Taking On Iceland

Our Mantra, 2005 – 2020:

“Iceland’s not on our list. Way too popular and trendy.”

Our Mantra, Spring 2021:

(Iceland is the first country to announce that it’s open to vaccinated travelers.)

“Can’t wait to go to Iceland!”

My, my, how your perspective can change. Here’s the recipe: Mix together a few lockdowns spurred from a good old-fashioned global pandemic. Stir vigorously, and toss in widespread travel restrictions. Bake for 18 months, and voila. Out comes a freshly baked cake with chocolate-covered chunks of desperation to go. Anywhere.

Don’t worry—we have some perspective here. If the worst thing that happened to us in the last year and a half was that we couldn’t travel, we have nothing to complain about. I get it.

But for people who travel nearly 200,000 miles a year and live for exploring, it was a tough pill to swallow. The advantage was we spent a lot of time exploring our own country. The disadvantage was the cancellation of trips—in no specific order, these included visits to Israel, Jordan, Laos, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Spain (Costa Brava), Spain (Sardinia), France (Bordeaux), and Columbia. Each time, we kept our fingers crossed. And each time, we were thwarted by the nasty bug that is COVID-19.

But let’s get back to Iceland. It’s not that we didn’t hear incredible things about the country; it was just that it seemed like everyone was there, all the time. We had visions of driving from waterfall to waterfall to get out and take the same picture that has been over-posted in the social-media cesspool.

When they announced they were open to US travelers again, we took another look and a new approach. Let’s take advantage of the fact that it probably won’t be very crowded and go further afield—as we like to say, to get out of the car.

What we loved about Iceland:

  • Puffins are cute.
  • Icelandic horses are spectacular.
  • The entire country is mostly covered in lava or ice.
  • There are not very many people. If not for the damn tourists, it would feel pretty abandoned overall, outside of the capital region around Reykjavik.
  • It is true; waterfalls are literally everywhere. You can walk up to them, under them, behind them, to the top of them.
  • But you know what else? There are hills, mountains, gorges, and glaciers everywhere, begging you to scramble to the top to see the views. If you’re staying near the Blue Lagoon, hike up the Thorbjörn Mountain to get a view of the lagoon and surrounding areas.
  • The glacier lagoon boat ride (Jökulsárlón, with icebergs from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of larger Vatnajökull Glacier) in the late afternoon light boasted what were 100% the most memorable colors we’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to capture with anything other than your mind.
  • If you’re going to the Blue Lagoon, splurge on a room at The Retreat, if you can. To have a private part of the lagoon to yourself with a spectacular room to either swim out or look over is pretty magical. (A good alternate is the Silica Hotel.)

What we learned about Iceland:

  • Good luck pronouncing anything by reading it.
  • Never miss an opportunity to hike up to an active volcano.
  • The Blue Lagoon is basically a bright, milky blue pond.
  • It’s not a place to go if you don’t like cod. As one of our servers so appropriately put it, cod isn’t just the fish of the day on every menu… It’s the fish of the decade.
  • If you get a chance to meet those adorable puffins, warn them to be nimble. Some restaurants like to serve smoked puffin. Icelanders literally eat anything that moves; it’s in their history and in their blood.
  • Don’t underestimate the rain. When it comes to gear, there is a big difference between waterproof and water resistant. “Water resistant” is the equivalent of a large paper towel in Iceland.
  • The Icelanders understand that everything could be temporary. The volcano(es) could reclaim whatever they want, whenever they want.
  • Be prepared to spend time in the car. There is basically one road around Iceland, with a few off-road options (like Landmannalaugar).
  • Make sure to get out of the car. You can find a hike of any length almost everywhere. Unbuckle and walk/hike as your mode of discovery whenever you can, including walking on the moss-covered lava.
  • Most of the most popular tourist spots (Landmannalaugar aside) are within a few hours of Reykjavik.

A few logistics:

Our trip was set up by Butterfield and Robinson to accommodate an extended journey, in which we flew to the eastern side of the island and made our way back mostly along the Southern Coast. Figuring out where to stay? Here are our suggestions.

Reykjavik:

  • The 101 Hotel is a great location for walking and biking the city. We recommend the corner room, highest floor, with a balcony.

If you’re further east and visit the Glacier Lagoon:

  • Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. Request the room facing the waterfall, with a balcony (because why face it if you can’t go out and look?).

Within driving distance of Reykjavik and airport:

  • Hotel Ranga: Recommended mostly because of the personality of the owners and the distinctively designed rooms—we suggest the Iceland Suite. It’s also a good location near the Ranga River for flyfishing.
  • The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon (alternate: Silica Hotel). Request the Moss Suite, with views of the lava fields and mountain, unless you want a “swim out” room (which, as stated above: magical).

Our best meals in the country:

Of course, we couldn’t go to Iceland and not give our own contribution to the social-media mess. For more highlights from the trip, see our story on Instagram (@edaychampagne).