It was, almost without fail, the second question people pitched to me on my return from a 10-day trip to Iceland. After asking if I had seen the Aurora Borealis, the ethereal ‘Northern Lights’, inevitably the questions turned to cetaceans.
“Did you eat whale?”
On the former, sadly I didn’t. It was mid-summer and even at 3am the sky remained a ghostly grey. For admiring the Aurora you’ll want to visit from October onwards, when the skies begin to darken from late afternoon. As for enjoying a bite of minke whale? Absolutely. When in Rome and all that.
“Whale is just too political. It’s not worth the argument to have it on the menu,” sighed chef Ragnar Eiriksson when I asked why he didn’t serve it at Dill, his groundbreaking New Nordic restaurant on a quiet Reykjavik side street.
Ask any local, or take a look at Tripadvisor, and Dill is far and away the most sought-after eatery in Reykjavik. Seating just two-dozen fortunate diners each evening – the waiting list runs at least two months – Dill offers a remarkable vision of how traditional Icelandic inspiration and ingredients can be transformed into fine dining.
Expect anything from tusk, a fish similar to cod, cured and roasted and plated with fermented black garlic, through to pungent guillemot served with traditional malted barley. It’s inventive adventurous cooking blending heritage and innovation, and nobody was surprised when Dill bagged Iceland’s first-ever Michelin star earlier this year.
I had come to Iceland to eat, and the Reykjavik certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ll never forget the whole roasted cod’s head at Matur og Drykkur, nor unpacking the city’s culinary history through the gentle charm of Egill Fannar Halldórsson from The Reykjavik Food Walk [www.thereykjavikfoodwalk.com]. Food-focused walking tours are always a great way to discover a city, and this was no exception.
And while savvy tourists are fast waking up to the culinary adventures on offer in Iceland, it’s certainly not the only attraction. The compact capital has plenty of charms, and on any visit to this far-flung island you’ll want to allow two or three days in Reykjavik.
Start at the wonderful Hallgrímskirkja, the imposing white-concrete church on a hill above the capital, and don’t shy away from paying the nominal fee to admire the views of the city from the upper balconies. Down on the waterfront the beehive glasswork of the Harpa concert hall is a remarkably modern architectural addition to the city, while The Sun Voyager statue by Jón Gunnar Árnason recalls the seafaring Norwegians that first settled this misty island in the 9th-century.
After a few days soaking up the understated Nordic charms of Reykjavik you’ll want to channel their sense of adventure and hit the road. In Iceland that means heading out on Route 1, the 1300-kilometre national road that circumnavigates the island. If you have a week or so to spare, this is far and away the finest way to discover the dramatic natural beauty of Iceland.
Along the way there are green fields and free-range sheep and bucolic waterfalls, but also
moonscapes of broken rock where sulphurous steam wafts across Namaskard Geothermal Area. Iceland is nothing if not a land in flux. The north is a land of waterfalls, and here you’ll marvel at the likes of Goðafoss and Aldeyjarfoss. Don’t miss out on a stop at Dettifoss: stretching 100-metres across, it ranks as the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
Then there’s whale-watching to be had on Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, and remarkable birding in the impossibly charming hamlet of Borgarfjörður. The village is said to be home to the rocky castle of a fairy queen, but I only fell under the spell of the shy yet inquisitive puffins at nearby Hafnarhólmi harbour.
As Route 1 skirts the southern reaches of the island the iconic glaciers of Iceland make their presence felt, rivers of ice creaking slowly onwards to the sea. At Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon the icebergs float ponderously past, waiting to shattered by the waves onto black basalt beaches, while at Skaftafell glacier we lace up our crampons and tackle the ice on a two-hour glacier walk.
From here the return route to Reykjavik is in our sights as we tick off the spouting steam of Geysir and contemplate the hallowed grounds of Thingvellir National Park. It was here that the earliest chiefs of Iceland ruled for hundreds of years, and in 930 formed what would become the world’s oldest parliament.
I mull it all over that evening at ROK; a hip new tapas-style restaurant in the shadow of the Hallgrímskirkja. In front of me; a plate of seared minke whale.
Was it any good? Absolutely. Did it taste of whale? Not at all.
Done right, it’s like an aged fillet, or venison seared to rare. At Matur og Drykkur, one of my favourite restaurants in the city, chef Steinar Sveinsson serves it with umami-packed sea truffle seaweed. At Fish Market, owner-chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran plates it simply seared with cauliflower, berries and a ponzu sauce.
It was a last taste of Iceland, a country that is fast-becoming one of the most popular destinations on the planet, but I’ll certainly be back. I still have to catch a glimpse of those Northern Lights.
FLIGHTS: The best way to get to Iceland is with British Airways, which offers daily direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow, with regular onward connections to Reykjavik. ba.com
GETTING AROUND: Local buses are plentiful and affordable in Reykjavik, but the city centre is best explored on foot. Taxis are available, but can be expensive. Further afield a hire car or guided tour is best.
GUIDED DISCOVERY: Visio travelled around Iceland with global small-group adventure company G Adventures, which offers a range of bespoke itineraries across the island. www.gadventures.com, 011 442 0822
PAPERWORK: South African passport-holders require a Schengen visa. Contact the Danish embassy in Pretoria. http://sydafrika.um.dk. Flying through London will also require a UK transit visa.
MONEY MATTERS: Official currency is the Icelandic Króna. ZAR1:ISK8. ATMs are common in Reykjavik, and credit cards are accepted widely.
READ MORE: www.visiticeland.com
A SWING BENEATH THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Keen golfers will be surprised to discover that Iceland offers a number of top-notch courses for teeing up a memorable round of 18.
Most of the country’s best courses are clustered in and around Reykjavik, making it easy to swop the sightseeing for a seven-iron, even on a short break.
Keilir Golf Course is just 30 kilometres from the capital and offers a memorable round playing through grassy fairways that meander between rocky lava fields. It’s a windy course demanding both power and accuracy. The same could be said for Sudurnes, a links-style layout that promises stellar sunset views. Brace yourself for the 3rd hole, where a 200-metre drive over surging seas is needed to reach the green.
Beyond Reykjavik, the Geysir Golf Club offers a charming nine-hole course close to the island’s famous geo-thermal geysirs. Or head north to Akureyri. Iceland’s second-city is home to the world’s most northerly 18-hole golf course, host of the annual Arctic Open.
With their long daylight hours the summer months are, unsurprisingly, the most popular time to play. Yet while the courses will be busy, the upside is the opportunity to play beneath the midnight sun. Ever booked a tee-time for 1am? Here’s your chance.