“You can’t plan Iceland. Iceland just sort of happens,” wrote Grapevine contributor Parker Yamasaki, back in March of 2017. She was writing whilst marooned in Vík, during a Skaftafell road trip that was derailed by a fierce and unexpected windstorm. On that day, Route One was shut down completely by the weather, leaving her with a thwarted afternoon to look longingly out of the hostel window and muse into her notebook.
The sentiment rang true then, and has echoed around my mind ever since. After various windswept and storm-lashed excursions out into the far reaches of the Icelandic countryside, it’s become very clear how carefully one has to navigate Iceland’s treacherous roads and subarctic elements.
For those who live here, if a trip has to be cancelled, it’s not so bad. After the initial disappointment, you can just try again in a few days. But for tourists who’ve flown in from faraway lands having bought their weatherproof clothes, booked accommodation, printed out maps and itineraries, and nevertheless found themselves sitting behind the wheel of a rental car unable to leave the city, it must really suck.
But for people stuck in such a predicament, all is not lost—one can still put a car to good use, and get out to see the farther reaches of Reykjavík.
Sheets of rain
It’s on a particularly stormy February morning amidst bursts of bright sunshine, blowing gales, and intermittent heavy sleet showers that we head out in the trusty Grapevine car to explore the area surrounding the 101 postcode. Our only rule: not to stray past the Greater Reykjavík city limits.
Escaping the snarls of downtown traffic in a torrential downpour, we cruise up the coastal road past the ex-industrial Grandi area. The wipers labour as they sweep away the rain, and through the windshield the hulking, snow-streaked mountains vanish into a dramatic wall of grey mist across the Faxaflói Bay. It’s impossible to get away from Iceland’s majestic landscapes, even in the centre of town.
To the lighthouse
The narrow Seltjarnarnes peninsula sits at Reykjavík’s westernmost extreme. Rows of apartment blocks give way to small, neat residential streets, then tumbledown industrial units, before the land opens out into the area of wilderness with the Grótta lighthouse at its tip.
As we park up and venture out, the wind blows the car doors open emphatically. The tide is out, so we crunch out to the lighthouse over the black beach causeway, littered with frozen seaweed, smashed pink seashells and icy rocks.
It’s a completely unshielded spot: the tide crashes in against the seawall, sending spray high into the air, and the roaring gales are deafeningly loud. We’re just ten minutes from the city centre, but it could just as easily be a windblown vantage point along a far-flung stretch of the coastline.
After giving a couple of rain-soaked Polish hitchhiking tourists a ride back into town, we stop off for a stellar lunch at the much-admired new Flatey pizzeria, before cruising up to Perlan. This glass-domed hilltop visitor centre and viewing platform has undergone a recent transformation, and now holds a fine-dining restaurant, a coffee shop, and a glacier and volcano themed museum entitled Wonders Of Iceland.
The museum is a pleasant surprise. After a walking tour through a well constructed and convincingly cold man-made ice tunnel, we emerge into a spacious room dotted with hi-tech interactive exhibits, all loaded with fascinating facts about Iceland’s lava systems, different types of glaciers, time-lapse videos of glacial erosion, and lots more besides. It’s an engaging look at Icelandic nature that would be perfect either as a pre-road trip cheat sheet, or as an enjoyable time filler for those delayed from getting out into the landscape itself.
Our next stop is Árbæjarsafn, an outdoor museum ten minutes out of the city centre that takes us on a different kind of journey. We get lucky with the weather, and the murky clouds clear overhead as we strap on some ice grips and head out towards the various houses that make up the museum.
For the next two hours, we’re immersed in a seemingly never-ending series of fascinatingly detailed living environments from different eras of Iceland’s past. The houses are historical artefacts in themselves, having been plucked up and shipped out Árbæjarsafn to be put on permanent display.
Ingenious and truthful
Each house’s meticulously detailed interior covers life from a different time period. You can see a pair of old reading glasses perched on a desk next to an inkwell and quill; small religious portraits hung on wooden walls over a family dining table; pairs of hand-knitted woollen socks sitting neatly paired up and ready for use in chilly communal sleeping attics. There’s a newspaper office with a letterpress, a merchant’s house decorated with William Morris wallpaper, a 1970s residence with authentically retro fittings, and a car workshop with a wall of old-fashioned tools.
At the edge of this peculiar century-straddling village, we pause next to some snowed-in turf houses and a small wooden church, taking in the modern cityscape that stretches away into the distance. Wandering around Árbæjarsafn is a vivid experience that opens up the reality of Iceland’s past in a way that’s both ingenious and truthful.
The spell breaks as we step back out into the parking lot, headed for a soak at Árbæjarlaug and then a hot dinner. A fierce whiteout blizzard descends suddenly over the city, and I feel glad we aren’t in the countryside—but not only because of the weather.