I don’t have the sharpest social skills but I know when someone is making a joke at my expense.
My travel agent was clearly making a joke at my expense: “I know you won’t fly through Heathrow or JFK and I know you will ‘never get on another Delta plane as long as you live,’ but of course you want the cheapest fare possible. The cheapest roundtrip ticket from New York to London is Icelandair with a slight layover in Reykjavík.”
I had several pertinent questions for my travel agent and she answered with an exaggerated patience that made me feel like a small child.
“Is this like the time you suggested renting a kayak when I said EuroStar was too expensive between London and Paris?”
“No, per your very specific instructions, this is the best rate available.”
“Iceland has an airline?
“Yes, a very good one.”
“How long is a slight layover?”
“Anywhere from a few hours to seven days. It’s all the same price.”
“Will Icelandair be providing accommodations for a three day layover?
“Then it isn’t really the same price, is it?”
Here the professional veneer and patience escaped my travel advisor and I received only an audible groan in response.
It turns out my travel agent wasn’t making a joke at my expense. She was earnestly suggesting I change planes at the North Pole. I fired her immediately. I have fired her many times before so she was less offended than I would have liked. She merely suggested I research Iceland and think of it as an adventure.
If I wanted to “do research” or “have adventures,” I wouldn’t be one of the thirty people left in North America who still use a travel agent.
I still wasn’t keen on adventure, but I did my research. After all, I couldn’t really fire my travel agent, partially because I am married to her. Still, my exhaustive research yielded results and by exhaustive research, I mean a Google search of the keyword “Iceland.”
I learned that Iceland in not part of Antarctica, but is considered part of Europe even though Iceland is clearly not part of Europe. I also learned that the sun shines day and night in Iceland and the Aurora Borealis can be seen every night. I didn’t learn how it is possible to see the Northern Lights in the darkness if there is no darkness. I’m not a huge aficionado of adventure, but this might be a paradox worth solving.
I booked my flight and almost immediately began to regret my impulsiveness.
No such language
My exhaustive research told me that a language known as “Icelandic” is spoken in Iceland. Nearly every source I checked said the same thing, “Don’t worry because everyone there speaks English.”
It has been my experience when visiting places where “everyone speaks English,” that the native tongue is reserved primarily for making fun of tourists. I resolved to gain at least a cursory understanding of the language. None of the major bookstore chains nor the public library were able to provide me with Icelandic language flashcards, DVDs, CDs or even audiotapes. I was forced to conclude that there is no such language.
There was a hole in my theory: The flight crew on my Icelandair flight from EWR to KEF made the cabin announcements in Icelandic. The announcements were followed with English translation, which seemed somehow briefer and there were no pauses for knowing chuckles from the passengers. I was more than a little suspicious that an inside joke was being made at the expense of the non-Icelandic speakers.
Like I said, I don’t have the sharpest social skills but I know when I’m being made fun of. I noticed that Icelandic language was accompanied by eye-rolling and giggling when I inquired about the hjónabandssæla cake in the in-flight menu.
Wine, beer and liquor everywhere
My flight landed just after 4am in total darkness—so much for the land of midnight sun. Could Wikipedia be wrong?
After clearing customs, I began to suspect that there had been some sort of natural disaster. Nearly every single passenger arriving immediately began hoarding liquids. Shopping carts full of wine, beer and liquor were everywhere. Wikipedia said that volcanoes were always exploding in Iceland; maybe this explained the run on the duty-free shelves and the lack of nighttime sun.
It took a little time to load everyone’s liquor on to the hotel shuttle and I was beginning to wish I’d rented a car, but the operation was mostly efficient. I didn’t even mind transferring to a second bus three blocks from my hotel, but I did feel bad for the passenger who had to move the contents of a small tavern from one bus to another. I took an opportunity to ask the driver if an ash cloud was blocking the sun. The driver’s English must not have been very good because he thought I asked what time it was, “It is 5:37 in the morning.” He also added a few Icelandic words with the accompanying eye-rolling.
First impressions of Reykjavík
My room was not ready when I arrived at reception at half past six in the morning. I repeatedly explained that I was travelling from America, but it was no use. I would not be allowed to check in until the other guests check out. Suffering more eye-rolling and words I couldn’t translate, I left my bags and set off to explore Reykjavík.
