When booking a flight from the United States to Europe, my partner and I did what most travellers do: went for the cheapest possible option.
For our journey from Washington DC to France that meant a brief stop-over in Iceland. At first we laughed about the unusual route we were taking to Paris, but, after a little more thought, decided to extend our visit from a couple of hours to a week.
It was Iceland, for goodness sake!
Up until that visit, my entire knowledge of the country was limited to the Disney children's movie D2: The Mighty Ducks, so I was prepared for angry Icelandic ice hockey players, but not much else.
I went with no expectations, but came away with a recommendation for the ultimate European stop-over.
With five days to spend in the capital, Reykjavik, we hit the ground running - or cycling - starting our visit with Reykjavik Bike Tours to get better acquainted with the city. Initial concerns I had about my biking abilities and fitness level were quickly soothed, this was an easy ride and a great way to see and hear about the town.
Stefan, half of the husband and wife team who own the company, gave us the full run-down of the city’s more than 1000-year-old history, as well as a good idea of the best places to visit during our stay. Among the stops was Baerjarins Beztu Pyslu, a hot-dog stand that gained celebrity status after Bill Clinton sampled the menu during a visit to Iceland in 2004.
Even now people wanting a dog with just mustard can ask for a “Clinton”.
Convinced by the long line of people waiting to buy a hot dog, we returned later to try for ourselves. The stand lived up to its name, which translates as "Town's best hot dogs", and we felt the 320 kronas ($NZ3.30) each was money well spent.
Although we were only in Reykjavik for five full days, this was one place you could pack in a lot into in 24 hours. As our visit coincided with summer, we had 23 hours of sunlight to play with each day.
Going to bed at 11pm in broad daylight took some getting used to, but the long days also meant we could could extend activities late into the night. We took advantage of the late sun for a visit to the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland's most famous attractions.
The lagoon is a geothermal spa, where you can sit in 40 degree pools amid a moon-like landscape, and try out silica mud treatments. The milky blue water, the saunas, and the pool bar were enough to keep us at the spa well past the wrinkly-finger stage, and bedtime.
On par with Blue Lagoon for international celebrity is the Golden Circle tourist route, and for anyone visiting Reykjavik it is a must. The 300km loop passes Thingvellir national park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the active geothermal valley of Haukadalur.
There are numerous tours on offer, and many that incorporate it with other activities such as biking, or river rafting trips. Getting a little adventurous, we chose a tour with Extreme Iceland that also included a visit to the Langjokull glacier for snowmobiling.
The company's name summed up our experience well, because extreme was the best way to describe everything we saw. The history behind Thingvellir, where the country's first parliament assembled in 930, was mind-blowing, as were the sights of the massive Gullfoss, and the erupting geysirs at Haukadalur. And the feeling of motoring across a vast glacier surrounded by nothing but white was the epitome of extreme.
Another particularly authentic experience we had was going for a trek on Icelandic horses, a smaller horse (don’t call them ponies!) that is the only breed in Iceland. The trek took us through the Icelandic countryside, showing off well the green landscape and vast amount of empty space.
More amazing scenery was on offer down at the Reykjavik harbour, and we took advantage of the sea views with a backdrop of snowy mountains by taking an Elding whale watching tour.
While there were enough tourism activities to keep us entertained for a month, Reykjavik turned out to be a great place to explore on your own. With numerous thermal pools scattered around the city, amazing houses that have been standing for hundreds of years, and a long main road lined with restaurants, bars, and boutique shops, there was no shortage of things to see.
Our quirky stop-over turned out to be a destination in its own right.
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