Things I did not know about Iceland before traveling there:
- The population is less than 350,000
- "King beds" are really just two twins pushed together, with a separate comforter for each side
- Sheep roam absolutely everywhere
I flew WOW Air, which has been catapulting Iceland into broader popularity with foreigners like myself since 2012 thanks to their cheap tickets and direct flights. You won't get free snacks or on-demand television, but the crew was as friendly as they come. A downloaded Spotify playlist and my secondhand copy of Into the Wild made for quite a pleasant 5-hour ride indeed.
I arrived at the airport in Keflavik, a quiet fishing town, and spent a few hours sleeping in a hotel with perfectly designed Scandinavian decor. It was strange arriving at 4AM to a bright sky (Icelandic summers have sun for about 21 hours each day).
Post-power nap, we drove North from Keflavik and past Reykjavik, almost all the way up to Búðardalur. Our first night at an Icelandic AirBnB was spent on a third-generation family farm owned by Joel (born on the farm) and his wife Aska. Primarily running a dairy farm with over 70 cows, they also raise sheep, grow hay, fish in the lake, and have two sheepdogs. The farm is nestled in a gorgeous valley that was first settled by vikings hundreds of years ago, a piece of history Joel is very proud to share. After hiking up a mountain behind the house (led all the way up and back by one of the farm dogs), we stayed up late talking with Joel about American versus Icelandic culture, healthcare, and politics, and the farming industry out of which he's carved his living. Early the next morning he served us a beautiful breakfast spread of smoked lamb, pancakes, homemade jam, toast, sliced fruit and vegetables, and of course - fresh milk. I enjoyed Joel's fascination with the millennial generation and his overflowing opinions on every subject we touched.
After departing from the Joel's farm, we again drove North - this time all the way up to Súðavík, where our next AirBnb stay with a French family awaited us. The drive took us longer than Google Maps promised, but we knew we'd be stopping for photographs along the way. The Westfjords (the Northwestern region of the country) shower visitors with jaw-dropping views in every direction, countless wildlife sightings, and fishing towns too quaint to pass on. Our hosts Stéphanie and Rodolphe kindly provided so many suggestions that we went from having no clue how to spend our time to having to pick our favorite options. We bought our first restaurant meal at what is arguably the best fish restaurant in all of Iceland: Tjöruhúsið in Ísafjörður. Eating out in Iceland is pricey, and while Tjöruhúsið was no exception, it was entirely worth it. We sat at a large table elbow-to-elbow with other guests from all around the world, and piled our plates high with food from the buffet. There is no menu, but rather everything is "catch of the day". The presentation tables were overflowing with crispy French bread, fish soup (halibut), leafy salads, barley salad, buttery cauliflower, sweet mashed potatoes (not to be confused with mashed sweet potatoes), and skillet upon sizzling skillet of all sorts of fish: cod with grapes, battered and fried halibut, bacalao in a creamy sauce. Every dish that came out was different from the last, and they were all delicious. My biggest regret for the day was not having enough room to try each one.
Tuesday started with a drive up to the top of Bolafjalli, a mountain just past the small town of Bolungarvík. After some dramatic panoramas, we drove down into a 6km-long tunnel through the mountains to see Bókabúðin Flateyri, the oldest bookstore in Iceland. We explored the museum attached to the store, and the surrounding pier complete with a local fisherman and fish processing buildings. After walking the circumference of the tiny town, we headed back towards our AirBnB for a nearby hike that we hoped would show us some arctic foxes. However, the "trail" kept disappearing on us, so we settled for a quiet beach walk and some sheep socializing.
Our last full day in Iceland was my favorite. The first stop was a waterfall hike in Súðavík. We didn't see a single soul the entire way, but for a little family of sheep. I felt small and inconsequential and a part of something much bigger and more beautiful than myself. As we continued winding south, we saw seals floating contently along the coast, stopped at the most delightful little cafe/museum, and took a therapeutic dip in a natural hot spring maintained by a local farmer. It was a day of total peace.
Iceland is an excellent place to get away from crowds and just...be. Huge mountains, vast seascapes, cloudy skies, everything just draws you into the stillness of each place. Even the animals are usually content to rest, as if they are just as in awe of their surroundings as the human visitors. The waterfalls particularly rebel against this silence with their constant motion, but somehow the hum of water against rock adds to the mesmerizing peace rather than distracts from it. The landscape creates one quiet, simple song that I just can't get out of my head.