“You’ve been listening to a lot of Sigur Rós lately.” This was Spotify’s refrain for all of September, what with the steady stream of ethereal post-rock pouring through my speakers. I’ve long had a thing for the Reykjavik-based band, whose singer sometimes uses a gibberish language called Hopelandic. I was also planning a trip (my first) to Iceland.
It’s been drawing me in for at least a decade, this country of contrasts: a small island (so small, there’s now a dating app to help its 320,000 residents avoid accidental incest) with a vast landscape, both glacial and volcanic—the Land of Fire and Ice. It didn’t let me down. Despite our rental Kia Picanto, driving through the arctic tundras outside of the capital felt like entering some otherworldly dimension—one dotted with lichens and dwarf shrubs and wild, thick-maned horses, where Huldufolk (hidden people, per Icelandic folklore) are said to live under the rock formations and Hopelandic makes perfect sense.
Alas, I did not discover any elfin creatures. But these are the things that worked their magic on me:
Sigur Rós, Björk, Múm, Emiliana Torrini—add Samaris to the growing list of buzzy local music acts. Think down-tempo electronica with a clarinetist, haunting female vocals, and lyrics from 19th-century Icelandic poems. (If that sounds unusual, it is.) I found (and bought) the band’s recently released debut album at Reykjavik’s 12 Tónar, and it set a perfectly ambient tone for my Icelandic road trip. Not surprisingly, Samaris is set to play at Iceland Airwaves, the cult-favorite annual music festival that kicks off in the capital this week.
Icelanders are proud of their historic sagas, not to mention the country’s 99-percent literacy rate. In Reykjavik, every café, bar, even Laundromat seems to be crammed with books. I’d suggest anything by native son Sjón, a novelist and poet who sometimes pens lyrics for Björk. The Blue Fox—a dark fable involving a naturalist, an orphan with Down syndrome, and a priest on the hunt for a mysterious blue fox during a harsh Icelandic winter—made for excellent mood reading. Here’s hoping that his new novel, Moonstone—The Boy Who Never Was, is published in English soonest.
Eat + Drink: Juniper Sausage, Craft Beer
The food world is crazy for Nordic cuisine these days, but I didn’t expect everything I ate to be so damn good. My most memorable meal? The lamb sausage at Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, a cozy gastro-pub within Reykjavik’s super-hip Kex Hostel; it's seasoned with mushrooms and juniper berries, served with a compote of root vegetables, and best paired with one of the Icelandic craft brews on tap.
Stay: Ion Hotel
We stayed at the new Ion Hotel, a cubic concrete structure with 46 contemporary rooms in a lava field about an hour east of the capital. Set beside Lake Thingvallavatn, an active volcano, and a geothermal power plant, it’s an ideal base for hiking and—thanks to the lack of light pollution and the glass-walled bar—viewing the Northern Lights.
Buy: Sóley Organics
Everything in Ion—the food, including skyr, Iceland's famously thick yogurt, artworks, bathroom amenities—is thoroughly local. I especially loved Sóley Organics, which sources wild Icelandic herbs for its skin- and hair-care products, which you can buy at the hotel as well as Lyfja pharmacies. Among my favorites: Birkir, a unisex shampoo slash body cleanser infused with arctic birch, a traditional healing ingredient; and Steiney, a purifying mineral mask made using volcanic clay from Eyjafjallajökull, fresh from erupting a few years ago.
–By Christine Ajudua