A weekend in Iceland? It takes less time to fly to Reykjavic from Boston than to Los Angeles, and here are some advantages to flying east instead of west: snowcaps instead of strip malls, cooler weather (sixty degrees average summer temperatures) and, absolutely no tipping. Reykjavik is about a forty five minute drive from the airport and one’s first impression of Iceland’s largest city is of modern architecture–love it or hate it. This is not a city of castles or cathedral spires, but rather of white concrete mid and high-rise buildings, and smaller structures of painted corrugated steel. Clusters of picturebook houses add color and charm as does the photogenic harbor, with its fishing boats and seagulls.Four thousand Americans live in Iceland, where virtually everyone speaks English, in a country growing in population (now 275,000) despite changeable weather sometimes so severe that roads have yellow markers for better visibility during blizzards and earthquakes are common. The storms tend to come and go quickly so in spite of its close proximity to the Arctic Circle, winters are warmed by the Gulf Stream and tend actually to be tamer than Boston’s.
Originally settled by Norwegians in 875 A.D, ruled for three hundred years by Denmark, Iceland became totally independent in 1944. The Viking influence is strong, but so is ours, thanks to American television, movies and tourists. Tourism is in fact, Iceland’s second largest industry; the first is fishing, and on landing at Keflavik airport one detects the faint smell of fish in the air. There is very little other industry–one large aluminum factory–and no military. No war has ever been fought here, Iceland has never been occupied by a foreign country and in what seems like the spirit of peace typical of the country, policemen here don’t carry guns.
Although bus or jeep tours are a convenient option, nature’s greatest treasures lie out of the city and a rental car allows more flexibility. Driving is on the right, and daily rates begin in the neighborhood of $75. The Blue Lagoon, “Iceland’s beach,” and Reykjavik’s most famous attraction, is a 40 minute drive out of town. This “geothermal wonder” is a large and irregularly shaped stretch of sky blue water surrounded by lava walls, fed by natural springs and heated to a lukewarmish-bath temperature for all-season bathing. Therepeutic promises aside–cures for psoriasis are documented–dipping into mineral-rich seawater from which steam is gently rising is probably most memorable as an esthetic experience.
An adjacent restaurant with its soaring ceiling and walls of glass has a view of the lagoon and offers light or serious dining; the on-site shop sells beauty creams and other products made from mineral salts and algae found in the water. Admission is approximately eight dollars per person and hours vary according to the season. Because the small and sturdy Icelandic horse is unique in the world, horseback riding is very popular here, in any weather. The horses are accommodating to novice or experienced equestrians and eighty percent of the riders at the Ishestar Sports Center have never been on horseback before; the trails border the countryside near the stables and guides accompany the riders. More ambitious trekking options are available, so is hiking, and white water rafting expeditions may also be arranged at the stables. They range from tame to very challenging.
A tour called the “Golden Circle” should be included in the weekend agenda. This includes Gullfloss, the country’s grand waterfall, and the Geysir, a short drive away. Geothermal areas are divided into high and low temperature spots; the low temperature outside and the heat within cause intermittent sprays to shoot skyward. While they don’t reach the heights of our own Yellowstone Park jets, there is a sense of excitement whenever a geyser whooshes up and up just a few feet away from one’s camera. Also in the area is the “town” of greenhouses so efficiently heated by this geothermal energy that bananas and other fruits and vegetables typical of the tropics are grown there. An Icelandic seafood buffet is available in the Hotel Geysir on the premises. Salmon smoked and fresh, herring, and salads of every description make for a fish-lovers dream lunch. Viking or Egils Beer are the local brews and for something with more kick, try Brennivin. It’s a schnapps-like liquor also known (a bit unnervingly) as “Black Death.” After lunch, take an expedition to Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street, where the best buys are in Icelandic wools and handicrafts, depending on the current exchange rate. Elm is a shop selling high-fashion women’s clothes created by an Icelandic designer; souvenir and jewelry stores abound here and at the indoor Kringlan mall. This might also be the time to take a look inside Reykjavik’s best hotel, The Holt, which has one of the country’s largest private art collections. Other Icelandic art can be seen locally at the Reykjavic Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Einar JÃ3nsson Museum.
For a spectacular dining experience, head for the Perlan (The Pearl). This revolving restaurant is perched on top of a pair of hot water tanks, but the view is only part of the drama. Multilevel, streamlined, space-age modern, the place is a perfect marriage of hilltop setting and knockout architecture. With a huge glass dome that shines like, yes, a blue pearl, a viewing deck and its own mini-geyser, this is the restaurant one is not likely to forget. Dinner options include anything from beef Rossini with truffle and madeira sauce to the ubiquitous fish dishes, done with ginger, chive, chipotle or you-name it sauces. If you can manage dessert, the Hot Valrhona chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and cassis sauce is a rave. The Pearl is not inexpensive, but generally, food in Iceland is not very pricey. Tax and tip are included in the bill, but be aware that it’s the alcoholic drinks that jack up the tab. A bottle of wine can cost eighty dollars here.
Recently, Reykjavik has become well known for its nightlife. Cafes, discos, bars and dance halls are hot, and the most popular nightspot is Astro, on AusturstrÃ|ti. The action heats up on weekends and because liquor prices are high, drinking at home before barhopping accounts for the late start. The action usually does not begin until around midnight and it’s not unusual to see crowds party in the streets after three in the morning, after bars and nighclubs close.
Golf is quite the rage in Iceland too, there are many courses, and snow and ice notwithstanding, it’s played in almost any weather. It goes without saying that salmon fishing is also very popular. So is bicycling, whale watching, snowmobiling or during the summer months, riding a Super Jeep on the nearby glacier. Occasional snow on Reykjavik’s famous Mt. Esja remain a backdrop year round, but expect to see buttercups or dandelions instead of icicles during summer months. The moss that grows on the country’s bed of lava rock produces a lush green landscape, and everything from the sky down to its fjords seems sparkling and fresh. The charm of Iceland is in its showy outdoors, which look pristine and unblemished, the way the place must have looked centuries ago, long before anyone had ever heard the terms, “air quality” and “pollution.”
Icelendair offers off-season weekend packages starting at $599 per person. ($299 mid-week deals are also available) These inclue round trip air, three days, two nights at a Reykjavik hotel, with breakfast and some sightseeing included.
Call 1-800-223-5500 or www.icelandair.com