Holiday Diversion: Enchantment on a (Mostly) Barren Island — Part One

I awoke from my restless airplane slumber to the surprisingly soft lilt of the local Nordic tongue wafting through the airwaves, announcing our arrival. “Welcome to Reykjavik, Iceland. The local time is six o’clock in the morning.” Blinking, I opened the window shade to reveal my very first glimpse of Europe. Hmmm, I thought to myself, Flat.

My blessedly adventurous husband, John, and I were just setting out on our honeymoon, intent on exchanging sunny beaches, palm trees, and poolside relaxation for an ambitious excursion across a different type of island. Over the next eight days, we would cross fault lines, lava fields, fjords, and glaciers, wander into caves and across black sand beaches, swim beneath white mountains and towering volcanoes, discover lonely towns and weathered ruins, cruise icy lakes, sail the open ocean, and soak up the midnight sun.

But first, we would have to dump our bags and find some caffeine.

Outside the airport, we boarded a local bus bound for a station on the outskirts of downtown Reykjavik. As we headed northeast toward the city, I gazed out the window at the surrounding landscape. Miles and miles of drab, volcanic soil gazed back. Every so often, the monotony would be interrupted by knotty patches of lava rocks — miniature quarries that, to my growling stomach, looked suspiciously like crumbled Oreo cookies. Shaking my head, I reminded myself of Iceland’s most famed delicacy: ammonia-soaked shark. My hunger, like so many sharp-toothed fish, was cured.

After some time, desolate vistas gave way to petrol stations and roadside shopping plazas. The suburbs of Iceland’s capital city whizzed by, and before we knew it, we had arrived at the station. John and I unloaded our suitcases and set off on our kilometer-long stroll toward the heart of the city.

The early morning air felt brisk and refreshing as we meandered down narrow streets, through empty intersections, and past sleepy, closely-nestled homes, our bags softly disturbing the peace as they rumbled over the cobblestones behind us. We matched passing road signs with the strips of unfamiliar letters that dotted our map. Lækjargata, Ingólfsstræti, Lindargata. Finally, a modest wooden sign affixed to a tall fence post told us we had reached our destination. We climbed a steep set of stairs to a tiny guest room on the top floor. Opening the narrow corner door, we found ourselves on a small balcony, overlooking an array of gardens and colorful, slanted roofs. Just opposite was a view of Reykjavik’s northern waters, the very “Smoky Bay” that the city was named for. John and I looked at each other and spoke the words that were on each of our hearts: Let’s explore! But first… coffee.


Every foreign traveler hopes to round out his or her adventure by meeting a couple of interesting locals. Enter Russ*. We met Russ at a coffee shop downtown, just after lifting the first decadent sips of holy java to our jet-lagged lips. In fact, Russ was not a local. He was an Australian native who had moved to Iceland to complain about politics, have casual sex, father a child, and avoid working a steady job. Russ explained with some frustration that, while he moonlighted at almost every pizza place in town, his true genius as a restauranteur had repeatedly gone unnoticed by their owners. He could fix the way these establishments were run, you see. But The Man always got in his way.

This was too bad, Russ went on, because one restaurant in particular had fantastic potential: a local pizza place that had no name. Just a random set of stairs leading to an unmarked doorway. I was skeptical. “So, how might one find this pizza place with no name?,” I asked. “Just cross the street, round the next corner, cross into the back alley, head up the wooden stairs behind the building, and open the door.” John and I exchanged glances. For the next ten minutes, we savored the dregs of our lattes while Russ prattled on about his escape from the working world, the many shortcomings of the local government, and the people he has met during his time in Iceland.

“I met Björk once,” he said, “She was very nice, intelligent. Farmer’s kid. That’s right, daughter of the hand of God.”

Imagine our surprise when, later that evening (after a generous helping of samples at the local brewery), we stumbled up an unmarked staircase and found ourselves in an upscale pub, devouring some of the most delicious pizza we had ever tasted.

Perhaps Björk is quite nice, after all.

*Name has been changed.

Originally published at on December 29, 2014.

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