It's not often you hear of an Aussie jetting off to Iceland, and for good reason -- it's a 30-hour trip to get there, give or take, and is pretty much as far from Australia as you can get.
Iceland is arguably most famous for being one of the best vantage points to witness the Northern Lights -- a spectacular display of charged gas particles released from the sun's atmosphere which create vivid streams of green light as the particles collide. You're most likely to witness them from late August through to April, in the country's winter, though conditions need to be exact and they are elusive.
Travelling to Reykjavik outside of winter has its perks. For one, you can actually see stuff during the day -- from mid-May to mid-August the sun only sets for three hours (with a period of 24 hour daylight).
Beyond the Northern Lights, Iceland is a hikers dream with countless dormant volcanoes, waterfalls and glaciers to explore. There's a few volcanoes still active, three of which have erupted in the past 20 years.
Reykjavik itself, somewhat surprisingly, doesn't really look the way you might picture. Two-thirds of Iceland's population of 330,000 resides in the capital city, though aside from a few blocks in the old town, it's less about cutsie ski-lodge style architecture and more about functionality. Being one of the coldest and windiest places on earth means that buildings need to be strong -- and warm.
The entire country is refreshingly modest -- it's rare to see a luxury car on the roads and that's on account of both the cost to have them imported and the need for a more hearty vehicle in the snow and wind.
Locals are very friendly and speak great English. Aside from the Icelandic accent you'll hear a lot of Americans about town -- New York is a five-hour flight away which makes it a great long weekend trip for those from the U.S.
Traditional fare in Iceland includes horse, whale, shark and puffin -- yes, those adorable little birds that look a bit like penguins. Though it might seem uncouth for us Aussies to eat whale, that's their way of life, and Iceland has excellent fishery regulations which prevent the overfishing of their ocean. Everything caught or grown in Iceland is valued and respected -- due to most of the earth being volcanic rock, fruits and vegetables are purposely grown in hothouses. The result is a strong respect for all food. There is a lot of potato.
Interestingly, McDonald's failed in Iceland due to the exact recipe requirements, which meant most of it needed to be imported. The price for a Big Mac meal was roughly $25 -- not sustainable when there was much cheaper alternatives. You'll find a Zara in the mall but no H&M as yet.
When it comes to what to drink, turn on the tap and enjoy the most amazing water, filtered for thousands of years through the glaciers.
The Icelandic people are very laid back when it comes to rules -- you'll observe most waterfalls and hot springs are marked by very modest ropes or railings and not much else -- they trust explorers to use common sense.
Currency is Icelandic króna and you'll likely need a calculator to do the conversion. Power plugs are European.
Icelandair Hotel Marina is located by the docks, which is a short stroll from the main part of town. Said to be the equivalent of NYC's Meatpacking District, the marina is home to many of the city's trendy restaurants. Icelandair Hotel Marina boats small but cosy rooms, an excellent buffet breakfast and lively foyer bar and restaurant, called Slippbarinn, which serves impressive food that rivals the nearby eateries.
The only downside is no minibar or coffee and tea making facilities in the room, which means you have to face other people downstairs to get your A.M caffeine fix. Oh, and pack an eye-mask to compensate for no block-out blinds despite 20-odd hours of sunlight most of the year. Expect to pay anywhere from $220-$500 a night, depending on the season.
The view from Icelandair Hotel Marina hotel
Located about 40 minutes from the heart of Reykjavik and fairly close to the airport, The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's main tourist attractions. Many believe it is naturally occuring when in fact, it is man-made. The confusion is justified -- Iceland boasts many natural hot springs, though they are unregulated and temperatures reach around 80-100 degrees, which is far too hot for humans to enter.
The Blue Lagoon is actually a happy accident and by-product of a nearby geothermal power plant. The power station was pumping leftover thermal water onto the landscape surrounding, though being volcanic rock, instead of sinking in or running away, pools were formed. Locals began to swim in these pools and noticed an improvement in their skin. Around a decade ago the rocky, unpredictable landscape was dug out and made into safer man-made lagoons. With it came a fully functional facility for showering with lockers, eating and drinking (there's even a swim-up bar!) as well as beauty treatments. Bookings are essential.
