01 December 2016

Reykjavik III: Something Old, Something Blue

Reykjavik is a destination that rewards the organised and one of the activities that you need to book in advance of your stay is a trip to the Blue Lagoon, the beautiful geothermal spa located in an outstanding area of natural beauty in the middle of a lava field. The Blue Lagoon is a) expensive, b) busy and c) very touristy and yet, it was one of the experiences I enjoyed the most on my trip. As the Blue Lagoon is fairly close to Keflavik airport, many guides suggesting visiting on the way to or from the airport. But both of my flights were after dark and stopping at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport would have meant hanging at the airport out for about four hours after catching the last bus from the lagoon.

Instead, I was picked up at my hotel in a little Reykjavik Excursions minibus at 8:30 on Monday morning and dropped off at the BSI bus terminal where I joined a larger coach for the 45-minute ride to the lagoon. It cost me about £40 for a standard entrance and another £25 for return bus journey. I had timed my visit to coincide with sunrise and although it wasn't quite as spectacular a sunrise as on Saturday, it was great to see the lagoon evolve from dark, steamy and ethereal to a brighter shade of turquoise once the sun came out. After a quick, obligatory shower sans bathing suit, I made the short but brisk dash from the changing room to the lagoon itself and spent the next two hours or so wallowing in the wonderfully warm, milky blue waters.

The site is fairly large so although there were already a lot of people there (and it only got busier as my visit progressed), there were enough separate pools and coves to have a little bit of privacy. You also get a silica mud mask included in the price — leave it on for ten minutes and you’ll look years younger, they say. I’m not sure that’s quite true but my skin felt very clean afterwards. The same can’t be said for my hair. I’d been trying valiantly to keep it out of the water but I was seduced by the fun of a hot artificial ‘waterfall’. There is free conditioner in the changing rooms but even two days and two washes later, my hair is still a wreck.  I could easily have spent all day in the hot water but was worried I might turn into the lobster soup that is so popular in town. Coaches to the city centre leave every hour and I was back in Reykjavik by lunchtime.

I stopped at my hotel, Room With a View, to drop off my swim kit and to enjoy the colourful cityscape view from its rooftop terrace for a few minutes, before heading around the corner to an organic, mostly vegetarian, mostly gluten-free restaurant called Gló. The décor is rustic-chic and the food is, while not cheap, quite good value by Reykjavik standards: I had a lovely pumpkin soup with bread and three salads for about 1,800 krona (about £13). I skipped pudding and went for coffee at Reykjavik’s oldest espresso bar, Mokka Kaffi, which dates to 1958. Although not exactly speciality coffee, my macchiato wasn't bad and it was a characterful place to stop for a shopping break on Skólavörðustíg, a street filled with galleries and boutiques.

Down in Old Reykjavik, I stopped for another coffee at Micro Roast, a brew bar operated by local chain Te & Kaffi. I had an excellent Guatemalan pourover and a cookie before paying a visit to the Settlement Exhibition, just over the road. The museum is built on the site of a Viking longhouse discovered in 871 AD (± 2 years) and has interesting insights into the early history of the city, although despite what my guidebook said, it only took me about 40 minutes to walk around (and that includes reading every single panel). Afterwards, I went back to the hotel and took advantage of the rooftop hot tub, which was very relaxing on a cold and snowy night. The Nordics have the right idea.

For dinner, I went to a restaurant called Rok just opposite Hallgrímskirkja. I’d walked past a few times and thought it looked nice and it was indeed a cool and cosy bistro with a great bar. All of the cocktails were Iceland themed — I had the fruity and bitter 64 degrees — as are the small-plate food dishes. They suggest 2-4 plates per person but it was too pricey for me to have more than two, so I had a beautifully cooked ling in lobster sauce, and a duck breast with local chocolate, raspberries and orange for my main course. As if that wasn't enough of a pudding, I also had a lovely crème brûlée with apple and cinnamon. The food was exquisite and the staff very friendly; Rok was a great find.

On my last morning in Reykjavik, I packed up my apartment and left my suitcase at reception before heading out for breakfast. I picked up the most amazing salted caramel cinnamon pastry the size of my head from Sandholt bakery (450 krona; about £3), followed by a cortado at the original branch of Reykjavik Roasters near Hallgrímskirkja. I also bought a bag of Guatemalan coffee beans to take home.

It had snowed overnight and the ground was a bit slippery as I walked my way back down the hill, past the pond and up into Vesturbær, a mostly residential neighbourhood to the west of the city centre, to visit one of the local outdoor swimming pools my City Walk guide had recommended. About one-tenth of the price of the Blue Lagoon, Vesturbæjarlaug consists of a series of man-made outdoor pools of various temperatures (all heated). You can swim lengths or relax in the 40-degree jacuzzis as I did, with barely another tourist in sight (sorry, Reykjavik locals!). Across the road from pools, I spotted a nice-looking bistro called Kaffihús Vesturbæjar where I had an excellent brunch (smoked salmon and egg tartine) with a Reykjavik Roasters cortado and a hefty side of hygge. It’s a relaxed spot popular with locals and expats and the kind of restaurant that is hard to find in the city centre.

I just had time for one last walk through Old Reykjavik and the harbour, where I stopped for a Haitian coffee at Café Haiti, and then one last look at the magnificent Harpa concert hall, before walking along the waterfront and Laugavegur, the main shopping drag, and then the airport.

Four days was about the right amount of time to spend in Reykjavik in the winter. There’s much more to do both around Reykjavik and on the rest of the island, but those adventures will have to wait for another holiday — probably in the summer. In the meantime, over the next few days, I’ll also be compiling a Reykjavik coffee guide and a quick guide to spending a wintry city break in Reykjavik.

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