Winter in Iceland: Glacier Tunnels, Thermal Pools and a Trendy New Food Hall

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If you’re in need of a dramatic change of scenery as much as we were – given the unsightly view of the current political landscape at home – may we suggest hopping the next flight to the always breathtakingly beautiful Iceland?

It’s all true! From glacier-hopping to the ethereal glow of the Northern Lights, the unhurried cosmopolitan buzz of Reykjavik to the soothing thermal baths of the Blue Lagoon, we can decisively report that Iceland is still as cool as it is comely. And the terribly clever Icelandair Stopover program means you can now stay up to seven nights on your way to another European destination at no additional airfare cost. Can you say “Já takk”? (Yes, please!)

 

Reykjavik

 

And while back home they were still sorting through the detritus of high-level misogyny and sexual assault, we were basking in the country’s Scandinavian progressive glow. Indeed, not only did Iceland elect the first woman head of state anywhere in the world in 1980 – Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, a divorced single mother, went on to serve four terms. They also elected the first openly gay woman in 2009, as well as its first female Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir.

And did we mention there are horses? Not just any horses (and don’t call them ponies); Iceland’s equine treasures may be smaller than average but, like seemingly everyone on the island, they pack a lot of personality. These gentle beasts are popular the world over, and are the only breed native to, and therefore allowed, in Iceland.

Here’s what we did.

 

Ice, Ice…

Our first order of business was to head 45 meters below ground, by way of snowmobile, to the tunnel entrance of Langjokull. It’s Iceland’s second largest glacier. The Mountaineers™ 4-wheel-drive-on-steroids monster trucks deposit you halfway up to your already revving rides (you can’t turn them off or they’ll freeze in the frigid temps).
We set off during white-out conditions, a thrilling and bone-chilling, but once in a lifetime experience. Of course, we were particularly thankful for the warmth and protection of our borrowed snowsuit, and safely in the hands of our neon-clad, GPS-equipped expert glacier guide. It was all part of the Into the Glacier adventure tour, and said adventure allowed us to visit a man-made ice cave and an acoustically-designed chapel, where our guide – who was currently starring in Reykjavik’s version of “Mamma Mia” – serenaded us with a haunting Icelandic folk song.

 

 

Chasing Waterfalls

The spectacular natural wonders blew our minds perhaps even more than we’d expected. For instance, the rugged Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) in South Iceland – on the Hvita (White) River – is fed by our favorite glacier, the Langjokull. Its water plummets 32 meters down, in two drops, with walls that reach up to 70 meters in height. You might even catch a rainbow on a sunny day.
As with most destinations in Iceland, there’s a story to be told. Sigriour Tomasdottir, the daughter of a farmer, fought (often barefoot) to save the falls from development, even threatening to throw herself in at one point. In 1907 her father had leased the land to an Englishman who wanted to harness Gullfoss’ power for electricity. The scrappy lass used her own money for the lawyer’s fees, but failed in court after numerous attempts – though the lease finally ended up getting thrown out on a technicality. Lucky for us, as the pristine waterway is a life-altering sight to behold. Sold to the government in 1940 and designated as a nature reserve in 1979, Gullfoss’ savior, Sigriour, is often called Iceland’s first environmentalist.

 

 

The Cure 

What was once just a tiny pond of geothermal runoff in the early ‘80s is now one of Iceland’s must-do attractions. Indeed, the Blue Lagoon has been impressively designed out of black volcanic rock to utterly dramatic effect. A favorite among locals too, our Icelandair Stopover buddy and guide, Inga Osk Olafsdottir, told us the tale of her uncle, who worked at the plant, wading into the waters…which miraculously cured a chronic skin condition.
Even being healthy, we were mesmerized by the mist-laden, medicinal waters. There are two kinds of silica mud masks on offer, and one can quench one’s thirst at the Lagoon Bar without ever leaving the warm water. When we were feeling peckish, we donned one of the plush terrycloth robes on hand and sauntered inside to the highly-regarded Lava Restaurant. We very much recommend the langoustine (think tiny lobster) soup to start, followed by local favorites: fresh caught cod and locally-raised lamb. And surprising that one didn’t exist already – but a wellness hotel will be opening here in April. No diving please!
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Eat Sleep Repeat 

