Touching down at the Reykjavik airport is a bit like landing on the moon. Windswept volcanic lava flows cover the ground for miles, again covered by snow and ice, or green moss depending on the season. Sky blue water flows from under rocks and steam vents erupt in the distance, showing a hint of the country’s geothermal prowess.
The temperatures are extreme and moon boots (or Uggs) are welcomed, if not completely mandatory for being comfortable in such seemingly inhospitable beauty. Thirty minutes down the road from the airport, one quickly discovers home base to this small nation in the quaint town of Reykjavik.
Colorful rooftops and an eclectic mix of stores, restaurants and bars line the small European style streets.
Walking down Bankastræti, the main street in Reykjavik’s city centre, you’ll find stores selling Icelandic wool sweaters, backpacking gear, beautifully designed kitchen gadgets in a wide range of pastel colors, furniture carved using Scandinavian design principles and kids toys too cute to play with.
The traditional restaurants serve up rotten shark, shots of Cod liver oil and Skyr (a thick and delicious yogurt) while more modern approaches to cuisine feature Michelin star worthy food from around the globe. Down the hill near the water a beer festival takes place, where Viking descendants and plenty of tourists down pints of craft ale from Europe and the United States.
The drinks are made with novel ingredients and the bread is truly other worldly. Maybe it’s something in the water or something in the air or maybe it’s some secret Viking baker mojo. But if you go, eat the bread.
For those looking to get a view from above, a helicopter ride over the city and surrounding volcanic mountains is well worth every large penny that it costs. The country’s power grid is completely supported by geothermal activity and from the sky it’s obvious that the land runs deep with energy. Volcanic lava vents cover the ground and steams rises from multiple peaks creating clouds of steam hundreds of feet in the air.
There are also frozen waterfalls of equal height and a clear view of two massive tectonic plates colliding. At first glance the island seems dormant but the longer you spend understanding it, the more it reveals itself as a living and breathing host to its inhabitants. Mid flight it’s mandatory to take a pit stop on one of the active volcanoes to sip a bit of champagne and take a couple #nofilter Instagram pics.
There are plenty of things to do and see during the day but night offers up its own bounty inside and outside of Reykjavik. Iceland is one of the best places to see the northern lights to witness solar clouds passing overhead like illuminated ghosts. People in the city party late into the night, listening to live music and dancing while most outside of the cosmopolitan enclave huddle around warm hearths with a book or a story and a few eager listeners. There are many beautiful lodges outside of town to do so in.
For a day trip outside of town it’s great to get out to the coast where the sea collides with rocky cliff sides and oceanic birds soar overhead.
There are tales of Viking landings as well as nuggets of volcanic rock on the beach, considered magical as they were blessed by nomadic trolls. One of the rock formations is named after a Viking ship and its not hard to see why.
There are seemingly few animals as you drive down endless roads but there are horses. And their ability to survive in this harsh ecosphere is apparent by thicker than normal fur and heavy manes. The horses in the barren field to the side stand steadfast in a circle. No shelter other than one another. I can only believe their ability to survive is a testament to thousands of years of genetic selection. Along the road there are farms brimming with activity (although I’m not sure what you can farm in the middle of winter) and plenty of houses that have seen better years, now standing only for photo ops.
No trip to Iceland would be complete with at least one stop at one of the world’s most famous wonders (and tourist traps) The Blue Lagoon.
Here you can bathe in natural springs heated by volcanic energy. The bottom of the lagoon is coated in silica rock that has healing powers and above the lagoon you can order a fresh juice or glass of champagne from the in-water bar. It’s a bit of scene but it’s also something that has to be seen, as is pretty much everything in this stunning country.