A visit to Iceland is a unique travel experience regardless of the time of year. However, our quest to witness the Northern Lights took an unusual turn when we ended up having a unique encounter in Reykjavik which we did not envisage.

 

This is not your usual blog post about travelling to Iceland.

We have no quirky travel tips to share about driving Iceland’s scenic Golden Circle route. We did not venture off-the-beaten-track to explore some of the island’s most iconic hikes. We even skipped the opportunity to take an ‘Instagram-perfect’ dip in the famous Blue Lagoon.

Instead, we ended up in a geothermally heated pool in a Reykjavik suburb. That’s where we met him. “Who?” you ask. Keep reading…

 

So why did we visit Iceland?

Like everyone else, we were curious about this remote Nordic island with its emotional geysers, pleasing waterfalls and dramatic landscapes and glaciers.

CityWalk Tours, Walking Tour, Visit Reykjavík, Iceland

PS: This post contains affiliate links which help us support this site.

A previous layover at Keflavik International Airport while on a transatlantic flight to Los Angeles had whet our appetite. On that layover occasion, we had no time to roam but our chance came a few weeks later when we found a bargain return flight deal from London to Reykjavik.

We wanted to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)! From our research, we knew that our best chance of seeing them would mean having to travel further north to places like the Finnish Lapland.

However, thinking we could kill two birds with one stone and despite only having a 50% chance of seeing the lights at that time of year, we opted for Iceland. Fifty percent was good enough for us.

Sculpture and Shore Walk, Reykjavik Harbour, Iceland

As our Norwegian Airlines flight began its final approach to Keflavik, the clouds parted to reveal the stark contrast between the island’s black volcanic rock surface and the deep blues of the North Atlantic.

It was barely 11am in the morning when we arrived but there was hardly any daylight left as our pre-booked airport transfer headed towards Reykjavik, cutting across a desolate and sparse landscape.

Spiral Staircase, Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Iceland

The last embers of the sun had finally disappeared by the time we arrived at our hotel. Our bodies – unused to being in pitch darkness by mid-afternoon – began to feel drowsy. However, before we let sleep embrace us in her arms, we set out to Smurstöðin in downtown Reykjavik for our first taste of Icelandic cuisine.

The hunt for the auroras would have to wait.

 

Roaming around Reykjavik

Surviving and thriving for centuries on a piece of volcanic rock with a delicate ecosystem speaks to the grit, versatility and innovativeness of Icelanders. Those attributes were evident when we joined CityWalk Reykjavik for a ‘free’ walking tour the following morning.

Street art, walking tour, Reykjavik, Iceland

Our guide, Sara, was a mother and teacher who enjoyed showing off her city. It was a cold and rainy start but, the tour would carry on as planned. Sara proclaimed matter-of-factly, “This is Iceland. Adapting is what we do.”

CityWalk Tours, Walking Tour, Visit Reykjavík, Iceland

What followed was a two-hour history and culture tour of some of Reykjavik’s oldest neighbourhoods. Sara traced an engaging story arc through the centuries, from the arrival of Iceland’s early settlers to the 2008 financial meltdown.

Many stories later and feeling enriched from the experience, we picked up recommendations from Sara for bars, eateries and other places of interest and went off to explore more of Reykjavik on our own.

Street art, walking tour, Reykjavik, Iceland

HDYTI Tip: A ‘free’ walking tour is one of the cheapest ways to see Reykjavik. No set fees are charged and you pay what you think the tour was worth. £5 to £10 per hour/per person is reasonable tip though.

Our impression was of an unpretentious city with a youthful spirit and a practical attitude. For its relative size, we came across a decent selection of urban art in Reykjavik.

In Reykjavik’s historic district, Nordic style brightly coloured bungalows punctuate greystone patterns. The Prime Minister’s office (Stjórnarráðið) is the epitome of simplicity, a basic bungalow on a hill facing the harbour.

The conservative architecture is disrupted by the stunning Harpa Concert Hall, a geometrical masterpiece of glass, steel and light nestled in a pristine section of the old harbour. The rest of the day we spent wandering through Harpa’s corridors and watching the lights come on along Reykjavik’s Sculpture & Shore Walk.

Architecture | Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavík, Iceland

Architecture | Harpa Concert Hall, Austurbakki, Reykjavík, Iceland

HDYTI Tip: How long should you spend in Reykjavik? We recommend one day at either end of your trip. Iceland’s real value is outdoors and away from the city. 

 

Chasing the elusive Northern Lights…

Northern Lights Tour, Iceland, Photography

For two successive nights, the Northern Lights eluded us like a shy lover. Although disappointed, we used the chance to practice our nighttime photography.

We had arranged a ‘pick and drop off’ expedition through a local tour operator. However, with the forecast remaining cloudy, we declined the chance to brave below freezing temperatures for a third successive night.