So-called street art is celebrated in Reykjavík. I took my time exploring the graffiti “art” of the city. Very little of the damage had been repaired. I even noticed a few pieces by that criminal Banksy. No one had bothered to paint over the work. If this were London or New York, these would have been erased the next day. It is almost as if the city was proud of the vandalism.
There are very few major chain retailers in Reykjavík’s shopping district. I didn’t see even a single GAP or Banana Republic. Multinational corporations would never put up with such untidiness. Perhaps this is why the city is so lax in removing the elaborate graffiti. Several shops featured handmade items knitted from Icelandic wool at exorbitant prices. Since Iceland is a small island, it would be much more cost-effective to import clothing from Indonesia, where costs are lower, like we do in the U.S.
I was surprised to see how many people were out in the middle of the night. People were out and about shopping, visiting beauty parlours and taking coffee breaks in the wee hours of the morning. Only it wasn’t the early morning. My watch told me it was nearly 10:30 in the morning—but it was still pitch dark. This was the exact opposite of what the travel sites I consulted told me to expect. The internet also told me to expect natives in strange, brightly-collared garb, but everyone I passed on the crowded streets were clad in normal everyday clothing, just like at home.
This was beyond misleading claims; it was beginning to seem like outright fraud.
That dry, Icelandic wit
Since it looked like dawn was finally arriving, I stopped into Icelandair Hotel near the harbour for a quick breakfast. Breakfast was hearty and delicious, if a little overpriced, but the hotel itself looked as if it had not changed decor since the late 1940s. An Art Deco showplace that time had forgotten. The lobby and diner were like a working museum.
I asked my waiter how they preserved artefacts in the lobby and coffee shop. He drolly answered that the hotel had been remodelled weeks earlier. I will never understand this dry Icelandic wit.
By the time I could check in to the hotel, all I could think about was taking a hot shower and falling asleep with the television on. Unfortunately, the hot water in my room had a pungent sulphur odour. I naturally asked to be moved to another room but the hotel was fully booked. I am nothing if not accommodating, so I made do. It was as if the hot water in the shower had been pumped straight from the ground. Icelandic engineers could learn a lot from the water treatment processes we use in the States. A few chemicals and modern filtration techniques could surely make bath time more pleasant for everyone.
The room itself was tidy but the decor belonged in the 1920s. The only modern touch to the decor was a flat screen television that only showed religious programs.
Disconcertingly, there were elf figures scattered about the room, even though Christmas was at the time several weeks away. When I woke several hours later, the same preacher was on the TV and the sun had already set and I can’t prove it, but I suspect the maid had rearranged the elf decorations while I was asleep.
There was no sign of the Northern Lights on my walk to dinner.
Dinner itself was superb. I accepted the server’s recommendation and ordered the “Icelandic Tasting” dinner. The food was expertly prepared to standards a Parisian chef would be proud of. More dry Icelandic wit: the waitress joked that the dishes included puffin, whale and reindeer. Can you imagine? To this day, I do not know what the sumptuous dishes actually contained.
The meal was partially marred by an accompanying liquor called “Brennivín.” It tasted like hooch made in a prison cell toilet. I couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly drink this concoction until the bill arrived. The bottle of wine I ordered for dinner cost nearly a quarter of a million Euros. This perhaps also explained the near riots at the airport’s duty free shop.
The waitress explained patiently that the bill was not in Euros but in fact was in something call ISKs. At first, I suspected she was making another joke but then I realized the wine was still several hundred dollars too expensive.
“No talking to the driver”
Despite Iceland’s reputation for 24 hours of daylight, it was still pitch dark when I boarded the bus for my “Golden Circle” tour late the next morning. There was no sign of the Northern Lights but there was a steady snowfall. I had been sure the tour would be cancelled due to the inclement weather, but the bus was on time (there was again a complicated bus transfer system before we were on our way).
