From hot tubs to hotdogs, we loved it all.
The only regret we have about our visit to Iceland is that it was so short. Iceland’s tourism infrastructure is still developing, and we allowed ourselves to be daunted by the frustrations of booking (or more accurately not booking) an organized Ring Road self-drive with pre-arranged accommodations. Instead, we opted to stay in Reykjavik for three nights, intending to see the highlights and then hightail it for Denmark: with availability so tight, we thought, the country surely must be heaving with tourist hordes. We shouldn’t have given up so easily. Iceland can absolutely be explored independently, it is unspoiled, and we loved everything about it – the food, the scenery, and especially the people. Our top five:
5. Our Viking ship adventure. We absolutely loved crewing a replica flat-bottomed wooden raiding ship and learning about the Vikings from our expert guide, whose flair for storytelling was complemented by impressive historical knowledge ranging well beyond Iceland and Vikings. It happened that one of our oarmates had just finished writing a Master’s thesis about Game of Thrones, parts of which were filmed in Iceland. This launched an interesting tangent about how much George RR Martin drew on Icelandic history to create the Wildlings. The conversation shed a lot of light on Icelandic values, something we’d later see echoed in an art exhibition at Thingvellir, Gabriela Fridriksdottir’s “Seven Cardinal Virtues,” which compares traditional Viking and modern Icelandic values. Your Viking voyage will likely not include such a deep discussion of Westeros and Beyond the Wall, but I bet it will be amazing anyway. We saw a few puffins and shocking numbers of Blue Moon jellyfish, which were enough to amaze and captivate Sam, whose complete ignorance of all things Game of Thrones has been preserved through considerable parental effort.
4. The Golden Circle. There is nothing the least bit golden or circular about the route from Thingvellir to the geysers to Gullfoss, just three extraordinary stops in a landscape of unremitting, extravagant beauty. Unless you’re travelling solo it’s probably cheaper and certainly better to rent a car so that you can go at your own pace – I promise you won’t get lost. If you’ve started with Thingvellir and you’re at the geysers beginning to wonder if you should just skip Gullfoss, please don’t – it’s the most majestic site we’ve ever seen and we were truly moved by its dangerous beauty.
3. The hotdogs. Even though I’ve given up the vegetarianism of my youth I’ve not been able to embrace tubes of mystery meat with quite as much enthusiasm as, say, bacon. However, Icelandic hotdogs have two things going for them. For one thing, their ingredients and condiments are different from typical ballpark franks: they have lamb inside, and are topped by a delicious combination of ketchup, mustard, a white sauce that’s reminiscent of remoulade or aioli, plus a double dose of onions, chopped raw and crispy fried. Even better, in a travel destination that can be eye-wateringly expensive, hotdogs are cheap and ubiquitous. A child who cries at the sight of a gorgeous plate of local fish or a steaming bowl of traditional lamb soup (that’s Sam) needs to eat something eventually, and as long as there is a gas station or convenience store on your route you will find hotdogs. Accept non-ketchup toppings at your own risk if you have a crier, but for yourself definitely sample one with the works.
2. The water, in all its forms. We have never tasted such delicious tap water, and we enjoyed getting out on the ocean on our Viking ship adventure, but we really fell in love with the public pools. Did you think that the Blue Lagoon was the last word on geothermal bathing? Icelanders are swimming in geothermal energy (see what I did there?) so they channel the earth’s abundant natural heat in elaborate community pool complexes, usually with some combination of temperate lap pools, slightly warmer kiddie pools with waterslides, and hot tubs at various temperatures ranging from pleasant to scalding. There are sometimes saunas or steam rooms as well. On a long summer evening you’ll find the entire community relaxing there, chatting animatedly in the hot tub or splashing around in this Icelandic twist on a playground, and for tourists I’d recommend this Icelandic institution after a day of sightseeing to wash off the travel dust and let the kids burn off any extra energy before bed. The Icelanders are experts in a well-run pool environment, with rules enforced for the common good. After leaving your shoes outside the changing rooms and claiming your free locker, you’ll see signs indicating in no uncertain terms that you must shower, with soap but without your bathing suit, paying special attention to the zones highlighted on a rather hilarious little diagram (hair, pits, crotch, feet).
There is a certain amount of tut-tutting regulation among patrons, and also sometimes an attendant who serves as the soap police. This attendant (or any local busybody who happens to be in the changing room) will also enforce the rules for the return journey: after the pool, you wash, remove your swimsuit and pop it in the spinner, then towel off completely in the wet zone before you dare to set a toe back in the changing area. As a result, the locker room is not that disgusting mix of water, street dirt, and stray hairs typical of the public pools I’ve frequented elsewhere. I am entirely sold on the Icelandic approach to changeroom etiquette, even though it means more unabashed nudity than I’d have thought I could manage. It was a little weird to see pairs and trios of women wandering over to the showers together stark naked or chatting as they towelled themselves off while their swimsuits spun, but once I got over my North American prudishness I could see the merits of this system and would welcome an Icelandic invasion of Canada’s public pools. I might not have felt the same way if I’d had someone with me – if you are my friend or relative I hope to never see your pubic hair – but my experience was surprisingly fine.
1. The people. We met three local teenage boys at the pool. They approached me while I was waiting for Sam to come down the waterslide, and I girded my loins for some kind of unpleasant interaction, since this is how the conversation would have gone in most places. Teenage boys only speak to some kid’s mother on a dare, or to be obnoxious, or to start trouble, right? These ones just wanted to show off their English, ask questions about Canada, and befriend Sam, who was playing alone in a pool full of kids. The boys were no angels, and they did end up getting kicked out for breaking one of the numerous pool rules, but not before helping me to crystallize my feelings about Icelanders. Not one person was ever less than lovely, curious, welcoming, and warm to us. I’m sure that the increase in tourism will change a few things about Iceland, but I hope that it never changes the Icelanders.
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