Reykjavik, Iceland

(recently posted in Travel Agent web site)

 

With a population of only 123,300 in the city proper (and just over 200,000 in the Capital Region), Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik, is hardly a cosmopolitan destination. What the world’s northernmost capital city lacks in size, however, it makes up for in its eccentric culture, unique sights and activities that are distinctly Icelandic.

Situated in the southwestern corner of the island-nation, Reykjavik is regarded as one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world. As Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental epicenter, a trip to Reykjavik affords travelers the opportunity to experience the country’s natural beauty, rich history, (occasionally bizarre) culture, nightlife and cuisine.

When To Go

Given Iceland’s nigh-Arctic Circle location, timing is an important factor to consider when visiting Reykjavik. During the winter months, snow covers much of the city and the rest of the country as hiking trails become snowshoeing trails and lakes freeze over. Considering that 78 percent of Americans cite the Aurora Borealis as their primary draw to Iceland, travelers should know that November to March are the darkest months of the year in Iceland, and are therefore known as the Northern Lights season. During the summer months with plenty of daylight, Iceland’s many outdoor offerings like hiking, cycling, swimming and fishing take center stage.

Accommodations

Ion City Hotel

For those who prefer boutique-style accommodations, the 18-room Ion City Hotel recently opened just this past May. The property has a simple, ultra-modern design, with a palette of gray and white with wooden floors appropriate for its Arctic-maritime surroundings. A stay in the Panorama Suite comes with an indoor sauna, a private balcony, a dining table, a bar area and the option to request a bartender or chef for one evening.  The hotel, its spa and accompanying restaurant are all centrally located on Laugarvegur itself.

Hotel Borg

This list would be incomplete without Iceland’s first ever luxury hotel. Opened in 1930, Hotel Borg is set in one of central Reykjavik’s landscaped squares, neighboring the Icelandic parliament and the Reykjavik cathedral. Over its long lifetime, the hotel has seen several refurbishments that have lent the property its Art-Deco aesthetic and modernist touch. The hotel pays homage to its history with vintage photographs of Reykjavik and antique furniture and artwork throughout the property. Its most recent renovation in 2015 brought the hotel 43 new rooms along with an upgraded spa, restaurant and fitness center.

Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center

This 112-room hotel is located in the heart of Reykjavik on Hverfisgata Street, within walking distance of famous Reykjavik attractions like Laugavegur (a street known for its shopping, eateries and pubs), Harpa Concert Hall and Convention Center and Old Reykjavik Harbor. Canopy by Hilton, Reykjavik City Center draws its design from local architecture with blue and gray volcanic rock. On site is the Icelandic-favorite Omnom Chocolate, as well as a Geiri Smart restaurant which serves traditional Icelandic seafood dishes in an upscale fashion. There is also an opportunity to experience some local literature in the hotel’s poet’s corner.

The Retreat at Blue Lagoon

Suite living space at Moss Hotel
The Blue Lagoon may be Iceland’s No. 1 tourist attraction. The lava fields, less than thirty minutes outside of Reykjavik, are home to the volcanic hot springs iconic to Iceland and the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. There, guests can bathe and swim in the crater’s warm volcanic waters, which are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur that can supposedly nourish the skin and mitigate skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Opening this February, the 62-room The Retreat at Blue Lagoon is built into the same lava flow that superheats the waters of the Blue Lagoon, which The Spa at the Retreat utilizes in its own treatments. Each room has balconies or terraces that overlook the volcanic landscape and the Lagoon’s turquoise waters. Some of The Retreats suites will have direct access to a private lagoon. The hotel is also an Icelandic food destination, with an ever-changing, high-end menu of curated Icelandic fare.

Where to Eat

Iceland’s cuisine may not be internationally revered on par with that of France, Italy or Spain. Reykjavik however is a burgeoning foodie hotspot that strikes an eclectic blend of haute international cuisine and rustic, boiled-lamb’s-head-traditional fare.

The Reykjavik Food Walk

The Reykjavik Food Walk, sponsored by Reykjavik’s Tourism Center, provides the most robust feel of Iceland’s culinary scene. The three-hour tour is the premier in Icelandic food culture, bringing guests on a tour of the city marked by stops at a number of restaurants and food stops. On the tour, guests will be able to taste free-roaming Icelandic lamb, taste Skyr—a kind of Icelandic yogurt that has been part of local cuisine for more than a thousand years—and even sample locally sourced whale meat, an old-school Icelandic staple. The tour will also bring guests to sample the best local cheeses, homemade ice cream and Reykjavik’s famous hotdog stand, learning about Icelandic culture and food traditions all the while.

The tour begins at the Harpa Concert Hall. The guide will take guests through downtown Reykjavik to some of the city’s most popular restaurants as well as some hole-in-the-wall local hangouts for both casual and fine dining eating experiences—to be taken advantage of later in the trip.

