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An Icy Embrace

A New Zealander experiences a summer in Iceland
10.9.2012
Words by David Lillie
Through the window a black tide stoically holds its line against the frenzied melee of the North Atlantic Ocean. The tide is frozen in time; the vanguard of ancient lava flows from the molten heart of Iceland. Basalt stacks stand like sentries near the shoreline. I return to the in-flight magazine, which informs me that, perched as it is on the outer rim of the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s seasons are notable for their long periods of twilight. Summers where the blanket of night barely covers the island, and winters where, like a sullen teenager, the sun seldom makes it out of bed before lunch.

Iceland is also renowned for its living mythology manifest in the common belief in the existence of ‘huldufólk’—or hidden peoples. Peering out into the murky night I'm reminded of an episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’ in which an airline passenger is tormented by a mischievous gremlin who appears only to him through a porthole window in the midst of a storm. As the lights of Keflavík airport shine through the dim light, I wonder, with its extended witching hour, what awaits me in the real twilight zone.

We arrive at our rendezvous point, a stony car park off a gravel road, alongside a matching Suzuki 4WD. I greet my cousin, Bjössi, who I have not seen since childhood—then a confident spiky-green-haired teenager a long way from home in New Zealand, now a fleece-wearing concrete engineer. His eyes alight at the revelation that my travelling companions are also his relations—cousins from the English side of the family. “Ha. I am excited thinking I have one cousin visiting and you bring me three for one!”

The sun’s seasonal mood swings, which play havoc on the unaccustomed, appear not to faze Icelanders. My cousin suggests those who couldn’t cope ultimately left the island—one way or another. As I lay in bed on my first night, tired as I am, a strip of light created by ill-fitting curtains on the window ensures I don’t sleep a wink. It becomes a recurring event giving me plenty of time to ponder why in Iceland—of all places—the curtains are always too small for the windows?

THE COMPULSORY TOURIST STAPLE

It’s the height of summer, but the mercury struggles to top 15 degrees Celsius. Bjössi fizzes us across the hallowed waters of Lake Þingvallavatn in a dinghy to our ancestral batch built before 1930 when the lake and its surrounds fell under public protection as Iceland’s first National Park. Historically and geographically significant, the park marks the cultural and political epicentre of the country since Norse settlement began in the first millennium AD, and the long farewell between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates as they slowly drift apart. The gradual parting between these ancient crusty neighbours has left impressive scars; the most notable is a long, deep rocky gash known as Almannagjá. Perfectly clear water fills the fissures along the northeastern shore of the lake, popular amongst divers and snorkelers who navigate the labyrinthine underwater caves and tunnels. Coins sparkle in a chasm known as the “Money fault” representing the wistful yearnings of thousands of enchanted visitors.

After a spot of lunch we set out to complete the compulsory tourist staple that is the Golden Circle. It consists of Þingvellir—the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament, the impressive tiered waterfalls of Gulfoss—so photogenic you barely need to press the shutter release, and Geysir—the grandfather (“afi”) of geysers and from which the term derives. The lack of a boundary fence surrounding Afi Geysir is somewhat indicative of the Icelandic frontiersman attitude towards matters of health and safety. The blowhole provides sufficient warning, however, by bulging and swallowing several times before spitting jets of scorching water 30 feet into the sky.

It’s sometime after midnight, we’re full of wine and an open bottle of fine single malt whiskey on the table marks the obliteration of our capacity for rational thinking. Bjössi suggests a spot of fishing and soon we are bobbing in the strange midnight light in the hope of hooking some trout or arctic char motivated by the prospect of an icy plunge for the angling mook amongst us. It’s a wonderful experience, watching a sunset merge into a sunrise and, it turns out, a profitable time to fish. Mysteriously, after some time, I lead with one trout and one Arctic char. I suspect divine intervention, having sacrificed several of Bjössi’s lures and sinkers to the ancient Norse water gods.

After gutting our fish and untangling the fishing line, with an equal enough share of spoils, we decide to take the plunge anyway. The sky is a salmon fillet with a squeeze of lemon as Bjössi putt-putts us over to a rocky outcrop. We stand at dignity’s point of no return clapping and puffing our chests defiantly at the clear cool depths below, anaesthetised to our stupidity by the night’s drinking. On three, we leap bravely into the void, only to resurface squealing breathlessly and clambering over each other to escape Þingvallavatn’s icy embrace. Warmed by a shower and utterly exhausted, I retire to the guest room only to find that malevolent sliver of light waiting for me. Before I can curl up into a sobbing ball of exasperation, my English cousin sits down on the opposite twin bed and declares the day one of the best of his life sending me to sleep instead with a broad smile.

