Thursday, April 26, 2012
My first trip to Iceland took place during the summer. The sun shone 24 hours a day, the sky was clear, and the weather was as warm as it gets in a country with the word “ice” in the name. But Iceland is better known for its long nights than its endless days, and the country’s name is more readily associated with winter than summer. I wanted to go back to compare the two seasons, and I recently got my chance.
A few weeks ago easyJet started flying from London Luton airport to Keflavik, the main airport in Iceland. To celebrate the new route, the airline invited a group of travel bloggers and journalists on a press trip to visit Reykjavik and the surrounding area.
The trip started off with a bit of deja vu from my trip to Amman with easyJet a year ago. The CEO, Carolyn McCall, took her signature walk down the aisle collecting empty cups as she greeted passengers and learned about their reasons for traveling to Iceland.
When we landed at Keflavik airport, the sense of deja vu continued, but only in the sense that I had been there before. As we piled into two raised vans, we took off for the Golden Circle. I was excited to revisit the famous Gullfoss Waterfall, the powerful Strokkur Geyser, and rugged chasms of Pingvellir. What would they be like at the end of winter?
As we drove through the rugged landscapes, I was once again captivated by Iceland’s wild, primitive nature. Volcanic rock formations came alive with trolls and elves as our guide enchanted us with stories of Icelandic legend.
In the distance, steam rose from vents in the earth as hot springs boiled all around. It didn’t surprise anyone when our guide told us that J.R.R. Tolkien had an Icelandic nanny when he was growing up. This was Middle-earth.
Gullfoss was raging when we arrived. The mighty waterfall seemed more powerful in the winter rain than it had under the bright sky of summer. We walked over the rocks until we were face-to-face with the mist and the white water surged powerfully before us. It was as if the waterfall had changed its personality for the season.
The geyser too acted differently than it had on my previous trip. It still erupted faithfully every few minutes, but the spray didn’t consistently fall to one side or the other. It too seemed to have a different attitude toward winter than summer.
When we arrived at Pingvellir, the landscape also contrasted from how it had looked in June. The biggest difference was that the ground around the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates met was covered in snow.
We took advantage of this with a bit of adventure travel in Iceland. That is to say, we went snowmobiling. I had never done it before, and was a bit overwhelmed by the heaviness of the machine and the surprising amount of strength it took to control it. However, by the end of our snowmobile tour I felt confident in my abilities and only wished there was more snow across which we could travel.
On the opposite side of the temperature spectrum, we took a trip to one of Iceland’s most famous destinations: the Blue Lagoon. The hot pools of impossibly aquamarine water were a great place to spend a relaxing afternoon. We escaped the cold there, basking in the winter sun and letting the minerals and clay masks work Iceland’s otherworldly magic on our skin.
When we weren’t exploring the Golden Circle or relaxing at the Blue Lagoon, we spent time in Reykjavik. The small capital was as captivating in the winter as it had been in the summer, and on my second visit I was able to see more of the city than I had seen on my first.
On a quick tour, we learned about the country’s history and saw the archaeological remains of some of the first human settlements in Reykjavik at the 871 +/- 2 Museum. We also visited the Reykjavik Art Museum, a contemporary building with temporary exhibitions featuring the work of Icelandic artist Erro and Spanish artist Santiago Sierra.
Nearby was the famous Hofdi House where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 to begin the end of the Cold War. The building was opened specially for our visit, and we were able to sit in the same seats that the heads of state used during their important encounter. Even the flags on the table were original.
We also had a quick tour of the new Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. The contemporary building was completed last year right before my first trip to Iceland. A collaboration between Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen, Icelandic architecture firm Batteriio, and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, it has been a very popular venue for all kinds of music since it opened.
Further afield, we went to a special reception to meet the president of Iceland. It was my first time meeting a head of state, and I was impressed by how open and friendly the greeting was. There were no metal detectors and no security checks at the residence. There was only an open reception room and an abundance of Icelandic pancakes.
The president himself was the consummate politician, answering even the toughest questions with deft deflection. But his welcome was warm, his pancakes were tasty, and his political power was mostly symbolic. I couldn’t fault him too much.
In another brush with the political realm in Iceland, we attended a reception at the British ambassador’s residence. He too offered us a friendly welcome and introduced us to many people in the Icelandic tourism industry.
The ambassador and president weren’t the only ones that welcomed us in to their homes, either. According to our guide, people in Iceland are known for their hospitality, and on the first day of the trip we stopped by the house of one of the country’s most famous singers. Sigrun Hjalmtysdottir hosted us for Champagne and cake to celebrate the first birthday of easyJet Holidays, which launched last year on our Amman trip.
But we didn’t just eat and drink in people’s homes on our trip to Iceland. We were also lucky enough to enjoy some of the country’s top restaurants. On our first afternoon, we had lunch at Lindin Bistro, a well-known restaurant on the Golden Circle that puts an emphasis on local ingredients. There we had reindeer pate, wild smoked trout, and chocolate mousse with watermelon.
That night we took a ferry to an island off the coast of Reykjavik for a special dinner at Videy House, the first building constructed of stone in Iceland. There we were entertained by a local comedian named Ari Eldjarn as well as a singer named Sigriour Thorlacius. As they performed for us, we ate everything from lobster soup with marinated langoustines to mountain lamb on a “butterfly” base and Icelandic skyr panna cotta.
The next day we had lunch at the restaurant at Harpa. The space was bright and open, and the food consisted of everything from seafood soup to fresh local fish.
On our last evening in Iceland we dined at a trendy local hostel with a popular restaurant and bar. Kex served large plates of smoked salmon with mais salsa, salted fish brandata, coq au vin, and chocolate mousse with stout beer.
After the meal we drifted off to sleep in Hotel Borg, our accommodation during the trip. The rooms were comfortable and I slept well every night, not least the last one. Visiting Iceland in the winter certainly kept us just as busy as visiting in the summer, and I was pleasantly exhausted by the time we left the country.
Thankfully I was able to sleep on the flight from Keflavik to Luton. As I dozed, I had dreams of trolls and geysers, folk singers and blue lagoons. Iceland was just as enchanting on my second visit as it had been on my first, and I left secure in the knowledge that the country was as good a place to visit in the cooler months as in the warmer ones. Now I just have to travel there in the spring and fall to see how they compare. Not that I need an excuse to return the enchanting, ever-changing land of Middle-earth.