I do not enjoy winter. With ice comes the risk of slipping and breaking a bone that Donald won’t allow Obamacare to fix. With snow comes blizzards and avalanches and the need to resort to cannibalism while stranded. Just think of it this way: Bears, who are some of the world’s most fierce and rugged animals, rarely venture out in the winter. They’re like, “Man, wake me up in March!” So why would I take a vacation to Iceland in the middle of winter? Because I was curious, my wife’s been wanting to go for years, and round-trip tickets were only $300 each.
We flew into Reykjavik via Wow Airlines, an Icelandic low-cost airliner with destinations in seven U.S. cities and a number of places in Europe. I was not expecting much; their reviews are mostly bad and I’ve been jaded by Spirit Airlines, the discount carrier/Greyhound of the skies whose cramped flights cause knee and mental health trauma. But damn, I was wrong. The legroom on Wow was ample and the plane was only about 60 percent full. Also, as a grown man with a Prince album cover hanging on his wall, the purple carpet and purple flight attendant uniforms were a nice touch.
Most importantly (other than arriving safely): We saw the Northern Lights about five hours into our flight. It was like a big green wave escaped from a Coldplay video to fly next to us and escort us into Iceland. We happened to be seated on the lucky side and other passengers crowded around waiting for a look. I let them, because as my Facebook profile says, “I’m a pleasant guy who brings a lot to the table,” though I would have minimized their viewing time had I know this would turn out to be our only clear view of Aurora Borealis.
DAY 1: Even In Reykajvik, You Cannot Escape Migos
Our winter vacation in Iceland officially began at 4 a.m. local time, with a cool seven hours to kill until Airbnb check-in. The airport was fancy, it had free strollers and floor-to-ceiling cubicle toilets that allow ultra-private load dropping. We stayed there for a few hours to window shop before catching the Fly Bus to Reykjavik. Had I been smarter, or listened to my friend who had been to Iceland, I would have used that time to buy liquor and beer in the duty free store at the airport.
Iceland’s a lot less than progressive than other Nordic countries when it comes to drinking. Beer with more than 2.25% alcohol was banned until 1989, and even today, outside of bars, you can only buy alcohol at state stores. We learned this the hard way while searching the city’s markets for buy a bottle of wine, only to settle for a scrawny yellow beer with, you guessed it, exactly 2.25% alcohol.
Just a bit more about the prices in Reykjavik: If you’re coming from the U.S., multiply whatever you would usually pay for an item by three. Yeah, it’s expensive as hell. A burger from a regular ol’ take out joint will run you at least $20. A plate at your average restaurant is around $35. Now, I didn’t work up the courage to approach an Icelander out of nowhere and say, “Please tell me about your economy,” but I’m thinking the high prices are based on the country’s wages and social services (the average wage is about $4,700 a month). Thankfully we found a grocery store called Bonus, which sells food at only twice what I’d pay at home.
But, as we learned while walking around aimlessly at dawn, near street art tagged on tiny stores, snowy mountains overlooking the city, and an ocean colored in a frozen blue that I’ve only seen on a mid-2000s limited edition BMW M3, the views and vibe make up for the costs, at least if you’re just visiting for short time.
After sightseeing, we retired to our apartment for a long nap. I got up to make a quasi-traditional Icelandic meal: a big ol’ piece of lamb.
After that, bar hopping. We started at The Big Lebowski, which may very well be a tourist trap, but the (high alcohol!) beers were good and the small crowd had energy. We went to another spot that was a major sausage fest and then walked across the street to “Reykjavik’s best dance club,” which turned out to be a gay club. The sign said “queer,” but I assumed it wasn’t a direct English-to-Icelandic translation. Duh. Our night ended at Barnanas, where young Icelanders danced and rapped along to Migos and other hip hop that lacks substance, which doesn’t matter when you’re in a club.
DAY 2: I’m So Hungry I Could Eat A Horse
Our day started in Hallgrímskirkja church, where we paid tithes via $8 tickets to tour its tower. We had (insert cliché adjective) views of the entire city and clear skies that enabled us to take pictures that will generate lots of Instagram likes, which is really important in 2017.
From there, we went to a flea market that sold lots of things that would probably end up in my Goodwill pile. But they did have good, fairly cheap food. I bought a half a pound of horse meat because I had never tasted it and God gave man dominion over animals, and according to the Trump administration, women’s bodies.
We then toured the harbor and Harpa concert hall. After a grip of walking, we gave in to the local economy and our hunger and went to a real restaurant, a Pakistani joint near the city center. We shared a 30-something dollar plate, which turned out to be more fun and romantic than cheap and pitiful. The carbs were filling enough, even for two.
After resting and another nap, we took a 25-minute stroll away from the city lights to try to see the Northern Lights. No luck. We only saw faint, pale green blotches in the sky. Amber was a bit disappointed. Not such for me. We had already seen them “up close” from the plane and I felt there was no need to replicate a great moment. Well, I didn’t really believe that, but it was like 10 degrees and I was ready to go back to our warm apartment.
We talked about going to more bars, but we ended up staying in to cook horse meat. Amber only had a small bite. She grew up around horses and knows they just want to run around and show off their hair without fear of being eaten. Anyway, the horse tasted like a sirloin burger, but juicier. The texture was different, kind of stringy and stretchy. I’d eat it again.
DAY 3: Despite Exposed Dongs and Freezing Temperatures, Geothermal Pools Are Fun
The last full day of our winter vacation in Iceland began with a nine-hour tour of the Golden Circle, a popular tourist destination that includes Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Secret Lagoon.
If you’re not familiar with Iceland that means absolutely nothing, so to put it plainly we were able to see the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates that separated, a waterfall surrounding by untreated ice and a rope that functions as a guardrail and therefore puts one at risk of death by selfie, and a pool of naturally hot water that kept my body warm and soft, like a fresh baked cookie, even as icicles formed on my Jheri curl. It was all very interesting, even for me, someone who’s not too connected with nature, outside of eating its animals.
(On a related note, we did not go to the Blue Lagoon. Our plan was to go immediately from the airport, but those hours, and most others, were booked far ahead of time. For what it’s worth, the Secret Lagoon is supposedly more popular with locals and much less expensive than the more tourist-targeted Blue Lagoon. Or maybe I’m just being a hater because I didn’t get to go. Anyway, just know that the Secret Lagoon is very European; meaning the showers are communal and the attendees are comfortable, even giddy, about having conversation while dongs are uncovered.)
After the tour, we spent our last night in Iceland on a hunt for food. It was Sunday, so a lot was closed, and after the brutal cold of the tour—your body goes into a more intense level of freezing once you leave the relative comfort of inner city Reykjavik—we didn’t want to walk too far. We settled on a carry out and bought a 12-inch pizza and a Coke, which came to about $24, the equivalent of like 10 tacos and a couple beers back home in San Diego, though said tacos are made by someone who does not earn a living wage.
We went to sleep with plans to wake up and explore further before our bus ride and flight. Of course we overslept, which is easy to do when there’s no sun until it’s almost lunchtime.
After a trip back to Bonus grocery for snacks, and a brief argument between Amber and I about how many snacks to get (remind me to never again say, “Dang, didn’t you just eat!”), we made it home 12 hours later, with both of us in agreement that we probably won’t take another winter vacation to a freezing destination, though we do feel lucky that are one cold trip was to Iceland.