I can’t say we had a particularly high-minded reason for going to Iceland — it was mostly because if you buy a flight there on Icelandair, they’ll pay for your connecting flight to elsewhere in Europe. My boyfriend and I were headed to London and Paris for six months — something we’d each been telling all our friends we were going to do even before we met each other two years ago — and we’d finally pulled the trigger. I’d only ever heard good things about Iceland; only ever seen beautiful pictures from friends’ trips there, but Reykjavik mostly stuck in my mind because it was hard to spell, not as a destination to aspire to.
It wasn’t too hard to get excited: almost every picture of Iceland is overwhelmingly green — a vast expanse of incredible nature. Months before we arrived, we looked through a talented photographer-friend’s photos of frolicking through boundless fields; laughing and chasing the Northern Lights. We searched for rooms on Airbnb and loved every quirky option we saw: a cottage whose only neighbors were the miniature Icelandic horses that lived in the field next door, or a quirky triangular house with a grassy roof. It seemed as though the way to experience Iceland was to pick a direction and start wandering the sparsely populated landscape — not once did I search for guided tours or volcanic snowshoeing excursions. We chose our favorites off a dozen internet lists of things to do: between visiting the puffins and seeing an old plane that had crash-landed on a black sand beach 40 years ago, we would rent a car and explore the entire western half of the island. What route, we didn’t know: I wanted to be as flexible as I imagined expert travellers to be: we’d drive the whole perimeter of the island if we had time and cut through the middle if we didn’t.
In reality, though, we didn’t see the puffins or the plane. We barely made it an hour outside of the capital.
We’d agonized over what kind of car to rent. Our options ranged from the tiniest Toyotas to SUVs with balloon-like snow tires, which sounded fun but also cost six times the price. During our first searches on the rental car website, I checked a box for “off-road capable,” since that sounded useful in a place named after ice. I knew 4WD would be better, but a call to the rental car company convinced us we didn’t need to spend the extra money — I figured the checkbox was some nebulous marketing qualification designed to get people to rent more expensive SUVs.
It turned out it wasn’t: there was a very large sticker on the dashboard of our non-off-road car (we went for a Chevy station wagon) saying that it was dangerous and illegal for us to drive on certain Icelandic roads. On one hand, any hope we’d had of driving through the center of the island (where it’s most hilly and volcanic) were dashed. On the other hand, those roads were solidly snowed over for our entire visit, anyway.
We arrived at the airport dead tired but early enough to see the sunrise, and, steeled by the adrenaline that comes from being on a new adventure, decided to brave the walk from the terminal to the rental car place. The snow was new and deep — even though the roads were plowed for the huge tour buses that would come hurtling by every few minutes, our shoes got wet and our wheelie luggage did more sledding than rolling.
It had been hard to anticipate the realities of Iceland in the winter. Winter Iceland turned out to be just as natural and beautiful as the pictures had suggested, but white — so white — instead of green. Every view was a full frame of white. The drive away from the airport was a series of off-white mountains against a backdrop of overcast sky, meeting a horizon covered in snow and gentle fog. Where the whiteness contrasted with either the blue-black ocean or the dark gravel of the coastal beaches it was even more beautiful, but just as monochromatic. Even in the relatively dense area between the airport and the the capital, there wasn’t much other than snow that we could see from the roadway — just enough of a commercial backdrop to give us a few options for coffee and a SIM card for local cell phone service. For some people, vacation is a time to get away from their phone, but we felt naked without it. The first order of business wherever we went was to get phone service, if only so we could get Google Maps directions. We also had to call Hugi, the friendly Icelandic guy who lived about an hour away and was renting us his house on Airbnb.
We called him from the vestibule of the mini-mart:
“Welcome to Iceland! Something to know — you’ll have to make it here in the next 90 minutes unless you want to wait until after 10PM. There’s a storm coming in that will probably close the roads all afternoon.”
The coffee from the airport had worn off and as much as I just wanted to fall asleep in the gas station parking lot, it looked like our options were to spend all afternoon there or make haste to our Airbnb. We called him again when we pulled up to our house, and a few minutes later he was biking toward us through several inches of snow. We checked in, marvelled at the cozy Scandinavian interior design, and drifted off to a nap.
