11.13.09

Gal With a Suitcase

In our new travel column, Jolie Hunt—who has already travelled 100,000 miles this year—reports from the world’s dream destinations. First up: a long winter weekend in Iceland.

For those of us whose motto is “short on time, long on destinations,” travel is a luxury that leaves little room for error. We don’t have hours to pour through countless pages of Condé Nast magazines, and we can’t rely on anything that’s not a personal recommendation. Sometimes travel writers get their hotels and excursions gratis. Can they be trusted?

I’m not a travel writer. I’m a traveller. I spend 50 percent of any given year on the road—in the first half of this one, for instance, I found myself jetlagged on five different continents. Since summer ended, I’ve been spotted in New York, Paris, Boston, Aspen, Denver, Nantucket, Brussels, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London (where I attempt to live, but hardly ever see), Bangalore and Mysore in India. By Monday, I’ll have been back through London and New York. And in the next few months: Miami, Belgrade, Istanbul, and Germany.

Gal with a Suitcase (hereinafter, GWS) pays full freight, which means I make sure it’s worth it. I’ve developed a bloodhound’s nose for what’s worth doing and what’s not. Each week I will take you to a new destination—some exotic, some familiar—touching on four simple aspects: where to stay, what to do, where to eat and—crucially!—what to avoid.

First stop, Iceland.

Reykjavik is magical. I have heard people say this over the years, but until I actually experienced it, I couldn’t have believed it. Forget Bjork and prepare yourself by listening to Sigur Ros. As the music implies, a visit to Iceland is like going to the moon, only instead of little green men it is entirely populated by gorgeous blondes.

In winter, between November and March, you can expect between four and six hours of light each day. Strangely, this didn’t feel as isolating as it sounds. Iceland lies only 4 degrees from the Arctic Circle and is mercifully warmed by the Gulf Stream. Temperatures hover above freezing, but drop sharply once that precious light disappears. Absent are businessmen and bachelor parties; in their place are twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings with a chic urban ease. The streets are quiet; the bars and cafes are raucous.

The long weekend in Iceland was purely for pleasure (thankfully, as the financial crisis has not made conducting business here much fun). I was seeking a destination between London and New York, the two cities I call home. The local tourism board says that visitors average  10days in summer and five in the winter; three to four nights, at least in winter, is the way to go. I was able to 1) chase the Northern Lights, 2) chill out in the Blue Lagoon, 3) go spelunking with a tour guide, who was once a Calvin Klein Obsession model and lent my boyfriend a pair of his hiking boots, and 4) dine with Iceland’s magnificent first lady, who helped me narrow down the following tips.

Stay

101 Hotel is the spot. The 101 is an understated, astutely designed boutique hotel mere steps from the center of town, which means you avoid the noise of the square (very important). The crowd is fashionable without being annoying, and the space is communal without feeling like an Alice in Wonderland house party. The staff’s favorite word is “yes” (which happens to be mine, too) and the interior was clearly designed with the most discerning guest in mind. The concierge can also help arrange your tour, which you simply must experience. (38 rooms, from $360 USD)
www.101hotel.com
354 580 0101

An alternative for those on a stricter budget is the strange-sounding Hotel Thingholt, which is part of the Center Hotels group and offers a slightly less-fabulous-but-still-quite-acceptable boutique hotel experience. The designer Gulla Jonsdottir, one of Iceland’s more famous architects, has lent her touches throughout. If it feels familiar, it’s because she’s also worked on the Roosevelt in Hollywood and the Crescent in Beverly Hills. I didn’t stay here, but I hear good things. (50 rooms, from $120 USD for a double)
www.centerhotels.is
354 595 8530

Do

Go to Iceland in the winter. It is glorious. For the adventure seeker, there are options aplenty.

Mountaineers of Iceland is the most reliable tour company. They run like clockwork and do everything they say they’ll do. While there may be fancier options, I liked the comfort of knowing these guys are doing this all day, every day. By day, take the Golden Circle jeep tour, which includes Pingvellir National Park (where Iceland’s first parliament was founded in 930 AD), the geyser spouting hot spring, the Gullfoss (golden waterfall), and a thrilling snowmobile ride across one of the glaciers. It took my breath away. At night, you must chase the aurora borealis. I like the private tour, but there’s a perfectly acceptable group outing that goes nearly every night. Do it. Damn exciting and electrically cold.
www.mountaineers.is
354 580 9900

The crown jewel of the Iceland experience is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal hot spring—the mother of all Jacuzzis. Hedonism in hot water. Spend a few hours here and plan to visit when landing or leaving Keflavik Airport because it’s on the way to Reykjavik. What they don’t stress enough is the need to book in advance a “water massage” in the hot spring. You won’t regret it.
www.bluelagoon.com
354 420 8800

Eat

The Seafood Cellar unexpectedly, unabashedly located in a cellar underneath a welcome kiosk, and utterly enchanting. Bring your appetite for fish; I liked the aptly named fish sampler entrée, and leave room for the smoking desserts.
http://www.sjavarkjallarinn.is
354 511 1212

Fish Market’s dark oak and bamboo walls make up one of Iceland’s sexiest restaurants. The cuisine is Asian-inspired and prepared in the kitchen, robata grill, or raw bar. For the adventurous, try the reindeer or puffin; for those feeling fishy, go for arctic char or the array of sushi.
http://fiskmarkadurinn.is
354 578 8877

The East Indian Company. For comfort and cozy spiced to perfection, look no further. This is an accessible favorite for those in the know. Order the hariyali salmon or the tandoor lobster as mains, or for the veggie-inclined, chana masala accompanied by copious garlic naan.
http://www.austurindia.is/
354 552 1630

And for a tasty meal under $20, go to Italia. Order the pizza; it’s the best in the country.
http://www.italia.is/
354 522 4630

Avoid

The restaurant Thrir Frakkar (Three Fracas), unless, of course, you have a real hankering for whale meat. (I didn’t, and still don’t.) This restaurant was fine, but my main objection was that everyone recommends it and it’s completely average: average food, average ambiance, average service—on the whole, quite unremarkable.

Do not be tempted by Hotel Borg—it’s huge, on an impossibly loud square, and it feels largely forgettable compared with the highly designed alternatives.

Also avoid coming unprepared. This is Iceland. Pack accordingly. If you’re planning to be active (which you should be) you’ll need layers, boots, hats, gloves, and related accoutrements. You can of course buy them there but, collapsed economy or not, the prices of everyday goods here can still really sting.

Jolie Hunt is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters. Prior to that, she served as global director of corporate and business affairs for IBM. She was the director of PR for the Financial Times. She lives between New York and London.