Europe, in a Nice Sweater
First of all – Iceland is awesome, but not for all the reasons that you might already know. Yes, the landscape is mesmerizing, and it’s filled with Nordicly-sculpted people who clearly won the genetic lottery, but it also corrects some of my major annoyances with mainland Europe. Free WiFi is abundant, for example, as is free water (cold, with ice if you want it – take a lesson, proper Europe). Bathrooms are clean and free*, no paying a kiosk or attendant for a shabby, poorly maintained squatting-hole here. Almost everyone we dealt with or chatted up has been friendly and pleasant (Europe can be a…surly place). It’s a country that is expensive, yes, but it isn’t trying to squeeze you unnecessarily for every krona.
I got the chance to meet my friend, Pancho, and his girlfriend, Kay, in Reykjavik…in late January, the peak of winter where I live in New England as well as in Iceland. I really need to work on my vacation timing. We got incredibly lucky though in the weather department, leaving Boston just before one of the first winter storms of the season, and arriving in Iceland during an unseasonable warm spell.
Iceland in winter really is incredible. The area around the airport feels more like a moonscape then a European capital city. Nature here feels cold and unforgiving, indifferent to human designs or needs. Driving around the city and countryside outside is simply stunning. It’s everything you’ll read about it, and more. We breezed through the small airport and within just a few minutes of landing we had our bags, passed through customs, and were ready to pick up our rental car… which I had booked at the wrong airport (it’s KEF, not RKV, for the record). Despite this amateur move, we were able to get a car and were on our way into town.
Reykjavik is a walkable city, and while waiting for Pancho to get in later in the evening, we toured the city. The first thing most notice about Iceland is how expensive it is. Guide books and blogs go on and on about it, and they are all right. One can be frugal here, but it’s damn hard. We spend the day touring the city, perusing shops , tasting more than a few anise flavored cocktails, and seeing a few sites around the town. Music and art play a big part in Icelandic culture, and it’s evident strolling around the city. Galleries of all types line the streets, as does colorful street art and graffiti. Pancho arrived in the evening, and after a quick dinner, drove out to the Grotta lighthouse to attempt to see the notoriously fickle northern lights. The cloud cover seemed to thick at first, but we got lucky and were able to snap a few good photos before they faded from the sky. It was … well , it was really fucking cool.
The Blue Lagoon is a top tourist destination, and rightly so. Geothermal hot springs are kind of Iceland’s thing, and this one is the crown jewel. It’s the most developed of the springs, and the largest, with its steamy sapphire water juxtaposed by stark volcanic rock. After a leisurely breakfast in town, we spent the afternoon here, enjoying the contrast between the freezing air and slightly sulfuric spring. Okay,…it’s essentially a giant outdoor hot tub, but it’s gorgeous and as Kay says, puts you into a bliss coma. Don’t even think of skipping it. We had lunch at the restaurant and it’s pricey, though pleasant. I would avoid it and just grabs some snacks, head back into town for better and (slightly) less expensive food. It did provide for some interesting conversation between Kay and our waitress, regarding elves and the hidden folk, so there’s that.
Saturday night was interesting. Icelanders know how to have a good time, but they don’t get started until late in the evening. Bars and clubs stay packed from midnight until they close, often times after five in the morning. We had a few drinks at the house and then hit the town. Dinner was at the Kex Hostel where we rocked out to some local music, then walked over to another bar recommended by a waitress we befriended at the hot springs. I’m proud to say we managed to stay out until almost four in the morning, not too shabby considering the jet-lag. Kay danced the night away, while Pancho and I seemed to attract a few pharmacological types, offering us various …stimulants and powders. We do look like a couple of devils, true, but that’s not quite our style, so we stuck with local beers. Tomorrow we’ll regret our late night, tour the Golden Circle, and hopefully get to bed before five in the morning.
* The one place that did charge for restroom use was in Þingvellir Park, along the Golden Circle, and it was a lovely place to make a deposit.
Where we stayed: Airbnb on Klapparstigur Street
What we did:
Shopping along Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur Street
Kaffibrennslan – great corner coffee house and bar
Bakari Sandholt – best breakfast sammies for the road
Prikid – fun late night bar that turns into dance hall. Kind of
Bergsson Mathus -healthy lunch and dinner close to city hall
Public House Gastropub – decent food, fun atmosphere, one dish was extra…musky
Bunk Bar – super cool cocktail bar, great drinks, especially if you like anise flavoring