In 2010, on the heels of the Great Recession, Iceland needed a boost. The country, which relied heavily on banking, was in economic shambles after the crash, so they turned to developing an industry that could help them get back on their feet: tourism. They way they did it was genius — Icelandair, the country’s main airline, started offering cheap flights from the US to Europe, with stopovers in Reykjavik. You could have an affordable continental vacation and discover a new, isolated island country while you were at it.
They didn’t even slow down for the winter season — they offered incredibly cheap “Northern Lights” packages. They did massive advertising campaigns, basically wallpapering the New York and London subways with cheap deals. This is how it came to pass that, while getting off of my Central Line train at Holborn Station in London, I saw the Northern Lights deal and decided that, yes, a subarctic island in the dead of winter sounded like a great idea.
Freezing my ass off
It was cold. It was cold in a way that I had never experienced, even having lived through winters in Pennsylvanian Appalachia. The deal included a flight and a tour out to the countryside in order to better see the lights of the aurora away from Reykjavik. The first night, they took us to a spit of rock jutting out of over the North Atlantic. It was sub-zero and windy, and we didn’t see any lights. “Not to worry,” the guide said, “If you do not see the Aurora on your first night, we will take you out a second night free of charge.”
The next day, we wandered around Reykjavik in the noontime twilight, shivering. Our London clothes were not quite warm enough for the tundra, so we spent the day ducking into coffee shops and bars, sampling fish jerkies and other strange foods. And the next night, knowing how cold we’d be, I went out and bought a giant jug of wine which I took with me — to the mountains this time — to hopefully catch the aurora.
I am told that, on that very same night, the Northern Lights were visible from my home in East London, and that I may not have needed to spend the money going to Iceland. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate that experience of sitting on a mountaintop, sipping at an increasingly chilly jug of red wine, and watching neon greens cut lazily through the Arctic sky.
Going to the cold instead of the warmth
I come from a long line of snowbirds. We like to fly south for the winter. Ask us “mountains or oceans,” and we will all invariably say “oceans.” There’s something particularly satisfying about sticking your toes into warm sand in the middle of February.
But in recent years, I’ve started to want to go to even colder spots in the winter. A few years after my Iceland trip, my wife found a deal for incredibly cheap hotels in Montreal, as long as you stayed in February. She didn’t tell me where we were going, she just furtively snatched my passport, put me in the car, and then drove me northward. We stopped in Burlington, Vermont, had a pint of Heady Topper, and then continued northward. When we got to the border, she pulled out my passport and admitted — we were going to Montreal.
“The hotels were super cheap, Matt.”
My best friend had gone to school in Montreal, so I’d been there in the dead of winter once before, and I knew why the hotels were cheap. The rest of the weekend consisted of skittering from coffee shop to restaurant to bar. If we stayed out in the cold for longer than five minutes, the condensation in my breath would freeze in my beard. It is hard for me to remember a more romantic weekend.
So, as the winter travel season approaches, I have a peculiar travel suggestion: go into the cold, instead of away from it. The cold places are cheaper in winter, they are more sparsely populated, and they’re filled with fun, cozy little things to do to keep yourself warm. You will have to pack thermal socks and something that will cover your ears, but you will have a strange and wonderful trip.