, a poor approximation can be found in Siggis brand yogurt in Whole Foods). And if you are looking for local food, it’s easy to do so at restaurants like the Icelandic Bar in the main square and the Fish Company, a cozy yet highbrow restaurant down by the port that serves the mind-bending food on vintage plates and platters, and the sauces in little espresso makers.
We fell in love with Fish and Chips (you might have noticed by now that the restaurant names are not inventive at all), which served lightly fried wolf fish served with fat rosemary potato wedges or on a bed of mango salad, and inventive skyr sauces like ginger and wasabi or coriander and lime. Even Reykjavik hot dogs are the best you’ve ever tasted. A little shack down by the water serves up lamb and pork dogs with fried onions and a special sauce. I had two. They do not sell veggie dogs or t-shirts. Carrie asked and the serious-as-a-heart-attack hot dog seller told her, “We are a hot dog company only.”
If you are a vegan or animal rights activist, however, be prepared to be shocked. Several restaurants feature–along with freshly caught fish–cute animals like puffin, whale, reindeer and even foal. We did, in fact, order minke whale at Fish Company, where the waitress assured us that these whales are caught for research under a quota. We looked at each other skeptically, but chose to take her at her word for the sake of trying to cuisines.
You can see where this is going. My investigations later revealed that Iceland is caught in a controversy similar to Japan’s, in which they flout international law in catching endangered fin whale and selling it abroad under the thin guise of “research”. And minke whale isn’t even a traditional food, according to this article. Our one vegetarian friend did OK, but had to deny herself the majority of the interesting foods found on the menus.
But if you would like to do the opposite of eating endangered species, you can go whale watching at certain times of the year and see the whales in their natural habitat–not on your plate.
3. Clean Energy
Any tour of the countryside showcases all the different ways the grinding of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates can manifest itself in hot springs, geysers, water-filled crevices and gorgeous waterfalls. So it will come as no surprise that Reykjavik and almost the entire country is powered exclusively with clean geothermal energy. In fact, Iceland is one of the greenest countries in the world. The only drawback: the tap water smells like sulfur.
4. Blue Lagoon
That opalescent blue water at the Blue Lagoon is chock-filled with healthy minerals, and is as warm as a hot tub. Inside the modern building is a whole spa, a little cafe and a restaurant. Walk out of the changing rooms into the frigid air and you can scamper right into the steaming water, wade over to get a glass of wine and then slather your face with silica mud.
The best place to hang out is right by the pumps that bring the 80-degree Celsius hot water up from deep underneath, cool it to tolerable temperatures and release it into the natural pool. If you get bored you can stand under the man-made waterfall or pop into the steam room or sauna to relax and talk with tourists and Icelanders alike.
At least a week before you plan to go, make an appointment for an in-water massage or salt scrub treatment. I had the salt scrub, where an attractive Icelander covers you with a hot blanket dipped in the water and then meticulously scrubs each part of you with salt while you float in the water. It was delicious. Occasionally I would open my eyes to watch the clouds scud across the darkening sky, or take in the vivid sunset colors. By the time we were ready to leave, we were utterly relaxed and our skin glowed.
You can buy products online derived from the mineral rich mud and water from the Blue Lagoon. Just take an extra peek at the ingredients before you buy–they are still in the process of phasing out parabens from the mud masks and facial serums.
5. Raging Nightlife
We still haven’t figured out what Icelanders do between the hours of 5pm and 12pm. Somewhere in there is dinner, but until midnight, the clubs are pretty low key. Then it explodes and you will find the streets crowded with young people until six in the morning. For a town small enough that everyone seems to know everyone, there is a surprising number of bars, clubs and event venues. The music scene is alive and well, and if you head into the Boston bar (reportedly partly owned by Bjork) you might think you were in a fashionable Brooklyn bar. The crowd and the ambiance is the same, with a DJ spinning tunes behind an ornate wooden carved DJ booth, flocked wallpaper on the walls and tall, thin women with edgy furs and high heels or hipsterish dresses and hats dancing to the music.
As for the music scene, you’ve probably heard of Bjork and Sigur Ros, but try Utidur and Gus Gus for some more delicious musical flavor. Or listen to this Icelandic DJ’s mixes. We just missed the big Airwaves music festival that happened a couple weekends before our trip, chock full of awesome acts from Iceland and elsewhere. (Beach House was one notable import.)
6. Good Shopping
There are two main streets where you can find shopping, and you only need an afternoon to hit everything. But what is to be found is great. Skip over the requisite cheesy tourist shop, and instead buy yourself a handknit, thick, Icelandic wool sweater, a pair of soft leather boots, a reindeer fur, high-quality outdoor gear by 66 North, or a pretty dress by an Icelandic designer. It’s all there.
7. Hot Men (and Women)
Imagine a Williamsburg hipster with a beard. OK, now make him taller with broader shoulders, and blond.
Yup, that’s it. Isn’t he hot? While your out partying, you’ll meet plenty of them, and they’re so darn friendly it won’t be long before they’re welcoming you into their group of friends and all but declaring their love for you. One even offered to take me horseback riding at his brother’s farm, while his brother incessantly texted my boss hoping to someday reconnect with her on one of his travels to NYC. So if you’re wondering what the best place to go is that night to party, just grab yourself a hot Icelandic man as your 12pm-6am tour guide.
8. Close and Cheap
As weird as it seems, this exotic land is a 5-hour plane ride from NYC. And if you’re signed up for travel deal sites, you’ll start seeing amazing discounts on round-trip flights to Iceland soon enough in your inbox.
For accommodations, you could get a hotel, but we rented an apartment on AirBnB, and paid less than $47 per person per night. I think we paid more for food and alcohol then we did on travel and lodging! And I just looked again and found a studio on the main drag for $75 a night. That is ridiculous.