It's not called Iceland for nothing

HOME TO JUST 120,000: Multicoloured rooftops and the harbour are seen on the city skyline in Reykjavik, Iceland. As Iceland makes a grab for tourist dollars, some peddle rumours that the country isn't as cold as its name suggests.
It's not called Iceland for nothing

VIKING NATION: Icelandic national flags for sale at a store in Reykjavik.


    Dec 31, 2014

    It's not called Iceland for nothing

    NEVER had so much depended on a tube of Blistex.

    In Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves music festival, I prowled the Viking nation's capital for two days last month, dipping in and out of venues to see bands much as one might at Austin's South By Southwest.

    But Texas rarely sees Reykjavik's freezing temperatures and high winds - winds that threatened to topple me as I tried to check out Icelandic hip-hop while figuring out whether the woman in the long, white puffy coat at the bar was Bjork. (She was.) As Iceland makes a grab for tourist dollars after its devastating financial crisis, some peddle rumours that the country isn't as cold as its name suggests.

    "Iceland's climate is temperate and milder than most people think," according to Eyewitness Travel's Top 10 Iceland. Do not believe this - at least not in winter. If Iceland isn't cold at any given moment, it is likely to be soon.

    After 12 hours in the capital and its surrounds, my lips were cracked. After 24 hours, they were bleeding. When I found Blistex at the petrol station around the corner from my hotel, I smeared it all over my face like melted chocolate.

    One can, of course, pay more to visit Iceland at the height of tourist season - summer, when the sun shines more than 20 hours per day and the daily high temperature averages around 14 deg C.

    But those with budget constraints may be forced to discover the Land of Fire and Ice's many charms nearer the winter solstice, when temperatures are closer to freezing. Remember: To visit Reykjavik, you need lip stuff and a plan. This is terrain where going where the day takes you will leave you wind-burned.

    After the sun sets - at about 4.45pm during my stay - Reykjavik's nightspots should be visited selectively in a carefully plotted order that minimises one's exposure to the elements. Luckily, the city is home to just 120,000 people, which means most clubs are clustered around a fairly compact downtown.

    Even if the cost is higher, stay in it, not near it. The middle of the city isn't just where the action is, but it's also where the action slightly distracts you from the fact that your hands and face are raw and chapped.

    My room at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel, just under 1.6km from the city centre, was a bit shabby for the price (about US$150 or S$200), and its killer buffet breakfast - included - couldn't redeem its distant location.

    OK, it was next to a very cool-looking historic cemetery. But I was not inclined to marvel at the picturesque tombstones of 19th-century settlers when walking briskly back to my room, dreaming of the moment when I could turn up the heat. Even when you're bolstered by a cup of spicy pumpkin soup at the vegetarian restaurant Glo or steaming ramen from Ramen Momo, a freezing hike is a freezing hike.

    One might be tempted to check out the city's United States-themed nightspots, often kitschy and of recent vintage: Lebowski (complete with a full menu of the Dude's preferred White Russians), the Chuck Norris Grill and the Brooklyn Bar.

    But I found these spots worth little more than a laugh and a selfie. When it's below freezing, irony won't keep you warm. More interesting were clubs that seemed more, well, Icelandic.

    First among many: Kex. A venue, restaurant, cafe and hangout that shouldn't be content to bill itself as a "social hostel", Kex has a stellar view of the North Atlantic from the best vantage point - a warm bar. Watching waves break in Faxafloi Bay, I was floored by the stark terrain settled by the Norse in the 9th century - who, presumably, didn't have the luxury of watching a good band in a packed room warmed by body heat.

    Another venue that isn't skimping on the heating bill: Idno. A 19th-century theatre converted into a performance venue, Idno is perhaps the least nightclubish nightclub imaginable - a music hall that feels like someone's home. With a restaurant, a dining room and multiple bars, the three-storey building is large enough to accommodate hundreds of concertgoers, but is carved into small spaces that always seem intimate.

    During one of my visits, I danced to 1960s hits spun by a stateside DJ. During another, I drank tea and chatted with friends next to a blazing radiator. Some thought the weird doll collection on the top floor was creepy; I thought it was friendly.

    For those who prefer taking in entertainment in a room without a bartender, a visit to Harpa is a must. Love it or hate it, this jagged building - built for US$235 million not long after Iceland's near economic collapse, to much criticism - is striking.

    In daylight, the black exterior recalls the volcanic rock that litters parts of the island nation's coastline. Inside, I didn't care for the odd-sized funhouse steps or blinking coloured lights, which reminded me of Atlantic City's now-defunct Trump Taj Mahal. But I wasn't there for the architecture.

    Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the main concert hall, a stellar-sounding room with a beautiful red interior, as warm as the building's black exterior is cold. The room's aesthetic power is enough to compensate for even a mediocre programme - and Harpa has restaurants and gift shops if you need to sneak away before the conductor puts down his baton.

    Of course, Iceland isn't just about nightspots - but, compared to pub-crawling, sightseeing requires being outside for extended periods. So I didn't do much of it.

    Stumbling upon Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik's stunning modern cathedral with an even more stunning 25-tonne pipe organ, I ran from the street to the door. Riding the elevator more than 61m to the church's breezy tower, I took in the 360-degree view for a minute or two, then rushed back into the sanctuary.

    Farther afield at Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal spa less stunning - but less mobbed - than the better-known Blue Lagoon, I ran from the locker room through freezing air and plunged into 37 deg C water.

    But I wanted it hotter, and leaped into a 38 deg C pool. Then I hit the sauna for as long as I could stand. After freezing intermittently for most of two days, that proved to be quite a while.

    At the Great Geysir a little farther east, I bolted from the rental car, counting the seconds until the majestic geologic wonder sprayed superheated water hundreds of feet in the air. Once it did, I was the first one back inside the superheated car.

    At Gullfoss waterfall - a majestic cataract five times higher than Niagara and a few hundred windblown yards from the highway - I stayed in the gift shop.

    The view was undoubtedly not to be missed. But these lips are the only ones I've got.