I’ve just booked a return trip to Reykjavik for December 2017. I don’t often go back to the same place twice, save Sydney and New York, however the last time we visited we got stuck in a snow storm so bad that we ended up missing most of the sights. So, alongside the not so small child and the parents we’re renting an AirBNB and hoping to witness some of the pre-Christmas activities the Icelanders get up to.
In preparation for my trip I’ve decided to blog about my last visit (three years ago) which ended with a Mountain rescue team towing our 60 seater coach back onto the road after a fruitless trip to see the Northern Lights. Thrilling as it was, we missed not only the great Geyser and Gullfoss Waterfall, but also the the opportunity to sample some of the best food in Reykjavik – our last supper being a sandwich in a motorway service station.
So, what did I think of Reykjavik the first time round…?
One of the biggest questions over visiting Reykjavik is not so much whether to go as when to go. This particular consideration becomes particularly pertinent when, like ours, your tour bus slides off the icy road and threatens to turn turtle in the frozen wastes. Experiencing such a fright, and arriving back at base four and a half hours later than scheduled, could put many a casual tourist off. But that would be a shame because Reykjavik, and Iceland in general, has to be one of the hottest travel destinations around. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Pitched halfway between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean Iceland is definitely in the ‘small but beautiful’ category. A population of less than 350,000 inhabits the 40,000 square mile island, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. That two-thirds of this population lives in the South West, around the capital, suggests that you, too, should focus your visit on Reykjavik.
Tourism is on the up in Iceland. Just as well since their economy tanked so spectacularly in 2008. How many of these new tourists felt the chill wind of the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ Icesave investment scheme failure isn’t recorded but it appears few are still holding grudges. Nor should they, because as a vacation destination Reykjavik offers a dramatic alternative to just about any other City in the world you could care to mention.
The list of natural ‘must-see’ highlights is breathtaking – the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle (comprising Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir and Stokkur geysers and the Gullfoss waterfall). Each location provides ample opportunity to practice your photography skills and all are within a two-hour drive of Reykjavik, as are a host of adrenalin pumping pursuits such as glacier hiking, skiing, horse-riding, 4-wheel terrain driving and volcano hopping (with or without helicopter).
But back to that ‘what time of year to go?’ question again, because in the dark winter months ‘must-see’ quite often means ‘can’t see’. Let’s take the Northern Lights, allegedly ‘viewable’ between October and April. You need three ingredients to catch God’s larva lamp at its molten best – a clear sky, no light pollution and, of course, an actual appearance from Aurora Borealis. The local tour operators are very adept at driving coachloads of tourists around the peninsula every night in pursuit of the ultimate lightshow but ask them the question, ‘will we definitely get to see them?’ and you’ll get a shrug that says, ‘who can tell?’
It’s not really helpful that tour operators offer a free ticket for the following night if you don’t get to see the Northern Lights. One poor family had been out for four nights on the run and seen zilch. On the night we went out we saw nothing but a faint gleam beyond a mountain range, like someone had left a fridge door open somewhere. We were then informed we had ‘legally’ seen the lights (so no free trip tomorrow). So the golden rule is that, unless you’re absolutely fixed on seeing the Northern Lights, let nature take its course and don’t book a tour into the countryside until the actual evening of your trip when you know the odds are stacked firmly in your favour. And even then, hold your breath. A night freezing your socks off in the middle of nowhere is no match for a night out in Reykjavik, so play it cool, in every respect. Of course, if you get lucky, you’ll see one of nature’s biggest wonders – just don’t count on it.
The air of unpredictability over seeing Iceland’s natural sights at their best extended to our organised tour of the Golden Circle – an essential tick box on every Reykjavik itinerary. On a day when the sun rose at 10.30am and set at 3.30pm it was a little surprising to be advised to take the ‘quick’ tour which left Reykjavik at 1pm and returned at 7pm. How were we going to see everything? That question became even more insistent when it became apparent the weather conditions were not in our favour – relentless freezing rain and a gale lashed the coach as we wended on our merry way into the national park. One could only feel sorry for the hapless tour guide who had to keep passengers both informed and entertained. Everybody, including her, knew the trip should have been cancelled but once we’d set off there was no way back.
Like I’ve said, we didn’t see the waterfall (too windy and too dark) or the geysers (too dark and too icy). Instead, we were dragooned into gift shops and cafeterias before being given the unexpected extra of pondering mortality as we hung suspended over a ditch in our charabanc. Icelanders obviously don’t like giving refunds. At least the guide didn’t try to argue we had ‘legally’ seen the said sights. It would have taken a plucky tourist to avail himself of the ‘free’ ticket for the same tour the following day but the guide did have a valid point – tomorrow would probably be beautiful (and it was).
