Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part story about Iceland. Check back next week for the final installment.It seems that every school child is taught the classic misconception about Iceland - "Iceland is green, Greenland is ice." But is it true? It seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore an island nation that had long been on my mind: Icelandair announced new nonstop flights from Denver to Reykjavik. Unable to turn away from a great deal, I booked my ticket for an eight-day trip to Iceland, returning right before Thanksgiving. I knew little more than the fact that just about everyone spoke English (in addition to Icelandic), it was a great place to see the aurora borealis and that the sun never sets in the summertime.By the time I boarded the plane to return to Denver, thoroughly sated from a long dip in the Blue Lagoon, I realized that I had learned a lot about Iceland - and that there was still plenty more to explore. I have to admit, the first morning in Iceland was a bit daunting. The flight arrives at 6 a.m. in Keflavik, a former U.S. Air Force Base about 30 miles from Reykjavik. At 6 a.m., it's dark, which I expected. It's still dark at 7 a.m., when the van rolled into Reykjavik, searching for my guesthouse. And it was still dark when I crawled into my bed after searching empty streets until 9 a.m., attempting to stay awake and "acclimate." The nap had restorative powers and, at 11 a.m., the sun was working its way ever higher and it was time to explore Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is home to about 60 percent of Iceland's 319,000 residents and it has a wonderful, laid-back vibe. Though the long history of the island is evident (the Norse are credited with discovering and settling Iceland around 874, though there is evidence of Irish monks living in Iceland earlier), the city feels modern and European. The streets are easy to navigate by foot and there are plenty of quirky side paths to explore in the downtown area, easily navigable by staying aware of Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland's landscape, or the water of the harbor. Restaurants, cafes and shops are plentiful (many of the cafes turn into bars after dinner), as are more cultural areas that highlight the long history of Iceland.Iceland has such a rich history that it's worth taking the time to visit some of the museums in town. In addition to Hallgrimskirkja, where $6 allows you to take the elevator up to the top for panoramic views of the city, the National Museum of Iceland gives a comprehensive picture of Iceland's 1,200-year history and houses a vast collection of artifacts. The Culture House houses Iceland's medieval manuscripts as well as other rotating exhibits; though smaller, it was no less impressive than the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College in Dublin. For a more modern landmark, The Pearl (Perlan in Icelandic) was updated in 1991 and now has an observation deck, shops and a space for concerts and other special events. It's a bit of a ways from downtown but well worth a visit.
After a full day of cultural sites, I was ready for some relaxation. Iceland is almost bursting with natural hot springs (most of the houses are heated by geothermal water) and the locals are serious about their pools, saunas and hot tubs. Most neighborhoods have a pool that its residents frequent and it's worth it to ask around to find your local pool. I splurged a bit and purchased a spa pass to Laugar Spa, located about a 15-minute ride from downtown. Yes, the outdoor pool is fantastic (with a twirly slide, no less), but I gained access to six different saunas and steam rooms that are kept at varying temperatures, each with its own fragrance and theme. There is also a massive Jacuzzi and cold (freezing) water barrels to either dunk or splash to cool down in. The relaxation room, equipped with comfortable benches and a centrally located fireplace, is relaxing enough to induce a nap. Outdoor pools and spas are gathering places for Icelanders, much like pubs or happy hours are in other countries. It's not unusual to see a big group of people from the same company enter at one time and chat in the hot tub or saunas. I was happy to sit back and let the rise and fall of Icelandic conversation wash over me with the water.
Thoroughly relaxed and quite pruny, I was ready to explore the culinary side of Reykjavik. Known for its up-at-all-hours nightlife, Reykjavik is also a city with a variety of immigrants offering everything from French to Japanese to Ethiopian fare. Not a fan of hakarl (cured shark)? Try the fish and chips at Icelandic Fish & Chips. Using organic ingredients and fresh seafood (the restaurant is steps from the harbor), this relaxed restaurant creates its own skyr (an Icelandic yogurt)-based dipping sauces that are worth a visit of their own. Try the tartar on your fish and the ginger wasabi on the roasted potatoes. Feeling a bit adventurous? Tapas Barinn offers small samples of unusual dishes such as fillet of Icelandic foal with chorizo sauce, smoked puffin with blueberry Brennivin sauce or Minke whale with cranberry sauce. But, before you leave, you must try an Icelandic hot dog. Bjarins Beztu Pylsur is the most famous (even Bill Clinton ate there) location, serving up Icelandic hot dogs smothered with ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion, remoulade and sweet relish.The sun set at about 5 p.m. each day, causing a curious combination of frenetic energy to experience as much as possible during daylight and a languorous serenity (no doubt caused by all of the soaking) that I had plenty of time to explore. "After all," I pondered as I sipped a Gaedingur Stout , a tasty Icelandic microbrew, "Iceland's only the size of Ohio - surely I can see it all in a week."A week later, I was en route back to Denver, marveling at the fact that I now had an even more reasons to explore Iceland than when I had started.Katie Coakley is an avid traveler and PR professional that splits her time between Florida and Edwards. Follow her adventures at http://katieonthemap.com.