Land of fire and ice
By Abby Deering
Photographs courtesy of Iceland.is
A seat on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, costs a cool $250,000 and will take you 68 miles above Earth to experience zero gravity for a total of six minutes. But you can get much closer to an extraterrestrial experience here on Earth, and it won’t break the bank: take a trip to Iceland.
NASA did. In the 1960s, the space program sent Neil Armstrong and a group of Apollo astronauts who were preparing for the first moon landing to train in Iceland due to its lunar-like land.
Today, Iceland is proof that you can experience the virtual reality of space without forgoing the pampering luxury of fine spas and the thrill of new shopping discoveries, restaurants, and fresh-air adventure.
Iceland is roughly the size of Virginia, but with only 330,000 inhabitants and two-thirds of the population living in the capital Reykjavík, the country’s natural beauty remains largely unspoiled.
The altogether otherworldly terrain of this geologically young island cannot be overstated — it is a pristine landscape filled with dramatic contrasts from spine-tingling mountain passes traversing snow-capped peaks to emerald fields where wild horses gallop; staggering waterfalls and soaring cliffs to black sand beaches; and sweeping gullies blanketed in brilliant green moss, sparkling with dew. Volcanos, both dormant and active, rise from vast, ancient volcanic deserts. And there are hidden lava caves, deep fjords, gushing geysers, opal-blue natural hot springs, and massive glaciers that audibly crack and moan. Northern lights? They’re there too.
Iceland is utterly fantastical — the stuff of magic and fairytales. It’s little wonder the country has a distinct brand of highly imaginative folklore, rich in tales of aquatic monsters, ghosts, spirits, elves and trolls. Once you visit “the land of fire and ice,” you will be hard-pressed not to believe this is the realm of magical creatures, both capricious and playful. The Icelandic belief in Huldufólk — hidden folk or elves — is oft talked about. There is a charming statistic often batted around that 55 percent of Icelanders believe in elves, 20 percent do not, and the rest “would rather not say” one way or the other. Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where the huldufólk are believed to live, and according to the folklore, never throw a stone; it could possibly hit one of the elves.
To learn more about this dramatic folklore, The Little Book of the Hidden People is a charming collection of stories about Icelandic elves by Alda Sigmundsdottir.
Getting to Iceland
Iceland is only four hours from New York City, making it closer than Los Angeles, and thanks to Icelandair, it’s never been easier to visit. On your next jaunt across the Atlantic, take advantage of the airline’s offer to stop in Iceland for up to seven nights at no additional airfare. This layover opportunity is offered between 18 destinations in the U.S. and Canada and 26 European destinations.
Reykjavik: The North’s nightlife capital
The mainland of Iceland is only a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital. You can actually feel the curvature of the earth — an utterly bizarre yet awesome sensation.
A few Icelander insiders shared with ELYSIAN their favorite places to eat and drink in the capital city and gave their recommendations on where to stay.
Where to stay
If you’re looking for a chic, modern, boutique hotel, head straight to the 101 Hotel, in the heart of Reykjavik.
For those seeking classic elegance, Hotel Borg, overlooking the historic Asuturvollur Square, is hands-down the place to stay.
The Marina Hotel on the harbor features quirky Icelandic style and is the newest member of the Icelandair hotel family, a group of eight hotels owned by the airline.
The down-to-earth and eclectic Canopy Hotel is by far the hippest hotel choice. The building once served as the main hub for underground artists and rock bands. It’s a great mix of luxury and simplicity, hallmarks of Nordic design. Fun fact: there is an LP library with records that can be played on any of hotel’s 10 record players.
Where to eat
Grillmarket is a farm-to-table restaurant with an Icelandic twist. The chefs work in close collaboration with dedicated local farmers, guaranteeing the best in local produce and creating a menu that’s a magical fusion of traditional and modern cuisine.
For old-fashioned Icelandic fare, check out renowned Laekjarbrekka, located in central Reykjavik in one of the city’s oldest buildings. Be sure to try the kæstur hákarl (fermented shark), if you dare. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a national delicacy and a rite of passage to try this when visiting Iceland.
Also serving a traditional menu is Perlan, “The Pearl,” a five-star revolving restaurant perched above Reykjavik, with a remarkable view of the city. (If you’re in Iceland over the New Year, head here so you can take in the 360-degree view of firework displays that radiate from the city center.)
Atop the award-winning HARPA concert hall, enjoy panoramic views of the city while dining at modern restaurant Kolabrautin that blends Icelandic ingredients with the best of Mediterranean cuisine.
When it comes to fish, there’s the glamorous yet cozy Fish Company with courses influenced by Nordic fusion but grounded in solid Icelandic cuisine; Sjavargrillid, an Icelandic seafood restaurant known for its fresh and innovative seafood delicacies and quality meat (try the decadent three-course “Lobster Feast”); and Messinn, a no-fuss restaurant with a cozy atmosphere, serving only fish dishes, argued to be the best in the city.
For further reading on Iceland’s culinary culture, ELYSIAN recommends North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland by premier Icelandic chef Gunnar Gíslason.
Where to drink
Slippbarinn, proudly described as “a bar for nerds,” is a classy little place found by the harbor, credited with bringing modern craft cocktails to Reykjavik.
