Icelandair offers a “free stopover” of up to seven days in Iceland. Instead of paying cumulatively more for a flight from New York to Reykjavík and another from Reykjavík to Glasgow, I paid for one flight with the longest, best layover of my life (sorry Chicago).The downside: I’m doing it in the dead of winter. Iceland. Land of ice. In winter. The upside? Most people are more intelligent than I am and travel during the summer (when the population of the island practically doubles), sparing me the headache of a horde of touristy goons. Another upside? Iceland is freaking beautiful in the winter. With only 4.5 hours of daylight in January it’s one of the best times to see a little thing called THE NORTHERN LIGHTS.
Iceland has seen an uptick in tourism thanks to two weird events: the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (say it with me now, A-yah-fyah-tla-yo-cutl) which put the little country on TV screens across the world, and the 2008 financial crash, which sunk the value of the Icelandic króna and made traveling more affordable.
“Affordable” is just relative, though. I asked the hostel receptionist where a cheap place to eat is and he literally laughed at me. Even though the US dollar is about 130 króna, the cheapest beer you’ll find is 1000kr (almost $8)… and that’s for Viking… the Bud Light of Scandinavia. Despite trying to keep costs down by cooking for myself in the hostel kitchen I did try mink whale, which was tender and salty and I happily devoured the remaining steak my friend chose not to finish. I didn’t get a chance to try any puffin meat, meaning the cutest animal I’ve eaten too date is still rabbit. Next time…Iceland’s culture is pretty interesting, notably because they have had little immigration since the 9th century when Norwegian Vikings came ashore. It means the language of the roughly 325,000 residents remains remarkably similar to those who first spoke the tongue. Imagine us speaking in Old English. It also means there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the most scarcely populated country in Europe. Single Icelanders have a phone app that taps into the country’s genetics archive and warns the user if he or she is grinding a little too close to a relative on the dance floor (which, by the way, stays open until at least 4:30; people are literally starting their nights when–in LA–I’m used to finishing mine). It looks a little desperate to whip out the app at the bar, so many will follow through with the trist and do their research the following morning (or, you know, technically… later that day) to decide if a second encounter is a wise decision. #whitepeopleproblems
The weather can change from beautiful and sunny to a blizzard in the blink of an eye, and vice versa. Their saying goes: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes.” Thanks to a decent forecast I completed two bucket list items: spotted the Northern Lights and hiked the Sólheimajökull glacier. The Northern Lights are self explanatory so let me just say the glacier was unreal.Our guide, Thor (yeah… Thor), led with his moulin-finding stick. Moulins are holes in the ice from which you do not return and naturally, they’re all covered by beautiful fluffy snow. Our instructions were to snake directly behind him, single file, no exceptions. Everyone once in a while I’d hear the low, bassy, snap of ice cracking beneath my feet. Oh, by the way, Thor says, “the volcano near hear is about 16 years overdue for an eruption… we could get as little as two hours warning before it blows”. Awesome. Out of about 130 days of travel, that was just day six.