ENTERING NARNIA THROUGH A GQ WARDROBE

Independence Day sees the streets of Reykjavík filled with a young crowd. We find a moderately priced restaurant and order perfectly cooked fish—none of us are feeling adventurous enough to attempt the traditional ‘delicacies’ of rotten shark meat ('hákarl'), singed sheep’s head or raw puffin heart. Later, we step into a bar and it feels like we’ve entered Narnia through a GQ wardrobe. A horse statue with a lampshade over its head rears half-heartedly in the corner near the window. Immaculately tailored suits, filled with wealthy Icelandic males, lean with studied effortlessness against the bar. Unshaven, clad in cheap jeans and a crinkled shirt, I feel even the equine lamp looking down its muzzle at me. Barman: Why the long face? Horselamp: That man is wearing flannel. I begin to hope that my vagrant look will be interpreted as deliberately ironic by the fashionistas but, predictably, it’s at this point that I realise my button fly is gaping open. Reykjavík’s revellers are so icily cool that the party doesn’t really start until it’s time for the squares to go home. Which we duly do.

Our third day is spent camping in the hiking hotspot of Landmannalaugur. I’m mesmerized following the geothermal pipeline as it climbs out of Reykjavík; 27 snaking kilometres of boiling water rushing past us bound for the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of greater Reykjavík. It surprises me how quickly and subtly Iceland changes its form. Adjusting my focus from the pipeline back to the landscape I note we have left the verdant lumpy valleys dotted with sheep. Like a magician performing his reveal, a long sweeping bend over a gentle hill unveils a dusty moonscape peaked with charcoal and terracotta rhyolite mountains. Ice is smeared into the shaded spots like grout into tiling cracks. They remind me of giant killer whales.

We anchor our tents with large stones instead of tent pegs. Our fish—wrapped in tinfoil, sprinkled with lemon and brown sugar—is delicious cooked on a small disposable supermarket barbecue. An eerie mist envelopes us as we dip our toes into the nearby river eddy fed by a meandering trickle of hot spring water. Unfortunately, a canoodling German couple are monopolizing the heat source leaving us to lie enviously in mostly tepid water swarming with stinging hot and cold flows. Eventually, like the German couple, our principles succumb to the demands of the flesh and we retreat back to camp to warm up.

BABBLING BROOKS AND GUILEFUL ELVES

We decide to follow a stream northeast of the campsite. Soon we are surrounded by contorted stacks of jet-black basalt rock—the ejected remnants of an explosive past. It feels like a graveyard. Greenish vents belch sulphurous steam into our paths. The stacks appear—to my sleep-deprived mind—to wear grotesque faces and press in like strangers on a crowded street. I am glad when we decide to turn back in the dim light and thickening mist. Walking back along the stream, I hear my name spoken and turn to answer but my cousins are a long way behind me. I have encountered a genuine babbling brook. A raucous chatter surrounds me, and for a while I eavesdrop trying to catch the tail of their endless conversation.    

Unlike most Western cultures, Icelandic folklore has not been consigned to children’s bedtime. Large construction projects often consult a folklorist to ensure the underground dwellings of these mysterious people are not disturbed, which has led to major roads being rerouted.

At our farewell barbecue at Bjössi’s Reykjavík residence, between handshakes of both introduction and farewell, I broach the subject of Iceland’s magical cohabitants. Óli, representing the baby boomers, is unequivocal: “They most certainly exist. Of course!” Like many Icelanders, Óli possesses a wickedly dry sense of humour but appears earnest on this matter. Later, I ask the same of a couple of younger cousins. They snigger at the “oldies” and their silly ideas about “the magical people.” I keep quiet. Like the passenger on that ill-fated flight, I know there is at least one elf out there, perched by the window, pulling the curtains aside just a little each night.

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This story won the national New Travel Writer award for 2012 in New Zealand.

David Lillie is travel writer from Wellington, New Zealand who hopes one day to trade in his unsustainable backpack to run a sustainable bed and breakfast.
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