It had been a foolproof plan. To transplant my Paris-based family for a summer on the Chesapeake Bay, where I grew up, we would meet my mother “halfway” in Iceland and enjoy the famous stopover that Icelandair has marketed brilliantly over the past few years. We’d then continue the voyage with a doting grandmother to help entertain a (possibly) unruly toddler. An added bonus: The gradual adjustment to a new time zone, since Iceland is two hours behind France, making for an easier arrival on the East Coast.
But then I trawled a trio of weather Web sites that all predicted constant downpours and temperatures hovering around 50 in July. Despite all the admonitions to pack light, bags would be stretched to the seams with rain gear, hats, maybe even winter coats. I went on the site for the Blue Lagoon — the geothermal spa pool that’s the country’s most famous attraction — and found that reservations were booked solid for our arrival time. Had Iceland become a victim of its own tourism success?
The 3.5-hour flight from Paris to Iceland was blissfully calm. Although adults are not served complimentary meals, kids are spoiled with coloring books, headphones and blankets that fold up neatly into backpacks.
We stepped off the plane at 9 a.m. into an airport that’s a showcase for sleek Nordic design, where Mom was waiting. We quickly learned that taxis to Reykjavik, a good hour’s drive away, could cost upwards of 100 euros, so a rental car made the most sense. But a line snaked around the terminal from the rental car kiosks. And patience was starting to wear thin — thankfully, a smoothie made from skyr (Icelandic yogurt) took the edge off the kids’ hunger.
Salvation appeared in the form of an Icelander named Heidar Mar, driving a four-wheel-drive SUV. Mom had arrived the day before, sleeping at a lovely lodging near the airport called the Hotel Berg. Perched on the cliffs facing the fishing harbor in Keflavik, the family-owned hotel also arranges car rentals. On the phone, Heidar Mar was a man of few words. He would check on availability and call us back. Instead, less than 10 minutes later, he was waiting outside the terminal with a smile. He raised an eyebrow at the back-breaking weight of the luggage — piled precariously on the trolley — and without a word stacked it in the trunk of his car, the stroller blocking the rear view. “The car I had in mind might be too small,” he said.
Temporarily without a car of our own, we took off exploring the Hotel Berg’s pretty environs. We climbed a hill to discover a magical mise-en-scène: a field of purple lupine, brilliantly lit from rays of sunlight that broke through the ominous gray clouds. A lone path meandered to the ocean’s edge. The girls broke into a gleeful run.
From this vantage point, we spied giant footprints painted on a footpath that hugged the harbor, begging to be explored. Drizzle tumbled from the sky as we followed the footprints — each toe the size of my daughter’s sneaker — with slight trepidation. We watched a red boat power out to sea, and three bulky fishermen — clad in heavy, all-weather gear — lifted their arms in a happy, spontaneous wave.
The footprints disappeared into a black stone cave. As we ventured cautiously inside, we heard a strange, guttural rumbling that echoed off the walls. “She’s snoring!” Jane cried, pointing at an enormous, wart-nosed troll made out of papier-mâché. The giant was only partially visible behind a makeshift barricade, adding to the drama and verisimilitude for the kids. Younger sister Cecilia was more interested in the colorful pacifiers that were strewn around the cave. They were even found dangling like ornaments from a tree.
The cave was empty but we noticed benches where we could sit, contemplate our surroundings, and listen to the soundtrack. And suddenly, “poot!”— as the girls recounted hysterically throughout the duration of our trip — the troll made a rude noise in her sleep.
Giddy with laughter, we ran through the rain back to the hotel where a white jeep was waiting. Here was our introduction to Icelandic ingenuity. Not only had Heidar Mar located a larger vehicle, but he had also acquired child car seats — calling all his friends and neighbors to track them down.
Mom hadn’t driven a stick shift in decades. But where else but the tiny island nation of Iceland — with excellent infrastructure and a population of just 323,000 — could be better to polish a rusty skill? “It’s like riding a bike,” grinned Heidar Mar. And just like that, we set off in the rain, driving across the boulder-strewn lava fields. Let the Icelandic adventure begin.
