Writing about past travels during stay-at-home time may cheer me up or it may make me even more angsty… We shall see.
Onward! Onward backward, I should say.
This past October, I went abroad with six of my oldest, dearest friends, to enter middle age in a land where more than half of the people believe in elves. It was exactly what I needed.
I gathered friends in Iceland for my birthday because a couple of them had talked for years about doing a destination 40th and then never did. I didn’t want the dream of going on vacation together to die, and if I were the one to make it happen, I could pick the destination — benevolently, of course.
I looked at Google Flights to see where New Yorkers could fly for a bargain on my birthday weekend: Iceland, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, or Spain. Then I checked those destinations against the origin cities of my non-NYC people in Portland, D.C., and London. The only place that everyone would be able to get to both relatively cheaply and relatively quickly was Iceland. Interestingly, the non-stop flight from Portland to Reykjavik is only a couple of hours longer than that of NYC to Reykjavik, even though Portland eastward to NYC takes five hours and NYC eastward to Iceland takes another five. This is because the world is a sphere. Who knew!
The non-Europeans all arrived in Reykjavik within a couple of hours of each other after our respective red-eyes. We took taxis straight to the Blue Lagoon, where the immediately apparent wonder of Iceland was only heightened by our sleep deprivation.
The first of many tiny wonders: I found this door to the lagoon fantastic. You can submerge yourself in hot water before entering the icy air — through a door that somehow opens easily even in four foot-deep water! But the vast majority of people enter and exit through the double doors to the deck, where you then briskly walk through the freezing air to the lagoon. The feeling of descending into sauna-hot water after your bathing suit-clad body has been assailed by the cold is indescribable. It’s sort of addictive. And even though I grew to enjoy it, I also never failed to dread it, and to hop around hooting until I was neck-deep in whichever pool I was visiting, much to Icelanders’ amusement.We spent the morning lazing about in the lagoon, and then the English contingent arrived. We did mud masks together and toasted (some of us with alcohol, some of us with smoothies) in the in-water bar, which is included in the basic ticket package. There was a man-made waterfall that pounds your shoulders with hot water, as well as a few saunas and steam-rooms. There is also one of the best cafeterias I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat in, and a “relaxation room” where you can wear a bathrobe, sit on a lounge chair, look out at the steaming lagoon through the glass walls, and bliss out. Then there are also all sorts of add-on options, but the Comfort package kept us all happy for the better part of the day, so I think we made the right decision going the more affordable route.
As the light started shifting, we grabbed our things (you can leave your suitcases in a luggage room at the lagoon) and took a taxi into town, to our Air BnB. The house was a delight. There were walls made almost entirely of windows, and everyone’s bed had the coziest down comforter. Iceland knows how to do hygge as well as any Scandinavian country, I quickly learned.
After getting settled, we walked downtown to a bar where you could bring in food from the next-door restaurant, which was charmingly called, “Icelandic Street Food.” I highly recommend the all-you-can-eat soup in bread bowls. From there, we walked to a bus stop for a Northern Lights tour, which all of us were way too tired to be enthusiastic about, but which I had convinced everyone we had to do anyway to optimize our chances of seeing the lights. (If the aurora borealis forecast is promising enough to go in search of them on any given night, but you don’t end up seeing the lights, most tour companies will let you try again for free on another night of your trip.)
We spent like five hours shivering in the cold without seeing anything that night, and we got home way past midnight, very grumbly.
And we didn’t get much sleep, either, since we had an 8am pickup the next morning for a tour of the Southern Route, as it’s called. Our van driver / tour guide / saga storyteller was a bubbly blond who maneuvered the van like a NASCAR driver, had a previous life as a furniture restorer in Spain, studied folklore in college, also lived in France at some point, spoke like six languages, and was an avid hiker of mountains and glaciers. I may be remembering some of this incorrectly, but her epic bad-ass-ness is fitting of mythologizing.
Anyway, she entertained us with Icelandic sagas (which means, simply, “stories“ in Icelandic) the whole way up and back the coast. This made me happy not only because they were interesting, but also because I had wanted to go to Elf School in Reykjavik but had been vetoed by the rest of the group. This was like going to independent Elf School. I loved learning about how Icelandic elves are the same size as humans; they are just invisible to us. But we are not invisible to them, and they can mix and mingle among us without revealing their identities if they want to. Did you know that Icelanders respect elves so much that they successfully lobbied to have a highway construction plan modified, so as not to disturb an elf settlement?
Every single saga, whether about elves or kings or any other creature, seemed to feature someone doing something bad, for which they were later punished violently. It was strange to note that Icelanders are some of the kookiest and most guileless people I’ve ever met, yet their folklore is built on gore. How did that happen?
Along the drive, we stopped five different times — it was a packed itinerary but it didn’t feel like too much because we just relaxed in the back while our guide did all the driving and told us stories. First stop was the Lava Center, a pretty cool high-tech museum that teaches about the geology of Iceland. Things I remember: Iceland was formed by a volcanic explosion about 40 million years ago, making it a relatively young land mass. And there are three main types of volcanoes on the planet, based on the way the plates move against or over each other.Next we drove to Sólheimajökull glacier, where we put on crampons for about an hour and then hiked up a glacier for another hour.It was lots of fun and had stunning views.Then we made my favorite stop of the whole trip: the black sand beach, where there are basalt columns just like the ones in the jaw-dropping Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
My friend, Rachel, and I had visited Giant’s Causeway when we studied abroad in Dublin exactly 20 years, i.e. half my life, ago. I just searched high and low for a picture of that trip, only to realize the photos are packed away in my attic-like closet, so instead, here’s a picture of Rachel and my friend, Jennie (who I met in junior high!), in front of the Icelandic columns.
It was really special to see such an amazing sight with one friend I last traveled with two decades ago, and other friends I was traveling with for the very first time.
Our fourth and fifth stops were waterfalls. The first one was not that awe-inspiring, but it was really cool that you could walk right up to it until you felt its spray on you.And there was a viewing platform at the top, from which the countryside looked gorgeous in the waning light.The second one was also not that awe-inspiring in terms of size, but the way it fell was beautiful, and you could walk behind it and look through the threads of water and see all the way out to the sea. Delightful.As was dinner. We went to a place that served modern takes on traditional Icelandic food. (Horse croquettes were tried by some in the group; I had lamb with blueberry sauce, which is unofficially a national dish.) While we were waiting for our table we were invited to tour the Iceland Saga Museum, which was about to close, since they share the same building. The animatronic figures had already been shut off, which somehow only made them more lifelike and creepy.And oh, the violence! Again, that Icelandic paradox.Another thing I noticed on the walk back to our house was how open Icelandic people’s windows are. Everyone has vast picture windows, which makes sense to get as much sunlight as possible in a country that’s so far North. But strangely, no one has curtains, or if they do, they leave them open all the time, even at night. This meant that at one point I was walking down the dark street and found myself eye to eye with a brightly lit couple sitting at their ground floor kitchen table eating, and then with their daughter who was in her bedroom playing on her bed. We were separated by mere inches and a plate of glass. I pointed out how invasive I would find this if I lived in Iceland, but my friend thought it made sense in a country this tiny and homogeneous. She said she had heard of an experiment in which it took Icelanders on average eight minutes to find a relative in common when they were paired up with a stranger. Everyone is family, I guess.
The next day was our Golden Circle itinerary. First we went to a spot where we could see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It also happened to be the site of Northern Europe’s first parliament, Thingvellir, founded in the year 930. Representatives would assemble on the plains every year to discuss and decide legal and political matters.Near Thingvellir is a very nice waterfall, the biggest and most impressive of the three we saw.After checking it out, we ate lunch at the Tomato Farm, Fridheimar, which was bonkers.They sat us in a clearing among the tomato vines in the vast greenhouse, and everything we ate had tomatoes in it — even the espresso and the beer. The centerpiece in the middle of the table was a basil plant, from which you could snip the leaves to garnish your tomato soup.
Dessert was served in tiny terracotta planters and we had the choice of green tomato apple pie, tomato cheesecake, or tomato ice cream. The advantage of traveling with six friends is that we all got to taste each of them.After stuffing ourselves with tomatoes to the point I felt like the red-hued version of Violet Beauregarde, we traveled on to see the geysers. Much as English speakers think of a saga as a long and drawn-out story, while in Icelandic it simply means “story,” English speakers refer to a geyser as any underwater spring that intermittently erupts through a hole, while in Icelandic, “Geysir” is the proper name of the first identified geyser, and subsequently discovered ones are called by their own proper names.Geysir is no longer erupting (hence the gravestone), but we saw the spot where it used to do so. A few feet away is Strokkur, which erupts every eight or so minutes. Even after watching it gush six or seven times, I still jumped out of my skin every single time it belched up an Alien-like molten bubble which then exploded straight up into the air.The final stop of the day was the Secret Lagoon, which we reached at dusk. A light mist of freezing rain had started to fall when we stepped out of the locker room onto the pool’s patio. I have never ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the feeling of water hitting my skin as much as I did in those five seconds of stepping deeper and deeper into the thermal waters and touching the gravelly earth. While the Blue Lagoon is completely man-made, an accidental bi-product of the creation of a nearby geothermal power plant, the Secret Lagoon is a walled-in pool with a natural bottom that is fed by nearby hot springs. As you move towards the side of the pool closer to the springs, the water gets hotter and hotter. Edging closer and further away from the scalding areas became a kind of aquatic S&M. In fact, when there were ten minutes left before we had to go, I started feeling light-headed and thought I should get out. But it was too good; I didn’t want to. So I walked to the steps of the pool and kept popping in and out of the water into the freezing air every time I got dizzy from the heat. When our time was finally up and we had to change back into clothes, I nearly fainted in the locker room. Jennie fed me macadamia nuts and fetched me cold water until I rehydrated myself and stopped shaking. It was worth it for those extra ten minutes of heaven.
