1. The meats
Puffin. Mini lobsters. Whale so juicy and tender that it melted in my mouth and gave me one of the greatest foodgasms ever. Icelandic meat is particularly controversial for many travelers, but knowing how environmentally conscientious the Icelandic people are, I can’t imagine their food-production methods are as heinous and corrupt as those in the US.
2. The other-worldliness
It felt like I had landed on another planet. Between the aurora borealis swirling around every night (like it was no big deal), the crunchy, gray glaciers of Vatnajökull, the Bárðarbunga volcano system ready to spew at any minute, the black basalt beaches of Vík littered with clear, curvy ice blocks, and fields of yellow flowers sprouting out of red earth in between Gullfoss and Geysir, I had forgotten that New York City was a five-hour plane ride away.
3. The pragmatic people
I had a conversation with an 18-year-old Icelandic kid about why he would vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the 2012 presidential election. I didn’t even know who Gary Johnson was at the time. Icelandic people are honest, helpful, incredibly intelligent, and super laid back. It was also cool to be the straight-minority, for once; everyone we partied with during the rúntur was part of the LGBTQ community.
4. The knitwear
While I’m happy I passed on a $200 Icelandic sweater, I wasn’t for want of wooly goods. I picked up some awesome hand and wrist warmers at the Kolaportið flea market, where an Icelandic granny knit them before my very eyes. After talking to them, I learned the grannies had a friend who owned a sheep farm, and spun her own wool. So obviously I had to pick up a pair of socks too, knowing that everything was completely manufactured in-country.
5. The animals
Icelandic ponies are beautiful, docile creatures that enjoy interacting with strangers stopping along the road to give them a quick pat on the nose. My friend Lindsey and I also got involved with Réttir (annual sheep round-up) when we got lost driving back to Reykjavík — they nearly knocked us on our asses trying to cross the road. And even though I ate them, seeing puffins and whales in their natural habitat was pretty exciting.
6. The nature
We had a fantastic view of Mount Esja from our window at KEX Hostel; and a 15-minute drive outside of the city brought us to natural hot springs, mossy, rounded lava fields, and mountain outcrops whose peaks were so high sometimes, we couldn’t see them on cloudy days. It was like a geologist’s wet dream, and overwhelmingly environmental, coming from a place where the biggest park is still surrounded by skyscrapers.
7. The architecture
One of my favorite things was just walking around the back streets of Reykjavík, looking into peoples’ homes. I know that sounds creepy, but I loved the tiny houses painted in bright blue, red, and yellow, filled with quirky tchotchkes (like glass elves, furry pillows, and geometric vases) and distinctly Scandinavian furnishings.
8. The humor
Icelandic people are the funniest people I’ve ever met. I never buy t-shirts abroad, but I came home with six cheeky silk-screened souvenirs with slogans like, “Eyjafjallajökull is so easy to pronounce,” and “ég tala ekki íslensku” (I don’t speak Icelandic). Scrolling through the Reykjavík Grapevine makes me pee my pants every time, with legit titles such as, “Holuhraun Growing Rapidly, Gandalf May Be Investigating,” and “Tourist Family Laughs As Teen Son Freezes” on their homepage.
9. The freshness
Never have I inhaled air that was so pure and fresh as I did in Iceland. It was about as cold as a New York winter while I was there, but I didn’t mind because of how natural the rain, wind, and snow felt in that sort of environment. Icelandic water is also no joke — it’s perfectly fine to drink from the tap or a random stream, and doesn’t taste like it came from a bottling plant.
10. The blue
I associate a lot of my trip to Iceland with the color blue. It’s the most prominent color of the Icelandic flag. Many buildings are painted in this bright, primary-color blue. The mountains and glaciers often reflect a bright blue, or slate color from a distance. Jökulsárlón (the glacier lagoon) is beyond the most blue thing I’ve ever seen, and the ponds at Þingvellir National Park were so clear, they looked like electric blue pools of a Caribbean beach.
And 3 things I don’t miss whatsoever
1. The coffee
I’m not a coffee drinker by most New York standards, but I do enjoy a nice cup or two to get me going on particularly sluggish mornings. Icelandic coffee makes Nescafé taste like a treat — it’s watery, or too burnt, or just plain nasty. Who knows, maybe I just went to the wrong places. Lindsey and I had several disappointing experiences picking up coffee at various cafes and rest stops though, even resorting to soda and energy drinks to avoid the stuff.
2. The language
I’m not trying to diss on the language here — it’s seriously cool and I wish I could speak it. But trying to say anything in Icelandic became an embarrassing jumble of consonants, guttural sounds, and finally just apologies in English. I memorized the spelling of the city names so we could get around, but hells no do I want to attempt saying Hafnarfjörður, or Sauðárkrókur, ever again.
3. The petrol situation
Pumping gas around Iceland was the most harrowing experience Lindsey and I had. Sometimes we drove for hours without seeing a sign for a petrol station. Once we found one, the process never seemed consistent; sometimes you had to pay for the amount you needed before you pumped, other times you had to keep your credit card in the slot, pump, then calculate the price. Trying to convert litres to gallons and Icelandic krona to US dollars was insane enough — then there was the time when Lindsey paid for about $50 worth of gas, when we only needed about $15.