What It’s Like to Visit Iceland Right Now
There is one major advantage to seeing Iceland now: You have the island pretty much to yourself.
I’ve been so freaked out by the COVID pandemic that I haven’t gotten a haircut in over a year. Nor have I ridden on the New York City subway or even taken the elevator to my sixth floor apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. However, I did just get back from 12 days in Iceland.
Why my sudden lack of virus panic?
I’d read that you had to be vaccinated to get on any plane going to Iceland, a country that hadn’t reported a COVID-positive case in days. Also, 72 hours before departure, the government there requires you to register at its website, travel.covid.is, which sends you a barcode to be presented at customs at the Reykjavik Airport, where you are tested (nose and throat) for the virus. It’s everything I needed to know to cure my current fear of flying, or traveling.
When I arrive from JFK at 7 a.m. on May 18, a veritable army of technicians at the Reykjavik Airport are there to greet and test everybody in record time. It proves to be one of the quickest immigration visits I’ve experience in my travels to over 80 countries.
I opt not to quarantine at my hotel for the estimated four-to-six-hours wait time for test results, and instead take the other sanctioned option: I walk around Reykjavik, wheeling my carry-on luggage, careful to social distance, wear a mask and not enter any establishment for food, drink, shopping or a rest stop. When I require the latter, I check into my boutique hotel, the very pleasant Alda, to take a nap. When I wake up 90 minutes later, I check my iPhone to learn my VOVID status: negative. The pandemic is tamed.
When I first considered visiting Iceland this spring, I took out a 2020 travel itinerary I’d put together with friends for a car trip around the island, which got scuttled for obvious reasons. Over the years, I’ve done a few car trips alone in Europe; however, when I went to make the half-dozen hotel reservations in Iceland for this trip, the photos online suddenly looked uninviting, downright ominous in their stark isolation. The trip looks easy: Highway 1, a two-lane road, basically circles the island. But those hotel photos! One looked more desolate, isolated, stark, anonymous and treeless—definitely treeless—than the next. Maybe it was time to take a van trip with a dozen other vaccinated travelers. Just for the company.
Fortunately, Nordic Visitor had scheduled their first multi-day van trip since the pandemic hit, departing from Reykjavik on May 19. The best decision I made was booking that tour, because most of those hotels in Iceland looked every bit as desolate, isolated, stark, anonymous, and, yes, treeless as they did on online. Think of that opening scene from Brokeback Mountain, a pickup truck traveling at twilight across the bottom of the movie screen, a big black mountain looming in the distance? That would have been me alone in Iceland for eight days on the Highway 1.
A real disadvantage of traveling so early in the tourist season turns out not to be the cold, the rain and the wind (although there is plenty of each); rather, an extraordinarily dry winter has left the moss and grass here parched. Instead of being green, the grass remains a light beige, the moss on the black lava fields a dull gray. Even the native brick trees (more bush than tree) hasn’t yet broken out with leaves. There is, however, lots of snow, especially in the interior highlands, which, for me, brings back vivid memories of a recent trip to Antarctica. And, of course, the country’s many majestic glaciers are there for at least a few more decades.
There is one major advantage to seeing Iceland in May: We have the island pretty much to ourselves, the Nordic Visitor tour unofficially being the first one post-pandemic. We meet only one other commercial tour on our eight-day excursion around the island.
Iceland’s many natural attractions come equipped with parking lots, some the size you’d see at the Grand Canyon or Iguazu Falls. All of them are virtually empty. Frankly, I’ll take the lack of green over the crowds any day.
For those who don’t have at least a full week to see Iceland, it’s my novice opinion that the best sights are on the island’s west coast near Reykjavik, and are very doable on day-trips by car rental or commercial tours, such as Trolls Expeditions. Top of my list are the high cliffs on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula; miles of paths here recall the sweep and grandeur of Big Sur and Land’s End in Cornwall. Snaefellsnes, though, offers a few spectacular scenic twists you won’t find in California or England, which I’ll get to later in this article.
Even closer to Reykjavik is the Blue Lagoon, the island’s premier geothermal space, and, of course, the currently active Fagradalsfjall volcano, located between the airport and the city. Do not make the mistake I did regarding Fagradalsfjall, and leave it to the end of your trip. If you have good weather in Reykjavik, grab it! See the volcano that day. Otherwise, bad weather, especially lethal high winds, can scuttle those plans as they did mine. For three days at the end of my vacation, no commercial tours went there. And frankly, I didn’t want to risk a very expensive helicopter or airplane ride over a volcano in 40-plus miles-an-hour winds. Car rental is another option, but those need to be booked several days, if not weeks, in advance.
Day one of my van tour covers what is known as the Golden Circle (easily doable in a day), which begins at the two-tier waterfalls at Gullfoss on the Hvita River; known as the “Golden Waterfalls,” it’s a veritable mini-Victoria Falls as the water drops into a huge fissure. I can’t find a vantage point to see the cascades actually hit bottom. Also a 90-minute drive from Reykjavik is the Hot Springs Area, with its many blowholes, the one called Geysir giving its name to geysers everywhere else in the world. Geysir isn’t so active these days, but only a few yards away is Strokker, which erupts 10 times or more an hour. I catch three big blows in under two minutes, some hitting 115 feet. For comparison, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful sometimes gets up to 180.
