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Iceland Tourism

Warming up to Iceland

Matthew Robinson  Aug 11, 2011

Though many may think of long dark nights and bleak white expanses, Iceland is actually a country full of color and life. And as it is only five hours from Boston, it is a great escape or the perfect base camp for a further excursion to Europe and other points east. In fact, Iceland Air ( ) is currently offering packages in which travelers can stopover in Iceland for up to seven days en route to any other destination with no additional fees!

The Country
As the historic home of Leif Erickson, Iceland is proud of its Viking roots and still attributes much of its magic and charm to the presence of the mysterious “invisible people” who live in rocks and trees and bring joy and intrigue to the country and its people. Though most natives will not admit to believing in these elves and trolls, few will deny having seen them!
A nation of about 320,000 people (300,000 of whom live in the capital of Reykjavik), “suburban” Iceland is greatly spread out and can make for a wide array of adventures- from “super Jeep” rides ( ) up and snowmobiling around eternal glaciers to flyovers of the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajökull (commonly known by non-native speakers as “E-15,” which stands for the first letter of the name meaning “island mountain glacier” and the number of letters that follow) that brought European air travel to a halt in April of 2010. If a two-ton modified diesel truck is not your idea of a fun way to see “E-15,” visit the new visitors’ center based on the farm that was closest (and so most affected) by the 2010 blast and meet the farmer who made it through ( ).

Getting There
Now that the airlines are back up and running, Iceland is an easy trip from the US. Iceland Air recently began departures from Dulles International and also serves such locations as New York, Seattle, and Toronto, Canada.
If you really want to make it a glamorous excursion, be sure to book Iceland Air’s Saga Class. With this package, you can travel like a Viking rock star, bypassing the check-in crowds and waiting for your plane in a luxury lounge that offers gourmet food, an open and well-stocked bar, Wi-Fi, TVs, international publications and the attention and amenities to which you should be accustomed. Once on board, enjoy a (real) glass of (real) champagne before settling in to your extra-wide, extra-comfy leather seat for a first-class meal and first-run movie or current TV shows from either the US or Iceland. You can even watch videos about Iceland and maybe learn a few words in this ancient and mysterious country’s ancient and (to many) mysterious language!

Once you land, there are plenty of taxis and shuttles for the scenic 40-minute trip from the former NATO base in Keflavik to Reykjavik. Here, you will meet a community of artisans and entrepreneurs from all walks of life and more nationalities than you might expect. In fact, every May, the city celebrates its diversity with a multi-cultural parade that fills the main streets with color and music and helps demonstrate all that the city and the country have to offer.

Getting A Sense of the Place
To get a good sense of the city, be sure to book a tour with the local experts at New Moments ( ) who will show you the first home and even the first tree in Reykjavik as well as bringing you behind the scenes and in front of the lines at many of the city’s finest shops, hotels, restaurants, and attractions.
After your tour, take some time to wander up and down the hill from the seaside to the top of the hill, which is overlooked by the impressive architecture of Hallgrimur's Church (Hallgrimskirkja).

Along the way, be sure to stop in the many galleries and shops, including Geysir ( ) and Kraum ( ), an artist’s collective that is housed in the oldest standing house in the city. For the fashionista, designers like Elm ( ), Farmers Market ( ), M-Design ( ), Steinunn ( ), and private shopping experiences at Volcano Design (www.volcanodesign,is ) are sure to excite and entrance with their creative couture. For the adventurer types, there are plenty of 66° North stores (www.66north,com), which are the Icelandic version of North Face. For the more light-hearted or young at heart, you are sure to get a smile from the pile of puffins at Lundinn Souvenir stores downtown and at the airport. If you cannot make up your mind about which items to buy, many Icelandic stores also have outposts in the US. Still, there is something about buying right from the artist, especially when many of them run their own stores! Another great way to find one-of-a-kind items is to contact the crafters directly through the Handverk og Honnun Crafts and Design site ( ) that catalogs many of the island nation’s most progressive and popular independent artists, designers and, of course, knitters.

Though Reykjavik may not be as much of a business center as other European capitals (which may actually be a good thing!), there is still plenty of culture and vibrance to be found. In addition to the many galleries and shops that feature local handicrafts ranging from the world-famous woolens to jewelry made from the same volcanic lava that continues to shape and reshape this small but great city, Reykjavik is also the home of the Reykjavik Jazz Festival ( ) and the Iceland Airwaves Festival ( which has been called the best long-weekend festival in the world by “Rolling Stone.” In May of 2011, the city also opened the doors of the long-awaited Harpa Concert and Conference Center ( ) – a gorgeous glass and steel state-of-the-art waterfront performance and meeting space with a 1,800-seat acoustically-convertible main hall that is now the home of the Reykjavik Opera and Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, as well as performances by musicians and other artists from all over the world.

