Iceland has done an incredible job of positioning itself as a Tolkien-esque tourist destination, making sure everyone knows about its vast, elemental landscape – fit for frost giants – and its storied Viking history. But how to get the most out of this varied country? Why not try ice climbing, or knitting or dining on fermented shark? Don’t know how? Well, until the end of April, you can get a helping hand: Icelandair are offering a service where you can book one of its employees during your stopover (where transatlantic passengers can stay in Iceland for up to a week for no additional airfare) to be an instant chum and tour guide as you travel around the country. The service is free and staff members have a wide range of interests. Including knitting.
I was met at the airport by the magnificently named Icelandair engineer Erla Dögg Haraldsdóttir. An Olympic swimmer turned maintenance supervisor, Erla was frighteningly accomplished, but completely down to earth, and seemingly happy to answer my many (mostly Viking-themed) questions.
Each morning Erla collected me from the hotel for a day of activities that showcased the full stretch of Icelandic history, from the cutting edge of sustainable energy production, all the way back to the birthplace of Western European democracy.
I was based in Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital, a clean, modern, attractive city, with a compact centre, full of boutiques and bars. It’s towered over by the Hallgrímskirkja – an improbable concrete rocket-ship of a cathedral – which offers spectacular views over the city and the surrounding Faxaflói Bay.
As it was “Beer Day” (the 27th anniversary of the legalisation of beer in the country), we went to a bar called Bjór Gardurinn, and got to know each other over a taster selection. Like everywhere else, Iceland has a burgeoning industry in micro-breweries, but unlike everywhere else, their more experimental offerings are generally very good. There were herb beers, lactobacillus-soured goses, and crisp Icelandic ales. I was particularly taken with Ölvisholt Brugghús’ Lava Smoked Imperial Stout, a bold and flavourful porter, which despite packing 9.4 per cent ABV was free of the sweetness that normally accompanies high alcohol beers.
I stayed at the Apotek Hotel, which is centrally located, with large comfortable rooms and an excellent restaurant. Based in an old pharmacy, mixologists wear lab coats and produce an inventive range of cocktails. For the culinarily immoral, traditional main courses include puffin and whale, and though I balked at the sea-toucan, I was foolhardy enough to try the minke. Served slow cooked, but barely warm, it was more a carpaccio. The initial taste was of venison, but much chewing was required and it had a long, musky aftertaste such that, had I not known its provenance, I might have assumed it to be something like jugged civet, or putrescent badger. The sides – Jerusalem artichoke crisps and puree and a pickle of caramelised shallots – were delicious and almost enough to mask the lingering minke mouth-funk, but I was ultimately rescued by the dessert menu, which included Scandinavian accented delights, such as liquorice-filled chocolate macarons.
The following morning, my stopover buddy drove me about 30km from Reykjavik to Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant, which looks exactly like a Bond villain’s lair. Sharp, modernist architecture, backs into snow-blanketed hills, and it’s festooned with billowing plumes of white steam. The facility harnesses Iceland’s abundant geothermal resources to produce most of the capital’s electricity and, as a by-product, most of its heating. It’s all very impressive, and the visitors’ information centre includes videos, geological displays, and the opportunity to stand on platforms overlooking the surprisingly quiet and largely unmanned turbine halls.
From there we went to Thingvellir National Park. A rift valley that marks the edge of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and for over 800 years the site of the Icelandic parliament, the Althing (one of the oldest extant parliamentary bodies in the World).
A UNESCO World Heritage site – containing frozen waterfalls, deep fissures brimming with crystal clear waters, and well maintained walkways to overlook sites that afford dazzling views – it is easy to see why these “assembly fields” are one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions. We rounded out the day at Verbúð 11 Lobster & Stuff, a seafood restaurant on Reykjavik rapidly gentrifying waterfront.
I had a great time with my stopover buddy; without her vehicle and sightseeing suggestions I would have been restricted to Reykjavik, and although I assume that its Penis Museum is amazing – and with a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts, how could it be otherwise? – I doubt it compares to the majesty of Thingvellir.
The notion of a “stopover buddy” may sound a bit twee, but embrace it without cynicism and it can be a wonderful little adventure. In providing their staff, Icelandair is offering the opportunity to discover Iceland with someone who lives there, to get to know the place from the inside, and to spend time with remarkable people who will go out of their way to ensure that your time in Iceland is as unique and fascinating as the location. Act now, this is an experience not to be missed.