Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Iceland: Land of Fire, Less Ice

The following is a guest post by Brandon Vescovo

Leave your tank tops, but bring your swim-trunks & camera – escape to Iceland!

Reykjavik as seen from atop the Hallgrimskirja cathedral
After landing at Keflavik International Airport at 7am, I stepped outside to pitch darkness and a blustering, horizontal rain. As I followed a British family out into the gale, our cute rental car shuttle bus driver shouted over his shoulder, “welcome to lovely Iceland!”

Iceland may not figure into most people’s imaginations as a vacation hot-spot. This spacious but sparsely populated "Land of Fire & Ice" has always been a popular destination for adventurous nature-lovers and photographers, and regular tourist traffic has been increasing. Still, the country is often forgotten (except, of course, when its hard-to-pronounce volcanoes disrupt air traffic); even mapmakers historically neglected to include it on European maps!

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Due to Iceland’s invisibility, the question “how do you like Iceland?” has taken on inside-joke status, as natives deploy it to put foreigners on the spot. But the sentiment is sincere – fiercely proud Icelanders want you to fall in love, too. Most descend from the original Viking settlers and fewer than half a million people worldwide speak Icelandic; the national and cultural pride is tight-knit and feverish.

They also have quite the objective right to be proud. By every possible measure used to gauge the success of nations, Iceland is one of the happiest, safest, greenest, and most peaceful countries to ever exist. But what does it offer the traveler? You can do things in Iceland that cannot be done anywhere else on earth, and find the finest examples of other things which can.

In essence, Iceland offers you the ability to drive for hours, pull off the road, walk into an expansive field surrounded by mountains and/or glaciers, and wonder if you’re the first person to ever stand in that exact spot. Then, you can update your Instagram followers, who will be extremely #jealous – plus, with the amazing light & vistas here, #nofilter is required.

Want to go snorkeling between two continental plates? You can do it here.

Expect a lot of sights like this
Want to drive a modified jeep across a glacier, camp out under a crystal clear night sky and watch the aurora borealis dance, or take photographs of scenery so awe-inspiring and ancient and unspoiled that it feels downright alien? Check.

How about swim in a geothermal hot spring or heated pool under the midnight sun, or, conversely, experience a 4-hour day where the sun appears just long enough to cast the soft light of morning onto the dramatic snowcapped peaks surrounding Reykjavik, before slipping away?
You get the point – the extremes of nature are Iceland’s main selling point, and it’s impossible to overstate how naturally beautiful this place is around every corner, along every road, from the edges of Reykjavik to far-flung fjords and lava fields. Pick a direction and forge your path – it’s impossible to go wrong.
An #Instagram #Selfie at Gulfoss
The most popular time of year to visit is the summer, when the sun is up for nearly 20 hours a day and weather is slightly warmer. It’s never warm mind you, but it’s also rarely frigid – the North Atlantic current keeps the country’s temperatures relatively moderate for its latitude.
Of course, the country offers plenty of activities unique to its seasons and you shouldn't fear an off-season trip – you have no hope of seeing the northern lights when the sun is up at 11pm, for instance. Prices are also much lower in the off-season, sometimes shockingly low if you book well enough in advance. For the best compromise between daylight, weather (winter is wet), and price, you might look to late September-early November and March-April.

Even if you’re not really the outdoorsy type, you’d be wasting a trip to not spend at least one day driving the Golden Circle route (or taking a tour – but I prefer driving). This popular tourist trek takes you to three of Iceland’s most notable sights, all accessible in a day-trip from Reykjavik: Thingvellir (Þingvellir) national park, a field of geysers at Haukadalur that erupt like clockwork, and the waterfall at Gullfoss.

Thingvellir National Park
The major roads all over the country are well-maintained and easy for an attentive and cautious driver to navigate in any standard vehicle, but they are usually two lanes and rather twisty at times. Thankfully, there are many places you can pull over and safely take photos. Most roads to the deep (and uninhabited) interior of the country are closed in the off-season and require a 4-wheel drive to navigate even when they’re open, but driving the major highways around the country will be enough for most – the diversity of scenery will impress, and you won’t be outside your comfort and safety zone.

Outside of the outdoors?

There is enough to do in Reykjavik for a few days, from world-class dining, cute shopping, striking architecture, and museums that range from the historical to the…err, unique! Try the Icelandic Phallological Museum for an educational display of 200 types of mammalian penises! I bought a cute wooden penis bottle-opener from the (I assume, very lucrative) gift shop.

With quality and geographical isolation comes relatively high prices for commodities – food and drink is expensive year-round, especially alcohol, so be prepared for a little sticker shock. Even fast food tends to be as pricey as a casual sit-down chain back home. Iceland uses its own version of the krona, which is slightly weaker than the dollar. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but don’t even bother bringing your Discover or American Express. Carry some cash.

Living in a Post-Gay world

Don’t expect mega clubs or circuit parties. Being a very small, politically progressive, Nordic country, Iceland typifies the post-modern gay world. However, regardless of whether Iceland has a lot of capital-G Gay activities, there is nowhere that you need to feel unsafe. Gays have equal rights and the vast majority of Icelanders agree with this. Pink Iceland is a good resource to help direct you to establishments and activities geared toward Iceland’s LGBT community and visitors.

Kiki - the very obviously gay bar!
Pride occurs the first or second weekend of every August, and late January also brings us the Rainbow Reykjavik Festival. Kiki, the official gay bar, located off Laugavegur street in downtown Reykjavik, is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and plays a hot mix of top-40 and dance classics on the second floor, with space to chill on the third floor. I found the crowd to be very diverse, friendly, and energetic, full of tourists and Icelanders alike. There’s no standing and posing – people come here to dance! Also, there’s Dolly, which bills itself as gay-friendly with engaging (and hot!) bartenders and a gay enough crowd.

I found Grindr to be active, so don’t be afraid to use any of those “networking” apps. I met a British student out for a drink – as a foreigner in the post-gay world, sometimes apps are the easiest way to seek out new friends with public meeting spots few and far between.

One last thing – either upon your arrival or on your way to the airport, drop by and refresh yourself at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa! A perfect way to begin or end your trip! 

However you do Iceland, whenever you do Iceland, it will be a trip to document and brag about. Go once, and then come back with all your friends who called you crazy the first time!

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