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 this Big Blue Marble of ours — 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.