I went to Iceland because I couldn't go to New Zealand. Strange, but true.
My friends and I, a group of five women, were looking to go on a trip and, Tolkien fan as I was, New Zealand was high on my priority list. However, there were some hurdles--the primary one being the amount of travel time versus the amount of vacation time our group could afford. New Zealand is nearly a world away from the American East Coast and would mean two full days lost to travel. We needed a Plan B.
And so, standing in my friend's living room with Sigur Ros' "Hoppípolla" in my ears, I said:
"Well, what about Iceland?"
And so my adventure began.
IcelandAir, I learned, will fly you anywhere in Europe and allow you to stopover in Reykjavik for up to a week for no additional cost--likely because all their flights pass through the KEF airport anyway. This was the summer in which I would be sitting a very important exam, so I knew I wanted to make the most of my vacation time. Though the rest of my friends were going for a week, I booked my flight through to Heathrow in order to spend a week in London--and then I relied on the rest of the group to make the majority of the arrangements since I was spending the rest of my time studying.
We booked a 2 bedroom flat through AirBnB and rented a car so we could leave Reykjavik and see more of Iceland.
I was expecting a fun trip with my friends to somewhere new, but what I got was a true delight. We were traveling in early June, a period in which the sun only sets for a brief time, if at all. The brightness definitely throws you for a loop. You'll want to stay somewhere with blackout curtains--and probably invest in a sleep mask.
It's surreal and gorgeous and lovely to have the sun around all evening.
When you go out into the streets of Reykjavik--which feels much more like a cosy town than a bustling capital city--looking for a drink and fun, everyone is out and about as though it's noon on a weekend. You can party all night because there isn't one! It's very safe and open. I constantly felt safe as a female traveler, both on my own from time to time and also with the rest of my group.
In our week in Reykjavik, we did a lot of wandering. We went to a great wine bar, went down windy roads and investigated little shops. My one regret, one that I'm going to rectify the next time I visit, is that I didn't cycle through the city. I don't cycle often or even well, but to this day, I still think it would've been a great way to see Reykjavik. There are lovely bookshops, coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants--and everyone is genuinely friendly. We made friends with a Swedish girl who took us to a great hot spring and also ate at a restaurant that Jonsi (of Sigur Ros) frequents. The man who owns the restaurant and served us dinner said, of course, that Jonsi was very nice. And, coming from a country such as Iceland, I am totally unsurprised.
But of course, Iceland is more than its capital city.
It's a gorgeous, lush land that, I suspect, is the true ideal for Middle Earth (so I got what I wanted in the end.) Really, though, I am not a nature person at all and Iceland is my big exception. We traveled the Golden Circle, visiting black sand beaches in Vik, walking through the national park at Thingvellir, hiking to a natural hot spring at the base of Eyjafjallajökull--all of it was absolutely glorious. There's so much green and such a wide expanse of land and volcanoes and beauty, like you're walking around in a fantasy.
I admit, we even did some touristy things--all of which were excellent and are highly recommended. The girls and I visited all manner of museums, including the Icelandic National Museum and the Icelandic Phallological Museum (seriously.) Both were great fun and both were highly educational. The National Museum was one of my favorite museum experiences in recent memory and really grounded me in the history of the country and the land. We also went to Blue Lagoon. It's a semi-expensive geothermal spa chock full of tourists, but it is well worth the money.
Of course, if you're looking for a completely free experience, places like above, Seljavallalaug, cost nothing but your eternal love. A swim at the base of a volcano in an almost mystical valley is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Photos: Hallgrímskirkja, the enormous and beautiful church, at 2 AM (left); my favorite Reykjavikian graffiti (right)
It's now one of my life's dreams to have a small summer house somewhere on the island--to cook and write and swim and sing and laugh. I fell in love quick and I fell in love hard. Iceland is the kind of place you return to, the kind of place that expands in your heart every time that you do. There was so much for me there, so much for my friends there. And, I bet, so much for you too.