Nordic Charm: what to do in Reykjavik, Iceland
Famous for its geothermal pools, Reykjavik has emerged beyond the blue to become a must-visit Nordic food-and-design destination, discovers Gemma Price
By Gemma Price | Published #70, Winter 2017
As Instagram-worthy travel experiences go, a soak in Iceland’s legendary Blue Lagoon – a geothermal pool surrounded by snow-capped mountains and moss-covered lava fields – is hard to beat. Bill Gates took a midnight swim here. So, too, did Beyoncé and Jay Z, on their recent visit to Iceland to celebrate the rapper’s birthday. And because they rented the entire space for their exclusive use, their photos, unlike mine, probably didn’t include hoards of British, American and Japanese tourists – something other well-heeled travellers will be able to replicate when they come to soak in the silica- and algae-rich, allegedly anti-aging waters later this year.
Building on its 2016 expansion, this summer the Blue Lagoon – named among the 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic magazine – will launch luxury spa Lava Cove, set deep within the area’s natural lava formations. The 62-room Moss Hotel will follow in autumn, where each room will open onto its own private balcony and mini-cove, etched into the edge of the lagoon.
This will come as welcome news to most travellers. While it’s always been easy to snag a table at the top-notch, on-site Lava restaurant – where dishes such as langoustine soup and shoulder of lamb with artichokes, carrots, dates and thyme are a far cry from the usual poolside fare – the lagoon resort’s six luxury rooms, which offer exclusive access to a private area of the lagoon, are often booked up months in advance. The next-best option is to take the Premium package, which offers a robe and slippers alongside standard access to silica and algae mud masks doled out from counters fringing the lagoon. But even this might be sold out – daily passes are limited and as Iceland’s popularity continues to grow, so do the numbers of visitors bussed in from Reykjavik, 50 minutes away.
Luxury operators, particularly in the capital Reykjavik, are hastily expanding their offering to meet demand. Hospitality stalwarts the Hotel Borg and Icelandair hotels Marina and Natura have been joined by the upscale Canopy by Hilton, where ocean- and volcanic-rock inspired rooms are set across six art-filled houses, and the sleek 101 Hotel, Kim and Kanye’s digs of choice when they’re in town.
Tower Suites, perched on the 20th floor of a new office block, are the most visually arresting accommodations in town: the almost unpronounceable names of each of the eight suites are taken from the mountains they overlook, a jaw-dropping panorama visible from both the bed and tub in each room. The ultra-exclusive Trophy Lodge, nestled in the mountains beneath Langjokull glacier within Iceland’s famed Golden Circle, is owned by the same folks. The property is available by referral only so don’t expect to be able to book online.
Pockets of the city are being given new life as old buildings are renovated and colonised by art galleries and hip eateries. When a four-storey former herring factory opened as the Marshall Building – home to a honey-toned restaurant, gallery space for emerging artists, and a permanent exhibition-cum-studio space for artist Olafur Eliason – in March, it cemented the burgeoning harbour area’s reputation as the new place to hang out. Icelandic fashion brands Farmer’s Market and Steinnun have their flagship stores here; the after-party for Reykjavik Fashion Festival – the capital’s annual version of fashion week – was held here at Bryggjan Burgghús, Iceland’s first brewpub.
Elma Backman realised the area was on the up and up, which is why she opened her restaurant Matur og Drykkur (“Food and Drink”) at the harbour mouth two years ago. Menus feature traditional Icelandic dishes but you’ll find no fermented shark here: dried, thinly sliced lamb with Iceland’s sweet-and-sour sauce, lightly seared shark and grilled fish skin topped with dollops of pureed carrot are a modern twist on heritage recipes that chefs take from a 1950s recipe book.
“This area is becoming much more of a destination for both visitors and Icelandic people. Before it was unheard of for locals to dine out on anything other than a special occasion,” says Backman.
In fact, it’s fair to say that Iceland’s culinary scene – previously overshadowed by neighbours Sweden, Norway and Denmark – is having a moment.
New Nordic 20-seat restaurant Dill was just awarded its first Michelin star. Set within an old stables, a prix fixe seven-course menu of dishes such as smoked haddock, potato and local yogurt skyr, based on foraged ingredients, is served to a single seating nightly from Wednesday through Saturday.
Grillið at the Radisson Blu is still a go-to for white tablecloths and haute cuisine; at Fiskmarkaðurinn (“Fish Market”), set over two cosy levels of a town house, head chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran selects fresh ingredients bought directly from farmers and fishermen, offering local fare such as robata-grilled minke whale with horseradish and redcurrant, soy ginger sauce and smoked puffin breast alongside Japanese hot dishes and sushi.
And paralleling growth in the hospitality scene is the proliferation of boutiques run – and often staffed – by designers, many of whom don’t worry about launching a fancy website or being searchable on Google maps as they benefit from curious, captive foot traffic.
Designer Hildur Yeoman’s new store at Skólavörðustígur 22b stocks her contemporary feminine designs and international brands such as Dutch lingerie label Love Stories; at Orrifin, a jewellery store tucked below street level, goldsmith proprietors Orri Finnbogason and Helga Gvuðrún Friðriksdóttir can often be found crafting their signature scissor pendants and braided metal rings and necklaces in the workshop behind the till.
Ask Iceland’s designers where they get their inspiration, and they’ll direct you to any number of spots where they feel close to “the nature”. The craggy green peaks, waterfalls and bays of the Westfjords are unbelievably beautiful; the glaciers of central Iceland feed huge rivers and rainbow-ringed waterfalls such as Skógafoss and Goðafoss are impressive natural amphitheatres.
Even if you don’t have time to undertake a thorough expedition in Iceland’s myriad landscapes, you can cheat, like I did, and take a luxury Helo helicopter ride. Route options abound, but I recommend flying over the Golden Circle, where you’ll see old Viking settlements and glacier-capped mountains, to Langjökull, where you can stroll through a man-made tunnel inside the glacier itself.
Another recommendation? Iceland’s visitor numbers only look set to increase, so you better go now, before everybody else does.
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Weather to go
Iceland has a cool oceanic climate, as its location on the gulf stream rules the climate and keeps temperatures surprisingly pleasant for a place named after ice. Winters in the lowlands usually have an average temperature of 0 degrees Celsius, while summer temperatures are usually around 10 degrees Celsius. The most characteristic part of Iceland's weather is the wind, which the native tongue has nine different terms to describe. The most popular time to visit is in Summer, between June and August.
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