Before I move on, please note the lifeguard in his enclosed glass booth……as well as the fairy house at the side of the pool. I was falling harder and harder for Iceland with every second.
And then it was Monday, my birthday, and the deal was sealed. We had the whole day free in Reykjavik and in the first store we entered, a shopkeeper gave me a handmade heart-shaped key fob when she heard it was my birthday. (Iceland is not cheap, either, so it was quite a gift.) I was so touched. Then we went into a second shop, in which one sister sold ceramics handmade by the other sister. I really loved these eggs, but they were pretty expensive, and so I stepped out of the store while my other two friends, who were going to buy an egg, stayed to decide which one. I met the rest of the group at a very cute coffee shop and enjoyed caffeinating with a view down to the harbor.Then in walked the two from the ceramic store and handed me an unglazed egg. They said that they had bought an egg for my friend’s kid, and the shopkeeper had added in a freebie — an imperfect one that couldn’t be finished or sold. Since it was my birthday, they passed it on to me. Along with the egg was a card that described it as, “Egg of the Snowbird, symbol of the artist’s wish that your dreams may come true.” I am all about the signs and omens, and I decided that this was a heavenly message that my life was perfectly imperfect and right on track, even though I had just turned 40 with no actual hatched egg to my name.
The rest of the day, we wandered around town, taking in the view from the top of the beautiful cathedral……walking through cemeteries, and visiting with ducks in the town lake.
At some point we split up to each explore our separate ways and that was the only hour during which I thought, “I’m 40. How did this happen?” The rest of the time I was blissfully at peace.
Around 5pm, a small contingent of us walked to the public heated pool in our neighborhood for our daily dose of “the water cure.” It really is an exceptionally calming and communal habit.
That night, we went out for a fancy dinner at Rok, a recommendation from a friend who had visited the year before. It was a delicious cap to a 100% delicious culinary experience of Iceland. Even though they barely grow any of it themselves, Icelandic people make damn good food.
After dinner, we walked to the bus stop to get picked up for our Northern Lights Tour redux. It was incredibly cold that night and even waiting for the bus in the middle of town felt interminable and unbearable. Then we drove out to the windy coast, where waiting for the Northern Lights became an exercise in mind over weather. We stood shivering out there for hours and saw nothing, even though the forecast for that night was better than any other night of our trip. We were not happy campers. Finally, we called it quits and got back on the bus, extremely disappointed.
On the drive back, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I kept staring out of the darkened bus windows and thinking that I saw something moving, but it was so faint and so not-quite-green that I was afraid to say anything. Then, suddenly, there was a distinct milky swirl. Just as I was about to scream, “Pull this bus over!” the driver pulled the bus over.
On the side of a nearly deserted highway, we huddled together and watched the lights. They were so pale that they were almost white, and so slow moving that it looked like swaying more than dancing, and they only lasted five minutes or so, but we saw them. And they were achingly beautiful even though they were barely visible. All was forgiven, and the world was magical.
It was after midnight so it wasn’t technically my birthday anymore, but I’d still call that my best birthday ever. Both the earth and the heavens aligned to bring me messages about the beauty of living, no matter how over the hill my age.
And that was that. Three people left so early the next morning that we had to say goodbye the night before, and the remaining four of us spent a few hours the next morning walking around, getting really good coffee, and eating one last really amazing lunch, before heading for the airport. Our sojourn in Iceland had been short, but exceedingly sweet.
Like this song that I used to croon along to with two of the friends who came on this trip, way back in the 1990s, and which I found myself singing to myself all over Iceland:
Biggest realization of the trip: Bjork is not even that kooky by Icelandic standards — she’s just a typically atypical product of a charmingly offbeat people.