Fighting off the White Walkers and the American tourist hordes, children’s book author Stacy Gregg goes wild in search of inspiration in Iceland.
Iceland is so hot right now. Not literally hot, of course. The place is an icebox. From the moment I got here, I’ve been living like a human pimento stuffed inside a Canada Goose coat. Temperatures aside though, it is definitely the destination du jour. The country’s 345,000 inhabitants were outnumbered a solid 7-1 by the tourists last year.
A large chunk of those tourists are Americans tempted by the free Reykjavik stopover that many US airlines offer on the way into Europe. And topping up Iceland’s visitor numbers is Game of Thrones.
If you are a GOT fan, you’ll know that season seven was heavy on White Walker action and that any scene in the hit show featuring snow – or indeed Jon Snow – is shot in Iceland’s national park, Thingvellir, which serves as the location for all that is “Beyond the Wall”.
Aptly, for “The Land of Fire and Ice”, this latest tourism boom has hit just as the previous ones did, as a sudden and unexpected eruption. The first tourism surge came out of left field in 1972 because of a chess tournament. Boris Spassky v Bobby Fischer, a proxy Soviet-US war, with bishops and pawns that made a rock star of the neurotic-but-dapper Fischer and his will-he-turn-up or-won’t-he antics until he finally beat poor Boris after 21 games.
The next boom came in 1986, when, at the height of nuclear tensions, a secret summit meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan was held in Reykjavik. The summit, which took place in a purportedly haunted house owned by the French consulate, didn’t result in disarmarment, but Gorbachev later said that the ground covered in Reykjavik between the two men was the crucial moment that sparked the thaw in the Cold War.
It’s nice to think of a time when chess and politics could give tourism the kind of uptick that now requires a social influencer in a bikini or an up-the-duff Kardashian to achieve.
The boom in 2010 came via Eyjafjallajökull, the unprounceable volcano. After creating air travel havoc across Europe by spewing out so much volcanic ash that everyone had to cancel their easyJet holidays, Eyjafjallaköll actually caused a pull-effect. The news footage shot over the glacial volcano looked so dramatically beautiful that weeks later, when the ash cleared, Iceland’s tourism was on a vertical spike.
And now, once again, Iceland is on the rebound, thanks to the King in the North and a bunch of furclad, undead flesh-eating zombies. Mind you, it’s not hard to see the allure of the location for those GOT film crews. Not only is the landscape here dramatic and
totally otherworldy, it is dead easy to access. You can be in Reykjavik one minute, having a beer at the hotel, and less than half an hour later you’re setting up your cameras in a snowy moonscape with no sign in any direction that civilisation ever existed.
I’m not here for the White Walkers, though. I’m here for the horses. There are 100,000 of them in Iceland. They’re as common here as sheep are in New Zealand, grazing the fields beside the motorways everywhere you go. The size of large ponies, they come in an infinite colour palette and gather together in tight-knit herds, using each other’s bodies as a buffer against the winds – Iceland is the third windiest country on Earth.
This is a harsh climate for horses. All year round, the tussock grass is scarce and tasteless and the weather keeps the troughs useless, frozen solid as a lemonade iceblock. The horses drink from culverts that run through the fields, but often even these are frozen over and the ice needs to be smashed daily with heavy machinery so the horses can drink – otherwise they will roam, parched with thirst, until they find running water.
Icelandic horses live outdoors all year round. They are never rugged or stabled, not even in the darkest months of winter, when there is less than an hour of daylight and the snow reaches up to their bellies. They like their freedom and they are hardy beasts with double-thick coats. The horses you see grazing by the roads now are the same ones the Vikings rode. For more than 1000 years Iceland has maintained a draconian policy of biocontrol on its equine population. No horses of any other kind are permitted to enter the country, so there is no inter-breeding. And a pure Icelandic, if taken overseas for any reason, can never return.
The Vikings brought the first horses here on long boats. For hundreds of years they were vital transport in a country where the terrain made carriages impossible. Great distances needed to be covered on horseback and so the Vikings bred their mounts to develop a special pace, the tölt, which no other horse in the world possesses. The tölt is a crazy-fast, high-kneed stride that looks comical because of its extreme speed and the way the rider sits without moving. Once you ride it though, you are converted and you wonder why you have been rising to the trot all these years when you could have been cruising flat-tack in an equine armchair.
So, I’m here to tölt. And to finish the final chapters of my book, The Fire Stallion, which features the Icelandic horse in a starring role. I was planning to come here in December when I first began work on the manuscript but then I realised that December was a dark month – only two hours of daylight each day. Pretty hard to research what you can’t see.
In March, the tourism guides say that you’ll still get only four to six hours of light, so I’m surprised when we arrive that the daylight spans a normal enough 7am to 6pm. It’s still freezing though. A warm day is zero degrees. I’m permanently stuffed inside my duvet-like Canada Goose, shuffling like a Michelin Man along the Reykjavik streets. The tourists look like we’re trying to conquer Everest while the local girls skip about in crop tops.
In terms of size, Reykjavik is like visiting Auckland’s Ponsonby. You can walk the city in a day. There are a couple of not-great galleries, a penis museum (blue whale!) and a punk museum located in a disused public toilet. Insider tip: skip the toilets, the history of Icelandic punk is mostly just some nameless guys playing back-up and lots of picture of Björk.
The architecture is Tyrolean-meets-Eastern Bloc and most of the accommodation here is in the same mode, except for our hotel, The Sandhotel, which is beautiful. It’s in the main street, but tucked away above an architecturally geometric outdoor courtyard next to Reykjavik’s best artisanal bakery. With their parquet floors and marbled bathrooms, the rooms at the Sandhotel are super-chic in the way that you kind of always imagine that your house would be if you ever came on money and were able to decorate with lots of luxe velvets and Katie Lockhart doing your colour palette.
In lieu of renovating your home, you should really stay here. Accommodation prices in Reykjavik are affordable in general and you should only need a couple of days in the city, so treat yourself and book a Sandhotel room. For a couple of extra thousand krona (like, literally, fifty bucks) you can upgrade to a suite.
I say to book a short stay because while the accommodation in Reykjavik is affordable, food and drink are crazy expensive. Our policy was to make the trip short but spendy, so we devoured the delicious free breakfast at the Sandhotel and then survived until dinnertime, when we would break out the big credit card and go to the restaurants in Ingolfur Square and book a table at The Fish Company. The Icelandic menu includes inventive ways with fish you’ve never tried before, like Arctic Charr alongside oysters and
I’m here for the horses. They’re as common here as sheep are in New Zealand, grazing the fields everywhere you go.
Eyjafjallajökull volcano, left, first repelled then drew tourists when it erupted in 2010, but Stacy Gregg went to see the hardy Icelandic horses.