While I am grateful to embark on a journey with nearly 500 colleagues and friends to a destination for which I never even imagined, it has been the independent adventures of this fire and ice land that have been the most rewarding.
Icelandic residents are friendly, accessible and down to earth. From the local musicians to the boys in the skate park, each as curious about me as I with them.
At the beginning of my trip, I arrived in Iceland with a warm greeting at the airport. The colleagues that flew in ahead of the convention at an early 6:30am, as did I, each went off on organized pre-tours. I was left on my own to discover Reykjavik on a Saturday/Sunday weekend. My hotel concierge suggested that I rest up and get prepared for a great night ahead…as a single American on her own, but safe in the town’s Marina District.
After the much needed nap, it was suggested that I check out The Laundromat for a casual dinner and locals-only experience. While the name of the restaurant/laundromat/pub was not immediately appealing, I followed the recommendation and was met by a refreshing experience of couples, singles, intellects and families all engrossed in their own individual experiences. Some were there to commune, others to do laundry and yet most were engaged in the virtues of a full service restaurant and books that lined the bar. Because I was not yet hungry, I ordered a glass of wine ($14 for the house option) and a relish tray, which was beautiful, but at $18 the highly fashioned celery, carrot, cucumber and jicama sticks made me feel like I was an over-indulged rabbit nibbling on nuggets of fine cuisine. (FYI: Iceland is VERY expensive…so I suggest you leave your appetite and cocktail needs at home)
After I gratified myself with a taste of the local culinary scene, the suggestion was to cruise the town’s square where I stumbled upon several watering holes with live music. My hotel connection promised that as a single American traveler, with blond hair and blue eyes, I would fit right in and the locals would adopt me in their hospitable fashion. Indeed, she hit the mark. Along Austurstræti Street, I meandered through a trifecta of pubs, but settled in at the Irish Pub as the band, hovering in the street prior to their gig, assured me I would enjoy their interpretation of American music and the local patrons. Indeed, they were right…there is great talent in Iceland though I would have enjoyed local tunes, which I did end up sharing later in the week with my colleagues in a less intimate environment.
Since I was up until the break of dawn, many of my new Icelandic friends had to high tail it out of the bar to get ready for church. I went to bed, jet lagged and satiated by my encounter with the locals that took me under their wing.
The next day, I found myself wandering the streets, not really intrigued by the shopping options, so I hung out at the local Skate Park where young boys and teens “auditioned” for my attention. I should point out, everyone in Iceland speaks English very well…and they all seemed intrigued to chat it up with me to interpret the current American vernacular. Sure wish I had my son along to help with this endeavor, but I did the best I could in translating pop phrases from some of our country’s “celebrated” Rappers. Little did I know this knowledge, gleaned by my adult son, would ever come in handy!
So, after my weekend of personal encounters, the town of Reykjavik was overcome with North American journalists and the conference begins. The pace changed from my independent journey to that of colleagues networking and attending to business. This is, after all, why I/we came to Iceland…
However, there was room for little journeys along the walk to the host hotel. One of my San Francisco buddies discovered The Icelandic Phallological Museum and she wanted me to join her for her return trip to this one-of-a-kind “gallery.” When we arrived, there was only one other patron. So, we took the opportunity to behave like young school girls, laughing out loud at the “Sperm” Whale’s assets versus the seen only through a magnifying glass’ hamster genitalia. In all, there were well over 100 varieties of penis…some impressive, most a little scary. Curious? Check out my Iceland Facebook album at https://www.facebook.com/molly.blaisdell.
Since I don’t enjoy attending professional cocktail functions with the feed for all mentality, I decided to fill my belly ahead of the opening reception and stopped by a Marina-central eatery, The Steak House, prior to arriving at Reykjavik City Hall. I know, I know…I’m a vegetarian, but I was craving some close-to-home food…veggies and a baked potato. They were quite accommodating, but the Icelandic sense of humor had the kitchen staff laughing behind my back. While Iceland is known for its fresh seafood and fish, my fellow patrons exclaimed that this was indeed the best local beef joint.
At the end of the day, the networking options and relationship building encounters for this professional group of travel professionals is where the “meat” is. So, part of the benefits of “admission” is a series of adventures for which each one of us gets up close and personal with groups of no more than 40 or so colleagues. I chose a more active route in my options, including an ATV tour, a dine-around in which I enjoyed the conveniently local Kopar, the Lava Cave Encounter and the Fontana Thermal Spa.
Upon our arrival at the ATV park, those of us who had previous experience with all-terrain vehicles were disappointed. All we saw were flat lands and carved pathways. Little did we know what was in store. After suiting up in our crazy space-like “costumes,” I was one of the lucky ones to enjoy my own vehicle, so I got down and dirty in the mud pits and climbing and descending from the mountain terrain that was beyond our initial visibility. Once atop an active volcano (not the currently erupting Bardarbunga Volcano), we all disembarked from our vehicles to take in the views, which were breathtaking. However, we all looked like a gaggle of strange aliens in our orange suits, exploring the terrain.
Topar, which means “copper,” features local Icelandic cuisine and is a tribute to the many ships that cruise through the local harbor, constructed many years ago of copper and steel. Our particular dine-around group of 20 had at least six of us with special dietary needs and they accommodated with popping, spicy veggies as well as a zucchini pasta and cashew cream sauce. Mouthwatering!
A little sore from the ATV adventure, the next day greeted us with a Lava Cave Tour. Keep in mind, there is a volcano erupting in Iceland at this time…but if you want to tempt fate, this was a journey of discovery and trust in our guides. Again, we got suited up in crazy gear of hard hats and wool gloves to protect our gentle flesh…but, I still came out with skinned knees and elbows. There were times where we had to actually crouch and crawl sideways, then upon exit, roll through the narrow two foot tube into daylight. I used muscles I didn’t even know I had and enjoyed every bump and grind along the way!
My last group encounter was a trek through gorgeous hillsides into the Fontana Thermal Spa. We were greeted by a young “Viking” who’d baked us bread in the thermal underground…slow roasting for 24 hours. Then, we headed to the locker rooms to unveil, sanitize in the group showers (I haven’t done that since high school), then luxuriate in the natural springs for which Iceland is known. Funny how when we all get naked and display our bodies for everyone to see…we actually bond and get past our inhibitions. My fifty year old body has seen better days, but somehow in European countries, people don’t judge you for your imperfections…they look past that and into the human being you really are. We all passed out on the ride back to the hotel, satiated and bonded.
And now (what I thought was going to be) the fairy tale ending…while I was prepared to sleep in and get ready for the journey home, one of my colleagues talked me into taking the airport shuttle via The Blue Lagoon, a popular Iceland attraction that wasn’t on my initial agenda. Similar to Palau’s Milky Way, for which I have visited nearly a dozen times, this therapeutic spa has the reputation for being one of the most visited sites in the country. Well, despite the “white caps” and blizzard-like weather conditions, the lagoon (more like an ocean on my particular visit) was as crowded as New Year’s Day at Disneyland. The crowded conditions weren’t the only similarities to Mickey Mouse’s home…the Blue Lagoon was very expensive and they charged you for everything, even the use of a towel and robe. Needless to say, this was not my favorite attraction in Iceland…I would have preferred another visit to the Fontana Thermal Spa or the Phallogical Museum!