Nature & Nurture: Warm & Very Gay-Friendly Iceland
When most Americans think of Iceland - that is, when they think of it at all - they probably conjure up visions of an ice-covered, barren, isolated, primitive place. That, and maybe Björk.
Before my recent visit there, I admit that I didn’t know what to expect. What I discovered was a profoundly beautiful landscape unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
But even beyond the incredible natural wonders, the Icelandic people were a revelation. Many countries advertise themselves as friendly, but the universal warmth and friendliness made this one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken.
Iceland is especially suited to the gay tourist. It’s probably the most welcoming and accepting culture in the world. Its overall attitude can be seen in the fact that the first out-gay head of government anywhere in the world is the current prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurardóttir.
But what’s even more interesting is the reaction of her fellow Icelanders. When she was voted into office in 2009, her sexual identity was not only a non-issue, it also wasn’t even discussed. It only became important when the rest of the world’s media focused on it. The subsequent local media coverage was thus a bemused reaction to the fact that we in North America and Europe found it important.
In recent decades, Iceland has been ahead of the curve on gay issues. It decriminalized same-sex activity back in 1940, legalized same-sex unions in 1996 and marriage in 2002. (The prime minister is married to a popular children’s book author.)
Many attribute this laissez-faire attitude to the insular nature of the thinly populated island. With only 319,000 people, 120,000 of whom live in the capital, Reykjavik, this is a country where not only does everyone seem to know everyone else, but also they’re nearly all distantly related, according to recent studies of the population’s genealogy. This has resulted in a kinship that’s especially striking for people in a nation as diverse as the United States.
Because of the intimacy of the population and the island’s relative isolation, Iceland hasn’t been subject to many of the ills that bedevil the rest of the world. This has created an idyllic society that the rest of us can only envy. Iceland has no standing armed forces - no army, no navy, no air force.
The prime minister’s "mansion" is a relatively modest dwelling in Downtown Reykjavik, notable mostly for its being so unnoticeable; there are no police or other obvious security presence. When our group visited City Hall, we marched right in - no security checkpoints, no metal detector.
So Near & Yet So Far
On the map, Iceland looks as isolated as a country can be. It’s the farthest substantially populated area in the North Atlantic (the nearby giant island of Greenland has so few people it hardly counts). The nearest populated land mass is Great Britain, and even there it’s several hundred miles from the furthest-out Scottish islands.
The surprise is how accessible it is for Americans. Icelandair offers regular daily flights from New York’s JFK, and Seattle. It just added Boston and will begin flights from Denver in May. It also has flights on a seasonal basis from Orlando, Washington, D.C. (Dulles) and Toronto.
From JFK, the flight was only a few hours - short enough that people often take a long weekend vacation. When I landed in Reykjavik, I saw someone I recognized from my gym in New York who coincidentally was seated next to me on the flight home. He had gone with a friend just to go horseback riding.
What makes Iceland especially inviting for Americans is the universality of English. Everyone in Iceland learns Icelandic, an ancient language that, thanks to its long-time isolation is the purest form of Old Nordic, as well as Danish (until the Second World War, it was part of the Kingdom of Denmark, as Greenland still is, and maintains strong ties to the Mother Country). But thanks largely to the ubiquity of American popular culture, everyone in Reykjavik speaks near-perfect English.
The trip itself was a pure joy. Icelandair has long been famous as one of the lowest-cost international airlines anywhere.
Way back in the ’70s, I was one of many Americans who enjoyed the ultra-low cost flights on the airline’s predecessor to Europe. It was then known as the "hippie highway" because of its popularity with cash-strapped young people. Today, the airline maintains that tradition of amazingly low fares compared to other European-based airlines.
As for the weather, even though the northernmost tip of the island is inside the Arctic Circle, the winters are surprisingly mild thanks to the ocean currents. I was there in February, and the temperature was only a few degrees lower than when I left New York.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t get cold; it’s just that it doesn’t get bone-chillingly cold very often. The summers, of course, are much warmer, and the pleasantly mild temperatures are a huge draw for those suffering from hot, humid days.
Bathing in the Blue Lagoon
The reason for my trip to Iceland was to partake in "Rainbow Reykjavik," a gay weekend series of events that included visits to the island’s natural wonders. The participants were a truly international crowd that included gay men and lesbians from Germany, Norway, Sweden, France and Denmark.
