ICE BLUE: WITH REYKJAVÍK AS YOUR BASE, AN ISLAND COUNTRY BECOMES A WATERWORLD
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When I ask Reykjavík fashion designer Halldóra to describe just what it means to be Icelandic, her answer comes quickly: “Actually, we have a word for it in our language.” I brace myself for the inevitable seven syllables, assorted accent marks, and 20 letters, which are drawn from a 32-character alphabet that includes thorn and eth.
Halldóra’s last name is Eydis, but she prefers to be known only by her first name, like Madonna. As she reaches for the word to convey the local Nordic spirit — holding court in her stylish boutique on Laugavegur, the city’s main street — I feel my eyes narrow involuntarily. I lean in, trying to trace the unfamiliar sounds in the air between us.
But no matter. She quickly translates: The essence of being Icelandic, she tells me — as far as I can discern — is Just ride it out. Ride out life’s snags; ride out the sunless winters just south of the Arctic Circle, because the near 24-hour daylight of summer is coming. The mantra has served Icelanders well, for there isn’t much to ride out these days. Tourism is booming: In 2015, more than 1.2 million people visited this country of 332,000, and big gains are expected this year.
Suddenly, Iceland is on everyone’s short list, and the locals, who can be disarmingly open, seem charmed by all the attention, if not a bit puzzled by it. More than one Icelander I meet tells me that many people here believe in fairies. Tourists they take in stride.
Just ride it out. Not one person I meet in Iceland takes the time or energy to be uptight. They’re too busy soaking. Yes, you will see ice in Iceland — the brown hills look as if they were painted in white glacial slashes, with a delicate brush. But you’ll see far more water.
There are geysers and crater lakes, famously raging waterfalls, and streams that wend their way through the scored lava fields. And Icelanders take seriously the benefits of bathing in the geothermal water that bubbles below this volcanic land, which is why Reykjavík can claim 17 public pools and the country itself has more than 100. Whether in rooftop baths or fancy spas, in communal hot springs or lap pools indoors or out — Icelanders like to take the waters.
One can get wet without even trying. I’m enveloped in the mist created by Gullfoss (Golden Falls), a powerful tiered waterfall that drops angrily into a ragged hole in the earth; it’s just one of many examples where the topography of Iceland looks ripped open. Gullfoss is the star of the Golden Circle, the 190-mile loop in southern Iceland that is easily accessible and navigable from Reykjavík. Droplets of water shimmer and create a film over the view, and I don’t have to wait long for a rainbow to appear before me.
Such natural attractions draw a hardy crowd in high-tech gear, much of it, I notice, from 66°North. Founded in 1926 by Hans Kristjánsson, the company took on a mission to outfit fishermen. Named for the latitudinal line where it was launched, this ubiquitous Icelandic brand dutifully bundles up a wide swath of adventure-seeking locals and visitors, from daytrippers to folks who spend weeks camping in the wild. I quickly decide I can’t leave the country without a knit hat emblazoned with 66°North, and it serves me well—not only at Gullfoss but also at Geysir, where the geyser called Strokkur (it means “churn”) erupts every 10 minutes, and at Thingvellir National Park, which is located in a spectacular rift valley that contains Öxarárfoss, a formidable waterfall of its own.
After all that water, I go the Icelandic way: more water. Laugarvatn Fontana, located on the road between Geysir and Thingvellir, offers an outdoor spa of geothermal baths at various temperatures, and a steam room whose vapors rise naturally from beneath the floorboards.
As Snorri Elis, the spa’s manager on duty, quickly shows me, it’s not only people who are luxuriating under the bubbles. He leads me outside and lets me watch as he digs out a pot buried in 200-degree volcanic mud (don’t let your foot slip). Out of that mud he endeavors to produce lunch: the hot-spring-baked rye bread that stands as a point of honor among Icelanders. The dark bread generates a lot of interest and satisfies a lot of appetites, especially when topped with smoked salmon. Snorri has four pots in the ground at once.
Back inside, Snorri slides the bread out from the butter-greased pot to find it perfectly baked and steaming. Mother Nature has cooperated with the baker — this time. “Hot spots move around,” Snorri explains. “They have a life of their own. Sometimes you open it up and it’s just dough!” I get the feeling that this is the kind of thing that Icelanders accept goodnaturedly.
Later, when I make a spur-of-the-moment stop at Galleri Laugarvatn for a coffee and skyr (local yogurt, usually served with berries as dessert), the off-center bonhomie continues. Tall, Nordic, and sturdy, Joel and his wife Thuridur own this homey gift shop and café, and when Joel tells me that 13 years ago he built the timber structure “with these two hands here,” it is not something I would dispute.
Then I ask Thuridur about her name.
“It’s an old Icelandic name,” she says.
“How many generations has your family been here?” I ask, intrigued.
“We were the first ones!”
These artisans from Reykjavík — Joel builds furniture and Thuridur works with iron—relocated here to their “summer house.” I don’t mention the irony of a summer house 45 minutes away from the city — on the tundra — but I doubt the humor would be lost on them. “We’re lucky to live in such a peaceful place,” Joel had said to me a few minutes earlier. “It’s a little crazy, but so are we.”
There’s warm blue water as far as the eye can see. As I wade, my face is slathered in green algae; 20 minutes ago it was covered in white silica. It’s supposed to be good for you. It feels good. This is the Blue Lagoon, purportedly the most popular attraction in the whole country.
This vast geothermal pool lies in the opposite direction of the Golden Circle, southwest from Reykjavík, and it’s surrounded by moss-covered lava fields. (On the road to get here, the gable of an occasional turf house rises from the ground, bringing to mind fairies and hobbits.)
After the requisite 10 minutes, I let the algae mask wash off my face and try to freestyle a bit. My swimming goggles are pretty much useless. You can’t see through the Blue Lagoon; the minerals that account for its gorgeous ice-blueness also prevent much visibility, so everyone’s disembodied torsos and heads emerge from pure, waveless color. The effect is otherworldly, and the warmth makes leaving seem unimaginable. Why would I leave? There are cashless swim-up bars, and, at the swim-up beauty counter, lovely Icelandic girls to cheerfully supply me with all the face goop I’ll ever need.
On the bridge above me, a lifeguard in a black waterproof suit gives me a broad smile when I call up to him to ask what is the craziest thing he’s seen in the lagoon. “Do people try to dive in?” I ask. (The water is not only opaque, but shallow.)
“That’s the least of it,” he tells me. I would say that his words are accompanied by a leer, except that Icelanders can’t quite leer. I continue on my wade.
Tonight, in town, there will be dinner at the casual and colorful Fish & More on Skólavörðustígur Street, where the local plates include plokkfiskur — a hearty mash of haddock and cod mixed with potatoes, onions, spices, and herbs. At the English Pub, the golden Viking beer will flow — and so will the kumensnaoi cocktails: a mix of Brennivin schnapps, honeylemon juice, and bitter lemon. Reykjavík’s thriving music scene will assert itself, courtesy of a honey-voiced duo at the English Pub and a solo guitarist at the American Bar. And then I’ll walk out onto Laugavegur Street—still sunlit at 10 p.m. — to an easygoing city as bright as night, to contemplate tomorrow’s schedule of life-affirming waterworks.