Not long ago, Iceland was a spectacularly beautiful but seldom visited wonderland of waterfalls, volcanoes, and geysers in the lonely North Atlantic, still finding its national feet after centuries of Norwegian and Danish rule. Then, an unlikely confluence of events: The economic crisis of 2008–09 turned the country upside down—and paradoxically made the once prohibitively expensive destination affordable for visitors.
A year later, the air traffic–halting eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano landed Iceland, in all its geothermal splendor, on news broadcasts around the world. Now, the word is truly out, and the supremely photogenic country welcomes so many tourists—2.3 million in 2018—that visitors outnumber residents by a ratio of seven to one. How to find a place for yourself, away from the crowds? Make a break for the majestic north, where whales sidle up to sightseeing boats, and the aurora borealis can be viewed from the comfort of geothermally heated pools. Then cap things off with a day in the picturesque capital, Reykjavík, home to a world-class art and dining scene, dramatic seascapes, and a pretzel that’s possibly worth the trip itself. These days, the sun barely sets. The lupine is blooming. Paradise awaits.
Tailing whales across Skjálfandi Bay
All is quiet, and all is magnificent.
We have sailed west, into the center of Skjálfandi Bay. Everything around our ship—land, sea, sky—is some variation of gray, except for our full-length, cherry-red survival suits, which resemble the gear crabbers wear during blizzards on Deadliest Catch. My seasick fellow passengers, unsteady on their feet, haul themselves to the guardrail and peer stoically into the distance. At first, the wildlife is limited to birds: gannets, Arctic terns, black guillemots with white patches on their wings.
But we are not here for birds. All of us—I hear Japanese, French, English, German, Scandinavian languages that I can’t distinguish from one another—are here for whales.
The whales cannot be trusted to appear on cue, our North Sailing guide says over the ship’s loudspeaker. We rely on their favor. This is the North Atlantic, not SeaWorld.
And so we wait. I email my landlord, my boss, and a woman who wants to buy an antique pitcher from me. But then we hear it: a whale surfacing, blowing air through its spout, and, all at once, it’s magical. (It sounds like a massive, wet poof.) We hear it again. Then, suddenly, we see the source of the sound, as a slick black tail flips up and then down into the water. Everyone on the boat rushes in the direction of the whale, slipping on the wet deck, jockeying for a place at the rail. The whale, a humpback, skims the surface desultorily before diving again. It’s soon trailed by a boat from a competing tour company, whose passengers look exactly like us, except their suits are black and fluorescent yellow. At times, the whale swims just below the surface, perhaps 50 feet from us and sinking fast, so we see only its massive outline. Another boat arrives, its passengers clad in neon orange. The boats follow the whales. Sometimes we get the best view; sometimes another boat does.
A rhythm establishes itself: tedium, the majesty of whales, tedium, the majesty of whales. The majesty, though, is cumulative: Before we turn and head back to the small port at the town of Húsavík, Iceland’s whale-watching capital, we have seen a dozen of them (or the same whale a dozen times; who can say for sure?), flipping and swimming and turning tail in the water. As we disembark, I feel strangely euphoric, enchanted. I want whales everywhere to be happy and safe.
In summary, my dominant impulse is not to eat them. I discover at the nearby Húsavík Whale Museum that not everyone shares this response. “People go on the tours, come into the museum, and ask where they can eat it,” says Garðar Þröstur Einarsson, a whale specialist and former guide. “Sixty percent of the minke whale meat in Iceland is eaten by tourists.”
We’re surrounded by exhibits that testify to the immense humanity of whales. “That is bananas,” I reply.
No restaurants in Húsavík serve whale meat—certainly not Naustið, with its bright, mid-century mariner design. What it does serve: potatoes and wild arctic char, caught that day in a lake named Kálfborgarárvatn. (When Naustið’s owner tells me the lake’s name, I write down “K-???????” in my notebook.)
From there, I drive to the other end of Húsavík, to the GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths, a brand-new pool complex perched on a cliff above the harbor. Pools are central to Iceland’s idea of itself—as primary to its national identity as pubs are to Britain or cafés are to France, according to Icelandic author Alda Sigmundsdóttir. The Blue Lagoon, a massive bathing complex near the airport in Keflavík, is the best known, but it’s just one of many in towns large and small across the country. None are as beautiful as Húsavík’s.
