Outside the Icelandic Air Hotel is a large unwieldy rock--- brown and pock-marked, covered with moss and lichen. The road winds awkwardly, illogically, around it. A sign next to the rock states that it is the residence of the ‘Little People of Iceland’---- elves and fairies-----and cannot be disturbed; whenever anyone has attempted to move it, bad things have happened. And that is why the contractors building the hotel and road have left it undisturbed, and redesigned their blueprints to accommodate a rock.
This whimsical urban myth pretty much sums up the land and the people of Iceland. Wild and windswept, home to the tall, blue-eyed descendants of the Vikings, to active Volcanoes that erupt every few years and cover the landscape with lava and boiling geysers spurting sulfurous water from the earth’s core, and to craggy black volcanic peaks that offer glacier walks and cradle the healing waters of Blue Lagoons, it is a land where the imagination flourishes, and where entities like mischievous elves and melancholic spirits could easily be the source of the brilliant Northern lights that dance across the sky after midnight.
The ‘Iceland Effect’ on the imagination begins the minute you land---it is 9:00 in the morning, but dark outside the airport, where the sun hasn’t risen yet (daylight hours in November are from to about 10:30 am to 5:00pm). The journey to the hotel makes one think of the edge of the world----we pass miles of craggy, barren territory, and it is a relief to finally see signs of habitation in the form of that universally undisputed symbol of a civilized community------a McDonald’s.
What strikes us is how under populated the place seems---the population of the entire island is only 330,000 and 120,000 live in Reykajavik and its suburbs. Iceland relies heavily on tourism as a mainstay of its economy and great travel deals are often available on the Icelandic Air website. A corollary to that is the friendliness and helpfulness of everyone we met on this vacation. Despite the fact that we were an unusually noisy group of 6 women, who frequently behaved like teenagers let loose on the first day of summer vacation, we received only indulgent nods and smiles, and helpful suggestions for our stay.
Iceland tourism sells the city of Reykjavik as a cosmopolitan hub, boasting several gourmet restaurants, a rocking night life and many architectural attractions, like the Hallgrimskirkja, a church shaped like an erupting volcano, or the imposing glass and steel Opera House with hundreds of colored, geometric glass panels that reflect light like a kaleidoscope at night. The top of the church and the roof of the only revolving restaurant in Reykjavik, Perlan, are ‘must sees’---both afford gorgeous views of the city and it’s brightly colored roofs. Icelandic homes are painted in cheerful kindergarten colors---a pleasant surprise--- and it gives the city a cocky, avant-garde cheerful look and offsets the gray-greens and black lava rocks of the landscape. Perlan also offers a good brunch with delicious pancakes/crepes. However, the best way to explore the heart of Reykjavik is by walking along its cobbled streets, popping into its quaint (astronomically priced) boutiques, and stopping for what Trip Advisor tells us is the best coffee in Iceland at the coffee shop, Kaffitar. Also the most tolerant ( and possibly somewhat hard of hearing?) Baristas in Iceland----our volume of guffaws and gossip, which would have intimidated most of the patrons of any European coffee shop (not to mention the good old USA) didn’t faze their good humor and graciousness one bit.
The one day trip which should top your list is an excursion to Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon---a spa and artificial lake fed by geothermal springs. There is something surreal and Startrekkian about immersing oneself in the steamy blue fluid of a lagoon surrounded by black lava rocks, set against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky. The mineral rich water of the lagoon is supposed to take 10 years off your face for every hour spent there. After two hours of lounging around in this amniotic heaven we were all officially in our 30’s, and could be excused our excited squeals and chatter. A water massage here is the kind of experience you don’t want to miss. Reserve 4 or 5 hours for this expedition and book in advance.
And if you top your evening at the Lagoon with dinner at its Lava restaurant, you’ll sample some excellent seafood. Restaurants in Iceland seemed to have universally delicious food---there is practically no pollution and everything is organic----and it is washed down with the purest, most addictive spring water you would ever have tasted (all of Iceland’s water comes from natural springs). Perhaps it’s the organic, unpolluted quality of the meat and produce (one of our waiters painted a kind of pastoral Eden where the lamb we where about to eat had spent its life gamboling and munching on fresh herbs), or the sweet spring water, or the fact that the waiters are universally friendly, not shy and speak good English, which made dining out a very pleasant experience.
Worth mentioning are the GrillMarket in the city of Reykjavik, billed as its best restaurant, and the food lived up to that reputation, and Karpor, a cozy bistro by the Harbor. And if you happen to visit on a weekend, don’t miss the Kaloportid flea market in the Harbor, with its selection of local delicacies like the famous Icelandic Hot Dog; contrary to popular perception Hot Dogs, not fermented shark or whale meat are the most popular food in Iceland.
Although Iceland has many interesting day trips, including glacier walks and whale watching expeditions, we were limited by time (3 and half days), and the time of year (November) to what we could cover. A Golden Circle tour which includes a trip to geyser country and the Gulfoss waterfall (highest one in Europe), as well as the craggy wilds of Pingvillier National Park, is highly recommended. This area is so primal, so vast in its swath of open blue sky and craggy, volcanic terrain, that its beauty is almost spiritual, and produces a kind of awed numbness of the imagination. The tour includes the area where the Game of Thrones and Interstellar were filmed, as well as a drive by the fault line (thankfully, currently dormant) of the two major tectonic plates between Europe and North America. Iceland sits on top of the MidAtlantic Ridge, the area where the two plates are moving apart, and which is the cause of all the volcanic activity on the island. Among the many little tidbits our tour guide entertained us with was the fact that this tiny volcanic island is becoming one of the hottest destination for golfers----they have the most golf courses per capita of any other country---one for every 5000 people! In June, July and August, when the sun never sets, one can golf around the clock---playing under the midnight sun can be quite surreal and sublime, our guide informed us.
Last but not the least, the famous Northern Lights tour. When we reached our boat we were handed what looked like equipment for the International Space Station---bright orange suits weighing a ton each, covering every inch of our bodies in a balloon like wrap---all we needed were oxygen tanks to complete the picture. Instead, we were advised to wear caps and scarves since it would be freezing out in the harbor at midnight. The trip was chilly, and the lights were not as brilliant as the pictures we had seen, but they did a little dance in the sky for us, so it all seemed worth it----plus the view of Reykjavik’s lit up skyline was a treat.
If you get inspired by this article to visit, go to Icelandic Air’s website for the latest deals, remember to pack heavy winter gear, check the weather, and book well in advance. You won’t be disappointed.
Jyoti Minocha; Anu Sahay
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