Chilling out in Iceland


REYKJAVIK, Iceland — The night wind pushes us along quiet streets past an outdoor sculpture garden, a church with a steeple shaped like a rocket and a statue of Leif Eriksson at the entrance.
Heads down to block the cold, we look up long enough to glance at shop windows stocked with boiled wool caps and knit sweaters.
Our destination is Vegamot, a busy bar and restaurant where a woman in a fur-lined parka recommends the salmon with Asian noodles and the Christmas beer.
"We measure the cold, not by the temperature, but by the wind," she tells us.
Despite its name, Iceland enjoys a relatively mild coastal climate. Winter highs average in the upper 30s, but when the wind kicks up, 30 degrees can feel frigid.
Shark meat and schnapps. Waffles and whale kebabs. Stunning sunsets and steaming outdoor pools. These are a few of my favorites things about Iceland in winter.

Arrive at Keflavik airport in the late afternoon as my husband, Tom, and I did in early November, and you won't see daylight until a little after 9 a.m. the next morning. In much of December and early January, the sun won't rise until just past 11 a.m.

Never mind. It's worth the wait for a slow sunrise that casts a brilliant pink light on the snowy mountains and blue sea surrounding Reykjavik, Iceland's capital city.

More New England fishing village than cosmopolitan capital, it's a walkable town with a quaint seafront and houses sheathed in colorful corrugated steel. Alone in the middle of the Atlantic, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland may be one of the loneliest places on Earth, according to travel writer Pico Iyer. Or, one of the happiest, writes Eric Weiner, in "The Geography of Bliss."

Tempted by Icelandair's offer of a bargain $650 round-trip fare between Seattle and Paris, including the option of a few days stopover in Reykjavik, we decided to find out.

Candlelight breakfasts

Edda Jonasdottir lights candles as she lays out a pre-sunrise breakfast of cereals, homemade breads, cheese, slivers of smoked lamb and salmon and a pitcher of Icelandic yogurt called skyr.

We could hear the wind howling outside our bedroom window, but it was cozy inside Guesthouse Eric The Red, a 12-room inn named for the Viking Eric The Red, who left Norway in the middle of the 10th century to settle in Iceland. He later discovered Greenland, and his son, Leif, led the first European exploration of the east coast of North America.

Edda, 57, and her partner, Runar Sigurdsson, 63, cater to climbers, hikers and travelers on a budget.

"As they say in Iceland," Edda told us as she cranked up the registers in our room, "the only thing cheap is the heat."

Most everything except fish, sheep and energy — geothermal power plants heat most of the homes and buildings — has to be imported.

When a banking crisis in 2008 brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, the value of the Icelandic krona tumbled to half what it was against the U.S. dollar, making a visit here feel like less like sticker shock, but still pricey.

Our room was an offseason bargain at $94, including Edda's big breakfast, a welcome extra considering the price of granola, fruit, yogurt and coffee for two at a local cafe was $30.

Talking together around their dining-room table, we learned about some of the cultural quirks that come with living in a country whose closest neighbor is Greenland.

Beer? Illegal before 1989, long after prohibition on other types of alcohol ended, now plentiful, but heavily taxed so that it costs about $7 a pint, still, a bargain compared with $14 before the economic downturn.

Television? For years, it was unavailable on Thursdays and in July when the station crews were off work. Iceland has a population of only 300,000, one-third that of Seattle. Until the economic crisis hit, there were more jobs than workers to fill them, and no one to fill in on vacations.

The rocket-ship church? The Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church. At 244 feet, it's the tallest in Iceland with views all over the city from the bell tower. (The Lutheran Church is the official state religion.)

One evening, Runar, a carpenter and former TV repairman (he still misses his Thursdays off) introduced us to hakarl, a cold-weather treat of fermented shark meat known for its strong taste and odor.

He speared chunks the size of sugar cubes, and poured shots of "Black Death," a clear alcohol similar to schnapps, made from potato pulp and flavored with caraway seeds.

"Chew it without opening your mouths," he instructed, and handed us each a small glass.

"Drink it all at once," he smiled. "Then brush your teeth, and go to bed."

Steaming soaks

Within an hour's drive of Reykjavik is a landscape filled with hot springs, geysers, waterfalls and fields of black lava rock, all carved by the same geological forces that triggered the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano last April.

