You think I got a lot of funny looks
when I told people I had booked a trip to Ghana? Shit, you
don't know the HALF of what happened when I told kids that I was
going to Iceland to hang out for a long weekend...boy, this shit
First, some background. My
(former, God-knows-where-she-is-now) friend Lucy Altounian went
to Iceland a couple of years after we got out of school, and
came back with some pretty wild stories of beautiful sights,
beautiful people and beautiful nightlife...and, for about the
last seven or eight years, I have trying to trick people into
going to Iceland without success. Last year, I got
close...I pitched this to a lot of people, everyone seemed
interested, but when push came to shove, only my friends Dave
Lee and Dave Wonnenberg showed sincere interest in going.
We shelved it, but then over the holidays, I basically came up
with three options for trips--Spain via Iceland, Cyprus via Iceland, and
Buenos Aires--and told folks I was trying to make it happen for
the spring of '07, and after the dust cleared, we settled on a
long weekend just to Iceland.
Friends, I can say now what I've known
for years and now have the visual evidence to back up--you need
to get your ass to Iceland if you can get the money together to
make this puppy hop. You will note that money is one of
the key themes throughout this essay, maybe more so than any
other trip I have done so far; pound for pound, from a
day-to-day perspective, it can be shocking how much things cost.
But, I prepped the team pretty heavily in advance that this
would be a costly three-day trip, and I think we embraced this
with open arms.
Speaking of the team, our cast of
ladies (L to R) and their trip signature line:
Meg Cooch, aka Moist--"Is
this whole trip going to be dirty?"
Mandy Taylor, aka Da Pimp--"Before
this weekend is out, I'm gonna hook those single guys up with
The guys (L to R) and their trip
Dave Wonnenberg, aka Dave B or The White
Guy--"You guys going to Iceland next
week? Shit, I'll hang out!"
Gordon Stokes, aka The
Continentalist or The Cougar Killer--"Hey Juergen, how much
for a ride back to Kerkagar?"
Dave Lee, aka The
Financier--"Ahh, Iceland...we're still alive!"
Justin Bell, aka Coach
or Timberlake--"This is the greatest thing in the history of
Wim Taylor, aka
Nightlife--"I got KRÓNURS!!!"
And now, without further ado, the trip!
(If you hate words but really like looking at attractive people,
click here to go to our trip pix.)
Iceland Fact Sheet
Population: 306,000 (75% of which
live in the capital city of Reykjavik)
Industry: although I can't confirm
the percentages, "most" of Iceland's money generation comes
from the following three things: tourism and the service
industry, fishing and fishing products, and aluminum
Time zone: GMT (four hours ahead of
Languages: Icelandic, English
Temperatures: 28-36° F in
winter (low/high); 48-57° F in summer (low/high). In
other words, generally, it is colder in NYC, Boston, and
Chicago during the winter than it is in Iceland; summers are
not unlike summers in San Francisco's downtown area.
The Northern Lights (Aurora
Borealis) takes place from September to January, so no, I
didn't see them on my trip. Also, in winter (December
through mid-March), daylight is from roughly 11 AM to 3 PM.
In summer, daylight is around 20 hours from May to
mid-August; in June, some parts of the country have 24-hour
Not Your Mama's Swimming Pool
Here's how my travel guide described the
various geothermically-heated swimming pools in Iceland:
"The swimming pool is to the
Icelanders what the pub is to the British or the coffee shop is
As such, upon landing in Iceland on our
first day via Icelandair (you can get from BWI to Reykjavik in about five-and-a-half hours; from Boston,
it's about four-and-a-half hours), we checked in around 11 AM
and dropped our stuff, took a quick nap, then headed off to Laugardalslaug, Iceland's largest outdoor swimming complex.
They've got a 50-meter lap pool, four "hot pots" (hot tubs), a
regular pool with a basketball hoop that is not for lap
swimming, and a three-story-high waterslide. Because of
the weather (it was about 40-45° F outside for the whole trip),
it's important to make that run from the changing/shower room
indoors to the naturally-heated water outdoors quickly, but once
you do, you will NOT be disappointed. The water ranges
from 84° to over 100° in the hot pots; it's a lot like hangin'
out at a hot tub on your deck in Lake Tahoe during the winter,
except you can sit in this water for hours because of the
natural essence of the water and the total lack of chlorine.
