Arrival to Reykjavik
This summer Andrew and I took advantage of Iceland Air’s free stopover program and enjoyed a four day layover in Iceland to spend 36 hours in Reykjavík and the rest of our journey in Suðurland, Iceland’s southern coastline. We arrived to the airport in Keflavik, about 30 minutes from Reykjavík where we were greeted by heavy rains, wind, a black ocean… and a van to take us to SADcars, where we would pick up our ’89 Toyota rental car with 339,000 km cranked up on it. We loaded up our rusty red sedan and made our way into the city.
It’s a cool and pleasant looking, modern town abutted to an otherworldly nature, with buildings constructed to withstand weather — all the weathers. Think fishing boat in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Our first stop was at the Kex Hostel, kex meaning cookie and the hostel named for the cookie factory that it once was. A cool, Schillers-esque venue with subway tiling, wooden stools and banquettes along large windows overlooking the bay. Tall ceilings. Industrial lamps. Strips of hunter green paint and maps, maps everywhere.
The buildings are painted in bright colors which add a cheerfulness to the stark grey skies. The wind and rain had let up. We strolled pedestrian esplanades filled with funky cool clothing stores and coffee shops. Coffee shops everywhere. The coffee shops are friendly with deliciously strong coffee, often offering an assortment of fresh Icelandic sweets from a carrot cake that was the size of my face (no sugary feat unsurmountable), to cinnamon, glazing, rhubarb-y goodness.
There are also places to buy their signature wool sweater, the Lopapeysa everywhere. Everywhere. One thing that is really neat about the Reykjavík shopping scene is it’s totally unique and full of small shops with unique styles. There are some Scandinavian brands such as Acne jeans, Fjällräven Kånken, but for the most part it’s original, boutique, handmade-focused. When I go to my old hood at Prince & West Broadway, it’s become essentially a who’s who in brand name shopping compared with an original boutique culture I recall from childhood. The Icelandic store that reins everywhere, with the best, most Brooklyn, bear-loving, hipster climber advertisements you’ve never seen is 66°NORTH. The name derives from the latitudinal line of the Arctic Circle which touches Súgandafjörður where the company was founded in 1926 by Hans Kristjánsson with the purpose of making protective clothing for Icelandic fishermen.
When the sun peaked out of the clouds, or I should say, when the weather that we could see in the distance arrived — because you can always see it in the distance and it always finds it’s way to you, the bright buildings become ever sweeter and the Harpa, their major concert hall and conference center becomes a sunlit kaleidoscope.
After a few hours coffee sampling and handcraft admiring we made our way to our AirBNB apt. near the heart of downtown with semi soft sheepsmilk cheese, dry sausage and some leftover Oban from the earlier part of our journey. After our Icelandic apéro and a long nap we ventured back out for dinner. The sun as high in the sky as we left it.here.
Our dinner destination was Grillmarkadurinn. We began with fresh bread with whipped butter topped with black lava salt. Amazing start. For an appetizer we shared burger slider but rather these sliders were an assortment of reindeer, whale meat and lobster. It was heavy on the BBQ sauce, which I eventually discovered is a popular component of Icelandic flavor. It’s not my taste, to say the least. However, the cheapest red wine on the menu was delicious and the presentation was exceptional.
From there, the night took us to Lebowski Bar. A bar entirely devoted to “the dude”. We didn’t get to experience the full throttle of Reykjavík as we prepared ourselves for an early journey to the Suðurland following a long day having been on the first flight to Reykjavík out of Paris that morning. For our next trip, I will be sure to schedule a longer stay in the mid-north Atlantic capital. One thing I am sure of — summer nights in Reykjavík are full of daylight.
Journey through the Suðurland
We woke up in Reykjavík, the sun still up from the night before and stopped at yet another, sweet coffee shop for homemade oatmeal and a caffeine kick. Thence, it was off to the ring road, atlas in hand. By this time of the morning it had already been rainy, windy, sunny, and both temperate and chilly. As they say in Iceland — if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.
We planned our route to stop at a few highlights and points of interest on our way to our cabin at Giljaland where we would spend the next three days.
Our first stop was Þingvellir, where the first Icelandic parliament was founded in 930 Current Era (CE). According to the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), the settlement of Iceland began in 874 CE when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Grímur Geitskör was allotted the role of rallying support and finding a suitable location for the first assembly. At about the same time, the owner of Bláskógar (the contemporary name for the Þingvellir region) was found guilty of murder and his land was declared public. The accessibility of the area made it the perfect spot at the time.
