The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, played and directed by Ben Stiller, tells the story of a man who, trapped in a routine job, steps out of his comfort zone to embark on an adventure around the world. I took my 13 year old daughter Emma to see it in an effort to encourage her to live life to the fullest. “Seize the day” I’d often tell her. My insistence in transmitting such “joie de vivre” culminated with this inspiring film that showcased Iceland in a spectacular way. “We have to go to Iceland!” she gasped as she attentively followed Mitty trek throughout some of the most magnificent Icelandic sceneries. I assured her we would go one day with a firm “I promise”! Little did I know that I’d be reminded of my pledge for the next two years and every night, at dinner time, I’d hear the same question : “When are we going to Iceland?”
Finally, we planned our trip to, what I may dare say, one of the most captivating places on earth. This gorgeous island, of almost 40,000 square miles and about 300,000 people, is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth: pristine green pastures, glistening glaciers, majestic waterfalls and imposing volcanoes that are truly breathtaking. Reykjavik, its capital, is where almost half o Icelanders live. More than a metropolis, it resembles a small fishing town with its hilly coblestone streets lined with colorful clapboard houses and picturesque storefronts. Unlike most capital cities, this one is not as crowded and locals are friendly, most of whom speak immaculate English.
Because hotels are few and rather expensive, I turned to Airbnb for lodging. We were fortunate to find a beautiful downtown aparment with a small peek of the ocean that became our shelter for the entire week. Helga, the owner, had her two bedroom home decorated in the most indigenous way with antique furnishings, a tin ceiling and colorful rugs – charming and cozy. She also made sure we had thick black out curtains to block the sun at night, thus assuring us a perfect resting place for our Icelandic adventure. On our first day, we walked around to enjoy the beautiful sights like the stunning Solfa sculpture, which represents an ode to the sun, created by Jón Gunnar Árnason and the the amazing Lutheran church Hallgrímskirkja with its unique façade that mimics the flow of basaltic lava.
We also visited the Saga Museum – where Icelandic history is expressed through exciting “sagas” (epic stories). Its fascinating history dates back to the 9th century when vikings from Norway and the British Isles settled. In the 13th century, after years of endless battles among chieftans, Iceland fell completely under Norway’s rule. Later, Norway united with Sweden and Denmark creating the Kalmar Union but when it dissolved in 1523, Iceland remained part of Denmark. Not until after World War I did it gain sovereignty although it still shared the Danish monarchy. Only on June 17, 1944 did Iceland become a republic.
As I stepped out of the musuem, I tried to imagine how people enjoyed their lives here in the harsh and dark winters. “Harsh?” asked the owner of Ganglieri Outfitters, a hiking equipment rental store, on Hversfisgata street. “Our winters are mild. Dark maybe, but the temperatures rarely go below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Only in the highlands do they go down to 14 degrees and in northern Iceland they can reach 13 to 20 below zero.”
But darkness is an issue. While in the winter time, Iceland gets only an average of four to six hours of sunlight, in the summer the sun only goes down for a couple of hours setting around midnight. Most Icelanders enjoy the summer nights as much as possible by strolling and dining out until 2 or 3 in the morning. The streets of Rekjavik are lively around the clock and Reykjavikians are a very relaxed bunch, nothing is a problem for them. You could probably say that their attitude is, ironically, almost tropical. A couple of stressful times during my visit – mainly pertaining to logistics- were easily upheased by the calm and practical attitude of the those who helped me
When it came to food, I honestly did not expect much. I’m a fish eater and I knew I would do fine but I was nicely surprised by their wholesome and creative cuisine. Famished, one morning, at Le Bistro, we opted for a hearty Icelandic breakfast of eggs, pork, tomatoes, blood pudding, yogurt with granola and a nice shot of cod liver oil, revered in Iceland for its high content of omega 3 fatty oils and its generous amounts of vitamins A and D. Satisfying to say the least. Once for lunch, we booked at Laekjarbrekka for some delicious Artic char and flaky cod served with creamy barley. My favorite meal hands down, was at Kol, a cozy restaurant near Hallgrímskirkja where I had an amazing salmon sous vid in lobster broth. Aside from great fish, there are great meat dishes like the, particularly tender, garlic and thyme marinated leg of lamb we had at Resto. Eating in Iceland was a uniquely satisfying experience but the outdoor adventures were incomparable to anything I had experienced before.