Wim, Justin & Dave hang with five future NBA
Icelanders typically will go to the pool
often, in some cases three or four times a week, to soak in the
various pools, hot pots, and sauna or steam rooms. On the
day we showed up, Laugardalslaug was relatively quiet, with a
couple of groups of kids, some random travelers and a few
locals; this quickly turned into an awesome 4-on-4 pool hoops
game, where three 12-year-olds played on my team against Wim,
Dave Lee and two other kids...naturally, these kids spoke pretty
good English, and one of the kids had nicknamed himself "King"
because his favorite player was Lebron "King" James.
Comedy! (The waterslide action didn't hurt, either--man, I
was already getting that "I need to buy property in Iceland"
feeling, but more on that later.)
"3 AM Eternal"
Much like the seminal dance track from
The KLF back in the day, Iceland's nightlife works like this
pretty much every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night:
Eat dinner around 8 or 9 PM, go
home, nap for two hours.
Get up, shower, pre-party in your
hotel, domicile or automobile backseat.
At about 1:30 AM, consider
leaving...but, really leave at like 2 or 2:30 to go out.
Around 6 AM (or later), consider
grabbing late-night chow before going to bed.
I was aware of this situation--very
similar to my times in South Beach--even when
Lucy first told me about Iceland all those years ago, but in
doing research on how things work in Reykjavik, the stories had
all been true...these cats don't do it early, they do it
late...and, in the summertime, where there are only like three
or four hours of darkness, this can lead to major issues with
insomnia if you aren't careful, because what this means is that
it's getting dark when you go out at 2 AM, you're in clubs/bars
for four hours, and when you come out, the sun is blazing
The nightlife in Reykjavik on Fridays
really can be summed up in one word--"runtúr", or literally
"round tour", which basically means that rain, sleet or snow (in
our case, it was raining on our Friday night), Icelanders go
from bar to bar to club to bar to club, going just long enough to have
maybe a drink or dance to a few songs, then it's off to the next
place; imagine a pub crawl where about a couple thousand people are
going from place to place, and most of the bars really are on or
just off of one street in downtown Reykjavik. It was cool
watching some people see their friends and just high-five them
as they crossed paths on the street, kind of like you did when
you saw a buddy on the way to class back at college...this was
lovely, and even in the rain, all five of us currently in town
(Dave W. and Gordon didn't get to town until Saturday) had a
blast watching the stylish, beautiful people of Reykjavik--both
young and old--get their shimmy on until
the wee hours of the morning.
The Financier gets his proverbial swerve on
And when I mean stylish, I mean stylish.
I had read in my travel guide that guys will typically dress up
a bit when they go out, so I advised the team accordingly and
they did not disappoint throughout. Guys on Friday night
were almost all wearing either collared shirts with ties,
collared shirts with no tie but blazers, or shirts, ties and
sweater vests or full sweaters, and these are the locals that
I'm talking about...The Financier went balls to the wall on
Friday night, looking like a man that you do NOT want to fuck
with, and our love lady duo of Mandy and Meg didn't disappoint,
either. Certainly, you can get away with wearing the kinds
of bar & club gear you wear here in the States, although going
with that vest, Cocks hat and jeans look is a BAD move in
Take a Left on Brćdraborgarstigur
Saturday, once we had a full squadron of
highly-trained professionals, we decided to make our excursion
to some of the touristy natural wonders of The Golden Circle, an
area east of Reykjavik that includes three distinct landmarks:
Geysir, Gullfoss, and Pingvellir. Opting out of a guided
tour that would have run us about $90/person, we instead rented
a seven-person 4x4 minivan (the Hyundai H-1, bitches!!) and did
the driving ourselves...for the cool price of $240 for the
rental car, plus gas at about $6/gallon.
Like I said, Iceland ain't for
Navigating Iceland is a bit tricky
because, much like the title of this section indicates (that's a
real street west of our hotel location in town), the Icelandic
language is fucking ridiculously hard. Outside of
languages that just use symbols for their words, Icelandic is
the most difficult language I have encountered in my travels.
Not that I've been everywhere, but this is three times as tough
as Czech was, easy. Icelandic is so ridiculous that I
didn't even bother buying a phrase book, because I knew nothing
good would come from that. Of course, it helps that 99% of
the people in and around Reykjavik speak near-flawless English.
(Strange irony: as hard as these words
look on paper to an English speaker such as myself, hearing the
Icelanders speak to each other was a very cool, very smooth
process of communication, and the words really roll off the
tongue well if you are versed in the pronunciation.)