For high-end cocktails, head to Loftið or Apotek on Austurstræti (East Street), a bustling thoroughfare with plenty of shopping, restaurants, and opportunities for nightlife fun.
Kaffibarren isn’t just the coolest bar in Iceland; it’s considered to be one of the trendiest bars in the world. Found down a sloping side street, this bohemian gem is the stuff of legend.
Be sure to ask for Brennivín — nicknamed “Black Death” — Iceland’s signature Aquavit produced by the country’s oldest brewery, Olgerdin.
Dipping into the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is one of National Geographic’s “25 Wonders of the World.” Just under 40 minutes from Reykjavik, this geothermal spa is located in a sprawling 800-year-old lava field and fed by seawater 6,500 feet beneath the surface. As the heated water comes up to the surface, it picks up silica, algae, and other minerals from the lava bed along the way, which gives the water its turquoise color and healing and exfoliating properties. The bottom of the spa is covered in white silica mud. Grab a handful and smooth it over your face and body for a DIY “spa-to-body” mud mask. Yes, this is a popular tourist destination, but as the diaphanous steam rises from the waters, figures fade into the background as you float through this sublime, dream-like setting. There is an added thrill when you wade into a “hot spot” — places in the water with an extra burst of heat.
Staying in Reykjavik but want to break away for a visit to the lagoon? Arrange private round-trip transfer to The Blue Lagoon direct from your hotel. No need to wait outside, your chauffeur will come into the lobby to whisk you away.
The Golden Circle and South Coast
If you can’t spend a full week driving Iceland’s Ring Road (which circles the country), driving the Golden Circle is a popular day trip if you’re staying in Reykjavik.
There are three stops along the Golden Circle, all within 62 miles of Reykjavik: Gullfoss waterfall, the erupting geyser Strokkur, and Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is a national shrine, carrying profound historic, political, religious and cultural significance for the Icelandic people. It’s the site of the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates. You can literally walk between two continents. It is also the original, open-air site of Althing, the parliament established in 930 by the Vikings. (It has since moved to the capital but is the oldest parliament still in existence.)
A popular way to tour the Golden Circle is by super trucks — Jeeps or Land Rovers jacked up on huge tires. These tours can be guided or self-guided and can include a variety of options. Maybe you want to glimpse the Northern Lights, followed by a visit to the black sand beaches, ending with a lobster feast. Or, for the more adventurous, you can explore the underground networks of hidden lava caves or try a volcano or glacier walk.
There are several tour companies, but a favorite among European VIPs is I AM ICELAND operated by Axel Óskarsson, also known as Axelo or “The Viking,” a very lively character who regales guests with humorous tales and interesting facts.
Here are a few lesser-known places worthy of visiting along the Golden Circle that are great for rest and relaxation:
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths, in the middle of the Golden Circle, that are located on the black beach of beautiful Laugarvatn Lake. Be sure to visit the onsite bakery and taste the delicious rye bread that grandmothers of the area have been baking in the hot springs of Laugarvatn for decades.
The Secret Lagoon, a natural pool brimming with clean geothermal water and Iceland’s first public swimming pool created in 1891, was lovingly restored and reopened in 2014 and still retains a lot of its authentic, throwback charm.
To truly immerse yourself in the Golden Circle experience, stay at the luxurious ION Adventure Hotel, an eco-conscious, remote escape with stunning architecture set amid the rugged countryside and with easy access to all of the Golden Circle’s spectacular natural sights. The hotel organizes numerous outdoor excursions, from horseback rides and helicopter rides to snorkeling and fishing trips.
If you have more time to spend and would like to venture further afield, several places along the Ring Road on the South Coast are a manageable distance from the Golden Circle and Reykjavik. Here are a few:
Vik, a charming and historic village is home to the famous black sand beaches. Huge blocks of ice, which look like oversized sea glass, wash ashore and dot the beach.
Seljalandsfoss is a stunning waterfall that you can walk behind during the summer season.
Another lovely walk is along the river that runs through Fjadrárgljúfur, a canyon created by the melting ancient glaciers.
Skógar, literally meaning “forests,” is a small Icelandic village with a population of roughly 25. It’s home to Skógar Folk Museum, a showcase of Icelandic life. It features a recreation of a tiny village with small houses, outbuildings and a church that appear to be built into the hillside, their roofs and walls made of turf.
You can book a private Golden Circle tour by Super Jeep via ELYSIAN Travel Partner Viator.
Midsummer Fun in the Sun
Secret Solstice Music Festival
The Secret Solstice Music Festival takes advantage of the never-setting summer solstice sun. In true innovative Icelandic style, the festival is home to the world’s only party inside a glacier. It is a completely carbon-neutral event, tapping into the nation’s abundant volcanic activity, the source of renewable geothermal energy that powers the entire country.
Seyðisfjörður, on the east side of the country, is an eight-hour drive from Reykjavik but a mere one-hour flight. Reykjavik’s creative set and most eccentric residents flock here during the summer, turning the sleepy fishing town into a bustling arts colony. The town is ringed by majestic mountains blanketed in quivering purple lupines. It’s home to several festivals during the summer and the Skaftfell Center for Visual Art, an impressive contemporary art institute. E
To book your stay in Iceland, visit ELYSIAN Travel Partner hotels.com.