Travel and Dining


Iceland: Once a Layover, Now a Destination

Gulfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall

Gullfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall. (Photo: Carolyn O'Hara)

No matter your expectations of a trip to Iceland, you will be surprised by what you find there. With Icelandic airlines offering free layovers in Reykjavik on flights between North American and European destinations, thousands of visitors have converged on the capital city in recent years to sample the storied nightlife, the impossibly long days of borrowed summer sunshine, and the famous natural hot springs. Visitors willing to venture farther afield can enjoy glacier tours, midnight golf rounds, whale watching, and the chance to fish in crystal clear rivers for wild salmon. These visitors will tell you that Iceland is impossible to pin down in a simple tagline, and that the most memorable elements of their trip are those they never expected to discover. Having heard reports that Reykjavik is the “hottest” capital in Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to find the capital’s “cooler” charms — quaint coffee shops, waterfront paths, and tacky tourist shops selling reindeer-emblazoned sweaters — intermingled with the hip restaurants, music clubs open until all hours, and innovative designer clothing shops that I’d heard so much about. Those who venture outside of Reykjavik will discover the diversity of the landscape: forests of diminutive trees along innumerable fjords, wide grassy plains meeting mountains carved by still-present glaciers, and interior lunar landscapes interrupted by a natural hot spring oasis. You’ll be surprised at how much you love the hot dogs, which Icelanders have elevated to something of a national culinary institution, and at how ubiquitous Bjork albums are — you can even buy them in supermarkets. Above all, you’ll be glad that you have been let in on the now-poorly-kept secret of traveling through Iceland.

In less than a day and a half, you can see the main tourist attractions outside Reykjavik and leave the rest of your trip for wandering around the capital or exploring the rest of the country where the landscapes change with each passing kilometer. Your first stop from the International Airport in Keflavik should be the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa halfway from the airport to Reykjavik. Icelanders and tourists alike soak in the warm milky blue soup of the pool, where the natural silica, mineral salts, and algae are said to do wonders for the skin.

Few tourists miss the “Golden Circle,” a well-trod path between three major Icelandic landmarks. Gullfoss, in south-central Iceland, is an immense and stunning two-tiered waterfall plunging more than 30 meters into a long, narrow canyon. On sunny days, rainbows refracting in the spray of the falls bend in every direction. Several miles away lies Geysir, the geyser after which all others in the world are named. Geysir stopped its regular eruptions decades ago, largely because of the refuse thrown into its base from misbehaving tourists. An earthquake in June 2000 “restarted” the geyser, which can spout superheated water and steam up to 70 meters in height, though the eruptions are still unpredictable. Luckily, Strokkur (The Churn), another geyser nearby, spouts like clockwork every 10 minutes. Finally, pay homage at Thingvellir, about 50 kilometers east of Reykjavik, where the American and Eurasian geological plates meet and the oldest existing parliament in the world began convening in A.D. 930. The place is something of a national shrine in Iceland, and large crowds gather here to celebrate major events.

If you want to explore the countryside, your best bet is to rent a car. Iceland’s highway system is hardly comprehensive, and gravel roads are common, making all-terrain vehicles more attractive for adventurous visitors. A good map is a must. It is startling to see so many “towns” marked on maps, only to find upon arriving that a church or farm suffices as such in this sporadically populated land. I made a crescent shaped tour through the western half of the country, staying first on a farm near Hella and ending in a camp ground in the northern town of Blonduos. The south is ideal for hiking and horseback riding. Driving along the southern highway, you can see the Westman Islands just off the coast, where a massive volcanic eruption took place on the main island in 1973. After being evacuated to the mainland, the island’s 5000 inhabitants returned to resume building prosperous fishing communities. Off the southern Ring Road highway is the town of Skogar, with a charming local folk museum and the nearby Skogafoss waterfall that reaches 60 meters in height. About 30 kilometers down the Ring Road is the extraordinary Seljalandfoss waterfall, 40 meters in height with a thin footpath allowing visitors to walk behind the cascade of water.

The drive from the South to the North through the western part of the interior is remarkable. Parts of the interior so closely resemble the rocky plains of the moon that Apollo astronauts trained here decades ago. Time constraints limited my stay in the North to a single evening of camping in Blonduos. Cuisine and activities can be limited, but the memorable moment of sitting outside at 2:00 a.m. in the dusky light of late July so close to the Arctic Circle was well worth the drive.

After long drives through the countryside, midnight Icelandic pony rides, hiking along glacier paths, and several nights camping outside, Reykjavik is the perfect transition back to urban life, part cosmopolitan capital city and part Icelandic fishing village. Reykjavik has a pace to meet everyone’s tastes: you can stroll along the seaside and delve into Viking history at the National Museum, take in a concert by the symphony and sample Icelandic cuisine (including whale dishes) at award-winning restaurants, or buy a few hot dogs and stay out all night rocking in a bar with the under-30 set. Make sure to take in the spectacular views from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church. The 80-meter tower was designed to resemble a column of lava. Despite the tower’s unorthodox design, the views of Reykjavik, Faxafloi Bay and Mt. Esja are without equal.

Icelandair flies from five locations in the United States (New York, Boston, Washington, Orlando, and Minneapolis) through Reykjavik to over 16 European destinations and vice versa.