While rounding a mountainous spit of land north of Husavik, my traveling companions and I reckoned we’d better stop the car and get a picture. We’re honestly not the selfie-taking types, but 66.201 degrees was as far north as any of us had ever traveled before — or were likely to travel again. So we smiled awkwardly, took the picture and pinned the exact spot via the magic of Google Earth.
Technically, Iceland is one of only seven nations whose respective land masses are crossed by the Arctic Circle, a theoretical line of demarcation whose invisible shadow circles the globe at exactly 66.300 degrees north. Yet only two slivers of this country can claim truly Arctic coordinates: Grimsey Island, dead north of our pin, barely visible across 5.9 miles of open ocean; and small portions of the north-jutting spit immediately to our East, along an uninhabited stretch of Route 870 northeast of Blikalon.
Locals here don’t feel cheated by this near miss. At all. Their most chic sportswear company, 66°North, revels in it. Their cold-weather cred is built right into the country’s name. What’s more, no place on Earth — not the arctic bits of Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Canada or the U.S. — can lay claim to such an astonishing landscape and climate. Because this giant hunk of volcanic lava is continually buffeted by the warm-water Gulf Stream, the weather here is pleasantly temperate marine. We spent eight July days in Iceland, and while the temps never crept into the 70s, the winters aren’t nearly so cold as one imagines. The most frigid month is January, which averages -3 degrees Celsius, or 26.6 Fahrenheit.
What does fluctuate wildly is sunlight. The orange orb simply never goes down in July. Come January and February, it never truly comes up, which, according to my new friend Ole, is why half the country decamps for Tenerife or Sarasota each winter. In the interest of self-care.
It was our second full day in country when Ole and his wife played golf with me at Keilir GC, a pretty awesome, utterly treeless links half laid out on a pleasingly uneven bed of rock-strewn lava. Icelanders all speak excellent English but Ole’s was best, so I got the inside dope from him — not just where to hit the ball, but all manner of Icelandic information, the kind you won’t find in Lonely Planet.
For example, 58-year-old Ole and his wife Trina spend their winters in Florida. Anyone with the means similarly bugs out for all of January and February, lest they misplace the will to live during another season of perpetual darkness. When flying home, the plane often stops in Bangor, Maine to refuel: If the weather is poor upon approaching Reykjavik, Ole explained, there is no nearby place to divert a large plane; it must have enough juice to reach Glasgow, Scotland.
What about the Faroe Islands? I asked him. “Not practical,” Ole said with a shrug. “Landing even a small plane in the Faroes is a reminder of why we have seatbelts.” At which point he put down his $12 Gull beer and violently jerked his torso forward, as if air brakes had just been applied to his barstool, full bore, halfway down the adorable little runway serving Torshavn.
There are 370,000 resident Icelanders alive today. Each summer, some 2 million tourists arrive to ogle waterfalls, loll in thermal springs, and walk amid the above-ground manifestations of so much volcanic activity. Another fun/fast fact: In the 1,100 years since Leif Eriksson founded the place, the total number of Icelanders still hasn’t reached 1 million. Maine has 1.2 million residents, right now. It’s two-thirds the size of Iceland and everywhere but Greater Portland can feel pretty damned deserted. Outside Reykjavik, this remote, North Atlantic land mass lends new meaning to “sparsely populated”.
The paucity of Icelanders, over the course of history, is surely down to the hardships of pre-modern life here. What few trees Erikson may have discovered were all burned for fuel by 1200 C.E., whereupon soil erosion (and it was shitty soil to start with) quickly made agriculture a difficult exercise… Part of the landscape here evokes the golden-hued, mountain-lined prairies of Alberta, or Colorado’s eastern slope. However, those particular Icelandic soils were created by lava flows thousands of years old. Eruptions account for the entirety of Iceland, of course, yet a mile down the road from these bucolic grasslands one is liable to find an utter moonscape, the result of a more recent eruption/flow.
A few noteworthy bullets before I make the case for Reykjavik’s preeminent place among cities 64 degrees north or higher:
• Spas: Thermal baths are everywhere here, because said thermal activity is everywhere. What’s more, the act of taking the waters in Iceland, communally, is truly marvelous. No chlorine to dry out the skin; in fact the mineral mix softens the skin. Swim-up bars positioned at either end of massive pools overlook breathtaking fjords or coastal scenes. Wholesome vibes prevail on account of the diverse, collective and casual bathing ethos: locals beside tourists, middle-aged couples beside younger-hotter ones, the elderly beside teenagers on group dates.
