Yes, Iceland is known for Shark Bites. Not the kind you get in the water, but the kind that come on a toothpick.
Meet Hakárl, tiny little bites of fermented Greenland shark in tiny little jars that they wisely keep covered until the moment you agree to pick up one of those toothpicks. That’s when the smell hits you, hard. Like smelling salts.
Do not linger over the jar or the ammonia smell. Simply pop the bite into your mouth, chew slightly until the taste also hits. That’s when you wash the whole thing down with the shot of Brennivin that is usually served with the Harkál because the taste is strong enough to burn away anything that came before it.
Now slap your glass down and know that you are officially in Iceland!
Confession 1: I didn’t intend to visit Iceland. I was booking a flight to Paris because Iceland Air had the best rates and a quick touchdown in Reykjavik didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until my son-in-law, Matt, said, “You do know you that can get off in Reykjavik for up to seven days, then get back on a flight to Paris at no extra cost, right?”
Wrong. I had no idea that Iceland Air offers this service. Because I had already made some arrangements in Paris and would be meeting my travel buddy, Sandi, in Prague, I could only spend two nights in Reykjavik, but I’m very glad I did. Iceland is like nowhere I’ve been before, and I will definitely go back for a week at least.
The rising sun disappeared behind the clouds as we descended toward Keflavik airport. When you’re landing at 6:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. back home) it’s hard to take in all the details but where I was headed, the sky was gray, the mountains far off and the landscape below almost lunar with nothing but miles of lava rocks and moss. I’m told it will turn green soon, but during my stay it was still brown. That forbidding landscape continued all the way to the Blue Lagoon, which was my first stop.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool, hotel and retreat spa all in one. I loved it, but if you join Facebook groups for travel to Iceland (which I recommend) you’ll find plenty of people hollering ‘Tourist trap’ and ‘Too expensive. Find a smaller one’ whenever the subject of Blue Lagoon comes up. But that’s like comparing a hotel room to Airbnb accommodation. They are simply not the same animal.
Air BnB hosts usually supply a bed, hairdryer, soap and towels. They don’t leave little bottles of shampoo and body wash for you take home. They don’t replace your towels daily or make your bed. They won’t book you a taxi or find someone to carry your luggage, nor should they do any of those things. The rates they charge are nowhere near hotel rates, just as the rates at other geothermal pools are nowhere near the rates at the Blue Lagoon, but you’re paying for a completely different experience.
Because my flight arrived hours before check-in anywhere, I knew I’d be tired and jet-lagged so the Blue Lagoon was the perfect destination when I first touched down. I recommend pre-booking a seat on the bus that will take you directly there and you definitely need to pre-book your spot at the Lagoon.
Blue Lagoon offers three price levels: Basic, Premium and Retreat Spa. Because I was only paying for myself, I booked the Retreat Spa. Might as well start the trip off with a fluffy robe, massage, full-body skin pampering ritual and breakfast buffet at the hotel, right?
Confession 2: When I indulge myself, I do it all the way and never feel guilty. Life is short and the last thing I want is for Lorne or my kids to take the trips or have the experiences mom always dreamed about but never did. My bucket list has already started springing leaks and I intend to get through the rest of that list before there’s nothing but a hole in the bottom of my bucket.
When my four hours at the Blue Lagoon were over, I went straight to the Bnb in Reykjavik and spent the rest of my time in that city. I could have booked a day trip or half-day trip to the Golden Circle, but my time in Iceland was short (about 36 hours) and I felt that the more I tried to cram into those hours, the less I’d remember. So, I promised myself I’d be back, and opted to spend my time getting acquainted with the biggest city in Iceland and the people who live there.
That’s why I booked an Experience through Airbnb for the first night. One that took me into a home half-an-hour outside the city where a charming couple introduced me and two other travellers to Harkál and Brennevin (grain alcohol flavored with caraway) before serving us a fabulous Icelandic dinner. Arctic char and gravadlax appetizers, a salmon starter, lamb for the main course and two kinds of dessert, including one with Skyr, a cultured dairy product that isn’t at all like yogurt and is served everywhere.
The five of us talked about life in Iceland, what it’s like to live with so many months of darkness, why cod liver oil is available at every breakfast buffet, why licorice and chocolate are layered together in a favourite Icelandic chocolate bar and the economic boom of tourism. Our hosts were gracious and open. There were never long or awkward silences, even with language barriers, and the evening was over all too soon. It’s an experience I will long remember and highly recommend.
Sadly, everything you’ve heard about the high cost of food in Iceland is true, which is why I booked a BnB that included breakfast, and not simply toast and coffee.
There was a daily buffet of eggs, meats, cheeses, cereals, Skyr, fruit, breads and cod liver oil shots. In short, everything I wanted, in whatever quantity I cared to eat. I liked not having to go out in search of coffee in the morning and the mother/daughter team who owned the BnB were happy to chat while I ate. Nice way to start the day.
I spent the rest of the morning roaming the windy streets of Reykjavik then headed for Harpa, the musical hall, to meet up for a Food Walk. Once more into the wind with visitors from Ireland, Canada and the US, all of us on a quest for the best of traditional Icelandic food.
Our guide, Ben, took us to six restaurants, feeding us Icelandic history and lore as well as everything from soup to two desserts. We also made a stop at a deli for meat and cheese sampling and another at the original home of the Iceland hotdog.
There was one vegetarian in the group and because she did eat fish, the restaurants made sure there was something for her at every stop. The Deli, not so much but that is the nature of the beast. All of the courses were delicious but I particularly enjoyed the Arctic Char with almonds and white wine. And of course, the desserts.
After 3 fabulous hours of walking, eating and learning about the city and each other everyone left full and happy and I didn’t need to go anywhere for dinner.
As an aside, the hot dog is made with lamb and tastes very different from what we’re accustomed to, but a couple of bites was enough for me.
Confession 3: I am not a hot dog person so you really should try it for yourself.
Later that same date, I took an Icelandic Mythical Walk. Our charming guide showed no disappointment that his group included only me and a young woman from Calgary, who was also travelling solo. As we wove our way through backstreets and cemeteries, he also wove wonderful tales of elves, trolls and ghosts, complete with actions and sound effects that had both of us laughing and wanting more. Hugs all around at the end of the tour was a testimony to the wonderful time we had!
An early flight the next morning made sure I was in bed early that night and up at the crack of dawn for the next leg of my journey. Was I nervous dragging my rolling backpack through the streets of Reykjavik at 4:30 a.m.? Initially yes, but the sun was already coming up and I wasn’t the only one making the trek to the bus stop so I soon relaxed and ended up chatting with a couple from Wales while we waited.
I loved everything about Iceland and will be back for at least five days next time to take in Northern Lights, glaciers and geysers. But even on a visit as short as this, there are things that stand out, like the traditional Icelandic toast. A single word: Skál.
For a little background, imagine a table full of Vikings back in the day. Tough guys with no taste for sentiment or frivolity, they’re sitting around eating, shouting and sharing a bowl filled with their favourite libation. Each taking a sip and then passing it to the next guy saying, Skál in their clipped, efficient way. They weren’t saying ‘to your health’ like the French and the Irish, and they certainly weren’t invoking merriment with ‘Cheers’ like the British. They were simply saying ‘Bowl,’ in case the receiver was too drunk to know what was coming his way.
I love that. No wasted words or treacly sentiment. Just elegant simplicity – two words I never thought I’d use together when talking about Vikings!
So, until next time,