Or, at least, I think they’re the most beautiful. By the time I get to the pools, it’s pitch-black. (It’s hard to imagine a better place to view the northern lights, though the optimal viewing time is late September through March.)
The air is cold, so I sit as low as I can in the naturally heated water. The Icelanders are less delicate, walking between the pool and the bar, picking up beers through a service window and drinking them at leisure.
I have seen my fill of whales, but I know that it should be possible to hear them from the pool, so I stay in the water much too long, waiting for another of those spouting poofs.
A pair of waterfalls and Iceland’s biggest toy box
I’ve been to Iceland several times before, but like many visitors, I stayed in and around the capital, Reykjavík, exploring only as far as the Golden Circle. The attractions on this well-worn circuit—Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir—are spectacular. They are also very, very popular, meaning that they are in some ways victims of their own exceptional success.
So, instead, today I’ve decided to embark on a self-drive version of the north’s equivalent of the Golden Circle: the Diamond Circle tour. (There is also a Silver Circle tour, near Reykjavík; Iceland will run out of gem names before it runs out of scenic excursion possibilities.) To see as much as I want to today, I leave at 6:30 a.m., before anything (including Húsavík’s bakeries) is open.
I begin with a 50-mile drive that meanders north (and then south) to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall by volume and the location used for the opening scene in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. It is staggering, monumental. From there, I head south to the Ring Road, which circles the entire island: If I turn east and go about 500 miles, I’ll hit Reykjavík. I go west, though, to Mývatn, a wild expanse of a lake that looks broody and Scottish when the sun ducks behind the clouds and like a sparkling turquoise field when it emerges. My third stop is Goðafoss, another waterfall. It’s more approachable than Dettifoss—literally, in that it seems less like the sort of thing you fall into by accident, never to be seen again. All things being equal, I prefer Goðafoss (pretty) to Dettifoss (existential).
My fourth stop is the reason for my non-leisurely pace: Deplar Farm, an unassuming yet gorgeous hotel in the Fljót Valley run by Eleven Experience that’s a magnet for the sort of finance executive or celebrity seeking a no-expense-spared vacation. “You’re going to Deplar!” a guide I meet at Mývatn exclaims when I share my itinerary. “They’ve got the biggest toy box in the country.” Justin Timberlake, he adds, is a fan.
I don’t understand what “toy box” means until a couple of hours later, when I see it while trailing behind my guide, a mountaineer/artist named Thorlakur Ingolfsson. He goes by Laki, which is pronounced “Loki,” like the god/Avengers villain. (Tom Hiddleston has some serious competition.) Guests at Deplar are paired with a guide, and I am lucky Laki is mine. The lodge offers myriad activities, from helicopter skiing in the winter to salmon fishing and kayaking the nearby fjord in warmer months. Equipment for all these activities is stored in the “toy box,” a hut stocked with snowmobiles, hiking boots, snowshoes—anything you might need for expeditions big and small.
Not feeling particularly sporty, I opt for an easy hike into the surrounding hills, followed by a very late lunch of North Atlantic salmon with lentils and beets at the property’s Ghost Farm. This gives Laki and I plenty of time to discuss the best way to travel through Iceland. “The weather has such a huge impact on what you’re able to do here,” he says. “Really, the thing to do is check the weather in the morning and go where it’s good.” That’s easy, I say, if you’re not coming from far away and if you didn’t have to make hotel reservations six months in advance. “If you can, being flexible is better,” he replies. “Imagine the sort of adventure you’d have if you just rent a car and follow the weather, if you truly go and explore a world that’s beautiful, pristine.” I can imagine it.
Afterward, there is yoga, a massage, and the opportunity to soak in an outdoor pool. (Clouds scupper my northern lights ambitions.) Dinner is served at 9, and it is tremendous: beef medallions with beets and sunchokes, all locally sourced.
I’ve stayed in hotels all over the world, and Deplar just might be the best. Even before I fall asleep, I am sending imploring emails to my friends, with pictures of the property—even in an all-day mist, with low, gray clouds, it is stunning—asking them to return with me.
