Iceland is one of those mystical places that I’ve felt inspired to visit for years. Finally, 2013 was my year. A good year, too, as the Aurora Borealis—commonly known as the northern lights—often seen dancing in bright shades of green and pink across the Arctic sky, are supposedly going to be at their most visible in 11 years, from September through to March 2014.
Iceland might be a small country, but its diverse landscape is unrivalled. From glaciers to volcanoes, plunging gorges to breathtaking waterfalls and geothermal hot springs—the beauty really is in the land.
The official northern lights season in Iceland runs from October to March. Of course, there is never any certainty of seeing the lights. Clear, cold and dark nights make for the best circumstances to see them and it’s worth checking the weather forecast in advance, if you’re planning to book yourself on an organised trip.
Use Reykjavik as your base and hire a guide or a car to get a real Icelandic out of the city. Not forgetting the unforgiving north Atlantic waters that surround the island, whale watching, puffin spotting and fishing trips are a must to satisfy your seafaring feet.
The first thing on my checklist was a trip to the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa—definitely the highlight of my Icelandic expedition. At the spa, visitors experience plumes of steam rise, while immersed in the water, which is permanently maintained at 37-39C/98-102F.
Surrounded by the jagged-blackened lava landscape, the experience is said to be a holistic remedy for skin conditions such as psoriasis. Soak up the heat, apply a facemask and sip on a drink from the pool bar. The 90-minutes I spent in the water were the most relaxed I’d felt since 1999 and utterly blissful. The experience is made ever so more unique during the colder months when the air is chilled. Finish off with lunch or dinner at Blue Lagoon’s restaurant, Lava.
The geothermal hot springs were next on my list with a visit to Hotel Geysir. It’s estimated that the hot springs have existed here since the end of the Ice Age. While there are many hot springs dotted around the country, the facilities at Hotel Geysir, including a restaurant, shops, hotel and spa, make it one of the best spots to see this natural phenomenon. Stop off to witness the roaring natural beauty of Gullfoss waterfall after a visit to Hotel Geysir. Gullfoss is located in the canyon of the River Hvítá and is one of the most popular sights in Iceland.
It’s not everyday that you get to visit a glacial cap, either, and with almost 12,000sqft of the country covered by them, they’re accessible via organised trips, such as those organised by Reykjavik Excursions. Not one for the faint-hearted, however, with some glacial adventures involving more strenuous activities, such as hiking, snowmobiling and thrilling jeep safaris across the caps.
Back in the city and Iceland’s capital is small and easy to explore on foot. The main attractions are the Hallgrímskirkja, the standout Lutheran parish church, and Harpa, the city’s music and cultural centre—a striking building, celebrating modern Scandinavian architecture, by the harbour.
For those with a curious sense of humour visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of penises and penile parts; from an eye watering 280 specimens from 93 species of animals. For those wondering, yes, there is a human penis on show. The Phallological Museum even has a gift shop where visitors can pick up a selection of interesting objects to take home.
The city might be small but its vintage offerings are overwhelming. I’d read a lot of hype about the city’s flea market, Kolaporti›, and so early on the Saturday morning I made my way towards the harbour, ready to elbow my way through the local crowd, eager to pick up an antique trinket, vintage fur or some other Arctic-inspired relic. Instead, I found cheap and tacky in abundance—the kind of distasteful t-shirts and plastic Viking horns that make really, really bad souvenirs. Although, you never know what you might find on the next visit.
Apart from the flea market, I found shopping in Reykjavik quite special. Start off near the Hallgrímskirkja church and pay a visit to Eggert, where the owner, Eggert Jóhannsson and his milliner daughter, Harper, are equally as fascinating as their goods. This is where many of the northern hemisphere’s wealthiest come to stock up on their fur.
Hats, coats, gilets and obscenely expenses muffs are made in the studio above the shop.
In addition to Eggert’s Reykjavik showroom, his wares can now also be found in London at one of Savile Row’s finest, Anderson & Sheppard.
Many shops along the main stretch, Laugarasvegur, are independent, design-orientated, including Suomi Prkl! Design, which sells a unique collection of homeware and accessories. My favourite shop in Reykjavik is Aurum. Voted Shop of the Year 2011, it’s easy to see why. Selling a mix of jewellery, household items and gifts, mainly by Icelandic designers–it’s also the only shop in Iceland to sell MonkeyBiz beaded art.
