Cheering fills the Hamborgarafabrikkan, a gourmet hamburger restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland. All eyes in the restaurant are on a young, blonde server who’s straddling a wooden ladder, slightly straining to change a “3” into a “4.” With the change, she’s now added one more to the population count of Iceland, bringing it up to 319,724.
Coming from the bustling city of Chicago, as we have, it seems quaint and sweet to have such excitement surrounding the birth of one more citizen. But when you consider the geography of Iceland, a relatively isolated and self-sufficient country the size of Kentucky, it makes sense that they cheer on new arrivals. This is a place, after all, where everyone in the telephone book is listed by his or her first name (according to the facts recited by Iceland Air). We raise our Carlsberg beers along with the locals, because it seems like the festive thing to do. We love Iceland!
And what’s not to love? I was drawn to the country after reading about its endless light in the summer, its endless dark in the winter, it’s lunar-like landscape, and its peoples’ love of elves.
The more I read, the quirkier it seemed. Consider: a beloved alcoholic drink called Black Death, edible whale and puffin and a putrefied shark dish that the locals rave about. Interest officially piqued, I booked flights for two. As a bonus, Iceland Air offers stopovers in Reykjavik for up to a week at no charge, so I actually booked a flight to Copenhagen with three nights in Iceland en route.
We arrived at Keflavik Airport at 6:20 in the morning. It’s too early to check into the apartment we rented in Reykjavik, and too early to check in at the Blue Lagoon, which doesn’t open for a few more hours. So we spin our wheels. Our first mission is to find coffee and breakfast. This is easier said than done. Nothing is open this early on a Saturday in Iceland. So we keep driving and explore.
The first thing we notice: There are hardly any trees. And the land, made up of black lava rocks, which are covered with a bright moss, make us question whether or not we were dosed with hallucinogenic drugs before de-planing. Trippy is the best word we can come up with to describe what we see.
We drive through a neighborhood, past a field with three sheep in the distance. Iceland is known for their lamb, so it seems like a fortunate encounter. They actually let the sheep roam free in the summer, feeding on wild blueberries, and round them up before fall sets in. These sheep had most likely been recently rounded up. We stop to gaze at the fluffy creatures, which seem much fatter than any I’ve seen. That’s when they charge us. All three of them run towards us at full clip. There’s barbed wire, so we’re clearly in no sheep danger, but the absurdity of the moment—and perhaps the lack of sleep complicated by the lack of caffeine—we kind of freak out and floor it (but not before taking smeared photos of the charging creatures), high-tailing it to the Blue Lagoon.
About 20 minutes from the airport, the first sign of the Blue Lagoon is the power plant popping up in the stark landscape. It looks like we’re walking into a work of science fiction, and rightfully so: this plant is actually responsible for the lagoon. That’s right, the lagoon, which is a chalky, sky-blue pool of warmth, is the collection of runoff generated by the geothermal power plant.
By the time we arrive, the large lagoon, which has curves and resting platforms, showers and saunas, is filling with people. Some may be here for the silica mud, which is said to have healing qualities, but regardless of motivation, all are floating, relaxing, chatting. There are no cell phones, no television, there’s no music. It’s incredibly peaceful and soothing—for a couple of hours. After that, we’ve turned to Icelandic prunes, and decide it’s time to dry off.
We’d booked an apartment through Booking.com at Apartment K. It was far less expensive than hotels (Iceland isn’t cheap!) and we’d managed to get a deal for less than $300 for three nights. At that price, we had no idea what to expect. So when we checked in, we were blown away. It was a modern, art-filled one-bedroom apartment, with a fair sized bedroom, large bathroom, large living room and kitchenette, complete with espresso maker. It was just what we needed to combat our jetlag and serve as home base for the next three days.
And what wonderful days they were. We made a trip to see Geysir geothermal field, which is a series of geysers shooting about three stories into the sky, and then travelled on to Gullfoss, a roaring and rollicking waterfall with astounding power. We spent a rainy day exploring The Pearl, a water storage facility that actually houses a Viking museum inside one of the giant storage tanks. We ate (and did not love) two of the lamb-based hotdogs that Iceland is famous for. We enjoyed delicious (and quite pricey) seafood dinner at Fjalakötturinn (which we did not learn how to pronounce). And we took charming elf tour, in which we were less impressed with the tales of elf spotting we heard and more impressed at the opportunity to spend time with a local, getting travel tips that helped shape our trip (she turned us on the Viking museum and the hamburger restaurant).
At the same time, there were a number of things we did not do, which, if you read the guidebooks and watch the travel shows, you begin to think are typical Icelandic things to do. We didn’t eat whale or puffin, although we did see it advertised at a few places. We stuck with wine rather than drinking Brennivin, aka “black death,” the national spirit made from potato mash and flavored with caraway seeds. We also stayed away from putrefied shark, which is buried underground for a few months to stew it in its own juices, supposedly giving it an almost cheese-like texture. While all of the things we missed register on my personal “quirk” scale, they just didn’t seem to be priorities.
Maybe if we’d had longer to soak the culture in, we would have been more adventurous. But we had a plane to catch to Copenhagen, and so decided that the gory Icelandic sheep head dish that we saw at the local grocery would have to wait until next time.