When Dad served in the US Army during WWII, he spent the best part of two years in Iceland before moving on to Normandy, Belgium and the Rhineland.
When he and I went to Europe in 2002 to walk the Normandy beaches together, I added three days in Reykjavik to our itinerary so he could see what had changed (very little had stayed the same, beyond natural features) and I could get my first glimpse of this fascinating country. Dad had visited Normandy at least once after the war, but never Iceland.
Dad noted that almost all Iceland’s infrastructure had been built during the war by the American forces; still, he barely recognized the place.
We stayed at the Hotel Esja, a large tourist hotel a short distance uphill from the center of Reykjavik. The architecture on the hotel’s main floor had the clean, sleek elements of Scandinavian design and some spa facilities on the lower level. A side note -shortly after our visit, the hotel was upgraded and expanded – to the tune of 20 million bucks -into a major spa and conference center and rechristened the Nordica Hotel. I’d like to revisit the place in its new incarnation but it will definitely be a budget buster.
A welcome for the veteran
One unexpected episode occurred at Keflavik airport before we even got on the Flybus. We had just come through customs and immigration and Dad was looking for a restroom (quick note – avoid misunderstanding and possible embarrassment whenEVER you’re overseas – they’re called toilets, NOT restrooms or bathrooms). The pilot of our plane overheard Dad tell the customs official that he was amazed by the new terminal and how different it was from when he was last in Iceland. The pilot asked Dad if he had served in Iceland and when Dad said yes, not only did he point Dad to the toilets but took charge of his rolling suitcase while he walked us down the corridors to the facilities. Icelandic, not being a Latin-descended language, is pretty much impossible to guess at when reading. Fortunately, English is used on signs but the Icelandic words are so mesmerizing in their uniqueness you may not notice the English “subtitles” immediately.
Heading into town
The 30 mile Flybus ride from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik took about 45 minutes and the scenery is fascinating in an alien landscape sort of way. Iceland has active volcanoes – we all know this by now – and sits on a visible fault line where the earth slowly and constantly rearranges itself. The dirt, in shades of dark browns and blacks, has an almost lunar bleakness. Trees and furry wild animals are nowhere to be seen. Iceland is home to various Arctic sea birds, reindeer and Arctic fox, but they may be farther from the Keflavik – Reykjavik area. Slumbering volcanic Mount Hekla, not one of the peaks lately in the news, was barely visible on the horizon towards the south.
Our hotel rooms were comfortable, furnished with Scandinavian simplicity. My room faced north, with a view of Mount Esja across the harbor. Many of the houses in Reykjavik are sited to face Mount Esja; I was told it’s for good luck. The curtains, the heavy blackout kind, are essential for summer in this land of the midnight sun but not so much during mid-May when we were there. We arrived late in the afternoon, had an early dinner at the hotel and rested up for the following day.
After sampling most of the offerings at the well-stocked cold breakfast buffet, we took the City Sights minibus tour of the city. We were collected from our hotel and taken to another hotel – the transfer point for all the hotels’ guests who were booked for the tour. While waiting for the other hotel vans, Dad examined a wooden map on the wall and pointed out Engey Island and Grotta Point; both of these were place names he remembered. Engey Island’s 1902 lighthouse was restored in 1937. Grotta Point used to be a small fishing community, but has seen a lot of new residential development even though it is gradually sinking into the sea. The Point is cut off from the main island at high tide and it’s a favorite spor for both birds and bicyclists.
Our city tour included a stop at one of the outdoor public pools, all of which are heated, like most of the country, by the thermal water from below the earth’s surface. Our guide explained that this allows Icelanders to swim in the outdoor pools year-round. Yowza!
The importance of Iceland’s thermal springs is described at Perlan, aka The Pearl. A modern structure that looked to me like a giant water bubble, it has a cafeteria and an outdoor balcony with terrific views of the city on the fourth floor and a revolving restaurant inside the dome on the fifth. They have since added an Icelandic saga museum and a couple of shops to the mix. A small drinking fountain stood ready near the main entrance. Seeing its futuristic blue uplight, I wondered if the water might be coming from some magical fountain of youth.
We chatted with a British couple on the bus and discovered they were from the same town where friends of my parents had lived. Small world. The next stop was the main Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja, where an imposing statue of Leif Ericcson stands guard. The church was designed to resemble a lava flow, though if you didn’t know that, it looks more like a huge spaceship. It took almost 40 years to complete, beginning in 1945, so it had not even been started when Dad was stationed here in 1943-44.