Looking for something else to do, we learned that our hotel was within walking distance of Laugardalslaug, an Olympic sized facility with geothermally heated swimming pools and hot tubs. We set out for what turned out to be our most memorable experience on the entire trip.



Booking.com

HDYTI Tip: Visiting geothermal pools is an important and popular social activity for locals (the Blue Lagoon being mainly a tourist trap). Etiquette in Iceland requires everyone to shower naked and wash thoroughly with soap before entering the pool for hygiene reasons.

 

…and ending up with an encounter of a geothermal kind

We had read that Icelanders were generally accepting of people of colour. Apart from the expected curiosity, there were no strange looks as we stripped off (in separate rooms of course!), washed and changed into our swimming gear.

Tiptoeing across the freezing cold floor, we first submerged ourselves in the 29°C / 83° F water in one of the larger swimming pools before migrating towards a smaller pool. There, the water was even hotter (averaging 40°C) which explained why it was slightly more crowded.

It was there that we met him.

Street art in Reykjavik, Iceland

A smile played on the edges of his piercing blue eyes, inviting us to the corner of the pool he had commandeered. Although a hint of grey in his long flowing locks suggested he was older, his laughter was an elixir of youth.

“Hello!” he greeted, immediately making rubbish of our imbibed British habit of not making eye contact.

Being the only black couple in this more intimate hot tub, it was impossible to escape his attention.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

Our tri-country origin story provided a segway into discussing the topical issues of the day including Brexit, Africa’s economic potential and the dramatic win of Donald Trump.

CityWalk Tours, Walking Tour, Visit Reykjavík, Iceland

He displayed a wealth of knowledge that sparked our own curiosity. We wanted to know his own story. He was a travelling salesman working in the auto industry. His work had taken him across the world. He had many stories to tell.

Storytelling is an important part of Icelandic tradition. Some of the most iconic pieces of Icelandic literature are the sagas – epic stories documenting the country’s early origins – including heroes, villains and family genealogies, written over a period of three to four hundred years.

As hot steam swirled around us, we felt a momentary connection with that ancient tradition of storytelling as he shared tales from his travels.

 

Exploring Iceland – politics, sex and immigration

Harpa Concert Hall, Austurbakki, Reykjavík, Iceland

The conversation moved to the 2008 financial collapse that wiped billions from the country’s economy. He says it greatly dented national pride and confidence of Icelanders in their political leaders. He expressed concern about the long-term impact of the crisis on young people and jobs.

We talked about immigration. He claimed that Icelanders were generally welcoming of other nationalities. The country’s population of just over 300,000 needed a human capital boost he said. However, he admitted that in reality, in a country of their size, cultural conflicts were inevitable while integrating new arrivals.

Sólfarið - Sun Voyager, Reykjavik Harbour, Iceland

Following the financial meltdown, tourism revenue became a critical part of the recovery process. “Iceland’s charm offensive to attract the world was perhaps a bit too successful”, he said.

With the number of annual foreign visitors quadrupling between 2010 and 2016, he noted that there are now concerns about the effects of tourism and its impact on the country’s infrastructure and fragile environment.

Northern Lights Tour, Iceland, Photography

“How did you two meet?” he asked and seemed slightly amused when we told him our dating story.

He explained that Icelanders generally eschewed elaborate dating rituals. Sex on a first date is common and couples move on quickly if they do not feel compatible. Compared with other parts of Europe, he claimed that in Iceland, there is little social stigma associated with unmarried couples living and raising a family together.

It was easy to talk all night but the time came for us to part ways. We thanked him and bid him farewell.

 

Learning lessons about Iceland

Street art in Reykjavik, Iceland

The buzz from our conversation the night before was dampened in a cruel, self-inflicted twist the next day.

While waiting for our airport transfer at the hotel, due to a momentary lapse in concentration, we missed our pick up signal. If we were to catch our flight, our only option was to catch a taxi.

In Iceland, everything is expensive…but taxis are a killer.

We watched with sinking hearts as the meter counter increased with every minute. A 40-minute taxi ride ended up costing us twice the amount it cost us to fly from London to Reykjavik.

Looking out on a beautiful pink and orange sunset as our flight took off, we reflected on lessons learned. In Iceland, mother nature is beautiful but unpredictable, lapses in concentration can cost you dearly but most importantly, that Icelanders are really cool people and you can have the most profound encounters in a geothermal pool.

We look forward to writing the next chapter of our Icelandic story.

Walking in Harpa Concert Hall, Austurbakki, Reykjavík, Iceland

 

Travelling to Iceland?

Other resources

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? by I Heart Reykjavík

The ultimate guide to getting from Keflavík Airport to Reykjavík, by I Heart Reykjavík

Iceland in 24 hours, 5 days, and 10 days by Rick Steves

 

Pin This

Travel Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik is the main gateway to incredible travel adventures in Iceland. Keeping an open mind, however, presents opportunities for some unusual encounters.
Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).