Instead of doing the day-trip back to the city, we continue on to the Reykjavik bedroom community of Selfoss, where we get stuck in a small traffic jam of commuters returning home on Friday afternoon. Set on the Olfusa River near the Ingolfsfjall Mountain, the town offers great views. The town itself, on the other hand, is—how to put this?—anonymous. Most towns in Iceland are. We stay at the sleek Selfoss Hotel, which stands where the town’s original homes were built in 1942.
Day two takes us to the Seljalandsfoss waterfalls—you soon learn that “foss” translates into “falls”—notable for the sheep’s path that takes you behind the descending sheet of water. Part of the fun is the genuinely treacherous climb over mud-covered rock to escape that air pocket.
Nearby and even mightier (but not viewable from behind the falls) is Skogafoss, which features a nearly 500-step staircase to a viewing station on its upper-most east side. I think people swim here, although not in May, since the parking lot features showers.
Off Highway 1, between Skogar and Vik, stands the large jutting promontory of Dyrholaey, the southernmost point in Iceland. Seamen used to call it “Portland,” thanks to its huge natural arch. At nearby Dverghamrar, or the “Dwarf Cliffs,” its hexagonal columns of basalt bring to mind Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, with one important difference: those finely carved “tubes” aren’t walkable here; rather, they present an intimidating wall of rock, as if a massive pipe organ had been turned to stone.
Best stay of the trip is that night at the Magma Hotel, near Kirkjubaejarklaustur, with its sod-roof cabins, each dedicated to a spectacular historic eruption. I stay in the one named Hengil, year 100 A.D.
Glacier tongues greet us on day three as we venture farther east. At Jokulsarlon, we walk the black-sand Diamond Beach, so-called due to the sizable chunks of ice that calve from the Vatnajokull Glacier, across the road and the lagoon, where much larger ice blocks sparkle with the same dark azure blue you find in Antarctica. A boat tour gets us within touching distance of these floating natural sculptures but not the glacier itself. I ask the boat driver if it was “too dangerous there.” She answers, “No, we don’t have time.”
As we continue eastward, the Icelandic coast resembles the rolling cliffs of Big Sur to your right and the snow-covered Alps to your left. We spend the night in the log-cabin-inspired Hotel Blafell at Beliddalsuik, another anonymous town—except for the violent ocean in front of you. A surprise is the rainbow-painted steps to the hotel. Several towns on the island feature this symbol on walls and roads; what these small towns lacked in architectural charm they make up for in LGBTQ hospitality.
We cut inland on day four for the island’s famous moonscape, where Neil Armstrong and other aspiring astronauts trained in 1965 and ’67 for their time in space. It has been said that the landscape in Iceland changes every hour. For the most part, it’s true, but not here. For hours it is tundra and snow, the monotony broken up by a half-hour trek to Europe’s mightiest waterfalls. Dettifoss is another of those aquatic displays where the water roars down to get lost in a deep crevice.
Onward, the road is dotted with four-foot triangular cairns, some dating back 400 years but still standing to mark the way for travelers.
Eventually, we see the ocean again, on the north side of the island, as well as the spring-fed Myvatn Lake, another spa area. Just when I think I can’t take another lava field, I’m thoroughly enchanted at Dimmuborgir, a natural rock garden where the lava has taken on fantastically contorted shapes. Dimmuborgir must be the inspiration for Iceland’s romance with trolls, those mischievous, mythical creatures that travel at night and turn to stone if sunlight gets in their eyes. Troll-like figures abound here, as well as phantom ships, churches, citadels and caves.
That evening in Husavik, on the north coast, at the Fosshotel, we meet the only other commercial tour of this trip—there are eight Danes on a bus with Gudmundur-Tyrfingsson tours.
Days five and six are spent in and around this fishing village. Three thousand years ago, the Jokulsargljufur National Park was the scene of a catastrophic flood that created the largest and most dramatic of the island’s river canyons, now the gigantic horse-shot shaped Asbyrgi Canyon. Legend has it the Norse god Odin created this mighty rock depression (15 miles long, half a wide wide) with one stomp of his foot. The downside of visiting in May is that the forest around the pond is still dormant. The upside is having this 325 foot-deep pit all to ourselves.
Day seven takes us to Godafoss, or “Waterfalls of the Gods,” a two-tier falls with a long run of violent rapids in between. Its name comes from Porgei Ljorsvetningagodi, who led the citizenry to adopt Christianity (around 1000 A.D.) and throw their heathen Norse idols into these turbulent waters.
On to the country’s second largest city, Akureyri (pop. 18,000), which lies at the end of Iceland’s longest fjord. Having now traveled a few of these fjords, I can report that Iceland’s come in a distant third to Norway’s and Chile’s. Hungry to see a little vegetation, I trek up the hill to the town’s Botanical Garden. I want to see what a botanical garden only 50 miles away from the Arctic Circle has to offer. Surprisingly, it is one of the most wooded places in all of Iceland. On this trip, only the Asburgi Canyon and Reykjavic’s Holavallagarour Cemetery sport more trees, the ones in the cemetery having been planted in 1885.
As we leave the far north and travel west, our itinerary for day seven calls it the “hidden gems of the West Coast,” the operative word being “hidden.” A series of undistinguished little villages whiz by. At one of them, our tour has set up our second Covid test, necessary to leave the country. I forget to write down the name of the town, but it’s near Kirkjufeel, known as the “Church Mountain,” the 1,500-foot colossus that’s featured in seasons six and seven of Game of Thrones. Impressive waterfalls across the road add to the mountain’s spooky allure.
Finally, we arrive at the Arnarstapi Hotel for the evening, named after the small fishing village that shares the same survival-over-aesthetics architecture of so many other towns here. That unkind remark aside, the environs of Arnarstapi turns day eight into my favorite in this tour.
As previously stated, the paths along the ocean here recall Big Sur and Cornwall. There’s even a tiny port with a short weir of piled stones. This inlet is stunningly framed by natural black rock pillars that rise up from the waters, away from the cliffs, to which they used to cling. Other natural bridges are still intact, and as you walk over them, it’s necessary to watch your step and not fall into the huge holes on the land side. The waves travel under the bridges and then crash around in these deep, open pits, where Arctic terns rest and nest. Along the surrounding cliffs these birds have splattered the black rock with their white poop in a style worth of a Jackson Pollock canvas. Farther up the coast is a natural bridge so large you can sail a boat through it at high tide. And even farther to the west is a mammoth splash of lave that’s called the “Viking’s Ship.” Amongst such brutal formations, you’ll find Iceland’s national flower, the dainty Holtasoley, which crops up here and there to present a bouquet of small pink flowers in the black rock.
Speaking of black, alone on these cliffs stands Buoakirkja, or the “Black Church,” a replica of the original built in 1703 but still covered in tar for protection from the elements. You have to love a house of worship that was “built without the support of spiritual fathers,” as the plaque in front tells us.
Back in Reykjavik, I have a newfound appreciation for the city, after seeing so many austere fishing villages where the main street is essentially a shopping mall. On a second look, Reykjavik now appears to be the Lyme Regis of the West. Years ago, I’d admired the architectural use of corrugated tin in Valparaiso, Chile. It’s a metal that this Iowa farm boy had associated with something you put over a hog shed. Where in Valparaiso this tin is given a wild psychedelic flair, the shops and houses in Reykjavik limit their colors to only two or three. It gives certain streets the nautical ambiance of canneries. Where Valparaiso brings to mind Wavy Gravy, it’s more likely that Popeye would walk the streets of Reykjavik.
The old part of town is known as the Lighthouse Village Creative Quarter, but don’t hold that against the place. It’s full of chic cafes and galleries and bars, many of them catering to the LGBTQ crowd. They’re very upfront about it here, with names like Kiki Queer Bar and a big rainbow flag painted on the street in Black Lives Matter fashion. One whole block is devoted to this symbol of liberation on Skolavovoustiguer Road, which leads uphill to the country’s most iconic church, the Hallgrimskirkja, designed by Guojon Samuelsson and completed in 1987. Think of a bad date between Paul Bunyon and Josef Stalin and you get an inkling of this structure’s brutish symmetry. It sits atop a hill that’s also home to the work of Iceland’s first sculptor, Einar Jonsson (1874-1954), who apparently introduced the island to this penchant for massive overstatement.
More interesting is the National Museum with its Icelandic artifacts and history lesson delivered in a series of stunning rooms and tableaux.
At night, I dine at the Lobsterhouse, just off the city’s centerpiece Tjornin, or Pond. Checking out the menu, I ask, “So where’s the lobster.” Clearly, I’m no foodie. “That’s the langoustine, the Norway lobster,” replies the server. It turns out I prefer langoustine in the soup to on the plate, where it comes off a bad sweet. Better is the seafood platter, which features a little of everything from the ocean.
Getting out of Iceland turns into a travel nightmare. The problem is part-COVID, part-Iceland, part-airline incompetence, and something to keep in mind when traveling here this year. A late-morning flight gets pushed back 14 hours to early morning the next day because the pilot has tested positive for COVID. False alarm, he’s really negative. When we’re finally all onboard at 1:30 am, the pilot announces that the plane is missing an “important part.” He cheerfully informs us that “if this were JFK, we’d have the needed part. But Iceland doesn’t have that supply inventory.” I finally get out of Iceland late that morning.
At JFK, I breeze out of customs only to hear a lone woman politely asking people for their COVID form. I haven’t filled one out. I could keep on walking. No one’s there to stop me. Instead, I fill out and sign the form, despite it being a shamelessly porous process. The United States has a lot to learn from Iceland about COVID protection.
Robert Hofler is the lead theater critic for TheWrap. He is also author of several books, including The Man Who invented Rock Hudson and Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne.