The Land of Ice
Within the space (or is it time?) of six months, I have survived two heatwaves. Okay, three, but it may be too close to call yet. I am in rural Victoria; chalk marks on my door indicate this is the sixth day of the temperatures here being around 40 degrees. That’s 40˚ Celsius, or (32+40*1.8)˚F for my US readers. It felt hot on the first day, but by now, it’s a SAUNA out there. Trouble imaging it? Take a hair dryer, switch it on and direct the airflow at your face. That’s what it feels like when you are in the shade here.
Of course, we do have technology to alleviate this problem (you can switch off the hair dryer now). Ceiling fans, aircon, and, this year we can also use a TV set. That’s right – I watch the Sochi Olympics just so I can imagine the cold.
The previous heatwave occurred during the Australian Open, barely a few weeks ago. Sadly, the place I still call my home gets hotter than Melbourne and has no retractable roof. So whatever they have had in Melbourne, add another 5˚C (9˚F) to mimic my predicament.
This brings me to the heatwave I did enjoy! It was in late June and it was in Reykjavik. Beautiful, everlasting days with sunsets becoming sunrises, this very otherworldly light and a comfy temperature rarely exceeding 50 degrees! Fahrenheit. For my non-US readers, (50-32)/1.8˚C – do your own maths.
My coworker, Olivia de Jour, already covered Blue Lagoon, which technically is not even in Reykjavik, but happens to be en route from/to the international airport (Keflavik). If you have money to burn, time to kill (or an iPhone to drop and claim on insurance), then I say go there. If anything else fails, you will enjoy being practically butt-naked and ordering cold beer from winter-clad bar staff and not paying for it until you actually need to leave (the wristband you get to enter has a microchip which bar staff scan). If you have a face only a mother would love, get another beer. If, however, there is something worth working on, ask for two beauty treatments. The first one, looking like cheap caviar gone bad is, in fact, volcanic ash. Get yourself a good scrub, let it sit for 10 minutes and follow with the white stuff there to detox your face. Don’t overdose on either (this is a pretty much a universal warning). If you do visit Blue Lagoon, leave it for the last day, as you need to make a trip to the airport anyway.
Speaking of airports, do not leave buying booze until your departure. Of course, you will be sooo excited about arriving in Iceland that you will dash past the duty-free. It is a very sound strategy at most airports, but in Iceland, you live to regret it. Booze in Reykjavik is more expensive than in Burj al-Arab! And good-luck finding the shop!
So what do we have in my drinking glass?
The best shot local folk gave to the humankind is called Brennivín and is basically a vodka spiced with cumin and caraway. Very clever, as it saves you taking both gloves off, which must be a survival strategy. See, in Russia you would need a vodka bottle (no need to be pretentious) in one hand and rye bread with its crust spiced with cumin in the other. Gloriously creative Icelanders found a better way.
Don’t forget to have coffee. I know I now sound like your mother, but as surprising as it may be, the locals are crazy about their coffee. Even more than me – and I am the guy who expects my latte to look like it is straight from the Nickelback’s Trying Not To Love You video clip. The best place is very close to the cathedral, and they actually take pictures of each pattern and catalogue them (did I mention they are crazy about their coffee?).
Also, take a moment to listen to the Icelandic people speak. Their language is a living fossil: Norwegian, Swedish and Danish all derived from it. A bit like how Italian, Spanish, Portuguese are Romance languages derived from Latin (pig Latin, as it was dispersed by the members of Roman Army, and they had mostly rape and pillage on their minds). Most importantly, Icelandic is alive and Latin dead. Always ask to be “taught” some Icelandic and be very bad at pronouncing. I’m just saying it may be worthwhile.
Shit to See
1. Golden Circle tour
I am not saying here you need to join a coach tour – frankly, Iceland being so small, you can walk across it in much less than your gap year – but these tours are good and take less time. In fact, you get more for your krona if you take the afternoon one, as the day (I use this term very loosely here) progresses from misty, rainy and cloudy to a guaranteed sunny by the time of the afternoon departures. You will see the geysir, the place that gave us that thing (and don’t get too close as it is really hot, but chances are the stink will keep you at a safe distance; that’s what nature intended, unless you’re anosmic); and you will see the Big Crack – not its official name and not what you thought at first, but this is where the North American tectonic plate meets its Eurasian colleague. And you can stand across it – just like the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, but more risky (it can move, you know).
It is a bit of a side trip, but do it if you enjoy island hopping. Both Iceland and Greenland were part of Denmark, and the latter still is. I’ve not been there, so can’t vouch for whether it is in fact green. But I’ll tell you a story: when Denmark was invaded by the Nazis, Brits scrambled a warship which went to Iceland, and its captain in broken Icelandic asked whether the Icelandic people would mind being invaded. They did not, and were quite pleased to hear that the Brits bore no grudges about the Viking shenanighans. So the Brits built them an airport – this is the one in Reykjavik, meant for small planes (you really want to find this booze shop? Walk the main street and watch for the noisy propeller planes preparing to land – the state-owned shop is where the plane and your paths intersect but on the ground. You’ll cry when you see the prices. Told you.) Just to finish the topic – Yanks invited by the British invaders built Keflavik.
I would say don’t miss Aurora Borealis, but you can’t have it both ways. It’s either White Nights around summer solstice or AB during equinox. You have to visit Iceland twice.
You also cannot miss that there are no wooden houses as there are (almost) no trees. All these colourful buildings are made of corrugated steel and heated using geothermal energy. You’ll see on the Golden Circle tour that each house has smoke coming not from its chimney but from a little vent in the ground next to it. Unreal, eco and free!
Shit to Miss:
1. Reykjavik Zoo
Unless you have not seen a dog, a cat, a pig or a cow, continue the list at your own pace or use a Spot book for guidance.
2. The Incredibly Austere Cathedral
It is so tall you will see it anyway and that’s enough. Go only if there is a free organ recital. It’s a big organ!
3. Whale Watching Cruises
Due to the uncooperative nature of the local whales, these are more “whale you blinked it was there on the other side of the boat” cruises. Go only if you want to see impressive birds. Some are usually summer students and will give you the warm gear to wear (a hug would have been enough), but there are puffins as well. Cute, especially when they fly just above the water surface.