Ideological Iceland: A Weekend of Forward-Thinking Food, Politics and Empowered Women in the Scandinavian Mini-Utopia

Above image by Robyn Dutra

 

 

If the draconian attempts by the current administration to curtail women’s reproductive rights has got you down, may we suggest a quick escape to Iceland? After all, this is the country intent on closing the gender pay gap, having passed the Iceland Equal Pay Certification law early last year. They also elected the world’s first female president back in 1980, and have yet another bold female environmentalist serving as Prime Minister today.

We did precisely that, hopping an Icelandair flight as soon as possible, for an empowering tour of women-owned businesses. And taking advantage of the airline’s ingenious Stopover program, we made a quick detour to Copenhagen just afterwards. (Story to follow.)

It should be noted that Icelandair boasts nearly double the average of female pilots than any other commercial airline. Making up 12.9% of the team, the airline has also implemented the equal pay gap within the company. With a commitment to gender equality across the business Icelandair champions women in the boardroom. 41% of executive and director level roles are filled by women. So any feminist looking to mindfully travel across the Atlantic, should seriously consider VIA Equality with Icelandair.

Once on the ground, we settled into the fun and funky Reykjavik Marina Hotel, centrally located so you need not wander far to enjoy some of the city’s best female-run and LGBTQ-friendly establishments. First was the Coocoo’s Nest – just a 5-minute walk from the hotel – a family-owned restaurant where owners Iris Ann Siguroardottir and her husband, chef and artist Lucas Keller, serve deliciously healthy meals to a supportive clientele.

Lady Brewery

 

Keller is known for his outstanding baked bread (we can attest, after eating our way through almost an entire heavenly loaf), and the Coocoo’s Nest donates leftover sourdough scraps to a local chicken farmer. Sharing an ethos of environmental sustainability (common in Iceland), Julius Mar then provides the restaurant with their very fresh eggs. He’s dedicated his life to preserving the foundation of Icelandic settlement chickens, which fascinating story can be read here.

The pair had more recently opened Luna Florens, a “holistic gypsy bar, cafe and boutique,” a welcoming spot for all stripes, full of plants and crystals in all their witchy goodness. There’s also a selection of craft beers on offer from Lady Brewery, a one-of-a-kind, all-female run micro brewery.

Founded by Þórey Björk Halldórsdóttir, she’s revolutionizing the male-dominated brewing industry in Iceland one beautifully branded bottle at a time. A designer by background, Þórey and her husband, Baldur Bjornsson, an artist and electronic musician, also run a creative studio in Reykjavik called And Anti Matter (&AM).

Coocoo’s Nest

 

Iris, also a photographer and visual artist, even recommended her tattoo artist, after we admired her many, weirdly wonderful tats. Audur Yr Elísabetardóttir is an Icelandic illustrator and tattoo apprentice. Also living in burgeoning downtown Reykjavik, her style is simple and delicate. A must visit if you’re looking to add to your existing body art.

We were especially taken with the Women’s Book Lounge, just a short, very scenic drive from Reykjavik. Established in April of 2013, the educational museum is dedicated to Icelandic female writers, with it’s objective to preserve their written works at home and abroad, making the texts and information about the authors available to the public. A noble endeavor, indeed.

In fact, you’ll find all 26 of the beloved and widely read author Gudrun fra Lundi (1887-1975), alongside copies of the first women’s magazine in Iceland, Kvennablaoio (1895-1919). It’s a friendly, drop-in kind of space, where we enjoyed a hot cup of strong coffee on the rainy day we were there, and even more, the conversation with librarian and founder Anna Jonsdottir and author Sella Pals.

Women’s Book Lounge

Pals, a native Icelander, spent 40 years in the states. Arriving at the tender age of 17, she earned her B.S. at the University of Utah, going on to become an off-Broadway producer of Forbidden Broadway in New York and Boston. Her first novel, Pitching Diamonds, was published in 2012. Sella’s passion for writing is just one vocation among many, including restaurant owner (on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), documentary filmmaker, e-commerce entrepreneur, substance abuse counselor, interior designer, rancher and mother. Did we mention, Icelandic women are totally badass? (Check out her latest work, Girndarráð).