Going for a ride
Later that afternoon, Dad relaxed at the hotel while I went for a ride on an Icelandic horse at the Hestar stable, just a half-hour outside Reykjavik. These are sturdy animals, a bit shorter than other breeds of horses. They are long-lived, ruggedly built, with loads of stamina, making them ideal horses for farm work. They have been in Iceland for more than a thousand years and have been bred to adapt to the colder climate. Icelandic law forbids any other breed of horse to enter the country and, if an Icelandic horse leaves, it is never allowed to return, to keep the breed pure. I expect it also prevents incoming horse diseases.
The most interesting thing about these rough-coated pony-size animals is an extra gait they have that other horses don’t. This gait, the tolt, is a very smooth running walk. Without any helpful hints to start, I had trouble figuring out how to sit for the tolt. Nothing I remembered from riding lessons in my early teens worked. Riding the tolt is most comfortable when you keep your legs straight in the stirrups and sit back in the saddle, not forward as with a hunt seat. Don’t grip with your knees and don’t post up and down; this gait is nothing like a trot. Even after some on-the-spot instruction, riding the tolt was hard to maintain. All that said, it was still exhilarating to ride out on the volcanic plains. I’d not been on a horse since college and I knew I’d be sore the next day but what was really embarrassing was trying to remount the horse unaided after we dismounted to give the ponies a rest (we all got a leg up when we first mounted up in the stable yard). Age is catching up with me and lack of daily exercise has reduced the range of motion in my joints, not to mention all the extra pounds I’m carrying around. Pooey! Fortunately, there were some fences and rocks to help the remounting, else I’d probably still be there.
We were given rubber boots, pants and coats, bright orange, which seemed designed to make unhorsed tourists easy to spot across the wide open, brown volcanic landscape as much as to keep people from going back to their hotels filthy if they fell off. Hard riding helmets completed the look.
The stables have expanded their services since I was there, but the countryside hasn’t. Still, like almost every experience I’ve had around Europe, I’d love to do it again.
Wrapping it up
Dinner with Dad that night was at an Italian place a few doors down from the hotel. Had I been on my own and wanted to eat out, I would have liked to find a nice seafood place but Dad, who stayed away from fish except for the sole meuniere at Crepes Suzette in NYC and whose fondest memory of wartime Iceland (aside from playing baseball at 2am in the summer) was of dumping crates of stinking fish rations into the harbor, was anxious for dinner to be as un-fishy as possible.
In the morning, I went down to the spa for my massage appointment. Boy, did I need it after that trail ride! It was actually my first and, so far, only massage and it was heavenly. Unfortunately, I hadn’t allowed time for the neck massage in the whirlpool tub. I skipped it so Dad wouldn’t get all grumpy waiting for breakfast.
Last minute shopping
A short raid in the hotel gift shop netted some great souvenirs – a fleece baseball cap with drop-down ear cover and a gorgeous Icelandic sweater. Dad always talked about going back again, but it was not to be. He died in 2008, aged 93.
Iceland is high on my own list of places to see again, either a smack-in-the-middle-of-summer trip for midnight sun or maybe a winter visit to look for Northern Lights. Or both. In addition to experiencing new features, I want to see the waterfalls and geysers and take a muddy dip in the Blue Lagoon.
As a tourist in Iceland, you are well taken care of. With very little pre-planning, you can see and do an awful lot whether your visit is a long one or just a few days, as ours was. For starters, there is the Flybus shuttle connection from the airport to each hotel. You don’t need a car in Reykjavik, but there are several car rental packages making it easy to tour the countryside beyond Reykjavik. The speed limit is only 50 mph even in the back of beyond (which is most of the country) which could be easy to forget when there is nothing but flattish vistas surrounding the long, straight roads. The city speed limit is 30 mph.
City sights and nearby natural attractions and activities are also available in a variety of packages. Choose what you most want to see given the time you have, sign up and pay at your hotel desk. Packages include hotel pickups, so just be in the lobby at pickup time, make sure you have your camera and you’re off! Multi-day excursions obviously include accommodations, so these are probably best booked before leaving home to coordinate your hotels. Iceland has added loads of new tour packages and upgraded destinations and attractions. Their website is filled with the latest deals and info.