The arts-ori­ented cul­ture, amaz­ing food, other-worldly to­pog­ra­phy and heal­ing wa­ters are just four of the many rea­sons to head to Ice­land this sum­mer – or next win­ter

IN Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Doug Wal­lace

Ex­plor­ing the many rea­sons to head to Ice­land

While there’s no way to mea­sure it, the hip fac­tor in Ice­land is ex­tremely high. Cou­ple that with the steady stream of vis­it­ing Euro­peans of all stripes, just hang­ing out or there on busi­ness, and you’ve got one of the coolest café so­ci­ety melt­ing pots in the world.

Reyk­javik (pop­u­la­tion 330,000) stands as a true Euro­pean cul­tural cap­i­tal, while still main­tain­ing a small-town feel. Be as­sured ev­ery­one knows each other’s busi­ness. And like a lot of smaller cities, the gay scene is scat­tered among the other tiny bars and restau­rants on the main strips, with the week­end dance par­ties com­ing and go­ing. Your best bet is up­stairs at Kiki Queer Bar on Lau­gave­gur, which gets crowded sur­pris­ing fast—al­most like some­one flipped a switch and two bus­loads of peo­ple show up. The same goes for the straight(er) Kaf­fibarinn on Mioborg.

Dur­ing the day­time, start your ad­ven­tur­ing in the Old City and work your way out. Reyk­javik is full of art, with coffee bars and cafés pro­vid­ing the pit stops. Put the Ice­landic Phal­lo­log­i­cal Mu­seum on your selfie shot list as well. It’s the world’s only mu­seum ded­i­cated to mam­mal penises—at 215 and count­ing.

For 2016, there are a num­ber of events to an­chor your trip, in­clud­ing the mas­sive Reyk­javik Art Fes­ti­val in May. June and July see a half-dozen re­ally good mu­sic fes­ti­vals from clas­sic to elec­tro and back again. For the run­ners, the Lau­gave­gur Ul­tra Marathon in July is an ex­tremely chal­leng­ing 55 km trail in the south­ern high­lands through rugged ar­eas of in­cred­i­ble land­scape, and the Reyk­javik Marathon in Au­gust will see more than 14,000 run­ners this year.

Hook­ing your visit to Ice­land Gay Pride, ev­ery se­cond week­end of Au­gust, could only be a good idea (visit

Step out­side your culi­nary com­fort zone

“You eat rot­ten shark—on pur­pose?” we teased tour guide Gisli Ru­nar. Hakarl, one of Ice­land’s na­tional dishes, is fer­mented sleeper shark that’s cured, then hung to dry for five months. This long prep stage re­moves the tox­ins from the fish, mak­ing it ed­i­ble. That doesn’t, how­ever, make it smell any bet­ter. Chef An­thony Bour­dain thought it was the sin­gle most dis­gust­ing thing he has ever eaten. We passed.

Hap­pily, many palat­able ex­am­ples of great food can be found at ev­ery turn, in­clud­ing other, less smelly dried fish you buy at the cor­ner mar­ket and eat like potato chips. Make sure skyr— a mild, strained yo­gurt, served cold with milk and sugar—is on your list of things to taste. Ice­landers have been eat­ing it for 1,000 years. Keep an eye out as well for the medic­i­nal herb an­gel­ica, sort of like a wild cel­ery, used to flavour sal­ads, side dishes and meats—even desserts.

Ice­land’s top chefs are cur­rently on the road to rein­vent­ing the na­tional cui­sine, em­brac­ing tra­di­tional foods and giv­ing them a mod­ern twist. Reyk­javik’s Dill Restau­rant is one of those at the fore­front of this new wave, with things like geother­mally baked rye bread, salted cod, goose breast and in­cred­i­ble cheeses un­der­lin­ing the food her­itage.

The more ca­sual Grill Mar­ket is an­other Reyk­javik high­light, get­ting solid re­views from food-savvy vis­i­tors. Grilled monk­fish skew­ers, rack of lamb, grilled red fish, big steaks and puf­fin slid­ers (not kid­ding) top the menu here.

Head for the hills

The cities are great fun, but time spent in the coun­try­side will be what you talk about most when you get home.

