There’s plenty to love about going to Iceland, despite the fact it may seem to be among the more unlikely winter getaway destinations and, at times, seemingly a land of contradictions.
But when a friend and I were planning a grand adventure, somehow heading to the land of fire and ice in the dead of winter became a really good, if somewhat counterintuitive, idea. I mean, come on, like it’s not dark long enough, or the temperatures low enough in Maine already? Were we actually ready to drive six hours to Portland, take a two-hour bus ride to Boston’s Logan Airport, board a plane and fly five hours to a place where it was going to be darker longer and possibly even colder?
You bet we were and, like so many travel plans that take the path less logical, it led to some amazing adventures.
The adventures pretty much started somewhere over the Atlantic on Wow Air (Iceland’s discount airline which is as much fun to say as it is to fly with its planes named after Norse gods and goddesses, magenta color scheme and headrests that read, “Hi, I’m your seat”) when the flight attendant came by offering Icelandic chocolate bars.
Let me say this about that – among the things taken seriously in Iceland is chocolate. But it’s chocolate with an unexpected twist because they also take their licorice quite seriously and, somewhere along the line, some enterprising soul with Willie Wonka like sensibilities decided to combine the two.
Now, normally I am not in favor of combining two such different food items (Clamato Juice, I’m talking to you) but the blend of the buttery, salty Icelandic licorice with the creamy milk chocolate? Pure confection Valhalla.
So seriously do they take their sweets in Iceland that every Saturday is “Candy Day” and much of the candy is on sale in various stores. As luck would have it, we arrived in the country’s largest city Reykjavik on a Saturday where a lot of stores sell candy. Which goes a long way in explaining the impressive Icelandic chocolate stash in my pantry.
We landed in the predawn hours outside Reykjavik — which near as we could tell, is when every flight lands in Iceland — and took a 45-minute bus ride into the city. Most lodgings and hotels have late afternoon check in times, leaving newcomers with hours to spend wandering the streets like tired, lost souls. Luckily, we had booked our Airbnb accommodations for the day prior to our arrival, anticipating an earlier flight, so we were able to check in and get some much needed rest before tackling the sights and sounds of the city.
We’d arrived in a blizzard, and you’d think a city the size of Reykjavik [120,000 of the country’s 330,000 residents call it home] would have an impressive fleet of snow removal equipment.
Turns out, the city takes care of its snow old school. The entire country is heated by the vast geo-thermal resources just below its surface. That means not only are there numerous natural thermal spa pools, the below ground heat simply melts the snow away. Think of it as the street version of in-floor heating.
We had thought of renting a car while in Iceland, but between cost and a real lack of desire to add winter driving to our to-do list, we opted to make it a walking vacation. And, as luck would have it, Reykjavic is a eminently walkable city.
Granted, with just five hours of daylight, much of our walking each day was in near or total darkness, but that certainly did not stop us. Though, it did delay our start times most days.
Our first full day in Reykjavik I woke up, feeling like I had overslept a bit and figuring it was close to 7:30 or even 8 a.m. I stretched and looked at the luminous hands on my watch dial in the pitch blackness. It was going on 10:30 a.m. Given that it started to get dark again around 3 p.m., that meant there was a finite amount of time for sight-seeing if we actually wanted to see any sights.
On our first day, we strolled down to the waterfront and checked out the Harpa Concert Hall, a glass building of odd, right angles that lights up at night with a display mimicking the famed Aurora Borealis.
Not far from Harpa is the Sun Voyager sculpture created by artist Jon Gunner Arnason. Part Viking boat, part ode to the sun, the metal sculpture is said to contain “The promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”
For me, actually seeing and standing near Sun Voyager at sun set really drove it home to me that, “Holy cow, I’m in Iceland.” And yeah, the trip certainly did hold the promises of undiscovered territories, dreams and the freedom to explore new adventures.
Next up: Random encounters and chance meetings around every Reykjavik corner.