We woke up to windows that were iced over from a sideways storm of ice and snow, like an illustration from the Icelandic Saturday Evening Post. Sobered by the fact that if our flight had landed three hours later we would have been totally stranded, we almost immediately arranged to stay another night rather than to venture out into more unknown. We spent the next 24 hours researching what tourists can actually do in Iceland in the winter (it seemed like the main attractions were extreme winter adventuring) and venturing out in baby steps — we drove to 20 minutes to a small village and wandered around.
We were making tentative plans and then obsessively checking the road conditions to see if those plans would hold up. Will we be able to make it? One of the most impressive things about Iceland’s small size is that information-gathering projects that would be intimidating to any other country can be impressively accurate. Their website for reporting road conditions has near-perfect coverage: the entire country fits into nine screen-sized maps of all the major roads in that region, color-coded by their weather conditions and showing up-to-the-minute traffic numbers. To this day, I’m not sure what the difference between “spots of ice,” “slippery,” and “wet snow/snow” is supposed to be, but at least those things were better than “impassable.”
The other thing we had plenty of time to do while safe from the weather was wonder over the history and culture of Iceland. The whole idea of present-day Iceland fascinates me. It has all the trappings of a full country despite being home to fewer people than Cleveland, Ohio. Hundreds of miles away, the next closest landmass is the very north of Scotland (unless you count the Faroe Islands, a protectorate of Denmark that’s smaller than many American suburbs). Obviously Iceland is part of the world economy: they import all kinds of products that are sold in multi-national stores, and they have strong political ties to the other Nordic countries (although they are not part of the EU). But in addition to the basics like power plants and the minting of a sovereign currency, Iceland has three major cell phone carriers (two of which don’t exist outside Iceland), multiple supermarkets, and businesses in dozens of other categories. With just .1% of the population of the United States, they have to find enough baristas, priests, fishermen, mountaineering tour guides, and car salesmen to run an entire society. How strongly does their geographical isolation breed cultural camaraderie? How does that differ between the Reykjavik area, where two-thirds of the country lives, and the outer reaches to the east? These were the questions I wished Wikipedia could have answered for me, but I got sucked into reading about Snorri Sturluson instead.
Snorri was a chieftain in the 13th century, descended from the most powerful clan at the time. He was one of the most famous Icelandic lawspeakers — he would spend his summers leading the Icelandic parliament (the Alþingi), as well as standing on the rock where they met and reciting the entire legal code aloud. Times were different then: Wikipedia describes this as the social event of the year. Snorri’s saga ends, however, like something out of Game of Thrones — after trying to bring Iceland under the rule of his friend, the King of Norway, some of the other chieftains didn’t like that idea very much showed up at Snorri’s house and murdered him, amidst his cries of “do not strike!”
Along with a famous waterfall and Geysir, the ur-geyser, the national park where Snorri used to lead the country’s judicial and legislative business are the three stops on a 190-mile tourist driving loop near Reykjavik called the Golden Loop. The Golden Loop didn’t have quite as much allure for us as the puffin reserve, but it was also wholly unclear from the map that there were even roads that led to the puffin reserve, let alone open roads.
Driving in Iceland in the winter is both easy-going and unpredictable. Our drive through Snorri’s national park (called Þingvellir) was cut short when we got to an intersection that the map said should have been completely open only to find a few cars worth of people pulled over taking pictures of a snow bank where the road should have been. The driving was rewarding, though: there’s nothing like being the only car on the only road through a vast landscape to make you relax and appreciate the ride. The only real hazards were the occasional spotty patches: the wheels would sink into three or four inches of slush, the “traction control activated” light would come on on the dashboard, and the wheels would spin and knock and swerve as the car powered its way through to something it could grip again. Sections of road in that condition never seemed to last very long, though uncertainty about what the road looked like up ahead always made us question whether wherever the road was leading was worth it. Somewhere between Þingvellir and Geysir (the second stop on the Golden Loop), we decided point B wasn’t worth it: we’d rather turn around and head to our lodging for the night early. I pulled onto the shoulder to made a wide U-turn; one that took me four hours to complete. Barely a foot off the main road, our car was stuck in the snow.
The next few minutes saw every combination of revving the engine gently forward, gunning it in reverse, turning left, right, and center. This wasn’t a five minute fluke; we were stuck. Before we left, we’d read about Iceland Emergency Services, which I imagined to be an intrepid group of rescuers helicoptering onto mountains and rappelling into chasms to save adventurers who had gotten in a bad way. Now we needed them to come pull us out of two inches of snow along a main road.