One morning, Emma, while glancing over an Eldesthestar brochure, convinced me to go riding on an Icelandic horse . “They look like ponies, this shouldn’t be difficult,” I thought. We hopped on a shuttle to a farm outside Reykjavik where dozens of petite black, brown and golden horses awaited us. Once in the saddle, we trotted off with a guide throught the fields towards the Reykjadalur valley. Riding was fun while we carefully climbed the hills to enjoy the views but when we reached a very steep ledge, I froze with terror. “What am I doing up here?” I thought. Quickly my guide assured me that the horses knew exactly what they were doing. And they did, or at least mine did as she calmly and gracefully continued waving her flowing mane in the dreamlike backdrop of emerald green hills and clear blue skies. As we paused a couple of times to see the many geysers dotted around the valley, we stopped at one for a lunch break and a nice warm soak while the crisp clean air brushed our cheeks. All along drenched in the beauty of our surroundings. The next day we had planned to go glacier hiking. Emma had been practicing some Icelandic words for a while with her favorite one being Eyjafjallajökull, the name of a glacier that covers a volcano at 5,417 feet. So off we went with a company named Icelandic Mountain Guides. This time, I wasn’t as enthusiastic because I have a slight fear of heights. I kept thinking about the movie and saying to myself “ it’s good to step out of your comfort zone!” So, I tried my best but when I saw the equipment I had to wear, I almost fainted. “Clamps? What for?” I grimaced. “These are to grip the ice so you don’t fall,” explained our lovely guide Stefán Páll. “What? A pick?” I asked. “That will help you hold on too.” he answered. I was petrified. “Wait a minute, I’m not sure I can do this. Wasn’t there a waterfall tour for the elderly going that way?” I asked as I pointed to the south. “Perhaps I can join them?” Stefán laughed and assured me not to worry. “It’s not that bad, you’ll see.” I took a deep breath and muttered “All right, let’s do this.” Thank God for Stefán, not only was he very knowledgeable but also fun and extremely patient.
What a sight! The climb was tough with steep trails along the sides of the mountain that were in much need of the use of the ice pick. Slowly, but surely, you can make it, just don’t look down too much. Once on the top, I could enjoy the unbelievabe views: glacier, volcano and ocean together in a trinity of untouched grace. Curiously enough, the glistenning ice forms drops where you can carefully glance in to see how deep the glacier actually is. Because of global warming, many of these drops are forming and most of the melting ice ends up in the ocean at a rate of a foot per day.
Later that same day, we also visited the amazing Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls nearby, another testament to the rich landscape of this beautiful country. After that incredible experience, I was anxious for more thrills so I sailed out to look for whales with little luck. I got to see one mink whale after an hour of battling choppy waters that made me very seasick. The next day , I opted for a sight of the puffins, adorable tiny penguin looking birds that are truly hard to spot. An interesting experience nonetheless and well worth the boat ride, especially with calmer waters.
After that lovely outing, we we’re told we couldn’t miss a visit to the famous Blue Lagoon, a thermal spa that was formed in 1976 during the operation of a nearby geothermal power plant. At first glance, it looked like a theme park, not my kind of place. Again, I had to step out of my comfort zone and relax to take it with stride, something good had to come out of this. At least a nice hot bath. We were asked to pay about 9000 Icelandic Króna ( about $70) for a robe, slippers and a locker key. As I walked out to the lagoon, I saw people everywhere, speaking different languages, enjoying the steam and dabbing their faces with white clay. I jumped in and immediately felt the warmth of the 70 degree water and the softness of the silica on my skin. Ignoring the crowds, I immersed myself in my own thoughts and tried to enjoy the indulgence of the whole experience. After a good while, I swam to a side of the shore lined with containers filled with silica mud that I slathered on my face, hoping to reap the benefits from its high mineral content. A nice bonus no doubt.
Unfortunately, this time we weren’t able to see the northern lights or the artic circle. but on our last day, we strolled around town to buy souvenirs and enjoy the loveliness of this gorgeous island nation: the people, the sights and the food that so much inspired all three of us, making it the best vacation we ever had. Now the question at dinner time is “ When are we going back?” Of course my response is “As soon as we can!”