• Museums: Few peoples on Earth exhibit such a flair for expert, offbeat curation. Kendra Green delves into this topic with more breadth and poetry than I would ever dare attempt. But suffice to say, the Herring Museum we visIted in Siglo was sublime — and completely unexpected. I had failed to anticipate how interesting or well presented the subject of herring could be, in the right hands.
• Waterfalls: Everywhere in Iceland there are mountains rising up as many as 1,500 meters directly from sea level. The taller ones remain snowcapped or accommodate shadowy snow packs all year long. In relatively balmy July, water rushes down in pristine rivulets on every side. The country’s signature falls, or foss, are spectacularly wide, high and loud. But there are so many foss, from the grand to the quaintly modest, one becomes somewhat inured to the phenomenon here. A waterfall one might hike 2 miles into the Maine wilderness to see, one drives by without comment after two days in Iceland.
• Tunnels: Because the massive peaks and fjords here range mainly north to south, effectively segmenting much of the country, locals have invested in and subsequently engineered some pretty epic tunnels. One extends 4.6 miles through a hulking range of snowy peaks. Another stretches 3 miles — and drops 550 feet — under a fjord. We blithely entered another mountain-piercing tunnel on the way to Siglo, only to quickly observe the road’s two lanes, one in each direction, reduced to one. Most unsettling. It took us half a mile to realize there were regular turnouts where north-bounders, like us, were obliged to give way. A hair-raising half-mile.
During our afternoon in north-lying Siglo, we partook of the best fish & chips in all of Iceland, or so our young host at the Folk Music Museum billed it. He was not wrong. That night, we took in a great show of live music at a club called The Green Hat (Graeni Hatturinn) in Akureyri, a charming fjord town of 20,000 known as Iceland’s “Capital of the North”. Yet the best food, the most kickin’ nightlife, the most cosmopolitan vibe and two thirds of all Icelanders are to be found in Greater Reykjavik, one of the great small cities on Earth, it says here.
Another candidate, Portland, Maine, punches well above its weight for similar reasons — namely, capital cities regardless of size are obliged to include an outsized amount of amenities central and requisite to state and its broader culture: the government apparatus, of course, but also the widest range of restaurants, hotels, clubs, universities, physical infrastructure and tourist infrastructure. Invariably, these urban centers also attract and house comparatively large, diverse populations. Toss in a seaside setting and the formula is only enhanced.
In praise of Reykjavik, which is twice the size of Portland, I will go a step further: There is no finer, more hip, more cultivated city on Earth north of the Icelandic capital.
I’ve looked into this. The pool of cities with 100,000 or more residents, positioned north of 64 degrees, is naturally quite limited. It includes Russian outposts like Murmansk, a famously blighted shithole that has lost population every year since disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, plus a few Siberian garden spots like Norilsk, a community of 175,000 founded in the 19th century to exploit nearby nickel mines. Fun!
Near as I can discern, these places do not boast chic Middle Eastern restaurants the likes of Sumac, or an entire museum (one of 60!) whimsically devoted to penises (check out this great URL: https://phallus.is), or classy waterfront districts dotted with still more bars & restaurants serving cruise-ship traffic. The presence of cruise ships is not definitive proof that a city is urbane or desirable — but they don’t stop in Murmansk or wiggle their way down the North Dvina River delta to Archangel for a reason.
The most fashionable city in the north of Norway is supposed to be Trondheim, but it’s located 2 full degrees south of Reykjavik. Sweden’s got nothing of consequence that far north. Neither do Canada or the U.S. offer up cities of 100,000, that close to the arctic (Anchorage is only 61 degrees north). Just one urban center in Finland is located north of the Icelandic capital: Oulu. Nearly 200,000 souls make their home in this seemingly pleasant port city on the saltwater Gulf of Bothnia. It’s got a university with 10 faculty, a single (art) museum, and a famous statue of a squatting policeman. The local futbol team, AC Oulu, currently sits fourth in the Finnish first division, which impresses. But half the Icelandic Premier League is located in and around Reykjavik. I don’t want to run down Oulu, or its citizenry. I just don’t see how it can possibly compete.