Culture / Travel

Adventures in Iceland

Mysterious Craters, 24-Hour Sunlight and Bartenders in Parkas

BY Erin Cluley // 09.27.16

Iceland is nothing if not a lesson in the beauty of contradictions: glaciers meet volcanoes; vibrant street art meets minimalist architecture. During seven glorious, night-less summer days, gallery owner Erin Cluley and her film exec husband, Tearlach Hutcheson, go Nordic.

When I have trouble sleeping, I don’t count sheep. Instead, I imagine the next destination I will explore and plot the details in my mind. FYI: Studies show anticipation of travel can stir positive emotion and relieve stress. Naturally, my dreaming of faraway places puts me into a dream state. I highly advise trying this the next time you’re having a sleepless night.

So, why Iceland? Since my return, I’ve been asked this — a lot. The short of it is, my husband, Tearlach, saw a promotion that piqued our interest. After some research (and a few trips to REI), we were prepared to spend six nights in Reykjavík.

An overnight flight out of New York landed us in Iceland’s capital city early on a Monday morning. On our way to the hotel, we were immediately engrossed by the Icelandic landscape and light that everyone talks about. Volcanic rock was everywhere; there wasn’t a tree in sight. Had we landed on the moon?

After freshening up in our room at CenterHotel Thingholt, we took to the streets. Reykjavík is a small city, and we got our bearings quickly, identifying the most obvious, way-finding spot: Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral. The monumental architecture is inspired by the country’s basalt lava flows, which we would later see in abundance. We rode the elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja and took in stunning 360-degree views — a picturesque city of brightly painted buildings with mountains and volcanoes in the distance.

Dinner was traditional Icelandic fare at the Icelandic Bar. We asked for local beer, and the waitress told us we were in luck. Local beer, she said, is the only kind they serve. This would soon become a theme of our trip: locally sourced everything.

Day two was reserved for the Golden Circle tour — a tourist route that leads east inland to a place of otherworldly landscapes. We walked the circumference of a volcanic crater, felt the mist of two massive waterfalls on our faces, witnessed active geysers, and walked along the mid-Atlantic ridge, where tectonic plates protrude from the earth. It was a reminder of the beauty of our planet. Mother Nature at its grandest.

Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss Waterfall

For dinner, we had a late reservation at Kolabrautin, a restaurant inside the magnificent Olafur Eliasson–designed Harpa building and performing arts center. As we walked back to our hotel, at nearly midnight, we fully realized the visual impact of summer in Iceland. The sun truly never sets.

Physical darkness is not something I often think about, but the lack of it made me appreciate how it works for our mental and physical well-being. At the same time, having no shortage of sunlight made us feel unstoppable.

The following day, we explored the city’s growing arts scene. The Reykjavík Art Museum had a retrospective of the artist Erró, one of Iceland’s best-known artists. Gallery i8 was staging a beautiful exhibition of minimalist works by Thor Vigfússon. At Hverfisgallerí, pieces made of hair and woven fur by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir topped my list of favorites. We traipsed across the city, gallery guide in hand, and observed the abundance of murals and street art, which provide a lively burst of color in a city where most days are painted gray.

Our longest excursion was planned for day four. A young Icelandic man served as our guide; while showing us the sights, he also enlightened us about Viking folklore. We were blown away by what we accomplished: We hiked the Sólheimajökull glacier, walked the black-sand beaches, and were overcome by the beauty of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

Our last two days were reserved for adventures of a more relaxing nature — whale watching, shopping, and a spa day. Our excursion to find whales in the wild took flight on a speedboat, with a small worldly group of internationals. On an unusually sunny day in Reykjavík, the suits that the guides made us wear seemed ridiculous, but they were a ridiculous necessity, as the wind was cold and the boat fast. We spotted whales, puffins, and porpoises — not bad for my first whale-watching trip.

After a high-energy ride back to land, we had a warm lunch and wandered into local shops. I ended up with two perfect souvenirs: a beautiful poncho from Geyser, a boutique that specializes in wool clothing, and a ceramic egg made by the deceased Icelandic artist Kogga, whose daughter now represents his work. The figures drawn on the egg’s surface recall the country’s Viking history — a fitting keepsake.

Our final day in Iceland was spent at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa about 45 minutes outside Reykjavík. Despite the 40-degree weather, we put on our swimsuits and ventured out. As far as the eye could see, a blanket of steam rose from milky-blue water, surrounded by black volcanic rock. We relaxed in the mineral-rich water, smeared silica masks on our faces, and visited the swim-up bar. We ordered one glass of Prosecco and one Icelandic beer from bartenders wearing parkas. I wondered to myself if this day could be any more perfect — and then I saw an elf.

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