Olgerdin Brewery

Beer and mead are inextricable from Iceland’s gastronomical history. Craft beer enthusiasts should consider a guided tour of the country’s oldest brewery, Olgerdin Brewery. There, guests will learn about Iceland’s history of alcohol production and be treated to a sample flight of Olgerdin’s most famous brews, like Egil’s Malt.

Things to Do

The Golden Circle

Gullfoss Falls // Photo by Tsuguliev/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Those interested in traveling to Iceland likely already know about the Golden Circle, but it is requisite to mention before diving into specifics. Though the term has no roots in Icelandic history, the name refers to the 300 kilometer (190 mile) loop of road along which most of Iceland’s tours and excursions take place.

The three primary stops along the route are Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland’s first-ever settlement began in 874 A.D., the huge Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermal zone in Haukadalur, where visitors can soak in thermal baths and the geysers Geysir and Strokkur (which erupts every 5 to 10 minutes) reside. With a rental car or a tour company, guests can begin their loop of the Golden Circle right from central Reykjavik. Guided horseback riding tours are also common throughout this area, as are helicopter tours.

For literary buffs, along the Golden Circle are a number of locations alluded to throughout Icelandic’s epic sagas and Viking folklore. There are a variety of tours available that take guests along routes dedicated to literary sites. Reykjavik unfurls into West Iceland, where the events of Egil’s Saga—regarded as the cornerstone of Icelandic literature—take place. One such site is Borg a Myrum, where Egil’s nursemaid heroically saves Egil’s life when his father, Skallagrim, tries to kill him in a berserker rage. A sculpture marks the spot where she lept into the sea trying to outrun Skallagrim; the town celebrates her with an annual festival in late June.

City Attractions

Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja // Photo by 1Tomm/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
The city of Reykjavik is dominated by the 244-foot high Hallgrimskirka, the tallest church in Iceland and a national landmark. The church has a unique architecture evocative of the crags, mountains and glaciers of Iceland’s landscape. Tours of the church take guests to the very top of the landmark, which provides a 360-degree view of Reykjavik’s pastel-colored homes.

Harpa Concert Hall

Another striking building in the city proper, the Harpa Concert Hall’s distinctive colored glass façade is inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland. Here, guests can look at fine art and experience some of Iceland’s music, including the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and The Icelandic Opera, both of which draw from traditional Icelandic composers and source material

Icelandic Phallological Museum

No attraction quite captures the slightly offbeat, eccentric vibe of Reykjavik and the nation of Iceland better than the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Located on the Laugavegur, the museum houses the world’s largest display of penises, penile parts and phallic cultural objects. The collection of 280 specimens from 93 species of animals includes penises taken from whales, seals, other land mammals, and allegedly—Icelandic elves and trolls. While perhaps a bit strange, the museum aims to enable individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific manner.

If that is too weird, the centuries-old National Museum of Iceland, also in Reykjavik, provides perhaps the most comprehensive display of Icelandic art, history and artifacts in the world.

Nightlife

Though the city is small, Reykjavik’s nightlife is locally said to rival that of London and New York in enthusiasm. Bars and clubs do not have cover charges, the queues are small and no establishment has a dress code. The popular nightlife establishments will also stay open as late as 5:00 a.m. on the weekends.

Popular establishments include Austur Bar, Kaffibarrin, Paloma and the local gay bar, Kiki.

Nature & Outdoors

Frozen glaciers and volcanic lava fields collide throughout Iceland—a land of ice and fire. Though Reykjavik may be the country’s only true metropolis, there are a number of national parks, recreational areas and natural wonders not far from the city.

Ellidaardalur Valley

Popular with walkers and cyclists alike, Ellidaardalur Valley is located within Reykjavik’s city limits and has a number of lush nature trails. During the summer, fishing licenses are available to fish in the valley’s river, notable for its high populations of Arctic char, salmon and brown trout.

Krysuvik Geothermal Area

Guests can walk the long boardwalk through the bubbling and hissing solfatara (sulphurous) fields of Krysuvik, just a short drive from Reykjavik. The steaming hilltop has a wealth of information on Iceland’s unique geology, explaining the brightly colored crater lakes, volcanic geysers and caves and various crystal deposits located throughout the area. At the end of the boardwalk are the Krysuvikurberg Cliffs, famous for the thousands of seabirds—gulls, puffins, razorbills and more—that nest there, as well as the whales and aquatic creatures that can be seen from the cliffs.

Mount Esja

One cannot travel through Reykjavik without seeing the 3,000-foot mountain that dominates the city skyline; that is Mount Esja, a year-round hiking and camping destination. The mountain is latticed by a number of well-worn and popular hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. About 650 feet from the top, a massive boulder known as “Steinn” marks the last spot to turn around before the challenging trail which crests the mountain. The mountain is just east of Reykjavik, and easily accessible by bus.

