By Tony Tedeschi
We kind of backed into a visit to Iceland.
Planning a two-week tour of Europe, my wife, Candy, and I were looking for any way we could keep from making the long transatlantic flight from New York with anything better than those blood-clot inducing coach seats on international carriers with our knees stuffed under our chins.
We discovered that Icelandair Saga Class offered business class service for considerably less than other airlines. We chose that option, even though it required a connection, each way, in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital. That got us to thinking why just change planes in Iceland? Why not spend a bit of time exploring? We allotted two days to cram in as much as we could.
It was June, the time of year when the sun barely sets in Iceland, and after a midday arrival on our return flight from London, we checked into our hotel, the Alda, at Laugavegur, a street in the heart of the Reykjavik’s vibrant shopping district.
We’d chosen it because it was just a short walk away from the capital’s premier attractions, boutiques, and restaurants. The Alda’s guestrooms featured Nordic designs, counterpointed with modern amenities that offered a nice blend of both comfort and style.
Getting Acclimated to Iceland
With about a half-day to spend, we felt we could do a trip to some nearby attraction while we got on Icelandic time and acclimated to our new surroundings. We mentioned to the concierge that we’d book the long-day journey around “The Golden Circle” for the following day. She suggested she could arrange a ride out to the Blue Lagoon, just eight miles from our hotel.
We’d seen the photos of people in the steamy, powder-blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, in our pre-trip research, but on the way out there, our driver was telling us that while it was definitely worth a look, the locals considered it a tourist magnet and tended to avoid it. The Blue “Lagoon” is really an artificial body of water, located on a lava field, supplied with water from the nearby geothermal power station. Neither Candy nor I were keen to get into the hot blue soup with dozens of other people, but we did take the requisite photo.
Upon our return in the early evening, we had delicious burgers at Alda’s restaurant and bar, then after-dinner drinks and managed to hold out until 10 o’clock, when we pulled heavy curtains across the windows in our room to block out the bright sunlight. Yes, this experience was truly going to be different.
Golden Circle Tour of Iceland
We’d booked the 11-hour Golden Circle Tour with Iceland Mountain Guides because it managed to cram as much into a general look at the south coast of the island as could be shoehorned into a single day.
We visited the huge cascade of Gullfoss waterfall and then a geothermal area where the Strokkur geyser spouts hot water up to 90 feet in the air every 15 minutes or so. We strode an amazing path between a chasm formed by the North American tectonic plate on one side, the European plate on the other. You could literally take a few steps to one side and touch North America, walk over to the other side and touch Europe.
We had lunch of freshly baked bread, and spicy tomato soup at the huge Friðheimar greenhouse, one of many Iceland has created to supply produce year-round.
At the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, adjacent to the Vatnajökull National Park, the blue waters are spotted with ice floes calved from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier. The glacier lagoon flows through a short waterway into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving chunks of the ice floes on the bordering black-sand beach.
At the Efstidalur dairy farm, we sampled whey, then homemade ice cream. Dinner at the Lindin Bistro was a delicious dinner of arctic char. By this time, we were ready for a dip in the pools fed by geothermal springs at Fontana Spa, a favorite with the locals. It capped a long day with just the right ending.
‘Round About Reykjavik
Reykjavik’s waterfront almost demands a leisurely stroll, with its view of Mt. Esja in the distance. But all streets seem to lead to Hallgrimskirkja Church, one of those landmarks that soar above a city. Since it serves as a kind of focal point as you test your bearings walking about, it’s easy to home in on.
As we approached, there were people crouching low to somehow manage to capture, on their iPhones and Androids, the sky-scraping spire of the church. The interior was striking in its minimalist beauty: clean, swooping lines, converging in arches high above the altar and apse, with little of the artistic embellishments of Renaissance churches to detract from the simplistic grandeur of its architecture.
Recommended Travel Guides for Iceland
Lonely Planet Iceland Up-to-date advice on Iceland including what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you.
DK Guides Top 10 Iceland This DK guide covers all of Iceland’s major sights and attractions in easy-to-use top-10 lists that help you plan your vacation.
Iceland’s Ring Road Another Lonely Planet guide, this one features five amazing road trips, plus up-to-date advice on the destinations you’ll find along the way.
National Geographic’s Adventure Map of Iceland This map was designed to meet the needs of adventure travelers. It shows a clearly marked road network, with distances and destinations of both major and main roads, as well as an abundance of specialized content.
It was after nine when we returned to the Alda from our wanderings about the city, and we had built up an appetite. The flight to New York the next day was not until late afternoon, so not having an early wakeup would allow for a late dinner.
But we had tired of walking. The concierge suggested we go no further than a few doors down the street to Old Iceland for a uniquely local culinary experience. Uniquely wonderful as well. Candy insisted I have a bite of her fillet of lamb, roasted a touch more than medium rare, served with artichokes, beetroot, potatoes, and demi-glace.
I countered with my fish of the day, redfish from the North Atlantic waters around Iceland, served with stewed compari tomatoes and roasted cauliflower in the chef’s special white sauce. It became just one more reason to want to revisit this wonderful country.
Walking Off Dinner
To walk off dinner, we mustered enough renewed energy to wander down toward the harbor. It was well after 11 p.m., but the light was still glinting off the water and the roadways, wet from a brief shower while we had dined. The light felt as if it were approaching late afternoon back home. It begged the question what must it be like on the flipside, midwinter, when there was so little daylight?
We agreed this brief journey to this remarkable country was like the first course at a tapas restaurant, leaving you anticipating how good the next course would taste.
“The aurora borealis is still on our bucket list,” Candy commented. “And it’s just that 4-1/2-hour flight to get here. Saga Class on Icelandair may be an even better bargain in winter.”
Iceland in the dead of winter? But there still was that unfulfilled bucket list entry.
“I’ll start looking into it when we get home,” she said. We headed back toward the hotel.
Editor’s note: Iceland is also a destination that’s good for solo female travel.
IF YOU GO
Icelandair http://www.icelandair.us 800-223-5500
Iceland Mountain Guides http://www.mountainguides.is/ 866-680-0670
Alda www.aldahotel.is Laugavegur 66-68 354-553-9366
Old Iceland https://oldiceland.is 354-551-6131