The tour packed the most majestic, stunningly beautiful and one-of-a-kind sights I have ever witnessed in a single tour, including the original Geysir, huge volcanic calderas and icy, crystal clear waters. If I had gone with my original preference of renting a car and taking a self-guided tour, I would have seen none of these wonders. I would have either turned around and headed back to the safety of my hotel or slid off the road and froze to death. As it stood, I questioned our guide about whether it might be too snowy to continue until he instituted a “no talking to the driver” policy. Rather than heading back early, our driver added bonus stops to our tour. I suspect this was punishment for my hiding under a table with my lamb stew in the dining room at Gullfoss. The icy roads made me very nervous but our guide seemed unfazed by hazardous road conditions, calmly explaining Icelandic politics over the public address system. Apparently pots, pans, banks and salmon fishing are hot-button political issues with this driver.
I was starving by the time I made it back to the hotel. This was in no small part due to my delicious lamb stew being confiscated. I asked the receptionist to recommend a restaurant that would be open late. The “restaurant” that I was told would be the “best in Reykjavík” turned out to be little more than a hot dog stand. Not what I had in mind, but like I said, I was starving. I decided to forgo the exotic sauces and condiments and ordered a simple hot dog with mustard. The cashier responded by calling me Bill Clinton. I assume this was an insult, like calling me “Yankee Doodle” or perhaps it was just more of that enigmatic Icelandic sense of humour.
The hot dog itself had a disconcerting fresh-from-the-butcher flavour. Not bad but not authentic either. If they are trying to capture a New York City hot dog cart experience, then they need to freeze the meat and use hot water to keep the meat at temperature. Roasting the hotdogs to order is both time-consuming and incorrect. I’ve noticed the hamburger joints in Reykjavík make similar mistakes, using fresh meat and tomatoes that taste like they just came from someone’s garden rather than employing the scientifically proven techniques that we use in the States.
I expected lunch the following day to be a disaster as well. The highly recommended seafood restaurant I chose turned out to be little more than a cramped garage near the docks. I chose a skewer of raw char that was cooked while I waited on a makeshift stool. The result was heaven. I understand why diners are willing to forgo a complete lack of ambiance. Even I would suffer through the ordeal again for the best fish I have ever eaten.
Caviar, truffles, cocaine, The Blue Lagoon
On my final day in Reykjavík, I was awakened early in the morning by the aromas from the bakery across the street. How rude. This was primarily a residential area, yet this bakery was baking on site in the wee hours of the morning. There is a bakery near my home in New York, but the baked goods there are prepared in a factory in an industrial area where the neighbours’ much needed sleep isn’t disturbed. Nonetheless, since I was already awake, I decided to check out the shop’s wares. Not a word of English in the display case. I could only point at the various pastries and what I assumed were doughnuts. I asked for a yogurt but received something called a skyr instead.
Apart from the round-the-clock sunshine and the Northern Lights on constant display, my research told me that a visit to the Blue Lagoon is a quintessential Iceland experience. I wasn’t sold on the idea. The Blue Lagoon struck me as a modern day Lourdes, albeit one that actually works. The difference being a wealth of scientific data that the waters of the Blue Lagoon ease psoriasis symptoms. I was a little more comfortable with the excursion once I was assured that psoriasis isn’t contagious.
It seemed odd that the Blue Lagoon would be considered a quintessentially Icelandic experience since everyone there seemed to be a tourist. This may have been a bad idea.
The same sulphur smell that plagued my hotel shower was evident from the parking lot.
The spa itself was something else. The steaming blue water would be a marvel even if bathing were prohibited. The management had enforced a militant personal hygiene code. I wish every public facility was as conscientious. I was not as impressed with management’s care in counting and limiting my cocktails. Though I felt absurd wearing a bathing suit in a snow storm, I stayed at the Blue Lagoon from open to close and would have stayed in the warm waters longer if it had been allowed. The real value of the Blue Lagoon wasn’t clear until after I showered.
My skin felt fantastic.
I was so impressed with the results of my time at the Blue Lagoon, I decided to purchase some skin treatments at the gift shop. I had to double-check my exchange rates twice. The mineral masks and bath salts for sale were considerably more expensive than caviar, truffles or cocaine. It would be less expensive to fly friends and family to Iceland rather than to buy them a gift basket.
My return flight had only a 3 hour layover at Keflavík. Plenty of time to grab a skyr and a Bill Clinton for the plane, but I almost missed my flight because the line for Brennivín took forever and the Blue Lagoon skin care shop was on the far side of the airport.
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