Iceland sits atop the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, making it a literal hotbed of volcanic and geothermal activity.

A cold-weather treat is going for a soak in one of the steaming, sulfur-scented outdoor public pools called "hot pots."

Our silver rings turned black after a couple of hours of paddling around the milky, 99-degree waters of the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa dug into a lava field next to a power plant. European tourists like dipping into crates filled with white silica mud that they rub on their faces to improve their complexion.

Our three-day stopover didn't allow for enough time to rent a car and drive around the island, so for a nutshell sense of Iceland's geography, we signed up for a daylong Golden Circle tour.

Ducking in and out of a van for warmth, we joined a group of 15 others in exploring a field of steaming geysers, and the half-frozen Gullfoss waterfall about an hour's drive from Reykjavik.

In Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland's settlers formed the world's first parliament in A.D. 930, we hiked on both sides of a rift where the earth split as the plates pulled apart.

With banking kaput and fishing on the wain, "energy and water could be the saving grace for the economy," said our guide, David Wellsbury, of Iceland Horizon Tours. In the meantime, Iceland is counting on tourism to ease its 7 percent unemployment rate.

The coveted Icelandic wool sweaters sell for hundreds of dollars, so we made souvenirs out of bags of marzipan-filled licorice sold at a weekend flea market on the waterfront. More affordable were Reykjavik's museums, most either free or cheap; art galleries; and excellent restaurants.

Locals love their hot dogs with sweet mustard, but seafood is a wiser choice.

As a light snow fell one afternoon, we walked to Saegreifinn on the harbor where former ship cook Kjartan Halldorsson, 71, serves whale kebabs and mugs of sea cucumber or lobster soup to customers at communal tables.

Stretch limos replace SUVs on the downtown streets on weekends when dancing and drinking go on until dawn.

For those not into all-night partying, and it seems fewer are, there's the opera ("Rigoletto" with Icelandic subtitles), and cafes such as Babalu, an upstairs hideaway decorated with Flintstone knickknacks and comfy sofas.

Order a hot chocolate. Bring your knitting. Listen to Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Maybe as Eric Weiner concludes in his book, the "The Geography of Bliss," colder is happier.


If you go:

Getting there

No-frills Icelandair flies nonstop between Seattle and Reykjavik (7.5 hours), with connections to other European cities, including Paris, London and Amsterdam. Stopovers in Iceland are allowed in either direction at no extra charge. See www.icelandair.com.

Lodging/Tours

For travel between Jan. 6 and March 26, 2011, Icelandair is offering packages starting at $581 per person (two persons traveling) including taxes, round-trip Seattle-Reykjavik airfare, a two-night stay in a four-star hotel and a Blue Lagoon tour.

More personal and closer to the historical center than the big hotels are Reykjavik's many guesthouses and smaller hotels. Rates through April at Guesthouse Eric The Red (www.eric.is) near the Hallgrimskirkja church, are 10,900 krona, $94 at an exchange rate of 115 krona to one dollar, for doubles with private bathrooms and breakfast. Owner Edda Jonasdottir spent a year in Seattle as an exchange student, and welcomes visitors from the Northwest. Reykjavik City Hostel (www.hostel.is) has dorm rooms starting at 3,300 krona ($28). The Couchsurfing movement started in Iceland. Many active members offer free lodging or the chance to meet for coffee or sightseeing. See www.couchsurfing.com.

Many companies offer Golden Circle Tours. David Wellsbury of Iceland Horizon Tours (www.icelandhorizon.is) organizes small-group van excursions year-round. Price is 8,900 krona ($76).

Many travelers visit the Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com) on the way to or from the airport. Reykjavik Excursions offers transportation via a stop at the lagoon on its Flybus shuttle. Cost is 3,200 krona ($27) including luggage storage. Entrance to the lagoon is 28 euro ($36) for adults; 7 euro ($9) for 67 and older.

When to go

The warm North Atlantic Current gives Iceland a moderate climate with mild winters and cool summers. Average highs in Reykjavik are in the 30s through March, climbing into the 40s in April and 60s in July when it's dark for only three or four hours each day. The shortest days are in mid-December and the first part of January when the sun rises just after 11 a.m. and sets between 3:30 and 4 p.m. Things begin to improve in February, with sunrise by 10 a.m. and sunset at 5:15 p.m.

More information

Contact the Icelandic Tourist Board at www.goiceland.org.


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