Folks, Iceland is a strange place. The Land of Fire and Ice, as the nation is affectionately known, is alive and still forming – violent, and occasionally beautiful yet sometimes deadly, geothermal activity ensures that travelers will bear witness to an otherworldly landscape.
The terrain is rough and ever-changing; geologically, Iceland is considered the world’s youngest country. Visitors will have no trouble understanding why a number of scenes from HBO’s hit Game of Thrones were filmed on this small island situated in the North Atlantic. It’s sparsely populated, and a large percentage of Icelandic people live in the greater Reykjavik area. Did you know that Reykjavik is the northernmost national capital in the entire world? Take that, Helsinki and Moscow.
Iceland will always hold a special place in my heart. After all, my first breath of European air was outside Keflavik International Airport, which is approximately forty-five minutes away from Reykjavik. I’d grown up dreaming of traveling throughout Europe, so those first few moments outside the airport were especially exciting. It may have been cold, rainy, and grey, but hey, it’s EUROPE!
Reykjavik is an alluring, pocket-sized city that feels more like a large town. Upon arriving, we scaled the tower of the capital city’s trademark structure: Hallgrimskirkja Church. Try pronouncing that one! The climb is easy, and an elevator option is available for those who need it. The photo above was taken from the top – isn’t Reykjavik lovely with a birds-eye view? The tower climb is the perfect place to begin your tour of the city, and can help visitors get their bearings. From there, we strolled the uncrowded streets of downtown, and happened to wander in to Sandholt Bakeri, where we treated ourselves to delicious croissants and hot chocolate. The bakery’s atmosphere was warm and cozy, with many of the tables featuring pillow-studded sofas instead of chairs.
The bakery, clearly a favorite among locals, provided a wonderful first impression of the capital city and its culture. Our stop also offered me an unexpected insight into the nature of Icelandic natives. A few minutes after finishing breakfast, Kevin and I were walking down the street and I checked my purse, only to discover I’d left my wallet in the bakery. I hurriedly returned to the front door, and the waitress smiled, handing me my wallet. “One of our patrons returned this to me, and we were waiting for you to come back!” she exclaimed. Icelandic people, I discover, are incredibly friendly. Have I mentioned yet that Iceland is considered the safest country in the world? It’s true!
Reykjavik can be explored in a day, and even so, a weekend stopover in Iceland warrants some adventure outside the city limits. Some of Iceland’s greatest charms are just a short drive from downtown. Renting a car is easiest, even if it is a little on the pricey side. Beware: most street names are downright impossible to pronounce for us Americans. (What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Someone who speaks one language? American!) I advise travelers to be prepared, because on a map or online, the routes look deceptively simple. Budget time into your itinerary for getting lost.
On our second day in Iceland, Kevin and I put our rental car to good use and drove Southwest Iceland’s popular sightseeing route, the “Golden Circle,” which is home to geysers, one breathtaking waterfall, and a national park steeped in Viking history. Basically, everything a visitor to Iceland could want… except for quality pasta (more on that later). While we found Gulfoss, literally “Golden Waterfall,” to be stunning even in mist and clouds, the clear winner of the day was Strokkur geyser. Ever wonder what it’s like to watch boiling water shoot twenty meters into the air? Trust me, it’s even cooler than it sounds. Don’t worry, there’s a rope fence around the perimeter of the geyser, but even so, I was nearly scalded! Strokkur is an incredibly reliable geyser, as it erupts every five to ten minutes, so you’ll certainly have the chance to observe its might. When we visited in April 2015, both the waterfall and geyser were free to visit, but rumors have been circulating for a few years now that the government is interested in charging a small admission fee.
I promised you all a story about pasta, didn’t I? Well, on our way to Gullfoss and Strokkur, Kevin and I stopped for lunch in the small town of Selfoss, where we took a seat at a nondescript Italian joint stuffed with locals. The atmosphere was wonderful. When traveling, I take care to enjoy those rare moments when I’m completely surrounded by people speaking their native language. The Americanization of cultures all around is a real problem, y’all. In this small restaurant, not a word of English was to be heard, and other patrons eyed us with interest when they heard our accents. Ordering wasn’t going to be a problem, however. Icelanders, like most Europeans, speak English fluently as a second language, so Kevin and I didn’t suspect any trouble when we each ordered a pasta dish. Imagine our surprise and confusion when Kevin’s spaghetti arrived to the table topped with ketchup, not marinara sauce! We realized asking for “red sauce” in Iceland meant something different than back home, probably taking a cue from British English. Kevin looked at me, noting, “Can you imagine what this conversation sounded like in the kitchen? Our waitress was probably like, this weird American wants Heinz on his pasta.” File this under #LostInTranslation.
A visit to Iceland is not complete without a dip in a geothermal pool. Most flock to the Blue Lagoon, the immensely popular spa resort on the Reykjanes Peninsula near the international airport. However, Kevin and I were driving through the small town of Fludir when we saw a small sign advertising the Secret Lagoon, which turned out to be a small, natural geothermal pool that is open year-round. What a lucky stop! For a small entrance fee, in addition to a towel and swimsuit rental fee, we hopped into the warm waters. With the exception of a handful of locals, we had the entire spring to ourselves. The Secret Lagoon, for those interested in venturing off the beaten path, is only about a half-hour drive from the geysers and Gullfoss.
There’s no doubt about it, Iceland is rapidly becoming an “It” destination. Take advantage of Icelandair’s awesome stopover deal on your next flight across the pond and visit this unique land before it becomes inundated with tourists. There’s still time! Many travel sites and guides recommend visiting in the summer, in order to take advantage of the midnight sun and warmer temperatures. However, I found spring to be a lovely time to visit. Iceland is habitable because the Gulf Stream brings a mild climate to the island year-round. While winters are cold, days below twenty degrees are rare. The average temperature for February isn’t much lower than May. Just be sure to bring a scarf and pair of gloves and you’ll be fine. Furthermore, don’t get discouraged when you land and see rain speckling the window of your plane. The weather can, and will, change on a whim. During our first day in Iceland, we saw sun by four in the afternoon, despite a dreary morning.
Trendy, thriving city center? Check. Rugged landscape? Absolutely. Quality pizza? At Reykjavik’s Rossopomodoro, you bet. Iceland has also produced diverse musicians, from Bjork to the alt-rock group Of Monsters and Men, so there’s truly something for everyone. I’m planning another two-day stopover in Iceland next March, this time with Kevin’s family and my younger sister, and I may or may not already be counting the days!
All photos belong to Kate Ericson. Please request permission before using.