Reykjavik 101


N othing heightens the allure of a foreign destination more than a lack of information about it, so hats off to everyone who, for one reason or another, skipped over Reykjavik and its oddball charms.

My search for a guidebook to the world’s northernmost capital led to “Lonely Planet,” but it was as lackluster as their other offerings. And my ill-fated inquiry to the Icelandic Tourist Board was met with the time-dishonored cry of “We’re only one person!” No matter, though, because a place like Iceland simply demands direct experience.

Here, volcanic activity has resulted in islets appearing virtually overnight. The land is about as geothermally alive as it gets, with geysers, mineral springs, lake-filled craters, lava fields and glaciers dominating a nearly treeless landscape (if you get lost in an Icelandic forest, the joke goes, just stand up).

Iceland, at least for now, is totally unique, a veritable rush of fresh air in a world full of clichés and worse.

Thanks to its small size, Reykjavik is easy to explore. The main shopping street is Laugavegur (a signpost reads “The Main Shopping Street” at either end to eliminate any doubt), the heart of the hip central district, widely known by its ZIP code, 101. On Fridays and Saturdays a jovial mob scene forms as unbearably young things descend on places like Hverfisbarrin Café-Chelsea Clinton’s favored stomping ground on her March trip to Iceland-and the discos of the moment, NASA and Astro.

If you want to dine on some of the freshest seafood available anywhere, you’ll have to pay for it dearly, but it’s worth it. Expect to pay around $40 for an entrée at a stylish restaurant like Siggi Hall, but here’s an example of what you’ll get: delicious pieces of fried cod and flounder on lentils, spiced with cumin and coriander, and accented by a homemade tomato ketchup and browned spiced butter. Another hot spot is Apotek, featuring contemporary Icelandic and Asian cooking in a large refurbished drugstore in downtown Reykjavik.

The best new hotel in town is the coolly Scandinavian, 284-room Hotel Nordica ( But if big hotels aren’t your bag, check into a strategically located hideaway called A Room with a View ( Owner Arni Einarsson converted the upper floors of an office building into a number of high-tech, loft-style accommodations. There’s a wraparound balcony on the penthouse level with sweeping ocean views, perhaps best appreciated from the Jacuzzi outside one of the apartments. Einarsson is an affable host who can help guests navigate the nightlife scene and arrange choice daytrips.

One of these would have to be to the fabulous Blue Lagoon. A local tour outfitter such as Iceland Excursions ( ) will take you there for a day or half-day-all you have to remember is to bring along a bathing suit. Fields of dried black lava and stark volcanic hillsides surround the geothermal spa, the centerpiece of which is the sprawling lagoon where bathers immerse themselves in a milky blue soup of mineral salts, silica and blue-green algae. A mix of sea and fresh water bubbles up from wells as deep as 6,000 feet at temperatures that range from 100-110 F (regardless of the weather), and steam wafts up from the still surface of the water, creating the impression that you’re alone taking a dip someplace very strange and remote, like the moon.

Though just 15 minutes from Keflavik Airport (hub for busy Icelandair’s visibly aging fleet), the Blue Lagoon is as close to nature as many travelers to Reykjavik get. But spending a day further afield is well worth it. A driving tour of the so-called Golden Circle east of Reykjavik takes in, notably, Thingvellir National Park and the geothermal zone of Geysir (where the word originated).

Thingvellir straddles the Great Atlantic Rift where the European and North American tectonic plates are inexorably pulling away from one another, plainly evidenced by a massive shoulder of rock that breaks abruptly onto a lava plain. The most faithful of several geysers is old Strokkur, from which about every 10 minutes a bubble of gorgeous translucent blue water wells up from deep below the surface and gushes toward the sky.

For something slightly more adventurous-and decidedly icier-the outfitter Highlanders Adventure Iceland ( runs four-by-four jeep excursions that include a stop at the Myrdalsjokull glacier, where for a nominal fee you can zip across the frozen landscape in a snowmobile.

The only potential chink in the armor of travel to Iceland may be Icelandair, due to its conspicuously aging fleet (mechanical problems caused a major delay prior to my return flight to JFK) and outmoded fare structure that economically permits stopovers of three nights but not, say, four (JetBlue, can you hear me?).

But for now that doesn’t make Reykjavik, with its appealing combination of isolation and hyperactivity, any less alluring a corner of the global village.