Well, I did it.
15 years after college, I finally had my "backpack across Europe" experience (albeit the hostel-free version). 7 flights, 6 cities, 5 countries, and 4 currencies in 3 action-packed weeks. Amazingly enough, we did not step foot inside a single museum. What we did do was experience a vast array of sights, both natural and man-made. From parks and monuments, to mountains and glaciers. We swam in hot springs and oceans. And of course we ate. Probably too much eating.
OK, definitely too much eating.
Mapping out our Great European adventure took careful planning. There were a multitude of changes along the way, as cities, countries, even calendar months were swapped out. But one thing stayed consistent throughout the various iterations - Iceland. Iceland was always on the agenda. It was our jumping off point, the first landing spot, a kick-off to our culinary adventure.
Who knew it would also be our most memorable experience?
Placing Iceland first on our itinerary was a no-brainer. It's less than a six hour flight from NYC, and flying Icelandair is ridiculously cheap. But choosing Iceland at all is a bit more complicated. For years, my only interest in Iceland stemmed from its exported music - Bjork, Múm, and of course Sigur Rós. Ágætis Byrjun is one of my all-time favorite albums. I cannot stress enough the impact it had on me when I first heard it in 2001 - spiritually, emotionally, creatively. This wasn't music; it felt like magic. Every time I listened to the vinyl I was transported to another world. Was it Iceland? I had to see the land that could inspire such sounds.
As my interest in photography grew, a second reason for visiting Iceland emerged. It was an opportunity to capture the otherworldly landscapes I had seen on Flickr and Instagram. I was particularly struck by breathtaking images of the Glacier Lagoon on the South Coast. We needed to visit Jökulsárlón before climate change took this special place away from us.
We took an overnight flight into Reykjavík, arriving at 6am Friday morning. When we emerged from the airport, the sun was already out, brightly shining, which wasn't surprising since it was the end of May and I'd read that during summer, it doesn't really get dark here. Two or three hours of twilight maybe, but night does not exist. I'm also mentioning the sunshine...because this was the last time we'd actually see it until Copenhagen.
For the next three days, it would rain.
We've learned a lot of travel basics over the years, mostly the hard way. And one key is not to schedule too much for your first day, especially on red eye or overnight flights. Otherwise, you could end up yawning your way through a Michelin star meal you don't remember (like I did in Venice). So for Iceland, Day One was a designated "Spa Day". Of course it helps when the spa in question is the infamous Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa located in a lava field 40 minutes outside of Reykjavík, and is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The warm, milky blue waters are rich in minerals, and reputed to help people suffering from skin diseases. When we arrived, it was already raining, the cold wind was howling, and the stink of sulfur was in the air. I thought to myself there's no way I'm trotting out into the elements wearing nothing but a bathing suit. But once you're in the lagoon, all thoughts of the weather go out of your mind. Your muscles relax. Your skin feels great. And what a view! You stare out onto the horizon and see fields of lava rock formations, this otherworldly landscape laying before you. It's incredible.
I've never been a massage guy. But the massages here are something special. They put you on a yoga mat in the middle of the lagoon. As you float on top of the water, covered by a lagoon soaked towel to keep you warm, the masseuse massages your body under you. It was an amazing feeling, the sensation of floating, my eyes closed, rain drops on my face while my body was softly massaged. Every so often, she dipped my mat down into the water to re-soak my towel and this repetition only added to the sensory experience.
The next day we took the "Golden Circle Tour". It's the most popular tourist route in South Iceland and for good reason - it's short (only 7-8 hours long) and is a nice crash course introduction to the land of fire and ice. The three primary stops on the route are the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss, and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Depending on which tour company you pick, there are other stops as well (we visited the Faxafoss waterfall and a geothermal power plant).
For me, the highlight of this tour was Haukadalur, as I had never experiencing a geyser before. Geysir is mostly dormant now, but Strokkur went off every few minutes, like clockwork. I also enjoyed the sheer power of the immense Gullfoss waterfall, the roar of the water in my ears. As for Dorothy, the highlight was probably the 5 minute pit stop we took to observe a group of Icelandic horses.
Icelandic horses are an interesting breed - small but beautiful with full, distinctive manes that seem almost styled (we nicknamed one Tina Turner). I can see why they are so popular. Just don't call them ponies.
For our final day in Iceland, we took the "South Coast & Jokulsarlon Tour", which is not for the faint of heart. It's a 14-15 hour excursion, of which you spend at least 10 grueling hours sitting on a bus. You stop for a couple of impressive waterfalls along the way (Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss), along with a short detour at the Skaftafell National Park to see the glacier of Oraefajokull, which has the highest peak in Iceland. But the emphasis of the trip is the 90 minutes you spend at Jokulsarlon, aka the Glacier Lagoon.
The Glacier Lagoon was everything we had hoped for and more. After 10-15 minutes of initial picture taking, we boarded an amphibian boat and took a ride across the lagoon, getting up close and personal with the icebergs. Towards the end, our guide pulled out a huge chunk of ice out of the water, which he claimed was a 1000 years old. He then gave us an opportunity to hold and taste it before returning to shore. It tasted like....ice.
Speaking of taste...
As I said earlier, this pit-stop in Iceland was the kick-off to a three week culinary adventure. But sadly, Icelandic food was the only disappointing aspect of our trip. Which in hindsight should not be a surprise. After all, the most popular restaurant in Reykjavík is a hot dog stand. That speaks volumes about it's food culture.
According to travel guides, Icelanders are known for eating controversial meat such as puffin, horse, whale. It gets worse - their most famous local delicacy is fermented (rotten) shark. I did not try any of these, although I did tease Dorothy about my desire to do so. Besides, we were assured that Icelanders don't really eat these viking staples anymore anyway. It stays on the menu for curious tourists alone.
So, suffice it to say that most of our meals were mediocre...
The one happy exception was our Saturday night dinner at Dill. Dill, which was opened by Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason in 2009, fashions itself as a New Nordic restaurant, and certainly played to the current trends in the cooking world, from ingredients to presentation. The tasting menu was mostly vegetable driven, some foraged from the surrounding area. All of the dishes were enjoyable and the dessert was terrific.
Afterwards, we spoke to one of the Dill chefs about the challenges facing Icelandic cuisine. Until ten years ago, "fine dining" restaurants in Reykjavík cooked canned meat. The scene has certainly come a long way since then, and Gunnar Gíslason, who's new cookbook (North - The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland) has drawn critical acclaim, aims to push the boundaries further.
Despite the steady rain and inclement weather, our trip to Iceland was one of our all-time favorite experiences. It's a destination we'd love to return to, both in the winter to see the Northern Lights, and in the summer for more outdoor adventure. After all, where else can you descend into a volcano, hike over a glacier, or even better, through an ice cave? There is an abundance of riches in Iceland and we only scratched the surface of the possibilities.
And I was right about Sigur Ros's music. It is the sound of Iceland.