Weave your way down Laugarnesvegur and you’ll find plenty of firstclass vintage stores to take home something unique. Follow the thrift trail with pit stops at Kasetta, Nostalgia, Spuutnik, Rokk og Rosir and The Red Cross.
When you’re ready to ditch the shops, Icelandic cuisine doesn’t disappoint. Icelandic food has moved on from the days of pickling practically everything in order to preserve and Icelandic chefs and restaurateurs are capitalising on something great: instant access to mighty fine and fresh produce from both land and sea.
For breakfast take a break at The Laundromat Cafe. I found service on the slow side, but the relaxed atmosphere, access to free WiFi and good coffee soon made up for it. Sit at the bar while perusing one of the many books or newspapers that you’ll find lying around.
Noteworthy restaurants in Reykjavik include VOX; Tapashúsid; Grillid and Fiskmarkadurinn. Many restaurants in Reykjavik have latched onto the New Nordic theme, including Dill, which has somehow managed to remain without international acclaim. Head chef, Gunnar Karl Gíslason uses the best of land and sea in his unique Icelandic menu and recently teamed up with the Brookyln-based Swedish chef, Fredrik Berselius, to win the 2013 Food and Fun Festival.
Perlan is perhaps one of Reykjavik’s most famous restaurants. Although it fails to live up to Dill’s gourmet standards, it’s still worth a visit thanks to its unique structure, based around two huge former water tanks and a rotating restaurant offering panoramic views of the city.
While in Iceland, make time to try some of the local delicacies, including Skyr, lamb, langoustine and cheese. Low-fat and high protein curd, Skyr is practically a national treasure. Similar in taste, appearance and consistency to yoghurt, Skyr is a diary product loved by Icelanders of all generations.
Icelandic sheep have an idyllic life. Spending their summers grazing in the wild Icelandic highlands, living off mountain herbs, which undoubtedly contributes to the lean and tender quality of the lamb, while the local langoustine—WOW. I’m told that langoustine is like a good drug in Iceland. If you’re privy to a decent dealer, he or she will visit your home and bring you a cut of the good stuff. Small and full of flavour, Icelandic langoustine will always leave you wanting more.
It’d be a crime to leave Iceland without paying a visit to Búrid—The Icelandic Pantry in Reykjavik. Offering far more than a good selection of cheeses, biscuits, cured meats, dried fruits and chutneys, the owner, Eirny Sigurdardottir, is a wise woman with a supreme knowledge and enthusiasm for Icelandic cheese.
Founding the shop just two days before the ‘Big Crash’, as she and many other Icelanders refer to the economic downturn of 2008, many thought Eirny wouldn’t succeed. In spite of the downturn, she’s carved a niche in the market, feeding the cheese-loving population of Iceland who enjoy a bit of luxury at home. Búrid is one of only two cheese shops in Iceland and when the owner is as passionate about the produce as Eirny, it makes this a very special place. Book in for a cheese tasting to really get to know the history and local varieties of cheeses on offer.
Then there are two particular delicacies that, in my advice, you should avoid: horsemeat sausage and Kæstur hákarl [fermented shark!]. The horsemeat sausage is incredibly rich, this, met with the smoky flavour and greasy texture is not a good combination.
And fermented shark, are you mad? For reasons I couldn’t figure out, alcohol was prohibited in Iceland until 1989. The country is fast catching up, however, with microbreweries popping up across the country in recent years.
Try Einstök Brewery’s selection of four ales: Toasted Porter (6%), with notes of toffee and dark chocolate; White Ale (5.6%), with flavours of orange peel and coriander; Pale Ale (5.6%), with its malty undertone and the seasonal Doppelbock (6.7%), a limited edition winter brew. Einstök Brewery is located just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where water flows down from glaciers to the mountain, through lava fields and to the brewery.
Before sloping off to bed, try Islenski Barinn, where customers can choose from one—or several—of around 30 micro-brewed ales from across Iceland, while KEX is an ideal place to unwind after a day of shopping or activities.
Laidback with local lagers on tap, cocktails and selected wines are available at the DRINX bar.
Stay at 101 Hotel, a boutique hotel with a penchant for contemporary art, monochrome décor and luxury amenities. The hotel is home to a restaurant, bar, spa and basement gym.
An abundance of fresh natural ingredients and thriving fish stocks around the island, arguably add to Iceland’s attraction, but it’s the diversity of the land that is the real beauty of this place. There is something deeply enchanting about the people and the place.