Arctic excursion: A long weekend in Iceland

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Iceland is a place that I’ve always wanted to visit. Only a short flight from the northeastern US, I got that opportunity earlier this month with four days in the Reykjavik area.

The bulk of the small population of nearly 330,000 people live in the southwest in or near Reykjavik. A green-minded country, the people are resilient, friendly and very helpful (tourism makes up about 25% of the economy). They are bound by strong traditions. With short winter days and long summer nights, Icelanders are interwoven with the extreme, natural elements of the island.

With plenty of day trips out of the city to make a short visit worthwhile, Iceland has widely diverse and beautiful landscapes to offer from green valleys to ice-covered mountains. It’s a country of fire and ice – from its geothermal core to its glaciers and fjords.

Here’s my Icelandic adventure.

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Day 1 > Exploring Reykjavik

Our arrival day in the city was mostly a walking day – getting the lay of the land. Walking up the busy, main shopping street of Laugavegur, there’s plenty of outdoor sculpture and art to be found in offshoot streets.

We stopped at Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. It’s a beautiful structure said to resemble the lava rock formations of Iceland’s remarkable landscape. Take the elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja for a bird’s eye view of charming Reykjavik and its colourful rooftops. There are also great city views through the backs of the clocks within the tower. Outside sits a statue of Iceland’s national hero, Leifur Eiriksson, who discovered North America nearly 500 years before Columbus.

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One of the city’s newer architectural landmarks is the Harpa concert hall. This unique geometric structure perched on the waterfront is home to Iceland’s symphony orchestra and opera and is worth a walk-through. We arrived on the day of the horrific attacks in Paris. In solidarity, the Harpa facade was lit with the tri-color against the night time sky. It was a beautiful show of strength and unity rising from this compact, isolated city.

Lunch was taken at the tasty Old Icelandic Restaurant on Laugavegur. We feasted on fish soup and Icelandic catfish. Perfect fare for a sunny, but chilly first day.

Well-sated, we moved on to the unusual Icelandic Phallological Museum containing a collection of all things penis. How many museums like this can there be in the world? The more interesting exhibits contained the documents from men who donated their parts to the museum.

Our first evening ended at Dill, a Nordic restaurant, where each week a new tasting menu is paired with carefully selected wine. The freshest Icelandic ingredients rethought with a modernist purpose – shaved, torched, glazed or burnt – are meticulously presented and described prior to each course. Distinct tastes and textures from birch to shaved cod along with Icelandic specialties of angelica and skyr created a one-of-a-kind tasting experience.

Day 2 > Expanding the city limits

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For unspoiled nature, one needs not go far. Off Reykjavik’s coast, a five-minute ferry ride from Skarfabakki Pier took us to the uninhabited island of Videy. A map provides trails across the western and eastern islands. Explore the western island to find Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower honoring John Lennon, and sculptor Richard Serra’s basalt columns dotting the perimeter. To the east, trails wind down to black-sand beaches and around architectural ruins.

Our day on Videy was stunning – sunny with no wind. We arrived on the 1:15 ferry and returned on the 4:30. With few visitors, we basically had both islands to ourselves. We were gifted with quiet walks and stunning views of the Reykjavik coastline and the Esja mountains beyond Videy.

A sumptuous tasting menu awaited us, dinner at Fish Market. With the freshest local ingredients and imaginative food pairings, we enjoyed calamari, sushi, minke whale, Icelandic lamb and a plethora of other courses and Icelandic flavors making for a truly delicious and memorable meal.

Back to the coast for a hopeful peek at the surreal Northern Lights – a bucket list item for me. We had one chance of seeing the green glow that is the centerpiece of many photos. Ferrying two miles into the Atlantic Ocean (about 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle) under a night sky, the cloud cover finally dissipated. We were dazzled by a brilliant, star-filled sky with charged particles from the sun colliding with the magnetic forces of the earth’s atmosphere. We oooh-ed and aaah-ed as the sky danced. Tip: Tripod required for the best pictures, alas with my camera – nada.

Day 3 > Venturing beyond Reykjavik

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The Icelandic landscape dramatically changed on our drive to Þingvellir (anglicized as Thingvellir). This National Park holds historical, cultural and geological importance and was named a World Heritage Site in 2004. It resides at the northern end of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.

Within the protected park sits the remains of Iceland’s first Parliament. Geologically, Þingvellir is famous for its unusual tectonic and volcanic activity. It houses the drift where the North American and Eurasian plates meet. Faults traverse the region lending the vistas stunning drama. Another gorgeous day allowed us to wander the trails around the volcanic rock formations and fully explore this magnificent park.

From the cold into the geothermal pool – that is the Blue Lagoon located outside the city in Grindavík. Rising out of a darkened lava-field, the highly-organized spa is an efficient people-mover. The lagoon is man-made and fed by the water output of a nearby geothermal power plant. The warm water, approx 100° F, is rich in silica and sulfuric minerals and is billed to have healing powers.

Given the number of people and the frat house-like atmosphere, one dip was enough for me. We visited in the evening, so I had to trust that the water was indeed blue. Disembodied heads silhouetted against the dark night with steam rising was a nice effect. On the other hand, tough to locate friends. The juxtaposition of wearing only a bathing suit in the cold night and the next minute being in a hot pool was invigorating.

Dinner was had within the same complex, at Lava, where I enjoyed another delicious variation of Icelandic catfish – this time with a view of the Blue Lagoon and the restaurant’s huge, red-lit, lava rock wall.

Day 4 > Further beyond Reykjavik

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Our final day in Iceland took us the furthest out of the city to two segments of the Golden Circle. We also had the Icelandic wind following us for the first time.

First stop was Gullfoss, the iconic waterfall with great views of the forces and beauty of untouched nature. Located in South Iceland on the Hvítá River, Gullfoss is fed by Iceland’s second biggest glacier, the Langjökull. The water plummets down over 100 feet in two stages into a canyon. With the wind whipping and the steam from the falls icing the trails, walking was tricky. Staying away from the cliff edges was a must. But, it wouldn’t have been a true winter’s visit to Iceland without these weather conditions.

Designated as nature reserve in 1979, Gullfoss and its environs are protected, allowing us to enjoy this uniquely beautiful, natural landscape.

Last stop – the geysers of the Haukadalur Valleys, of course – some of the most famous sights of Iceland. The biggest geysers of Haukadalur are Strokkur and Geysir itself. While the bigger Geysir rarely erupts, Strokkur is dependable and erupts every 5 to 10 minutes. We saw two double blasts and I missed all four with my camera – I was too slow. Other hot springs and fumaroles dot the surrounding, somewhat other-worldly terrain.

Finally off to the airport, then home from a magical four days in Iceland loving its charming capital city along with its bleak, beautiful and expansive landscapes.

Photos: © 2015 Janet Giampietro

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