I’ve always liked Vikings. When I was a kid my friend had a toy castle that folded like a metal briefcase. When it was opened it revealed scenes of village life painted inside; animals and fire rings, water wells and peasants carrying buckets. There was a plastic drawbridge that fit into the opening by the hinge and the set came with a bunch of small plastic knights and Vikings. The Vikings looked tough. They were molded in green plastic and had long swords and round shields and wore helmets with horns sticking out of them. Over and over my friend and I would have the Vikings lay waste to the weakling knights and plunder and pillage that village.
When we learned in school about the European discovery of North America, Erik the Red and Leif Ericsson got brief mention as having sailed out of the North Atlantic in open long boats to disembark at some far off point in modern day Canada they called Vinland. This was centuries before Columbus brought disease and clothes to the natives in the Caribbean. The little that was known about these Viking adventurers – and their cool names – added to their mystique.
Recently, I had a chance to revisit the Viking fancies of my youth. As Thanksgiving approached, my wife and I contemplated something to do besides make the long drive to New Jersey in stop-and-go traffic just to eat dry turkey and watch 8-hours of American football. During the course of these dinner-table conversations, my 11-year-old daughter mentioned Iceland. My 9-year-old son was intrigued by the Viking tales. As my wife and I did our research, we realized there were a lot of cool things that we could do in a six-day visit to Iceland with kids. Juxtaposed against the drudgery that awaited us in New Jersey, the choice became apparent. We flew to Iceland.
We touched down at Keflavík International Airport, about 50 kilometers outside Reykjavik, on Friday morning. My wife had had the brilliant idea to use accumulated credit card points to knock more than a few dollars off the cost of airline tickets. A few years ago she was able to get us all to Hawaii for free using airline miles we had racked up on our various cards. There is definitely an art to the use of credit card rewards programs and this was just my wife’s latest masterpiece.
Our introduction to the weather came shortly after we landed. It was what you might expect of a place called Iceland – midnight dark, despite it being 7:30 in the morning; cold, wind, rain. Combined with the fact that we had no map, only rudimentary directions to our destination, and encountered fog as thick as molasses, you might say we were like those first Vikings that went off in search of new land – hopeful we would not die. But roads are few in Iceland, and well-marked at that. We found our Vinland.
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Reykjavik is the northernmost European capital and home to two-thirds of the nearly 322,000 hearty souls that call Iceland home. One of the things we hoped to see during our visit was the Northern Lights. While you can take a several hours long bus tour outside the umbrella of light pollution generated by the city, there needs to be both dark and clear skies in order to view this naturally occurring phenomenon. We were fairly certain it would be dark – the sun rises at 10:00 a.m. and sets at 4:00 p.m. this time of year – but we were less certain that skies would be clear during the window of time we would be on a tour. Instead, we decided our best chance of seeing the Lights would be if we “lived” outside the city during part of our stay.
Airbnb offers many choices in the hinterlands of Iceland, but we settled on a 2-bedroom cottage with a kitchen where we could cook some meals and a hot tub where we could soak and watch the skies. Our family has adopted the travel philosophy of not trying to do too many things in one day. This makes for more agreeable children and happier parents. Because the cottage was centrally located to the Golden Circle – Iceland’s triumvirate of must-see tourist attractions: Geysir, Gullfloss, and Þingvellir – it was easy for us to do day trips. We also had a fun time floating around in the 100 degree waters of another local attraction – the Secret Lagoon in Fludir – the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, dating from 1871.
We had read about the laxity of Icelandic safety standards and they lived up to their reputation. At Geysir, a 90 meter jet of water shoots into the sky and rains boiling water down on the spectators who are separated from the bubbling pool by an ankle-high rope more suitable for tripping inattentive visitors than discouraging interlopers. At Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland’s most visited waterfall, you can get so close to the water that you may as well be wearing your bathing suit.
We were never really at risk of injury, and it actually made our experience at these sites a bit more fun in that was more organic. We were free to wander with no one in charge of telling us were to go or when; which had its advantages. For example, at Þingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage site, I unwittingly managed to drive our rental car up the pedestrian path, past the drowning pool and the hallowed Law Rock where the country’s first parliament met, and into the rift valley created by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. I parked where the path dead-ended in mountain. It was a Griswold moment for sure, but the kids were happy because they didn’t have to walk.
Though the country skies never turned clear enough for us to view the Northern Lights, on Monday we moved our party to Reykjavik. We rented a 3-bedroom apartment just a short walk from the popular pedestrian street Laugavegur.
This street originates from the main plaza of the old city, which is also the location of Reykjavík 871±2 (The Settlement Exhibition). We spent a fun afternoon in the museum learning the story of the settlement of Reykjavik through the excavation of a long house dating from 930 A.D. and some very cool interactive displays. Admission is free for children under age 12 and there was a corner of the lobby devoted to period games for the kids to play and props for them to handle. Many of the attractions we visited during our trip admitted children free, and the kids even rode the shuttle bus to the airport at no charge.
We spent a lot of time prowling the souvenir shops along Laugavegur. Our tendency to always want to look in the next shop for a cheaper price, which we have passed on to our kids, means we end up doing more looking than buying. We took home a few rocks that we picked up in the country and the jaw from a lamb that we ate for dinner as mementos for ourselves. [Very Viking of you – ed.]Those on our Christmas list got more traditional Icelandic handicrafts.
The clock tower in the Hallgrímskirkja, the church that looks like a space shuttle, offers 360-degree views of the city (and, although it is the one place I can remember that charges children admission, the view was worth the slight price). Outside the church is a statute of Leif Ericsson – a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Icelandic Parliament (the site of which, as detailed above, I drove our rental car through). It’s one of the lasting images of the trip – the Viking explorer stands high on his pedestal looking westward across the ocean, one foot forward, and with his sword on his hip and long hair and furs draped over his shoulders. He looks as cool as I always imagined he would.
While we planted our flag in Iceland, it seems we will have to visit again to fulfill our mission of seeing the Northern Lights. Though on second thought, perhaps next time we’ll plan our trip for summer. After all, it would be pretty cool to experience 24-hours of sun.
Paul Carlino is a regular contributor to All Over the Map.
Paul Carlino, 44 years old, attorney, married with children. For a long time I thought traveling meant rolling out into bumper to bumper traffic bound for the NJ shore. Then I met this amazing gal who got me on a plane to India, packed me on a camel, and rode me out into the Thar desert. Overcome by the heat and surrounded by dung beetles, I proposed marriage and life has turned out not like I expected but with everything I wanted. Yeah, we have the mortgage, the kids, and do the nine-to-five thing; but we dream bigger than that.