Iceland’s terrain and activities match Seattle’s “weather be damned” love affair with the outdoors to the tee. The trans-continental island’s atmosphere is unrelentingly Myst-esque; clean, fresh, bright, and utterly colorful. The temperate climate, driven by the warm Irminger Current, keeps the island nation splendid throughout the year. The looks are reason enough to visit, but adventure doesn’t come from looks alone.
The flight into the Keflavík International Airport (KEF) makes visiting Iceland seamless. No visa is necessary and a diversion to customs is only necessary if you have something to declare. Rental cars are readily available and an American drivers’ license is all an explorer needs to be on his way.
Many who fly Icelandair are transiting to Europe; they’re likely to see Iceland as just a layover before reaching their final destination. Icelandair promotes this option, even allowing free stopovers. Although the airport is not too bad, people should be motivated to take a day or two from their trip to check out what Iceland can offer.
During my trip, I met up with a group of media covering Icelandair’s new direct service from Anchorage (ANC), and we hopped a Reykjavík Excursions tour bus to the Hilton downtown. The timezone shift made this a perfect time for a nap, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the mossy moonscape outside.
I was a bit surprised to see that the tour bus had WiFi; I took the opportunity to send an email and make a VoIP call on my cell. Turned out that wireless internet is plentiful in the city and I never needed cell service.
We arrived at the newly-renovated Hilton Reykjavík Nordica where I relaxed and enjoyed a snack in the upstairs executive lounge. The view was breathtaking.
Roughly half the population of Iceland lives in Reykjavík and its metropolitan area. This metro area has a small, professional-city feel – imagine a cleaner Seattle or Portland with 1/20 the number of residents.
After tasting the smoked salmon and having a shot of cod liver oil (more on this later), we headed to the Old Harbor for a whale tour with Elding Whale Watching. They guarantee that guests will see a whale, which made me a little skeptical. I’ve had tours make similar promises to me before, only to be let down and, I wanted to see a whale!
We motored out into the harbor and before I knew it, our guide started pointing off the keel. A Minke whale was cresting not far from our boat. We followed several whales as they collected and moved throughout the harbor. Icelanders carefully monitor whale populations; our guide recognized the whales we watched and told us a little of their history and how many years they’d been coming through that area.
After several hours, we found ourselves back in the harbor. Disembarking and walking up the dock was again stunning. The shipyards in Old Harbor Reykjavík are as active as ever, with ocean fishing ships working all around us. Less than 50 yards away, there was an entrance to Slippbarinn (aka Slipp Bar) which is a world of its own.
Slipp embodied the area’s mixture of bustling industry, cultural symbols, and activities in its halls. I could have spent two days exploring the fish shops, clothing stores, the Viking Maritime Museum, plus the folk art, handmade wares, scooter tours, the local cinema, and boat tours.
Slippbarinn is more than the sum of its parts. It is filled with fresh clean individualized spaces and it is a perfect location to kick back and relax to a good book, catch up with friends, or talk business in an informal but focused environment.
Drinks are unlike you’ll find anywhere on the planet and are always changing. Their drink menu evolves in concert with syrups the bartenders make from Icelandic herbs, spices, and fruits from secret locations around the island.
Hor Dourves include hearty fresh fish from a few hundred yards away. The Reykjvik Marina Hotel provides rooms upstairs that are all freshly renovated cozy spaces with intimate views of the port, it’s workers, and their catches from the sea. Really, you could make almost a whole trip out of the Slipp.
Nearby, the small fish shop and restaurant Saegreifinn, run by a retired fisherman who’s been preparing local seafood for over fifty years. His lobster soup and smoked eel are deviously delicious. This location originally housed fisherman in the early 1900′s; the bunks remain upstairs for guests. If you have the nerve and want the taste of Viking survival food, ask for a bit of Hákarl (fermented sleeper shark that will put hair on your chest, believe me).
Reykjavík’s neighborhoods are fantastic too. We took the “Sense of Reykjavík” tour, where I noted the colorful homes and decorative styles. We stopped at several parks and took a moment to soak up the Icelandic sun and fresh air.
That evening, I went back to my hotel for dinner. Located within the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica is the renown VOX restaurant, whose chefs create seasonal New Nordic Cuisine. Chef Fannar Vernarðsson serves choice ingredients that he personally collects from locations around Iceland, and from his own garden (no joke; he took 3rd place for Chef of the Year and 1st place for dessert of the year last year).
He and his sous chef, Sigurður Haraldsson, served up “The Chef’s Choice,” which rotates based on seasonal ingredients. Thinly-sliced lamb with a light mushroom sauce (mushrooms and herbs handpicked by Fannar), vegetables picked earlier that very day, local wine, smoked potatoes, thyme glaze, sunchokes, and fennel exercised my pallet, dancing between savory and sweet.
My visit occurred in May, where the sun only dips below the skyline. At 64°N, there is 20 hours of sunshine each day. It’s easy to wear yourself ragged without the queue of night to direct sleep.
Thankfully, the Nordica’s rooms were very clean, warm, and comfortable with thick blackout drapes. Each night I was too exhausted to notice the brightness outside. After a great rest, I was ready to see what else Iceland had to offer — and I will share in a future post. Stay tuned…
NOTE: Icelandair paid for my flight and trip to Iceland. All opinions are my own.