As nearly half of Iceland’s Parliament are women, we were excited to share a meal at Fish Market with Helga Vala Helgadottir of the Social Democratic Alliance. Over lobster soup, the house speciality composed of langoustine tails, prepared in coconut milk with mandarin oranges, we discussed politics there and here (in the U.S.).

Proprietor Hrefna Rosa Saetran is one of the city’s brightest chefs, creating upscale Icelandic-Asian fusion on Adalstraeti near the waterfront. The Fish Market has been turning out creative fare since 2008, and remains a hot table. There’s puffin on the menu, which was a bit disconcerting since one can take a boat tour to see the lovable little birds up close; but our waiter promised it was harvested locally. There’s also minke whale, served in thin slices with an airy wasabi. We recommend the tasting menu for first timers, saving room for the excellent desserts including a unique licorice and praline lava mousse.

Fish Market 

 

Helgadottir leads one of eight parties (there’s even a Pirate Party in Iceland – think, skull-and-crossbones flag), and graciously gave us a Saturday morning tour of the modest yet no less impressive Parliament – where the original building is joined by a new, Nordic-modern wing. There’s a life-size bronze statue out front, memorializing Icelandic suffragist, politician, school teacher and gymnast, Ingibjorg H Bjarnason. Take a selfie with the first woman to become a member of Althing, which is what the country’s parliament is called.

We well knew Iceland elected the world’s first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who served in that position from 1980 to 1996. Arriving hot on the heels of the 1975 Iceland Women’s Strike in Reykjavik’s main square, Finnbogadottir remains the longest-serving elected female head of state of any country to date. (Take that, America.)

Notably, Iceland also appointed Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as the first female Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian head of government in 2009; while the country’s second female Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has held the office since 2017. Voted “Iceland’s Most Trusted Politician”, after the corruption scandals that saw the country jail its bankers, the 41-year old is a staunch environmentalist. The mother of three sons leads Iceland’s Left-Green Movement, and is intent on making the island carbon-neutral by 2040.

Iceland Parliament

 

A stop at the offices of Pink Iceland is also a must. The LGBT travel and wedding company hosts a “pop up Hygge” every Friday night, with a rotating lineup of performers and free libations. Hannes Pall, owner and operator, has planned and executed over 500 weddings over the past seven years in Iceland.

With the country having legalized gay marriage in 2010, business has been booming. From hosting your nuptials in a glacier to other otherworldly locations, this gay-owned and uber-inclusive agency also tailors tours, and is amazing at getting you on or off the beaten path, curating experiences for the luxury to the laid back traveler.

Absorbing all that progressivism made us a bit peckish, so we made for the one of Iceland’s most unique man-made attractions, the Fridheimar tomato farm. Family-owned and operated since 1995, midlife matriarch Helena Hermundardottir gave us a guided tour followed by a tomato-fueled lunch at the farm’s on-site restaurant. If you’ve ever wondered how Icelanders get their fresh produce, this is it.

 

Fridhaimer

Growing the most flavorful tomatoes we’ve ever tasted, the farm’s greenhouses welcome visitors every day. One can soak up the ‘sun’ under the artificial lighting year round; the farm’s impressive atrium is especially inviting during Iceland’s long, dark winters. The family also breeds Icelandic horses, the only kind you’ll find on the island and coveted the world over.

It was typical, of course, of everything we encountered on this particularly ideological visit to the eye-openingly progressive Scandinavian nation. Western principalities can take a lesson in how acting decisively locally, can indeed ideologically counter what is so troublingly happening globally.

 

Top: Reykjavik Marina Hotel; Bottom two: Downtown Reykjavik, by Robyn Dutra
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