The Hyundai H-1. About the only unsexy
thing I handled in Iceland
Anyway, with The Financier riding
shotgun pulling our GPS duties and myself behind the wheel, we
set off for our destinations. Driving in Iceland is
actually quite a breeze (although, you probably know this if
you've been anywhere in Europe before--if you can't drive stick,
you generally can't rent a car; they don't do shitty automatics
over there unless you rent a "luxury" car); the roads are quite
narrow and a bit bendy, but the sights are cool to take in, and
there are plenty of roads that would require 4x4 capabilities if
you plan on arriving in wintertime.
Geysir ("The Gusher") is the
original--the first hot spring blowhole that other geysers have
taken their name from. It's cool to stand about 15 feet
away from a real geyser that erupts about 30-40 feet into the
air, but once you have seen it blow once or twice (it blows
water into the air every few minutes), you're done and you can
move on your way.
Gullfoss and Pingvellir are much cooler.
Gullfoss (The Golden Falls) was the natural highlight of the
trip for me--a huge waterfall that runs along the inside of a
canyon that, depending on the timing of your trip, will have two
matching walls of ice that cover the basin, with rocks that you
can stand on to admire the view from above. Where you can
park your vehicle, there's a stunning view of the entire canyon
that provided some of the best pictures of the trip.
Venturing down into the canyon, you can stand literally three
feet from the waterfall if you duck under the safety ropes and
head over on the rocks--the COMPLETELY UNSUPERVISED ROCKS--to
taste the fresh canyon spring.
Pingvellir's significance is
twofold--first, it is the site where Iceland's first government
was formed back in the tenth century, and the chieftains'
meeting place which overlooks a huge valley is great spectacle
for those that can imagine a community leader speaking to the
masses with the backdrop of a huge canyon wall; and,
Pingvellir's second true significance is that the rift valley
that runs behind the parliament's meeting/speaking area is in
fact the continental plate rift that separates North America
from the Eurasian plate. We got to Pingvellir so late in
the day (after about five hours of driving) that it was hard to
truly appreciate it for what it was, but even with that and a
very gray sky, it is a sight to behold.
The $42 Whaleburger and Other Tales
of the ISK
The monetary unit in Iceland is not the
Euro, but in fact, the króna (krónur is the plural form, or ISK
for Island Krónur; Iceland is actually "Island" in its
Besides flying to Iceland, which in "shoulder" seasons (March,
April, October or November) will run you about $450-$500,
everything else in Iceland costs a ridiculous amount of money
considering what you are used to. As of April 2007, the
exchange rate we saw at most banks in Iceland--fucking do NOT
exchange your money at an airport in either Iceland or the US,
or at a bank in the US--was about 67 ISK to the dollar.
For example (and don't forget--in terms
of food & drink, Iceland
products are essentially all imported unless you are eating seafood):
Hamburger and fries: $26.87
16-ounce Viking draft beer:
Price of our rental car:
8-inch sub and a Fanta orange soda:
8-ounce cocktail: vodka, cranberry,
Slice of chocolate cake my first
morning in Iceland: $12
apartment in downtown Reykjavik: $1,000,000 (approx.)
You are best off doing what we did on
this trip--my time-honored tradition of "fire and forget", where
you just whip out the total in ISK cash, or the credit card, and
just realize that you are on vacation and that's what vacation
is all about, the experience. The Financier had one of the
trip's funniest moments, when we had dinner on Saturday and near
the end of an experience where we had just dropped a shitload of
cash on a dinner for seven people, he just literally took out
all of the ISK coins in his pocket and threw them onto the
table, which led to us saying "It's raining KRÓNUR!!" for the
rest of the trip.
Speaking of that dinner, I decided to
sample something that I couldn't have back at home--whale.
Sure, it was $42, but everything else in Iceland costs a lot of
money, so it wasn't the dough...I wanted to eat something
forbidden in my homeland, and whale was the fucking ticket.
When you order something called "whaleburger", you are thinking
like I'm thinking--a fucking meat-lover behemoth, a fucking
monstrosity that is actually composed of real whale.
Then, the sandwich came out. I
could tell that my six companions (all of whom seemed to want
to order the whaleburger, but actually possess compassion for
their fellow whales and didn't want to see them served up on a
fucking bun) were intrigued when it arrived, as was I...and
then, I pull off the top bun to see a couple of piddly, one by
one-inch square pieces of meat sitting there on a huge bed of
lettuce and tomato with a big order of fries on the side.
