We left Reykjavik yesterday, and we’re now in Hella, a town that our new Icelandic friend Elsi called “a drive-through town.” Steve and I thought she was being a bit mean, but actually, she’s right. Anyway, it’s our base of operations for the next couple of days.
Steve and I arrived in Reykjavik at 9 a.m., after a 5 1/2 hour overnight flight that was not conducive for sleeping. It was more cramped, somehow, than the flight we took from SFO to Minneapolis, and I just can’t figure out how to sleep on planes anymore. So we landed in Reykjavik very tired, and very impressed by the efficient, IKEA- inspired airport.
I love Scandinavian design — all the light birch wood, and clean lines and occasional pops of bright color. Iceland is my kind of joint.
We boarded a FlyBus to transport us to Reykjavik proper, and passed through the moonscape-y Reykjanes peninsula, all lava rocks and random puffs of steam from where the earth is apparently roiling with lava. Later, our new friend Dagbjartur, told us that people sometimes go out into the lava fields and fall into a crevasse that was camouflaged by moss. They get injured and stuck down there and the moss just grows back over them and that’s the end of that person. Dag would know: He’s the director of the search and rescue school at ICE-SAR, or Iceland Search and Rescue. Dag is a good person to know when you’re in Iceland.
We got to our hotel eventually, the Centerhotel Thingholt, which was smack in the middle of downtown. I mean Pier 39. I mean Pike’s Place Market. You catch my drift? Tourists, everywhere. Including us.
The Centerhotel Thingholt is a “boutique hotel,” which means it’s trendy and hip and the rooms are the size of postage stamps. It makes Steve feel bad when I say that, but it’s not his fault. The rooms were very nice, the hotel had a good, free breakfast and the location was prime. We could, and did, walk everywhere.
Where did we walk? Well, that first day we walked to the Cafe Paris, because it was close, and had lunch. Then we walked back and fell asleep for a few hours, and then got up and had an incredible dinner at the Resto restaurant, with Dag and Elsi. In his off hours, Dag works for NetHope as a contractor, like me. He and Elsi were incredibly kind and gave us all kinds of tips on where to go and what to do. They warned us that Iceland was unbelievably expensive, and that if you buy bottled water in Iceland, you’re a sucker. “It may not be the cleanest, but it’s the best tasting,” declared Elsi.
We went back to the hotel to collapse but were awakened at about 3 a.m. by what seemed to be a rave occurring beneath us. (Are raves still a thing?) We heard bass, lots of bass, and people yelling “Wooooo!” and when we looked outside, it looked like it was maybe 11 a.m., but no, we checked, and it was 3 a.m., because that’s how it is in Iceland in the summer. So we shut the curtains as tight as we could and jammed our earplugs in as far as they’d go, and the next day we asked to change rooms and got a quiet and slightly bigger room on the other side of the hotel.
So: Morning in Reykjavik. We stumbled downstairs 10 minutes before the breakfast was due to end and then hit the streets. My dad made a crack when he was driving us to the airport about the flight probably being empty because who in the hell wants to go to Iceland? Everyone, that’s who: Americans and Brits and Germans and French and I lost count of all the languages I heard around Reykjavik. The place was crawling with tourists.
Steve and I walked outside and got our first real taste of Icelandic wind. The temperature was in the mid-50s, but the winds make it much chillier, so I went back upstairs and got another layer. In most of the pictures Steve took of me around Reykjavik, I look like a big shapeless blob because I’m so bundled up. So then we walked around “The Pond” and came to the National Museum, which was completely awesome and totally worth it.
I hadn’t studied up much on Icelandic history before we came, so I got the whole scoop at the Museum. In a nutshell, Nordic and British Vikings came over in the 9th century and settled the island and established a parliament in Thingvellir (we went there). Christianity came to Iceland in about 1000, and by the middle of the 12th century, Norway was in charge. By 1380, both Norway and Iceland came under Danish rule, and Iceland got totally screwed because it could only trade with Denmark.
It gets worse: One-third of Iceland’s population was wiped out by the Black Plague in 1402. In the late 1700s, volcanic eruptions destroy Icelandic farmland and there’s mass starvation. One hundred years later, Icelanders hightailed it to North America en masse, settling mostly in Canada (Manitoba, to be precise). Iceland became a republic in 1944, was a founding member of the United Nations, and has seen its population grow to 330,000, thanks in large part to the fishing industry. Iceland ranks third on the World Happiness Report, proving that you don’t necessarily need sunshine to be happy.
After the National Museum, we ate kebabs and went to the Settlement Exhibition. That was also really interesting. It was underground, and built around the site of a 10th century Viking longhouse, which was discovered during an excavation in 2001 and left intact.
Then we went over to the Harpa, Reykjavik’s controversial concert hall. Controversial because it was in the middle of being constructed during Iceland’s economic crash, and the Harpa is the most expensive building in Iceland to date. It looks like a huge glass ship, perched on the harbor.
That night, we took Dag and Elsi’s advice and went to Austur-Indiafelagid Ehf, described as the best Indian food outside of India. I’ve never been to India, but the food at Austur-Indiafelagid Ehf was incredible — and we felt like we’d lucked out getting in (we didn’t have a reservation). It was also bloody expensive — a theme for Reykjavik, and as we’d find, for all of Iceland.
The next day, July 10, was my birthday, so I got to direct the agenda. First, I rode the exercise bike in the overheated exercise room at the gym and showed up to breakfast drenched in sweat and ready for my Skyr. (Why don’t we have Skyr in the U.S.? It’s got 17 grams of protein per serving, and it’s delicious.) Then, shopping. (After a shower, of course. I’m not a barbarian.)
I like to shop a great deal, and I wouldn’t call myself a bargain-hunter, but the prices in Iceland are unequivocally insane. We went to Geysir, Iceland’s big label, and they had cool stuff. I just wasn’t about to pay $250 for a wool sweater that didn’t fit quite right, or a pair of Lee jeans, which were going for $175. (Like I’d ever wear Lee jeans anyway.)
I finally bought a lopapeysa, a traditional, hand-knitted sweater made from Icelandic wool at an unassuming corner store, but it’s really scratchy and I will have to wear a long-sleeved shirt under it. I’ll wear it maybe once a year in Seattle, so all told, a terrific value. After an amazing Icelandic vegan meal, we checked out some of the tourist shops (which Elsi calls “Puffin Shops”) to pick up stuff for the boys. We spent 9,200 Icelandic krona on crappy t-shirts that say “Iceland” on them.
This is getting really long. But I have to mention the fabulous meal we had at Grillmarkadurinn. This super-hip spot books out about a month in advance, and the food was spectacular. I got a selection of perfectly grilled fish and Steve went the carnivore route: lamb, beef and duck. I remember being nervous that I was going to have to eat lamb head or rotten shark but the food has been top-notch here, on par with any great city in the world.
It looked like midday at 10 p.m., but we rolled back to the Thingholt and packed up. Because the next day, we were hitting the Ring Road, and the Golden Circle.