EVER sat through an entire Björk concert with a shred of fermented shark stuck in your teeth? I have. Thankfully it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this highlight of Reykjavik’s Airwaves music festival – a rare chance to see the perennially eclectic artiste performing in her native Iceland.
They have carved out a modern identity as eco warriors, tapping into their volatile natural resources
Björk hopping around in madcap costumes while showcasing her harrowing ‘break-up album’ Vulnicura was just part of a surreal day that just got more surreal. Five hours before the sold-out gig in the iconic Harpa concert hall Bertel Ólafsson, one of our Stopover Buddies – Icelandair tour guides – had proffered a plastic tub of the cubed shark as a taste of the island. It smelled of sweaty socks that had been dragged through a drain but the taste was mild and cheesy. Alas, I chewed on a stringy chunk. Not even a slug of Brennivin, caraway-flavoured schnapps, could dull the discomfort. Thanks, Buddy.
So what, you ask, is a Stopover Buddy? An ingenious ploy by the national airline to add extra value to their Stopover service, which allows their transatlantic passengers using Keflavik Aiport as a hub to spend up to seven days exploring Iceland without paying any supplement.
Fermented shark in close-up; below the two halves of Bjork in the iconic Harpa concert hall
Until the end of March you can enhance that stopover by booking a Buddy to show you round, personalising an Iceland itinerary for you with an insider’s knowledge. Free of charge, too.
The 30 Buddies have been hand-picked from the Icelandair staff (working in this spin-off capacity twice a month). The ones I met were geared towards music fans over for the impressive airline-sponsored Iceland Airwaves Music Festival, four days of cutting edge acts from across the globe. The UK supplied the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Kate Tempest and PJ Harvey (below).
Bertel’s own tastes ran more to New Order, Stone Roses, Smiths and the other classic Manc bands, while the brother of fellow Buddy Sverrir Örn Leifsson (an actual pilot) is lead guitarist of Iceland’s globally successful band, Of Monsters and Men. We caught up with them at a ‘secret concert’ inside the city’s atmospheric Firkirkjan free church.
Bathing (with beer) in the delightfully laid-back Secret Lagoon
Airwaves was just a massive bonus on a flying visit to one of the world’s coolest tourist destinations. I really felt I’d arrived when after the shark initiation I took to the waters of the Secret Lagoon, basking (sic) in its naturally hot springs. Created in 1891 as the Fludir village swimming pool, it is the oldest in Iceland, which is rich in geothermal areas, using them to supply much of its energy. Drive round the 300km Golden Circle tourist route into the southern uplands and all over pillars of steam belch from the landscape. Within reach of here are famous geysers such as Strokkur, which erupts every 10 minutes, and the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. Go off road in search of active volcanoes such as Hekla and you’ll find yourself in one of Europe’s last wildernesses.
Rainbow over the spectacular Gullfoss falls; below, geyser activity
At the safer Secret Lagoon, less commercial (and less colourful) than the more high profile Blue Lagoon, it was bizarre to float between patches of warm and then seriously hot water, occasionally touching down on its volcanic basalt base to take a slug of welcome craft beer.
Ah beer, it became a recurring motif back in Reykjavik, though at £10 a pint (thank you, Brexit) the introduction to the burgeoning craft ale scene in Iceland was an expensive one. There’s a cluster of specialist beer bars around the old centre of the city, which is home to two thirds of Iceland’s 300,000 population. Hard to find Mikkeller & Friends is a natural extension of the Danish gypsy brewer’s Danish empire; the Skuli Craft Bar and Microbar more home-grown, championing indigenous breweries such as Borg and Gæðingur. At the latter I caught up with a Borg saison-style brewed with arctic thyme. Great beer.
Mikkeller and, below, Microbar
The same feeling of local provenance came at the nearby Apotek cocktail bar/restaurant when I sampled the house Negroni, where the classic Italian triumvirate is gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Here the addition of foraged crowberry liqueur makes it Icelandic. More exciting, though, was the Black Cherry Bijou, which mixed Jim Beam Red Stag, cherry, ginger, vanilla, passionfruit, lime… and avocado to beguiling effect.
Sólfar Boat Sculpture along the seafront is a reminder of the Viking past of Reykjavik below
Both cocktails kicked in around the £20 mark in a stylish setting created by its designer owner, a friend of the Buddy who took me there post-Bjork, Óttar Guðmundsson. Following such cool connections Reykjavik feels like a village. Strolling along the seafront edge from the dazzling new Harpa hall, past the gaunt statue of a Viking boat with snowy mountains looming across the waters, it’s easy to imagine when it was a remote Norse settlement on the edge of the known world.
The Icelanders still drink deep, party into the night and exist on the freshest fish you’ll ever find – we loved Fiskfelagio (Fish Company) in the old town – but they have carved out a modern identity as eco warriors, tapping into their volatile natural resources in the most sustainable way.
Tomato lunch – it doesn't come any fresher than this
The strangest place we ate was not far from the Secret Lagoon at Fridheimar Farm, whose daytime cafe menu is based on the tomatoes that grow in the vast geothermally powered greenhouses. Knútur Rafn Ármann and wife Helena Hermundardóttir grow tomatoes all year round, the plants pollinated by imported worker beers from Holland. Throughout the long dark winters free artificial lighting recreates the sun.
In the cafe we tore basil from plants on the table and scattered them into our uncannily Mediterranean tomato soup as the main men from another Icelandic indie band, Valdimar serenaded us with some acoustic melancholy. Live through the Airwaves, a whole new set of Sagas for contemporary Iceland.
Valdimar large and live in a geothermally heated greenhouse
Flights to Iceland and beyond
He flew to Keflavik International Airport with Icelandair, which is marking the10th anniversary of its Manchester-Reykjavik route – a decade that has seen it expand via its Keflavik hub to reach 16 gateways in the USA and Canada.
Icelandair offer long haul passengers the chance to have a stopover of up to seven days in Iceland en route to N America for no extra flight cost, in fact if passengers opt to stop over on their outbound journey then they will save approx £50 per person on APD tax. flights to North America start from just £457 to Halifax or £472 to New York City or £457 to Montreal return in economy from Manchester (includes two pieces of checked luggage). For bookings or customer service contact 020 7874 1000. Return economy class flights to Reykjavik from Manchester start from £154 including taxes.
Icelandair Stopover Buddy Celebration service
All Buddies are members of the airline team and through their connections, are the ultimate party planner. The service is free to book and each trip lasts for up to 24 hours. A Buddy Celebration can be requested when booking an Icelandair transatlantic stopover from October 11 2016 to March 31, 2017. If passengers don’t have a celebration of their own then there are a host of Icelandic festivals and events to pick from too. For more information visit here.
Kelavik Airport is 50km from the centre, so a taxi ride is expensive, but there is a regular Flybus shuttle service into the city – including some hotel drop-offs. Expect to pay around £18 one way.
Neil Sowerby stayed at the Grand Hotel Reykjavik, Sigtún 38, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland. +354 514 8000. Room rates start at around £140.
Ottar and his fellwow Buddies gave us a taste of the amazing hinterland thta lies hours outside Reykjavik
Brennivin, potent local spirit; perhaps the Airwaves reveller below had been sampling?
Bjork, with string orchestra, captivating the audience; below, Kate Tempest and Of Monsters and Men
The Aurora Borealis – we didn't see it, alas. One reason among many to come back to Iceland