REYKJAVIK, Iceland — The waves were choppy enough to flash white caps and roll the ferry back and forth, but no one cared as the humpback whales frolicked, flapping their huge white-tinged tails, or moat.
The human gasps were audible exhalations of excitement as the pair of whales dove and surfaced, splashing nearby in Faxaflói Bay, perhaps 8km from Reykjavik harbour.
It was mid-May. The temperature aboard the 36-foot vessel was neither balmy nor freezing, and the sunburn alternated through the clouds with rain, light snow and wind. The whales waved their flukes in a lengthy show guide, Lucas Heinrich oh and ahh like an overworked sports contest color commentator, throwing “wows” and “fantastics”.
Still, it was the appropriate tone for the moment. This is what tourists have come to see on this rocky island with a population of just 345,500 inhabitants, Nordic exoticism, attracted by the adventure of mingling with another culture in a distant country.
The whales are the cornerstone of the experience. Depending on the time of year and the north or south of the island, killer whales, minkes or other types of whales may surface.
“Even us guides are sometimes surprised,” Heinrich said.
Humpback whales can weigh 40 tons or 80,000 pounds and measure between 45 and 55 feet in length. Swimming near the boat for 45 minutes or more inspired awe. Also, nausea in some. A young man wearing a knit cap from the University of Minnesota called the whale sighting spectacular, but also said, “My wife is throwing up her guts.”
Traveling to the Far North is like going to space, but with better restaurants.
Compared to almost anywhere in the lower 48 states of the United States, parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland have a strong kinship in their rugged and scenic lands.
They feature glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, icebergs, cold air, snow and ice. Bring a parka and gloves. Although temperatures in the 50s were promised, many days in a week were cooler and the wind chill bit at times.
My visit to Iceland spanned 20 years, sparked by a friend’s adventure story. I had been to all these other cold corners of the hemisphere.
When you tell people you’re heading to Iceland, they raise their eyebrows, shake their heads, or start calculating the dollar sign in their mind. Iceland is a concept for many, as much as a place. They can’t drive there. They don’t see a beachfront condo in their head.
More importantly, they mistakenly assume that it is too expensive and semi-impossible to achieve. Icelandair offered a five-and-a-half-hour direct flight from Chicago to Reykjavik for $550. The direct flight was the crux for me. An alternative one-stop flight takes you first to London or Berlin, taking a bewildering 32 hours to reach Iceland. My travel time and cost was similar to Anchorage, Alaska.
Food in Iceland is expensive as almost everything is flown in and we are currently facing a global food crisis. Yet each specific individual activity I planned was also reasonably priced.
There are different ways to visit Iceland. I was not interested in a global package. Instead, I booked on my own. My hotel, one of the Center Hotels Klopp, was ideally located. The cost was about $110 a night for six nights including hot breakfast, and the front desk service was the best I’ve ever encountered. Imagine a receptionist as a concierge, so helpful that they went above and beyond just answering questions.
I didn’t want to rent a car to drive around the whole island, although that is a popular activity. Instead, I booked mini-bus day trips that lasted up to 12 hours.
Trying to live up to a sweatshirt-for-sale slogan “Iceland: the coolest place on earth”, I visited a glacier up close, dazzling waterfalls and a black sand beach from boiling lava. For those with long memories, American Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championships in Iceland in 1972, and there is a Bobby Fischer Center housing memorabilia from his time there. Fischer is buried nearby.
Even though I had done it before, it was neat to walk near a glacier. Groups of people climbed on it, climbing on the ice with crampons. You can’t do that everywhere.
It was allowed in Iceland to walk much closer to the massive waterfalls than elsewhere. At one point you can sneak up to the falls and then follow a path behind them.
It felt clean and adventurous, but it was also close to a suicide mission I’ve been on for some time. The rocks were wet and slippery with the force of the falls or the wind blowing off the water. The footing was uncertain, the terrain open and dangerous minus the guardrails, and I was soaked. At one point, I crawled over mud and rocks so as not to lose my balance – or my life.
A driving guide named Huigi noted that only 1% of Iceland is covered in trees.
“If we have three trees together, we call it a forest,” he said.
I spent the rest of my visit looking for clusters of trees. Many shores showed impressive cliffs, but woods were lacking.
I scheduled myself one excursion a day, which left me time to walk around Reykjavik. The whale watching excursion costs $82. A fishing trip on a boat from the port of Reykjavik costs $119. The South Coast waterfalls and glacier day trip is $108. Airport shuttle was about $33 and cheaper than a taxi.
It turned out that the port was only 20 minutes from my hotel, eliminating the need for taxis to start water travel.
The architecture is very European, often colorful with buildings brighter overall than in the United States. Reykjavik is full of cafes (decaf is hard to find) and bars. Props for a bar called Lebowski’s, named after the American movie classic ‘The Big Lebowski’ starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. There were bowling shoes and pins displayed in the window and burgers on the menu.
For those who didn’t dare risk their taste buds with whale meat or horse meat, it was easy to indulge in a slice of pizza, a burger or even (surprise) a Subway sandwich. Lambs are local residents, cows not so much so steaks are rarer. A herd of reindeer lives in the highlands but did not yet show up at lower elevations.
Wildlife does not roam the Icelandic countryside. Rarely, in winter, in the far north, a polar bear can be seen. Most of the time, visitors see sheep ranches, whales, and fish, especially cod, if they go fishing. Cod has long been one of the staples of the Icelandic economy. Inland fishing trips over $500 are available for other species. Boat fishing was the way to go for me, and the water was calmer than while whale watching.
Reykjavik, with over 130,000 inhabitants, is home to a variety of museums. There is a whale museum, the Aurora Center, where one can learn about the Northern Lights, the National Museum of Iceland, the Reykjavik Art Museum and the Saga Museum.
“Saga” is a heavy word. This museum covers the history of Iceland. It is generally accepted that Iceland should have been called Greenland and Greenland should have been called Iceland because Greenland is really more wintry. It’s probably too late to trade.
Norwegians started settling in Iceland in 847. Saga displays are quite realistic and gory. This includes a headless re-enactment with statues. There was a reference to an elder with a lively nickname, however, Ari the Savant. He had probably memorized the sagas.
Lighter, the museum allows patrons to dress up as Vikings for photos. Put on a cloth tracksuit, layer chain mail, choose a metal hard hat, then wield a sword or ax while carrying a shield. Talk about your awesome Halloween outfits. Alert. The chain mail must weigh at least 25 pounds. A forklift is useful to get it out of its box.
Others might vote for the Viking beer sold at the airport’s duty-free shop as a souvenir. Drink enough and you might think he was seeing things like a multicolored downtown street. No wait. There really is a road in Reykjavik called Rainbow Street. Everyone flocks to it because it is so alive. Red, orange, yellow, green, purple and pink make up the road in lanes roughly the width of what one would see at a track meet.
The street is representative of a Rainbow Pride festival celebrating diversity. With Iceland having the most sparse population in Europe, people like to be reminded that everyone matters. And that tops Oz’s Yellow Brick Road.