Monday, January 19, 2009

Iceland: Cold. Dark. Beautiful.

If you're looking for a good weekend travel break right now, there's probably few better than Iceland. Lastminute.com did me an excellent deal for three nights and a flight, and the exchange rate is extremely favorable while inflation hasn't caught up. Which doesn't exactly make Iceland cheap, but it's no worse than London and in some cases much better.

But enough of the advertising piece. I've always wanted to visit Iceland, which fits very well into my travel MO of 'remote places,' 'islands' and 'cold places.' Iceland fits two and a half of those three - it's not all that remote, only two and half hours from London - but for the price, I couldn't pass it up.



I arrived on Thursday around 4 in the afternoon and found Reykjavik to be more light and less cold than I imagined. The sun set around the same time as it does in London, so I figured the reports about daylight hours might be slightly exagerrated.

What I didn't realize is that it would be about 18 hours until I saw it again.

I checked into the hotel, grabbed my gloves and hat and set out to explore Reykjavik. I had a spotty WiFi connection in the hotel and a vague idea of where the one well-reviewed and inexpensive restaurant WikiTravel recommended: the Sægreifinn (Seabaron), whose Lobster soup is world-famous (it made the New York Times' restaurant guide in 2006) and who serve whale kebabs. I ordered both.

Whale tastes like beef that's been soaked in fish. Fishy beef. Nothing special, except that hey, you're eating whale. The lobster soup was amazing. Icelandic lobsters are smaller than their American cousins, slightly larger than jumbo shrimps, and taste about halfway between the two creatures. Not quite as buttery as a lobster, and not quite as, um, shrimpy as a shrimp. But they're perfect in the soup. So yes, Sægreifinn is highly recommended.

I walked around town for a while in the dark, stopped for a Viking beer - because hey, why wouldn't you - and made my way back for a good night's sleep.

Next morning I realize just how dark things are in Iceland. I woke up around 8.30 and it was still pitch black out. By 9.30, when I was showered and dressed and ready to go, it was a little light - enough to turn everything a strange and beautiful blue color, like you're trapped in a French avant-garde film.

Speaking of the shower, I should mention that hot water in Iceland works a little differently than you might expect. A lot differently. It's all geothermal, and there are hot water mains that carry pure hot water directly from the planet itself into a shower. It comes out smelling like sulfur and can get extremely hot if you're not paying attention. Here's myself, giving you a little demonstration of how it works:



By the time the sun was up, I was walking along the harbor. The economic crisis that made Iceland such an attractive place to travel was obvious only here, where the hulks of half-constructed buildings squatted, some of which might never be finished.

It didn't take long to explore most of Reykjavik; there are only about 180,000 people in the metro area, and the city is not like other European capitals in that it was only a small collection of houses until the 1850s. The national cathedral is little bigger than an English country church. The National Museum though has an amazing exhibit on the colonization of Iceland and its transition from a collection of farms and viking holdings to one of the most modernized, green nations on the planet with the highest standard of living and health care possible. By the time I made it back towards my hotel and the Hallgrímskirkja. The church was covered in scaffolding, like every other famous landmark you want to see, and I opted out of the ride to the top of the tower for the free walk around the church instead.

That evening, it was too cloudy for the Aurora so I turned in reasonably early to rest up for my tour into the countryside. A Nissan Patriot with 44" tires rolled up at 9, we picked up two other Americans and headed out of the city. Here's something interesting about Iceland: once you get outside of Reykjavik, especially if you aren't in another one of the (very small) towns, there is a lot of wide open space. The snow was blowing as hard as I've seen in any midwestern snowstorm, visibility damn near nil, and I asked our guide if we were driving through farmland. "No, this is wasteland," he said. Wide-open plains of volcanic rock and not a hell of a lot else.

We saw Þingvellir National Park, where the planet is literally coming apart at the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. It was also the location of the first democratically-elected parliament in the world and home of Iceland's largest freshwater lake. Then on to Geysir, the geyser for which all other geysers are named. And Gullfoss, Europe's largest waterfall, a mass of churning glacial water.

Then it was up to the snowfields, where the other two in our group went snowmobiling (not my cup of tea) and the guide let me drive the Patriot around on 4m of packed snow; now I can say I've driven in extreme winter conditions.

Here's what it looked like up there:



That night, it was once again too cloudy to see the Aurora.

And the next morning I was on my way home.

This trip wasn't one about profound cultural experiences, or profound personal experiences; it left me more with a feeling of having been slightly farther off the map then I've been before, and a desire to go even further when I can. Iceland seems like one of the last places you can do that and still be a reasonably comfortable tourist. Much farther and you're into adventure territory. Not that I would have a problem with that.

It was also a hell of a way to kick off what will likely be my last year in London, travel-wise. Liz and I vowed to travel more this year and take full advantage of what we could, and this trip was the beginning of that: good exchange rates, proper timing, and just getting out there and doing it.

Gonna be a great year.

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