But, wait a minute, why rely on an organised trip? Why not just hire a car and head off yourself? We’re back to that ‘when to go’ question again… The white night, midnight sun days of summer present little problem to the casual driver who’s hired a Ford Ka from Keflavik Airport but sticking a set of winter tyres on said vehicle doesn’t convert it into a snow plough in the winter months. Icelanders are all too wary of gung-ho drivers attempting to negotiate snow and ice covered roads – not only do they need rescuing they tend to block the roads for better equipped drivers and vehicles. So, unless your day job is a courier in a ski resort the best thing to ask yourself is, ‘do I really need to make this journey by car?’
Ironically, the one trip where a car would be really useful over a coach (forget taxis – too expensive) is for your mandatory trip to the Blue Lagoon. This is because the best time to visit this unique geothermal spa is either on the way from the airport to Reykjavik, or on your way back for your outward flight (the Lagoon is about fifteen minutes from the airport, eating into a quarter of the travel time to the capital). The waters are rich in minerals such as silica and sulphur while the 38 degrees Centigrade temperature invites you to linger and luxuriate (especially on the days when there’s a blizzard whistling around your ears). The Blue Lagoon is the best bath time you’ll ever have.
What of Reykjavik itself? Well, it’s undoubtedly a party city. Icelanders will be the first to tell you that they tend to like a drink. Whether it’s their Viking heritage or the long dark winter nights their drinking is what can only be called goal-orientated – they imbibe to get smashed. Some believe this is due to a slight oversight when they repealed Prohibition in 1933 after an 18-year period – beer remained on the ‘excluded’ list (incredibly until 1989) so they all drank spirits instead. One local magazine even offers an app listing every happy hour in Reykjavik – they call it ‘the guide that f***s you up’.
And that’s another thing about the Icelanders – their quirky, laid back sense of humour. You’re never far from a twinkle in a local’s eye when you’re in Reykjavik. Maybe joshing the tourists is how they cope with the variable daylight hours or, quite possibly, this sense of humour may be down to their diet. There’s no doubt that menus in Iceland give the impression that some stand up comedian is making the dishes up. Smoked puffin breast, putrefied shark, dolphin carpaccio not to mention the ever-popular whale are all on the ‘must-try’ list when eating out – it’s Omega oil heaven. Quite simply, you’ll not eat anywhere else in the world like you’ll eat in Reykjavik – it’s the most unexportable cuisine on the planet.
But Iceland’s current major claim to culinary fame will surprise many, especially Americans – they reckon they do the best hot-dog in the world. The most popular place to try one at is a small red and white caravan – Bajarins Beztu Pylsur – that’s rammed from day to night with Icelanders keen to get their hands on their signature dogs. They’ve even had Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen and the singer from Metallica dropping in there too. The secret is down to the lamb (well there are more sheep than people in Iceland), the sauces and the onion relish – part raw, part fried. And at around £2 a dog, they’re cheap (not, unfortunately, a comment that tourists get to utter on too many other aspects of their holiday budgeting in Iceland).
If street food isn’t your style, then there are a number of upmarket restaurants that will leave you totally convinced that you’re eating authentic Icelandic fare – you’ll enjoy Facebooking the pics of the food to all of your friends, especially Fiskfelagid’s ‘funky’ Rod Grod dessert which combines milk ice cream, liquorice and meringue with beetroot salad. Like you do.
The choice of hotels isn’t vast by many cities’ standards but a smart option here is to hire an apartment for your stay. Definitely stay down in the city centre (unless you’re an early to bed merchant/ light sleeper) because you don’t want to miss a thing – including the drunken carousing taking place under your window until 4am in the morning.
Reykjavik is a brilliant city for strolling around. As well as the old harbour, the extensive shopping centred in Laugardalur and the millions of restaurants there are numerous historical landmarks to visit and photostop. The new Harpa Concert and Conference Hall adds to a rich Icelandic cultural scene while the historic Hofdi House (built in 1909) hosted the 1986 summit meeting between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, also, don’t miss the Solfar Sun Voyager sculpture looking out to the Atlantic Ocean or the Imagine Peace Tower – a powerful tower of light – conceived by Yoko Ono (lit nightly from 9 October to 8 December).
Reykjavik’s and Iceland’s street cred and international reputation is definitely on the up. While its mythical and historical image still makes the land of Ice and Fire destination number one for Game of Thrones location shoots, a new Sky TV star-studded drama, Fortitude, is set to extend Scandi-noir cool to this corner of the Arctic Circle.
But back to that question: when to go? Despite the vagaries of the sightseeing business a wintery Iceland is what most of us want to experience. Going in summer would be fine too, but a bit like visiting Santa’s grotto without any snow. The trick is to think like an Icelander. Chill out, and remain laid back – if it’s not going to happen today, it will happen tomorrow. Probably. Whatever you do, don’t put a visit to Reykjavik on ice for too long.