Letter from Reykjavik
BC Business Magazine
It’s minus seven degrees Celsius, I’m encircled by a jagged crown of snow-capped mountains, and the white breath tumbling from my open mouth suggests a serious attempt on the world chain-smoking record. But even though I’m only wearing swimming shorts, I can’t remember ever feeling so toasty.
Iceland in winter is a wasteland of frosted volcanic rock, dark skies heavy with impending snow and abandoned shacks that crag the horizon like broken teeth. Although descended from ancient Viking settlers, the 290,000 inhabitants here have swapped the rape and pillage approach for a gentler and more hedonistic take on their challenging environment.
En route from Keflavik International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is a large, geothermically-heated outdoor pool where you can stand in steaming, milky-blue water that’s upwards of 36 degrees Celsius. The enveloping warmth makes the surrounding snow and ice seem as threatening as a painted backdrop.
With sweat beading my face and eyelids drooping, I languidly bob my way around the pool, nodding at the old ladies taking the waters with me. When I’ve concluded my involuntary chorus of deep sighs, I grudgingly negotiate a tunnel back into the main building and pull myself out of the water. I can’t feel any of the neck muscles that are usually more knotted than a box of last year’s Christmas lights.
Enjoying a body that feels like it’s filled with hot chocolate, I dress quickly and take the 40-minute bus on to Reykjavik, home to more than half the population. Checking in at a stylish downtown hotel – my room overlooks a grim but strangely alluring vista of black ocean and low, lumpen mountains – I cocoon myself in thick layers and totter out towards the historic old town. It’s lined with pricey boutiques and laid-back coffee bars in solid grey stone buildings that seem built to last forever.
I soon arrive at the doors of the Culture House, a museum displaying some achingly beautiful medieval Saga manuscripts, the deeply-held legends that define Iceland’s age-old struggle against adversity. Back on the streets, I head towards another museum, but as I cross a bridge over a frozen lake, I’m suddenly engulfed in a swirling blizzard.
Initially, I tuck my head down and make a run for it, but then I stop halfway across. Holding the rails with both hands, I gaze at the cozy, well-lit homes ringing the heavily blanketed lake. There’s the kind of deep, all-encompassing silence that singles you out and only comes during a tumultuous winter storm. With giant, feathery flakes spiralling around me, I feel like I’m in a snow globe that’s in no rush to settle.
Abandoning the museum plan, I face into the blizzard and crunch to a nearby restaurant for an early dinner. The interior has the glowing, wood-lined feel of Santa’s Grotto. It seems appropriate, then, to order reindeer, which turns out to be fairly bland. In comparison, the slender, rubbery strips of marinated puffin have a strong fishy flavour and are not for the culinary feint hearted. After a glass of Brennivin – a distilled potato spirit that would blow the head off a hardened alcoholic – I decide to grab a beer on my way back to the hotel.
Reykjavik has several good bars – some apparently frequented by local pop diva Björk. She seems to be avoiding me on my visit, so I console myself with a lager at an unassuming upstairs pub in the centre of town. It’s loud with reeling, testosterone-fuelled lads engaged in unfathomable drinking games and Nordic bar songs. Perhaps the Viking spirit is alive and kicking here after all.
Can’t miss: New Year
Reykjavikers know how to party and on December 31st they really push out the boat. New Year’s Eve begins with a feast in a local restaurant followed by community bonfires where trolls, elves and other supernatural beings partake of some raucous folk song sing-a-longs. At midnight, a humungous fireworks display rents the sky, triggering an all-night shindig of booze-fuelled bonhomie. General information: visitreykjavik.is.
Cool eats: Laekjarbrekka
It’s worth splashing out some krona on a meal at this welcoming old town restaurant. It’s not cheap, but the traditional dishes – including lobster tails, Arctic char and lamb marinated in seaweed – are a taste bud popping delight. Dinner from $65. laekjarbrekka.is.
Best bed: Nordica Hotel
This stylish sleepover is dripping with contemporary Scandinavian élan. Like an upmarket IKEA showroom, its coolly Spartan suites combine polished wood floors with loungey furnishings and flat screen TVs. Ask for a sea view. Rooms from $225. icehotels.is.
One thing we need:
Heated streets and sidewalks. Reykjavik keeps its main arteries snow-free by diverting geothermic steam under them. Clever buggers.
One thing we don’t need:
Pricey beer. Despite Iceland’s hard drinking reputation, a pint of generic Tuborg lager will set you back more than $10 – enough to turn anyone to drink.
Not a place for lamppost licking, December days average minus five degrees Celsius, with only a couple of hours of daylight.