Iceland: Quirky home of Bobby Fischer, Björk and the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon, open year-round, rain or shine, envelops thousands of tourists from all over the world in its misty embrace.

The Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik

REYKJAVIK, Iceland—This is the only country that gives you a bath before they send you home.

The Blue Lagoon, open year-round, rain or shine, envelops thousands of tourists from all over the world in its misty embrace.

Many of them come in big tourist buses on the way to the airport, which is only 15 minutes away.

They leave, freshly scrubbed and silky soft, after an hour or three at Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction—and yes, it’s really blue, thanks to the silica, other minerals and beneficial algae in the geothermal springs.

The Blue Lagoon, like the rest of Iceland, will be elbow-to-elbow this summer as tourism to Iceland explodes, with as many as a million tourists expected this year in a country of only 319,000 people.

Iceland? It wants the tourists. It welcomes them. It needs the money to help it recover from a near national bankruptcy in 2008.

So, in the Blue Lagoon there is always space for one more.

Iceland, a tiny dot in the northern Atlantic, has never felt geographically closer to continental North America. That’s because Icelandair, the national airline, now flies to eight American airports, including Boston, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. It’s just a hop and skip to get there.

North Americans like it because most Icelanders speak excellent English. It’s a safe, upscale, Nordic nation with odd volcanic scenery. The dollar goes further in Iceland than it did five years ago. In summer, it’s a party place.

Most visitors rush around the country trying to see everything—waterfalls, volcanoes, lava, Icelandic horses, pools. But for me, heading home from Greenland, quirky Reykjavik was more interesting than the cold and dreary March countryside.

The capital city of 118,000 people dates from the 9th century. Today, it is striking for its brave adventures into architecture, good shopping, nightlife and literacy—plus its pivotal spot in world events and culture. Traveling there off-season? Here are my suggestions:

Hofdi House: There’s nothing super special about this old, white stately house—except that in 1986, President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev had a summit here that was a turning point in ending the Cold War. Remember the name and event, because a new film being shot this year, “Reykjavik,” starring Michael Douglas and Christoph Waltz, will re-enact the tense event. Tourists likely will be crawling all over this place two years from now.

Perlan: A must-see for architecture fans. Demonstrating how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, this striking community icon has a pleasing glass dome set atop six bland holding tanks for the city’s hot water supply. It features the upscale Pearl revolving restaurant and, one floor down, a fine cafeteria serving Icelandic cuisine with great city views. The day I visited, it also had a huge used book sale, with hundreds of shoppers.

The Harpa: Reykjavik’s new concert hall opened in 2011 on the harbor. Viewed from different angles, it looks as if it’s a different building, with streaks of colored lights appearing on its midnight blue surface. Concerts, opera, symphony, shops, restaurants. But mostly, enjoy the building itself.

City Hall: Reykjavik citizens still debate the merits of this barracks-like concrete gray building with exposed rivets. Personally, I thought it was a blight on the landscape, but it’s part of the Icelandic soul by now, so accept it. Best view of it is from across the adjacent pond.

National Museum of Iceland: My two favorite sights here were singer Bjork’s first album cover from 1977 and a chalice that dates from the 16th century made out of a coconut husk (an astonishingly rare and valuable item in Iceland back in the day). By the way, if you take a city bus tour, you’ll pass Bjork’s all-black seaside house. “Don’t look to your left, it’s not supposed to be on the tour, but that’s Bjork’s house,” the tour guide said as the bus sped past and tourists fumbled with their cameras.

Speaking of celebrities: You won’t find any obvious evidence of the famous American chess player Bobby Fischer. The National Museum owns the chess table from the 1972 world chess championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union, but after being on display last year, it’s stuffed in a closet somewhere, to my great disappointment.

Because the eccentric Fischer lived in Reykjavik in his final years, he still lives in the memory of citizens here, many of whom encountered him lurking around town. Ask someone. They’ll likely have a story about the odd chess grand master.

Shopping: All Iceland, all the time. Handmade wool sweaters. Angora socks. Delicious chocolate. Blue Lagoon cosmetics. When you buy something here, you know it’s made in Iceland. The best shops are on Laugavegur and Bankastraeti streets.

Hallgrimskirkja Church: The exterior is so incredibly interesting; it’s a sweeping two-sided steep staircase to the heavens. You can see this church from everywhere in Reykjavik, so you’ll never be lost. Inside, take an elevator to the top and get great city views. The church’s interior is starkly plain and starkly beautiful. Yay, Lutherans.

Blue Lagoon: It truly lives up to the hype. Take your own bathing suit, flip-flops and robe if you have them, or rent all these things plus a towel. It has a cafe, restaurant, outdoor massage and an outdoor lagoon bar. Do all these things, or just soak in the water for hours.

Iceland will send you home squeaky-clean.

Seven Quirks Of Iceland

• There are 40 publishing houses in Iceland, making its people among the most literate in the world. On the other hand, who else will publish a book in Icelandic if they don’t?

• A local newspaper, the Reykjavik Grapevine, reported that one way to measure Iceland’s fall from financial hotspot to recession-plagued recovering nation is that the number of Range Rover registrations plummeted from a high of 259 in 2007 to 4 in 2011.

• The mayor of Reykjavik is an actor.

• Due to the downslide of the Icelandic krona against the U.S. dollar, it’s about 25 per cent cheaper to visit Iceland than it was before the 2008 recession.

• Iceland had 277,000 tourists in 2002. In 2012, about 700,000 visited the country. This year, it might hit 1 million, a government official said.

• In summer, nightclubs really get busy only after midnight. But the sun is still up.

• Americans built the original international airport at Keflavik during its military occupation in World War II, bringing American culture and influence to Iceland.

If you go:

When to Go: High season is mid-June through August, when the midnight sun shines and partiers congregate. Try May or September; true iconoclasts should come way off-season for low prices and quiet.

Getting there: Icelandair flies from several U.S. cities to Reykjavik; from Boston and Washington Dulles it’s a 5-5 { hour flight for about $860 round-trip in the off-season or $1,100 in summer. Check package deals for flights, hotels and activities at www.icelandair.us, 800-223-5500.

Getting Around: The Keflavik Airport Flybus (www.re.is/flybus) takes tourists between the airport and Reykjavik. Tour companies like Reykjavik Excursions (www.re.is) offer day trips to far-flung sights and rides from your hotel to the airport, with a stop at the Blue Lagoon. Staying in Reykjavik? It’s a walkable city with no need for a car; take a taxi to Perlan or other sites on the city’s edge. Rent a car for jaunts to the countryside.

Stay: Most of Reykjavik’s hotels are Iceland-owned, such as Center Hotels with multiple properties in downtown Reykjavik (www.centerhotels.com).

For More: www.travelnet.is or www.visiticeland.com.

Ellen Creager is a reporter with the Detroit Free Press.

 

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