Ice­land is the clos­est the Earth will ever get to look­ing like the moon. Sweep­ing beauty is ab­so­lutely ev­ery­where, from the moss-cov­ered lava fields on your way into town from the air­port to volcanic craters in the north. There is such a va­ri­ety of breath­tak­ing ge­ol­ogy, you will find it hard to pick which tours to take. There’s some­thing for all in­ter­ests and fit­ness lev­els, from day trips to overnights, from glamping to, well, just camp­ing. The big 4 x 4 trucks that take you out onto the glaciers have a Mad Max meets Mon­ster Truck feel to them, with a closed-cir­cuit CB ra­dio link­ing you to the other ve­hi­cles in your con­voy—like a multi-car road trip.

Thingvel­lir Na­tional Park touts it­self as the birth­place of par­lia­ment, which is what its name means—“par­lia­ment plains.” A gen­eral as­sem­bly of the na­tion’s lead­ers was es­tab­lished in 930 AD and con­tin­ued to 1800. Car­ry­ing on east­ward, be sure to in­clude the Geysir at Stokkur among your stops. It erupts ev­ery six min­utes, shoot­ing hot wa­ter 70 me­tres into the air.

If you’ve got the time, the hik­ing trails in Vat­na­jökull Na­tional Park could keep you busy for weeks. The glacier ice caves of Kverk­fjoll are a marvel, formed by geo­ther­mal heat from volcanic vents un­der­neath the ice. Jökul­sár­lón Lake on the south coast of the park is filled with ice­bergs mak­ing their way to sea. Take a por­ta­ble bat­tery to recharge your cam­era: you’re go­ing to need it.

Set your sights on the north­ern lights

With 22 hours of sun­light in June and only four in De­cem­ber, you’d think tourism in Ice­land would suf­fer in the win­ter—and you would be wrong. Septem­ber through April is North­ern Lights sea­son, where peo­ple stream to the north­ern city of Akureyri to watch the aurora bo­re­alis dance, some­times all night. This lit­tle univer­sity town tucked into the base of Is­land Fjord, the long­est in the coun­try, is the per­fect home base for catch­ing this shim­mer­ing light show. It is also home to one of the best swim­ming-pool fa­cil­i­ties in all of Europe, the award-win­ning Akureyri Ther­mal Pool, lo­cated across the street from the Icelandair Ho­tel, where you will very likely be set up. Seven nearby ski re­sorts are open from Novem­ber to May to keep the skiers happy.

The ge­o­graph­i­cal anom­alies that dot this re­gion are also a ma­jor draw, a ver­i­ta­ble won­der­land of sprawl­ing wa­ter­falls, volcanic odd­i­ties and geo­ther­mal go-sees. In fact, the fu­ma­role-pit­ted re­gion of My­vatn was one of the back­drops for Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens. Af­ter you hike around crater ponds and ex­plore lava ridges and caves, you can strad­dle the re­gion’s gi­ant fis­sure at the Gr­jó­tagjá Rift, stand­ing with one foot on the Eurasian tec­tonic plate and the other on the North Amer­i­can plate. Worlds have lit­er­ally col­lided here, and it shows.

The My­vatn Na­ture Baths just east of the rift are a true de­light: a man-made, min­eral-rich, 36-de­gree hot spring pulling wa­ter from up to 2,500 me­tres below ground. Beau­ti­fully de­signed to blend into its nat­u­ral sur­round­ings, the spa over­looks ma­jes­tic Lake My­vatn. Lit­tle pock­ets of in­tensely hot wa­ter cer­tainly keep us mov­ing, look­ing for the com­fort zones. Be sure to throw your­self over the wall into the ad­ja­cent freez­ing cold lake for a lit­tle con­trast.

And speak­ing of spas, a visit to Ice­land is not com­plete with­out an hour or two in the fa­mous Blue La­goon on your way back to the air­port. Muck­ing around in volcanic mud is the per­fect way to say good­bye to this ar­rest­ing and mes­mer­iz­ing land—and your skin will thank you for it.

Pre­vi­ous page: The cul­ture of pub­lic bathing lives on at the My­vatn Na­ture Baths in north­ern Ice­land. Left: Sul­furous gas steams out of the rock near My­vatn Lake, with Mount Her­dubreid in the dis­tance. Above: The elu­sive north­ern lights are a big draw for Ice­land from Septem­ber to April. (All pho­tos cour­tesy of Ice­land Tourism)

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