Compared to the lush, varied views as you fly in and out of Finland, it doesn’t take long for the stereotype of Iceland to assert itself from the sky – vast expanses of grey, with not a tree in sight. The cab ride from the airport reinforces the same impression – you can see some interesting terrain in the distance, but the immediate view is just flatness, punctuated by the occasional warehouse. We’re staying at the 101 Hotel, a boutique hotel (“member of Design Hotels”) which Ally read about in the New York Times. It doesn’t take long to realize how expensive Iceland is, even compared to Scandinavia. The cab ride came to something like $160 (even with the 10% discount for cash – hey, nice gesture!) and the hotel room is far more expensive than we would really have gone for, even given our lackadaisical approach. But what can I say, neither of us had checked properly. You can see the attention to design in the room, but it’s not always for the best – I nearly walked into the bathroom mirror several times. Also, it has the least stable wi-fi of any of our hotels so far, and it’s also the noisiest location, with Ally having been bothered at various points in the night by music from an adjacent nightclub, by voices, by traffic and by what sounded like horses. Of course, design can’t fix that, but maybe better sound-proofing would have helped a bit.
Oh well, you can’t win them all. The hotel is on a very plain-looking street, but Laugavegur, the main shopping thoroughfare, is one block up. It goes a long way in both directions, crammed with distractions. We arbitrarily chose a place to eat called Café Paris, although unlike the places I mentioned in Helsinki, this makes no actual attempt to evoke Paris. We split a cheeseburger and a Caesar salad, just for a change I guess, and walked a bit more afterwards. The next morning we covered some of that area again, along with a brief walk through the old part of Reykjavik, and then headed down to the waterfront, where the main eye-catcher, excepting the mountains in the background, is a newish, lonely-seeming concert/conference centre. There are more signs of construction around town than you might expect – perhaps reflecting the country’s recovery from its financial crisis.
We seldom rent a car on our trips – I think the last time was in Australia a dozen years ago – but it seemed like a necessary step this time. A guy from the rental company brought it, a little blue Hyundai, to the hotel at noon. We're spending the next three nights in the Ion Adventure Hotel, which is actually only an hour or so from Reykjavik, but ought to open up a whole different world (it’s just 18km from Thingvellir National Park, sometimes regarded as the country’s most important - although also the most touristy). The directions sound impenetrable on Google Maps, but actually only amount to taking the correct route out of the city, and then not missing a particular left turn along the way. Of course, we missed the left turn (well, I was navigating, so it was just me) and had to double back.
After that point we hardly saw any other vehicles until we reached the hotel, and you quickly start to realize how you could bury deeper and deeper into Iceland, to all intents and purposes limitlessly, reorienting your entire sense of proportion and scale (we did briefly consider, during our planning, whether to do a more extended driving tour, which I guess is one of the iconic ways to spend time here, but we concluded it wouldn’t really suit us). For most of the way, the road ran alongside a big pipe, and we eventually came to the geothermal power plant from which it emanates – we stopped at a lookout, and spotted the hotel a few kilometres away, so that was easy. It might not immediately sound too appealing to say that the hotel, nestled against a mountain on one side, faces a power plant on the other, but in this case it really only means a soothing background of pristine white steam clouds. Also not far in the distance is Lake Thingvallavatn, which is Iceland’s largest. The hotel is a base for helicopter tours among much else (the helicopter below is safely taking off, and not coming down in a disastrous whirl of smoke, as you might momentarily think).
Soon after checking in, we went out and randomly followed a trail up the mountain. We ended up walking a loop of 9km or so, much of the first half above the power plant, which has an aesthetically quite pleasing geometric tidiness to it. After that we wandered through a craggy area of boiling pools (signs warning of scalding temperatures) and warm streams, and then descended down between the lava fissures, giving us a feeling (albeit highly illusory) of isolated adventurism. We climbed out and walked back, mostly through a big meadow (causing outrage among more displaced creatures, this time sheep). And that was a very satisfying initial walk in what I guess is the real Iceland.
I only emphasize that point because up to then, Iceland was seeming rather artificial. The 101 Hotel was a mistake – even if we’d liked it, it would only have buried us in a little self-contained design bubble which doesn’t help to integrate you into a place. The Ion Adventure Hotel is actually its cousin in the “Design Hotels” pantheon (it's on the very next page of the global “Design Hotels” book they both proudly display in the lobby) but everything about it is more rational and pleasing (even our room’s bizarre floor to ceiling photograph of a horse’s eye doesn’t seem too grating). There’s nothing you can do about the prices though. We had lunch here after we arrived, and there’s basically no point even contemplating what it ran to (the modest chocolate bar in our minibar costs $18). This kind of price-inflation environment isn’t alien to us – we met in Bermuda for Pete’s sake! – but in Reykjavik it wasn’t really clear that the trip would deliver the kind of memories and satisfaction to make it worthwhile. But now it seems that it will, so we can just stop focusing on it (well, more or less)…