Tapped Out in Iceland
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Inside a smoky, jam-packed bar that was spilling music onto Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main drag, a roundtable of young Icelandic men sang at the top of their lungs, tipping over their pints when they tried to dance. It was 2 a.m. By that time I was imagining large-horned helmets on their heads. It was a silly thought, but when you're watching the tall, burly descendants of Vikings singing a mean backup chorus to Gwen Stefani, your mind has a way of taking the best picture possible.
Reykjavik is full of these lively weekend warriors, which has made Iceland in the last half-decade the most talked-about outpost of the partying free world. I'll end up talking about it myself: It's a great time. Though this particular pit stop had a bit of an "Animal House" vibe, just a few barhops ago the scene looked like Fashion Week in Manhattan. Another hop away and it felt like the old Seattle, with kids in black hoodies keeping warm and electrified in their world-class live-music scene.
I've always wanted to have a proper night out in Reykjavik, just to see what the fuss was about, and my friend Krista -- a twentysomething Californian who now edits a glossy lifestyle magazine here -- gave me the perfect opportunity to visit.
But here was an interesting problem: I was visiting a party capital -- and a friend who knew how to party -- at a time in my life when I wanted to tone it all down. I wanted to get healthy, get focused and finally redirect these aimless, last-call years of post-college denial. I didn't want to remember Iceland merely as a hangover in wool socks.
That's why the idea of a detox road trip came fairly quickly to me. Krista and I would defame ourselves on Friday night and then spend the rest of the weekend getting rid of the toxins by driving to some of Iceland's most beautiful and isolated wonders. After some research, our road map was traced in ink: First, we would take a tranquil coastal drive up to the Snaefellsnes peninsula and spend the night at an eco-hotel, then make the seven-hour trek to the interior hot springs of Landmannalaugar.
The timing of my visit felt right, too. I arrived in Iceland in August during the last weeks of its great summer hurrah, when its famous midnight sun slips beneath the arctic horizon around 10 p.m., just as Icelanders begin to slip a little deeper into their warm beds. (The daytime temperature had dropped into the mid- 40s when I was there.) It seemed the country was sobering up from its sleepless summer delirium just as I promised myself I'd clear up my blurry, bloodshot soul.
Speaking of which, the sun came back around 3 that morning just as we were queuing up for Sirkus, our last bar. Once inside, a smashed pint glass and a long bathroom line are the only things I can recall. By the way Krista and I were emptying our $11 pints (this is hands-down the most expensive city I've ever been to), I think we were secretly competing over who could out-drink the other.
Judging by Krista's hangover the next morning, it was clear that she'd managed to win and lose at the same time.
* * *
The road to Snaefellsnes peninsula, about two hours north of Reykjavik, lived up to its billing, from the dazzling blue inlets that bejeweled the sunlit coast to the small rivers threading through green mountains on their way to grazing sheep.
Krista eventually crawled out of the back seat and finally took on her co-pilot obligations by popping in the Heartless Bastards, Arcade Fire, Bjork, the Sleepy Jackson, Elliott Smith -- my usual road-trip sounds.
Earlier in the week I'd already tried to rejuvenate my body at the Blue Lagoon, about an hour's drive from Reykjavik. It's the Disneyland of Healthy Iceland tourism, where a man-made geothermal pond -- filled with dissolved minerals, silica and blue-green algae that give the steamy, 100-degree water an inviting milky-blue color -- is said to have dermatological benefits for its bathers.