Iceland, a country with a total population approximately a fifth the size of Manhattan, is a land of sumptuous beauty, ranging from bubbling craters and geysers so hot you don’t dare go near them (though there are many that visitors can watch from a distance of a few feet), to mountainous regions covered with snow year-round. Situated immediately to the east of Greenland and bordered by the Northern Sea to the north and the North Atlantic Sea to the south, Iceland is a tiny but amazingly diverse island, offering travelers —especially those who happen to be eco-minded — a huge variety of activities both gentle and rugged, from whale and puffin watching just a few miles off the coast of Reykjavik harbor to hikes further to the north, a number of which are to be undertaken only by the most experienced sportsman. Whatever area of the country you choose to visit, you’ll find breathtaking scenery, scrumptious food, and—despite the cold — more warmth from Iceland’s people than you’ll find sitting in front of a roaring fireplace (although there are plenty of those, too).
Lest the traveler seeking an off-the-beaten track vacation have qualms about visiting this sometimes chilly land, he shouldn’t, even during its somber months of winter. Even then, Reykjavik is a year-round tourist attraction, filled with festivals, cultural institutions, and a wide variety of musical entertainment, including its folk and blues festivals, experimental music, “dark music days,” a chess festival, the Icelandic Horse Festival, a Winter Light Festival, and Museum Nights — and this is in the months of January, February and March alone. At other times throughout the year, unusual events take place: the Reykjavik Bacon Festival, the Lókal International Theatre Festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival, and Meat Soup Day, to name but a few. An excellent guide, Reykjavik Festival City, contains a comprehensive listing of cultural events taking place throughout the year on a month-by-month basis. [visitreykjavik.is]
Even on its darkest days, Reykjavik provides a multitude of sights and sounds that not only embrace but actually celebrate the dark. Perhaps the most illustrious of these is Iceland’s most famous display of nature: the northern lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis. Visible only during Iceland’s winter months, this celestial miracle has been thrilling visitors for years. The lights can be seen anywhere in the country, whether from its northernmost shores or from Reykjavik itself. One of the loveliest ways to see the lights is through Special Tours, which features two unique ways to see them: a two-hour Northern Lights by Boat excursion to the North-Atlantic; and an approximately three-hour Reykjavik Dinner Cruise on the luxury boat Andrea, which features a full bar and a five-course luxury dinner, complete with live music. [specialtours.is/reykjavik-dinner-cruise]
And speaking of dinner — or lunch, for that matter — Iceland in general, and Reykjavik in particular, offers fine cuisine to suit every budget. Perhaps the best guide to Iceland’s many culinary delights comes in the form of a Local Food and Gourmet Guide, a booklet founded and created by the charming and vivacious television personality Vala Matthíasdóttir. Somewhat akin to America’s Zagat guides, her guide is far more ambitious and complex, featuring not only a selective listing of some of Iceland’s finest restaurants both near and far, but also a link to videos and dozens of recipes prepared by many of the restaurants’ chefs in the guide. The guide is not only handy to use throughout the country but is also a comprehensive way to prepare some typical Icelandic recipes on your own. [icelandlocalfoodguide.is]
Snaps Bistro Bar, located at Thorsgata 1, Odinstorg in the heart of Reykjavik village, is a hip place to meet for drinks as well as being an excellent place to eat. The menu features numerous fish dishes including bouillabaisse, salted cod and moules frites. In the harbor, the Höfnin restaurant features moderately priced classical Icelandic recipes, including a great fish soup and an equally delicious pan fried ling fish. Another excellent choice in Reykjavik harbor is the Sea Baron restaurant, featuring what has been called “the world’s best lobster soup.” And for those wishing to partake of Reykjavik’s bustling late-night scene, an after-dinner stop at the Slipp Bar, located in the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina, is a cool place to relax, socialize, and have a couple of drinks. [slippbarinn.is]
For those who can afford a more expensive and luxurious choice of restaurant, they may wish to dine at the Grillið Restaurant, which sits atop the Radisson Saga Hotel, a 10-minute walk from Reykjavik village. In addition to serving haute cuisine and a wine list that can be paired with your food, the Grillið also features a dazzling view of the city. And one of the ultimate luxurious dining experiences in Reykjavik can be had at the Borg restaurant in the Borg Hotel, a meticulously restored 1930 art deco masterpiece. A nine-course tasting menu also comes with wines that are paired to complement the food.
There’s a lot more to Iceland than its fine cuisine, however. Activities in and around Reykjavik are far-ranging, fun, and in many cases breathtaking experiences. A natural starting point for the first-time visitor to Reykjavik might take place in its bustling harbor, where whale and puffin watching expeditions depart from the docks on a frequent basis on boats both large and small. The Special Tours & Life of Whales Company offers a particularly enjoyable excursion on the “puffin express” in a small boat seating only 12, complete with a friendly and knowledgeable guide. Another fun activity for both adults and children is located less than a half-hour from the city: Íslenski Hesturinn, The Icelandic Horse, founded and run by the husband-and-wife team of Begga Rist and Sveinn Atli Gunnarsson, who offer a relaxed (but not too relaxed) horse riding tour through the countryside. The well-trained horses they use on their tours exhibit a gentle affection for riders both experienced and not. Begga and Sveinn are not only expert guides who zealously guard the safety of their riders; they both are passionately dedicated to their work and their love for horses. Their warmth and hospitality is totally infectious. [islenskihesturinn.is/]
Mountaineers of Iceland offers numerous rugged excursions leaving from Reykjavik, including an all day trip on a “super truck” that heads north toward the mountains, where a one hour snowmobiling ride through the snow is a great experience, especially for those who have never tried the sport. Occasional stops both to and from the mountains include Pingvellir National Park, a craggy, beautiful and peaceful place; the spectacular Gulfloss waterfall, an incredible sight (also accessible on foot) of one of the wonders of the world, outdoing even Niagara Falls in its intensity and beauty, not to be missed; and the Strokkur geyser, a guaranteed crowd pleaser that erupts every eight to ten minutes. [mountaineers.is]
An exciting — to say nothing of unusual – way to leave the city for a few hours is to hop aboard a Nor?urflug Helicopter Tour, a thrilling way to explore the gorgeous landscape of Iceland from a birds-eye point of view. Nordurflug’s tours include include a volcano and glacier tour, a waterfall and valley tour, and a five hour Essential Iceland tour that focuses on the many highlights of Icelandic nature. Special tours also include wilderness fishing, frequently to a destination of your choice. [heli.is]
Another way to get away from your getaway vacation is to head north to the Brimnes Hotel and Cabins, offering accommodation in 11 double rooms with bathrooms. The hotel, which has its own restaurant, is located in the beautiful town of Ólafsfjörður in northern Iceland, accessible via the Arctic Bow, a gorgeous scenic route along the way. The cabins are situated in stunning lakeside surroundings and are heated entirely with geothermally hot water.
For the burgeoning gay and lesbian travel market, Iceland — a country that both celebrates and treasures diversity — makes a perfect destination at any time of the year. Its prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, became the world’s first openly lesbian head of government in 2007. Reykjavik’s gay pride parade, taking place in August this year, attracts tens of thousands of people. And Pink Iceland, a gay and lesbian travel service, offers visitors not only an Active Iceland & Reykjavik Gay Pride eight day adventure group tour but also the option of gay marriage (legal in Iceland since 2010) to couples in search of a beautiful and unusual place for their special day [the marriages are legally recognized in states that have legalized gay marriage in America]. Ceremonies can be arranged almost anywhere—by a waterfall, in a cave, on a glacier, on a small island or by a geothermal area. Other options are on board a boat or a helicopter. How unusual is that?
To top off your visit to Iceland, no visit to the country would be complete without a stop at one of Iceland’s most visited attractions: the famed Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa situated located in a lava field in Grindavík, about a 40 minute drive from Reykjavik. Man-made, fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi, the lagoon is filled with water (renewed every two days) whose temperature hovers between 98° and 102° and is rich in minerals like silica and sulphur, both of which are excellent for the skin. Fresh warm clay masks are available by scooping a spoon into a small trough. Finally, a complete rinse-off in a deliciously warm man-made waterfall leaves the visitor feeling relaxed, renewed, and replenished.
But the real attraction of Iceland is Iceland itself. With its picture-perfect geographical vistas, gorgeous architecture both past and present, and an incredibly friendly and welcoming population, Iceland is a sure-fire guarantee of pleasure and relaxation for even the most jaded tourist. If it seems off the beaten track, think on this: Iceland is a mere five hour flight from New York—barely enough time to get a good night’s sleep. Not to worry: Iceland will awaken your senses the minute you step off the plane. Yes, bring something warm to wear (although the summer months may be excepted from this rule). Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring your camera with a spare battery, in case you use up the first one. And bring an appetite for the delicious and the unusual. Okay, skip the fresh shark. But it may well be the only thing you don’t like about the country. As for the rest, Iceland can safely rise to the top of your list of destinations, either already visited or as a future itinerary. An excellent choice would be both.
Visit Iceland, www.visiticeland.com