Upon landing at the airport, I made the 40-minute trip into Reykjavik. Although relatively small, this charming capital city boasts several world-class hotels that can hold their own with accommodations in any European capital. I stayed at the Hilton, which had beautifully appointed rooms, a gorgeous (and well-stocked) bar, and a restaurant.
In the morning, I was treated to what had to be the finest breakfast spread I’ve ever experienced anywhere, a vast array of prepared meats, eggs, breads, cheeses, fruit and anything else you can imagine. At the front of the line were small cups and a giant bottle of cod liver oil - a local product, since cod is one of the island’s mainstays.
The daily quota of Omega 3 oil is one of the many contributions to the health of the locals, who have the highest longevity in the world for men, third longest for women.
After breakfast, we were whisked to one of the natural treasures for which Iceland is world famous, the Blue Lagoon. Condé Nast Traveler has rated this vast geothermal spa the finest natural spa in the world, and once you’ve experienced it, you’ll understand why it is the most-visited destination in Iceland.
The lagoon is a huge expanse of water a few feet deep that is, like everything else in Iceland, heated by the geothermal waters that run under the whole island.
Yes, I said everything: Iceland is the only nation in the world where every home, office, school, church, factory, farm - every dwelling - is heated naturally. You can see the pipes running throughout the countryside. No one needs a boiler. It is one of the major reasons why Iceland is considered the "greenest" country on the planet.
The reason for the popularity of the Blue Lagoon is the healing propensity of the water as well as its striking beauty. Rich in silica, sulfur and other minerals, the spa attracts locals and tourists year-round.
Upon arriving, you enter through a modern building where you are given a locker, towel and bathrobe. After changing, you have the delicious pleasure of walking on several feet of ice-cold ground through the pure, cold air, which is the perfect preparation for jumping into the soothing water. Once in, you just ... relax. Believe me, it’s a feeling like I’ve never had before, like being in a giant isolation tank, only here you’re surrounded by mountainous countryside. All around you are families, couples and individuals just leisurely drifting.
Without leaving the water, you can purchase a small cup of minerals that you spread on your face as a facemask; or, you can just scoop up some of the minerals that are conveniently spread around the spa. You can also buy drinks while in the water. And yes, the water is naturally pure aqua blue. I hated leaving the Blue Lagoon (I confess to being the very last person on the bus), but I had yet to experience Reykjavik, and the evening beckoned.
A Culinary Destination
Until relatively recently, with the advent of air travel, Iceland was indeed an isolated outpost, with most people either shepherds or fishermen. Thanks to modern transportation and the vast greenhouses that dot the countryside, the cuisine in the capital’s restaurants rates with fine dining anywhere, but with a local flavor.
Not surprisingly, the specialties are lamb and fish. Sheep can be seen grazing lazily over the broad expanse of grass-covered lava-enriched ground, and there are a lot of them: On most of the island, they far outnumber people.
As a result of being raised naturally, with no antibiotics or other artificial nutrients, and thanks to careful breeding, the lamb is considered the finest in the world.
The other specialty, fish, come to the city’s restaurants literally "fresh off the boat"; you can actually see chefs at the quay getting the day’s catch from the fishing boats.
There is plenty of cod, of course, prepared in a variety of ways, including as a ceviche. As for the North Atlantic salmon, it is so tender it literally melts in your mouth.
We had lunch at Pisa, where the Italian-based cuisine is blended with local ingredients. As at the hotel breakfast, the most remarkable aspect of the meal was the quality of produce. The greens and fruits were as fresh as you’ll find along the Mediterranean or in Latin America.
Dinner was especially spectacular as the setting was Harpa, the enormous new concert hall overlooking Reykjavik Harbor. Completed less than a year ago, it was initially controversial because of its cost when the country was still recuperating from a banking crisis.
Since then, it has been warmly embraced as the nation’s cultural center, and the structure itself ranks with the Sydney Opera House, New York’s Lincoln Center and London’s Barbican Centre as one of the finest performing arts complexes in the world.
There are a handful of restaurants in Reykjavik that offer puffin, the fatty, cute, duck-like birds that populate the island, and whale meat, for those so inclined.