After you evening of high culture, linger over a coffee or one of the many local beers and drinks (Blenevin, anyone?) and watch downtown come alive! Reykjavik offers everything from friendly pubs to raging clubs and everyone seems to be out at the same time. Most venues have no cover and many have live music. While there is usually something going on every night, the weekends are when locals let loose, cruising down the slender main drag and reveling in the nightlife of a city that knows about night.

When to Go
Speaking of which, timing your trip can make a major difference in your experience. Summer visitors will probably lose track of time as the sun rarely ever sets (at least fully). As most clubs are open until 5 AM, it is easy to dance until dawn and then to grab some coffee and keep on going. If you go in the winter to ice climb and catch the Northern Lights, that may be all the light you see. But never fear- Icelanders know how to pass the time with story and song and are always happy to have new friends join in the frosty fun.

Where to Stay
As far as where to stay, there are many options, including quaint bed and breakfasts and historic hotels like the 1919 ( ) and Hotel Holt ( The first of these is a converted warehouse that is now a loft-styled Radisson Blu property situated steps from everything in Reykjavik. The Holt features the largest private art collection in the area as well as the custom-made French stove on which all of Iceland’s best chefs (and many local and visiting foodies) train before going off on their own. Needless to say, the food is exquisite and a four-course price fix starts at just $50 (give or take fluctuating exchange rates)! When Yoko Ono dedicated the peace bell on what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, the “Cold Turkey” and Strawberry Fields” were made in this kitchen. Yoko herself chose, however, to stay a bit out of town, at the uptown and upscale high rise that is the Hilton Nordica ( ), home of Vox Restaurant ( In addition to Ms. Ono, the Presidential Suite at the Nordica has also hosted other international icons as well as many world leaders. And as getting into town is so easy, you may appreciate the change of pace that comes from leaving downtown for a few hours. If you want to get away from the lights completely, there is no place like the rustic yet thoroughly luxurious hunting lodge that is Hotel Ranga ( Run by a fishing magnate who is also a close friend of the Swedish royal family (among others who he will not name in order to allow them to stay with him without drumming up publicity), Ranga was the epicenter of eruption coverage in 2010 and continues to play to packed houses, thanks in great part to its delectable dining, inventive rooms (including a series of inter-continentally themed suites) and exquisite service. Anything you ask for can be provided, from the first bottle of a limited-edition 40-year-old scotch to a masterful massage, an indoor or outdoor hut tub or even printouts of Internet searches used to answer any question you may ask.

Where to Eat
In addition to the amazing hotel food, Iceland also sports some of the world’s best fish. From European royalty to rock heroes like Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl, and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson (who is actually a part-time pilot for an Icelandic airline) many claim their favorite places to catch the daily catch are in Iceland. Among the best places to go fish are The Seafood Cellar ( ), The Seafood Grill ( ), The Fish Company ( ), The Fish Market ( ) and, at the risk of breaking up a titular theme, Grohl’s “favorite” lobster place, The Seashore Restaurant ( ).
Another must-see/must-eat in Reykjavik is “The Pearl” ( ), a rotating restaurant set atop six giant tanks each of which contains1 million gallons of the geothermal hot water that warms and powers most of this country. From breakfast herring to smoked salmon to (ahem!) fermented shark, Iceland’s creativity can be seen as much on its plates as in its sweaters.

In addition to the famed woolens, Iceland’s free-range sheep are also used to prepare some of the best lamb in the world (including the meat that goes in the Bubba-blessed hot dogs that are sold in Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’s world-famous seaside cart ( ) at which fans line up every hour of the day). Nothing goes to waste in this ancient and progressive culture!

Where to Relax
As the time of year can determine the pace of your trip, so too can the type of vacationer you are. If you want to spend your days relaxing at a spa, Iceland has one of the world’s most famous in the Blue Lagoon (, which is located only minutes from the airport and makes for a wonderful finale to an inspirational journey. If you want to earn your relaxation, there is plenty of hiking, biking, fishing, snowmobiling, helicopter touring and other more active pursuits. It all depends on your energy level.

Speaking of energy (and also of the Lagoon), Iceland is a world leader not only in literacy (we could learn a lot from how they learn!) but also in terms of renewable energy. Iceland is currently 70 percent renewable in terms of its energy uses (it would be more were it not for the totally pimped-out SUVs that are used to carry locals and tourists alike around the glaciers) and is constantly improving! In addition to being a center of psychic activity, the bubbling pools that literally journey from the center of the earth also power some of the most efficient and effective geothermal plants in the world. In fact, it is the highly therapeutic mineral runoff from one of these plants that created the Lagoon.

So whether you are looking to unwind and rest en route to the Continent or to find a new favorite destination, Iceland has the mix of personal attention and personal freedom that allows and encourages all visitors to feel at home and to find their own way.

Warming up to Iceland
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