When Iceland’s economy crashed in 2008, and the krona took a nosedive against the U.S. dollar, an infamously expensive destination was suddenly put into reach for the average traveler. Over the past seven years, Iceland has successfully transformed an economic downturn into a tourism boom with a savvy marketing campaign depicting the cinematic landscapes — volcanoes, northern lights, glaciers and waterfalls — that make Iceland a paradise of natural phenomena. Icelandair advertises competitive airfares between the United States and Europe, with a multi-day stopover included at no additional cost. With expanded flight routes serving destinations across North America, Icelandair continues to offer competitive prices (the Icelandair flights I purchased from Paris to Washington were the cheapest I could find). Plus, the new Iceland-based Wow Air is upping the ante with $99 fares. Today you won’t find the bargain hotel and food prices that were the norm after the financial crisis, but Iceland continues to reign at the top of travelers’ bucket lists.
Iceland’s appeal is multifaceted; there’s a rocking nightlife, a dynamic arts and music scene, sigh-inducing natural beauty, and even the cuisine is making a name for itself. For us, it was perfect for family travel, providing excitement and fun for three generations.
Beyond all this, it was the Icelanders who won us over. I knew I’d fall for a country where a Pirate Party politician rapped a song in Parliament, where the descendants of fierce Vikings vocalize their beliefs in elves and trolls, and where there are no surnames (last names comprise a father’s (or mother’s) first name with the addition of -dottir (daughter) or –son.
Quirky Icelandic wit threads through all aspects of culture; we were amused to learn about a new tourist offering that references “bankers behind bars.” This guided tour — “Walk the Crash” — traces the causes and consequences of the banking system’s 2008 collapse. (Yes, several officials actually went to jail.) Magnus Sveinn Helgason, who leads the walks, was quoted as saying: “What could be more exciting than the story of how a tiny country was turned into a giant hedge fund, only to blow up?”
An apartment rental with Reykjavik4You was the most cost-effective way to sleep a family of four in the city center. Just a few steps away from a grocery store, our two-bedroom apartment came with a fully equipped kitchen, a parking space and thoughtful amenities like a Nokia cellphone for free calls. The apartment’s extra space also allowed us to adjust to the different jet lag circumstances; Mom needed to sleep later while the girls would be up at 4 a.m. Luckily, the flat-screen TV came with a DVD player and a stack of American DVDs.
From here, we could stroll through Old Town to Hallgrimskirkja, the landmark concrete church, or to the waterfront to try the famous hot dogs, smothered in fried onions, at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Reykjavik can be equated to a midsize American town, so it wasn’t hard to find the Sundhollin public pool, designed in art deco style. My girls love nothing more than swimming, and Iceland is chock-full of swimming pools, many filled with geothermally heated water. But leave your modesty behind! In Iceland, it’s mandatory to strip naked and shower before taking a dip. We forgot to bring towels, and there were none available to rent. Who knew paper towels and blow dryers could provide such amusement to a 2- and a 5-year-old?
While Cecilia took her afternoon nap in the apartment, Grand Jane and Little Jane could enjoy a leisurely lunch date: sandwiches at Mokka kaffi or delicious noodle dishes at Nudluskalin, where outside they noticed babies left sleeping in strollers to take in the fresh air while their parents caffeinated inside. We observed Iceland’s love of children not only in the wait staff’s welcoming attitudes, but also in the giant trolls and stuffed animals placed outside shops.
As the rain poured down, we were the first visitors to Whales of Iceland when it opened in the morning. Launched in late February of this year, the privately owned museum is a vast warehouse space exhibiting replicas of all the different species. Face to face with a leviathan, hanging in the blue-tinged light, the girls shrieked with delight. “We want to give visitors a feeling of wonder, bestowing a personal connection to whales and perhaps inspiring a desire to preserve whales in their natural environment,” says Parker O’Halloran, an American expat who works as a shift manager.
At Landnamssyningin (the Settlement Exhibition) — built around the ruins of an original Viking longhouse — Mom and I gleaned insights into the A.D. 874 settlement, while the girls colored at a designated children’s table. We learned about the country’s rich literary tradition— peering at centuries-old manuscripts detailing the “sagas” — and also about the Viking greed for timber. (Iceland’s treeless landscape is not entirely due to natural causes, and today there is a big problem with erosion caused by deforestation.)