I wanted a lot of meat! Shit, if you had told me that
whale was a fucking delicacy, I wouldn't have ordered it!
Shit, didn't they have to kill a FUCKING WHALE in order to
present me with this sandwich? You can't tell me there
wasn't EXTRA FUCKING WHALE available to put on my sandwich!!!!!
Anyway, you're probably wondering just
one thing, and to be honest, whale tastes like either liver or
slightly dry steak, depending on who you talk to. Hey, you
gotta try some new shit, right? Why not whaleburger?
The State of the Natural Blonde (All
6'1" of Her)
Let me be frank--I am very, very happy
and satisfied in my current dating situation with Meg.
Let me be frank again--I am very, very
glad I did not go on this trip as a single man. If you
like statuesque, bronzed women who are naturally, nearly fucking
blindingly blonde, trim and outdoorsy, where the only real
downfall is trying to decipher the pronunciation of their names,
stop reading the essay and get your ass over to Reykjavik stat,
pronto, NOW. I had heard this before leaving for this trip
from Men I Trust, and from my recollection of speaking with Lucy
about this all those years ago, and from recent internet
research...the women of Iceland are attractive and aggressive,
and they have a certain fearlessness in talking to exotic
American imports (read: minorities of all shapes & sizes) that
makes this the kind of trip you go on if you, ahem, like to make
Meg and Mandy dispute this to a small
degree, but the five men on the trip recognized signs that you
don't see here in the States that menfolk can do well for
themselves while on holiday in Iceland. Especially if you
like your women tall and cut and good to go from a partying
perspective. Like all places, there were some women like
this, and others who reminded you of killer moms with names like
Helga who spend their week bench pressing BMWs while making
multiple rounds at the buffet table. But, in downtown
Reykjavik, at the airport, working at any establishment that
would cater to tourists and restaurants in general, hotties were
readily apparent. (Strangely, one place where these 6'1"
blondes were NOT hangin' out--Icelandair flights. The
stewardesses on my flight both to and from Iceland were actually
a little rough around the edges; they didn't take the British
Airways/Virgin Atlantic approach of hiring supermodels from the
homeland to wear those skimpy stewardess outfits.
The men of Reykjavik were more of a
mixed bag (Meg agreed with this), but I didn't get the feeling I
did when I went to Italy four years ago; even a straight guy
could tell there were handsome men floating around everywhere in
Rome. Iceland presented a wide palette of tastes for the
discerning straight female; there were a lot of taller men
around, but nothing that made you think Kenya or Norway or
places like that. Looks-wise, I thought the men (and, I
think the ladies agreed on this point) were okay, and I didn't
get the sense that the "game" the average Iceland man possessed
was all that solid; again, Italian men seemed to be king in this
Polar Opposites / The Only Black Guys
on the Island
Six months ago, I was in Ghana, which
was black, black, and black all over. Iceland--no doubt
about it, the polar opposite. From the weather to the
geographical situation to the cost of living to nearly every
imaginable category, Iceland is 100% different than it was to be
in Ghana. As such, there are at least a dozen different
essays that I could write about the comparison between the
two...however, there is one point that really does intrigue me
when it comes to race:
In both places, I stood out like a Hokie
at a classy party. A Yankees fan at Fenway. A
quarter in a stack of pennies. For wildly different
reasons, Ghanaians picked up on the fact that I was a gringo
pretty quickly; in Iceland, the stares Wim, Gordon, and I got
(and, to some degree, Dave Lee as well) were mainly ones of
curiosity, ones of "Holy shit, look poppa--a Negro!!
Cool!!" and not ones I remember getting at a random McDonald's
outside of Atlanta one year, near Macon--"Holy shit, look
poppa--a Negro! Can we get the shotgun?"
So, as a result, you get a bit more of a
rock star feeling when you are in a place where racism is
basically out the window (trust me, I know that racism feeling, and I
didn't get that feeling at all during my trip to Iceland) and
not many folks like you come to visit a particular country.
Dave Lee, Wim and I took it to the point where we decided to use
made-up background stories if anyone inquired as to who we
"really" were because we were getting so many stares; Dave, The Financier, was a Chinese real estate
magnate in town to scout new properties to add to his portfolio;
Wim and I were two hip-hop stars who were in town to promote our
group's upcoming second album, due to drop in August. (Wim
and I had a bigger problem--we never did figure out what to name
our group, or for that matter, what our stages names would be.