Set aside a few hours for your Blue Lagoon visit
The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route that covers three main attractions. Looping from Reykjavik and covering around 300kms, you can book a super Jeep tour, or hire a car and drive it yourself. Buyer beware though, winds are often very strong and when they are, hire cars are not permitted on the roads (there's been one too many flying doors).
The first stop (or third, depending which way you go) is the geothermal springs in Haukadalur. Geysers are hot springs which boil over intermittently and one of two there shoots up an impressive amount of steaming water every six minutes or so. The other is dormant. Hot springs in the area are roped off, and for good reason -- they don't want any cooked tourists.
The second stop is the Gullfoss waterfall, which translates to Golden Falls. It's an awe inspiring body of water which rivals Niagara Falls in terms of both beauty and ferocity. Make sure you wear a waterproof parka if you decide to venture down the walkway to the base of the first step for a photo-op. It get mighty misty!
The final stop on The Golden Circle is part of the national park. There you'll observe where the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates meet and have shifted. It's a very beautiful scenic valley that backs onto the largest lake in Iceland.
Along the way there's a bounty of petrol and rest-room stops as well as eateries and souvenir stores. Set aside a day, or the best part of, to enjoy each stop without having to rush.
Those tiny specks are people -- getting a little wet!
Reportedly Jamie Oliver's favourite restaurant in the world, 3 Frakkar is an institution. Translating to Three Coats, the traditional restaurant almost feels like it was preserved in time. Kitsch ornaments adorn the timber shelves and walls -- mostly figurines of minke whales and adorable puffins -- which ironically (or not) star on the menu as the signature dishes. Whale sashimi, grilled puffin and shark and horse tartare are the house specialities.
If you're less into traditional culture and more about what's hip, try the Grillmarket. Situated in the heart of the old town, the restaurant is dark, moody and upmarket, with a menu to match. You can still try traditional Icelandic fare such as whale and puffin, or go for more modern dishes of lamb or beef. Grillmarket has a sister restaurant, Fishmarket, which offers much the same though with a strong focus on seafood.
Grillmarket is a meat-eaters dream
If you're after a burger to rival anything you've ever had before, head to Nautholl Bistro. The restaurant is perched a little out of town in a scenic spot that makes for a great long lunch. The salads are fresh (and huge), the beer is cold and if you're lucky you might get a visit from a couple of ducks as you dine.
Country Hotel Anna is a few hours out of Reykjavik in the direction of The Golden Circle. Blink and you'd miss it -- this tiny homestead is the smallest three star hotel in Iceland and some of the best eating you'll come across. The menu is concise -- it has to be, for it may be many days before they see any customers. All produce is from the working farm and the crispy lamb and vegetable soup are outstanding.
The most well-known eatery in Iceland is also the smallest. A humble hot-dog stand erected in a carpark by the marina, they famously served Bill Clinton who subsequently had one named after him. There's always a queue but it's well worth the wait -- hot-dogs are not seen as fast food in Iceland -- and it's a must to try one with traditional Icelandic mustard. Not sure whether to waste a meal on a hot dog? Have one as a snack then -- it's open until 4.30am.
It's not fancy, but it's good
Located on the top floor of the Centre Hotel, the Sky Bar offers a great view of the harbour and snowcapped mountains. Close to Concert Hall, it's the perfect spot to grab a drink before seeing a show, or book in for dinner and dine while enjoying the view -- even if you eat late you'll still get to take it all in as it doesn't get dark until 11pm or midnight.
Although you can dine here, Apotek Kitchen and Bar is worthy of a before or after-dinner drink in its own right. Happy hour runs from 3pm until 6pm daily and the selection of artisan cocktails is lengthy. Called Painkillers, Stimulants, Tranquilizers or Placebos (for the teetotallers), there's a poison for everyone. If you'd prefer a wine, go for red. You'd be hard pressed to find anywhere in Iceland that offers champagne without an exorbitant price tag -- it's just not done there.
Apotek Kitchen and Bar is as pretty as it is tasty
Leigh Campbell traveled to Iceland as a guest of Bioeffect.
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