Exploring the Land of Fire and Ice

Impress your friends with a direct flight to Iceland, where you can meet great people, visit geysers and waterfalls, get rejuvenated, and geek out at ’Game of Thrones’ locales.
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The Gullfoss (Icelandic for “golden falls”) is a cascading waterfall located on the Hvítá River canyon in southwest Iceland. Formed during the last ice age, the falls feature two drops totaling 105 feet. // Photograph by Kevin Walsh

“Damn!” said one of my travel companions as we arrived in Iceland after our six-hour flight from Detroit. “I had no idea so many of my followers had Iceland on their bucket lists.”

This was the first full day of a three-and-a-half-day press trip to Iceland in May for select members of Detroit media, sponsored by Icelandair, and my companion’s interest in the trip seemed to have quadrupled.

I was not surprised by his followers’ reactions. Iceland is a destination everyone seems to be talking about. Either they’ve been there and it is one of their favorite places on Earth, or it is on their must-visit list. Is it excellent marketing, or is it really that great? We were about to find out.

The angle: In May (just four days before our flight), the airline launched direct service from the Detroit Metro Airport to Keflavík International Airport near the nation’s capital, Reykjavík; flights operate four days a week, May through October. Also, if you are flying from Detroit to locations in Europe — such as Paris or Dublin — you can stop over in Iceland for up to seven nights with no additional airfare.

Ours would be a three-and-a-half-day whirlwind tour of some key spots you can see during your stay or stopover.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Icelanders are chill.

Before we even left Detroit, we discovered the country’s unofficial motto: Þetta reddast, which translates to “It will work out in the end.” This lesson was learned at DTW, when someone in our group misplaced his passport.

Funnily enough, our airline host didn’t tell us this phrase until it had all worked out in the end. Maybe it’s because he was not Icelandic. Anyway, we did hear this phrase several more times during our trip from the locals when something didn’t go quite as expected.

There is a certain laid-back quality and unflappability to the people we encountered. Perhaps it’s their location on the planet. There really is nowhere to run to if you don’t like the way things are going.

This point was driven home as we looked south from a spot in a southwest harbor and were told, “There is no land between here and Antarctica.”

Yikes!

2. The climate is not so chill.

Despite its name, Iceland is not covered in ice. It has glaciers, which are cool to see up close, but they cover only about 11 percent of the surface area. As for the climate, it’s not as cold as you might think (in winter, it hovers around 32 degrees Fahrenheit), but it also never really gets hot.

If you were to visit this month (August), the high would be about 55. Their summer extends through September thanks to the Gulf Stream. I found that bringing a raincoat was a very good idea, not just for the rain we experienced but for the high winds. How strong was the wind? Hold on to your hats.

When we exited Hallgrímskirkja, the landmark 245-foot-tall Lutheran church in Reykjavík, our photographer’s hat was blown off his head and flew straight up to the bell tower. He really liked that hat, but þetta reddast.

The northern lights shine over Hotel Rangá. They are especially visible during the dark winter months in Iceland. // Photograph by Kristján Pétur Vilhelmsson

3. It’s a great place to see the northern lights.

Our Icelandair host from the U.S.’ East Coast told us that October is his favorite time to visit Iceland. The temperatures are brisker than what you will find in metro Detroit (36-44
degrees Fahrenheit), but you still get fall colors and, best of all, northern lights.

During our visit, we experienced 20 hours of daylight; in October, the days are much shorter (eight to 11 hours), but that gives you a larger time frame in which to witness the aurora borealis.

Travel + Leisure magazine selected Iceland as one of the best places in the world to view the lights as you can see them most every night and the temperatures are much warmer than in other parts of Scandinavia.

Black Sand Beach – Photograph by Kevin Walsh

4. The Land of Fire and Ice is out of this world.

Seriously, as we drove from the airport through lava fields to our first location, The Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland, about 25 minutes from the airport, we felt like we were on a moon-landing mission; the landscape was raw and dramatic and unlike anything I had ever seen. Our guide, Karl (aka Kalli), from Reykjavik Excursions, told us these fields were formed 800 years ago when a nearby volcano erupted.

I was surprised to see a lot of green interspersed with the brown lava landscape. Upon closer inspection, I saw it was moss, which we were told to touch gently, as it had been growing for hundreds of years. If we pulled on it, we would leave a scar that would take at least a hundred years to heal. Icelanders are very protective of their land and eco-conscious.

Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth (a big draw for tourists), and these lava fields make up 11 percent of the island’s surface. In 2021, Fagradalsfjall volcano — on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where the Blue Lagoon is located — erupted for the first time in 6,000 years. You can take a guided hike to the site.

Another part of the “fire” is the hot springs and geysers, which can be found throughout the country. During our daylong Golden Circle tour of the southern shore, we were able to get quite close to the Strokkur geyser, which shoots water up to 100 feet every several minutes, but were warned not to get too close, as geyser water can reach up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This popular tour also included a stop at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which is fed by melting water from the glacier-capped Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

Our last stop was a visit to the black-sand beach in Reynisfjara, which was literally a visit to a Game of Thrones location: Eastwatch-by-the Sea in the land of Westeros. Yes, Jon Snow walked on this sand. The series filmed in many other locations in Iceland, including another stop on our tour: Þingvellir National Park, where you can walk in the rift valley between cliffs created by the shifting of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This valley is where the Bloody Gate protects the Vale of Arryn.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa with 70 percent geothermal seawater and 30 percent fresh water, enriched with silica, algae, and minerals. It’s said to have healing properties for skin. // Photograph courtesy of Visit Iceland

5. The Blue Lagoon is everything it’s hyped up to be.

When I returned from my trip, several people asked me if I had gone to the Blue Lagoon, which was named one of the 25 “Wonders of the World” by National Geographic in 2012, and if it was really that great.

This artificial geothermal spa in Grindavík, in southwestern Iceland, made the water category on the magazine’s list. The lagoon is made up of 70 percent geothermal seawater, 30 percent fresh water, and is enriched with silica, algae, and minerals. This combination is said to have rejuvenating and healing properties for conditions such as psoriasis.

I do not have any skin conditions, so I can’t say firsthand that it benefited me in that regard. I can, however, say that after my visit to the spa at The Retreat hotel — which included a long soak/swim in the resort’s private area of the lagoon, followed by scrubs of lava sand and salt, a cleansing silica mask, and moisturizing algae oil — my skin felt fantastic and rejuvenated.

The in-water massages, where you lie face up on a floatation mat, covered with a blanket for warmth, while the therapist’s hands are between the mat and your body, are also not be missed. Do this, even if it’s windy and raining.

6. The food and drink are excellent.

One of Iceland’s three Michelin-starred restaurants, Moss, can be found at The Retreat at Blue Lagoon. We were not able to dine at Moss during our stay (it is not open for dinner on Tuesdays), but we found the resort’s other gourmet restaurant, Lava, to be quite good and in an amazing spot, surrounded by the lagoon.

Its claims of “the finest, freshest local ingredients” appeared to be true, judging from my langoustine soup and fish of the day, which came from a nearby harbor that was named on the menu. Not surprisingly, seafood is a specialty in Iceland, a nation that is a bit smaller than Kentucky but with more than 3,000 miles of coastline.

Our visits to other fine-dining restaurants were just as impressive. These included two spots in Reykjavík — Héðinn, with simple and seasonal dishes and a big, beautiful bar in a former steelworks near the waterfront, and Sümac, serving Middle Eastern cuisine and Mediterranean-style cocktails. The latter was near our downtown hotel, Þingholt Apartments from Center Hotels, and all of the downtown nightlife.

The restaurant at our third-night lodgings, a luxury ranch-style resort called Hotel Rangá, was sublime and a welcome cozy retreat after a day of sightseeing. There I veered away from seafood and leaned into the Western theme, trying a steak, which was tender and flavorful. I did not regret my decision.

Equally satisfying, and perhaps even more so, were the more casual meals on our south shore tour. Friðheimar greenhouse, where we dined at small tables surrounded by tomato plants, had bottomless bowls of fresh tomato soup and the best bread I have ever eaten (Icelanders are excellent bakers). Later that day, we got a “snack” at the Bryggjan Cafe in the harbor of Grindavík, an area known for shipwrecks (we saw them, just tossed up on the beach).

When we walked in, it appeared to be a small lobster shack with a few tables, but then we went upstairs to find a massive event space with long wooden tables and pots of serve-yourself lobster soup and more of that great bread. Turns out this cafe made the list of the best meals Condé Nast Traveler’s editors ate in 2022. And here I was thinking I was eating at a place known only to local fishermen.

Ah well, þetta reddast. It was delicious either way.

More Photos from Iceland

Check out even more of the sites we visited in Iceland!


This story is from the August 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.