Details, details, details.)
Both in Ghana and in Iceland, the locals
seemed to go out of their way to make me feel welcome despite
that gringo tourist look about me; this was decidedly not the
case in certain other places, most notably Paris, where I still
remember some of the looks I got in shops when I would drop some
Frenglish on the locals and this was met with looks of disgust,
anger, and getthefuckoutofourcountryism. In other words,
don't hesitate to go to Iceland because you don't look just like
Sven; you'll have a great time over there, believe you me.
Milky Blue Water (or, The Greatest
Thing Anywhere, Ever)
I had spoken with Meg's sister Beth and
Beth's husband Michael prior to leaving for Reykjavik; Michael
had this weird, dreamy look in his eyes when he talked about the
couple's 24-hour stayover in Reykjavik a couple of years
ago--not unlike a zombie, Michael seemed transfixed with the
Blue Lagoon, Iceland's signature tourist attraction that
features naturally-heated water in a salt basin near the major
airport outside of town. "I love the Blue Lagoon," Michael
began, but then he kept looking up at the ceiling, saying "I
love the Blue Lagoon" a few more times before either Beth or
their newborn child snapped Michael out of it.
I had gotten similar reviews from other
former Reykjavik travelers over the years, so I was certainly
fired up to check out the Lagoon, even though the night before
we saw it, we had gotten less than three hours of sleep before
attempting to hit the site. The Lagoon comes complete with
an acre-sized body of water that is heated to nearly or above
100°, depending on the spot in the basin where you are sitting;
the water is only 2-4 feet deep, so swimming is basically out of
the question here. There are massage rooms, a steam room,
a kiddie area, etc.; with a cafeteria and a full-blown
restaurant on the campus, you can make a day out of your stay.
Which is what you will want to do the
second you sit down in the water. Oh, sweet glory be, the
Blue Lagoon is one of the truly great, truly soulfully relaxing
events you or anyone else will be able to get their hands on.
Getting into the water instantly made me think of those old Calgon commercials ("Calgon,
take me away!!!"); after sitting down in the water and staring
at the steam rising off the lake and my friends all simmering in
milky blue magic (the water isn't naturally this color; the
Lagoon is apparently partially man-made, since it has a thermal
power station that helps filter the water in and cool it to a
reasonable temperature), we all thought about when we could come
back to sit in the water just one more time.
Getting out and getting dressed
certainly felt like what breaking a smoking or crack habit might
be like; about fifteen minutes after sitting in the main hall
outside of the Lagoon, I wanted to get undressed again to run
back out there. "I will come back here", said The
Financier. Or maybe it was Dave B. Or maybe it was me...I
Meg and I got back to my apartment the
Monday of the men's NCAA basketball championship game to see who
would walk away with a national championship; like the end of
all trips, I was psyched to be back in my apartment, and like
clockwork, I was only half there while watching the game because
a large part of me wanted just one more night back in Reykjavik.
There was a lot accomplished on this
trip to Iceland, but there's a lot that we missed. There's
the Aurora Borealis, for starters; a few clubs were missed, and
a couple of historical sights in Reykjavik were skipped as well.
There's literally a penis museum in town, too...I'll be sure to
check that one out on the flip side, and in terms of outdoorsy
activities, we only skimmed the surface of what's available in
Iceland because between glacier walks, hikes, snowmobiling,
horseback riding and other fun stuff, there would be plenty to
do during another four-day trip if I decide to go back.
Hell, we didn't even get to see, or consume, puffin, one of the
country's naturally-occurring birds that has a distinct look
about it, in addition to being a fairly-decent appetizer, from
what we hear.
And, of course, The Lagoon.
But if I go back, it would only be
fitting to have The Crew come back for another jaunt over there,
and this time, we would have to all be there for the same travel
dates (we were scattered a bit this go-round). The people
always make the trips for me, and between our team and the wide
array of locals we interacted with on the journey, Iceland is
sure to be back on my list in the next two years, for sure.
I just have to remember to bring a whole
here to go to the
photo gallery straight away...)
Random Bellviews, courtesy of Bell
and Longer Community Trust:
The Hotel Plaza:
"Your skin is so soft...you see, I
have a black boyfriend, and...": Opening Weekend
Dave Lee on the dance floor: Opening
Icelandic bacon potato chips, Reyka,
paprika and chocolate bars: Opening Weekend
Making this the first of multiple
Iceland trips: Opening Weekend