Reykjavík from land and sky
In the morning, I leave Deplar Farm with regret, after a breakfast of delicious, crepe-like Icelandic pancakes with powdered sugar and berries. From here, it’s either a tidy helicopter ride or a straightforward drive to Reykjavík. Not being Justin Timberlake, I opt for the latter: a five-hour trek I make under sullen skies. Even without any sunshine, the scenery is dizzying; I have to fight the impulse to pull over and take photos at every turn.
Reykjavík is so compact that it’s easy to see a lot, fast. I begin with the city’s most distinctive landmark: Hallgrímskirkja, which looks somehow both Art Deco and ancient. The exterior is striking—it looks like a fighter jet sitting upright or, equally, where elves in a Tolkien book might worship—while the interior resembles the Lutheran churches of my childhood (read: like a suburban hotel ballroom). It’s well worth the wait to go to the observation tower: At 240 feet, it offers superb, 360-degree views of Reykjavík, the harbor, and the mountains to the north.
Two hundred miles of driving followed by some intense church viewing means that I’m both (a) ready for a walk and (b) starving—so I head toward Grandi, a onetime industrial, now up-and-coming area by the harbor that’s home to a popular ice cream shop, Valdís, and a buzzy brunch spot, Coocoo’s Nest, as well as Reykjavík’s oldest restaurant, Kaffivagninn, where I have a plate of light and crisp fish and chips (basically the official meal of Reykjavík).
Sufficiently reenergized, I head to my second stop in Grandi: Studio Olafur Eliasson. If you don’t recognize Eliasson’s name, you may know his work: He installed waterfalls that seemed to hover 100 feet above New York City’s East River in 2008—and, later, above the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles. He is also the author of my favorite book about Iceland, a collection of 35 images, submitted by Icelanders, of their cars stuck in rivers (title: Cars in Rivers), and the designer of the glass facade at Harpa, Reykjavík’s concert hall.
The studio, which is open to the public, is at Marshall House, a former fish factory. I wander past Eliasson’s works, including Untitled (Spiral), a tall spiral of metal spinning up (or down), and then I see the artist himself. (If you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan.) I know it makes sense that an artist would be working in his own studio—and would be involved, it seems, with the taking down of one installation or the setup of another—but it is too great. I stop and stare and then run away as quickly as I can, before anyone catches me staring.
I have one more stop in Reykjavik: Brauð & Co., which makes pretzels that might be the finest anywhere in the world. I buy three (one for now, one for the very near future, one I will save for a post-dinner snack) and head to the heliport. The weather has cleared, and the sky is cloudless for my flight with Reykjavík Helicopters, which I share with a British woman and her teenage daughter. We fly from the city to a geothermal area, with burbling hot pots and steam vents. Sheep cling to the side of a hill, undoubtedly enjoying the warmth: It’s like standing above a laundry vent, except it smells of sulfur instead of fabric softener. The Brits and I trade travel suggestions (as well as seats on the way back so that both the daughter and I have a chance to sit in the front, next to the pilot, an Austrian who trained in Oregon). They report particular enthusiasm for their northern lights tour. “We saw them the first night, and it was nothing special,” the mother says. “But the second night—truly one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen.” They show me an app that provides a positive forecast for tonight’s aurora: Like the whales, the northern lights may appear. Or, they may not.
As we fly back to Reykjavík, we agree that it’s all spectacular: the lakes and mountains, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in the distance. But is this more marvelous than the whales? The cliffside pools? The continent’s most powerful waterfall? The other, less obviously murderous waterfall? The sheep, the hotel, the view from Hallgrímskirkja?
If there is a problem with Iceland, it’s that the spectacular becomes everyday. (Confession: I spend the last 10 minutes of our time at this geothermal area, one of the most dazzling places I have ever seen, playing Candy Crush.) Can you burn out on natural beauty? Is there a point when too much is too much?
As it turns out, I may be at that point. I head to The Retreat, the new five-star hotel attached to the Blue Lagoon, which offers a more exclusive experience of this exceptionally popular attraction. In the pool, I watch an Instagram influencer do a photoshoot, surely a daily occurrence here. Another vote for northern Iceland! At this point, I take my directions from the hotel’s name and retreat to my room—specifically, to the tub positioned in front of floor-to-ceiling windows and the shockingly turquoise water outside—before going to chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson’s showcase restaurant, Moss.
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