Icelandair plays an active role in hospitality – and we found its Hotel Reykavik Marina to be a very stylish, convivial place to stay. Very centrally located, the guest rooms are done up with a zen Scandinavian appeal, while the public spaces are cool and colorful, with eclectic, charmingly mismatched furnishings. The family of mannequins down the main hall were a little creepy at first, but ultimately a clever and fun touch. Request a room facing the marina, so you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the active shipyard.
The hotel’s mod-meets-bric-a-brac Slippbarinn restaurant and bar is full of cuties, with a “spunky” happy hour boasting cuckoo-sounding cocktails like Hiphopopotamus, Judas Hobo and, simply, Penicillin. Plan to dive in to the hearty breakfast buffet before venturing out to the shopping and galleries just blocks away.

 

 

Kids In The Food Hall

Quite a clever repurposing, a former derelict bus station in the city center was transformed into a discriminating dining hub recently, with the opening of Hlemmur Mathöll Food Hall – one of the buzziest spots in Reykjavik now. “All kinds of food for all kinds of people,” goes the manifesto, and we were lucky to taste almost all of it with our new friends from Icelandair Stopover, Inga and Unnur Eir Arnardottir. We loved the Danish open-faced sandwiches at Jomfruin, and also hit a variety of booths serving gourmet global goodies: Vietnamese (Banh Mi), Mexican (La Poblana), Italian (Bordid), and so on. Krost is notable for the curated selection of French wines and cured meats, while Isleifur Heppni proved it’s never too cold for liquid nitrogen-spun ice cream in Iceland.

 

 

We Laughed So Hard…

Who knew Icelanders had such a wicked sense of humor? Ari Eldjarn’s stand up will have you in stitches with his spot on send up of Scandinavian stereotypes. While in Reyjkavik, we enjoyed an up-close-and-personal gig in the living room of an Icelandair Stopover Buddy. Eldjarn, a former Icelandair flight attendant, is now a Buddy in the Stopover program. Be sure to catch his show live around Reykavik, or on one of his worldwide tours. March 12 through the 17th he’ll be at the Soho Theatre in London for his “Pardon my Icelandic” show. Eldjarn’s hilarious observations and insights into fatherhood, the size of Iceland (pop 380,000), and his time as a flight attendant are sure to bring the house down.

Stylish Nights, Northern Lights

We made a point of getting out of the capital for a couple of nights – and can’t say enough about the stunning ION Adventure Hotel. Nestled into the hillside, against a backdrop of lava fields and geothermal plumes, on the perimeter of the Thingvellir National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), it’s a genuine architectural wonder. There are breathtaking views from every room; and the on-site Lava Spa has its own thermal pool.
Though we fell in love with the hotel’s Silfra restaurant, where we savored the arctic char and lamb shank, both mouth-wateringly succulent and locally produced. The name of their award-winning Northern Lights Bar pretty much speaks for itself.
But they also offer horseback riding in the warmer weather; which, naturally, has us already planning our return trip.

 

 

Icelandair’s Stopover Pass series of free curated performances is in celebration of its 80th year, starring Icelandair Buddies and Icelandic talent. As mentioned, Icelandair passengers can transform their boarding pass to a Stopover Pass from now until end of March 2018. The Stopover Pass offers access to unique private stand-up, dance and music events, including Sigur Ros concerts, duo Milkwhale in the home of a Buddy, and even surprise performances by buzzy local artists in Icelandair’s brand new and cozy Saga Lounge at Keflavík Airport.

The Stopover Pass gives you the unique opportunity to add free entertainment to your transatlantic travels – to find out more and see how you can transform your boarding pass into a Stopover Pass visit: icelandair.us/stopover-pass.