While we waited, dozens of other Icelanders stopped to offer help, the universal premise being that everyone gets stuck in the snow sooner or later, so may as well boost your karma and try to help. We got help from an American family who stopped and told us that it would only take a few minutes to free our car (although the guy’s snow driving credentials were unclear, since he was from Florida). He spun the wheels and moved the car a foot or two forward and backward, we all stood outside and pushed (the group was now several stopped-cars strong). Despite a valiant half-hour long effort, we eventually told them we’d just try emergency services again.
What do you do sitting by the side of a road for four hours? We took pictures, posted them to Facebook, and our friends commented with suggestions. “Try putting the floor mats under the wheels.” No progress, although watching them spin comically around the wheels was some welcome levity. “Try rolling up the mats to make them more substantial.” Still nothing. So we sat, wondering when we should indulge our worst case scenario: walking 3 miles to the nearest town. Three miles from civilization isn’t the worst place to be stranded by any stretch: it would have been the most miserable, snowy 3 miles I’ve ever walked, but we would have made it frostbite-free.
We eventually realized that the non-appearance of emergency services was due to our inability to get incoming calls, so we started on a Plan B. The emergency number that was printed on our key fob was answered by the same guy who had rented us our car a few days earlier, who, after a heroic amount of effort on his part, found us a retired tow truck driver in the nearest town who was just finishing his dinner. “He should be out to help you in about 20 minutes. He’s been in the towing business for 30 years — I trust him completely to pull you guys out without damaging the car.” Sure enough, he showed up with an SUV and a big rope, and pulled us out within the space of 5 minutes, despite the fact that he spoke only broken English and we spoke no Icelandic. He tied the rope to one of the strictly-do-not-use-for-towing hooks under the car, but somehow a brick tied to the middle of the rope acted as enough of a counterweight to lessen the stress on the hook and pull the car out safely. Who knows — these are the things it takes 30 years towing cars out of the Icelandic snow to fully understand.
The next day brought stern warnings of yet another storm, so we packed up and headed for Reykjavik a day early, though we were doomed to re-learn our lesson about snow at least once more. That morning, while executing the second point of a three-point turn, I backed a little too hard into a snow bank and put an $800 dent into the back bumper. Heady with the previous day’s triumph over the weather, I spent some of the next day reading auto forums about how to un-dent plastic bumpers: soften the plastic with boiling water and pop the dent out. Alas, the capacity of the tiny electric kettle from our hotel room was no match for the dent, and it didn’t work. We went back into our hotel and waited out the storm.
After the weather passed, the next few days in Reykjavik were among our most pleasant. There were no epic struggles to overcome, but a small, cosmopolitan city means that the basics are very well curated. There was pretty much only one gay bar, and it was friendly, well attended, and had pretty good music. There was one artisan coffee shop, and it was great. The restaurant we took ourselves to had good food and good cocktails: a man who had enjoyed one too many of them insisted on poking his head into the kitchen and raving to the chef in person about how amazing his meal had been. We finished our visit as I’ve finished visits to Scandinavian countries before: wondering how hard it would be to convince an Icelander to marry me for the citizenship.
Our last day we had set aside for the capital-T tourist experience in Iceland: The Blue Lagoon, a massive hot spring that runs giant wall-sized ads in the airport and is on just about every visitor’s list. We had one last bout with the weather: a walk to the bus station included hail that stung our faces enough that we stopped to take cover under our jackets. But on the bus, we found that the rain that had kept us inside our first day in Reykjavik had literally melted the white landscape away. What was left were fields of green textured by mosses and shiny black rocks. We had found the tourism photos.
The Lagoon was exactly as touristy and relaxing as we’d expected: beneath the steam rising off the warm blue water was a bed of sumptuous white clay that we would plunge our feet into only to pull them out and do it again. Buckets of it were provided to cover your body and face in as a natural mask. And, of course, on the way out, it was on sale in the gift shop for $75 per ounce.
Our second glimpse of the green fields we had come to see didn’t come until the next morning as we rode to the airport. We gave our driver the remaining Icelandic small change in our pocket, checked our bags for Paris, and thought that maybe we should come back in the summer some day — the puffins and the plane should still be there.
Best American-themed cafe:
Best pine-flavored cocktail:
“The Big Lebowski”-themed bar: