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Swimming on the moon

TRAVEL: 
Now’s the time to plan for an unforgettable trip to the fantastical destination of Iceland

As winter rears its chilly head, it’s doubtful that the first travel destination that comes to mind is Iceland. And even though the literal meaning of its name isn’t quite fair (it’s actually on average a few degrees warmer in most of Iceland than it is in Toronto during January and February), a winter escape is not the best idea when it comes to the land of Björk and friends. After all, there are only a couple hours of sunlight at winter’s peak (compared to summer, when the sun basically doesn’t set), which narrows the opportunities to see what is truly one of the most stunningly beautiful countries in the world. Besides a trip to Iceland definitely requires some advance planning, so now is just as good a time as any to start figuring out how to find your way there soon. Because no matter how much you think you might know about the country, seeing is truly believing.

With a population of just more than 320,000, Iceland has less people living there than Etobicoke — if only Etobicoke could offer stunning, otherworldly landscapes that include immense waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, geysers and geothermal spas; or an urban setting (yes, there is such a thing in Iceland, thanks to its capital city Reykjavik, where two-thirds of the country’s population resides) with a progressive culture and nightlife comparable to a city 10 times the size. You could easily fill a month in Iceland without getting bored, though that’s likely not possible for most folks. So that’s why it’s important to have to have a good plan so you can make the most of whatever time you have there.

Reykjavik is clearly the best home base. It has a slew of hotels that range from the super affordable (KEX is perhaps the most distinct, well-designed and cosy hostel you’ll ever stay at; kexhostel.is) to the super chic (the Hilton Nordica, hiltonreykjavik.com, or the historic Hotel Borg, en.hotelborg.is, to name a few), and there’s tour bus companies that run an endless array of trips to every attraction in the country from the city centre (with free, reliable wifi on all buses to boot).

Icelandair offers direct flights to the city’s airport (located in Keflavík, about 40 minutes from the city centre) from Toronto for fairly reasonable roundtrip rates of roughly $800 to $850, taxes and fees included. That’s comparable to a flight to Vancouver these days. And once you’re there, the unfortunate economic crisis the country recently faced has made it a relatively cheap destination, at least compared to what it was like a half-decade ago or to its Nordic neighbours like Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Arguably the country’s most popular tourist attraction is just down the road from the airport. The Blue Lagoon is a massive geothermal spa with steamy waters that are part of a lava formation. Its main attraction is a huge outdoor pool with hot, mineral-rich water said to cure a wide variety of skin ailments (psoriasis included). The odd, mountainous landscapes surrounding it make you feel you’re swimming on the moon, and there’s even poolside bars with both fresh juice smoothies and various boozy drinks. The general recommendation among Icelanders — and it’s a fair one — is to save the best for last. Its proximity to the airport makes The Blue Lagoon a perfect final destination, sending you home with a considerable glow.

In the meantime, there’s a bunch of smaller geothermal options in Reykjavik proper to rev you up for The Blue Lagoon. Pool complexes are a huge part of Icelandic culture, and an excellent opportunity to witness Icelanders’ everyday lives (whereas tourist-oriented Blue Lagoon contains a peculiar mishmash of dozens of different nationalities, few of them Icelandic). A good dozen geothermal pools — most of them outdoor — are spread  throughout Reykjavik alone, each quite affordable and most offering large pools for swimming laps, steam baths, hot pots and even water slides. Laugardalslaug is the city’s largest and most impressive, while Vesturbæjarlaug is the alleged “gay pool” even though firsthand attempts at confirming this proved unsuccessful. Rumour has it you can spot Björk swimming laps at a few of the pools on any given day, though that too has been unconfirmed thus far.

An hour or two at the pool can help rejuvenate yourself after spending time taking in Reykjavik’s nightlife, which is pretty substantial given the city’s size. On Fridays and Saturdays, the city centre is packed with folks partying into wee hours of the morning at popular bars like Kaffibarinn (facebook.com/kaffibarinn) or Dillon (facebook.com/pages/Dillon) most with pints of beer in hand — a national obsession influenced by the fact that beer was banned in Iceland until 1989. Iceland is very evidently one of the least homophobic countries in the world (they have an openly lesbian prime minister, after all) which has helped Reykjavik’s gay scene integrate itself into bars of all kinds. But there are two explicitly gay bars, Gay 46 (siggiein.wix.com) and Kjallarinn (facebook.com/pages/Kjallarinn). The former has a younger, mixed crowd (though it also offers a connected men’s only bar through a back door that’s the closest thing the country has to a sex club), while the latter is a more traditional gay disco. Be warned, though, the city has a long-standing tradition of seeing gay bars come and go very quickly (in the two years between trips this writer took, all the gay bars changed), so check Iceland’s official gay tourist website (gayice.is). Sure things include Reykjavík Gay Pride (gaypride.is), which happens the second week of August, and a bear-specific festival called, yes, Bears on Ice (bearsonice.org), the second weekend of September.

While its spas and nightlife are certainly worthwhile and unique, neither compare to a trip to the country’s interior or along the coasts. Aforementioned bus tours from Reykjavik are a great way to check out the astonishing geography. Reykjavik Excursions (re.is) is the most extensive example; its most popular offering being The Golden Circle tour. Covering about 300 kilometres, the bus brings you to central Iceland and back, with primary stops being the gorgeous national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss (meaning “Golden Falls”), and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Your Instagram photos will be the envy of each and every one of your followers.

There’s also the more adventurous option of renting a car and touring around Iceland yourself (if you’re simply staying in Reykjavik, the city is very walkable and a car is not necessary). An extensive road system, known as The Ring Road, circles the entire country, offering views of a constantly changing landscape that could often double for something out of The Lord of the Rings. Car touring offers the opportunity to check out Iceland’s second city Akureyri which, though far from a Montreal or a Melbourne with its population of 18,000 people, has a few shockingly world-class options in terms of restaurants and hotels. And if you do decide to brave Iceland in the winter months, it’s also a great place to see the Northern Lights.

Perhaps the most important part of a trip to Iceland is just taking in the culture of the country’s people (who, by the way, pretty much all speak perfect English). Beyond the pools and the beer, Icelanders are a pretty magical (and let’s be honest, physically stunning) bunch. Try and make friends with a local if you really want to experience what the country has to offer. Get them to introduce you to local delicacies like harðfiskur, dried fish pieces eaten as a snack with butter, or svið, a singed sheep’s head; both of which taste way better than they sound. Or ask them (without judgment, it’s a surprisingly sensitive subject) about the country’s relationship to elves. A recent survey by the University of Iceland found that 17 percent of Icelanders were certain that elves exist, while another 37 percent said it was “possible” (on the flipside, the country has one of the highest rates of irreligion in the world, with roughly 60 percent saying religion is unimportant to their daily lives).

Rest assured no matter how you end up experiencing Iceland, you’ll want to come back again and again.

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