Between defaulting banks erasing risky offshore savings and erupting volcanos disrupting air travel in Europe, Iceland hadn’t really built up a good name for itself over the past few years. And to many, this is pretty much all they knew about the country and its 320,000 inhabitants. In fact, without a map in our hands, we often get the island confused with any other Nordic country where we believe Santa Claus lives. Or with Greenland, which isn’t green and is, in fact, over 80% covered in ice.
Wait. What? Greenland is ice and Iceland isn’t? Those Vikings were crazy.
Actually, yes. Although Iceland is home to Vatnajökull (probably not pronounced Vat Naaaa Jo Ku Ku Ku Kull) which is Europe’s — yes, free roaming! — largest glacier, only 11% of the country is covered with a permanent ice cap. That leaves a whopping 89%, or 92,000 square kilometres of landmass to explore during the limited hours of daylight, of which we only saw from 10:55 am until 3:41 pm. So let me tell you right now, you’re never going to cover it all.
Months of enthusiastic planning, Instagram-scoping and validation of your activity choices with 5-star TripAdvisor reviews from strangers, will be deemed worthless as you step off the plane. Breezing into the duty free at Keflavik Airport, located some 40 minutes from Reykjavik, you’ll notice Icelanders casually pushing a trolley around like they’re doing their weekly grocery shopping trip. They’re probably doing just that as they take advantage of the discount pricing and especially stocking up on alcohol, where it is up to 5 times cheaper than in liquor stores. And you should do the same.
From Barcelona, I took an underpriced flight with WOW air, the nation’s low-cost carrier with exorbitant and unjustifiable add-on fees, which will leave you scratching your head, wondering if you would have paid less on a standard airline, like Vueling, or even Delta, which flies direct from New York. My standard carry-on case that rolls behind me on every flight now had to be paid for thanks to their deranged policy of what constitutes a small cabin bag or large cabin bag. These add-ons do keep adding up and it is frustrating. However, you do have to applaud the airline and its fleet of 12 bright pink Airbuses as they’re doing an incredible job of putting Iceland on the radar and bucket lists of global travellers by offering direct routes to and from west coast US cities from as little as $199 per leg and east coast from $99.
After picking up your rental car (recommended), you’ll probably then do as most people do and head directly to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located halfway between the airport and the capital. One silica mud mask and a couple of hours of hot water-wading later, you’ll be inside Lava, their fine-dining restaurant, dressed in a white robe and sampling the Langoustine soup and rack of lamb whilst complaining about your messed up hair that you forgot wasn’t supposed to get wet.
Inside the lagoon, a truly surreal experience awaits as you bob and drift in slow motion from the waterfall to the cave and the bar whilst admiring thick steam drift across the bright blue waters like a utopian-ified scene from a 1980s Vietnam war film. White-masked fellow zombies will descend into the waters in hourly waves until you realise it’s over-full and time for you to take your wrinkled fingers elsewhere. For 3000 ISK (about $26) you can even buy a waterproof case for your iPhone so you can Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook Live your way into your friends’ envy zones. After your relaxation and shower, you exit through the gift shop and head to the big city.
After lagooning all morning, we checked into our hotel and headed out for a 6pm dinner at the incredible Kol Restaurant, located along the cute shopping street of Skólavörðustígur. For starters, I really enjoyed the Icelandic Scallops and for main, the Spotted Wolffish and Langoustine which was absolutely incredible. Despite eating fish, the restaurant’s warm and cosy atmosphere, coupled with my post-Lagoon zen state of mind, ushered me towards the Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec, which was the perfect choice. It was a fantastic dining experience so add this place to the top of your list. Now.
According to your favourite trip-planning apps, there is a surprisingly small amount of things to see and do in Reykjavik. Aside from Hallgrímskirkja (an impressive Lutheran church built in the mid-80s), the Harpa Concert Hall, and the National Museum of Iceland, most to-dos entail you being shuttled out of town on busses to ride horses, trek off-road in 4x4s, follow the Golden Circle route or experience some of the many waterfalls and glacier-based activities. But you should just get in your car and explore freely because nature is where it’s at! On our second day, we took to the skies at 11am in a bright red Nordurflughelicopter piloted by Gísli, a smiley local with over 20 years of flying experience (phew!) and, more surprisingly, an Instagram following of 14k. As we took off from the domestic airport on the outskirts of the city, we zoomed across lands of green and white from a fresh snow dump and eventually landed on an active volcano and walked around the crater ridge. Woah, I just said that.
Getting out of town.
From then on, we were headed east along the southern coastline, destination Jökulsárlón where an impressive glacier lagoon lies. The drive is a good 4 hours so we decided to overnight in Vik after an action packed morning of pretending we were shooting a music video. Along the route lies a plane wreck on Sólheimasandur beach from when, in 1973, a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed, luckily with no fatalities. We thought we’d show up, climb on top of it as everyone does, take a photo and move on. However, from the parking there is a good 4km hike each way and it was already getting dark, so we reluctantly skipped it and carried on to the hotel 20 minutes away. We dined at Suður-Vík Restaurant, a warm family-owned joint offering locally made delicacies and located in a cute hillside house built in 1902. Excellent food and very chilled atmosphere. Apparently they have the best pizzas in Iceland (not Napoli) but I was on an Icelandic diet of fish and lamb.
The following morning, we set out around 9am after an unimpressive breakfast at Hotel Edda, continuing our easterly route towards Vatnajökull National Park, carefully skimming across icy roads in poor visibility until daylight broke and the thawing began. Dawns and twilights last a long time in wintry Iceland so you do have to take extra precaution, especially when approaching the barely-visible single lane bridges that cross unpronounceable rivers. En route, we booked a 3pm ice cave tour through Extreme Iceland for around $160 per person. Not cheap, but nor is anything on this island. Upon arriving to the lagoon, a shoot location for two James Bond films, I was simply blown away. As you switch your focus from the rolling mountain range to the sweeping ice cap and then onto the incredible icebergs that have broken away from the glacier, you can’t help but be taken back by the coloured shapes of milky whites and bright blues just floating inside the lagoon. On the other side of the road lies the Diamond Beach, a black sand coastline contrasted with small icebergs that have been washed up by the Atlantic waves. A lot of people miss this beach by focusing all their attention on the impressive lagoon but make sure you head over there.
For the tour, we hopped into a monster-sized 4×4 and were whisked off-road in the direction of the glacier. It was a 20 minute ride across rugged terrain and eventually we arrived to what looked like an excavation site full of other tour groups. We were kitted-out with Crampons, which clip to your boots and help you get a grip when walking across the ice and a helmet, just in case you bump your head on the low ceiling. The cave is very impressive from the inside, although buzzing with wannabe photographers adjusting their tripods and trying to get the perfect photo. My iPhone was useless in this low-light lair so I decided to explore the ice tunnel that led up to an open air section of the glacier. It was a tight squeeze but the ice formation was very impressive once inside the air pocket. Darkness fell at 4pm and we headed back to the car park whilst talking about the dangers of Icelandic roads with our guide. On her recommendation, we dined at the restaurant at the Hali County Hotel, which didn’t blow me away like our previous meals. Very mediocre. Then, we hit the road again for a 2-hour journey back to Vik to rest for the night.
Heading further north.
It’s not all tours and activities in Iceland. The country’s peninsulas have some of the most impressive views and drives any country in the world has to offer. We decided to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a westerly point of the island. The drive there is terrific, as you round mountains and cross waters, the weather changes from one moment to the next. From fog to rain to clear skies and beyond, you really get to see all the natural terrain Iceland has to offer and with very few other cars in sight. This was one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken; as I if we were exploring new lands previously unvisited by humankind. As we drove across the lava fields, we decided our final destination would be Grundarfjörður, a small fishing town with heavy French influence dating back to the 1800s and whose inhabitants build luxurious houses dotted across the hilly landscapes with unrivalled views to the sea and surrounding mountains.
In the centre of the town stands the Grundarfjörður Church atop a hill with an impressive backdrop of the Kirkjufell mountain and surrounding icy seas. Using our phones — 3G and 4G coverage is excellent throughout the island — we sussed out a place for dinner and decided on Bjargarstein Mathús, which had a five star rating across every platform out there. I don’t like to use TripAdvisor too much but we were a little limited arriving to this town and couldn’t really tap up any of my contacts for local knowledge.