It is incredible to think of the origin of essentially a modern democratic parliament was at the farthest distance, a 17-day trek across glacial rivers and mountains. The exact location of the meetings isn’t terribly obvious upon arrival. We started toward the crowds and canyon trails but my gut feeling that it was probably near the tall pole with the waving Icelandic flag was right on point. It wasn’t until 1844 that the Alþingi, national parliament move to Reykjavík.
Next stop was Geysir. Namesake for all geysers to come. It is not obvious where to find Geyser. It was fiercely raining and Andrew and I ran into a tourism center that also proved to be a gorgeous store with a restaurant/bar that felt like a Utah ski lodge. There was a small geothermal museum exhibit but no obvious signage on how to find this spouting hot spring. Potentially a theme. Eventually, someone advised us to go through the white gates (details like across the street and down the road, unmentioned).
In 1970-something a Dutch tourist through a rock into Geysir to try to activate it and it’s never been the same but Strokkur, a trusty geyser sizzles just a few steps. It exploded into the air, and standing as close as we were I just recall the thunderous sound and when it was over, we were hosed.
The day concluded with a marvelous geothermal bath, equipped with a natural steam and sauna at Laugarvatn Fontana.
In an infinity rock pool we enjoyed Earth’s hot tub while it lightly rained and the air was cool. Signs everywhere alerted us to the varying nature of temperatures of the lake we looked out on, as it is to be ventured at your own risk with unpredictable transitions from cold waters to boiling. Even just a few steps in the black sand could prove the point.
After some time enjoying the quiet natural spa followed by a shower I felt a rush of refreshed energy. To top the experience off, I recommend a “boost”, the Icelandic equivalent of a fruit smoothie.
For the final stop of the day before settling in at Giljaland we visited the Black Sand Beach at Reynisdrangar near the village of Vík. Filled with beautiful grey pebbles that massage your feet and rich, black sand, the sun cleared away the clouds and cliffs of bright green meadow hung in the distance. This place is magical.
After a few more villages and a trip through the grocery store of Icelandic orthography we made it to our simple, sleek cabin for some Bordeaux we picked up at the airport prepared to grill the pre-marinated steak we picked up. Only was it once we were several kilometers away from the nearest town in our quaint, isolated abode did we discover a photo of a whale printed on the back our pepper (or pipar) steak. This was whale steak. Whale is a very common menu item in Iceland, so be sure to triple check your groceries if you don’t want Free Willy for dinner. So wine and cheese it was.
Glaciers, Basalt Columns and the Land of Elves & Trolls
We awoke to sunshine and a blue skies forecast for the entire day. On our way to the glacier we stopped at Fjaðrárgljúfur (pictured as featured photo).
It was a glorious canyon with a creek of fresh glacier water running through it.
Then, we made our way to the glacier for a hike. About a 1.5 hour drive through endless moss covered cooled lava fields until you reach miles of black sand beaches. The entire time you are approaching this ethereal white capped mountain in the distance which reveals what looks like a mountain covered in still white lava. This is the ice of the glacier.
We hiked along the glacier on a 8km or so trail spotted with waterfalls, creeks and stange terrains in every direction.
We refreshed in the nearby town for another dip in a geothermal pool, although this one felt more pool less geo and went to dinner at Hunkubakkar, a family run farm-to-table restaurant we’d noticed that morning. The food was fresh and delicious — and importantly, the entire dessert menu was home cooked by the family matriarch, Grandma.
Last Day in the Eternal Sunshine State
With only a few hours left of our extended layover before heading back to New York, we worked our way westbound along the ring road. We pet ponies on the side of the road, saw Mount Eyjafjallajokull, and found out what that Blue Lagoon was all about.
The Blue Lagoon is certainly in the Golden Circle of the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland. Having now sampled two geothermal pools we arrived at this bright blue one, this one is a manmade lagoon which is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant and in the midst of Mars-like cooled lava debris. It’s certainly fancier, more expensive and with a wider shopping selection than the other pools I had seen, and indeed beautiful in its own right despite the uneasiness I felt with a neighboring power plant and mysterious perriwinkle water arguably full of minerals, but I think it’s not where someone who is looking for a connection to the natural wonders and serenity of a truly unique experience will find it.
Iceland is a country of great vastness, immense beauty, an believable combination of unique terrains in a single view. It is a place connected to its land, to its waters. A raw vision of an Earth we don’t live on.
For more on Iceland, check out:
- Guide to Iceland; particularly their list written by a local on “The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders“
- Amazing list of geothermal pools via Rough Guides