Iceland: Beyond A Stopover
A perfectly sized island lost in the icy Atlantic can make any traveler’s dream come true. Maybe it’s chasing the Northern Lights in dreamlike, volcanic scenery with no light or air pollution? Or driving across centuries-old glaciers and majestic volcanoes in robust super jeeps and stopping for a sensational photographic moment next to thundering waterfalls or steaming geysers? Or why not explore the extra-terrestrial topography of Iceland on board a private helicopter and land next to a remote local restaurant where humar, the local lobster, is served in abundance? From design hotels in eclectic Reykjavik where you will fast experience the fine and fashionable Nordic life style to luxury expeditions and mobile-tented camps built on ice blue glaciers, Iceland has it all.
Upon my early arrival I was met and driven 45 minutes to my hotel, the Konsulat, in Reykjavik. Not knowing what to expect from this country, the drive alone was enough to get me excited; the landscape that we passed was just a hint of what I was going to experience over the coming days. As I arrived in the capital’s downtown area which centers around the bustling marina, I was surprised to find lots of cute shops and fun restaurants giving the city its own distinctive identity – a modern city blended with its own fishing port.
My Icelandic friend, Karl, met me at the hotel and, because the weather was so beautiful, we decided to take advantage of it and head to the glaciers! We drove 15 minutes to a hanger where we changed into full waterproof gear and jumped into buggies. What a way to start the day! We drove over ice and lava, getting a real feel for the landscape by getting up close and personal with it. Passing beautiful hills and the wonderful Icelandic horses grazing on them, this was the perfect way to get the blood flowing. Once we returned, we had a beer, which is part of the experience, and then headed back to the hotel.
After a quick shower and change, I bundled up and walked with Karl to the Harpa Concert Hall to begin my food tour. The Reykjavik food tour had us walking around downtown Reykjavik with a knowledgeable local guide for approximately 3 to 4 hours to explore the city through the local food. I visited six unique restaurants and enjoyed delicious Icelandic cuisine. The restaurants I visited ranged from cozy family run businesses and secret local hangouts to casual, fine dining and some well-known “must visits.”
One thing to note about Iceland is the happy hour scene. Alcohol is very expensive in Iceland, and so the economical happy hour has taken hold here. The happy hour times change depending on the establishment, so you can find this vibrant scene at 11 in the morning or 8 at night! Karl and I went to a variety of places offering all sorts of different happy hour styles before dining at Sumac, a beautifully designed space with open grill serving Mediterranean fare. Reykjavik has an eclectic dining scene offering all sorts of cuisine from the more local roasted lamb and fresh fish dishes to amazing Neapolitan pizza. My first Iceland dinner was delicious and leisurely, and I headed back to the hotel for a good sleep in the land of lava and ice.
We headed out in the morning to explore the famous Golden Circle. We drove out of Reykjavik to Thingvellir, the site of the original Althing, the actual founding place of the oldest democratic parliament in the world. This area is noted for its spectacular lava formations and for being the only place in the world where you can actually see the tectonic plates drift apart. Today Thingvellir is a national park and considered the most important one, always to be protected as the property of the Icelandic nation. From here I went to see the most impressive waterfall in Europe, Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall), with thousands of tons of icy water thundering majestically down in a double-fall.
For lunch I was taken somewhere that was extremely unexpected. Friðheimar Tomato Farm Is a family run farm growing a variety of tomatoes in a thermal watered greenhouse in the countryside. There were a number of options on the menu, all based on their delicious tomatoes. They even have a tomato beer if you feel so inclined. After lunch I continued on to Geysir, the “geyser” which gave its name to all other erupting hot springs, and one of the most active in the area. I then checked in to my next hotel, Skálakot Manor Hotel, a beautifully designed modern“farm” style hotel where a number of activities, including horseback riding with their own horses, can be organized.
Today began one of my favorite days in Iceland. We again dressed the part as we started a snowmobiling experience on the notorious Eyjafjallajökull glacier. While the south is certainly spectacular from “below,” nothing beats experiencing it from “above”! Snowmobiling on top of Eyjafjallajökull glacier was an extraordinary experience. This snowmobile ride can be adjusted to your level of experience and, mine being none, it was the perfect length of time for a first-timer and offered a wonderful vantage point from which to view South Iceland.
After the snowmobile tour I continued along the south coast, one of the country’s most scenic regions, as far as Vik, a charming village surrounded by high bird cliffs. Along the way I stopped at the gorgeous Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where I walked behind it and through to the other side. Other highlights included views of the stunning Myrdalsjokull glacier, the black sand coastline, and the impressive Reynisdrangar rock formations.
We arrived in the Hveragerdi area at the famous lava tunnel. A journey into Raufarhólshellir is a unique experience and a great opportunity to witness the inner workings of a volcanic eruption by walking along the path of lava that flowed about 5200 years ago. Every winter, spectacular ice sculptures are formed inside the entrance of the cave making the experience of visiting the lava tunnel even more breathtaking than I had imagined.
Now it was time to head to the relaxing portion of my trip! Experiences are all about contrast, and after an exhilarating few days, it was time to stay at the newly opened property at the Blue Lagoon, The Retreat!
After a good night’s sleep I walked at first light around The Retreat and its different lagoons. The steam rising from the lagoons with the sunrise and black lava in the background lived up to all the images I had seen. But I was not allowed to relax in the waters yet as Karl had arranged an ATV tour on Reykjanes peninsula close by. Again, putting on head to toe waterproof gear, I was given a tutorial, and off we went. The tour takes you along lava and black sand between the two Mountains of Húsafell and Fiskidalsfjall, and then up onto the mountain Helgafell, where you have a gorgeous view over the Blue Lagoon and the island of Eldey. Throughout the drive I was flying through large puddles and covering myself in water and mud. Though not a necessity, it is always fun to feel like a kid again running through puddles and getting wet and muddy! We headed back along the coast, giving me the opportunity to see dramatic shipwrecks and waves crashing on the beach.
Back at The Retreat I had a light lunch, changed into a bathing suit and robe, which would be my outfit for the rest of the day, and spent the afternoon enjoying the magic that The Retreat and its healing waters had to offer. The design of the property is like no other. Every detail has been expertly thought through and the different materials and textures are inviting throughout. The spa is one of the best I have seen, offering different rooms I could go to on my own and enjoy at my own pace. There was even an underwater massage pool. I had a great massage and time in the relaxation room, one with a waterfall and another with fireplace. But it is the pools with their healing waters that people come for from far and wide, the large one – visited by day trippers and guests staying at the original hotel – and the private ones attached to The Retreat rooms which provide the ultimate in relaxation, awe- inspiring surroundings and peace.
It was hard to leave my pool, but dinner at The Retreat’s Moss restaurant awaited. Named one of the top new restaurants in the world, I was blown away. The 7-course tasting menu was as delicious as it was beautiful. After finishing I had a last nightcap looking over the glowing lagoons before tucking in to one of the best sleeps I have had in the past year.
After another delicious breakfast followed by a bit more fun in the lagoons, I finished my stay in Iceland with a great lunch at Lava, the second of The Retreat’s three restaurants. A short 15- minute drive delivered me to the airport for my flight home.
Although my trip was short, it could not have felt more complete. Iceland is more than just a stopover. With rich history, otherworldly landscapes, full-on adventure and The Retreat, it truly is a destination to enjoy for four or five nights at least. I cannot wait to go back and uncover more of this amazing country.