Reykjavik, Iceland: The King of Clubs

By Seth Hamblin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2003

Pounding dance beats outside my hotel window woke me from a deep disco nap. I was confused. It was only 10 p.m., way too early for the action to begin in downtown Reykjavik.

I threw open the old wooden shutters that held back the near constant daylight of the Icelandic summer. In the courtyard behind the Hotel Borg, teenage models accessorized with electrical tape and painted with raccoon-style eye makeup were strutting down a catwalk to clattery electro music while trying not to shiver in the cold weather. They flashed bored looks to photographers and voyeurs wearing light parkas before heading back to shelter.

While I had come to Reykjavik to check out the city's notorious party scene, it turned out I was at ground zero of Iceland Fashion Week, an annual summer event. I took a quick shower in the eggy-smelling geyser water that flowed through the hotel's plumbing and headed downstairs. I felt relieved when models I encountered in the elevator smelled as eggy as me.

It may be rugged, typically chilly, remote and reeking of sulfuric geysers, but Reykjavik has managed to find a spot next to such beach wonderlands as Goa and Ibiza as one of the world's renowned party destinations. The legendary beauty and free-spiritedness of the Icelanders have captured the imagination of young Americans and Brits, and inexpensive stopovers have made the world's northernmost capital an easy hop away.

The buzz over Iceland's music scene began in the late 1980s, when Bjork's band, the Sugarcubes, hit the airwaves with its charmingly awkward pop music. A string of other Icelandic bands, including Gus Gus and Sigur Ros, followed over the next decade. To top it off, Damon Albarn of the British band Blur bought into a Reykjavik nightclub, and Pulp's lead singer, Jarvis Cocker, began hanging out in the city.

The music press caught on, and the jet set arrived in droves. Soon the land of the midnight sun became a regular backdrop for music festivals and fashion shows, and a stop for touring deejays.

Beeing a deejay myself, I had always wanted to experience the dance floors in Iceland, so I booked a stopover in Reykjavik on my way to London. The fare, including my Iceland leg, was about the same as what other airlines were charging for direct Washington-London flights. The Icelandair package included a stay at the Hotel Borg, which I chose for its 1930s art deco style and its location, within stumbling distance of Reykjavik's night life.

At 10:30 p.m. near Hotel Borg, dozens of tall, thin, graceful people were lounging at sidewalk cafes drinking beer or coffee and contemplating dinner. I headed into Apotek, a restaurant a few doors down from my hotel. Though the room was nearly empty, I was seated next to a young German tourist so I'd have someone to talk with.

By 11 p.m., the stylish restaurant was filling with large groups of Icelanders in leather pants or suits eating salmon carpaccio, the tables cluttered with cell phones as party preparations began.

Reykjavik's night life clusters on a short span of the main street Laugavegur and its offshoots. The first club I hit on the strip was Astro, a long, squat building around the corner from the hotel. A hulking blond doorman with a headset was checking IDs to make sure patrons were at least 20, Iceland's drinking age. I asked him for advice on night life.

"Find yourself a drunk chick and she'll show you all the best places in town," he said. This turned out to be easy, as a minute later a girl stumbling into the club off the street offered me the rest of her half-finished bottle of beer.

Astro's lush interior, conceived by British designer Michael Young, has little to do with the structure's dumpy exterior shell. Resin-coated walls give the main room an icy feel, and the glowing wall behind the bar slowly changes color, evoking Iceland's frequent natural light show, the northern lights. Spiky-haired club kids in suits or fitted outfits were drinking top-shelf liquor and chatting freely as if they all knew one another. Around a corner, a half-full dance floor throbbed to Young MC's "Bust a Move." When I pulled out my camera, dancers eagerly posed and showed off their grinding moves.

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