ICELAND – Reykjavik

Iceland is a country that has intrigued me for many years. It was always, however, slightly out of reach. My interest piqued again recently when I watched the Walter Mitty film which was largely filmed in the country. The scenery looked astounding.  Therefore news of direct flights from Belfast to Reykjavik had me packing my thermals quicker than you could shout “snowball fight!”

As first impressions go, you could mistake Iceland for the surface of the moon. The 45min trip from the airport into Reykjavik city centre takes you through a flat lunar-like landscape of lava fields which stretch for miles in every direction.  It’s this view that gives you the realisation that the vast majority of Iceland is pretty much uninhabitable. Hence the fact that 60% of the 370,000 population live in or around the worlds northernmost capital city.

Whilst it is a city, there is a friendly vibe about the place and the compact centre is easily navigated. The architecture is also pretty special. Many of the buildings are built using corrugated metal and look like they could be lifted and rebuilt somewhere else quite easily.  They are also very colourful and looking from above at the Hallgrimskirkja the compact city centre resembles a patchwork quilt. Getting around is really easy.  The city is very walkable but if needed,  the local bus service is, frankly, spectacular. Buses are punctual and there is an easy to use app which lets you see where buses are, the direction they are heading and the next bus due at whatever stop you happen to be standing at. The system is virtually foolproof and was very handy when, on an adventurous (some might say daft) whim,  I took myself to places well off the tourist trail.

On this trip, I was based at the Hotel Alda which is well-positioned in the heart of the Main Street, Laugavadar, close to shops, restaurants and bars and the main tourist sights. The stand-out service offered by this hotel is a mobile phone for each room. It means you can make free calls within Iceland and have full Internet access (vital in the social media age) without worrying about roaming charges.  Rooms have a very Scandinavian feel and are very comfortable. If you do stay there, ask for a room at the front so you can enjoy the fabulous views. The hotel does not have a restaurant, but it does have the Barber Bar, which actually contains real-life barbers so you can get your hair cut while you enjoy your beverage of choice.

The food offering in Iceland is fascinating. Obviously as an island nation, there is great emphasis on fish. However do not be surprised to see Puffin and Whale on many menus. I sampled them both at Tapas Barinn, and was pleasantly surprised as they were very tasty dishes. It was slightly disconcerting though to eat each dish in front of the chef, who then sought my opinion on each one. Such is the life of a travel journalist sometimes. The newly opened Apotek Restaurant has a stunning interior and an open kitchen where you can watch your choices off the extensive menu being cooked to order. I also visited Burid, the Icelandic Pantry. The shop offers a wide selection of Icelandic foodstuffs as well as european cheeses and other products. Einar, the Scots-Icelandic lady behind Burid also hosts an annual food event which celebrates the diverse offering in the country. It may come as a surprise to discoverIceland is also famous for its HotDogs. The most popular booth is found close to the harbour and there is nearly always a queue, however they are worth the wait. President Bill Clinton even stopped by when he visted Reykjavik.  The booth is also close to a market hall where each weekend locals go to buy all sorts of new and second-hand goods. All the usual goods you’d expect to see at a market are there, except this one sells traditional foods like dried fish and fermented shark (which is just as appetising as it sounds!). The shark is allowed to ferment in the open air for up to six months before it is prepared for eating. Another staple of the Icelandic diet is Skyr, which looks like yogurt but is actually more like a soft cheese.   It has been on the Icelandic menu for over 1000 years and in its natural form is served plain with some sugar. However recently, fruit flavours have been introduced to appeal to the modern palette.

Thermal water plays a big part in life in Iceland. It bubbles away underground and provides heating to most of the buildings, hot water to most of the taps, and is central to life in general as most social interaction happens while soaking in the naturally heated “hot pots” and open-air swimming pools found around the city. It was quite amusing to see people battle through temperatures of -10c and blizzards to enter a building while wearing scarfs, gloves, hats and big coats and exit it wearing their swimming outfits and disappearing into clouds of steam.

Aside from the public pools, the star thermal attraction is the Blue Lagoon. It’s location near the airport makes it an excellent place to visit for two reasons.  If you arrive on an early flight and can’t check in at your hotel until mid-afternoon, you can go there first. Conversely, if you have to check out in the morning and have an evening flight, you can visit on the way back to the airport. Whoever planned that had their head screwed on as it is, by far, the top attraction in Iceland.

As far as things to do go, Reykjavik City Museum is spread around a number of locations. I visited the Maritime Museum which celebrates the fishing industry, the Settlement Exhibition which studies the ruins of the oldest building in the country and the Open Air Museum which shows how Reykjavik developed through the centuries. Be sure to visit the Perlan to get some great views across the city and the Sun Voyager monument on the seafront. The Reykjavik Welcome card is a useful purchase to make as it gives you free access to the museums, pools and the city bus network as well as discounts in many other attractions, restaurants and shops.  The I heart Reykjavik walking tour is definitely one to consider. This tour takes you to parts of the city other tours don’t reach and you find yourself, even for a short time, feeling like a local.
There is a busy social scene in Reykjavik,  many bars have Happy Hours when you can buy 2 for 1 on selected beer or wine. Indeed, with a bit of advance planning, a night out could prove quite economical as you move from venue to venue, mapping out the happy hours as you go. Most of the popular bars are within tripping distance of each other but, as usual, there is an “app for that” which will help you along the way.

There is an extensive list of tours out of Reykjavik that allow visitors to see many parts of the country. One company, Gray Line Iceland,  offers tours that last from 2 up to 72 hours. The most popular of these take in the “golden circle” which visits waterfalls, geysers and tectonic plates and the Northern Lights tours which take passengers late at night deep into the darkness in the hope of glimpsing the aurora borealis. The company also operates airport transfers which means all your transport needs can be pre-booked in just a few clicks on their website.

Reykjavik does offer up a few surprises. In the 4 days I was there,  not that I am a name-dropper, I found myself having breakfast in the hotel alongside US actor Matt Dillon one morning and one evening met up with an old friend of mine, Alan Fletcher (Dr Karl Kennedy in Neighbours), who was in town performing at a local club with his band. I had never realised the reach of Neighbours, but when I saw the queue of hundreds of eager autograph huntesr trudging through the deep snow to reach the venue,  I realised it must be popular!  The other surprise is the daylight (or lack of it depending on the time of year). When I visited in early January, it was still pitch black at 10am and after a few hours of semi-light was dark again at 4pm. However I suspect summertime would be more disconcerting when Iceland bathes in 22 hours of daylight every day.

Weather-wise, locals in Iceland use the old adage of “if you don’t like the weather wait 5 minutes”. Apart from my last day when the sun made a welcome appearance, my winter visit was marked by heavy snowfall, bitterly cold winds and lots of cloud. Drivers must have great faith in their tyres as every one I encountered tore along snow-covered and ice-packed roads that, had it been Northern Ireland, would have led to us all battening down the hatches and not venturing out the door for a week.

The Icelandic people are really friendly and welcoming. Despite the fact that visitor numbers are rapidly increasing, there is a real sense that the country is still undiscovered, and outside of Reykjavik it is possible to drive for miles and not see anyone, local or visitor.
My only disappointment about the trip was not having time to do all I had planned.  It means, though, I’ve a good excuse to make a return visit.