People often ask me why I went to Iceland. Ever since my wife, Sarah, and I have traveled together, every international destination (sorry, Canada, but you don’t count) has taken us south. New Zealand took us to 45 degrees south.
This time, we’ll go north. To spitting distance from the Arctic Circle.
We tell people our destination. They ask “why? What are Iceland’s attractions?”
Honestly, if I have to tell you, you probably won’t get it. But I’ll try, anyway:
Scenery. The place has volcanoes, glaciers, massive slabs of hardened lava – some of which are younger than I am. Explosion craters. Post-apocalyptic remainders of geological wrath. We love these things. No, Iceland is not a lush tropical paradise of cocktails sipped from coconut husks. Only 1 measly percent of the island is arable. It’s stark. Parts of it are are visually indistinguishable from Mars. Others look like Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. [Edit: Since I went to Iceland, the country has provided many scenes for Castle Black and areas north of The Wall in A Game of Thrones.]
Solitude. You can hike four hours without seeing another living creature. And that’s on the country’s premiere hiking route, the Laugavegur. I drove from Lake Myvatn to Húsavík in the north part of the country – and saw a mere handful of vehicles. Most of the route was unpaved. Outside the capital, the main highway aka The Ring Road, is often just one lane.
Novelty. Yes, most people speak English in Iceland. They have a high standard of living, and you’ll find all the modern conveniences. But you’ll see the interesting little differences. Like the language. Iceland’s language has been largely untouched since Vikings landed on its shores 1,000 years ago. They work to preserve it via the Iceland Language Council, which scrupulously adds words as-needed rather than letting foreign words invade willy-nilly. Iceland is modern, but it’s thoughtfully developed.
This adventure starts with a trip to New York’s JFK airport.
We were on a Delta flight from the dim provincial airport with delusions of grandeur known as Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (seriously, it doesn’t deserve the designation “international”). The Delta aircraft, a Boeing 737-800, was way too new to be so grungy. And get this: My knees touched the seat in front of me before that seat’s owner reclined. Even worse, the plane’s audio system was broken, so kiss in-flight entertainment good-bye. That alone could probably get me some frequent flyer miles from Delta. I don’t have a burning desire to fly them again, though – especially with United looking really good and its recent merger with Continental.
I’ll give props to Delta for the in-time takeoff and landing. First things first, though: I’m starved. We landed at Terminal 4 and wound up grabbing a bite there before heading to Terminal 4 to catch the IcelandAir flight, still several hours into the future.
Call me a geek, but I was really excited when the flight rolled up the gate.
See, IcelandAir understands something – that flying should still be kind of special. Step 1 – don’t treat your aircraft like a boring, anonymous tube of metal. Give it a name. This one, a B757-200, was named Surtsey. That’s the island south of Iceland that burst from the ocean in the 1970s in a torrent of lava and gas. Cool!
Here’s a confession: I was a bit disappointed that a trip to Iceland doesn’t require the services of a 747, 777 or even an A330. Those are planes that take people cool places. A 757, though, is usually a workaday plane headed to an anonymous destination.
Not Surtsey, though. IcelandAir knows presentation. For instance, the flight attendants have an old-school aviation vibe – pillbox hats, black leather gloves. The plane itself was spotless, looking nowhere near the 20 years old it is. Oh, and comfortable. I slid into my aisle seat with plenty of room between me and the next seat. Recline away, buddy!
Every seat had an On-Demand entertainment system. You could watch movies, listen to the radio, play games, even learn a few Icelandic phrases.
I could spend some serious time in this plane and be happy. And I did. We were two hours late taking off, even though we only boarded about 20 minutes late. The crew tried to keep us up to date, but eventually lost the will to do it after an hour. Fortunately, they kept the bottled water coming (Iceland, I learned, really does some nice bottled water).
So we started late, though we were on a clean, comfortable, quiet plane and seated next to a friendly Norwegian who offered some Iceland advice. Now, here’s my only real quibble about IcelandAir: Transatlantic flights merit a free meal for your passengers. End of story. No excuses.
But hell, the airline and its staff are too pleasant to gripe too much. I just would like to see them reconsider that policy.
We landed a bit late, obviously. The sky was gray and overcast, and we didn’t see ground until moments before the wheels hit the runway.
So begins the Customs madness – or so I thought.
Landing in a foreign airport often starts an excruciating process operation at the hands of the country’s customs officials. But the vibe here at Keflavik International Airport is wholly different: We don’t care what you’re carrying at the moment, we’re just glad you’re here.
The reception isn’t warm from the law enforcement types, but it’s hassle free. A quick tram ride later, we were boarding the FlyBus for the 45-minute trip to Reykjavik.
On the bus, we had a knowledgeable young Icelandic couple talking to an interesting Indian geologist, giving him some inside scoops. In front of us, though, was exactly the sort of young American traveler who should either not be allowed to leave the country or should be permanently exiled.
