What would you do with 24 hours in Reykjavik?
In a stroke of Marketing genius, Icelandair offers free stopovers in Iceland at no extra cost on your ticket. Christa and I took up this offer, only to realise that even one day in Iceland will set you back at least $500. Even with the high price of everything on the island, we set off with just over 24 hours to explore Reykjavik and the surrounding area. We found that even one day was enough to get a feel for Reykjavik, even if we didn’t have a chance to explore further inland to find the real beauty of this wild country.
We landed after an overnight flight from Denver. We slept most of the way, but still got off the plane feeling dazed and confused. The car hire situation was confusing, but eventually we found our way to the Sixt building and got a tiny little Chevy Spark (the most pathetic car I’ve ever driven). We had some drama trying to exit the airport because the parking brake had got stuck on. We didn’t realise until we were on the main road heading towards Reykjavik, which was really scary. We found an icelandic truck stop for breakfast. Work crews came in dressed way more appropriately than us. Heavy boots and thick winter over trousers. We sat in the corner with a really good latte and ate Kleinur – a dense fried donut covered in bitter chocolate. After a face wash in the bathrooms, I felt a lot more alive, and we got on the road.
Iceland doesn’t have highways. It has 300,000 people, which means even the road from the airport is a single lane. Snow was dancing across the pavement in the weird dawn light as we drove through the lava fields that surround the airport. We were heading for the Blue Lagoon, but had an hour to kill first, so we drove towards the coast. Grindavik is a fishing village on the south coast. Not more than a collection of single story houses on the coast with a huge harbour and warehouses right by the sea. The wind was blowing straight off the Atlantic, making the -8 c feel much colder. The huge trawlers were being loaded and rigged, but the smaller boats in the inner harbour were frozen in place. I have immense respect for Icelandic fishermen.
We waited at the entrance as the Blue Lagoon opened for the day. Driving through the lava fields to get there had been moonlike. Even at 10am, it was only just getting light. The steam rising from the unseen pools between black rock created a surreal aura of light, and it took us a couple of attempts to actually find the entrance. We were the first people in that morning. We swam slowly between the salt crusted rocks and looked up at the sun poking through the misty air. There are places in the lagoon where it’s too hot to swim – the water bubbling through the rocks is only just below boiling. The salt has left successive layers of crystals attached to the lava, creating a contrast of white building up in honeycomb layers on the deep black rock.
We navigated easily in the centre of Reykjavik. The road winds along the edges of large natural harbours, each one sheltering a variety of fishing boats. This is a seafood nation. We parked in the city and found our way quickly to a teahouse. Coming from the US, landing in Reykjavik and eating the best Full English Breakfast I’ve had in a year was a shock. Where am I? Lunch was all I needed to feel like I was on the right time zone. From here we set off to explore the city.
Reykjavik was a fishing village settled by Norse vikings in 900 AD. They came in search of Atlantic Cod during the first wave of exploration towards North America. The vikings that never left became the hardy Icelandic people of today. Their culture is all about fishing and celebrates it with amazing cooking. The docks are huge – some of the largest fishing vessels I’ve ever seen (and I grew up in a fishing area). A big tourist attraction in the summer is whale watching. Scattered between the huge trawlers were delicate wooden schooners for whale watching. I’d love to come back in the summer and head out onto the water.
Gróttuviti is the light that guides ships into and out of the harbour. The village of Grotta is now almost swamped by beach houses on the affluent side of Reykjavik, but it’s just far enough away from the city that it feels isolated and desolate. The lighthouse itself connected to the mainland by a thin rocky ridge. The ridge is only exposed at low tide, leaving the lighthouse cut off by the sea most of the time. This was the first time I’d walked on frozen sand. The beach was completely solid, each grain fixed perfectly in place by its watery connection. Christa will skip rocks whenever you give her a chance.
We had no idea what time the sun would set, so we rushed from the beach back into town. The city is built on a rising slope away from the water, and standing proudly at the top is Hallgrímskirkja – the huge and unique cathedral. As the light faded from warm winter daylight into an extended dusk, we climbed up the tower and looked out over the city. The town is tiny – for a capital city it must rank as one of the smallest. It’s commonly said that all Icelanders know their Prime Ministers phone number – it makes sense now. There really isn’t many of them. The church is a sparsely decorated cavern inside. It feels scandinavian with its light pine wooden pews. The organ pipes are some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. They sit over the door and shoot upwards towards the roof. I would love to hear it played.
Downtime. Beer and Jetlag don’t mix well, but we stopped to sample a couple icelandic brews before dinner. The American led cult of microbrewing has obviously caught on here, as we drank some very US-tasting stouts.
Valentines day in Iceland? OK! I decided to treat Christa to a fancy meal. I don’t like the idea of presents and cards for Valentines day, but I wouldn’t want to ignore it all together. I feel like any excuse for a fancy meal is worthwhile. We went to The Fish Market. It’s world renowned for its seafood, so we chose the tasting menu. The next five hours were a blur of paired wines, and every kind of sea dweller you could imagine. Everything was cooked to perfection. From the first course of sweetly smoked butter covered in sea salt with fresh bread, through grilled Puffin, and onto Scallops, Mussels, Cod, Salmon, Sushi and finally finishing with an array of amazing desserts. I would recommend to anyone that sampling local seafood in a place like this is worth your time and money.
Jetlag, a hangover and a flight to catch meant we didn’t have too much time in the morning. We made our way to Hafnarfjörður, a little village just outside of the city. We found a tiny bakery, finally the only place in all of Iceland where no-one could speak English. It’s nice to be able to travel internationally and be understood almost anywhere, but it also takes away the mystery of foreign countries. The Icelandic language is completley indecipherable, so without everyone talking to us in perfect English we would have been lost. This little bakery was staffed by two very friendly girls who responded to our pointing and gesticulating by serving us freshing made pastries and good coffee. It was a great end to our little stay.