Aurora Borealis

Iceland Northern Lights - krissanapongw/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Photo by krissanapongw/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The colorful illuminations known as the Northern Lights are a cosmic phenomenon where the gases of the upper atmosphere are bombarded by electronically charged particles from the sun, forming “auroral belts” around the Earth’s magnetic poles. As previously mentioned, the prime Northern Lights season takes place from November to March, the darkest months of the year.

There are numerous Northern Lights-oriented tours that guests can access from Reykjavik, including boat tours, snowmobile trips across glaciers and coach trips. Guests can also visit Aurora Reykjavik, an information and exhibition center dedicated to the Aurora Borealis.Travelers should know that Mother Nature does not always cooperate; cloud cover, moonlight, urban night pollution and day-to-day auroral activity can all affect one’s viewing of the Northern Lights.

 

 

 

Iceland Tops Tourism Growth

 

(This was recently published in Travel Agent Central)

The strong signs are continuing for Europe’s tourism sector, according to the latest report from the European Travel Commission (ETC).

In the “European Tourism 2017 – Trends & Prospects” study, 28 out of 30 reporting destinations recorded growth so far in 2017, with almost one in two posting double-digit increases. Iceland (+56%) was the fastest growing destination, while Montenegro (+25%), Malta (+23%) and Cyprus (+18%) also say substantial increases. Since these destinations are heavily reliant on peak summer demand, growth outside this period reflects their success in reducing seasonality, the ETC said.

Finland (+18%) and Bulgaria (+17%) also experienced robust growth, according to the report. While the surge in Chinese arrivals boosted growth in the Nordic Nation, Bulgaria seemed to have been an inexpensive alternative to traditional winter destinations. Portugal, Serbia and Croatia (all +15%) fared well helped by strong marketing efforts and improved air connectivity. Turkey (-8%), however, continues to face security challenges that slow the rate of expansion in the country, the ETC said.

Encouraging economic conditions in the Eurozone seem to be behind the growth in arrivals from Germany, France and Italy, according to the report. Meanwhile, most destinations saw notable increases from the UK with Croatia and Bulgaria enjoying the fastest growth, at +40 percent and +26 percent, respectively. All reporting destinations rebounded from previous falls from Russian travel demand. Although figures do not fully offset the falls registered in previous years, prospects remain optimistic as the economy continues to improve. In the U.S., economic growth and favorable air fares contributed to the strong performance of this market, which is expected to increase 6 percent per year on average through 2021. Travel flows from China and Japan to Europe were weaker than overall outbound travel from these markets due to safety and security concerns across the continent. However, both markets are estimated to have increased 14 percent and 5 percent respectively so far in 2017.

“Despite a stable European domestic market, growth is also driven by long-haul source markets,” said Eduardo Santander, executive director of the ETC, in a written release. “Cheap oil prices, favorable currency exchanges, rising middle classes, improved air connectivity and travel facilitation are contributing significantly to the surge of outbound travel to Europe.”

Cruise Around Iceland

Photo

Husavik is in northern Iceland.

A summer cruise around Iceland is an ideal way to appreciate the country’s landscape, which includes geysers, waterfalls and glaciers. Diane Eide, an Iceland specialist at Travel Experts, said such a trip was “a convenient way to see much of the country because driving from place to place takes a lot of time.” An Iceland cruise is also relatively affordable, with good values to be had between June and September.

Peregrine Adventures, for instance, has several eight-day Cruising Iceland sailings this summer. The trips begin or end in either Reykjavik or Akureyri and include stops in Siglufjordur, Iceland’s northernmost city; the large fishing port of Isafjordur; and Heimaey Island, which was nearly destroyed in 1973 by lava flow. From $1,620 a person.

With a similar itinerary, Variety Cruises has the Journeys in the Land of Ice & Fire: Akureyri to Reykjavik throughout the summer. The eight-day sailings are on a 34-passenger boat with overnight stops in Isafjordur and Husavik. From $2,650 a person.

Iceland ProCruises is offering several 10-day Iceland circumnavigation trips this summer. The cruises have the expected stops, like Reykjavik, but also include more atypical ones, such as the town of Stykkisholmur, near Breidafjordur Bay, known for its bird life and Snaefellsjokull glacier, which sits atop a 700,000-year-old dormant volcano. From $2,595 a person.

Travelers looking for a longer getaway have the option of the 12-day MSC Northern Europe Cruise, which has port stops in Akureyri and Isafjordur and also spends two days in Reykjavik. Options for shore excursions, available at an additional cost, include kayaking through fjords and hikes to waterfalls. From $1,869 a person.

Luxury-seekers may consider Group IST’s Iceland Adventure trip, on a yacht with rich woodwork, brass finishes and antique décor. A highlight is a visit to Lake Myvatn to see fields of lava and bubbling mud pools. From $4,769, including land tours. SHIVANI VORA