“Iceland – where the men are men and the sheep are nervous,” he so originally commented before making fun of the way the language sounds. He was only there overnight before he continued on to … wherever in Europe he was headed.
The entire trip was over barren fields of lava, with only hardy forms of tenacious plant life poking through. We saw a few of the traditional turf houses, and then entered a modern set of suburbs leading to Reykjavik proper.
The BSI Terminal is the hub for fun.
We arrived at the BSI bus terminal, which is about a 10-minute walk from the center of Reykjavik. This is an important landmark. If you’re going virtually anywhere outside of Reykjavik, you’ll need to return here and grab a bus.
We shouldered our packs and headed to our Guesthouse Isafold at Barugata 11. We blundered a bit in the unfamiliar city, but got their inside of 30 minutes.
We were happy to shake our packs off, get a key and go roaming. We snapped up a quick breakfast at one of the markets, looked at some of the tourist information and discovered Kaffitár. One website unfairly called this Iceland’s Starbucks. That’s only true in the sense that it roasts coffee for other coffeehouses, along with some baked goods. But the baristas here are all much more talented. They know how to pull a shot of espresso – and how to turn it into a cappuccino.
We also swung by the famous Hallgrímskirkja church, which is built to look like the basalt columns common around the country.
Ultimately, the caffeine wasn’t enough. We wound up back at the hotel around noon, and we slept until about 3 p.m.
When we woke, we had the eternal question: What next?
Sarah loves swimming. And Iceland loves pools. There’s a quality pool probably every two miles in any direction. We were about two miles from Laugardalslaug, the biggest of them. So we gathered swimsuits and water and left. On the way, we stopped for a snack of skyr. People misidentify this as yogurt, but it’s actually a soft cheese. It’s low in fat and loaded with protein – and far better than the sour crap labeled as Skyr that you can buy in the U.S.
We arrived to quite a scene at the pool. It was a sprawling complex connected to a huge gym. Lap lanes indoor and out, plus the main attraction: hot pots, or hot tubs. All different temperatures, all heated by geothermal energy. Here’s how the Icelandic hot tub ritual goes: You head into your gender-specific locker room, shower, get your swimsuit on, swim, soak in the tubs, hang out and then reverse the process.
By the time we’re done, we’re totally relaxed. Jet lag? Forget about it. We’re ready for what’s next, even though we don’t have any idea what that might be.
Until I saw a stadium next door, and the gathering crowd.
That’s when I ask a tall bearded guy with his face painted blue and white about what’s happening.
What’s going on -or about to- is an Icelandic Premier League soccer match. The bearded guy and his gaggle of singing, drum-banging buddies, are supporters of Stjarnan FC. The club is based south of Reykjavik, and it’s about to play Fram, which is at the top of the league table. The face painter guy asks if I want to go to the game.
My answer is “Hell, yeah!”, but it’s always good to ask if my travel partner feels the same. She does, and Face Painter handed me a ticket – but I have to support Stjarnan. Since they were the first ones to talk to me, I had planned to, anyway.
We all loaded into the stadium after I buy a second ticket for Sarah. The Stjarnan boys start banging their drums, pausing to unfurl a blue and white flag (oddly enough, these are also Fram’s colors … Stjarnan is in white for the match).
The Stjarnan boys are in fine form. Even though this is Fram’s stadium, I couldn’t help but ce all the kids in Stjarnan gear. The stadium, which can hold about 10,000, is only about a quarter full. And many seem to be rooting for Stjarnan.
This is not exactly Chelsea versus Arsenal, mind you. But it doesn’t matter. They fans sing. They bang drums. They chant.
And they do it with a friendly vibe. It’s not “Fram sucks and their fans are leprous maggots,” but rather “We love Stjarnan, and we really want to get three points.” There’s no apparent animosity between the supporters, who mix between halves ordering hot cocoa and soft drinks and the concession stand.
By some unlucky bounces, Fram went up 2-nil. In the 70th minute, Stjarnan got a lifeline: The ref showed a straight red card to a Fram player for a challenge from behind that would’ve put a Stjarnan player through on goal.
The boys pulled one back, but the whistle blew with them down a goal.
I shook hands with the Stjarnan gang, and thanked them for the great time regardless of the scoreline.
It was late. Like close to 10 p.m. But the sky looked exactly the same as when we landed.
And I was hungry. We cruised along looking for something interesting. We found a place that was still open, and looked good: The Scandinavian, which is on the main drag called Laugavegur (also sharing its name with a popular hiking trail from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk).
I had something called Spaghetti of The North. It was pretty much pasta with all sorts of fish and a light, garlicky cream sauce. Sarah had an open-faced Scandinavian-style sandwich with a breaded fish of some sort. We absolutely devoured both, enjoying every morsel. It was pretty solid fare, perfect for ending a long day of walking, hot tubbing and rooting for the away team.
That was pretty much the end of our night. We walked back to the guesthouse, and set our alarm for the awesome adventure to come the next day.