Sagas could also be written about the glories of the Icelandic road trip.
There aren’t any traffic jams or navigational hazards in this underpopulated island nation; our borrowed road map was of such poor quality, we relied on our natural navigational compass instead. Sooner or later we had found the Ishestar Riding Center, outside Reykjavik, where Jane could ride a stocky Icelandic horse.
And with a rental car, we could explore at our own pace. The most popular day trip is the Golden Circle route, which encompasses three sites: geysers in the geothermal valley of Haukadalur, the Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park.
Why push the “must-sees” and risk the possible meltdown after the 2-year-old’s skipped nap? Instead, we chose one site and lingered. Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage site of captivating beauty. It’s here where two tectonic plates converge. The resulting rift valley — dotted with waterfalls and craggy cliffs — is where the Vikings, in A.D. 930, held their first general assembly, the world’s first democratically elected government body.
As we strolled the trails, I kept the girls on their best behavior by warning of hungry trolls lurking off the path. Across Iceland, bizarre rock formations are said to be trolls frozen into stone when they ventured into daylight.
Later, I learned that Keflavik’s flatulent troll was in fact a good guardian named Skessa. This being Iceland, one of the world’s most tech-savvy countries, Skessa the troll has her own Web site (www.skessan.is/forsida). According to Olof Eiasdottir, owner of the Hotel Berg, “the troll moved into the cave in 2008 as part of the town’s annual ‘Night of the Lights’ festival. There’s no reason to be scared; she makes an effort to be caring and helpful!”
Iceland is rife with turbulent natural wonders: brooding volcanoes, exploding geysers, shifting glaciers, celestial lights dancing across the firmament. Faced with this — not to mention extreme weather patterns — is it any wonder that so many Icelanders believe in Huldufolk, or hidden people, like elves and trolls? Who can blame them for diverting road construction projects out of “elf habitat”? The documentary film “Investigation Into the Invisible World,” presented at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, interviews former Icelandic president Vigdis Finnbogadottir: “No one has proven the existence” of invisible beings, she said, “but no one has proven the existence of God, either.”
Geologically, Iceland is the youngest country on Earth, still in the process of creation. Here, we could witness the dramatic topography that’s fueled so many dreamers and artists. As the girls slept in the back seat of the car, we circled Thingvellir’s lake, the largest in Iceland. There was no one on the road, and we noticed a few solitary fishermen knee-deep in the water. We marveled at the vast, treeless expanse over which volcanic mountains loomed. Steam rose from the moss-covered earth, and we passed a number of geothermal power plants, such as Nesjavellir. Surrounding it: a moonscape straight out of Tolkien’s fantasy world.
We did make it to the Blue Lagoon, a requisite, if overcrowded, “must” on the Iceland itinerary. Tickets were expensive (about $147 for two adults), but the kids didn’t want to get out of the water. And so, by the time we arrived at the Hotel Berg to return the car, and the girls made one last trip to see Skessa, Heidar Mar was forced to speed to the airport to make sure we didn’t miss our flight. We joked that the car hadn’t driven that fast in four days.
Nicklin is a freelance writer based in Paris.
● Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the ticket price during winter for the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Tickets start at about $55.
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Bakkavegur, 230 Keflavik
A few minutes from the airport, a lovely family-owned hotel overlooking Keflavik harbor. From $205.
Bergstadastraeti 12, 101 Reykjavik
Rental apartments in downtown Reykjavik with hotel-style services. Three nights in a two-bedroom apartment were about $1,135.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
Tryggvatagata 1, 101 Reykjavík
The name for this world-famous stand translates to “the best hot dog in town.” Dogs about $3.
Skolavordustigur 3A, Reykjavík
The city’s oldest coffee shop also serves delicious sandwiches.
Whales of Iceland
Fiskislod 23, Reykjavík
Open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the winter, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. in the summer. Adults about $25, children under 7 free.
Thingvellir National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this national park is a day trip from Reykjavik.
Not too far from Keflavik International Airport, the geothermal spa pool is the country’s most famous attraction. Winter rates from about $55.