One of the best aspects of living abroad is the opportunity for travel, and this New Years we crossed off one of my bucket-list destinations: Iceland.
When I was in high school, BWI Airport started running direct flights to Reykjavik on Icelandair. I remember driving past the airport and seeing the Icelandair planes and deciding that at some point in my life, I needed to go to Iceland. It seemed like the most exotic place I could think of, even moreso than much further-away destinations. Mostly because I knew friends who had been to or who were from places like China, Thailand, Australia, and the Middle East. But no one I knew had been to Iceland. And who was Icelandic? Besides Bjork?
That we decided to go to Iceland for the holidays was a decision based carefully on this factor: we go big for New Years every year, we were traveling to see friends from the States who were traveling to see us, and nobody wanted to go to Europe. We Googled, we looked at a map, and decided that Iceland was vaguely in the middle-ish (it’s not – it was quite a trek for us to get there, and a delightful three hour flight from JFK for our friends). We Googled some more and discovered the New Years is a VERY BIG DEAL in Iceland. We Googled some more and saw volcanoes and Northern Lights and a liqueur distilled from birch trees and Emiliana Torrini. Sold. We booked flights and an Air BnB in Reykjavik for a week.
Iceland was everything. It was beautiful, otherwordly, surreal. The people were friendly and welcoming. Everything in Iceland has a story. First settled by Nordic explorers seeking a more peaceful life, it was founded by hearty and brave individuals. They faced isolation and extreme weather conditions, but found ways to live off of a volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, just a hair south of the Arctic Circle. Geothermal activity heated their homes and cooked their food, and they lived off of the sea and what they could cultivate in the black, volcanic soil. Today, the country is one of the most environmentally-minded I’ve ever visited, and a deep respect for the natural world is evident in everything from decor to infrastructure.
Many Icelanders also maintain that their world is full of magical beings, and visiting the country, I can see why. There has to be something responsible for such incredible beauty and the eerie ways that the natural world works in Iceland, and it’s easy to imagine flawed gods and goddesses marching through the physical earth and causing mayhem with their tempers and bounties with their whims.
And Reykjavik? It’s a damn good time. It’s artsy and edgy and experimental. We ate exquisitely. We had Korean fusion one night at K Bar, some good old-fashioned American bar food at Laundromat Cafe, an incredible multi-course New Years Eve special dinner featuring twists on traditional Icelandic food at Dill, ridiculously tasty traditional tidbits served tapas style at Tapas Barinn, and an incredible white fish at Hotel Framnes in Snaefellsness on a western peninsula north of Reykjavik.
Not only did the city put on a good time, nature did too. We lucked out and saw the Northern Lights in all of their incredible glory. We saw orcas and seals, volcanoes both lightly napping and long dead, glacial waterfalls, geothermal geysers, and snorkeled in the passageway between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Yes, snorkeled. This involved a very warm jumpsuit underneath a waterproof dry suit. The only part that wasn’t covered was the area around my mouth where the mask didn’t quite meet the lower part of the hood but, as the instructor jokingly told us, cold water is bracingly good for the body and is basically like Botox. No extra cost for the youthful glow afterwards.
A few things to know about Iceland if you’re going in winter:
1. There are about 3.5 hours of daylight, and even those aren’t truly “daylight.” It’s more like the sky gets lighter, but the sun doesn’t actually come out. When it does, you can look right at it, and it’s a paler, milkier version of the sun that comes out around the rest of the world. Sunrise is around 11:30am, and sunset is usually between 3-3:30pm with a very long twilight. Total darkness by 5pm again.
2. Layers, layers, layers. We packed well and I never really felt “cold.” People will tell you that the average temperature there is really not that much colder than a good East Coast winter, but the ground is permafrost, there’s almost no sunshine, and the weather can change about five times in the course of a single day from rainy to windy to snaining (snow-rain) to sleet to relatively mild. Waterproof jacket, pants, and gloves are a must as is a really, really warm hat. I usually wore long underwear underneath yoga pants with leg warmers underneath my waterproof pants, and then my trusty Under Armor polar fleece turtleneck under some T-shirt layers, a sweater, and then a waterproof snow jacket. Warm socks are also a must, and layered hiking boots. When we had to hike, we wore crampons provided by the excursion companies to get over the patches of ice and they worked just fine.
3. Iceland is really expensive. Like, $40 at a convenience store for a couple of sandwiches and waters expensive. Denmark expensive. Swedish expensive. Bring as much of your own stuff as you can – water bottles (tap water is very drinkable), batteries, medicines, snacks, etc. Buy booze at duty free. We stayed at an Air BnB and so we cooked as many of our own meals as we could.
4. People in Iceland are really, really nice – all 300,000 of them. Many of them can trace family back to the area for hundreds – if not a thousand or two – of years. They have great stories. Also, everyone kept trying to tell me that Iceland has a very high rate of suicide, and that is totally false – they’re 42nd in the world, behind such places as Germany, Austria, France, Sri Lanka, and the United States. In fact, several sources point to Iceland as having a very high quality of life for a variety of reasons.
If you do decide to go to Iceland – especially in winter – book excursions. We could have rented a car and gone on our own, but I trust professional drivers to navigate the sometimes-icy roads, and given the mere 3-4 hours of daylight, those in the know will have a much better framework to plan your sightseeing agenda to take advantage of what light there is. We worked with Scuba Iceland and Extreme Iceland. The guides were incredible, and even helped us plan the rest of our trip – offering dining recommendations and calling to make reservations for us for other things we wanted to do. For horseback riding, we went through Eldhestar via What’s On Iceland. We also OF COURSE went to the Blue Lagoon, and probably had way more fun than Beyonce and Jay-Z.
One of the best aspects of the trip, beyond the amazing scenery and incredible food and hospitality, was the fact that we got to make the trip with good friends. It was an awesome way to bring in 2015, and after last year’s surprise midnight marriage proposal, it set the bar pretty high in terms of epic New Years.