The words “bucket list” make me dyspeptic: they suggest a sort of checklist tourism that Don Delillo so brilliantly mocked in White Noise. Instead, I believe in finding glory in small every day moments as much as the exceptional and rare in life. My trip to Iceland was certainly filled with the latter. The geography of volcanos, waterfalls, glaciers, cliffs rising out of the sea certainly more than meets the promotional descriptions of an otherworldly landscape. And every popular location we visited–Gullfoss, Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Glúfrabúi, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Dyrhólaey, Kerið–was filled with tourists snapping photos and selfies.
When I arrived, I realized that my phone did not have service, so I did not carry it with me and failed to take a single photo while I was there. At the same time, my companion purchased a local sim card and took loads of photos, which I knew I could ask her later to share with me. This kind of dichotomy haunted me. I was awed by every place we visited, but dismayed by the swarm of tourists and the recognition that I contributed to this swarm.
I found especially disturbing the contemporary version of “Ugly Americans” obsessed with capturing Instagram worthy selfies, sometimes at great risk: many have died in Iceland ignoring its perilous environment. But then I see myself becoming the type of person I have been criticizing: someone who feels superior to those who are different from oneself. So I try to practice equanimity, which is perhaps more difficult than understanding its natural science cousin: quantum mechanics.
At the same time, we did find places where tourists seem to skip and that are well worth a visit. For example, next to the Skógafoss Waterfall was a wonderful three part museum. A folk museum contains artifacts dating back to the Viking age, including a nineteenth century fishing boat that was in use for nearly a hundred years. An open air museum with traditional farm homes includes a typical turf house revealing the confined communal space of the original settlers. And a technical museum encompasses a fantastic collection of vehicles and communication equipment from the nineteenth and twentieth century. One could easily spend the whole day at these three museums.
On every day except one we visited a different swimming pool. A wonderful feature of Iceland is the many outdoor pools fed by natural hot springs and open year round. It feels magnificent to steam in the water amid the chilled air–the temperature stayed mostly in the 40s. We avoided the very pricey Blue Lagoon and, on the advice of Cameron Hewitt , who helped write Rick Steves Iceland, went to the equally restorative but inexpensive (around five dollars) municipal pools. Most pools have a variety of “hot pots” from temperatures ranging from 44° celsius / 111° fahrenheit to 36° celsius / 97° fahrenheit, saunas, steam rooms, chilled pools for dipping after getting hot, waterslides for kids of all ages and regular pools for swimming.
We arrived in Reykjavík Saturday morning and spent the entire day with my Icelandic friend showing us the city; afterwords we relaxed in Sundhöllin, the oldest city pool, nearly until closing time of 10 pm. On Sunday we woke up early and walked to the Geothermal Beach and soaked in the hotpool that overlooked the Bay of Nauthólsvík, and the only charge was for a can of sunblock! That evening we went to Laugardalslaug which includes an olympic size pool, a large waterslide, and one of the hot pots is fed by seawater.
Monday, after driving the golden circle we went to Laugarvatn Fontana that overlooks a mountain encircled lake, where you could swim after steaming up. On Tuesday we headed for our hotel on the south coast and visited the Sundlaugin/Swimming Pool Vík bordered by the striking cliffs of Vík’s black beach. Wednesday, on our trip back from the Glacier Lagoon, we just missed the closing of Kirkjubæjarklaustur , but enjoyed a nice meal at the adjacent hotel. Thursday, we traveled to the Secret Lagoon, unique because it is one large natural pond fed by an adjacent river and boiling springs you can stroll among on a wooden boardwalk. Friday, on our return to Reykjavík we went to the suburb of Lágafellslaug and Saturday on our way back to the airport Árbæjarlaug. Unlike the other pools, tourists seemed mostly absent from these. Árbæjarlaug was the sole place in Iceland where I heard only Icelandic spoken.
The restaurants in Iceland emphasize fresh and local: lamb, atlantic char, fresh veggies grown in greenhouses. Despite popular complaints about Iceland’s high cost, I found prices very reasonable–less expensive than equivalent quality in NYC. And, like in most of Europe, they reject the regressive practice of tipping in favor of fair wages for all restaurant employees. Although touristy, we went to the restaurant atop the the Perlan Planetarium—Út í bláinn/Into the blue–twice: the first for brunch on our way back from the geothermal beach and the second with my Icelandic friend the Friday before we left. The food was fantastic and it came with a mesmerizing 360 degree view of the area. After our Friday dinner my friend took us for Ice Cream and a drive along the coast as the sun slowly set over the Atlantic. That evening the sun set at 11:26, and the entire week of our trip it never became dark, just a four hour period of twilight.
Iceland is no social paradise. As my friend told me, Iceland has the same problems as every other country. In his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, Michael Booth provides a biting critique of the Scandinavian nations that I found quite disheartening. With regard to Iceland, although their use of geothermal power reflects a focus on sustainability, they also rely heavily on cars. On the other hand, unlike in the U.S., the suburbs are designed to favor pedestrians with narrow streets and raised crosswalks.
I want to thank my native Icelandic friend for all the time she spent with us and the advice she gave pre-trip, including recommending the fantastic and affordable Hotel Dyrhólaey. I also want to give props to the Brooklyn Icelander, Jewells, who created a very informative podcast about Iceland. Finally, I am so grateful to my companion who lovingly accommodated my traveling eccentricities. I am so blessed to have had this experience and by all the friendly Icelandic people.