Imagine bathing outdoors on a pitch-dark winter’s afternoon, under the vast expanse of a velvet-black sky punctuated with milky white stars.
If this were Florida, the outdoor temperature might discourage potential bathers into sweaters — and the indoor comforts of a mall. But in Iceland, bracing winter air is no reason to forego this island’s favorite pastime: a relaxing soak, even a brisk swim, in the pure, bubbling water of a geothermal spring. Visitors and locals alike gather in merrily social fashion, chatting in a mix of English and Scandinavian tongues amid a striking landscape of volcanic mountains, glaciers and endless sky.
Floating alone in the northern reaches of a vast ocean, marginally European both in a literal and figurative sense, Iceland is currently riding a wave of attention and popularity. Last year, the tiny country made headlines when both its economy and a local volcano blew up, sending tremors through international finance — and trans-Atlantic travel.
Ever since, this remote land of dramatic topography and exotic isolation has been a traveler’s favorite: newly affordable with its devalued currency, yet still largely unknown to Americans.
Within the past year, both Icelandair and the discount airline Iceland Express have added flights between Reykjavik and East Coast cities, and Delta will add direct service from New York later this year.
Iceland is also the closest European getaway, just five hours by direct flight from New York; with a good package deal, the ambitious could do Reykjavik as a long weekend. For those curious to see Iceland en route to Paris or Berlin, Icelandair is offering a promotion that includes a stopover of up to seven days in Iceland for no additional cost on a New York-to-Europe itinerary.
Late winter is arguably the ideal time to experience what makes Iceland distinctive: the fiery glow of its Northern Lights, the drama of its snow-clad scenery, and the opportunity to bathe, ice-skate, snowboard and ski amid geysers and glaciers.
New Yorkers may be surprised to learn that despite the name, Iceland has warmer winter temperatures than our fair city, thanks to the proximity of the Gulf Stream. And in the months following the solstice, pitch-black afternoons rapidly give way to pale, sunlit days, evening out to normal daylight hours by springtime. It’s all the better to take in the breathtaking, otherworldly Icelandic winter landscape.
Aurora Borealis, the fabled Northern Lights, are a highlight of a wintertime visit to these northern climes, where a light show is all the more dramatic because the sky — removed as it is from major urban areas — is so black. Visitors are likely to see the Northern Lights during the long nights from now through about March.
Nature, whether experienced through a dip at a spa or a snowmobile expedition across snowy glaciers, is a highlight of virtually every Iceland trip. And the chance to experience it is made easier by Iceland’s compact layout: you can go from a nightclub or café in downtown Reykjavik to a horseback ride in wild, unspoiled mountain terrain in less than a half-hour.
That famously unpronounceable volcano, Eyjafjallajskull, has settled down somewhat and embarked on a second career as a tourist attraction. While some rent a Jeep to explore Iceland’s rural wonders, many opt for an organized tour to visit the volcano and other sights dispersed throughout the rugged, lava-strewn island. The Iceland tourism office, www.goiceland.org, has a list of tour guides that cater to every interest and mode of overland travel.
Given the cool, halfhearted Arctic summer, Icelanders truly relish their winter — whether outdoors or in one of the capital’s sophisticated museums and concert halls. Through mid-February, during the Viking festival of Thorrablot, Iceland puts on its most traditional face: plazas come alive with markets and dancing, and restaurants trot out the time-honored Viking dishes. February is also peppered with Lenten feast days, when bakeries serve up seasonal pastries, filled with cream and lingonberry jam.
Much of the winter action takes place in Reykjavik — a small but lively city of colorful Nordic buildings, pedestrian-friendly streets and inviting cafés. Late February brings the Winter Lights Festival in Reykjavik’s Laugardalur Park, as well as the weeklong Food and Fun Festival (www.foodandfun.is), when the capital’s finest restaurants offer special tasting menus and culinary events featuring Icelandic ingredients.
Indeed, Reykjavik’s dining scene is surprisingly cosmopolitan: you can find Mexican, French, Thai or Spanish cuisine here, along with lots and lots of fish, from shark meat to locally-cured lox. What you won’t find much of is kosher food, though all the fresh fish helps, and an increasing supply of international products has improved things somewhat.
To say that there aren’t very many Jews in Iceland is to make quite the understatement: at any given time, you can count the Jewish population on a few hands. (Though to be fair, there aren’t many Icelanders, period: 300,000 in the entire country.)
So it’s interesting to learn that Iceland’s first lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, is one of these few members of the tribe, a Jerusalem-born Israeli of Bukharan heritage. Like most of the Jews who have landed in Iceland during the last century, Moussaieff ended up here through marriage to a local. (In her case, it happened to be the country’s president.)
And like many such transplants, Moussaieff had lived in much larger cities — yet was captivated by the vibrancy of Icelandic culture, which is at once charmingly traditional and resolutely modern, in that ineffably Nordic way. Moussaieff today is one of Iceland’s most fervent cultural promoters. With Icelandic travel getting easier each year, more and more visitors will see what’s so exciting.