Iceland has been on Katie’s and my bucket list for a long time. We are road trip fiends and suckers for mountain views, so it was essentially a given. It has been a little hard to get excited for the trip though over the past week, with the gut-wrenching and highly personal tragedy that occurred in the Orlando, FL gay bar. The shooting affected me quite deeply and peace has been difficult to come by. But just as always, I try to respect senseless tragedy by celebrating life as fully and feverishly as I can, and that is what we intended to do here. Love will always win over hate if we vow to live more intensely and proudly today than we did yesterday.
We knew we wanted to circle the entirety of the country during our trip (why not?) so we packed up and jetted off for 8 nights in Icelandic glory. In a rare change of pace for us, we are traveling with friends this time around—Katie’s good friend Lily and her sister Lancy from San Francisco. Some accommodations will be shared and some will be solo, because practice has shown that we are prone to last-minute plan changes and impromptu deviations—not all of which would fare well in group decision making.
Most flights to Iceland from NYC are red-eyes, so after a 5-hour journey which included about 3 hours sleep, we arrived in Reykjavik at 7am local time (4 hours ahead of home). We learned our first Islandic word about 5 minutes after stepping foot into the country—Kaffi (coffee) due to sheer and pressing necessity. We paid with our credit cards, as we had learned before arriving that one could circle the whole country and never exchange currency. A credit card could buy you a pack of bubble gum without a second glance.
After successfully picking up our rental car and determining that driving in Iceland is shockingly similar to driving in the USA (except that the cars are tinier and kilometers replace miles), we found our first Airbnb in downtown, a super cute apartment with 2 bedrooms for proper group travel. We crashed into a pile for a 2-hour nap. After resuming consciousness, with a continued confusion about our time zone, we went to explore. The city is very walkable, despite butchering the pronunciation of every street name and attraction we encountered (“Vatnsveituvegur”?). We had a few bangin’ avocado and crème fresh grilled cheese sandwiches are Laundromat Café before exploring the Harbor and famous Opera House. As we neared the Harbor, we saw a group of young people drinking beer and blowing fire for tips in the town square, which didn’t seem to be at all out of place for onlookers. The harbor was pretty but with more than a subtle taste of touristy kitch, so we moved onto exploring the wall-to-ceiling windows inside the opera house.
That night, we splurged on dinner at Kol Restaurant, a fantastic and quaint dinner spot in downtown. I had local fillet of cod with sweet potato molasses, crisp sunchokes, charred lettuce and savory pan juices, which was honestly one of the best meals I’ve had to date. Paired with my tangy vodka, lime, ginger, and mint cocktail (the “Donkey”), I was slowly slipping into Nordic cuisine heaven. It was a profound experience ending a meal like that without tipping, but such is customary in Iceland. They even brought the credit card machine to the table and gave us individual receipts.
Afterward, the jetlag got to our friends and they headed for home. Still itching for a glimpse into Reykjavik nightlife, Katie and I went off to have a beer before the night ended. We learned upon attempting to locate a bar that Yelp does not exist in Iceland. Going rogue, we stumbled into Kaffibarinn for a local draft after remembering the name from our Lonely Planet book. Many bars in Iceland are cafes during the day and do a full transformation into bars in the evening—coffee mugs still hanging on the wall behind the kegs of beer. We were warned that prices for food and beer were outrageous in Iceland, but our NYC minds didn’t even blink at them. I pay $8 for a draft beer back home, too…
People were friendly almost immediately. Not only locals, but visitors too. We met people from Canada and Scotland in less time than it took us to finish half of our beers. The anxiety of our home culture can be debilitating, but here I found peace in a matter of 12 hours. I could say that it simply feels welcoming, but I’ve learned that this feeling transcends that. When I travel, regardless of where, I always feel like I’ve “arrived”. Being surrounded by people speaking in a foreign tongue, and wandering home at midnight with the sun still bright in the sky solidified that feeling of “away-ness”. I took a deep breath of that fresh, full Islandic air, and settled in like a puzzle piece.