As we circled the old house, the icy blasts coming off the sea front encouraged us to tap on the window 15 minutes before opening time and come inside to the warm, Christmassy atmosphere. Inside, it felt just like the perfect home over the holiday period. Our smiling waitress, who had recently started working there after escaping “the big city” of Reykjavik, guided us through the offerings and explained the 3 mystery dishes on the hand-written menu accompanied by drawings from the chef’s (also one of the partners) pen hand. She also encouraged us to explore the house and after heading back downstairs, we discovered the chef was previously at Noma, the best restaurant in the world situated in Copenhagen. Thereon, we confidently followed the waitress’s recommendations and ordered the female citrus scallops and a mixed platter including shark (gulp!), dried fish and smoked (yes, smoked) lamb. The shark, poisonous if eaten fresh and uncured, came in dice-sized cubes and, based upon Icelandic tradition, hadto be accompanied with Brennivín aka “Black Death”, an unsweetened schnapps made from potato mash, flavoured with caraway seeds, cumin, angelica, and other unknown herbs native to Iceland. The drink is killer. Using a cocktail stick, you drown the cubed shark inside your shot glass for a minute and then take a bite whilst chasing with the shot. The ammonia taste that oozes out of the tough, rubbery shark meat temporarily numbs your mouth and you wonder what you’ve got yourself into. I eventually got rid of the after taste with enough wine and lamb over the next hour or so. We checked into Framnes Hotel, which only had a 10% occupancy rate for the evening so there was an abundance of room choice available. Maybe this town is really overlooked in winter. It shouldn’t be.
Back to the city.
With 24 hours remaining in Iceland we head back on the road to Reykjavik, reliving the magnificent journey, only this time, in reverse! Then checked into a 16th floor room at the Fosshotel and tried to book a Friday night table at Grillmarkadurinn and then Fiskmarkaðurinn. Both were full and only offering walk-ins, so we settled on our third choice, Sushisamba, which I know from dining in New York, Miami and London. The choice here is obviously a little different, including Arctic Charr and Puffin on the menu. Being the last night and wanting to authentic the Icelandic experience as much as possible, I ordered the puffin, a dark meat halfway between duck and lamb. It was delicious. The sushi flowed thereafter and we accompanied the great food with delicious cocktails.
The following day, I explored the shopping areas of Reykjavik and entered the church, which has a unique omni-directional seating arrangement. The conduct sermons from both ends of the nave and the back rests simply switch from one side to the other. There are some great shops for clay kitchen decorations and some local art. Also, the typical viking memorabilia which acts as a novelty gift for those back home. A quick stop at health food restaurant, Glo, and onto the airport to dump the filthy rental car, confident that my additional road gravel protection insurance would hold up through what little damage would be discovered underneath the grim of snow, salt, lava and who knows what else.
The country. The people.
You wont find a friendlier person than an Icelander. They embrace tourism and love giving away insider tips to make your experience all the more authentic. Most people on the island are related. Sounds strange but they’ve actually been tracking family trees since the 1800s and it’s not rare for someone to find out they’re dating a cousin. It was the first country to do so. Of the traceable 6 generations, a 3 generation separation and above is accepted for partnership. There’s even an app called Skyldleikur (or related) to track it, all you need to know is their birthday and name and you can trace the route to yourself. So yes, cousins date each other here and probably have children.
Although many often complain and the expensive airline prices to get off the island, compared to the low-cost incoming traffic, others state that they just don’t know where to look. They’ll all tell you that anyone who enjoys shark is lying and they eat it just for the tradition and to say they eat shark. And no, they’re not overfished in Iceland, we had a full discussion about our concerns over that.
Talk to locals and listen to their stories. Something I recommend anywhere but especially in this country, where tradition is set in stone. Also understand that the hours of daylight are very limited so you can’t check off everything in a day. For me, 6 days wasn’t enough. Double that should be sufficient to fully explore this wonderful island. If you want to see more of my photos, head to my Instagram account or search for #bensroomICELAND.
Feel free to message me and ask me any questions you may have!